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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

A General Victorious: The Reign of Vespasian

Nero's execution of his rivals, coupled with similar actions by his predecessors, meant that when he died no member of his family could claim power. Thus with Nero the Julio-Claudian dynasty, in power for more than a century, died out. The question of succession was more open than ever before, and the Roman legions became even more influential in determining who would be the next emperor.

In 68 CE, Servius Sulpicius Galba was serving his eighth year as Roman governor of Hispania Tarraconensis (eastern Spain). Even before the death of Nero, Galba's troops declared him to be a special representative of the senate. Once Nero had died, other legions followed suit, and Galba was acclaimed as Caesar. He ruled for six months, but was betrayed by his associate Otho, who conspired to have him killed and then became emperor with the support of the Praetorian Guard in Rome and several other legions. At the same time, however, troops loyal to Vitellius had already proclaimed him to be Caesar, so a tense battle was played out between the troops of Otho and those of Vitellius. After three months Vitellius forced Otho to commit suicide, but his victory proved short-lived.

The Roman legions had come to appreciate their own power in determining who would be emperor. Troops in the east put forward the commander of Roman forces in Palestine, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, who appeared reluctant to take power. Suetonius reports that Vespasian's position was strengthened when two thousand soldiers from Moesia (modern Bulgaria) decided to support him. This bold move was said to be motivated by the realization “that they were not inferior to the Spanish army which had appointed Galba, or to the Praetorian Guard which had elected Otho, or to the German army which had appointed Vitellius” (Vespasian 6.2).

Vespasian's popularity with the troops was due in no small part to his successful campaigns against the Jews in Palestine who had rebelled against Roman control in 66 CE. Vespasian managed to repress the revolutionaries elsewhere in the territory, leaving the final defeat of the Jewish forces in Jerusalem to his son Titus. Vespasian's victories are described in great detail by the Jewish general Josephus, who gained the future emperor's favor after the rebel forces he commanded were defeated at Jotapata in Galilee. On the basis of his prediction that Vespasian would soon be emperor, the captive Josephus became a guest of the imperial family in Rome, where he lived out the last third of the century, writing histories of the Jewish people. Not surprisingly, his accounts highlighted Roman beneficence.

Given the high level of intrigue and instability in the empire following the death of Nero, it was not far-fetched to predict in 68 CE that Vespasian would become Caesar, however preposterous such a prediction would have been at his birth, given the stratification of Roman society. Vespasian's family was of the equestrian order and therefore would have had limited access to the path of civic offices (cursus honorum) that led to imperial power. His uncle, however, had gained access to the senate, and this connection put Vespasian in a position to exercise military leadership. Suetonius remarks that one reason Nero selected Vespasian for the high-profile task of putting down the rebellion in Judea was that Vespasian's humble family made him no threat to Nero's rule, even as a conquering general (Vespasian 4.5). Nero's death and the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, however, created a situation in which boundaries between the upper classes in Rome could be breached solely on the basis of military strength.

After learning that his son Domitian was in control of affairs in Rome, Vespasian left his other son, Titus, in command of the troops in Judea and began his journey to the capital. On the way he stopped in Alexandria to ensure that the Egyptian troops would support his imperial claim. He also visited the famous temple of the Egyptian mystery deity Serapis to read the omens surrounding his coming to power. While in the temple, he was welcomed by an unknown presence, and after exiting he miraculously healed a blind and lame man (Suetonius, Vespasian 7.2–3). These and other signs provided further assurance that Vespasian had divine approval to be emperor. When news came that Vitellius was dead, Vespasian moved on toward Rome to inaugurate a new imperial dynasty for himself and his sons. This Flavian dynasty would not last as long as the Julio-Claudian, but it would have a great impact on the history of the later empire and on the developing Christian churches.

Once in power, Vespasian proved to be a ruler of stature and effectiveness. Suetonius claims that both his foreign policy and his care for Rome and her citizens were great. The historian is especially impressed by Vespasian's humility, saying that “he was civil and merciful from the beginning of his principate until its end” (Vespasian 12). Dio's assessment is likewise positive: “He was considered emperor because of his concern for the public good, but in all other things he lived equally and in common with the people” (Dio Cassius 65.11.1). Suetonius does complain about Vespasian's greed, which led him to impose heavy taxes and even confiscate riches, but even this is excused due to “the desperate state of the treasury” (Vespasian 16.3). The ancient historians also point out the many good works done by Vespasian, including the establishment of endowed chairs of Latin and Greek rhetoric in Rome.

Vespasian is remembered especially for working to rebuild parts of the city of Rome damaged during the upheaval following Nero's reign. The emperor himself is said to have “carried away a basket of debris on his own neck” (Suetonius, Vespasian 8.5). Along with construction of the Temple of Peace, Vespasian's most spectacular architectural accomplishment was the Flavian amphitheater in Rome, later known as the Colosseum.

This marble-covered structure reached four stories high, and the top was fitted with mastlike devices that could support a canopy to shade spectators. It also featured an elaborate substructure with cages for wild animals and passageways that allowed for the movement of animals, personnel, and equipment to different spots in the arena. The longest axis of the elliptical structure measured 188 meters (616 feet), and it could hold up to fifty thousand spectators. Vespasian began the construction, but the amphitheater was dedicated by Titus in 80 CE and not fully completed until the reign of Domitian (81–96 CE).

To commemorate the dedication of the amphitheater, the poet Martial wrote a series of epigrams, fragments of which have survived. From these we know that the amphitheater was constructed on the site of Nero's Golden House. Martial also stresses the international appeal of the events taking place there: “What race is so distant, what race so barbaric, Caesar, from which a spectator is not in your city,” and he comments on the exploits of performers in the amphitheater, like the hunter Carpophorus, who “dispatched a magnificent lion of unheard of size, worthy of the strength of Hercules” (Spectacula 2–3, 15). Elsewhere Martial describes the accomplishments of gladiators and the men who drove chariots in the racecourse (circus). His contemporary the poet Juvenal laments that all that was needed to satisfy the average citizen of Rome was “bread and circuses” (Satires 10.81).

The popularity of public spectacles in Roman cities is attested by a proliferation of amphitheaters around the empire. Theaters in Greek cities were often remodeled to accommodate more spectacular and violent events. This usually meant that a wall was erected around the orchestra of the theater to separate the audience from the gladiators, wild animals, and other exotic entertainments. In some cases, as in the theater of Dionysus in Athens, this wall was waterproofed so that the orchestra could be flooded for mock naval battles.

Some of these spectacles also involved humans being devoured by animals, as a letter to the churches in Rome from Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in the early second century CE, illustrates. Ignatius uses graphic language to convey his anticipation of a martyr's death as an imitator of the suffering of Christ: “Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God's wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ” ( Romans 4.1 ). As such punishment for Christians became more common in the second and third centuries, the martyrological writings became even more vivid.

Compared with the dramatic deaths of the martyrs, or even with the harsh endings endured by some of his predecessors, the passing of Vespasian (79 CE) was mundane. Suetonius reports that after being weakened by a slight illness, the emperor succumbed to a gastrointestinal problem. His demise is remembered mostly for an offhand remark shortly before his death: “Woe, I think I'm becoming a god” (Vespasian 23.4). This quip is often taken as both a sign of Vespasian's humility and at least a slight mocking of the custom that a deceased ruler could become a divinity. Whatever the comment meant for Vespasian, the prospect of deification after death did have an impact on his successors.

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