The year 69 was a bad one for Rome. Nero, the greatest abuser of imperial power and enemy of all of Rome, had finally killed himself. Rome rejoiced, but their celebration was short-lived. The year 69 came to be known as “The year of 4 Emperors”, because that’s what it was. It was a chaotic time of civil war as rival factions fought to place their candidate on the throne. Nero was the last in the line of the Julio-Claudian Emperors going back to Julius Caesar, and he produced no heir. Lots of differing opinions arose about who should fill his shoes and what kinds of reforms should be made to ensure that there wasn’t another Nero. The first of the 4 was GALBA, who was already 70 years old. He made the huge mistake of taking hard and unapologetic stances right away to erase Nero, including canceling benefits to important Romans and members of the military. This didn’t go over well. OTHO was among those in power when Galba was assassinated after only 7 months.
The problem with Otho was the northern armies had chosen VITELLIUS, and they began to march towards Rome to make him the Emperor. Otho had a force too, there was a battle, and in defeat Otho killed himself (after only 3 months as Emperor). Vitellius faced a similar problem when the huge eastern armies declared their commander VESPASIAN emperor and also marched on Rome. Vitellius was killed too (after 8 months as Emperor), and finally, after a year of intense back and forth fighting and extreme uncertainty, Rome had a leader.
Vespasian was 60 years old in 69AD, and was a natural fit. He was a strong military commander and when he discovered he was Emperor, he was in Judea (modern-day Israel) suppressing the great Jewish Revolt. Vespasian’s story is one that also fits into Biblical History. In the time of Christ, there were those in Judea planning a revolution against the Romans. In the year 70, Jerusalem finally fell in what remains the greatest of defeats in Judaism. The city was burned to the ground, and the Holy Temple was completely destroyed. The Romans were fed up with Judea- for too long the Jews had been resistant to their control and they unleashed everything they had to stop the revolt. Few were spared. The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus claimed that 1,100,000 died in the siege of the city. Vespasian had already left for Rome to begin his reign as Emperor, and he left his son Titus in charge. Today, directly across from the coliseum in Rome, there is a large arch called “The Arch of Titus”. It was built to commemorate and celebrate Roman victory in Judea.
Today, you can see this sculpture on the inside of the arch:
The panel shows the soldiers marching back into the city with the spoils of war, including all the riches from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (notice the giant menorah).
Vespasian ruled 10 years before dying quite suddenly of illness, and was succeeded by his sons Titus and Domitian in what is now known as the Flavian dynasty. Though Vespasian was older, he came from a middle class family and represented a new attitude towards the Emperor. He was determined to provide stability to Rome after years of corruption and civil war, and he did it through military campaigns, taxation and financial reform, and like any good Caesar, by building grand new buildings in Rome to cement his legacy. Nero’s Domus Aurea (golden house) was altered, and an enormous new structure began building on the site of his man-made lake. It wouldn’t be finished till after Vespasian’s death during the reigns of his sons, but it would become the greatest of all ancient Roman buildings. Positioned directly across from the colossal golden statue Nero had built, the Flavian amphitheater, or Coliseum, remains the greatest legacy of Vespasian. I’ll have lots more on that later…