There can be little doubt that Roman imperial biography has been the object of much scholarly attention over the past twenty-five years. Indeed, we now possess treatments in English of every Julio-Claudian emperor, as well as Titus, Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian and Septimius Severus. Noticeably absent from this mix, however, has been a full-length study of Vespasian, whose important contributions to the restoration of the Principate following the chaos of AD 69 have been largely confined to L. Homo’s heroicizing work, Vespasien, l’empereur du bon sens, (1949) and to the more recent work of H. Bengtson, Die Flavier: Vespasian, Titus, Domitian. Geschichte eines römischen Kaiserhauses (1979), which takes all three Flavians as its subject. Happily, this deficiency has now been remedied by Barbara Levick, whose Vespasian is both timely and consistent with the thorough and judicious approach found in her two earlier imperial biographies Tiberius (1976) and Claudius (1990).
Levick’s thirteen chapters fall easily into two parts. Chapters 1-4 trace Vespasian’s success amid the downfall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty while Chapters 5-12 chronicle his survival and success when others fall away. A final chapter concludes with an overall assessment of the emperor and his reign. The author’s goal is to probe beneath the overlay of propaganda that has obscured much of Vespasian’s reign in an attempt to get at two important questions: “how much the actions of an individual contribute to momentous changes”; and how much of what Vespasian did was “remedial, ad hoc, and learned from his predecessors, and how much had new, long-term objectives.”(2)
Beginning with his early life (Chapter 1), the author proceeds to offer an analysis of Vespasian’s relationship with the Roman aristocracy and his early military exploits in Britain (Chapter Two), his place in Nero’s court, culminating in his appointment as commander in Judaea (Chapter Three), and his successful bid for the emperorship in 69 (Chapter Four). In all of these chapters we are reminded of the difficult nature of the evidence, given that most of Tacitus’ narrative for Vespasian’s principate has not survived. As a consequence, Levick relies heavily on prosopography in reconstructing this critical period. Here, the sheer number of names and their relationship to the Flavians, especially in Chapters Two and Four, is impressive, if not occasionally overwhelming. Even so, Levick’s conclusions seem invariably sound, and the portrait that emerges is that of a man whose political connections and military abilities left him well positioned to assume the throne in the wake of the demise of the Julio-Claudians. Especially useful in this section is the attempt to untangle the problematic chronology of the Jewish Wars through an appendix of Josephus’ dates for this conflict.(40-42)
Levick is at her best in the second section of the book where she assesses Vespasian’s reign with a critical eye toward the evidence at our disposal and toward modern notions of his success. Chapter Five focuses on the emperor’s attempt to establish an imperial ideology, one that the author convincingly argues relied heavily on the earlier model established by Claudius.(73) Chapter Six, on Vespasian’s opponents, reveals an emperor who typically allowed domestic politics to shake out while he stood aside, yet who was ever careful to build his own prestige through traditional means such as the repeated holding of the consulship.
Chapter Seven capably illuminates perhaps the greatest challenge to the new regime: the need to place the Empire once again on firm financial footing. Here, Levick recounts all of Vespasian’s strategies, from the establishment of three new fisci to tax increases and the decision to mint more coins. At the same time, money was spent on worthwhile projects such as reconstruction and road building. In many respects, this was the emperor at his best. As Levick sensibly argues, Vespasian realized that financial security meant political security. As a result of these measures, the empire could once again be ruled from the center, thereby inspiring confidence in the new regime as a “going concern.”(106)
Chapter Eight continues the theme of restoration and stabilization, with particular emphasis on securing peace beyond the confines of Rome. Disturbances in Britain, the Rhine and the Danube, the Black Sea, Judaea and North Africa all find mention. As far as the sources allow, we discern an emperor and associates who dealt pragmatically with fissures in the provincial bedrock of the empire. At the same time, it is clear that no overarching foreign policy was in place; issues were dealt with piecemeal and the remedies applied were measured and practical.
Stabilization of this sort inevitably produced enhancement. Chapter Nine details this process, both at Rome and beyond. In the imperial capital peace meant regular distributions of grain, improvements in the water supply and roads, and new building projects. Most notable within this latter category was the Flavian crown jewel, the Colosseum, which Levick cites as Rome’s first stone amphitheater.(128) But this distinction surely belongs to the edifice of Statilius Taurus, completed in 30 BC. Be that as it may, similar improvements occurred in the provinces, where the accompanying increase in the “epigraphic habit” has been traditionally cited as the best evidence for empire-wide prosperity under the Flavians. On this point, Levick is much less sanguine than her scholarly predecessors. She argues, quite sensibly it seems to me, that many of these improvements (e.g., changes in financial administration) may have begun before Vespasian’s reign, while other enhancements (e.g., colony and road building, care for the public post, etc.) had military or political aims. Stability, not dramatic improvements, remained Vespasian’s goal and was to become his greatest achievement.(150-151)
Three additional chapters serve to complete the biography. Chapter Ten offers a detailed analysis of Vespasian and the army, with emphasis on the regionalization of Roman forces during this period. Chapter Eleven focuses on the emperor and the elites, especially the rebuilding of the senate through a process that allowed the admittance of some provincials but also preserved the overall Italic flavor of the body. The period is also marked by the offering of the patriciate to provincials. Chapter Twelve takes up the issue of Vespasian’s plans for succession, which resulted in the accession of his son Titus amid careful planning and maneuvering to neutralize possible objections from the senate and from his younger son, Domitian. As with the rest of the work, each of these chapters is marked by careful attention to both the historical and modern sources and a general reluctance to push the evidence into places where it cannot go.
In sum, Levick takes a much more dispassionate view of Vespasian in comparison to the approving portrayals offered by most ancient and modern scholars. She argues that Vespasian’s first requirement was simply to survive and then to prove that the end of a dynasty did not mean the end of a civilized and peaceful way of life. This he accomplished through steadiness and a certain strength of personality that allowed him to succeed where his predecessors had failed.(207-208) In the end, these may seem to be rather unspectacular findings, but they are consistent with a careful reading of the ancient evidence and offer a much-needed corrective to the overly enthusiastic biographies of Suetonius and Homo.
One quibble remains. The endnotes are densely packed and the abbreviations are not always immediately identifiable. The publisher would have done well to consider larger typeface and more reasonable spacing. This shortcoming, however, is offset by much additional material, including a stemma of the Flavians, nine maps, and 34 plates of coins, busts and inscriptions, all of which usefully contribute to our overall understanding of Vespasian and his reign. A comprehensive bibliography completes the work.
Levick has produced a balanced, thoughtful and thoroughly comprehensive treatment of her subject. It will surely remain the standard work on Vespasian for years to come.