(ROMAN EMPERORS, PROSPERITY and DECLINE – continued)
Vespasian, (Vespianus) good natured
and a "good" emperor devoted to hits work.
Titus, son of Vespasian, and popular, but
there were disasters, including Vesuivius.
Emperor Domitian, also son of Vespasian,
but impatient and fearful.
Galba tried to correct the misrule of Nero by restoring Rome's finances and restoring discipline to the military. His frugality alienated citizens, and it alienated his soldiers, but Galba said in response that he levied troops rather than bribed them for their support. Galba announced that he had adopted someone as his heir and failed to pay the Praetorian Guard the donation that it had come to expect for supporting a new emperor. A thirty-seven year-old senator, Otho, conspired to replace Galba. He offered the Praetorian Guard the donation that it expected. Galba was cut down in the street by guardsmen on horseback. His close associates were murdered soon after. And the Senate proclaimed Otho emperor.
Otho's rule went unrecognized among Roman soldiers in Germany, and they followed the precedent laid down by Galba's troops and hailed as emperor their commander, Vitellius. Vitellius had become popular with his troops by allowing them to bully civilians and take anything they could grab. Vitellius and his army marched toward Rome battled troops that supported Otho. Vitellius won. Otho committed suicide after only three months in office. It was believed by many that he had done so to save Rome from another civil war, and a few impressed soldiers who considered their emperor, Otho, heroic, tried to match his heroism by throwing themselves onto his funeral pyre.
Vitellius did not know how to hold on to political power. He was unpopular with everyone but his troops. He executed everyone he believed had wronged him. His bloodbath disgusted the Romans, and picking up on Vitellius' unpopularity, another army selected its military commander to put things straight in Rome. That commander was Flavius Vespasian, aged sixty, who had led Rome's recent campaign against a Jewish uprising in Judea. Vespasian and his army marched on Rome. They found Vitellius hiding in the palace. Vitellius was taken to the Forum, and there the crowds ridiculed him before someone stabbed him to death.
Vespasian was a roll of the dice that came up well for the Romans. He was capable politically and generally good natured. He re-established order and ruled for ten years. His son Titus modeled himself after his father. He had won the admiration of the Romans for his devotion to his father, and like his father he was bright and good natured. But his rule was plagued by disasters not of his making. Mount Vesuvius erupted. Titus provided relief and rehabilitation programs for survivors, and he paid for much of it with his own money. Then came another great fire that burned Rome, followed by an epidemic of disease. Titus made great efforts to find a remedy for the epidemic and to comfort his subjects. Then, after having been in power only two years, Titus himself died of fever, and the Romans responded with more genuine grief than they had with the death of any previous emperor, including Augustus.
Titus was succeeded by his thirty year-old brother, Domitian, younger than Titus by eleven years. Domitian was a good administrator who skillfully managed the state's finances and contributed more to public construction. He insisted on each individual being protected by law, and he was concerned with morality. He wanted senators and their families and the equites (families of wealth from commerce) to behave according to accepted moral standards and to avoid scandals. He severely punished Vestal Virgins who had given into the temptation of sexual intercourse. He drove prostitutes from Rome's streets and enforced a law against what was considered unnatural sexual practices, including homosexuality. In the interest of children he outlawed their castration, which had been the practice of some religious cults. And he sought to end the buying and selling of eunuchs.
But Domitian became impatient with criticism and dissent and fearful of opposition, which started him down the same path as the failed emperors before him. His brother Titus had acted against subversion, banning anarchists and cynic-philosophers from Rome, but he had done so with confidence about Rome's security. Domitian, on the other hand, drew the wrong lessons from Rome's history of plots, intrigues and political turmoil. He feared that subversion was about to get out of hand. He banned philosophers from Italy, and he overreacted when some soldiers stationed on the Rhine River revolted against his rule. The revolt was easily crushed, but he began a reign of terror against imagined traitors, including burning books and listening more to informers.
With the public, Domitian remained popular, as most people were not the target of his campaign against treason. But his zeal in weeding out enemies created fear among those who were close to power, and after seven years of rule, palace officials who felt threatened by his terror joined a conspiracy that led to his assassination – now a familiar way of recalling an emperor.
Copyright © 2009-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.