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AN ABRIDGED HISTORY OF ROME - PART I
VIII - THE FLAVIAN DYNASTY
In this page:
(left) External wall of Tempio della Pace, which now is part of Monastero dei SS. Cosma e Damiano;
(right) Portico degli Dei Consenti in Foro Romano
The Four Emperors' Year (Tempio della Pace and Portico degli Dei Consenti)
Titus (Terme di Tito)
Domitian and the Consolidation of the Empire (Stadio and Odeon di Domiziano)
The Four Emperors' Years
The year 69 is known as the Four Emperors' Year: in January Galba, who had just replaced Nero,
in order to gain the support of the Senate decided to appoint as his successor Caius Piso Licinianus, a representative of the most
aristocratic families. He knew little of the Roman political environment as he did not realize that
by doing this he displeased the praetorians; in a matter of hours they rebelled and
elected as emperor Marcus Salvius Otho, a senator who had promised them a rich reward. Galba and his appointed successor were both killed.
The new emperor was not accepted by Aulus Vitellius, proconsul of Germania inferior: for
a while both Otho and Vitellius tried to reach an agreement, but eventually the legions
supporting Vitellius crossed the Alps: after various skirmishes, the troops of Otho were defeated near Cremona,
in northern Italy; per se it was not a decisive battle, but Otho lost confidence and killed
Vitellius reached Rome where he was acclaimed emperor. In order to last longer than
his predecessors he decided to place at the head of the Praetorian Guard many Germans who had helped him in defeating Otho.
He then devoted himself to a continuous banquet; we know he was fond of fish liver, pheasant brain and flamingo
The Roman legions in the eastern part of the empire were not happy with what had happened
in Rome after the death of Nero: they felt that first the praetorians, then the legions in Germany
had gained too much power in the appointment of the emperor. At the beginning of July, the legions in Egypt, followed
by those in Syria, Pannonia and Illyria chose a new emperor: Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian), the individual chosen,
was the commander
of the legions in Palestine, where he was trying to quell a rebellion of the Jews.
The troops loyal to the emperor were defeated near Cremona by legions led by
commanders who supported Vespasian. A few months earlier Otho had lost his life in that same location. Vitellius
tried to reach an agreement with Vespasian and in December he agreed to abdicate; his praetorians
however were not of the same mind and tried to stop the enemy immediately outside Rome; they
eventually shut themselves in their barracks, where they were massacred by the enemy cavalry.
Vitellius tried in vain to save his life, even pretending to be a gate-keeper of the imperial palace.
Vespasian and his two sons and successors Titus and Domitian (the Flavian Dynasty)
continued the reconstruction of Rome initiated by Nero after the fire which had
occurred in 65. On the site of a previous market Vespasian built a
Templum Pacis to celebrate
the restoration of peace throughout the empire. It consisted of a large quadrangular
portico, on one side of which stood a small temple.
In another section of the Forum, between the
Tabularium and Tempio di Saturno o della Concordia, two other temples
were built by members of the Flavian dynasty; in the following centuries
they were both covered by
landslides: only the tips of three columns of Tempio di Vespasiano stood out of the ground (you can see them in the image used as the background for this page).
The other temple, Portico degli Dei Consenti, was excavated and in part rebuilt in 1858: it was dedicated to six gods and six
goddesses, whose statues were placed in niches framed by columns. An inscription on the entablature celebrates
a restoration which occurred in 367, thus providing a piece of evidence
of the persistence of the old religion in that period.
Vespasian did not belong to a Roman family, but to a provincial one as he was
born in Rieti (a town in Sabina) in AD 9. He spent most of his career outside Italy in Thracia, in Crete, in Africa, in Germany until in 67
he was sent by Nero to Judaea (Palestine), where the Jews had rebelled against the Hellenization process
which accompanied the expansion of the Roman empire in that country.
The many busts portraying him give the feeling that he was a practical man and this is in line with
the accounts of many historians: a famous anecdote confirms this aspect of Vespasian's nature:
he had built many public conveniences (for men only) and had levied a tax
on their users.
His son Titus suggested to Vespasian that
such a decision was not appropriate for an emperor: Vespasian
took a coin and put it under Titus' nose saying: Pecunia non olet (money does not smell).
He did not rush to Rome, but relied on his son Domitian for consolidating his power in Rome
and ensuring that none of the other commanders tried to replace him. Eventually in October 70
he made his arrival in Rome, while his son Titus continued the campaign in Judaea.
After the follies of Nero and the banquets of Vitellius, Rome needed a man
like Vespasian to restore order in the empire, curtail the power of the praetorians, balance
the fiscal burden among the provinces, define the role of the emperor, of the Senate and
of the other institutions of the Roman republic.
Vespasian appointed his son Titus as his partner in the imperial office to ensure a smooth succession process.
The Roman empire had almost lost its expansion capability; the events of the year 69 had
proved that it risked collapsing and splitting into parts; Vespasian rather
than engaging in new wars of conquest, devoted his attention to the critical areas of the empire: in Judaea,
from where the example of a national/religious rebellion could spread to other nearby provinces, his son Titus in 70
seized and destroyed Jerusalem; in Britain the consul Gnaeus Julius Agricola started in 78 a
series of campaigns against the tribes of Wales, northern England and Scotland to stop their raids
into southern England; in Germany the Romans controlled the left bank of the Rhine and the right
bank of the Danube; the two rivers formed a wedge (corresponding broadly to the Black Forest) which weakened the overall defence of the Roman
territories: Vespasian started a process of transferring there Gauls from the neighbouring
Roman provinces to have an advanced line of defence.
Vespasian died of natural causes in June 79 leaving the empire and the city of Rome in much
better shape than they were when he took office. A few months later the Senate decreed
his apotheosis (deification).
Colosseo: (left) detail of one the numbered entrances; (right)
small pillars which were part of the machinery used for moving the "velarium"
Vespasian confiscated Nero's Domus Aurea and the surrounding
gardens; the Romans had resented that Nero had reserved for his own pleasure
such a vast area in the very centre of Rome; Vespasian was aware of these
feelings and he decided
to build on the site of the
small lake which embellished Domus Aurea, a gigantic amphitheatre where the Romans
could enjoy themselves. The entrances of
Anfiteatro Flavio (or Colosseo) were numbered to allow an easy
access to the assigned seat; the audience (lacking sunglasses) was protected from
direct sunlight by a velarium, a gigantic sail, controlled by skilled sailors of the Roman fleet by means of
ropes knotted to iron rings placed on small pillars around the main building.
Titus had just become the new emperor when a disastrous eruption of Vesuvius hit the
rich towns at its foot: Pompeii was entirely covered by the ashes thrown out by the volcano, while Herculaneum disappeared
under a stream of lava and mud. The emperor took immediate action to help the survivors and because of this
and of his similar behaviour during a pestilence which hit Rome, he became so well-liked
that in a summary of the history of Rome written in the IVth century he was called
Amor et deliciae humani generis (love and delight of mankind).
Titus continued the policy of his father and named his brother Domitian consors successorsque (consort - in the sense of associated - and successor). He died
of natural causes in 81.
Modern entrance to the archaeological area of the Esquilino (Colle Oppio); immediately after
the entrance there is a wall belonging to Terme di Tito
Titus carried on the construction of the Colosseo which was inaugurated in 80. The ceremonies
were particularly solemn and the first season of the amphitheatre ran for a hundred consecutive days;
the Romans watched munera (fights between gladiators), venationes (capture and
killing of beasts) and naumachiae, a sort of naval battle (read
Mark Twain's Coliseum playbill).
He also built public baths making use in part of those of Domus Aurea; of these baths very little is left: just a
few low walls opposite the northern side of the Colosseo and in the adjoining
archaeological park known as Colle Oppio (the southern peak of Esquilino). A few years later
Trajan built larger baths, next to those of Titus.
The arch dedicated to him was erected by his brother Domitian after his death.
Domitian and the Consolidation of the
Domitian was the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty: he was killed as a result of
a conspiracy; the Senate, some members of which had been involved in the conspiracy, decreed
the damnatio memoriae of the emperor; later on Christian historians blamed him
for one of the cruellest persecutions, so Domitian was seen for centuries as a junior Nero. Today
we have a more balanced view, if not of him as a person, at least of his actions as a ruler.
He followed the steps of his father in paying attention to the economy: he managed to finance
a vast program of public works, not only in Rome, but also in many other parts of the empire, through
a careful fiscal policy and by investigating financial mismanagements in the provinces.
From a military viewpoint his main worries came from the northern provinces of the empire; although Domitian
tried to gain glory by personally leading several campaigns in Germany and Hungary, overall
he was not interested in expanding the empire, but rather in consolidating its borders;
in Britain, he did not pursue the conquest of the whole island and started the construction of
a defensive system; in Germany this approach led to the development of the
limes (border) between the Rhine and the Danube, made of military roads, fortified camps, trenches and towers. Domitian
was also involved in containing the raids of the Dacians, who threatened the Roman province of Mesia (today's Bulgaria).
This change of purpose in the use of the military forces was accompanied by a change in their
composition: a growing number of troops was recruited in the provinces and less and less
Roman citizens were attracted by a military career which was no longer rewarding its veterans
by distributing land and booty.
Stadio di Domiziano (today's Piazza Navona): (left) one of the
entrances and (right) inner walls
Domitian launched a Roman alternative to the Olympic games: the Certamen
Capitolinum (certamen = competition) took place every four years and to properly host these games
Domitian built a stadium which was inaugurated in 86. The arena corresponds
to today's Piazza Navona, while the structures of the stadium tribunes (the raised area with the seats)
lie inside or under the buildings around the Piazza. One of the external travertine arches and some of the
walls supporting the tribunes can be seen inside a modern building opposite Tor Sanguigna.
Domitian moved to this stadium the staging of naumachiae from the Colosseo, where he built
the underground facilities which made the appearance of the beasts even more spectacular. The
Capitolinum was accompanied by theatre plays and poetry competitions: they took place
in an odeon Domitian built next to the stadium: the external walls of the odeon
influenced the shape of Palazzo Massimi.
Domitian pursued a constant policy of concentrating power in his own hands and in that
of his inner circle, whose members were the only ones admitted to his presence. This attitude
created a growing resentment among the senators. Domitian wanted to be regarded as
dominus and deus (lord and god); he promoted the cult
of Jupiter and Minerva, placing them well above the crowd of deities of the traditional Roman
mythology, and he tried to assume the same religious role the Pharaohs had with respect to Osiris and Isis in Egypt.
He imposed strict moral standards which resulted in making him less and less well-liked.
He ended by being very isolated in the Domus Flavia, the imperial palace he had built on the
Palatino; the many courtiers who surrounded him often accused each other of plotting against
the emperor and eventually in 96 a group of them (which included his first wife), fearing to be the
next victims of Domitian's anger, decided to kill him. One of the conjurors claimed
to have a broken arm and for some days went around in the palace with a bandage on it:
he asked the emperor for a private meeting as he had to tell him about yet another plot: once alone
with Domitian he took out a dagger from the bandages and he stabbed him; Domitian had enough
strength to react and call for help, but his servants were part of the conspiracy and they finished him.
Foro di Nerva: details of its decoration and a broken column
Domitian dedicated to Minerva the forum he built to allow an easier transit between
those of Caesar and Augustus and Templum Pacis, the portico built by his father. For this reason it is
called Foro transitorio, although it is best known as Foro di Nerva, after the name of
Diocletian's successor Nerva who inaugurated it in 97. It had an elongate shape:
a temple dedicated to Minerva stood at the centre of a square which was
surrounded by a wall decorated with columns and reliefs showing either the goddess or female activities
under her protection. The surviving part of the
temple was pulled down by Pope Paul V to make use of its columns and marbles for his
Acqua Paola, while
a small section of the external wall, known as Le Colonnacce, is still
in its original place.
The following external links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page:
Vespasian bust at Musei Capitolini - Rome - it opens in a separate window.
Titus bust at Musei Capitolini - Rome - it opens in a separate window.
Triumph of Vespasian and Titus by Giulio Romano (1499-1546) - it opens in a separate window.
The last day of Pompei by Karl Bryullov (1833) - it opens in a separate window.
Domitian bust at Musée du Louvre - Paris.
IX - From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius
I - The foundation and the early days of Rome
II - The early republican period
III - The Romans meet the elephants
IV - Expansion in the eastern Mediterranean
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero