No one in their right mind would have predicted that Titus Flavius Vespasian would ever be anything more than an eccentric senator. They were an obscure family from the small village of Reate. His father had been a banker and his mother from a family of modest means. However, according to Sutonius’ Life of the Caesars, the auguries when she was brought to bed with Vespasian were favorable. Sabinus, the boy’s father, is said to have been greatly impressed by an inspection of a victim’s entrails. He is said to have congratulated his mother on having a grandson who would become Emperor. She roared with laughter and said: ‘Fancy, you going soft in the head before your old mother!’
Vespasian grew up a normal upper class provincial boy. He delayed his joining the Senate much to his mother’s dismay. She constantly called him “his brother’s footman.” Once he decided to start his public career, Vespasian progressed up the cursus honorum, the course of honor, in the usual way. Quaestor in Crete and Cyrenaica, aedile, praetor. These were delicate times. Crazy Emperor Tiberius gave way to the even crazier Emperor Caligula. Men in public life walked a tightrope and the wrong decision would put them on the wrong end of the Emperor’s entertainments.
By the time Caligula was overthrown, Vespasian was married and was having a family. He had three children with his wife, two sons and a daughter. He was a dutiful husband and gave up his long time mistress, Antonia Caenis, who was a freedwoman and secretary to Antonia the Younger. It is possible that this connection is what brought him to the attention of Claudius’ freedman, Narcissus. Narcissus offered him a command in Claudius’ reconquest of Britain. This earned him triumphal honors, priesthoods, as well as a consulship for the last two months of the year. However, an old enemy drove him into semi-retirement while waiting for a proconsular appointment. During Caligula’s reign, he had offended Claudius’ new wife, Agrippina, and she did not forgive or forget. His appointment was consistently blocked.
Claudius went on to the Elysian Fields, and Nero took his place, through the machinations of his mother Agrippina, but that is a story for another time. Nero, fancying himself quite the artiste, began a tour of Greece and required the Senate and court to follow him applauding gratefully. Vespasian made the fatal mistake of falling asleep during one of these concerts. His nap had ruined his career and put his life in danger it seemed. He fled with his family to an out of the way township to wait for his summons to face the Emperor.
The summons came, but not for what he expected. Judea had burst into rebellion and Vespasian was the only general left who could handle it. He and his son Titus took command and began the reconquest of Judea. While in Judea, Nero died leaving a power vacuum that was filled by three other men before the legions in Judea made their choice known. Vespasian.
A new civil war began and when the dust cleared, the sixty year old Vespasian was the Emperor of Rome. He was rather bewildered by this turn and did not seem to lose his good humor. He summoned Caenis, who had been his wife in everything but name since his legal wife died, to the palace and began work.
He began a building program, which brought us some of the most famous buildings in Rome. Most notably the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Colosseum. To pay for all this and the civil war, he raised taxes. One of the ways he raised funds was by imposing a Urine Tax on the distribution of urine from public urinals in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima system. The urine collected from public urinals was sold as an ingredient in tanning, and a source of ammonia to clean woollen togas.for several chemical processes. Suetonius reports that Vespasian’s son Titus was upset by the nature of the tax. His father held a gold coin under his nose and asked if he was offended by the smell. Titus said no, and Vespasian answered. “Yet it comes from urine”. As a result, public urinals in France are still called “Vespasiennes”.
After being emperor for ten years, Vespasian died leaving his throne to his son, Titus. He did not lose his sarcastic wit even in death. The belief at the time was the Emperor would become a god on his death. His last words were in reference to this. I can see him saying this with an impish smile, “Dear me. I fancy I’m becoming a god.”