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Tapestry of Vespasian and his two sons Titus and Domitian.

A Turbulent Tide Turns In Favor of the Flavian Dynasty

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The Flavian Dynasty was a Roman imperial dynasty that lasted from 69 AD to 96 AD. There were three Flavian emperors, Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian. The Flavians came to power at the end of the Year of the Four Emperors, which was a short period of chaos following the fall of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. The Flavian Dynasty was succeeded by the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, which was the dynasty that the Five Good Emperors belonged to.

What Dynasties Preceded the Flavian Dynasty?

The death of the Emperor Nero in 68 AD marked the end of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. This plunged the Roman Empire into chaos and within a space of about a year four emperors quickly succeeded one another, hence the designation of 69 AD as the Year of the Four Emperors . The first of these emperors was Galba who seized the throne immediately after Nero’s death. He reigned until January 69 AD before being assassinated by Otho one of his discontented supporters.

Otho became the next emperor and reigned until April. The new emperor had to face a rebellion by Vitellius, who had been gathering his forces in the West during the reign of Galba. In order to avoid a civil war Otho decided to commit suicide and Vitellius was proclaimed the new emperor.

Vitellius’ reign did not last long either, as the legions stationed in the eastern provinces challenged his claim to the throne and supported Vespasian as their emperor. The two men fought for the throne in Rome and Vitellius was dragged out from his hiding place before being executed. The reign of Vitellius came to an end after eight months and by the end of 69 AD Vespasian was the sole emperor of the Roman Empire.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome by the populace. (Pimbrils / Public Domain)

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome by the populace. ( Pimbrils / Public Domain )

The Flavian Dynasty Begins

Vespasian, whose original name was Titus Flavius Vespasianus, was born in an equestrian family in 9 AD. Though Vespasian hailed from relatively humble origins he made his way up the Roman political ladder during the reigns of Caligula and Claudius obtaining the consulship in 51 AD. Vespasian also distinguished himself as a military leader participating in Claudius’ invasion of Britain in 43 AD. The most important event in Vespasian’s political life prior to becoming emperor, however, occurred in 67 AD when he was appointed to the command against the Jewish rebellion in Judaea.

The choice of Vespasian was apparently a calculated move. As a highly competent general he could be expected to emerge victorious. Nevertheless, his humble origins meant that Vespasian would not challenge Nero for the throne after securing victory in Judaea. Before the Jewish rebellion ended, however, Nero was dead, and Vespasian made a successful bid for power in 69 AD. With the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD the Jewish rebellion had ended, though some isolated areas in Judaea continued their fight against the Romans. The victory increased not only Vespasian’s prestige but also that of Titus, who had taken command of the Roman forces after his father left for Rome to become emperor.

The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem by Titus in command of the Roman forces. (BetacommandBot / Public Domain)

The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem by Titus in command of the Roman forces. (BetacommandBot / Public Domain )

Vespasian’s reign lasted until 79 AD and was succeeded by his eldest son, Titus. This was the first time in the history of the Roman Empire that a son succeeded his biological father as emperor. Unlike Vespasian the second Flavian emperor reigned only for a short duration of two years. Titus was remembered as a popular emperor and it was during his reign that the Flavian Amphitheatre (better known as the Colosseum) was completed.

It is not entirely clear as to the cause of Titus’ death. Nevertheless, it is well-known that he was not on good terms with his brother Domitian. Therefore, some have speculated that Domitian had Titus poisoned while others blame Domitian for hastening Titus’ death. In any case, Domitian succeeded his brother as emperor in 81 AD as Titus did not have any sons. One of the first things that Domitian did as emperor was to deify his brother, a maneuver that was aimed at using Titus’ popularity to boost his own. Another move made by Domitian, to capitalize on Titus’ popularity, was the building of the Arch of Titus which commemorated his brother’s victory in Judaea.

Triumph of Titus and Vespasian. (Pyb / Public Domain)

Triumph of Titus and Vespasian. (Pyb / Public Domain )

The Last Ruler of the Flavian Dynasty

In spite of these efforts, Domitian remained an unpopular emperor and is remembered by history as an autocratic ruler. Domitian was hated especially by the aristocracy, the class which the majority of ancient Roman historians would have belonged to. One of the reasons for this was that Domitian was extremely suspicious of the aristocracy and would frequently use treason as a reason for their execution. Domitian’s reign of terror was most severe in the last years of his rule. On the other hand, he received the support of the army. For instance, he was the first Roman emperor since Claudius to lead a campaign in person and he raised the pay of his soldiers by one third in 84 AD.

Bust of roman emperor Domitianus. Antique head, body added in the 18th century. Musée du Louvre. (CC BY 2.5)

Bust of roman emperor Domitianus. Antique head, body added in the 18th century. Musée du Louvre. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Despite being a despotic tyrant, as painted by the ancient Roman historians, Domitian ruled for a total of 15 years which is longer than the reigns of both his father and brother combined. In 96 AD Domitian was murdered by a conspiracy hatched by court officials. Reaction to his death was mixed. As expected, the aristocrats were overjoyed whereas the army was furious. Domitian’s death marked the end of the Flavian Dynasty and his successor, Nerva, was the first of the Five Good Emperors.

Top image: Tapestry of Vespasian and his two sons Titus and Domitian. Source: Pharos / Public Domain .

By Wu Mingren

References

Chilver, G. E. F., 2018. Domitian. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Domitian
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The BBC, 2014. Titus (39 AD - 81 AD). [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/titus.shtml
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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Titus. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Titus
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