Vespasian had a peculiar path to the throne. It all began when a rebellion broke out against Emperor Nero in March of the year 68, and by June, the emperor committed suicide. Galba, the leader of the rebellion, became emperor that same June, but was overthrown by Otho in a coup in January, of year 69. The new emperor, in turn, was challenged by Vitellius, the governor of Lower Germany, and Otho ultimately committed suicide in April, still in the year 69. Yet, on July 1 (still 69), Vespasian, the Roman general in charge of suppressing the ongoing revolt in Judea, declared himself to be the rightful emperor—the fourth and final emperor of the year. By December 20 or 21, year 69, Vespasian’s troops tortured and killed Vitellius, then reportedly threw the corpse in the Tiber River. It was a chaotic time, indeed, but if some interesting rumors are true, Vespasian had been in stranger situations. According to the Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), Vespasian had ample experience with odd encounters—especially with animals in his dining room.
In his book, The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius wrote that animals would randomly pad their way into Vespasian’s home to cause mischief. On one occasion, the future emperor was innocently eating breakfast in his house, when a stray dog barged in and quickly scampered under the table where Vespasian was eating. The dog was carrying something in its mouth, but the animal was moving too fast for the future emperor to clearly see the object. The dog did not stay long—it dropped off whatever it was carrying onto the floor and then bolted out the door. Feeling curious, Vespasian peeked under the table to see what the dog had left behind. The object he saw was not a thing dogs are usually known to tote around. No stick, ball, bone, or even a rodent, was left behind by the stray. Instead, the dog had eerily dropped a severed human hand by Vespasian’s feet—hopefully, the future emperor had already finished his breakfast.
On another day, Vespasian was in his dining room at an undisclosed time. It was apparently the season to plow the fields, for Suetonius claimed an ox broke free from its yoke and, of course, charged straight for Vespasian’s house. Playing the part of the proverbial bull in the china shop, the rampaging ox crashed into the home, sending pottery and servants flying in all directions. The ox chased the servants into the dining room, where Vespasian was still lounging. It was a chaotic sight for the future emperor, yet it had an odd ending. The plowing of the fields and the small rampage must have been exhausting for the ox, because it collapsed at Vespasian’s feet without doing any more damage.
After allegedly living through alleged experiences such as these, perhaps Vespasian learned to simply go with the flow of events. Nevertheless, whereas Vespasian’s victory in the so-called Year of the Four Emperors is grounded in historical fact, the tales of his odd animal encounters were likely bits of rumor and legend that Suetonius decided to include in his book. Whatever the case, they are good stories that have value, if only for the sake of entertainment.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Emperor Vespasian on horseback, by Antonio Tempesta (1555–1630), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.