In July and August of the year 69 CE, the legions stationed in the eastern end of the Roman Empire, from the Black Sea region to Egypt, pledged their loyalty to Vespasian in his bid to claim the title of emperor. Ironically, he had been sent to Judea by Nero around the year 66 to crush a rebellion, but now Vespasian was going to become what he had originally been tasked to hunt—a rebel. It was the Year of the Four Emperors (69 CE) and so far two emperors had already died in the opening months of that chaotic year. The only contenders left in the free-for-all were Emperor Vitellius and Vespasian, the rogue governor of Judea. Vespasian and his supporters quickly proved themselves to be the superior force, pushing their way into Rome by December and brutally executing Emperor Vitellius.
Vespasian was brilliant at public relations. He commanded his rebellion from afar, so as to escape any connection to the bloody horrors of Civil War. Therefore, while the prospective emperor’s trusted lieutenants were burning Rome and massacring dissidents, Vespasian was innocently away in Egypt. He was such a master of plausible deniability that the ancient biographer, Suetonius, adoringly stated “My research shows that no innocent party was ever punished during Vespasian’s reign except behind his back or while he was absent from Rome” (The Twelve Caesars, Divus Vespasian, section 15).
Another of Vespasian’s public relations successes was his ability to surround himself with an aura of divinity. It was an idea long used by the emperors—Julius Caesar, Augustus and Emperor Claudius had all been posthumously recognized as gods and the descendants of these men touted their divine lineage for political gain. Vespasian, however, brought this tactic to a new level.
According to numerous ancient Roman historians, Emperor Vespasian was widely believed to be able to perform holy miracles. Three ancient scholars—Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio (the first two lived during the reign of Vespasian)—specifically mentioned two instances of miracle healings that Vespasian allegedly performed. The healings were both said to have occurred in Alexandria around June or July of the year 70. As the story goes, two debilitated men approached Emperor Vespasian together and threw themselves to the ground before him. One of the men was blind and the other had an unresponsive hand. Vespasian decided to let the supplicants speak. The result of their interaction would become one of the most talked-about events in the reign of the new emperor.
The pair announced that the god, Serapis, had appeared to them in a dream or vision and had proclaimed that Vespasian possessed the power to heal their disabilities. Serapis had apparently also given specific instructions on how the cures could be achieved. The blind man claimed that he would be healed if Vespasian spat into his eye and the person with the unmoving fingers would be healed if the emperor stepped on his withered hand. According to the tale, the emperor was bashful about attempting the healing, yet his friends and advisors ultimately convinced him to try. Following the procedure provided by the god, Serapis, Vespasian spat into the blind man’s eye, and, to everyone’s amazement, the man exclaimed that he could see again. The emperor then stepped upon the other man’s hand, which, after being stepped on, immediately began to work perfectly.
Suetonius, Cassius Dio and Tacitus did not question if the healing was a historical event and gave the story the benefit of the doubt. Tacitus, however, did attempt to provide a more medical explanation of what might have occurred that day. He mused that perhaps Vespasian’s spittle had cleared an eyelash or some other obstruction from the blind man’s eye and that the injured hand of the other supplicant might have been fixed by Vespasian using his foot to apply pressure to dislocated joints, thereby snapping them back into place. Whatever the case, the story of Vespasian’s healings in Alexandria spread like wildfire, and, regardless of whether it was all a political ploy, pure luck, or truly a divine miracle, the spectacle became the talk of the empire. Tacitus wrote: “The hand was instantly restored to use, and the day again shone for the blind man. Both facts are told by eye-witnesses even now when falsehood brings no reward” (The Histories, Book IV, section 81).
One of the greatest contributions to Vespasian’s aura of divinity, however, was his claim to be the fulfillment of biblical messianic prophecy. As a governor of Judea that had gone on to rule the Roman world, Vespasian milked the messianic prophecies of the Middle East for all their worth. Such theories linking Vespasian to Jewish prophecies and oracles appeared in the works of several ancient historians. Suetonius wrote: “An ancient superstition was current in the east that out of Judea would come the rulers of the world. This prediction, as it later proved, referred to the Roman emperors, but the Jews, who read it as referring to themselves, rebelled” (Divus Vespasian, section 4). Tacitus made the same assumption in his work. He stated: “This mysterious prophecy had in reality pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, as is the way of human ambition, interpreted these great destinies in their own favour, and could not be turned to the truth even by adversity” (The Histories, Book V, section 13). Interestingly, even the Jewish historian and priest, Josephus (c. 37-100), joined the bandwagon with the Roman scholars. In his text, The Jewish War, Josephus wrote, “Now, this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea” (Jewish War, Book VI, chapter 5, section 4 (6.313)).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Triumph of Vespasian and Titus, by Giulio Romano (1499–1546), [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.