Vespasian was born around the year 9, and in his early decades of life, he followed the average path of the up-and-coming Roman statesman. He was successful (but remarkably average) in his early military and political career, ascending the typical Roman social ladder to power—moving through the ranks of military tribune, quaestor and aedile, and finally reaching the post of praetor in the year 39. Vespasian was able to maintain his growing power and prestige during the troubled reign of Caligula (r. 37-41), but it was during the time of Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) that his career really began to skyrocket.
Vespasian was appointed as a legion commander (of the II Augusta) in the year 43, just in time for him to participate in Claudius’ invasion of Britain. During the war against the Britons, Vespasian distinguished himself and as a result, he was awarded triumphal decorations and prominent priestly titles. His next big step up the political hierarchy came in the year 51, when Vespasian became a consul—one of the loftiest positions in Rome. Just as Vespasian was reaching what he may have then considered the height of his political career, his potential for further advancement was suddenly thrown into chaos. In the year 54, Emperor Claudius died and was succeeded by Nero.
Vespasian and Nero seemed to have had a rocky relationship in the beginning. Over the years, however, the middle-aged military veteran and statesman was able to slowly, but surely, work his way into the good graces of the young and flamboyant Nero. The diligent relationship-building eventually paid off, and Vespasian was appointed by Nero as proconsul (governor) of Africa around the year 63. Although his term of office in North Africa was described by Suetonius as “characterized by justice and great dignity” (The Twelve Caesars, Vespasian, 4), Vespasian apparently had not yet refined his public relations skills, and many of the people under his governance showed him great hostility.
The most dramatic incident during his time as governor occurred in the region of Hadrumetum. For unexplained reasons, the inhabitants of that area became extremely outraged and they held Vespasian responsible for whatever it was the drew their ire. Vespasian, the dutiful proconsul, traveled to the epicenter of unrest in order to deal with the situation. The problem, he soon found out, could not have been famine—for there were so many vegetables on hand that the people vented their frustration by showering poor Vespasian with produce. As Suetonius bluntly put it, “the people of Hadrumetum rioted and pelted him with turnips” (The Twelve Caesars, Vespasian, 4). Unfortunately, Vespasian’s response to the turnip-pelting incident was not recorded. Whatever the case, Suetonius presented the situation as an anomalous, once-occurring incident that was never again repeated.
Turnips, however, cannot keep an ambitious man down. Vespasian was transferred by Nero to Judea between 66 and 67, where he and his son, Titus, led the Roman response to the Jewish revolt in the region. Finally, in 69, Vespasian used his connection in the Middle East and Africa to become the winner of the so-called Year of the Four Emperors, out-surviving and supplanting his rivals, Galba, Otho and Vitellius.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of Vespasian by Egidius Sadeler (1570–1629) over a picture of turnips, both [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.