In the wake of Nero’s death in 68 CE, the Roman Empire became a free-for-all. The Year of the Four Emperors – a civil war by another name – saw Galba assume the throne, only to be murdered by Otho, a man soon overtaken by Vitellius in April. Otho’s backers, eager to find someone to remove the new Emperor, were pleased to see Vespasian declared the rightful heir by the Roman Army in Egypt on July 1, 69. (Not without a little help, for what it’s worth.)
Titus Flavius Vespasianus was an Italian by birth. He’d moved up through the ranks of the Senate, becoming a consul in 51, but his military success gave him the fearsome reputation he enjoyed throughout the Roman Empire. In 43, he had been on the battlefield as Britain came under the rule of Rome. More than two decades later, he would famously bring Judea under control by squashing the rebellion of 66 – moving toward Jerusalem even as Nero took his own life, an event that would have tremendous implications for him and his countrymen.
A prophecy had sprung up among the eastern provinces, one some believe Vespasian came to adopt as his own: the rulers of the world would come from Judea. As Vitellius assumed power, backed by the more powerful legions of the Roman Army – those who had secured the barbarian territories in modern France and Germany. Vespasian became more convinced of his place as the future ruler, helped somewhat by the insistence of Otho’s former supporters and Mucianus, the governor of neighboring Syria. At Caesarea, on this day in history, the Egyptian army led by Tiberius Julius Alexander announced their allegiance to him as Emperor. Soldiers in Judea would follow suit over the next few days.
The Roman Civil War was now down to two opposing factions. Three more armies – Moesia, Pannonia and Illyricum – threw their weight behind Vespasian. Known for his strict discipline, the men adored him and, simply by expressing the desire to fight on his side, had split the Roman Army in half. Vespasian’s troops, led by Marcus Antonius Primus, soon slipped into northeastern Italy and thrashed Vitellius’ soldiers at Bedriacum before pillaging Cremona and turning toward the capital.
Protecting the grain supply in Egypt, Vespasian eagerly awaited news from Rome. When word arrived Primus and his men had burned the city after beheading Vitellius, Vespasian organized shipments of much-needed food and sent word the laws of Nero would be repealed with immediate effect. The Roman Senate would agree with the Egyptian army in late December 69, making him the official head of the most powerful nation in the world.
It would be another six months before Vespasian would arrive in Rome. Unrest continued throughout the provinces, quelled by Vespasian in Egypt and his son, Titus, in Jerusalem. After he made it to the capital, reform became the order of the day. Taxes were changed and tribute rates raised on the conquered territories. He also went about rebuilding the city, approving ambitious projects designed to restore the grandeur of Rome – including the Flavian Amphitheater, what we now call the Colosseum.