The Flavian Emperors Encounter Roadblocks after a Smooth Start

From the lecture series: The Roman Empire — From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

The reign of the Flavian emperors began with Vespasian and his son Titus, both of whom brought stability to Rome after years of strife. Disaster struck, peaking with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and followed by Titus’s abrupt death. His brother Domitian took over, a reckless leader with eccentric hobbies.

The Triumph of Titus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1885) depicting the Flavian family.
The Flavian family. Vespasian proceeds at the head of the family, followed by Domitian, with Domitia Longina, and finally Titus (back left). (Image: Lawrence Alma-Tadema/Public domain)

Unveiling the Flavian Amphitheater

The Arch of Titus, Rome, Italy.
In commemoration of the conquest of Judea, a victory arch was later erected in Rome near the Flavian Amphitheater. (Image: Photographed by Jebulon/Public domain)

After defeating the Jews, Titus joined his father, Emperor Vespasian, in Rome and celebrated a triumph. In commemoration of the conquest of Judea, a victory arch was later erected in Rome near the Flavian Amphitheater.

The Arch of Titus is one of the few Roman arches that still survives today. On the underside and along the inner walls, carved stone panels celebrate the capture of Jerusalem.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, Wondrium.

One panel depicts Roman soldiers carrying away booty that they looted from the Great Temple of the Jews. Clearly visible is a squad of legionaries bearing the giant menorah, or holy seven-branched candlestick, from the Temple.

Roman's carrying the booty they looted from the Great temple of the Jews
Arch panel depicting the Roman soldiers carrying away booty that they looted from the Great Temple of the Jews. (Image: derivative work: Steerpike (talk)Arc_de_Triumph_copy.jpg: user: בית השלום – Arc_de_Triumph_copy.jpg/Public domain)

Some of the funds to construct the Flavian Amphitheater came from the loot gained by Vespasian and Titus in the Jewish War. There is also evidence to suggest that some of the enslaved Jews captured during the campaign were employed back at Rome in the construction of the amphitheater.

After ruling for 10 years, Vespasian fell ill with a fever and died in 79 A.D. His sense of humor did not abandon him even on his deathbed since, as he expired, he supposedly joked, “Dear me, I think I might be turning into a god.”

Power passed seamlessly to Vespasian’s son Titus, who was well-liked and had already amply proven his competence as both a general and administrator. It was under Titus that the Flavian Amphitheater was officially opened in 80 A.D., with 100 continuous days of games and entertainment.

Unveiled along with the amphitheater and also intended for the enjoyment of the people was a new public bath complex, the Baths of Titus, featuring an ornate, monumental marble staircase connecting it directly with the plaza of the Flavian Amphitheater.

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Disaster Strikes Rome

Bust of Emperor Titus, in the Capitoline Museum, Rome
Emperor Titus (Image: Photographed by Sailko/Public domain)

Titus continued the policies of his father and set an even more conciliatory and generous tone, allowing exiled philosophers to return to Rome, outlawing treason trials, and cracking down on unscrupulous informers. Although he had a slight reputation for wildness in his youth, as emperor, Titus was sober and popular, and Rome seemed set to enjoy a long stretch of prosperity.

Unfortunately, a series of dramatic disasters soon struck. A deadly plague ravaged the countryside near Rome, and the most serious fire since the Great Fire of 64 broke out in the city of Rome, causing serious damage.

These were not the most disastrous events of his reign, however, because on August 24, 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius, which overlooks the Bay of Naples, violently erupted, spewing ash and pyroclastic flows that devastated the area and buried the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae.

Ruins of Pompeii, with Vesuvius towering above.
One of the disasters that happened during Titus’s reign was the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Fortunately there was an eyewitness description of the eruption, as it was observed by the 18-year-old Pliny the Younger, who was staying at his wealthy uncle’s villa across the bay from the volcano.

Pliny said that “the cloud resembled a pine tree—it rose to a great height and then extended out in several branches. … The cloud was white in some places, but dark and spotted in others, as if it had carried up dirt or cinders.”

Pliny’s uncle, who was the local military commander, ordered a ship so that he could take a closer look at the phenomenon, and asked Pliny if he wanted to come along.

Astonishingly, the teenaged Pliny replied that he would rather stay and finish his homework than go look at the exploding volcano. As it turned out, Pliny’s dedication to his studies may have saved his life, since his uncle perished in the eruption. Incidentally, as Pliny was his uncle’s sole heir, the cataclysm that caused so much destruction also made Pliny’s fortune.

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How Does Rome’s New Leader Measure Up?

Titus was active in providing relief for these disasters, but after ruling only 26 months, he fell ill and died prematurely. Vespasian had had two sons, Titus the elder and Domitian the Younger, and it now fell to Domitian to take his brother’s place as emperor.

Bust of Domitian, in the Musée du Louvre, Paris
Domitian became emperor after the death of Titus. (Image: By I, Sailko/Public domain)

Domitian had not been as carefully groomed by his father to be a leader as Titus had been, and he had not held the same range of military and civil positions. Whether this was because Vespasian did not regard Domitian as fit for these jobs, or because he thought it was unnecessary since Titus was his designated heir, is unclear.

Nevertheless, Domitian had received a good education and had a reasonable amount of experience. It was hoped that he would continue the good precedent established by his father and brother.

Unfortunately for Rome, this hope was misplaced. As emperor, Domitian proved to be more like Caligula or Nero than like his fellow Flavians. By this point, it’s not difficult to guess what sort of actions Domitian took.

He disrespected and terrorized the Senate; he indulged in lavish and self-aggrandizing spectacles; he spent enormous amounts of money building himself a grandiose new palace complex atop the Palatine Hill, and he engaged in a variety of eccentric behaviors.

For example, at the beginning of his reign, the most powerful man in the world spent his time by shutting himself alone in a room in the palace, devoting several hours each day to catching flies and impaling them on a needle.

This led to a popular joke—when a courtier was asked, “Who was with the emperor today?” the man cleverly replied, “No one, not even a fly.”

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A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Perhaps more seriously, like Nero, Domitian seemed to believe in his own divinity, and preferred to be addressed as “Dominus et Deus,” or “Lord and God.”

While its leader may have been unbalanced, the bureaucracy set up by Vespasian continued to function with reasonable efficiency. The empire ran without too much turmoil and Domitian ruled for 15 years.

As time went on, he grew increasingly paranoid and had many senators put to death on suspicion of plotting against him.

This became a self-fulfilling prophecy since fear for their lives likely prompted his potential victims to form actual conspiracies. Eventually, in 96 A.D., one of these was successful.

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Domitian was assassinated in his bedroom by a group of palace servants, one of whom faked an arm injury to conceal a dagger in the bandage.

Common Questions About the Flavian Emperors

Q: Which Flavian emperor built the Flavian Amphitheater?

The Flavian Amphitheater was begun by Vespasian and finished under the rule of Flavian Emperor Titus.

Q: Which Flavian emperor ruled as Pompeii erupted?

Flavian Emperor Titus was in power when Pompeii erupted. Pompeii was the first major tragedy in Rome since Vespasian had reinstated order.

Q: How did the Flavian Emperor Titus die?

Flavian Emperor Titus died suddenly, supposedly of natural causes. However, his brother, who became his successor, Emperor Domitian, is widely thought to have had him poisoned.

Q: Who was the final emperor in the Flavian dynasty?

The final Flavian emperor was Domitian, who was essentially expunged from many records due to his unpopular, egotistical type of rule, ending the Flavian dynasty.

This article was updated on January 31, 2020

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