Vespasian: Reign, Leadership Style & Achievements

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

If you are looking to learn more about the Roman Empire and its many leaders, this lesson has information on several emperors and their relationships. This lesson will cover the reign of Emperor Vespasian, first of the Flavian emperors.


Vespasian was underestimated at many times in his life. Through hard work and insight, he proved those who thought less of him wrong. Rome was sorely in need of stability when Vespasian became emperor. The epithets of the four emperors before him all read that they were killed by assassination, murder, or suicide. To make matters worse, the empire was threatening to come apart at the seams from civil war.

Vespasian's humble beginnings from the lower rungs of the patrician class belied the gravity of the man, and his carefulness and awareness of tenuous situations made his rise laborious but lasting once obtained. In 66 CE, Nero dispatched Vespasian and his sons to Judea to quell an uprising there among the Jews. By December of 69 CE, Vespasian would become emperor of Rome. But first, a few more emperors needed to kill each other or themselves to clear his path.

Emperor Vespasian

Emperor Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, committed suicide in 68 CE. Galba took over leadership in Rome for a short time, but in January of 68 CE he was assassinated. Rivals Otho and Vitellius fought for power until April of 69 CE when Otho committed suicide. Vitellius ruled until December of 69 when he was assassinated by soldiers dispatched by Vespasian. Vespasian remained in Egypt biding his time, until he received news of Vitellius' death. Vitellius' remains were thrown into Rome's river graveyard known as the Tiber.

Vespasian headed back to Rome where his sons Titus and Domitian were awaiting their father's return.

Emperor Vespasian
Emperor Vespasian

Reign & Achievements

Vespasian's reign began in December 69 CE and lasted until June of 79 CE. As one of the first emperors who would be allowed to die of natural causes instead of suicide or murder, the 10 years he spent at the helm of Rome were peaceful and filled with rebuilding what years of civil war had destroyed. The Roman people loved Vespasian and his sons, and they also enjoyed the peace that his reign afforded them. He was stable-minded and wise with old age, something the people had lacked in their previous rulers like Nero and Caligula.

Vespasian had two goals as leader of Rome. First, he wanted to restore the people's faith in Rome's economy and infrastructure. New taxes were implemented on Rome's provinces like Judea, and he also gave citizenship to long held areas within the empire but outside of Italy proper (like Spain). These new rights of citizenship came with taxation; thus, Vespasian increased the funds Rome took in each year.

There are those who claimed he was greedy and went too far with excessive taxation of Rome provinces, but he did restore the coffers of Rome to their formerly full status. Vespasian was unabashed about his financing methods as leader. Although some of the funds made their way into his pockets, he did sponsor the arts with some of the money and patronized poets and teachers.

Second, Vespasian wanted to rebuild Rome it to its former glory before the civil wars between Otho and Vitellius, and Nero's fire destroyed it. Vespasian built the Flavian Amphitheatre, more commonly known as the Colosseum. He also had the Forum and the Temple of Peace built to accompany the Colosseum. His building projects restored Rome's feelings of exceptionalism that had been stolen through civil wars, inept or insane leadership, and catastrophe. By the time of Vespasian's death, Romans had grown comfortable with peace and quiet, and looked to his sons to continue on in their father's path.

The Colosseum
Flavian Amphitheater

It could be argued that Vespasian's greatest achievement as emperor was how he dealt with his enemies after taking power, and the way that this aspect of his reign abetted peace and calm for Romans who were much beleaguered in 69 CE. He didn't take revenge on his enemies when he became emperor, and this seemed uncharacteristic of Roman emperors who were notorious for the imaginative deaths meted out to their enemies. His forgiveness made the people love him and feel they had a real leader who was not only competent, but also kind.

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