‘Oh Dear, I Think I’m Becoming A God’: Vespasian and the Divine

Throughout his decade-long reign from AD 69 to 79, Vespasian actively refuted any claims of divinity and moves toward an imperial cult within the borders of Rome, but made little attempt to dispel divine worship of himself in the provinces in a bid to reinforce the central focus on Rome and the emperor as an individual to barbarian outsiders. Despite this lack of faith in his divine rule, Vespasian encouraged the existence of the imperial cult in the provinces, mirroring the moves of Augustus to solidify his reign following his controversial ascendency to imperial power through desperate civil war and affirmation by the army. Vespasian’s last words, rumoured to be ‘Vae, puto deus fio’ – ‘oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god’ – proved the emperor’s humility towards his assumed divine rule even at the brink of death, despite all outside endeavours to prove otherwise.

The first emperor to hail from the equestrian Flavian dynasty, Vespasian could not adhere himself to the well-reported divine rule of the preceding Julio-Claudian dynasty, as his family were significantly obscure and possessed little acclaim. Worse still, his family originated from Gaul and the emperor spoke with a peasant’s accent, undeniably a provincial emperor with even less claim to Romanitas than his predecessors in need of divine ancestry. In attempts to attest to Vespasian’s divinity through other means, Tacitus claimed the prosperous affairs and ‘chance happenings’ of his life were omens sent to prove his divine right to rule. Vespasian was said to have possessed numen, which can be received by animals and inanimate objects, through Suetonius’ account of an ox which broke free of its yoke to burst into Vespasian’s dining room and bow its head at his feet, implying the process of freeing Rome from tyranny and submitting to a new welcome ruler. This sign of change heralded by supernatural events emerged frequently during Vespasian’s rule, such as the miraculous regrowth of a cypress tree on his grandfather’s estate after being entirely uprooted by no evident storm. Furthermore, Suetonius, however unreliably, also spoke of a stray dog which burst into Vespasian’s dining quarters and placed a severed hand at his feet, a sign to Roman society of divinity and inherent power. Vespasian himself, as quoted by Suetonius, reported of a dream before his succession that his family would come into good fortune when Nero has a tooth extracted, which happened the very next day. Having kept the personal astrologer Seleucus despite banishing astrologers from Rome, Tacitus suggests Vespasian was gradually influenced by these strange happenings surrounding his life and reign.

Regardless of the emperor’s resistance to imperial worship in the capital, the provincials sought to competitively recreate the centre of the Roman Empire to display their deference to Rome and its solitary figure of power. In an attempt to maintain his auctoritas within the empire’s provinces, which Tacitus claimed he was lacking, Vespasian’s visit to Alexandria in AD 69 witnessed his public performance of miracles in apparent collaboration with the god Serapis to maintain provincial loyalty, healing two Alexandrians, one blind and one lame, despite his own doubt in his divine power. Further to this, Vespasian reportedly had visions of an ethereal Alexandrian man Basildes proffering symbols of royalty such as crowns and loaves, miraculously affirmed through a mirage. Less questionable sources include ancient pottery discovered by the locals of the Peloponnese bearing a striking likeness to Vespasian, cementing local belief in the divine interventions that led to his ascendency to imperial power. Further to this, a wax tablet discovered in Herculaneum described the tutelary deities of Vespasian’s offspring, cementing provincial belief in Vespasian’s dynastical divinity.

Vespasian’s curiosity in the rumours that the gods were on his side during his lifetime led to the action of his son and heir Titus to pursue immediate posthumous deification of Vespasian. Titus established a cult institution in the name of his father through the construction of the Temple of Vespasian near the Tabularium at Pompeii purely out of homage to his father and his efforts during his reign, a move devoid of political intentions but likely not devoid of political interpretation.

Despite a personal aversion to deification, appeals to godly ancestry and the apparent slew of omens following him throughout his lifetime, Vespasian utilised provincial interests in his divine right to rule to maintain loyalty to the imperial centre in his living years, and spent less than a year in mortal death before his successor placed his name among the deified Julio-Claudian emperors.

Bibliography

Henderson, Bernard William, Five Roman Emperors: Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, A.D. 69-117 (Cambridge, 1927).

Levick, Barbara, Vespasian (London, 1999).

Suetonius, Life of Vespasian.

Tacitus, Vespasian.

Scott, K., The Imperial Cult Under the Flavians (New York, 1975).

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