First-century Roman emperors have a bad reputation. Cruel. Demented. Lascivious. Spendthrift. That stereotype holds true for some (Caligula, Nero, Domitian), but it’s not fair to them all. A few first-century emperors used their power quite well.
Two who most definitely did not fit the stereotype were Emperor Vespasian and his son, Emperor Titus… dubbed “mankind’s darling” by his contemporaries.
Some time back, the members of Amazon’s Ancient Rome discussion forum conducted an in-house poll on this question: Who were the best Roman emperors? Opinions differed, but two men showed up at the top of all the lists: “The Flavians” Vespasian and Titus.
That was no surprise to me. Years ago, when I started work on Rubies of the Viper, my story really began taking shape after I discovered the Flavians. They were just what I was looking for: a true-life family of down-to-earth, first-century Romans living quietly in the country north of Rome, where much of my story would take place. They were the right people in the right time and place who added tremendous historical texture to the story I was building around my fictional co-protagonists, Theodosia and Alexander. As an extra bonus, three members of the family went on to become emperors, which gives them more than passing interest for history buffs. (They also offered great potential for a sequel should I ever decide to write one, as I now am.) I spent a great deal of time researching the Flavian family, was impressed with what I learned, and went to great lengths to portray them accurately.
The Flavians weren’t old-guard, moneyed aristocrats. Vespasian’s father was a tax collector… not high-status work. His wife, Flavia Domitilla, died young (as the majority of women did), leaving Vespasian to raise his children alone. He did have a freedwoman mistress to whom he was devoted for many years and whom he tried—bucking fierce social opposition—to move into the palace as his consort when he became emperor.
In addition to Titus, Vespasian had a second son, Domitian (Emperor Domitian), and a daughter named, like her mother, Flavia Domitilla. (And that daughter would go on to have her own daughter named—guess what?—Flavia Domitilla. Such was the fate of Roman women… virtually no personal identification.)
The Flavian men’s actual Latin names are confusing, too, though not quite so much as their women’s. Vespasian, the father, was Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus the Elder; his first son (the future Emperor Titus) was Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus the Younger; and his second son (the future Emperor Domitian) was Titus Flavius Domitianius. Got that straight, gentle reader?
Of the male members of this family’s two generations who became emperors, Vespasian and Titus went down in history as great leaders. Ultimately, Domitian would tarnish the family name, but neither his father, nor his brother, nor his sister lived to see it. And even his vile actions—Domitian was a big-time persecutor of early Christians, earning himself the moniker of “Second Nero” —could not destroy their own fine reputations.
Since all four Flavians—Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, and Flavia Domitilla—play roles in Rubies of the Viper, I’ll add separate posts about each of them, exploring who they were and why they earned the historical reputations that they have.
—text copyright © Martha Marks—