• Vespasian, Paterfamilias

In ancient Rome, the father of a family was the all-powerful paterfamilias. He owned the family property and ruled the roost in every way. And the lord of this domestic castle didn’t just command his wife, slaves, and underage children. Even his grown male children were legally under the control of their father to a great extent until his death.

Of all the characters in Rubies of the Viper, General (and later Emperor) Vespasian is the only paterfamilias who plays an important role. He played an important role in first-century Roman history too, not just in my novel.

Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus the Elder (as Vespasian was known in the first century) was born in A.D. 9 into a family of ambiguous social position. His father was a plebeian tax collector; his mother was the sister of a patrician senator. Their son rose in society through his military accomplishments and came to be revered as the conqueror of Britain by commanding the victorious Second Augustan Legion during the invasion in A.D. 43.

In A.D. 53, when Rubies of the Viper begins, General Vespasian is lying low, hoping not to call attention to himself. In a world ruled by paranoid emperors like Claudius and Nero, a too-visible military hero might well find himself murdered… simply for raising his head high enough to look like a potential rival. So Vespasian is hanging out in Caere—a tiny town most noted for its proximity to a thousand-year-old Etruscan necropolis—happily enjoying a quiet life with his children, Titus, Flavia Domitilla, and Domitian, when he first gets to know Theodosia Varro.

But still, in his real life, the Flavian paterfamilias harbored an ambition for power, and in A.D. 69 he made his move. In that “Year of Four Emperors” —following the murder of Emperor Galba and the suicide of Galba’s murderous successor, Emperor Otho—troops loyal to Vespasian defeated the third short-termer, Emperor Vitellius. Vespasian emerged as an emperor with the smarts and popular support to survive.

His proudest accomplishment as emperor—from a Roman perspective, not a Jewish one—came in A.D. 70, when, under the leadership of his eldest son, General Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus the Younger (aka simply “Titus”), Roman forces crushed the rebellious Jews, sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed their Temple.

Despite the terrible destruction that his policies wrought on those peoples (Britains, Jews, and others) who resisted the might of Rome, Vespasian’s character was almost exactly as it’s portrayed in Rubies of the Viper. He was widely respected as a frugal, honest, earthy man with a sense of humor and a great love of the Sabine land of his ancestors.

After the terrors of Nero and a Civil War, Vespasian’s reign gave the empire a decade of welcome relief. He ruled the Roman Empire with unaccustomed wisdom and frugality until his death in 79, when Titus succeeded him on the throne… becoming the first father-son dynasty in Rome’s history.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—