“Pecunia non olet”, or “money doesn’t stink”, is the most famous quote from Emperor Vespasian. And those words characterize him. From his father, who was a tax farmer, he had inherited a strong love of money.
In Roman times tax farmers bought the right to levy taxes in a specific area. They paid the government a fixed sum per year and were allowed to keep all the revenue for themselves.
During his reign, Vespasian was always recruiting new tax farmers. He chose collectors that mercilessly squeezed the local population. For he knew what subsequently would happen: the people would start to complain. He always investigated those complaints and the outcome was predetermined: ‘exploitation’. This was Vespasian’s favorite verdict because as a penalty he dispossessed all the tax farmers’ assets. Thus they paid him double.
One of Vespasian’s first decrees as an emperor was the introduction of a tax on public toilets. As the operators of the lavatories sold their urine with huge profits to tanners and fullers, he decided the state should benefit as well. His son Titus objected. “Outrageous“, he called it. In reply, Vespasian took a coin from the yield, held it under Titus’s nose, and asked him what he smelled. “Nothing” his son answered. “Exactly! Money does not stink.”
Another tax he levied was the ‘Fiscus Judaicus‘. Before the Jewish War, every Jew contributed half a shekel a year for the maintenance of the Temple of Jerusalem. After the conquest of the city and the ensuing destruction of the temple, Vespasian decided to collect that half-shekel himself. On all nationals ‘following the Jewish rites’ he imposed an equally heavy duty for the temple of Jupiter in Rome.
For a scion of an insignificant gender, Vespasian has had a remarkably successful career. He started in Thrace as a military tribune, rose to quaestor in Crete and Cyrenaica, was then elected aedile and next praetor. Emperor Claudius made him commander of a legion in Germany and subsequently transferred him to Britain. There too he achieved success: he conquered the Isle of Wight and large parts of Britain. As a reward, he was awarded a triumphal march and was promoted to the rank of consul. As a proconsul, he was then granted the province of Africa.
The foundation for his emperorship was laid when Emperor Nero sent him to Judea. There he had to subdue the rebellious Jews. Since the Jews had defeated the entire Syrian legion, Vespasian received a huge army. Four Roman legions and countless soldiers of local allies were under his command.
However, Nero was deposed by the senate and committed suicide. After his death followed a civil war in which Galba, Otho and Vitellius fought for power. The three exhausted each other’s forces to such an extent that at the end of their war only Vespasian had an army left that was ready for combat. When in Judea his soldiers spontaneously proclaimed him emperor, he did not hesitate. He sent his troops to Rome and seized power.
the Prince of Peace in Roman times
At the beginning of our era, ‘the Prince of Peace’ was a common concept in the countries around the Mediterranean. Nowadays the expression refers to the Torah, in which the Jewish prophet Isaiah foretold his coming, and to Jesus, who, according to Christianity, has fulfilled this prophesy. But in classical antiquity also the Romans were expecting a ruler who would redeem them.
“A son who descends from heaven“, Virgil called him in his fourth eclogue. He published that poem in 38 BCE and from then on all of Rome wondered who that ruler would be. For a while, they believed the words applied to Emperor Augustus. The historian Tacitus, however, knew better. According to him, Vespasian was the heralded Prince of Peace.
Already during his life, Emperor Vespasian was surrounded by many legends. For example, an ox entered his dining room and knelt down at his feet. A dog walked into his house with a human hand in its mouth and put it under his desk. The statue of the deified Julius Caesar turned away from Galba of its own accord and faced east, where Vespasian was then. Vespasian cured a blind man by spitting on his eyes and a cripple by standing on his leg. All these omens indicated that he would achieve the highest. He was destined for imperial rule. And for more, because on his deathbed, he spoke the words: “Woe’s me, I think that I’m turning into a God“.
the Jewish Messiah
In his account of the Jewish War, the Jewish priest and historian Flavius Josephus wrote, “What, however, spurred the Jews most to the war was an ambiguous prophecy from their holy books. According to that prediction, someone from Judea would become ruler of the world. They thought that it would be a Jew, and many of their sages were misled by this. Yet it was clear that the prophecy related to Vespasian since he was proclaimed emperor in Judea.”
The prophecy that Josephus meant was the one in Numbers 12.24: “a scepter rises from Israel”. In Jewish doctrine that verse foretells the coming of the Messiah. Thus, according to Josephus, Vespasian was their long-awaited Prince of Peace.
Vespasian’s messianic ambitions
Vespasian did everything in his power to claim the title ‘Prince of Peace’. In the first place, of course, by ensuring peace in the empire: he settled the civil war and defeated the Jews.
His second action was to shut the doors of the temple of Janus. Janus was the Roman God of War and his temple was solely closed when the city enjoyed a lasting peace. At the reign of Vespasian, Rome was over eight centuries old, and in all that time only three people had had the honor to lock up the War God.
The crowning glory of Vespasian’s efforts as a Prince of Peace was the building of the Peace Temple. According to Pliny the Elder, it was one of the three most beautiful buildings in the world. The temple was dedicated to Pax, the Goddess of Peace. And to please Pax, Vespasian surrounded her with all the treasures from the Jewish Temple. In my novel ‘The Third Temple‘, Josephus uses these treasures to continue the sacrificial service to YHWH.
the ladies of the imperial court
Vespasian was married to Flavia Domitilla I, but that marriage did not last long. She passed away before he became emperor. She was not the only woman in Vespasian’s circle to die young. Also, his mother, sister, and daughter had deceased when he ascended the throne. His granddaughter Julia did not turn thirty yet. The only Flavian woman who did reach old age was his other granddaughter, Flavia Domitilla III.
After the death of his wife, Vespasian lived with his concubine Caenis. He could not marry her because she was born a slave. During the first five years of his rule, he discussed all important affairs of state with her. Then she died too. From that moment on, Vespasian no longer maintained any steady relationships. The only women he had dealings with during the last five years of his reign were court ladies. Every siesta he seems to have slept with someone else.