Departmental Papers (Classical Studies)

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The Histories are threaded through with incidents that allow a comparison between two or more principes. Readers need to be alert to such passages, for Vespasian was preceded by three emperors who got as far as he did but failed to keep their footing there. In essence, Tacitus tells the stories of fall (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) and rise (Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian) three times each, and uses the failures of Vespasian's predecessors to help explain Vespasian's success. Given what remains of the Histories (the last two weeks of Galba, the three months of Otho's principate, Vitellius's uprising against Galba, his defeat of Otho, and his eight-month principate, the Flavian uprising against and defeat of Vitellius, and Vespasian's first eight or so months as princeps in absentia), we can see only how Vespasian succeeded in establishing himself. As to how far, according to Tacitus, success carried into the rest of his decade in power, we are in the dark.

In saying that Tacitus creates a portrait of success for Vespasian, I do not mean to imply that his account of that emperor's principate is wholly positive. Indeed, some of the parallel episodes considered below suggest that the civil war context in which Vespasian came to power is characterized by a certain number of constant negatives, such as the excessive influence of imperial freedmen and the fickleness of the Roman populace, and even by deterioration over time, as is illustrated by the decline in military discipline and the increase in senatorial servility. My point is that the presence of parallel incidents in two or more principates enables, and indeed encourages, the reader to measure one princeps against the others and that Vespasian emerges from such an assessment with more to his credit than any of his predecessors. The first such comparative assessment is present in the text: public opinion in Rome in 69, says Tacitus, considered Vespasian better than either Otho or Vitellius (1.50.4: potior utroque Vespasianus). Better, but not necessarily good.

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Copyright © 2006 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in Arethusa , Volume 39, Issue 2, 2006, pages 245-279.

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Date Posted: 03 March 2016