NGC Ancients: The Flavian Dynasty

Posted on 1/15/2013

This month, NGC examines the coinage and times of the Flavian dynasty, which held power in Rome during the years AD 69–96.

Finally, when his companions unanimously insisted on his trying to escape from the miserable fate threatening him, he ordered them to dig a grave at once, and then collect any pieces of marble that they could find and fetch wood and water for the disposal of the corpse. As they bustled about obediently he muttered through his tears: "Dead! And so great an artist!"

-Suetonius, on Nero’s suicide.

When Nero committed suicide on June 9th, AD 68, his death brought an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which had maintained control of the Roman Empire for almost a century, dating from the rise of Augustus in 27 BC. Unsurprisingly, a vicious struggle for supreme leadership soon ensued, in what would become known as “the year of the four emperors.” In the period AD 68-69, no less than four candidates would attempt to fill the void left by the death of Nero – Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and, ultimately, Vespasian.

The empire, which for a long time had been unsettled and, as it were, drifting, through the usurpation and violent death of three emperors, was at last taken in hand and given stability by the Flavian family.

-Suetonius, on the rise of the Flavians.

The eventual victor, Vespasian (AD 69-79), was a man of humble origins. Born the son of a tax collector, he earned military renown in the 40s during Claudius’ invasion of Britain. He was awarded the governorship of Judaea in early 67, and had succeeded in bringing most of that region to submission by the time of Nero’s death in 68. Watching carefully as a succession of would-be rulers fell during 68-69, he finally took action in July, 69, (during the short-lived emperorship of Vitellius) launching what was in effect a slow invasion of Italy from Syria. Proclaimed emperor by the Senate on December 21, 69, Vespasian did not actually set foot in Rome until October of 70, at which point he began the long process of restoring the Empire to glory after a bitter year of civil war.

This gold aureus, struck in about 70, depicts the newly-hailed emperor on its obverse and the goddess Aequitas on the reverse. This coin displays “boscoreale” toning, the product of being buried in the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius (erupted AD 79) for millennia. The hoard was discovered in 1895, and the coins are distinguished by their distinctive red and blue hues.

In all, Vespasian reigned for ten years, from 69-79. He proved to be a very able ruler, and undertook many building projects in the West, including beginning the Colosseum at Rome (though he did not live to see its completion). He died on June 24, 79.

Titus, of the same surname as his father, was the delight and darling of the human race; such surpassing ability had he, by nature, art, or good fortune, to win the affections of all men, and that, too, which is no easy task, while he was emperor; for as a private citizen, and even during his father's rule, he did not escape hatred, much less public criticism.

-Suetonius, on Titus.

Vespasian had two sons, Titus and Domitian, in whom he placed his hopes of continuing a ruling dynasty. Titus was an able military commander in his own right, and was tasked with ending the revolt in Judaea after the departure of Vespasian for Rome in 70. After accomplishing this task, he immediately set sail for Italy, arriving in 71. In the near-decade before he succeeded his father to the purple, Titus served ably as prefect of the Praetorian Guard and carried on a controversial relationship with the Jewish queen Berenice. He filled the offices of both Caesar and Imperator from 69-79, though he was relatively unpopular with the Roman people for a host of reasons – his love affair with a Jewish queen and striking resemblance to Nero certainly did not help matters.

This extremely rare copper sestertius, struck in 80/1, commemorates the opening of the Colosseum in 80. The obverse depicts this structure, while the reverse portrays the emperor himself seated on a curule chair and surrounded by a pile of arms. Less than ten examples of this piece are believed to be held in private (i.e. non-museum) collections.

Despite the fact his reign only lasted about 27 months (AD 79-81), Titus proved to be an excellent ruler who eventually won the acclaim of the Roman people. As mentioned, he dedicated the Colosseum in June of 80, and enjoyed cordial relations with the Senate, because he refused to put senators to death or to confiscate property. He died September 13, 81, a few months before his 42nd birthday.

From his youth he was far from being of an affable disposition, but was on the contrary presumptuous and unbridled both in act and in word. When his father's concubine Caenis returned from Histria and offered to kiss him as usual, he held out his hand to her. He was vexed that his brother's son-in law had attendants clad in white, as well as he, and uttered the words, “Not good is a number of rulers.”

-Suetonius, on Domitian.

Titus was succeeded by his brother, Domitian (AD 81-96), who was to be the last of the ruling Flavians. For much of his life, this younger son of Vespasian was overshadowed by his brother, with whom he had a difficult relationship. Domitian possessed many of the same talents as his brother and father, with the exception of money management. He had to rely on heavy taxation, confiscation of property, and debased coinage to compensate for an enormous fiscal commitment to the Army.

This silver denarius, minted 77-8 while Domitian was still Caesar, features a portrait of the future emperor on the obverse and the she-wolf with twins Romulus and Remus (the foundation myth of Rome) on the reverse. Under the reign of Domitian, the pay of a solider was increased from 300 to 400 denarii per year – he believed it best to spend large sums of money on the Army, which considered him to be a great benefactor.

Due to numerous (failed) plots against his life and would-be revolts, Domitian had become a despot by about 93. He executed senators and noblemen at an alarming rate, a practice that eventually led to his murder in 96. A palace coup was hatched, and Domitian was hacked to death, about a month before his 45th birthday, bringing an abrupt end to the Flavian Dynasty. An overjoyed Senate quickly elected the elderly Nerva to fill the emperorship, beginning the age of the “adoptive emperors.”

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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