Family is what it’s all about, no? It probably depends on who your family is. But the reality is that when it comes to politics, there always seems to be a desire to keep power amongst close relatives.
Kings like to give their thrones to their sons, and if they don’t have a son, well, a brother or a nephew will do.
In ancient Rome, the first emperors may have had this plan — to keep things inside the family — but it never quite worked out. Instead, they had to rely on adopting a nephew or stepson to be their heirs.
This started to change after the death of the last Julian-Claudian emperor, Nero.
After Nero died there was a war. Then, from the rubble, a new emperor, one who planned to rule Rome together with his two sons. A solid plan, it almost worked. But in the end, there were too many competing factions. Its second dynasty, the Flavians, disappeared almost as soon as it burst onto the scene.
From this brief interlude, we are reminded of a simple yet often overlooked truth: the power of Rome rests with her armies.
The Decline of the Julian-Claudians
For a little more than 100 years, Rome was ruled rather stably by the Julian-Claudian dynasty. However, by the time the fifth emperor of the line rose to power — Nero — they were no longer the most popular people in town.
In fact, Nero was hated by nearly everyone. Perhaps mostly by his own family. He is believed to have arranged for the deaths of both his mother and ex-wife, along with several other relatives, all people he suspected were gunning for his power and position. But also by the Senate and many provincial leaders.
When Nero passed an unpopular tax policy towards the end of his reign, this was the final straw for most. Provincial governors in Spain began organizing an army, and they put up one of their own, a man named Galba, to replace Nero.
The Senate, eager to replace Nero, honored this claim and deemed Nero an “enemy of the state.” His response? To commit suicide. Being so hated was too much for him to handle.
Nero was dead and now Galba was emperor. Done deal, right? Not so fast
The Year of Four Emperors
While many hoped Nero’s death would produce a smooth transition of power, the reality is that it opened up a power vacuum. Soon after being named emperor, Galba was murdered and replaced by a man named Otho.
At the same time, in Germania, a man named Vitellis had summoned his army and was planning to march on Rome until he was recognized as emperor.
As if this weren’t enough, another man, Vespasian, who ruled out of Egypt and had close ties to Judea and Syria, also thought he should be emperor. And he was in a pretty good position to claim it. His brother commanded the entire garrison within the city of Rome, and he had considerable alliances within the Senate.
Eventually, Otho and Vitellis fought a battle outside of Rome, which Otho lost, ending his claim. Later, Vespasian and Vitellis met. This time Vitellis lost, leaving Vespasian as the last man standing in this year-long fight to become the next emperor of Rome.
This chaotic year in which power changed hands four different times has become known as “The Year of Four Emperors.” But such instability cannot last. Eventually, with no more claimants and support around the empire, Vespasian became the next emperor of Rome. This launched the short-lived yet influential Flavian dynasty.
The Senate is All But Dead
However, what this period really showed was just how little influence the Roman senate had over who ruled Rome. During the days of the Julian-Claudian dynasty, the emperors kept the senate intact and ruled with its “permission,” even though the Senate had lost most of its power.
During the Year of the Four Emperors, however, it didn’t seem to matter who the Senate named as emperor. It was ultimately the one with the strongest army and the best connections in Rome, Vespassian, who rose to take the throne.
Bringing Power to the Imperial Family
The Flavian dynasty included the reigns of three emperors: Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. It lasted just 27 years, but it helped the Roman empire transition from its early form to something more unified and more powerful.
Throughout the reign of the Flavians, a number of efforts were made to increase the standing of the imperial family, bringing more power into the center and downgrading the role of the Senate.
Throughout the Julian-Claudian dynasty, the emperors, while dictators and autocrats in practice, remained officially in the background. They allowed the Senate to remain at the center of Roman affairs. This was no doubt an appeal to those within Rome who still wanted to see Rome as a republic.
During the Flavian dynasty, the emperors began paying less and less attention to the Senate, to the point where Domitian essentially ignored it. This had a major impact on the way in which the Roman government ran. Everything became about the emperor. To win new positions and move up in rank, one had to please the emperor, and as a result, the Senate became weaker and weaker.
At the same time, the Flavians enacted a number of economic reforms, including a new, more lucrative tax system. Along with downgrading the power of the Senate, these economic reforms were one of the biggest contributions of the Flavian dynasty.
After the reign of Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors, Rome was in a dire financial situation. To be able to stop the wars and restore order, Vesspassian began reworking the Roman economy. He cut down on excessive government spending, made provincial borders more defined so that tax collectors could more easily know where and how much to collect, and also invested heavily in road building to facilitate trade and commerce within the empire.
His successor, Titus and Domitian, also took finances, enacting several policies meant to expand the imperial treasury and stabilize Rome’s money situation.
These reforms helped keep the peace that Vespssian achieved by taking control over Rome, and they also helped Rome grow its base of power, which it would use to expand its territory and influence throughout the following centuries.
Continuing the Flavian Dynasty: Trying to Keep it In the Family
However, part of what makes the Flavian dynasty so significant has less to do with what the emperors did but rather that which they tried to do. Mainly, they tried to keep power all in the family.
Vespasian named his two sons his heirs, and when he died, Titus took over. But he caught a fever and died just two years later, making it Domitian’s turn.
He would go on to rule for 15 years, and in the process would make considerable changes to the Roman empire. Mainly, he actively promoted the deification of his brother and father, a move designed to raise the cultural standing of the imperial family and establish the legitimacy of Flavian rule.
The Flavians also launched a number of public construction projects also meant to win the favor of the people, the most famous being their impressive amphitheater, known more commonly as “The Colosseum.” One of the few Roman buildings still nearly completely intact, the Colosseum is a tribute to Rome’s construction and engineering capabilities during the years of the Flavian dynasty.
A Military Dictatorship Becomes More Autocratic
The circumstances around the rise of the Flavian dynasty remind us of an important fact about power in Rome: the army is key.
It was one thing to have friends in the Senate and to have the right title, but if you don’t have the support of the military, your claim to power doesn’t mean much.
This is what we learned in the Year of the Four Emperors. From this free-for-all, the Flavian family emerged victorious. This victory was thanks to the support received from eastern provinces and their armies.
The rise of Vespasian brought peace and stability back to the Roman state, allowing it to flourish and prosper once more.
By now, the days of the republic were long gone. Power had been consolidated down into just a handful of positions and people, the Republic was nothing more than a memory, and Rome had become a full-fledged military dictatorship.
The rise of the Flavians and the reforms they enacted made the emperor more powerful than ever. Sure, their line would die out with Domitian’s death. But as the Nerva-Antonine dynasty rose to power, the legacy of the Flavians would continue.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao