Thursday, 23 June 2016

“An Emperor ought to die standing”

Today, 23rd June, is the anniversary of the death of the Emperor Vespasian and the above is said to be his Famous Last Words. (N.B. some references quote the 24th June as opposed to 23rd June)

However, there’s a little confusion over what actually were the Emperor Vespasian’s last words. He is also quoted as saying:  “Alas! I think I am becoming a god. - Vae, putō, deus fīō "

What we have to go on are the words of the poet Suetonius. Whether or not they are the true words of Vespasian is hard to tell but it’s recorded that Vespasian was noted for his witty comebacks. When it seemed to him that death was imminent the comment on him ‘becoming a god’ is a good one. The status of being deified could only happen with the approval of the Senate and it took someone, like a son or an uncontested named heir, to put enough pressure on the Senate to authorise it after the demise of the emperor. Vespasian had two sons, Titus and Domitian, so his confidence in being made a god may have been positive: one or other of his sons would ensure it happened. Alternatively, some might say that’s where the wit comes in- was Vespasian really sure of his sons?

Vespasian had ruled as emperor for almost ten years: officially confirmed as emperor on 21st December 69 AD, after the short bloody reigns of Galba, Otho and Vitellius, Vespasian brought relative peace to Rome and the legions till his death on the 23rd June 79 AD. However, that doesn’t mean that he was completely popular to all in Rome during that reign. In early 79 AD there was a failed plot on Vespasian’s life. The eminent Senators who were the perpetrators were caught and executed.

A short time later in 79 AD, while in Campania, Vespasian contracted what is now thought to have been undulant fever, generally caused by contaminated dairy products like unpasteurised milk (now named Brucellosis). The symptoms were debilitating but he was able to return to Rome, though he soon left again for Aqua Cutilia. The mineral springs of Aqua Cutilia near Rieti, Latinium was a regular summer residence of Vespasian and it was there that his illness worsened. He suffered from severe diarrhoea and it seems reasonable that this was the stage where he realised death was imminent. His comment about ‘becoming a god’ makes sense but having read about his military prowess it’s more reasonable, to me, that his true last words were “an emperor ought to die standing’. It’s written that his aides helped him to get to his feet after which he died – maybe supported but standing!

There is an alternative theory about what he joked about and you can see it HERE.

My #Celtic Fervour Series mostly takes place during the reign of Vespasian  and it's due to his expansion of the Roman Empire that my warriors of Garrigill find themselves as refugees who have no intention of bowing to the dictates of Vespasian and Rome. 


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