Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Vespasian and Britain

One of the things that stands out from the recent "Wonder of Rome" blog-hop is the consensus that exists among those of my fellow authors who commented directly on Rome's emperors, that Vespasian was one of the best. One can, perhaps, overstate this (he was, after all, a military dictator who, among other things, brutally suppressed a Jewish insurgency) but, when judged against other Roman emperors, he was certainly one of the most successful, and his ten year reign bought peace and prosperity to the empire.

                                Credit: Shakko (CCA).

He is also one of very few Roman emperors to have spent a significant period of time in Britain. He commanded the II Augusta, one of the four legions involved in the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD, and probably remained on British soil for four years. The only detailed account of the invasion is by Cassius Dio, writing 150 years after the event. He has both Vespasian and his brother, Sabinus, playing key roles in the battles fought at the crossing points of the Medway and Thames.

What is more certain, because the movements of the II Augusta have left their traces in the archaeological record, is that Vespasian spent most of his four years in Hampshire, Dorset and Devon. The Durotriges of Dorset, in particular, put up fierce resistance, and here Vespasian would have been in his element, since he was campaigning in a landscape dominated by hill-forts, just as Julius Caesar had done in Gaul. All educated Roman men had read Caesar's account, and Vespasian may well have carried a copy with him.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who excavated the hill-fort of Maiden Castle in the 1930s, found a cemetery there with the remains of fourteen people, some of whom had clearly died in action against Vespasian's troops. He painted a vivid picture of the fall of the hill-fort itself, but there is little real evidence for this, and it is just as likely that these warriors fell elsewhere, and were simply brought back to Maiden Castle for burial. More convincing evidence for a Roman attack comes from the hill-fort of Hod Hill, where eleven Roman ballista bolts have been found. In both cases, Vespasian seems to have required the inhabitants to leave their fortified enclosures and re-settle elsewhere, leaving small garrisons to guard against any possibility of their return.

          Maiden Castle, Dorset. Credit: Ashmolean Museum (public domain).

         A reconstructed Roman ballista. Credit: Matthias Kabel (GNU).

Vespasian, however, seems to have understood the importance of winning the peace as well as the war. It seems likely that it was he who cultivated and befriended the British king, Cogidubnus, and persuaded the Emperor Claudius to grant him the title, "Great King of the Britons." Whether this gave him any real power over other client rulers, such as Prasutagus of the Iceni, or Cartimandua of the Brigantes, is unclear, but he must certainly have been Rome's man.

Thirty years later, Vespasian was to cultivate a very similar friendship with the Jewish leader, Flavius Josephus, and he, unlike Cogidubnus, has left us a detailed account:

"...the inhabitants of Sepphoris of Galilee met him, who were for peace with the Romans. These citizens had beforehand taken care of their own safety and, being sensible of the power of the Romans, they had been with Cestius Gallus before Vespasian came, and had given their faith to him, and received the security of his right hand, and had received a Roman garrison; and at this time, withal, they received Vespasian, the Roman general, very kindly and readily, and readily promised that they would assist him..."

Josephus himself had been leading an army against the Romans, but was captured and brought before Vespasian.

"...he did not set Josephus at liberty from his hands, but bestowed on him suits of clothes and other precious gifts; he treated him, also, in a very obliging manner, and continued to do so..."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and


  1. Enjoyable post, Mark. Even having submitted my two follow-on novels to CC I'm devouring any 'Roman' Britain info that appears in my in-boxes and wondering what else could I have reasonably squeezed in. I'm sure that is likely to continue since the period is now 'in my blood'.

  2. Thanks, Nancy. I think you have to get the period "in the blood," not so much in order to squeeze the details in (I generally squeeze far to many into my early drafts)as to squeeze out any that might be wrong. I have so far discovered just one such in "An Accidental King" - a lemon where lemons ought not to be!

  3. Exotic imports, Mark. Exotic imports explain everything, even a lemon on the ravelling fringe of the Empire. :-) I became a fan of Vespasian from reading Lindsey Davis, whose books I adore. And more recently, yours as well. I loved finding my favorite emperor in Accidental King, in a similar but more intimate characterization. Thanks for the extra detail in this post!

  4. Thanks, Maggie. Lindsey Davis's characterisation of Vespasian in "The Path of Honour" is even more intimate than mine. I had read it before I started writing "An Accidental King," so it may have influenced me, even though I have a slightly different take on his relationship with Caenis.

  5. "...the inhabitants of Tzippori (Sepphoris) of Galilee met him, who were for peace with the Romans. These citizens had beforehand taken care of their own safety"

    These are like Israelis who carry placards that say "Peace Now!" (Shalom Akshav) and are willing to make peace (read "concessions") at any price. They are willing to give up whatever it takes just so the gentiles leave them alone, but don't realize they are playing with fire.

    "and, being sensible of the power of the Romans, they had been with Cestius Gallus before Vespasian came, and had given their faith to him"

    This is where things start to get dangerous. They place their faith in the Roman generals and not in their own God or prophets.

    "and received the security of his right hand, and had received a Roman garrison"

    This is what sealed their fate. The Jews of Tzippori colluded with the Romans and were punished by having a Roman garrison (with the resulting bars, pool halls, and carousing that would go with it) built next to a Jewish neighborhood.

    "and at this time, withal, they received Vespasian, the Roman general, very kindly and readily, and readily promised that they would assist him..."

    Now that they shook hands with the Devil, it was too late to back out. They were stuck. They had to kowtow to an uncircumcised Roman, they had to put up with Roman soldiers eyeing their daughters and smelly beer bottles and cigarette butts strewn all over their public parks, and loud music being played on their Sabbath. This was the beginning of a very long exile.

  6. Thanks, Sophie. It's always difficult to know what would have happened if people in the past had done something other than what they actually did. It had certainly occurred to me that Roman Emperors (Vespasian, Titus, Hadrian) are in some sense culpable for the current problems of the Middle East although, of course, they could hardly have foreseen the chain of consequence. What I try to do as a novelist is to explore the motivation of people in the past in doing what they actually did, and also to make observations that may be relevant to the way we live our lives today.

    1. No, for sure not. They are not culpable for the current Mideast crisis. The Romans were just one in a long line of conquerors of the Kingdoms of Israel & Yehuda (Judea).

      Human motivation has always been power & control AND THE ABILITY TO TAX. Not enough can be written to describe the evils of burdensome taxation. That is the spark that ignited so many flames and revolutions throughout history. What could be better for those in control than to impose heavy taxes on goods that everyone needs and wants, so that they are forced to pay it, and all of a sudden your royal treasury is exploding. (Follow the money trail.)

      How are the characters you are writing about, 1st century Romans, any different from the average modern-day Italian, Spanish, or Cypriot bureaucrat? Aren't their modern-day Mediterranean descendants plagued with high taxation, high corruption, crippling unemployment, reliance on the welfare state, stifled private sector, etc, etc. Only a short time ago the Cypriots thought they were so clever in creating the world's first tax on bank accounts! The people raised such a hue & a cry, but it was only on the threat of Russian retaliation that they dropped it.

      To find out the mindset of a 1st century Roman, read a modern-day Italian newspaper: the sports section (!), gossip, stories about smuggling, financial irregularities among bankers, bureaucratic shenanigans, businessmen caught with their pants down (figuratively and literally).

  7. Even Suetonius couldn't have imagined Berlusconi, but Vespasian introduced a tax on urine, which was even more iniquitous then than it would be today, since human urine actually had a value in the ancient world. In France, public toilets that come with a fee attached are colloquially called "vespasiennes," even today.