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The Flavian Dynasty



Vespasian, first of the Flavian dynasty and father of the other 2 members of the Flavian dynasty, came to power in 69 CE. 69 CE is known as the year of the 4 emperors. After the suicide of Nero in 68 CE, there was a rush to fill the power vacuum. The first of the four was the elder statesman Galba. When Galba came to power it was believed he would bring stability to the empire. Unfortunately, Galba made a few gaffes and this cost him the empire and his life. Firstly, though he was a military man, he enforced some rules that the military disapproved of. As is seen with many other emperors, if you lose the trust of the military you are in serious jeopardy. One person he offended was Otho, the next of the four. Galba has promised that Otho would be his successor. However, Galba chose someone else. Otho rallied the troops and by his orders Galba was murdered. Otho however would not last, his rule comprising about 90 days. Otho lost a battle to Vitellius and committed suicide. Actually, Otho did have one important contribution. The fact that he committed suicide meant that perhaps hundreds or more Romans did not have to die needlessly. Vitellius fared no better than Otho. He was so hated that he was murdered. All of this led to Vespasian to be nominated by the military. Vespasian was a famous general and this included campaigns in Britain. Vespasian was a working class emperor. His roots were agrarian rather than upper class Roman.


When Vespasian was declared emperor he was actually in Judea fighting in what Josepehus called the Jewish war. Vespasian’s son Titus was also involved in the fight, and it was he who lead the sacking of the temple in Jerusalem. The victory of Vespasian was so complete and so important that it was celebrated for many years after. Of course, the Flavians took full advantage of this and struck many Judea Capta coins that featured a Jewish captive on the reverse. On the denarii the most common of these is RIC 2. The reverse features a Jewish captive and a trophy of arms. However, I like RIC 4, which features a Jewish captive under a palm tree. So far I have mentioned RIC 2 and RIC 4, which were both struck in Rome. However, there is another more interesting issue that was struck in Lugdunum (modern day Lyon in France). RIC 1120 also features a Jewish captive but the legend is not IVDAEA on the reverse but is instead IVDAEA DEVCITA or Judea conquered. 


The conquest of Judea was an important event in the history of the world. Had it gone otherwise, the Judean war would have caused history to take a different path. References to the victory occurred on more than the coins. The arch of Titus shows the triumphal parade with the spoils of war including a large Minora. The story goes that the plunder from Judea would fund the building of one of the most famous structures ever built by human hands. Though the original name of the building was the Flavian amphitheater, it is now known as the colosseum. 


Vespasian brought stability to a society convulsed by war and the legacy of at least 3 disastrous emperors. Vespasian tried to win popular support. In part he did this by sending messages on the coins he would issue. Vespasian knew that he had to have the support of the public. He also knew what happens to an emperor when they lose that support. Vespasian and Titus issued coins that hearkened back to the first emperor Augustus. Augustus was very popular with the populace of Rome, and this popularity would go on after his death. Vespasian was making the connection to Augustus to lend legitimacy to his rule. The message he was sending with the coins he struck was that happy days are here again. Titus would send similar messages during his own rule.


The colosseum was started under Vespasian but would not be completed until after his death. Titus opened the new colosseum in 80 CE. Titus struck a denarius to commemorate the event. His denarius with an elephant on the reverse celebrated the opening of the colosseum and also depicted an animal which would have been featured in the new arena. The colosseum would feature many an exotic animal and these would have met their ends in the arena. The crowds loved the strange animals that would make their debut in the arena.


Unfortunately, the reign of Titus would only last 2 years before his unexpected death. Rome prospered under the reigns of Vespasian and Titus. They were popular emperors who were also victorious generals. They would be followed by Titus’ brother Domitian. The sources report that Domitian was a tyrant. It is possible though that this was exaggeration and propaganda created by the senate. Domitian’s fractious relationship with the senate probably led to the negative picture we get of Domitian in the historical sources.


Though I collect all of the Flavian emperors, Domitian is my main focus. I am especially fascinated by the denarii of his first year as Augustus-81 CE. Many of these coins reuse the reverse from the denarii of Titus. Perhaps these reverse were reused to give the impression of a smooth transition of power from Titus to Domitian. However, it might also be the case that the reverses were reused because coinage was needed after the sudden death of Titus and reusing the reverse types would have saved time for the mint. 


The Flavians would almost close out the first century. This century was formative for the Roman empire and involved murder, wars, deceit, loyalty, intrigue and greatness. The Flavians were an important part of this. This century was dominated by the Julio-Claudian dynasty until the death of Nero in 68 CE. Nero was the last member of this dynasty to become emperor. The chaos of 69 CE was quelled by the steady rule of Vespasian who, along with his sons, would rule until 96 CE. The coinage of the Flavians comments on these rulers and they challenges they faced.

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