Vespasian: The Man Who Conquered Britain... Then Rome.

When Emperor Claudius invaded Britain  in 43 CE  he chose a loyal and experienced commander-in-chief for a dangerous mission. And he sensibly took with him in his suite aristocrats who might have been a threat if they had been left behind in Rome. But he put two of his four legions under generals of lower social standing, brothers of courage and talent. One, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, had already commanded the Second Legion, Augusta, in Germany  and had previously served in Thrace.

What Claudius could not know was that his choice had momentous consequences for the man himself, on events in Britain over the next half century, and on Britain’s long-term importance for the Empire.

Vespasian was the younger brother, born in 9 CE in central Italy to a family that had tax gatherers and debt collectors as antecedents. At first he had been unwilling to follow his brother Sabinus into the Senate. He kept his country accent  and did not distinguish himself, except as a lickspittle to the terrifying Emperor Gaius Caligula (37-41). As market supervisor (aedile) Gaius rewarded him for failing to keep the city streets clean by having muck stuffed down the folds of his toga.

Nobody charged Vespasian with neglect of military duties. Promoted with the help of Claudius’ freedman Narcissus, he proved himself on the Rhine and was transferred to Britain, still in command of  II Augusta.

Where the landings took place is uncertain. The older view has the main force disembarking in Kent at Richborough, pressing inland across the Medway, regrouping on the lower Thames  and summoning Claudius from Gaul for the capture of Camulodunum (Colchester). More recently  a westerly approach  from Hampshire  up the Arun has been championed. Certainly most of  Vespasian’s ‘thirty battles’ credited to him by the biographer Suetonius belong to the west: he took the Isle of Wight, and pressed on into Dorset, taking notable hill fortresses such as Maiden Castle and occupying Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). There was an early two-day crossing by the brothers of an unlocated river vividly recorded by the historian Cassius Dio, twenty captured oppida (hill-forts), and the surrender of two powerful tribes (Suetonius again). Highlights of Vespasian’s own dispatches and his autobiography,  Claudius turned hem to his own glory. In later poets  the Solent that separates Hampshire from the Isle of Wight is the ‘Caledonian’ – i.e. Scottish – Ocean, and Vespasian campaigned in ‘Caledonian’ forests, when he reached no further north than Oxfordshire.  

The successes of his four years in Britain earned Vespasian two priesthoods, triumphal honours and Rome’s highest magistracy, the consulship (51). After that he remained at court or in retirement,  apart from an unpopular governorship in North Africa in about 62: his subjects, probably hankering for grain that he had dutifully sent to Rome, pelted him with turnips.

He did no better at court, nodding off during Nero’s theatrical performances and retreating to the countryside. But by 67 Nero had murdered his mother, his wife, and recently his most brilliant general Cn. Domitius Corbulo, who had just humiliated Rome’s rival in the East, Parthia. Now he  found himself with the revolt of Judaea on his hands.

Again, once the Jews had routed the governor of neighbouring Syria, Vespasian was the general to suppress the  revolt. Anyone who has clambered into Maiden Castle or inspected the weaponry that crushed its defenders will see why  Vespasian – whose reports will not have minimized his difficulties - seemed the man to tackle the fortresses of Israel.  In the Jewish war he used the skills as an artilleryman that he had learned in Britain.

Besides, he was still as safe a general as he had been in the forties: Corbulo had been the brother-in-law of Gaius Caiigula. But Nero, hated by the senatorial aristocracy and by the rich provincials he was plundering to remedy his money shortages, fell in 68, to  be followed in quick succession by three emperors of increasingly obscure family. In July 69, when the Emperor Vitellius controlled  the west, the legions of Egypt and Syria declared for Vespasian. His allies marched through Asia Minor and Italy, capturing Rome in December.

The historian Tacitus remarks that Britain too favoured Vespasian, where he was known for his previous exploits. Tacitus was thinking not only of the Legio II and the legion that had served under his brother Sabinus, who had been murdered in the final struggle for Rome by Vitellius’ followers. There was also a pro-Roman potentate, Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus of the palace of Fishbourne in Sussex  from the Julio-Claudian age until well into Vespasian’s reign and was allowed the designation ‘Great King’  on a local inscription. Not every scholar accepts this   scenario, but it looks as if Togidubnus was a long-standing friend who strengthened Vespasian’s support on the island in 69.  

Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian reigned from 69 to 96, until Domitian’s despotism led to his assassination and the end of the second Roman imperial dynasty. These Flavians saved the Principate when it seemed likely to fall and solidified an institution which then survived into the end of the third century.

Britain did more than engender Vespasian’s imperial career. As Emperor he in turn confirmed the position of Britain within the Empire. Both his first military reputation and his achievements as Emperor were won there. According to Suetonius,  Nero thought of giving Britain up, perhaps immediately after Claudius’ death in 54, when the invasion could be derided as extravagant and foolhardy; or during  the revolt of Boudicca (60-61).  So Nero’s governors in the sixties, when he was preoccupied with facing the Parthians, contented themselves with keeping the tribes quiet. It was Vespasian who  from 71 to 77 carried on his and Claudius’ work of conquest. Vespasian appointed  governors of energy, above all Tacitus’ hero  Cn. Iulius Agricola, who pushed Roman rule into northern Scotland and all but  made the entire island Roman. Only the threat from the German Chatti and the demands of Domitian’s personal military glory limited those ambitions. Vespasian himself intended a complete conquest.

The walls that Hadrian and Antoninus Pius built in the second century were an admission that Vespasian’s ambition had been given up. Britain was essentially unprofitable, as the second century historian Appian admits: it demanded three legions frequently  engaged in warfare, and its precious metals and taxes, even  its manpower, hardly made up for the cost. But it had become an indispensable political asset: the Emperor Septimius Severus died on campaign there in 211 and so did Constantine the Great’s father in 306.

Dr Barbara Levick is Fellow and Tutor Emeritus, St. Hilda's College, Oxford.