The Life of Vespasian, 12–19

Suetonius  translated by J. C. Rolfe

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12In other matters he was unassuming and lenient from the very beginning of his reign until its end, never trying to conceal his former lowly condition, but often even parading it. Indeed, when certain men tried to trace the origin of the Flavian family to the founders of Reate and a companion of Hercules whose tomb still stands on the Via Salaria, he laughed at them for their pains. So far was he from a desire for pomp and show, that on the day of his triumph, exhausted by the slow and tiresome procession, he did not hesitate to say: “It serves me right for being such a fool as to want a triumph in my old age, as if it were due to my ancestors or had ever been among my own ambitions.” He did not even assume the tribunician power at once nor the title of Father of his Country until late. As for the custom of searching those who came to pay their morning calls, he gave that up before the civil war was over.

13He bore the frank language of his friends, the quips of pleaders, and the impudence of the philosophers with the greatest patience. Though Licinius Mucianus, a man of notorious unchastity, presumed upon his services to treat Vespasian with scant respect, he never had the heart to criticise him except privately and then only to the extent of adding to a complaint made to a common friend, the significant words: “I at least am a man.” When Salvius Liberalis ventured to say while defending a rich client, “What is it to Caesar if Hipparchus has a hundred millions,” he personally commended him. When the Cynic Demetrius met him abroad after being condemned to banishment, and without deigning to rise in his presence or to salute him, even snarled out some insult, he merely called him “cur.”

14He was not inclined to remember or to avenge affronts or enmities, but made a brilliant match for the daughter of his enemy Vitellius, and even provided her with a dowry and a house-keeping outfit. When he was in terror at being forbidden Nero’s court, and asked what on earth he was to do or where he was to go, one of the ushers put him out and told him to “go to Morbovia”; but when the man later begged for forgiveness, Vespasian confined his resentment to words, and those of about the same number and purport. Indeed, so far was he from being led by any suspicion or fear to cause anyone’s death, that when his friends warned him that he must keep an eye on Mettius Pompusianus, since it was commonly believed that he had an imperial horoscope, he even made him consul, guaranteeing that he would one day be mindful of the favour.

15It cannot readily be shown that any innocent person was punished save in Vespasian’s absence and without his knowledge, or at any rate against his will and by misleading him. Although Helvidius Priscus was the only one who greeted him on his return from Syria by his private name of “Vespasian,” and moreover in his praetorship left the emperor unhonoured and unmentioned in all his edicts. He did not show anger until by the extravagance of his railing Helvidius had all but degraded him. But even in his case, though he did banish him and later order his death, he was most anxious for any means of saving him, and sent messengers to recall those who were to slay him; and he would have saved him, but for a false report that Helvidius had already been done to death. Certainly he never took pleasure in the death of anyone, but even wept and sighed over those who suffered merited punishment.

16The only thing for which he can fairly be censured was his love of money. For not content with reviving the imposts which had been repealed under Galba, he added new and heavy burdens, increasing the amount of tribute paid by the provinces, in some cases actually doubling it, and quite openly carrying on traffic which would be shameful even for a man in private life; for he would buy up certain commodities merely in order to distribute them at a profit. 2He made no bones of selling offices to candidates and acquittals to men under prosecution, whether innocent or guilty. He is even believed to have had the habit of designedly advancing the most rapacious of his procurators to higher posts, that they might be the richer when he later condemned them; in fact, it was common talk that he used these men as sponges, because he, so to speak, soaked them when they were dry and squeezed them when they were wet.

3Some say that he was naturally covetous and was taunted with it by an old herdsman of his, who on being forced to pay for the freedom for which he earnestly begged Vespasian when he became emperor, cried: “The fox changes his fur, but not his nature.” Others on the contrary believe that he was driven by necessity to raise money by spoliation and robbery because of the desperate state of the treasury and the privy purse; to which he bore witness at the very beginning of his reign by declaring that forty thousand millions were needed to set the State upright. This latter view seems the more probable, since he made the best use of his gains, ill-gotten though they were.

17He was most generous to all classes, making up the requisite estate for senators, giving needy ex-consuls an annual stipend of five hundred thousand sesterces, restoring to a better condition many cities throughout the empire which had suffered from earthquakes or fires, and in particular encouraging men of talent and the arts.

18He was the first to establish a regular salary of a hundred thousand sesterces for Latin and Greek teachers of rhetoric, paid from the privy purse. He also presented eminent poets with princely largess and great rewards, and artists, too, such as the restorer of the Venus of Cos and of the Colossus. To a mechanical engineer, who promised to transport some heavy columns to the Capitol at small expense, he gave no mean reward for his invention, but refused to make use of it, saying: “You must let me feed my poor commons.”

19At the plays with which he dedicated the new stage of the theatre of Marcellus he revived the old musical entertainments. To Apelles, the tragic actor, he gave four hundred thousand sesterces; to Terpnus and Diodorus, the lyre-players, two hundred thousand each; to several a hundred thousand; while those who received least were paid forty thousand, and numerous golden crowns were awarded besides. He gave constant dinner-parties, too, usually formally and sumptuously, to help the marketmen. He gave gifts to women on the Kalends of March, as he did to the men on the Saturnalia.

2Yet even so he could not be rid of his former ill-repute for covetousness. The Alexandrians persisted in calling him Cybiosactes, the surname of one of their kings who was scandalously stingy. Even at his funeral, Favor, a leading actor of mimes, who wore his mask and, according to the usual custom, imitated the actions and words of the deceased during his lifetime, having asked the procurators in a loud voice how much his funeral procession would cost, and hearing the reply “Ten million sesterces,” cried out: “Give me a hundred thousand and fling me even into the Tiber.”

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