The rise of the Flavian Dynasty
Titus Flavius Vespanianus became emperor in 69CE. His ascension to the throne marked the end of the "Year of the Four Emperors", a chaotic year following the death of emperor Nero.
In the long year 69, emperors succeeded each other in quick succession, with Vespasian coming out on top at the end of 69 (Strauss 2019). This was the first time in Roman history a new dynasty came to power, after the fall of the Judio-Claudian dynasty. This meant that Vespasian was challenged with legitimizing this new dynasty in the eyes of the Roman people. The main problems in this regard were his coming to power by means of conquest and his relatively obscure name (Zissos 2016). Eventually he managed to create a stable foundation to form a dynasty.
Figure 1: Vespasian (Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Building a dynasty
After Vespasian established relative stability, he could look towards building a dynasty (Beard 2017). His son Titus had fought with him in Judea and had proven himself to be a capable commander. The Arch of Titus was built to remind the Romans of the military victories, the peace the Flavians brought to Rome and the furthered Roman power through spoils of the Jewish War. It gave Vespasian a right to rule and was meant to give Titus legitimacy for succession. Both Vespasian and Titus, however, would pass away before the Arch was completed, allowing Domitian, Vespasian’s second son, to add the representation of their apotheosis on the arch as well. It was placed near the Forum Romanum on the main street of ancient Rome. Almost every Roman citizen would walk through the Arch when walking towards the centre of power of the empire.
Arch of Titus, Forum Romanum, Rome, Italy.
Rome, Arch of Titus, triumphal procession. South inner panel, close-up of relief showing spoils from the fall of Jerusalem.
The message and purpose of the colosseum
An even more famous structure built by the Flavians is the Colosseum; construction started under Vespasian and the building was initiated by Titus. By building this monument the Flavian emperors accomplished multiple things. Firstly, the building of this impressive building would be used for the entertainment of all layers of society, thus appeasing people from all layers of society and gaining favor with them (Elkins 2014). Additionally, the construction of the colosseum also helped position their dynasty amongst the other Roman emperors. The position of the Colosseum was no coincidence, as it was built on top of the atrium of former emperor Nero’s golden house. In this way they reduced the impact and legacy of Nero, as Nero was portrayed as a bad emperor, thus placing themselves as a positive dynasty that would build new and better things where once was Nero’s legacy. They also connected themselves to Augustus, who was remembered as a good emperor, since Augustus allegedly had the ambition to build a large-scale amphitheater, and by accomplishing this, Vespasianus and Titus connected their Flavian dynasty with the positive memory of Augustus. Amphitheaters like the colosseum were strongly connected with the cult of emperor worship and the Colosseum was no exception. The spectators in the colosseum were divided in different layers based on wealth and status. Leaving the slaves at the outer rings of the colosseum with the worst sight of the spectacles and as you would go down the rings and get closer to the spectacle in the center, there would be wealthier and more influential people (Elkins 2014). There would be a separate box in one of the lowest rings where the emperor could view the spectacle if he wished as well as decide over the fates of any combatants that surrendered. On the opposite side of the amphitheater there would be a shrine with images of emperors to worship.
Colosseum, Rome, Italy.
By: Chiel Berendsen, Max Hartjes, and Ian Kock
(students of the course Populism and Propaganda in the Roman World)
- Beard, M., SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (New York City 2017).
- Elkins, N.T., 'The procession and placement of imperial cult images in the Colosseum'. Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol. 82 (2014), pp. 73-107. https://doi.org/1017/S0068246214000051
- Strauss, B., Van Augustus tot Constantijn: De geschiedenis van het Romeinse Rijk aan de hand van tien keizers (Utrecht 2021).
- Zissos, A., (ed.), A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome (Chichester 2016) pp. 109-128.
DG286 - .C66 2016
A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome provides a systematic and comprehensive examination of the political, economic, social, and cultural nuances of Rome's second Imperial dynasty. The Flavian Age, while lasting only 27 years (69-96 CE), was a crucial phase in the evolution of the Roman Empire. In addition to addressing the social and historical significance of the period, this volume includes essays on its material culture, art and literature, as well as its economic and political structures.