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Books and management (V): Rome, Emperor Vespasian and good governance


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Javier Andreu

Full Professor of Ancient History and director of Diploma in Archaeology. School of Philosophy y Letras. University of Navarra

Thanks to the Nero of the movie "Quo vadis?" (1951) we all have in mind what a bad emperor he was. At his death, in 68 A.D., the Empire experienced a year of civil war in which the armies stationed in various territories led by Galba, Otho -these two in Spanish territory-, Vitellius and Vespasian took up arms. It was the latter who, already in his sixties, took the imperial throne in 70 A.D. and had to face the restoration of a government damaged and in crisis and the recovery of a city, Rome, ruined by fires and by a disastrous financial policy that, surely, left great part of the Empire in bankruptcy.

The inauguration of the Flavian amphitheater by his son Titus, in 80 A.D., remains standing as a vestige of that time. Who can be considered the most famous, and also free, of the Roman biographers, Caius Suetonius Tranquilus, composed around 121 A.D. a brief biography of Vespasian, who died in 79 A.D., which formed part of the most influential collection of biographies generated by Latin Literature, the "Lives of the twelve Caesars". Although Suetonius focused on personal traits, sometimes morbid, of the emperors to whom he paid attention - from Augustus to Domitian, including Caesar - that approach allows us to know how the Italic Vespasian - he came from Latium - was able to, in a remembered phrase of this biographer, rem publicam stabilire primo, deinde et ornare, "give stability, first, to the state, then, make it grow". The occasion demanded it: an Empire that had been in existence for almost a century since its foundation by Augustus, with a provincial organization chart divided by civil war and, moreover, ruined. 

Faced with this status Suetonius describes how Vespasian was able to consolidate the Empire, to reaffirm it: suscepit firmavitque. To the delight of our belief in the exemplary nature of the study of the past, Suetonius describes the competence profile of the founder of the Flavian dynasty, which included a great capacity for work and extraordinary expertise (industry), a prestigious reputation (auctoritas) that he lacked when he embraced the imperial throne, since he did not come from the Julio-Claudian succession line, but which he was able to generate with humility (humilitas) and effort and, above all, a clear obsession for the discipline. After seeing how the Senate of Rome had split into factions in favor of each of the pretenders to the Empire and had been the object of permanent discord with his predecessor Nero, Vespasian chose to renew its composition by eliminating those he considered unworthy of their position and calling to the curia "the most honest". In this way, he placed clemency, humility, the capacity for service and exemplarity, of which he was proud, at the heart of the team with which he was to manage imperial foreign policy.

Suetonius even tells that Vespasian himself helped in the work of clearing the rubble of Rome burned by Nero. With his own work - endowed, moreover, with routines that included a detailed study of the files he had to deal with, at dawn, and a B availability for meetings with his collaborators, after lunch - he was able to transform a state, "trampled and damaged by civil wars" into a res publica perfectly tutored by his good government. As important as all this is, this "new emperor", as he is called in "The Life of the Divine Vespasian", showed signs (and these are the focus of a specific chapter in Suetonius' biography) of a quality that we often forget in the pressure of challenges and agendas: the sense of humor, the iucunditas.

It is said that on his deathbed, Vespasian, already dying, commented to those who accompanied him in that trance that they were witnessing the moment in which he became a god, even making fun of the great support of classical Roman ideology, the imperial cult. A good student of mine has written that Rome is past and projection. Contemplating figures such as this emperor of the first century A.D. once again shows that this is the case and that good government and efficient team administration can find in Rome a list of models to imitate. Vespasian is one of them.