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Vespasian's sense of humor

By Jasper Burns
(Published in THE CELATOR: Journal of Ancient and Medieval Art and Artifacts, Vol. 11, No. 9, September 1997, copyright by Jasper Burns)

Sestertius of Vespasian

After the nightmare of Nero's last years and the tumultuous parade of his first three successors - Galba, Otho, and Vitellius - Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus emerged triumphant from the Civil Wars and worked to restore order to the Roman empire.

Vespasian, who was from the Sabine country in Italy, tried to distance himself as much as possible from Nero and the Julio-Claudian image of emperor as sophisticated, eccentric autocrat. He intentionally fostered the impression of his being a down-to-earth, almost peasant-like soldier from the old school who spoke with a country accent, wore a crewcut, and got where he was through plain hard work. The sixty year-old emperor made himself unprecedentedly available to his subjects, and could even be seen carrying a load of soil during the renovation of the fire-damaged Temple of Jupiter in Rome.

The image that Vespasian cultivated was something of a lie. He, his father, and his elder brother had been consuls, and his son had been educated at the palace with the emperor Claudius' son Britannicus. Vespasian had commanded a legion during Claudius' conquest of Britain, and had been honored by Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius before becoming a member of Nero's inner circle. He accompanied the emperor on his "artistic tour" of Greece, and the story that Vespasian angered Nero - by falling asleep while the emperor was singing - has been called an invention to make him seem one of Nero's victims rather than one of his cronies.

Vespasian's image as "a regular guy" was enhanced by stories of his affability and humorous remarks. Fortunately, many of these anecdotes have come down to us, and serve to make Vespasian seem more human than almost any of the other men who ruled the Roman empire. Some examples follow, with their sources indicated:


Vespasian was proclaimed emperor in Alexandria in July, 69 C.E., but did not arrive in Rome until September or October of the following year. In his absence, his younger son Domitian served as the figurehead of his government in the capital, making important decisions with the help of Vespasian's experienced colleague, Mucianus. Among other things, Domitian made numerous appointments to high positions in the government. When he heard about these appointments, Vespasian is supposed to have written to his son, thanking him for letting him keep his post as emperor. He also said he was surprised that Domitian had neglected to appoint his father's successor. (Cassius Dio 65.2.2-3, Suetonius, Domitian 1.3)

In expressing his contempt for the luxurious lifestyle of the emperor Vitellius, Vespasian said, "Vitellius uses more ointment in his bath than I do water! If he was pierced by a sword, more ointment would run out of him than blood!" (Philostratos, Life of Apollonius 5.29)

In a similar vein, when a heavily perfumed young man came to thank Vespasian for a commission he had received, he found the appointment revoked by the disgusted emperor. Vespasian said, "I wouldn't have minded so much if you had only smelled of garlic!" (Suetonius, Vespasian 8)

On one occasion, an ex-consul named Mestrius Florus took the emperor to task for his less-than-elegant pronunciation of Latin. Vespasian had used the vulgar form of the word for wagon, "plostra", rather than the more refined "plaustra" (pronounced "plow-stra"). The next day, Vespasian greeted the man by calling him "Flaurus." (Suetonius, Vespasian 22)

Many of Vespasian's witticisms had to do with sex. One of the cleaner examples deals with his encounter with what may be described as a "ruler groupie". A woman once threw herself at Vespasian, claiming that she loved him madly, and walked away from his bed 4,000 gold pieces richer. When the emperor's accountant asked him how to enter the expense in the books, Vespasian replied, "Charge it to passion for Vespasian". (Suetonius, Vespasian 22)

When his son, the future emperor Titus, complained to his father about his new tax on lavatories, Vespasian made Titus sniff a coin that had been earned from the tax, and asked him if it smelled bad. Titus replied that it did not, and Vespasian declared, "And yet it comes from urine!" (Suetonius, Vespasian 23, Cassius Dio 65.14.5)

A delegation from the Senate informed Vespasian that a colossal statue of him costing a million sesterces had been voted in his honor at public expense. The emperor struck out his hand palm upward, and said "Here's the pedestal, give me the money!" (Suetonius, Vespasian 23, Cassius Dio 65.14.5)

Perhaps the best proof of Vespasian's sense of humor was his ability to take a joke. He had a very solid, compact build, and the knobbly features of his deeply furrowed, square face gave him the appearance of a perpetual grimace. When he asked a famous wit to make a joke about him, Vespasian apparently laughed as well as anyone when the wit replied, "I will when you have finished relieving yourself!" (Suetonius, Vespasian 20)

Whenever anonymous insults to the emperor were posted in public, Vespasian would simply post a reply in kind, as if to say "Same to you, buddy!" and bear no further grudge. (Cassius Dio 65.11.1-2)

As he neared seventy and his health declined, a comet was interpreted as an omen of his impending death. Vespasian contemplated the long-tailed comet and proclaimed, "Look at the long hair on that comet! Perhaps it is an omen for the king of Parthia. It can't be for me because I'm bald!" (Suetonius, Vespasian 20, Cassius Dio 66.17.3)

The most famous of Vespasian's one-liners came on his deathbed. He realized that the end had come and, anticipating his inevitable deification, said, "My gosh! I'm turning into a god!" (Suetonius, Vespasian 23.4)

Another story about Vespasian, thought not humorous, reveals something of his policies and about the technological conservatism of Roman culture. It is said that he destroyed the blueprints of a labor-saving device that would aid in moving columns lest it put poor Roman laborers out of work. (Suetonius, Vespasian 18)

This story is reminiscent of an anecdote about the emperor Tiberius. When a man who had found a way to make unbreakable glass asked him for a reward, Tiberius had the man executed and his secret destroyed for fear that this discovery would make the bottom fall out of the gold market. (Pliny the Elder, Historia Natura, 36.195, Cassius Dio 57.21.7, Petronius, Satyricon 51)

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