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Nero and Vespasian in Greece



(p. 132)


Having set foot in the sacred land of Greece, the emperor devoted himself exclusively to artistic pursuits. Various programs took place in different towns: singing competitions, chariot races, poetry recitations, and theatrical performances. And invariably, the world’s best singer, its most excellent musician, and its most brilliant actor—Nero—performed in them all. He received frenetic applause, aroused universal enthusiasm, and won first prizes, wreaths, and memorial statuary. It was, therefore, hardly surprising that overwork and excess of impressions prevented him from dealing with trivial matters like current politics. Nothing out of the ordinary was happening anyway.


But then, this blessed living for art alone was suddenly disturbed by news from Judea and, in particular, by the news of the defeat of Cestius Gallus. Of course, it was clearly not a major disaster by any means. The whole thing was a rebellion of a small people, and while, yes, it had inflicted some casualties on the Roman corps, none of it was cause for alarm. The forces led by Cestius were only part of the army stationed in Syria, and other legions could easily be moved to the Palestinian theater if necessary. Yet, it was unwise to underestimate the importance of the uprising. Rome had to suppress it as soon as possible lest it become a contagious example to other subjugated peoples.


The emperor and his advisers judged the situation well, stating publicly that the defeat in Judea was brought about, above all, by the incompetence of the commander. It, therefore, behooved the emperor to send a new general, an energetic and experienced man. We do not know what candidates were considered, but the final result is known. And we can guess why the choice fell on this particular senator and not any other.

The newly designated commander-in-chief was Flavius Vespasian.


Of course, Vespasian had proven himself as an effective general in Germany and Britain and possibly as a capable administrator in Africa. However, there was no shortage of people with similar or even better qualifications in the Senate, so there had to have been other considerations. The decisive factor seems to have been that Vespasian did not belong to any of the great aristocratic families and was not aligned with any of them: he had no Senators among his ancestors. And all the conspiracies uncovered in recent years, both real and imagined, had all involved members of old and distinguished families. Nero and his advisers were understandably suspicious of the people of that class. They certainly would not have entrusted a mighty army to any aristocrat—and to put down the uprising in Judea would require a large army comprised of several legions.

It is possible that Vespasian’s candidacy was helped, somewhat paradoxically, by a small and amusing event, but one imbued with very special meaning in the eyes of Nero. It had recently been reported to the emperor that Vespasian showed little enthusiasm during the emperor’s artistic performances; indeed, that he showed no interest in them at all. To speak the brutal truth—that they made him fall asleep. As soon as this matter was reported, the Senator was punished with displeasure. He was ordered to leave the imperial entourage and go to one of the small Greek towns for a while. It is easy to imagine the anxiety in which he lived there, deeply convinced that his career, and perhaps his life, had already come to an end. When he sought help from one of the emperor’s freedmen, he heard a formerly unimaginable answer:


“Get lost!”


Vespasian could only console himself with the fact that his fortune was rather small and that he was in debt, for in recent years, the emperor had tended to send very rich people to the other world.


It is very likely that during the deliberations within the imperial entourage, someone recommended his candidacy half-jokingly and half-seriously, saying:


“Ah, Vespasian should be sent to war! He is a simpleton, he has no idea about art, here he’s only a pain and makes himself ridiculous. There, in the military camp, he will be at home. Let him go and fight and leave us here to delight in your art, Caesar!”


And someone else added:


“He’s well over fifty, but he’s still robust and healthy.”


And yet someone else chimed in:


“He’s just a simple peasant. Short, stocky, strong in arms and legs. Square big head and tiny eyes. He will do well.”


And then someone else:


“Though he certainly will feel lonely without his Caenis!”


And thus, the combination of many factors, both weighty and ridiculous, decided the future of both Rome and Jerusalem.

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