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Vespasian in Alexandria

[Vespasian] was welcomed with great solemnity and enthusiasm. After all, he was the first emperor in history to visit the proud capital of Egypt. Yes, in August of 30 BC, Octavian entered its gates, by then the absolute ruler of the entire Empire, but he was not yet an Emperor: he was to receive the title of Augustus only three years later. Moreover, Octavian appeared on Egyptian soil not as a welcome guest but as a conqueror and victor over Cleopatra, the last rightful ruler of the country.

Thereafter, for almost a hundred years, no emperor appeared in Alexandria. It is true that Nero had had such an intention. Some preparations were even made, and a special bathhouse was built in which Caecinus Tuscus dared to bathe, paying for it with dismissal from office. However, political disturbances thwarted Nero’s plans for the historical journey up the Nile. And although in the last days of his reign, he hoped to escape to Egypt, and even went to Ostia and spent the night of June 8-9 in the Servilian Gardens, it was all too late. Neither did the self-proclaimed Nero from the island of Kythnos ever reach the shores of the Nile.

But Vespasian arrived in Alexandria also as the first Roman Emperor hailed here. The inhabitants were well aware of the importance of the act that had taken place in their city just six months earlier, on July 1, 69. They proudly proclaimed that they had done the right thing then and that both Fate and the gods had since favored their decision. The recent victory at Bedriacum clearly proved this.

News about the wonderful victory caused genuine joy among the masses. Everyone knew well what terrible revenge Vitellius would have taken on Alexandria if he had won: he would have crushed the city that had initiated the rebellion mercilessly! There were many reasons for sincere joy. This one was the most important among them: their emperor, who owed so much to Alexandria, was expected to shower the city with privileges and favors—and many of its representatives especially. Therefore, huge crowds gathered in front of the eastern gate and at the hippodrome to see their chosen as soon as possible and give him a stormy ovation. It was the same hippodrome in which, several months earlier, their Prefect Tiberius Alexander announced their new emperor to the people. And now here they stood: city aldermen, councilors and advisors, priests of all legally recognized cults, scholars of the Museon, representatives of guilds and charitable associations, as well as delegations from all the administrative districts across the country.

We have already mentioned the preserved fragments of the papyrus describing the ceremony. The Prefect, turning to the people, thundered:

“All power and might to our emperor!”

And to the people, he presented him as a deity who finally deigned to reveal himself:

“Here is Vespasian, our savior and benefactor, the emerging sun!”[1]

Of course, all these Greek terms: soter—savior, euergetes— benefactor, helios anatellon—the rising sun, had their own ancient tradition in the Hellenistic religion. They were generously and easily showered on almost every ruler because… they cost nothing. Fifty years earlier, the residents of Alexandria welcomed with those same monickers someone who was only a member of the ruling family.

He was Germanicus, appointed by Emperor Tiberius as the governor of the East. Terrified by these exaggerated titles, which could arouse suspicion on the part of the always distrustful emperor, Germanicus immediately reprimanded the flatterers with a threatening edict:

I accept the kindness you show me at every meeting. However, I firmly reject such epithets. They arouse envy by putting me on equal standing with the gods. They befit only the benefactor of all mankind, my father, and his mother (Tiberius and Livia). Your acclamations are an insult to their divinity. I forbid them. And if you are disobedient in this matter, I will never visit you again![2]

These terms—savior, benefactor, rising sun—were soon to be appropriated by Christianity. They would enter the liturgical language of the Church and remain part of it down to the present. Few, beyond a handful of researchers, are aware of their lineage, the circumstances and political implications of their original meaning, and what factors contributed to their widespread dissemination in the Greco-Roman world.

Vespasian, as emperor, was fully entitled to these divine names, and for the reasons already indicated, the Prefect’s invocation met with a lively response from the people. Tens of thousands of citizens of the metropolis filling the huge hippodrome responded with loud cheers and applause, loudly chanting and repeating over and over the Greek words:

Kyrie hemon, Euerget, Sebaste, Serapis!

That is:

“Our Lord, Our Benefactor, Augustus, Serapis!”

And Serapis was the most revered deity of Alexandria. There were also cries here and there calling Vespasian the son of the god Ammon or simply—a god.

Next, various important guests delivered short speeches, probably in Latin, since protocol contains the Latin words of the Prefect: “The Emperor says that he wishes you health!”

This line, too, was greeted with a storm of applause.

[1] Papyrus Fouad, 1, 8

[2] A.S. Hunt, C.C. Edgar, Select Papyri, v I,  II no. 211

FROM Aleksander Krawczuk "Rome and Jerusalem" Out March 15, 2024

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