Vespasian was the first emperor since Tiberius who reached the throne and had adult sons (and Tiberius’ sons died before him). Further, his eldest son Titus was a vigorous, healthy and accomplished man. The younger son, Domitian, was still a teenager when Vespasian became emperor, and had survived successfully in Rome during the crisis, even avoiding the assassins who were looking for him. In addition, both sons were loyal to their father, though Domitian was very jealous of his older brother. Vespasian’s own brother, who had been the City Prefect, had been killed in the civil war. When it became clear that Vespasian’s armies had prevailed and Vitellius had been hunted down and killed, the Senate swiftly marked its relief and appreciation by voting the imperial powers to the survivor, and by making Vespasian and Titus joint consuls ordinarii for the next year (AD 70).1
The succession had been a major problem for all the emperors of the years of crisis. Nero had no successor of his family; Galba’s attempt to solve the problem had brought the death of both himself and his chosen man; Otho, unmarried and with no children but still in his 30s, had apparently never addressed the issue, but then he had been under attack from Vitellius from the moment he seized power and hardly had time to consider the matter; Vitellius had made a display of his son, but he was only 6 years old, so this was a reprise of the early years of both Claudius and Nero, and the prospect of another teenager inheriting the Empire was scarcely enticing after Nero. (The boy was killed by one of Vespasian’s generals when he took control of Rome; Vitellius’ daughter survived and was protected by Vespasian. Such were politics at Rome.)
The awards of honours to Titus and Domitian, Vespasian’s sons, brought a new and important development in the succession issue. Titus, who had been left in command of the Roman army besieging Jerusalem while his father travelled towards Italy, was awarded the consulship at the age of 30 (and therefore below the legal age), to be held along with his father (consul for the second time); Domitian, aged 18, was designated praetor for the coming year, but with an imperium equivalent to that of a consul. Both were also awarded the titles of Caesar and princeps iuventutis.2 The elected praetor, Sex. Julius Frontinus, vacated his post so that Domitian could take it; it was a shrewd move by Frontinus and brought him office and profit for the next thirty years.
The two sons, therefore, by these honours and offices, were clearly marked out from the first as Vespasian’s successors, though this was not yet a formal, senatorially-approved designation. It seems that this was done by the Senate’s own decision before Vespasian reached Rome, and was awarded as recognition of Vespasian’s status as emperor, but only as honours to his sons, not an official mark of the right of succession. Yet their succession could hardly be doubted. Of the family, only Domitian was in the city during the crisis, and he had already been addressed as ‘Caesar’ by the leaders of the Flavian group in Rome in recognition of his father’s new status. The Senate may well have pre-empted any decision on this by Vespasian himself, but it was certainly in line with the requirements of the moment, and was a further indication of senatorial authority in the matter, following on from the activity of the Senate since before Nero’s death. By publicly appointing Titus and Domitian as Vespasian’s heirs to the throne, the Senate was also pointing out the folly of any other attempts at rebellion. Titus was one of the great soldiers of the age, and would certainly fight for his inheritance. For the present Vespasian and Titus were well separated geographically, so removing either of them would only precipitate a further war, and both men had proved their command abilities and their popularity, and had gained the recognition of the Senate.
These measures were a clear indication by the Senate that it was the Senate itself that made such decisions. Yet it was also, at the same time, an abdication from the decision-making. As ever, the Senate could legislate and ratify; it could not initiate. It may well have been that the prospect of an experienced general with adult sons in place of three temporary emperors with only a single child to follow them was something of a relief to the senators after the violence of the year.
It was clearly expected that Vespasian would establish his family as the ruling dynasty and that he could do this rather more effectively than anyone had done so far, at least since Tiberius. The deliberate reminiscences of Augustus’ reign (and even Nero’s) in the awards of powers and honours were a further sign of this. A darker side was the elimination of potential rivals that was taking place even as the Senate was meeting. The son of Vitellius was one victim, but Piso’s brother Crassus Scribonianus and the son-in-law of the governor of Africa who had aimed at the throne, M. Clodius Macer, were also both killed; Cn. Cornelius Dolabella, Galba’s grandnephew, had already been killed by Vitellius. These were all men who might have felt they had a claim to the imperial powers by virtue of their relationship to an emperor or an earlier claimant. In removing these competitors, Vespasian’s reign took up where Nero’s and Galba’s had left off, though Vespasian carefully left it to his lieutenants to do the killings. All this meant that it was quickly obvious that the new regime had the same concerns as the old. It was the nature of the autocracy government to remove in the most drastic way any claimant, usurper or rebel; not to do so would be to recognize that these others’ claims to supreme power had some validity.
Vespasian was 61 years old when he reached Rome, a decade younger than Galba at the same stage of his career. Having reached such an age and being hale, he could expect to live some years more, though perhaps not many. By making Titus his commander against Jerusalem and consul ordinarius for 70, Vespasian indicated clearly his choice of successor, and next year the Senate awarded Titus the tribunician and proconsular powers alongside his father.3
Yet the Senate quibbled over the award. Vespasian requested that Titus be awarded the requisite powers; some senators, notably Helvidius Priscus, objected and apparently wished that the Senate itself make the selection of successor. The spectacle of a hereditary system – a return to the Julio-Claudians – apparently was not appealing. There were, as a result of the recent crisis and the civil war, several precedents besides the hereditary one: Galba had been, at least technically, chosen by the Senate, and had indicated that a successor should be chosen there also, though in the event he was pushed to nominate Piso without that consultation. Nero’s absence of an heir had indicated that the Senate would probably need to make a decision on the matter anyway, and there was a precedent in the choice of Claudius in 41. Between them, however, Vespasian and Titus had the political and military weight to overcome senatorial hesitancy. Vespasian certainly allowed a debate, but made it clear that what he wished for would have to be agreed. In the end the Senate did agree.4
For the next eight years the two men and Domitian accumulated consulships at a rate unprecedented since Augustus. When he died in 79, Vespasian had been consul nine times (he missed only two years while emperor), Titus for seven and Domitian six. By this time it was normal for ordinary consuls to resign partway through the year, and for two more to take up the office afterwards as suffect consuls. Vespasian began by serving for six months, but gradually reduced this; later it was normal for there to be six or seven consuls in the year, sometimes more, and if an emperor took the office of ordinary consul he would normally resign after only a fortnight. Other men could therefore accumulate more than one period of office, but it had clearly become an honour rather than a source of power. Even so, the larger the number of consulships a man held, the grander his prestige; hence Vespasian’s accumulation, and hence his sons’ as well.
This was a practice Vespasian resorted to partly in order to build up his personal prestige and that of his sons. Not since Augustus had the emperor collected so many consulships. The later Julio-Claudians had not bothered overmuch about this, having the prestige of the dynastic membership to bolster their pride; nor did later emperors bother much, usually being content with three or four consulships only. That Vespasian, already emperor and therefore with the prestige that went with that office, must have had a further motive is evident. He may have lacked family prestige – his father was said to have been a muleteer – but as emperor he controlled the consular nominations. By occupying the post so often he was shutting out other senators, and by nominating those who did serve he was ensuring that only his own supporters achieved the prestige of a consulship. It was all, in other words, a matter of security as well as prestige. Titus and Domitian continued to exercise such control, though Domitian eventually did so with some display of contempt.
Since both sons were still alive when Vespasian died (in 79, at the age of 69) the succession problem was solved for the foreseeable future. He was succeeded by Titus, who already possessed most of the necessary powers. There is no description of any ceremony when he achieved sole rule, but there must have been at least the administration of an oath of allegiance to the senators and other officials. It was so routine that one historian, Suetonius, passes over it in silence, and another, Cassius Dio, in a sentence. He assumed the titles and offices of Augustus, pontifex maximus and pater patriae, all of which do imply senatorial votes, even if only formal ones.
By all accounts Titus did not get on well with his brother, who was described as involving himself in conspiracies and stirring up the troops. It is noticeable also that Domitian was not awarded any of the imperial powers while Titus was alive, though they did share the consulship in 80, Domitian’s seventh. Titus, of course, was still fairly young, aged 40 when his father died, and he might expect to reign for a decade or two, so it might seem that he need not be in a hurry to share his powers with his brother, and if Domitian was so avid for power that he conspired to seize it, it was perhaps best not to encourage him.
Both of Titus’ marriages had ended in divorce, having produced only one daughter, Flavia Julia. Maybe he was intending to marry again with the intention of procreation, yet he did not. His reputation as a profligate before his father’s death transmuted into ‘the good emperor’ during his own sole rule, but he clearly made no detailed provisions for the succession, merely allowing Domitian to be presumed his successor, and referring to him as his ‘partner and successor’, which was clearly an informal recognition.5 In the circumstances, of course, Domitian could probably behave as badly as he liked – though the scurrilous account of his plotting and fraternal arguments are somewhat doubtful – but Titus could not afford to execute him, since this would have exposed him to yet more, and more dangerous, conspiracies.
So when Titus died in 81, unexpectedly, at the age of 42, Domitian was the obvious successor, though he did not possess the imperial powers. He moved quickly to secure control, even before Titus was actually dead (or so it is said), thereby demonstrating an acute appreciation of the needs of the succession: square the Guard first, then accept recognition by the Senate. He was awarded the imperial powers, possibly at the meeting of the Senate at which eulogies for Titus were pronounced, most likely the day after the imperial death.6 There would seem to have been no dispute about his accession, but then he had already held seven consulships and was clearly his brother’s heir, even if somewhat unofficially. Yet the day’s delay may have been the Senate’s way of demonstrating that it was the senators who decided.
The old question of the succession, dormant for ten years, now arose once more. Domitian had a daughter, and Titus had a daughter, but his only son had died in infancy and it seems that no other children were likely. The continuation of the dynasty depended now on Domitian’s choice of successor. He found himself in the same situation as Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero, not to mention Galba and Otho. If he chose an adult he picked out a man who became a danger to him; if he chose a child the chosen one had to be trained over a long period of years. All the time the emperor would be getting older and was vulnerable to plots, and the plots would obviously multiply and become steadily more serious.
Domitian did have a reasonably extensive collection of relatives in his extended family. His uncle, T. Flavius Sabinus, who was killed in 69, had left a son and a daughter, each of whom had two sons. (For the details of the family see Genealogical Table VII.) The sons of Sabinus’ eldest son, also Sabinus (distinguished as ‘III’) were within the succession group (Sabinus IV and Clemens), and the elder was married to Titus’ daughter Flavia Julia. Here again was the intermarriage within the ruling dynasty, as with Augustus’ family. (Titus and Sabinus III were first cousins, being the sons of brothers; they had also married sisters, so Sabinus IV and his wife were both first and second cousins.) This man, T. Flavius Sabinus IV, was the successor presumptive from the time Domitian himself succeeded. He gave himself airs, reputedly dressing his servant in imperial white. He had been Domitian’s colleague as consul in 82 (replacing the dead Titus, who had earlier been intended for that office). He was then executed soon after; the stories about this event imply that Sabinus IV had presumed too much.7 Domitian was, quite rightly, constantly suspicious of plots, and his presumed successor was a natural source of or vehicle for such plots. He did not designate an adult as his successor again.
Sabinus IV’s younger brother T. Flavius Clemens had seven children, at least two of whom were boys, an unusual display of fertility both in this family and indeed in any imperial family. Their mother was Domitian’s niece, the daughter of his deceased sister. (The marriage was once again between first cousins.) The dynasty was, in the marriages of Sabinus and Clemens, behaving typically dynastically, indulging in both intermarriages and family executions. The two boys, sons of Clemens, were singled out as Domitian’s heirs by about 90, but Clemens was kept out of political office until 95, when he became consul at last, along with the emperor himself. It would seem that Domitian was considering a similar situation to that of Augustus and Agrippa, for the two boys were now renamed T. Flavius Domitianus and T. Flavius Vespasianus. Their father was clearly not intended to be emperor, but he would become regent if the boys were still under age when Domitian died. However, service as consul may have ignited ambition in Clemens; Domitian had him executed soon after he ceased to be consul. The boys remained his designated successors.8
No imperial ambitions are imputed to any of Domitian’s other relations, and after the fates of Sabinus IV and Clemens this is hardly surprising. Sabinus III’s sister Flavia Sabina was married to L. Caesennius Paetus and they had two sons; both boys survived and prospered under all these emperors. Titus’ and Domitian’s sister Flavia Domitilla was married to C. Petillius Cerealis, who had two sons by an earlier marriage; one died young and the father and the surviving son both became consuls, but no more. Even more distantly related were the Arrecini and the Iulii Lupi families and their own more distant connections. One of these was apparently threatened with execution at about the time of Clemens’ execution, though it seems not to have happened; otherwise the families were essentially undisturbed. They were clearly not generally suspected of imperial ambitions, and after the execution of Sabinus IV in 82 or 83 it is not surprising that these attitudes prevailed.
Domitian clearly had difficulty in personally contemplating his own mortality, which is what was required when an emperor selected a successor. As an experienced conspirator himself, he was apparently adept at detecting plots by others, and perhaps hyper-alert to any threat of a plot within the family; even in his bedchamber he kept a dagger under his pillow. His various attempts at selecting a successor, however, do show that he was operating within the same framework, constitutionally speaking, as his predecessors all the way back to Augustus. The senatorial disquiet at the prospect of hereditary succession, apparent in 70–71, had not necessarily gone away, though it was clearly inadvisable to raise the issue with Domitian on the throne. To do so would imply that the emperor’s choice was wrong or bad, or that he had not made one and should. In fact, of course, by executing those who had been singled out and then by choosing children, Domitian was deliberately evading the issue, and by doing this he was leaving himself increasingly vulnerable. Yet the issue was clearly one he regarded as a family matter. The upheavals in 68–69 had not displaced the assumption that the imperial succession was to be hereditary.
The civil wars of 68–69 had not seriously changed the constitution of the Empire, in so far as it had one, or the methods by which an emperor designated his successor. The only real change brought about by that period of violence was that the method by which an emperor could be removed had become much clearer. This was the lesson of Galba and Vespasian, who in turn had learned their lesson from the earlier failed plots. To remove an emperor in safety, it was necessary to do two things above all: assassinate the incumbent and have a successor ready, willing and waiting.
This was what occurred in 96, when Domitian, despite the dagger under his pillow (it had been disabled in advance) and a guard on his door (suborned in advance) fell victim to a group of ancient senators, perhaps the least likely set of plotters he could have imagined.