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From salvation to catastrophe: the biographical narrative of the Flavian dynasty

Jesper Madsen

University of Southern Denmark

One of the main methods of interpretation of Cassius Dio's Roman history has been through the author's biographical sketches or depictions of particular reigns (e.g. Millar 1964: 119-173, Manuwald 1979, Pelling 1997).  This paper examines the various depictions of the Flavian emperors as a thematic unit, a portion of Dio's history that has received relatively little comment (with the notable exception of the commentary of Murison 1999).  The main argument of this paper is that the biographies of the Flavian emperors demonstrate how the reigns of the Flavians moved from competent and stable under the experienced and able Vespasian to tyrannical in the reign of the young and inexperienced Domitian, thus serving as an interpretative piece as Dio's history moves from the familial succession of the Julio-Claudians to the adoptive success of the Antonines.

Dio portrays Vespasian as a capable senator and experienced military man who ends the civil war, includes the senate in every decision, and ruled in a fair and respectful manner (e.g. 65[66].10.4-11.3).  His relationship with the senate was mutually respectful, and Vespasian is praised for his mildness and for not killing any senators.  In Dio's narrative Vespasian is the emperor who returned Rome to a path of ideal (or semi-ideal) monarchy. He followed not only the civil war but also the reign of Nero ­ the low point in the Julio-Claudian era ­ and reestablished a functional form of government by including a more able senate ready to take on political responsibility, a body that was neglected and marginalized by the latter Julio-Claudian emperors.  In Dio's narrative, the reason behind Vespasian's success was his many years of experience as a senator and military commander, which meant that he from the start had a constructive and mutually respectful relationship with a senate that valued his leadership.

Titus is likewise celebrated for not having killed any senators (66[66].18.1, 19.1), and his rule comes across as well balanced.  The only indirect criticism is Titus' failure to prosecute Domitian, who eventually ends up killing his older brother in order to assume the throne (66[66].26.2-4). While Titus comes across as a bit naïve and as the emperor who fails to take the necessary measures to remove Domitian, seemingly because of their fraternal relationship, Dio goes one step further and asks whether Titus is seen in a positive light because he ruled for a short period of time (66[66].18.5).  Dio offers a comparison with Augustus, who was criticized at first but was then seen as the good emperor and wonders, out of context, whether it would have been the other way around had Titus ruled for a longer period. This questioning of Titus is, I suggest, tied to Dio's reluctance towards dynastic succession.  Despite his proven worth in various respects, Titus' decision to favor family relation over the good of the state leaves him open to criticism.

Dio goes on to portray Domitian as a complete failure (e.g., 67[67].1.1, 6.3).  Young and inexperienced, he ignores and tyrannizes the senate in order to compensate for his lack of skill. He is the personification of the unstable and incapable ruler unable to govern the empire (e.g. 67[67].11.3).  Titus' seemingly singular failure appears to have manifested itself fully, overturning the generally positive reigns of the two previous emperors.

Dio's narrative of the Flavian dynasty is an interlude between the malfunctioning Julio-Claudian dynasty and the adoptive emperors in the second century, Dio's golden age (cf. 72[71].36.3).  It starts well with Vespasian, but because familial succession is untenable in Dio's eyes, the dynasty of the Flavians is bound to fail eventually, if, for no other reason, to prove Dio's point of how monarchic rule, where the successor was chosen among proven senators, was the only suitable way of governing Rome.

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Episodes, Portraits, and Literary Unity in Cassius Dio

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