on October 17, 2001
This book is better termed a history of the Flavians rather than a biography of Vespasian. Despite a glowing review (in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review), I have reservations about the achievement of Barbara Levick in writing this book.
I was looking forward "Vespasian" since, until now, there has been no biography in English about this emperor. Aside from a history of his reign, I was hoping this new book would provide some insight into Vespasian's personality and his relations with Titus and Domitian. To an extent, Professor Levick fulfilled this expectation but not on the level I was hoping. For example, I was interested in a broader assessment of the fortunes of the Flavians, particularly their rise under Caligula and Claudius and Vespasian's fall from grace. I would have liked more about Titus' education with Britannicus and his presumed presence at the poisoning of Claudius' son. I think the latter instance is pure Flavian propaganda.
The Judean War is related as a recitation of the facts with little elaboration. We do not get a full picture of Titus's role in the war. He was an inexperienced commander and showed this in more than a few mistakes he made. If Vespasian allowed him the glory of capturing Jerusalem he made sure that his son has a seasoned professional to advise him: Tiberius Julius Alexander. Titus' pivotal role was in handling the delicate negotiations between the parties involved in the Flavian rebellion met with scant attention. Without his traveling from person to person, Vespasian's rebellion would never have happened. The role Queen Berenice in these negotiations is not brought up. Since her brother, Agrippa II, was in Rome until after the Flavian rebellion began, and she was romantically involved with Titus it would have been interesting to have more insight into her role.
A discussion about Nerva from Professor Levick is sorely wanting. He is briefly mentioned, which I think is odd for such a pivotal Flavian supporter. I would like to know her ideas about his mysterious contribution to the Flavian cause that earned him an ordinary consulship with Vespasian, the only consulship he did not share with Titus.
The best parts of the book for me were the last two chapters (Vespasian and His Sons and Conclusion) where Professor Levick brilliantly sums up the Flavians and their impact on history. However, Vespasian does not emerge from this book as a flesh-and-blood personality. Some of the chapters, particularly Restoration of the Roman World, which deals with events in every part of the empire, would have benefited by adding headings in the text. This would provide easy access to the information. I was perturbed over Professor Levick's shorthand in referring to ancient sources. The Annals of Tacitus, for example, are abbreviated TA and the notes are crowded. The source is not immediately identifiable and I wish more intuitive abbreviations were used.
I cannot agree with other reviewers that Professor Levick selects "boring" emperors. Tiberius and Claudius were anything but boring, and their reigns were pivotal in the history of the principate. I think that there is room for another biography of Vespasian, written in the form of a true life of the subject, and including chapters dealing with the state of the empire, army, art and literature. Ms. Levick's book is not the last word on her subject.
on April 21, 2003
The previous half dozen reader reviews of this book (mostly lukewarm) have fallen into two catagories: quibbles by other period specialists and complaints from those who wish Levick would try to impart some readability to her scholarship. Of course the specialists beg to differ, that's what specialists do. No two would ever make the same choices in attempting to capture the same complex period. Those who assert that this book is very "dry" are right, but those who dub it "boring" have missed the point. Try to find another booklength biography of Vespasian in English! If one wants to learn about this man, this is an essential book and for that reason it deserves more than three stars. Levick is a scholar emerita. We can regret that she did not learn her craft in an era when some historians recognize the value of writing for a wider audience than the tiny circle of their fellow cognoscenti, but we do her wrong if we fail to credit her with writing a work that is the first of its kind.
on November 4, 2015
Author Barbara Levick starts her biography on Vespasian with this delightful paragraph:
"This is a success story, as medieval traditions about 'the nobel Emperor' make clear. In one French, Spanish, and Portuguese romance, printed in Lisbon in 1483, Vespasian, a sufferer from Leprosy, is cured by the handkerchief of St. Veronica, and proceeds to take Jerusalem, avenging Christ and punishing Jews and Pilate, he converts his entire Empire to Christianity"...The individual's success, set against the downfall of the dynasty, is the straightforward subject of the first four chapter of this book".
This book is written by an historian who has probably forgotten more than any other scholar on Vespasian and the Flavians could ever remember. The depth of detail and context is, at times, dizzying; especially in Chapter 4 "The Bid for Empire".
But other reviewers have apparently not read the book. The criticism that "Queen Berenice" (Bernice, the daughter of King Herod Agrippa 1) is not mentioned in the book is in error. In Chapter 3 she is mentioned once; in Chapter 4, 3 times; and once in Chapter 5. Unfortunately, however, Berenice is not cited in the Index.
One of the reasons this thick history of Vespasian is difficult to read is because the publisher omitted commas in many of the author's sentences. Here is a simple example from page 57: "For any opponents of Vitellius Vespasian's chances of success were a determining factor". Note that the comma between "Vitellius" and "Vespasian" is missing, making it sound like a run-on sentence. Here is another from Page 46: "Two and a half months after the death of Otho Vespasian took the irrevocable step". Again, no comma between "Otho" and "Vespasian" makes the read think there is someone named "Otho Vespasian".
The author writer's long, complex sentences often stop in the middle with a semi-colon; then continue the with a related thought that again sounds like a run on sentence.
Another difficulty is the author's use of words such as "donative" to mean donations.
Chapter 5 "Ideology in Action" is especially insightful as to how Vespasian legitimized his reign with religion and ideology.
The crucible of Western Civilization and religion was forged in a war between the Romans and Jews in the 1st Century. Much of that history has been lost or propagandized (e.g., Josephus).or mythologized. Barbara Levick's book is one of the very few that pull back the curtain on that history.
In Europe, urinals were named after Vespasian for his tax placed on urine collection. Perhaps this was became Vespasian started out as the street cleaner of Rome. But this biography by Barbara Levick is not trash.
This is truly a great book of scholarship but, unfortunately, is so detailed as to lose the average reader. My suggestion is to slog through this book for the reward of knowledge that it offers like almost no other book on the topic. The 210 pages of text if followed by 66 pages of notes and 22 pages of maps and family genealogies in the front!! This is truly a unique work of scholarship and in-depth insight by an author to whom we shall be indebted for some time. Once again, this is not a pop history book of the month club selection. It is way too deep for that genre of book. Five star? You bet.
on February 17, 2015
EDIT, 2/17/15: oh joy, oh rapture unforseen -- page 40, she constructed a chronology chart of the Judaean campaign from 66-73, converting Josephus' dates and selecting which of the possible equivalents, seems more correct! YES! This is worth the price of the book all by itself, We laymen need stuff like this, and maps. Pity Kindle version is so bad with maps and charts. But then again, you can just rent it to read the text, then later buy it to keep those charts and maps handy. Really great book for threading together all the main elements, with a focus on the BIG QUESTION, why did Vespasian take so long? Because she and many other scholars are trying to understand it, and trying to verify that yeah Vespasian had big plans to become Emperor long prior (theme of her Chapter 4).
Bible prophetically satirized that, actually (Paul's syllables = AD years 66-73 in Eph 1:4 just after 'kosmou' read 'einai hemas hagious' and of course the Temple ACTUALLY goes down at 'ha'). I just didn't know the answers until reading up on the history. Josephus alone, I didn't trust. But you might not be interested in this paragraph, so just ignore it. If you are interested, then see the comments, which have links to the videos I've been doing on this satire for the past five years (in Eph 1, 2 Tim 1, 1 Peter 1, 2 Peter 1, played on by Jude, then Mark then Book of Hebrews. I haven't yet tested the latter 3 for satire).
Original review follows below, unedited.
I just read the other reviews, wondering what I might say which could help someone decide to buy this book. Mine just arrived in hardback, and after reading even the first prelude chapter, I was hooked. Which says a lot, as I'm a female mysoginist. I don't like saying my fellow females or myself, did a good job. Don't know why, it's just a bias. Okay, but Levick can write. Well.
You can tell this book is different from the other Roman history tomes, because this one has well-ordered CHRONOLOGY up front (not in back, like the Penguin books of Suetonius), and MAPS aplenty, clear, simple, in front, so you can keep the book flap there and easily flip back and forth (don't get the Kindle edition if you need the maps, because Kindle edition maps are awful, and often you don't even get a Table of Contents or page numbers). So that predisposed me favorably, right away.
But her first chapter, blew me away. Like Wellesley in his Year of the Four Emperors, she grasps the importance of wholistic writing -- both authors do what an actor does with his lines, TRANSFORMING INTO THE CHARACTER so you can just see that character 'live'. So what was the 'character' of Rome at that time? And what was the 'character' of Vespasian which made him the man of the hour? That is the sotto-voce plot she plants, right away in the first chapter. With verve.
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE HOLLYWEIRD, MAKE A REALLY GOOD MOVIE ABOUT THE YEAR OF THE FOUR EMPERORS. Use Levick, Wellesley, Morgan as your consultants, hein?
Gonna go read the rest of the book now, I just don't want to do anything else. Will edit this review later with any other stuff perhaps worth saying. If it matters, I'm busy reading Roman Emperor biographies again, because I found prophetic satires on them not only in Paul's Ephesians 1:3-14 (covered last year in my brainout vimeo videos paulmeterggs11 channel), but now in PETER's text (which I also started last year, petermeter channel); so I'm wondering where else in the Year of the Four Emperors books (Peter, Jude, Mark's Gospel, Book of Hebrews) that satire might be extended. Have to know more about the history then, to find the satiric keywords. I mean, many know John's Revelation was satirizing Domitian's day (the pantomimes in particular) to draw parallel to how the yet-future Daniel 11:35ff anti-christs (plural, two of them) get done -- but earlier Bible books do this prophetical satire too? Really?
So for now, gotta read Levick's book, even though I've read all the original guys (like Aurelius Victor) already. Always good to see a good writer, grasp her subject and BECOME THE CHARACTER of that day. Byeee.
PS: if you want to see the videos I'm making to test the 'Gonna go read' paragraph, I put video links in the comments.
on May 13, 2012
This is an excellent piece of scholarship which I bought and read years ago, and have recently picked up and read again. It is indeed, as a reviewer has mentioned on Amazon.uk, "meticulously researched" and each and every aspect of Vespasian's career and reign are carefully analyzed. While a general reader might find that this book is not exactly the easiest to read and the writing style might feel slow-going or even ponderous, this book has become the reference on Vespasian, one of Rome's most interesting Emperors on several counts. It is also mostly on this book that Fabbri has based his historical novels on Vespasian, although he has, of course, changes a cdouple of things and made up a few others, especially with regards to Vespasian's younger years.
Some reviewers have tended to disparage this book. One has mentioned that it is more a history of the period than a biography of the man. In fact, it is both, and as much as the sources allow it to be. It is true that we know rather little about the younger years of Vespasian, but Barbara Levick can hardly be blamed for that, or any other modern author for that matter. Another has mentioned that this book is not the ultimate work on the topic and that there is Rome for another, and perhaps better book on the same Emperor. Perhaps, but the only comment that can be made as I write this review is that, to my knowledge at least, such a book yet has to be published. Barbara Levick first publisheed her book in 1999. We are now in 2012. So, whatever misgivings other reviewers might have, it still seems to be the reference...
So, why is this book very much worth reading?
First of all, because he represents a break. He is the first Emperor of a "new" dynasty, the Flavians, following the death of Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudians, and he is the one who reformed the Empire after the civil war and the year of the Four Emperors (AD 69).
Second, he is, was very much was presented and was very careful to be seen as the "anti-Nero". While the latter increasingly behaved like an erratic tyrant and an abolute monarch, Vespasian was very aware of hte need to present himself as being devoted to the public good, hard working even on his death-bed, and as a "normal" emperor, with Augustus as his role model, rather than that of a hellenistic king.
Third, he was very much of a "new man", as opposed to senators coming from the old patrician families and able to trace their lineage back to the Republic for a couple of centuries, at leaast those that had survived the various purges of the Julio-Claudians and the civil. Since he was not one of theirs, he had an incentive to avoid antaginize them, at least in the earlier years of his reign. Also, this is the first time that a non-patrician whose ancestors might even have been non-Roman, had become Emperor. There would be other Emperors that were not from the "old families" after him, showing a shift in the elites of the Empire that Trajan would also exemplify.
Fouth, perhaps the main interest of this book, especially when read together with Miriam Griffin's biography of Nero, is the utter contrast between the two in terms of coverage. Nero was one of the most despised of all emperors. Vespasian was quite the opposite and has enjoyed good to excellent press ever since his death. The main merit of this book is to show how this good reputation was very carefully crafted and built up over time (while Nero largely squandered whatever intial goodwill that he had) but it was also very much deserved.
Well worth five stars, but as a piece of scholarship, rather than as an entertaining book that any general reader might enjoy...
on June 5, 2001
There is no fault to be had with Levick's attention to detail, or her painstaking research. Where Vespasian falls flat, however, is in style and organization. Levick eschews the narrative, and spurns a chronological approach to her subject. She chooses instead a subject-oriented organization; not bad in and of itself (Michael Grant largely pulls that off in The Severans), but her dry style and over-attention to obscure details and constant quarrels with other scholars make the absence of a narrative approach nearly fatal.
Levick also buries any hint of her own voice or feelings. Obviously, she must have a keen interest in Vespasian to have invested such a large amount of work in the book. Yet none of her interest comes through. Contrast that with historians such as Norwich, Tuchman, or Runciman - a passion for their subject shines through each of their works. The best historians set out with the mindset, "This is a fascinating era of history, and I'm going to show my readers why they should think so, too." Levick seems to have other priorities.
Perhaps academics can appreciate Levick's work (and perhaps the Italian translation is more gripping); for the amateur, however, looking for an enjoyable, educational foray into Imperial Rome, Levick's Vespasian is best avoided.
on January 22, 2007
I am incredulous that one reviewer would term Caligula, Claudius, and Vespasian as "boring." There are dozens and dozens of boring Emperors. But these guys? Caligula, dressing up as a Pharoh (or a woman) and parading the streets of Rome with a fake falling-off beard. Claudius, proclaimed Emperor by the Praetorian Guards as a joke--that backfired. Except for his choice of wives, such as his niece Agrippina (too bad about that. It gave the world Nero. Oh, and Messalina, the party girl!) he did rather well. And Vespasian himself, who would have thought! He brought stability to the empire, paid off the debts, put a tax on urine, and got to sleep with Antonia Caenis as well. These guys were anything but boring. And given the paucity of solid stuff on Vespasian, I'll take what I can get.
on June 11, 2000
Barbara Levick writes books about the "boring" emperors, Tiberius, Claudius, and now Vespasian. The challenge is to bring these emperors to life without having the wild anecdotes of Caligula or Nero available. The problem is compounded here since the narrative source material on Vespasian is very limited.
Levick has done a wonderful job bringing together all the different kinds of evidence available concerning Vespasian. If there is something you want to know about Vespasian, it is probably in this book, or the references in the footnotes will tell you where to find it. However, the book fails to tell the story in a way that will interest anyone but scholars or diehard Roman history buffs. I count myself in the last group, and am glad I read it, but it was pretty dry at times.
on July 28, 2012
I found the book really boring. I did it for a school report and it was a convenience thing. I rented it on amazon but their TTS (text To speech)was horrible so I bought it from Google Play and It was fine. This Would be a awesome book for someone that likes Roman history in depth. The author does a really good job telling you about the life of Vespasian. I liked learning about him.
on March 30, 2000
"Vespasian" is a bio on one of lesser known roman emperors. After a time of civil war he established the Flavian rule over the empire. The book is well written but not overly dramatic. It is rather dry telling of Vespasian's rise to power and rule with his sons over the expanding roman empire. The book is like reading a textbook. Maybe the author lectures better than she writes, she is a professor at Oxford. Levick cites a number of sources including such Flavian writers as Pliny the Elder and Josephus. I think in the end the reader would be better off reading those works than this book.