Ancient Miracle Workers: The Emperor Vespasian

VespasianWhen we think about miracle workers in antiquity, holy men usually come to mind: historical figures who captured the imagination through their supernatural talents and their working of divine miracles. Although Roman emperors were deified, and thereby considered godlike by default, their special talents generally relate to success on the battle field or their ability to mobilize the public. The emperor Vespasian, however, is an exception. Indeed, before he became princeps, he was working miracles in Alexandria.

Let me step back and clarify—the miracles in question are disputed. Our report here is comes from the Roman historian Tacitus, who takes a skeptical view of Vespasian’s holy deeds. Of course, like any savvy politician, Tacitus knew that to win political power one must first win the hearts of the people. And this is exactly where we find Vespasian. A future leader who has yet to become emperor, he is laying low in Egypt during a time of civil strife.

As the story goes, during this time, Vespasian was the subject of several miracles which indicated that the gods favoured him. The biggest indication came, however, from two men—one who was going blind and the other who was crippled in his hand. Each, thinking that Vespasian held divine power, accosted the would-be emperor and sought to be healed. One man by Vespasian’s spit, the other through the power of his footprints:

e plebe Alexandrina quidam oculorum tabe notus genua eius advolvitur, remedium caecitatis exposcens gemitu, monitu Serapidis dei,…precabaturque principem ut genas et oculorum orbis dignaretur respergere oris excremento. alius manum aeger eodem deo auctore ut pede ac vestigio Caesaris calcaretur orabat. Vespasianus primo inridere, aspernari; atque illis instantibus modo famam vanitatis metuere, modo obsecratione ipsorum et vocibus adulantium in spem induci.

Of the Alexandrian people, one man who learned that there was decay of his eyes fell at his [Vespasian’s] knees, imploring him with a groan for a remedy of his blindness, since he was advised by the god Serapis…he begged the princeps that his cheeks and circles of the eyes were deemed worthy to be sprinkled with his spit. Another man who was sick in his hand spoke to this same god and father [Serapis] with the result that his hand might be walked on by the Caesar’s foot and footprints. At first, Vespasian laughed and these requests were rejected. Through these instances, he feared that he would acquire a reputation for vanity, but he was finally led to hope by the entreaty of these very people and the cries of adulation.

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Although initially unsure whether to attempt to heal these men, Vespasian is swayed by the crowd. But this dude is a cool cookie. He knows that, if things go right and the men are healed, he will be viewed as a god. But if the men are not healed, he will look impotent and foolish. So he does what any cunning politician would do—he takes a poll. Seeking out doctors, he assesses the chance that these men might be healed of their illnesses and how this might come about. Vespasian, you see, isn’t so much interested in working miracles, as he is in giving the appearance that he can work miracles:

postremo aestimari a medicis iubet an talis caecitas ac debilitas ope humana superabiles forent. medici varie disserere: huic non exesam vim luminis et redituram si pellerentur obstantia; illi elapsos in pravum artus, si salubris vis adhibeatur, posse integrari. denique patrati remedii gloriam penes Caesarem, inriti ludibrium penes miseros fore. igitur Vespasianus cuncta fortunae suae patere ratus nec quicquam ultra incredibile. laeto ipse vultu, erecta quae adstabat multitudine, iussa exequitur. statim conversa ad usum manus, ac caeco reluxit dies.

Finally, he ordered them to be checked out by some doctors or to learn if such a kinds of blindness or debility might be surmounted with human aid. The doctors talked in various ways: for the one man, the power of light was not gone and it would return if obstacles were removed; for the other man, his muscles slipped into a crooked form, but if he was held with good power, it was possible that he could be made whole….if the remedies were performed, there would be glory for Caeser. But if they were of no importance to the unfortunate men, there would be mockery. Therefore, Vespasian imagined that all fortune was available to him, and nothing could be more incredible.

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As the crowd stood by with baited breath, Vespasian weighed the odds, concluding that it was possible to heal these men—not through his sorcerous spit or magic footprints, but through the application of medical techniques (which aren’t fully named beyond a bit of physiotherapy for the guy with the dodgy hand). Of course, Vespasian gambles a bit here, but decides that he’s been especially blessed by the gods lately, so why not give it a shot.

So how does it go? Vespasian is victorious! Moreover, he is victorious in front of an eager crowd, who eats up his flashy smile as he heals the men of their ailments.

laeto ipse vultu, erecta quae adstabat multitudine, iussa exequitur. statim conversa ad usum manus, ac caeco reluxit dies.

With a happy appearance, he stood among the multitude which had gathered, and he performed the prescriptions. Steadily, the hand turned to use and the day shown again for the blind man.

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Tacitus, nevertheless, remains skeptical, although he claims that no one has anything to gain by repeating this story, and that fact alone is indicative of its veracity. The skepticism comes in the nature of the healing: although effected with the help of medical professionals, Vespasian indeed heals these men and perhaps that is enough of an indicator of divine favour.

Like other holy men in antiquity, Vespasian is portrayed as deriving his power from a divine source. He is noted as being especially favoured by the gods, and the success of his healing is framed as being a result of a divine providence (with a bit of rational calculation thrown in for insurance). But this holy man didn’t come from the fringes of society; he was a major player in Roman affairs and a future emperor. In this way, it is a bit surprising to see Vespasian in the role of divine holy man. Nonetheless, the events in Alexandria suggest that, like others in antiquity, emperors were able to perform miracles as agents as the divine.