Vespasian in Libya

Oct 9, 2022 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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While the full fall-out of the war in Iraq remains to be assessed, many commentators are already suggesting that the complete defeat of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, has played a not insignificant part in producing a more amenable attitude on the part of other dictators around the world, among them Libya’s charismatic but erratic leader Gaddafi. His sudden decision to abandon decades of hostility towards the West and give up his weapons of mass destruction has taken everyone by surprise.

As the former leader of the anti-Israel faction, Gadaffi must find the statue that stands in the foyer of the Sabratha Museum offering some slight balm to his spirit. The headless statue dates from the 1st century AD and depicts a Roman emperor wearing ceremonial armour. Although there is no inscription giving the caesar’s name and the absence of a head means that he cannot be identified from his facial features, the richly ornamented cuirass that he is wearing gives us a clue as to his identity.

At the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD the Roman empire was in turmoil. In 69 AD the unpopular Nero had been overthrown and committed suicide, leaving his throne to Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. Unfortunately Galba tried to be an honest emperor; he instituted strict discipline for the troops and, with the nearly empty treasury in mind, refused to pay them the substantial bribes they had come to expect. By January 17, 70 AD Galba had been assassinated and Otho, a friend of Nero’s, was proclaimed emperor.

Otho had no chance to show his mettle, for Vitellius had also claimed the throne on the death of Galba and his troops rapidly approached. When, three months later, Otho’s men were defeated, Otho took the honourable (or the desperate) way out and committed suicide.

Meanwhile Vespasian, who had won his laurels in Britain by capturing the huge hill forts of Hod Hill and Maiden Castle, was carrying on with the subjugation of Judea. By July the whole of Judea was pacified and Jerusalem was under siege. The legions in Alexandria proclaimed Vespasian emperor and were quickly followed by the Danubian legions, who put words into action and marched into Italy.

Vitellius was defeated at Cremona and fled to Rome where he promptly fell victim to a plot engineered by Vespasian’s uncle and Domitian, his youngest son. Vitellius was murdered and his body thrown into the Tiber. As soon as the news reached Judea Vespasian left his eldest son Titus in charge of operations and set out for Rome.

Oddly, Vitellius, desperate for some foreign success to take the mind of the people off the deteriorating situation at home, had already produced a series of coins celebrating the victory in Judea. Vespasian, with better reason, re-issued the coins with his own face on them. One depicted a woman sitting weeping under a palm tree; behind her stands a Jew with his hands tied behind his back. Another, also featuring a weeping woman, has Vespasian himself in full armour standing over her. Both bear the inscription “Judea Capta” – Judea captive.

These motifs are repeated on the cuirass of the Sabratha figure. Right down the centre of the front of the piece of armour is the palm tree. Behind the tree is a winged figure of Victory, while in front of it is the cloaked Jew with his bound arms. Below the tree is the weeping woman symbolising the defeated nation.

The use of these figures makes it almost certain that the figure is intended to represent Vespasian: it may even have been made for his triumphal procession through the streets of Rome. The only remaining puzzle is how it ended up in Africa.

May 2004

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