Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Darling of Mankind



The early death of Titus, the elder son of Vespasian, was taken as another proof of the truth of the gloomy saying already quoted, that "the darlings of the Roman People were short lived and unlucky." He reigned two years two months and twenty days, and during that time neither said nor did anything that could be blamed. Of course there were sceptical observers who remarked that such virtue could not have stood the test of time and of a prolonged reign. "Augustus," they said, "would not have been beloved if he had not lived to old age, nor Titus if he had not died in his prime."

Of Augustus, doubtless, this was true. It was only when he was firmly seated on his throne that he felt himself able to be merciful and forbearing; the passions too, of his youth and manhood were moderated by advancing years, and he died at seventy-seven with a reputation for wisdom, moderation and clemency which at fifty he had certainly not earned. What Titus might have become it is impossible to say; and power, we know only too well, has a corrupting influence. Still he was of mature age when he came to the throne, and he certainly found in the possession of power exactly the reverse of what others have found in it, a reason for discontinuing, not for increasing, the indulgences which as a subject he had allowed himself. On the whole, we may be allowed to believe that if a longer life had been allowed him, he would not have been false to his better reputation.

The young Titus was educated along with Britannicus, the unhappy youth whom Agrippina robbed of his succession to the throne, and Nero of his life. One of the soothsayers who professed to read the fortune of a child by inspecting his forehead was brought to see the young Prince by one of his father's freedmen, and declared that he never would be Emperor, "but this lad" he went on, pointing at Titus, "certainly will be." He had, however, a narrow escape from perishing along with his companion, for he drank of the same poisoned cup, and had a severe illness in consequence. When the prophecy was fulfilled, Titus did not forget the friend of his boyhood, but set up a gilded statue of him in the hall of the Imperial palace.

As a lad the future Emperor showed singular promise. His memory was remarkably retentive. He was an excellent speaker and a skilful verse writer, and as much at home in Greek as in his native tongue. So great was his facility in composition that it amounted to a gift of extemporising. He was a skilful singer and musician, so rapid a writer that he could vanquish his own amanuenses, and so clever in imitating handwritings that he should have made, he was wont to say, the best of forgers. In all martial exercises he was remarkably proficient. Though not tall he was very handsome.

He began life as usual as a soldier, serving in Germany and Britain. He seems to have been popular, but his military reputation was won in the East. Vespasian was busy with the Jewish war, when he was called to the throne, and he left Titus behind to bring it to a close. The young man—he was barely thirty—conducted the siege of Jerusalem with the greatest skill, while showing at the same time the greatest personal courage. So popular was he with the troops that when he was leaving the province for Italy the legions besought him, even adding threats to their entreaties, that he would either stay or take them with him. There were not wanting, of course, foolish or malignant reports that he intended to trade on this popularity and to revolt from his father. That he had been seen to put a crown on his head when he was consecrating the bull Apis at Memphis—a curious instance, by the way, of Roman toleration—was supposed to give confirmation to the slander. Titus felt the imputation acutely. He took the quickest passage to Italy that he could, hurried to Rome, and burst in unexpectedly upon his father with the exclamation: "I have come, father, I have come!"

From that time to his father's death he was associated in all the cares of Empire. More than once he felt himself compelled to act with an energy that seemed to savour of a tyrannical temper. The most conspicuous instance was that of an ex-consul, Aulus Cæcina. Cæcina had been one of the trusted lieutenants of Vitellius, and had betrayed his master. He now meditated a new treason. Titus invited him to supper, and caused him to be struck down as he was leaving the dining-room; but then he had come into possession of a copy of the speech which Cæcina intended to address to the troops. In his private life too Titus had incurred no little censure. The Roman public was not by any means strict in its moral judgements; but there were some things which it condemned, not so much because they were criminal, as because they were unpatriotic. Such was the young Prince's passion for the Jewish Queen Berenice. She might well, it was thought, be another Cleopatra, and her presence in Rome was regarded with the most unfavorable eyes. Some of these adverse critics went so far as to say that the death of Vespasian would put another Nero on the throne.

When the dreaded change came to pass all these sinister predictions were found to be false. Berenice was sent away from Rome, though the Emperor did not conceal his grief at parting from her. All unworthy favorites were dismissed. Luxury was discountenanced. The Imperial entertainments were pleasant but were not profuse. The justice of the new Emperor's rule was conspicuous. No kind of extortion was practised or allowed. Even customary demands were not made. At the same time there was a liberal expenditure, especially in the matter so dear to the Roman heart, the public shows, and in what was scarcely less important, the public baths. At the opening of a new amphitheatre there was an exhibition on the most munificent scale. This was followed by a sham sea-fight, and a show in which no less than five thousand wild beasts were exhibited.

Personally Titus was generous even to a fault. No petitioner went away dissatisfied. When his ministers reminded him that he was promising more than lay within his ability, or, it may be, his duty to perform, he answered that no one ought to leave the presence of an Emperor disappointed. "I have lost a day" was his exclamation when at night he could not recall any act of kindness that he had done.

The informers who had been the curse of Rome under his predecessors met with no favour from him. He had them publicly flogged, and then either sold them into slavery, or banished them to the most barren islands of the Ægean. Capital punishment he never inflicted. When he assumed the dignity of Chief Pontiff—always held by the Emperors—he said: "I take this office that I may keep my hands from blood." From that day he never put anyone to death, or acquiesced in others doing it. Sometimes his own safety seemed to require it, but on this point his resolve was inflexible. "I would sooner die than kill," he said. Two Roman nobles conspired against him; he did nothing but bid them desist. "It is only the Fates that can give the Empire," he said to them; "ask me for anything else and you shall have it." The mother of one of the conspirators was living far from Rome. She knew that her son was in danger. The Emperor sent his own courier to assure her of his safety. He invited both to dine at his own table, and at a show of gladiators, exhibited the next day, handed to them for their inspection the weapons of the combatants, which had according to custom been presented to him.

His worst enemy was his brother, yet he never wavered in his affection for him, or went beyond the entreaty that he would return the love which he himself felt.

His short reign was marked by two fearful disasters; the destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii, and a fire which consumed a large portion of Rome. He employed all his resources in repairing the losses of those who suffered by these calamities.

The cause of his death is involved in mystery. Domitian was commonly accused of having at least hastened it. There is nothing in his character that would make us disbelieve in the charge; but in default of absolute proof he may be allowed the benefit of the doubt. Equally mysterious was the dying Emperor's utterance: "I have not deserved to die so young; I have only one thing to repent of." What this one thing was is not known. Some said that it was that he had not anticipated the malignant design of his brother, a solution which in view of Titus' benificent temper one is unwilling to accept. One thing is certain. There have been few rulers indeed, about whom such a question could not be easily answered, even if it could be asked at all. Well might the historian of the Caesar write, "He was cut off by death, not so much to his own loss as to the loss of mankind."