Roman Empire: Vespasian and the East (Part 7)


Meanwhile, on the other side of Europe, Fortune was already sowing the seeds of a dynasty, the varying fortunes of which were destined to bring at one time happiness to the country and success to its rulers, at another misery to the country and to the rulers destruction. [The Flavian dynasty; Vespasian and Titus brought the happiness, Domitian the misery] Before Galba’s fall Titus Vespasianus had been dispatched by his father from Judaea to Rome. The ostensible reason of his journey was to show respect to the new emperor, and to solicit some post for which his years now fitted him. [He was 30] However, the popular passion for invention suggested that he had been summoned to be adopted. This rumour was based on the fact that Galba was old and childless: the public never wearies of appointing successors until the choice is made. The character of Titus gave still more colour to it. He seemed capable of filling any position. His appearance lacked neither charm nor dignity. Vespasian’s successes also and the utterances of certain oracles further endorsed the rumour, to say nothing of the chance occurrences which pass for omens where the wish is father to the thought. It was at Corinth in Achaia that Titus received the news of Galba’s murder, and was assured by people in the town that Vitellius had declared war. In great perplexity he summoned a few of his friends and discussed all the possibilities of the situation. If he continued his journey to Rome he would earn no gratitude for compliments addressed to another sovereign, [i.e. to Galba] and would be held as a hostage either for Vitellius or for Otho: on the other hand, if he returned to Judaea he would inevitably offend the victor. However, the struggle was still undecided, and the father’s adherence to the successful party would excuse the conduct of the son. Or if Vespasian himself assumed sovereignty, they would have to plan war and forget all about giving offence.

Such considerations held him balanced between hope and fear; but ultimately hope prevailed. Some people believed that his longing to get back to Queen Berenice [She was the granddaughter of Herod the Great, and lived with her brother, Herod Agrippa, ruler of Peraea. They heard St. Paul at Caesarea. She had married first her uncle, Herod Agrippa, prince of Chalcis; then Polemo II, king of Pontus, whom she left. She was known to have visited Titus in Rome, and he was said to have promised her marriage] fired him to return. True, the young man’s fancy was attracted by Berenice, but he did not allow this to interfere with business. Still his youth was a time of gay self-indulgence, and he showed more restraint in his own reign than in his father’s. Accordingly he sailed along the coasts of Greece and Asia Minor, and, skirting the seas which lay upon his left, reached the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus, whence he made a bolder crossing to Syria. [i.e. across the open sea] On his way he conceived a desire to visit the temple of Venus at Paphos, [In Cyprus] which is famous among all the inhabitants and visitors. It may not be tedious to give here a short account of the origin of this worship, the ritual of the cult, and the shape-unparalleled elsewhere-in which the goddess is depicted.

According to an old tradition the temple was founded by King Aerias, and some people maintain that the goddess bears the same name. A more modern version states that the temple was consecrated by Cinyras, [Another mythical king of Cyprus. Hesychius calls him a son of Apollo, and Ovid makes him the father of Adonis] on the spot where the goddess landed when the sea gave her birth. The method of divination, [From the flight and cries of birds] however, according to this account, was imported from elsewhere by the Cilician Tamiras, and an arrangement was made that the descendants of both families should preside over the rites. Later, however, it seemed wrong that the royal line should have no prerogative, so the descendants of the foreigner [i.e. the Tamiradae] resigned the practice of the art which they had themselves introduced, and now the priest whom you consult is always of the line of Cinyras. They accept any victim that is offered, but males are preferred. They put most faith in kids’ entrails. Blood must not be poured on the altar, at which they offer only prayers and fire untainted by smoke. Although the altars stand in the open air they are never wetted by rain. The goddess is not represented in human form; the idol is a sort of circular pyramid, [i.e. a conical stone] rising from a broad base to a small round top, like a turning-post. The reason of this is unknown.

The Goddess favours Titus

Titus inspected the temple treasures and the offerings made by various kings, and other curiosities which the Greek passion for archaeology attributes to a dim antiquity. He then consulted the oracle first about his voyage. Learning that the sea was calm, and that no obstacles stood in his way, he sacrificed a large number of victims, and put covert questions about his own fortunes. The priest, whose name was Sostratus, seeing that the entrails were uniformly favourable, and that the goddess assented to Titus’ ambitious schemes, returned at the moment a brief and ordinary reply, but afterwards sought a private interview and revealed the future to him. So Titus returned to his father with heightened hopes, and amid the general anxiety of the provinces and their armies his arrival spread boundless confidence of success.

Vespasian had already broken the back of the Jewish war. Only the siege of Jerusalem remained. That this proved a difficult and laborious task was due rather to the high situation of the town and the stubborn superstition of its inhabitants than to any adequate provision enabling them to endure the hardships of the siege.

Vespasian had, as we have already stated, three legions well tried in war. Four others were under Mucianus’ command. Although these had never seen war, yet their envy of the neighbouring army’s fame had banished sloth. Indeed, as the former were hardened by work and danger, so the latter owed their ardour to their unbroken inaction, and their shame at having no share in the war.[Reading “inexperti belli rubor” (Andresen)] Both generals had, besides auxiliary infantry and cavalry, foreign fleets[Of Pontus, Syria, and Egypt] and allied princes,[ Antiochus of Commagene (between Syria and Cappadocia), Agrippa of Peraea (east of Jordan), and Sohaemus of Sophene (on the Upper Euphrates, round the sources of the Tigris)] and a fame that rested on widely differing claims. Vespasian was an indefatigable campaigner. He headed the column, chose the camping-ground, never ceasing by night or day to use strategy, and, if need be, the sword to thwart the enemy. He eat what he could get, and dressed almost like a common soldier.

Indeed, save for his avarice, he matched the generals of old days. Mucianus, on the other hand, was distinguished by his wealth and luxury, and his general superiority to the standards of a private person. He was the better speaker, and a skilful administrator and statesman. Their combined qualities would have made a fine emperor, if one could have blended their virtues and omitted their vices.

Governing as they did the neighbouring provinces of Judaea and Syria, jealousy at first led to quarrels. However, on the death of Nero, they forgot their dislike and joined hands. It was their friends who first brought them together, and subsequently Titus became the chief bond of union and for the common good suppressed their ignoble jealousy. Both by nature and training he had charm to fascinate even such a man as Mucianus. The tribunes and centurions and the common soldiers were attracted, each according to his character, either by Titus’ meritorious industry or by his gay indulgence in pleasure.

Before the arrival of Titus both armies had sworn allegiance to Otho. News travels fast in such cases, but civil war is a slow and serious undertaking, and the East, after its long repose, was now for the first time beginning to arm for it. In earlier times all the fiercest civil wars broke out in Italy or Cisalpine Gaul among the forces of the West. Pompey, Cassius, Brutus, and Antony all courted disaster by carrying the war oversea. Syria and Judaea often heard of Caesars, but seldom saw one. There were no mutinies among the soldiers. They merely made demonstrations against Parthia with varying success. Even in the last civil war [Which dethroned Nero] the peace of these provinces had been untroubled by the general confusion. Later they were loyal to Galba. But when they heard that Otho and Vitellius were engaged in a wicked contest for the possession of the Roman world, the troops began to chafe at the thought that the prizes of empire should fall to others, while their own lot was mere compulsory submission. They began to take stock of their strength. Syria and Judaea had seven legions on the spot with a vast force of auxiliaries. Next came Egypt with two legions: [III Cyrenaica, XXII Deiotariana] beyond lay Cappadocia and Pontus, and all the forts along the Armenian frontier. Asia and the remaining provinces were rich and thickly populated. As for the islands, their girdle of sea was safe from the enemy and aided the prosecution of the war.

The generals were well aware of the soldiers’ feelings, but decided to await the issue between Vitellius and Otho. ‘In civil war,’ they reckoned, ‘there are no sure ties to unite victor and vanquished. It matters little which survives: even good generals are corrupted by success: as for Otho and Vitellius, their troops are quarrelsome, lazy, and luxurious, and they are both the victims of their own vices.

One will fall on the field and the other succumb to his success.’ So Vespasian and Mucianus postponed their attack for the present. They were themselves recent converts to the project of war, which the others [Titus and their officers and friends] had long fostered from various motives. The better sorts were animated by patriotism, many by mere love of plunder, and some by the uncertainty of their own fortunes. Thus, though their motives differed, all, good and bad alike, agreed in their eager desire for war.

About this time Achaia and Asia were thrown into a groundless panic by a rumour that ‘Nero was at hand’. The accounts of his death being many and various, people were all the more inclined to allege and to believe that he was still alive. We shall mention in the course of this work the attempts and the fate of the other pretenders. [These accounts are lost. There was one such attempt under Domitian and another under Titus. The Christians expected him to re-appear as Antichrist] This time it was a slave from Pontus, or, according to other traditions, a freedman from Italy. His skill as a singer and harpist, combined with his facial resemblance to Nero, gave him some credentials for imposture. He bribed some penniless and vagabond deserters by dazzling promises to join him, and they all set out to sea. A storm drove them on to the island of Cythnus, [Thermia] where he found some troops homeward bound on leave from the East. Some of these he enrolled, killing all who resisted, and then proceeded to plunder the local merchants and arm all the sturdiest of the slaves. Finding a centurion named Sisenna carrying home a pair of silver hands as a token of alliance from the army in Syria to the Household Guards, he tried by various devices to seduce him, until Sisenna took fright and escaped secretly from the island in fear of violence. Thus the panic spread. The great name of Nero attracted many who pined for revolution and hated the existing state of things. The rumours waxed daily, until a chance dispelled them. Galba had entrusted the government of Galatia and Pamphylia [These with Lycia at this date formed a single imperial province] to Calpurnius Asprenas, who had been granted an escort of two triremes from the fleet at Misenum. It so happened that with these he touched at Cythnus. The rebels lost no time in appealing to the ship’s captains in the name of Nero. The pretender, assuming an air of melancholy, appealed to ‘the loyalty of his former soldiers’, and begged them to establish him in Syria or Egypt. The captains either from sympathy or guile alleged that they must talk to their men, and would come back when they had prepared all their minds. However, they faithfully made a full report to Asprenas, on whose instructions they boarded the ship and killed the impostor, whoever he was. The man’s eyes and hair and ferocious look were so remarkable that the body was carried into Asia and thence to Rome.


In a country so divided and tossed by frequent change of rulers between liberty and licence even small events caused serious disturbance. It happened that Vibius Crispus, [A close friend of Vespasian, who was supposed to ply the trade of informer] a man whose wealth, influence, and ability had won him a reputation that was great rather than good, had impeached before the senate a man of equestrian rank, called Annius Faustus, who had been a professional informer under Nero. The senate had recently in Galba’s principate passed a resolution authorizing the prosecution of informers. This resolution had been variously applied from time to time, and interpreted rigorously or leniently according as the defendant was helpless or influential. But it still retained some terrors. Crispus, moreover, had exerted all his powers to secure the conviction of the man who had informed against his brother.[Vibius Secundus, banished for extortion in Mauretania] He had, in fact, induced a large proportion of the senate to demand that Faustus should be sent to execution undefended and unheard. However, with others, the defendant gained a great advantage from his prosecutor’s undue influence. ‘We must give him time,’ they argued, ‘the charges must be published: however hateful the criminal his case must be properly heard.’ At first this advice prevailed. The trial was postponed for a few days. At length came the conviction of Faustus, which aroused in the country less satisfaction than his vile character warranted. People recalled the fact that Crispus himself had turned informer with pecuniary profit. It was not the penalty but the prosecutor that was unpopular.

REFERENCE: The Histories (Book 2) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus
Translated w/Notation: By W. HAMILTON FYFE (1912)
CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick


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