Roman Empire: Otho – Vitellius; The Decisive Struggle (Part 9)

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

This reverse reduced the Vitellians not to despair but to discipline. Not only was this the case in Caecina’s camp, who blamed his men as being readier for mutiny than for battle, but the troops under Fabius Valens, who had now reached Ticinum, [Pavia] lost their contempt for the enemy, conceived a desire to retrieve their glory, and offered their general a more respectful and steady obedience.

There had, indeed, been a serious outbreak of mutiny, the account of which I may now resume from an earlier chapter, where it seemed wrong to break the narrative of Caecina’s operations. The Batavian auxiliaries, who had left the Fourteenth legion during the war against Vindex, heard of Vitellius’ rising while on their way to Britain, and, as I have already described, joined Fabius Valens in the country of the Lingones. There they grew insolent. Whenever they passed the tents of the Roman soldiers, they boasted loudly that they had coerced the Fourteenth, had deprived Nero of Italy, and held the whole issue of the war in the hollow of their hand. This insulted the soldiers and annoyed the general; brawls and quarrels ruined good discipline.

Ultimately Valens began to suspect that their insubordination meant treachery. Accordingly, on receiving the news that Otho’s fleet had defeated the Treviran cavalry and the Tungri, and was now blockading Narbonese Gaul, he determined at the same time to assist his allies, and by a stroke of generalship to separate contingents that were so insubordinate and, if united, so strong. He therefore ordered the Batavians to march to the support of Narbo. Immediately this order became generally known, the auxiliaries began to complain and the legionaries to chafe. ‘They were being deprived of their strongest support: here were these invincible veterans promptly withdrawn directly the enemy came in sight: if the province was more important than the safety of Rome and the empire, why not all go there? But if Italy was the corner-stone of their success, he ought not as it were to amputate their strongest limb.'[It is Tacitus who has mixed the metaphors]

In answer to this presumptuous criticism, Valens loosed his lictors upon them and set to work to check the mutiny. They attacked their general, stoned him, and chased him out of the camp, shouting that he was concealing the spoils of Gaul and the gold from Vienne, the due reward of their labours. They looted the baggage, ransacked the general’s quarters, and even rummaged in the ground with javelins and lances. Valens, in slave’s dress, took refuge with a cavalry officer.

Gradually the disorder began to die down. Alfenus Varus, the camp-prefect, then hit upon the plan of forbidding the centurions to go the rounds or to have the bugle sounded to summon the men to their duties. No one had anything to do: they eyed each other in astonishment, dismayed above all at having no one to command them. At first by silent submission, at last with tearful prayers, they sought pardon. Valens appeared, haggard and in tears, but above all expectation safe and sound,-joy, sympathy, cheers! With a wild revulsion of feeling–mobs are always extravagant–they made a ring round him with the eagles and standards, and carried him to the Tribunal with loud praises and congratulations. With wise moderation he demanded no punishment, but, to disarm suspicion of his good faith, he criticized one or two of them severely. [i.e. he pretended that not all but only a few were to blame] He was well aware that in civil war the men are allowed more license than their officers.

While they were entrenching themselves at Ticinum they heard the news of Caecina’s defeat, and the mutiny nearly broke out afresh: Valens, they thought, had treacherously delayed in order to keep them out of the battle. They refused rest, would not wait for the general, marched on in front of the standards, hurrying on the bearers, and by a forced march joined Caecina. Valens had a bad name with Caecina’s army. They complained that despite their greatly inferior numbers he had exposed them to the full force of the enemy. At the same time, for fear of being despised as defeated cowards, they excused themselves by exaggerating the strength of the new arrivals. In fact, though Valens’ numbers were larger, and he had almost twice as many legionaries and auxiliaries as Caecina, [Valens had by now Legion V, I Italica, detachments from I, XV, XVI, and Taurus’ Horse: Caecina had Legion XXI and detachments from IV and VII] yet it was Caecina who enjoyed the confidence of the men. Apart from his kindness, in which he seemed much readier than Valens, they admired him for his youthful vigour and commanding stature, and liked him too without exactly knowing why. So there was rivalry between the generals. Caecina mocked at Valens for his dirty and dishonest ways: Valens at Caecina’s pompous vanity. But they smothered their dislike and worked together for a common end, writing frequent letters in which they sacrificed all hope of pardon and heaped abuse on Otho. Otho’s generals refrained from retaliating upon Vitellius, though his character offered richer scope.

In death Otho earned a noble name and Vitellius infamy, yet at this time people were more afraid of Otho’s burning passions than of Vitellius’ listless luxury. The murder of Galba had made Otho feared and hated, while no one attributed to Vitellius the outbreak of the war. It was felt that Vitellius’ gluttony was a personal disgrace: Otho’s excesses, his cruelty and his daring, spelt more danger to the country.

Now that Caecina and Valens had joined forces, the Vitellians had no longer any reason to avoid a decisive battle. Otho accordingly held a council to decide whether they should prolong the war or put their fortune to the test. Suetonius Paulinus, who was considered the most experienced general of his day, [He had made his name in a Moorish war (A.D. 42), when he had penetrated as far as Mount Atlas, and increased his reputation by suppressing the rebellion of Boadicea when he was governor of Britain (A.D. 59)] now felt it was due to his reputation to deliver his views on the general conduct of the war. His contention was that the enemy’s interests were best served by haste, Otho’s by delay. He argued thus: ‘The whole of Vitellius’ force has now arrived and he has few reinforcements in his rear, for the Gallic provinces are in a ferment, and it would be fatal to abandon the Rhine with all those hostile tribes ready to swarm across it. The troops in Britain are busy with their own foes and cut off by the sea: the Spanish provinces can scarcely spare any troops: the Narbonese are seriously alarmed by their recent reverse and the inroads of our fleet. The country across the Po is shut in by the Alps and denied all supplies by sea, [Otho held the fleets] and, besides, its resources have been already exhausted by the passage of their army. Nowhere can they get supplies, and without commissariat no army can be kept together. The German troops are their strongest fighting arm, but their constitutions will not be strong enough to stand the change of weather, if we protract the war into the summer. It has often happened that a force, which seemed irresistible at first, has dwindled to nothing through the tedium of forced inaction.

‘On the other hand, our resources are rich and reliable. We have on our side Pannonia, Moesia, Dalmatia, and the East; the armies there are fresh and strong; we have Italy and Rome, the Queen of the World, and the Roman Senate and People: those titles always mean something, though their glory may sometimes be obscured. We have large public and private resources, and in civil war a vast quantity of money is stronger than the sword. Our soldiers are inured to the Italian climate or, at any rate, to heat. We are entrenched behind the Po: [He means that they would be, if they took his advice and retired across the Po to the south bank] its cities are protected by strong walls and willing hands, and the defence of Placentia has shown that none of them will yield to the enemy.’ Therefore Otho must remain on the defensive. In a few days the Fourteenth legion would arrive: its fame alone was great, and the Moesian forces [According to the rumours quoted in chap. 46 they were already at Aquileia, near Venice, but Suetonius, whose father was at this time a tribune in the Thirteenth, says that they heard of Otho’s death before arriving at Aquileia] would be with it. He should, at any rate, postpone his deliberations until then, and fight, if fight he must, with augmented strength.

Marius Celsus supported Paulinus. Annius Gallus had been hurt a few days before by a fall from his horse, but messengers were sent to inquire his views, and they reported that he too agreed. Otho inclined to a decisive engagement. His brother Titianus and Proculus, the prefect of the Guard, with all the impatience of inexperience, stoutly maintained that fortune and Providence, and Otho’s own good genius inspired his policy, and would inspire its performance. They had descended to flattery by way of checking opposition. When it was decided to take the offensive, the question arose whether Otho in person should take part in the battle or hold himself in reserve. His evil counsellors again carried their point. Otho was to retire to Brixellum, [Brescello] and, by withdrawing from the hazards of the field, reserve himself for the supreme control of the campaign and of the empire. To this Paulinus and Celsus offered no further opposition, for fear of seeming to endanger the person of their prince. From this day dates the decline of Otho’s party. Not only did he take with him a considerable force of the Guards, Body Guard, and cavalry, but the spirit of the troops who remained behind was broken. The men trusted no one but Otho, and Otho no one but the men. His generals were under suspicion and their authority left in doubt. [No one knew for certain who was in command. We are told in chap. 39 that he left Titianus in nominal command, though the real authority lay with Proculus]

None of these arrangements failed to reach the ears of the Vitellians. Desertions were frequent, as they always are in civil war, and the scouts in their eagerness to discover the enemy’s plans always failed to conceal their own. Caecina and Valens, counting on the fatal impatience of the enemy, remained quietly on their guard to see what they would do: for it is always wisdom to profit by another’s folly. Feigning an intention of crossing the Po, they began to construct a bridge, partly as a demonstration against the gladiators [No one knew for certain who was in command. We are told that he left Titianus in nominal command, though the real authority lay with Proculus] on the opposite bank, partly to find something for their idle troops to do. Boats were placed at equal intervals with their heads up stream and fastened together by strong wooden planks. They also cast anchors from them to ensure the solidity of the bridge, but they allowed the hawsers to drift slack, so that when the river rose, the boats might all rise with it without the line being broken. To guard the bridge a high tower was built out on the end boat, from which they could repulse the enemy with various artillery. Meanwhile the Othonians had built a tower on the bank and kept up a steady shower of stones and torches.

In midstream there was an island, to which the gladiators tried to make their way in boats, but the Germans swam over and got there first. When a good number of them had swam across, Macer manned some Liburnian cruisers and attacked them with the bravest of his gladiators. But they fought with less courage than soldiers, and from their unsteady boats they could not shoot so well as the others, who had a firm footing on the bank. Swaying this way and that in their alarm, the sailors and the marines were beginning to get in each other’s way, when the Germans actually leapt into the shallows, caught hold of the boats by the stern, and either clambered up by the gangways or sunk them bodily with their own hands. All this took place before the eyes of both armies [i.e. of Macer’s gladiators on one bank and the detachment employed by Caecina for bridge-building, etc., on the other. The main armies were Otho’s at Bedriacum and Vitellius’ at Cremona], and the higher rose the spirits of the Vitellians, the greater became the indignation of the Othonians against Macer, the author and cause of their disaster. The remainder of the boats were eventually dragged off, [i.e. from the Germans who were trying to board or sink them] and the battle ended in flight. The army demanded Macer’s execution. He had been actually wounded by a lance that had been flung at him, and the soldiers were rushing on him with drawn swords when some tribunes and centurions intervened and rescued him.

Soon after this, Vestricius Spurinna, on Otho’s orders, brought up a reinforcement of the Guards, leaving behind a small garrison at Placentia, and before long, Otho sent the consul-elect, Flavius Sabinus, to take command of Macer’s force. This change pleased the soldiers, but the frequent mutinies made the generals unwilling to assume such a perilous command.

In some of my authorities [Plutarch, in his Life of Otho, after quoting the view of the emperor’s secretary, Secundus, that Otho was over-strained and desperate, goes on to give the explanation of ‘others’. This agrees exactly with the story given here. Plutarch and Tacitus are apparently quoting from the same authority, unknown to us, perhaps Cluvius Rufus] I find a statement that either a growing fear of war or dislike of the two emperors, whose discreditable misconduct grew daily more notorious, led the armies to hesitate whether they should not give up the struggle and either themselves combine to choose an emperor or refer the choice to the senate. This, it is suggested, was the motive of Otho’s generals in advising delay, and Paulinus in particular had high hopes, since he was the senior ex-consul, and a distinguished general who had earned a brilliant reputation by his operations in Britain. For my own part, while I am ready to admit that a few people may have tacitly wished for peace instead of civil war, or for a good and virtuous emperor instead of two who were the worst of criminals, yet I imagine that Paulinus was much too wise to hope that in a time of universal corruption the people would show such moderation. Those who had sacrificed peace in a passion for war were not likely to stop the war from any affection for peace. Nor was it possible that armies whose language and characteristics differed so widely should ever come to such an agreement. As for the officers; nearly all of them were extravagant, bankrupt, and guilty of some crime: they had not a good enough conscience to put up with any emperor who was not as vicious as themselves and under an obligation for their services.

The old ingrained human passion for power matured and burst into prominence with the growth of the empire. With straighter resources equality was easily preserved. But when once we had brought the world to our feet and exterminated every rival state or king, we were left free to covet power without fear of interruption. It was then that strife first broke out between patricians and plebeians: at one time arose seditious tribunes, [e.g. the brothers Gracchus, Saturninus, and Drusus] at another tyrannous consul: [e.g. Appius Claudius and L. Opimius, of whom Plutarch says that in suppressing C. Gracchus he used his consular authority like that of a dictator] in the Forum at Rome were sown the first seeds of civil war. Before long, Marius, rising from the lowest ranks of the people, and Sulla, the cruelest of all the nobles, crushed our liberty by force of arms and substituted despotism. Then Pompey, whose aims, though less patent, were no better than theirs. From that time onwards the one end sought was supreme power in the state. Even at Pharsalia and Philippi the citizen armies did not lay down their arms. How then can we suppose that the troops of Otho and Vitellius would have willingly stopped the war? The same anger of heaven, the same human passions, and the same criminal motives drove them into discord. True these wars were each settled by a single battle, but that was due to the generals’ cowardice. However, my reflections on the ancient and the modern character have carried me too far: I must now resume the thread of our narrative.

When Otho started for Brixellum, he left his brother Titianus in nominal command, though the real power lay with the prefect Proculus. As for Celsus and Paulinus, no use was made of their experience, and their empty titles were used as a screen for other people’s blunders. The tribunes and centurions felt themselves in an ambiguous position, seeing the better generals sacrificed and the worst in command. The men were full of spirit, but preferred criticizing to carrying out their officers’ orders. It was decided to advance and encamp four miles west of Bedriacum. Though it was spring, and rivers abounded, the men were very foolishly allowed to suffer from want of water. Here a council of war was held, for Otho kept sending dispatches urging haste, and the soldiers kept clamouring for their emperor to lead them. Many demanded that the troops stationed across the Po [At Brixellum] should be brought up. It is not so easy to decide what was the best thing they could have done as to be sure that what they did do was the worst.

They were in marching order, not fighting trim, and their objective was the confluence of the Po and the Arda, [About seven miles below Cremona. The Medicean MS. Has Adua, but as the mouth of the Adua is seven miles west of Cremona and Bedriacum twenty-two miles east of Cremona, the figures given do not suit. For Tacitus says that they marched first four miles and then sixteen. Mr. Henderson proposes to solve the difficulty by reading “quartum decimum” for “quartum” in chap. 39. But his reasons are purely “a priori”. If the confluence was that of the “Arda” with the Po, Tacitus’ “quartum” is still unsatisfactory, but the distances given in Plutarch’s Life of Otho would suit the facts. He makes the first march a little over six miles. From the camp then pitched to the mouth of the Arda would be by road about sixteen miles. Thus Tacitus’ first figure may be a slight underestimate and his second figure correct. The second day’s march, according to Plutarch, was rather more than twelve miles, so we may suppose that the armies met about four miles short of the confluence, which was the Othonians’ objective. This suits Paulinus’ suggestion a few lines lower that the Vitellians need only march four miles to catch them in marching column. The whole question is fully discussed by Mr. Henderson (op. cit.) and by Mr. E.G. Hardy in the “Journal of Philology”, vol. xxxi, no. 61] sixteen miles away. Celsus and Paulinus refused to expose their troops, fatigued by the march and under heavy kit, to the assault of an enemy who, while still fresh after covering barely four miles, would certainly attack them, either while they were in the disorder of a marching column, or when they had broken up to dig trenches. However, Titianus and Proculus, worsted in argument, appealed to their authority: and there arrived post-haste a Numidian orderly with a peremptory dispatch from Otho, criticizing his generals’ inaction, and ordering them to bring matters to a head. He was sick of delay and too impatient to live on hope.

On that same day, while Caecina was busy with the bridge-building operations, [Via Postumia] two officers of the Guards came and demanded an interview. He was preparing to hear and answer their proposals, when some scouts burst in with the news that the enemy were close at hand. The officers’ conversation was thus interrupted, and it was left uncertain whether they were broaching a hostile plot or a piece of treachery, or some honest plan. Caecina, dismissing the officers, rode back to the camp, where he found that Valens had given orders to sound for battle, and the troops were already under arms. While the legions were balloting for the order in which they were to take the field, the cavalry rode out and charged. Strange to say, they would have been hurtled back upon the trenches by a smaller force of Othonians, had not the Italian legion bravely stopped them by drawing their swords and forcing them to go back and resume the fight. The Vitellian legions formed without any disorder, for though the enemy was close at hand, thick plantations hid the approaching force. In the Othonian army the generals were nervous and the men ill-disposed towards them: their march was hindered by carts and camp-followers, and the high road, with its deep ditches on either side, was too narrow even for a peaceful march. Some of the men formed round their standards, others went searching for their place: on every side there was an uproar as men ran about shouting to each other: the boldest kept pressing on to the front, while the tide of the timid ebbed to the rear.

Amid the confusion of this sudden panic somebody invented a story that Vitellius’ army had abandoned his cause, whereupon an unwarrantable glee relaxed their efforts. It was never fully known whether this report was spread by Vitellian scouts or whether it was started on Otho’s side, either by treachery or chance. Losing all their thirst for battle the Othonians actually broke into a cheer. The enemy answered with angry shouts, and most of Otho’s soldiers, having no idea what caused the cheering, feared treachery. At this point the Vitellian line charged. They were fresh, and in good order, stronger and more numerous. However, the Othonians, despite their disorder, fewer numbers, and fatigue, offered a stubborn resistance. The ground was encumbered with orchards and vineyards, and the character of the battle varied accordingly. They fought now from a distance, now at close quarters, and charged sometimes in detachment, sometimes in column. [The word here used, “cuneus” (a wedge), should mean strictly a V-shaped formation, which the troops also called ‘pig’s-head’. But it is also used more generally of any attacking column advancing to pierce the enemy’s line, or indeed of any body of men in close order] On the raised high-road they fought hand to hand, using the weight of their bodies and their shields. They gave up throwing their javelins and cut through helmet and breastplate with sword and axe. Each man knew his foe; they were in view of the other troops; [Because they were on the raised Postumian road] and they fought as if the whole issue of the war depended on them.

It happened that two legions met in the open fields between the high road and the Po. These were: for Vitellius the Twenty-first, commonly called Rapax, [ i.e. The Irresistibles] a regiment of old renown; and for Otho the First Adiutrix, [The quondam marines] which had never been in battle before, but was full of spirit and eager to win its first laurels. Their charge overthrew the front ranks of the Twenty-first, and they carried off its eagle. Fired with indignation, the Twenty-first rallied and charged the front of the enemy, killing the commanding officer, Orfidius Benignus, and capturing many of their colours.

On the other flank the Fifth [From Lower Germany] drove the Thirteenth [From Pannonia] off the field. The Fourteenth [Only a detachment of the Fourteenth was present at this battle, as is explained below] were surrounded by the numbers that attacked them. Otho’s generals had long ago fled. Caecina and Valens began to bring up the reserves to the support of their men, and, as a fresh reinforcement, there arrived Varus Alfenus [The camp-prefect. The Batavians are the detachment which had left the Fourteenth] with his Batavians. They had routed the gladiators [This is not an allusion to the fight described in chap. 35. The gladiators, now under Sabinus seem to have suffered a second defeat] by confronting them and cutting them to pieces in the river before their transports could land, and flushed by their victory came charging in upon the flank of the enemy.

Their center broken, the Othonians fled in disorder, making for Bedriacum. The distance was immense; [The fixing of this distance rests on the doubtful figures in chap. 39. In any case it must have been between fourteen and twenty miles] the road encumbered with heaps of dead. This made the slaughter all the greater, for in civil war captives cannot be turned to profit. [Plutarch in describing this rout makes the same rather cynical comment. Dio puts the total loss on both sides at 40,000] Suetonius Paulinus and Licinius Proculus avoided the camp at Bedriacum by diverse routes. Vedius Aquila, who commanded the Thirteenth legion, was so paralyzed by fear that he allowed himself to fall into the hands of the indignant troops. It was still broad daylight when he entered the camp. Immediately a crowd of mutinous fugitives came clamouring round him. They spared neither abuse nor violence, assailing him as a deserter and a traitor. They could bring no special charge against him, but the mob always lay their own disgrace on someone else. Night came to the aid of Titianus and Celsus, for Annius Gallus [He had remained behind in camp] had already placed sentinels on guard and got the men under control. Using remonstrances, prayers, and commands, he had induced them not to add to the disaster of their defeat by murdering their own friends. Whether the war was over, or whether they wanted to fight again, in defeat, he told them, union was the one thing that could help them.

All the other troops [i.e. other than the Guards] were crushed by the blow. The Guards complained that they had been beaten, not by the enemy’s valour, but by sheer treachery. ‘Why,’ they said, ‘even the Vitellians have won no bloodless victory. We beat their cavalry and captured a standard from one of their legions. We still have Otho left and all the troops with him on the other side of the Po. The Moesian legions are on their way. There is a large force left at Bedriacum. These, at any rate, have not been defeated yet. Better fall, if need be, on the field.’ Now exasperated, now depressed by these reflections, they were in a state of blank despair, which more often aroused their anger than their fear.

The Vitellian army halted at the fifth mile-stone on the road from Bedriacum. Their generals would not venture to storm the camp that same day, and hoped the enemy would consent to surrender. However, although they were in fighting trim, and had no implements for digging trenches, they felt safe with their arms and the pride of victory. On the next day there was no doubt about the wishes of the Othonians. Even those who showed most spirit had now changed their minds. So they sent a deputation. The Vitellian generals had no hesitation in granting terms. However, they detained the deputation for a short time, which caused some qualms to those who did not know whether it had been successful. At length the envoys returned, and the gates of the camp were opened. Then both victors and vanquished burst into tears and with a sort of sorrowful satisfaction cursed their fate of civil war. There in one tent were men of both armies, nursing a wounded brother or some other relative. Their hopes of recompense were doubtful: all that was certain was bereavement and grief, for no one was so fortunate as to mourn no loss. They searched for the body of the fallen officer, Orfidius, and burnt it with due solemnity. Of the other dead, some were buried by their relatives, the rest were left lying on the ground.

Otho [At Brixellum] was awaiting news of the battle with perfect confidence and firm resolve. First came a disquieting rumour. Soon fugitives from the field revealed the ruin of his cause. But the soldiers in their zeal did not wait to hear their emperor speak. ‘Keep a good heart,’ they said, ‘you still have fresh forces left, and, as for us, we are ready to risk everything and suffer everything,’ nor was this flattery. In a wild passion of enthusiasm they urged him to march to the field and restore the fortunes of his party. Those who were near him clasped his knees, while those who stood further off stretched out their arms to him.[ Plutarch adds a picturesque detail: ‘One of the common soldiers held up his sword and saying, “See, Caesar, we are all prepared to do “this” for you,” he stabbed himself.’] The most eager of all was Plotius Firmus, the Prefect of the Guard, who besought Otho again and again not to desert a supremely faithful army, men who had done him such great service. He told him that it showed more courage to bear misfortune than to give in: those men of vigour and courage cling to their hopes even in the face of disaster: it is only cowards who let their terror hurry them into despair. Amid all these appeals the soldiers now cheered, now groaned, according as Otho’s expression showed signs of yielding or seemed to harden. Nor were these feelings confined to Otho’s own Guards. The first arrivals from Moesia assured him that the spirit of the advancing force was just as firm, and that they had already entered Aquileia. There is no room for doubt that it was still possible to revive this cruel and pitiable war, so full of uncertainty to both parties.[ According to Plutarch, Otho’s generals, Celsus, Gallus, and Titianus, capitulated at once and admitted Caecina to the camp. Tacitus would doubtless have condemned Plutarch’s story for its lack of tragic pathos. The facts, however, are against nTacitus. Now that his main force had capitulated at Bedriacum, Otho had no sufficient army to fight with, since the Vitellians lay between him and his Danube army at Aquileia]

Otho himself disliked the policy of fighting. ‘Am I,’ he said, ‘to expose all your splendid courage and devotion to further risks? That would be too great a price to pay for my life. Your high hopes of succeeding, if I were minded to live, will only swell the glory of my death. We have learnt to know each other, Fortune and I. Do not reckon the length of my reign. Self-control is all the harder when a man knows that his fortune cannot last. It was Vitellius who began the civil war. He originated the policy of fighting for the throne. But one battle is enough. This is the precedent that I will set. Let posterity judge me by it. I do not grudge Vitellius his brother, or wife, or children. I want neither revenge nor consolation. Others may have held the scepter longer, but no one can ever have laid it down so bravely. Am I the man to allow the flower of Rome in all these famous armies to be mown down once again and lost to the country? Let me take with me the consciousness that you would have died for me. But you must stay and live. No more delay. I must no longer interfere with your chance of pardon, nor you with my resolve. It is a sort of cowardice to go on talking about the end. Here is your best proof of my determination: I complain of no one. To blame gods or men is his alone who fain would keep his life.’

After some such speech as this he urged them courteously to hurry away and not to exasperate the victor by their hesitation. To each man’s age and position he paid due regard, using his authority with the young and persuasion with his elders, while his quiet looks and firm speech helped to control their ill-timed tears. He gave orders for boats and carriages to be provided for their departure. All petitions and letters containing any compliments to himself, or marked insults to Vitellius, he destroyed, and distributed his money carefully, not like a man at the point of death. He then actually tried to comfort the sorrowful fears of his nephew, Salvius Cocceianus, [Titianus’ son. He was eventually executed by Domitian for keeping Otho’s birthday] by praising his attachment and chiding his alarm. ‘Do you imagine,’ he said, ‘that Vitellius will be so hard-hearted as not to show me some gratitude for saving his whole household? By promptly putting an end to myself, I deserve to earn some mercy for my family. For it is not in blank despair, but with my army clamouring for battle, that I determine to save my country from the last calamities. I have won enough fame for myself and ennoblement for my posterity; for, after the line of the Julians, Claudians, Servians, [“Servius” Sulpicius Galba] I have been the first to bring the principate into a new family. So rouse yourself and go on with your life. Never forget that Otho was your uncle, yet keep your remembrance within bounds.’

After this he made them all retire and rested for a while. But his last reflections were interrupted by a sudden disturbance and the news of a mutinous outbreak among the troops. They were threatening to kill all those who were leaving, and turned with especial violence against Verginius, [The conqueror of Vindex, now consul-elect] whose house was in a state of siege. Otho rebuked the ringleaders and returned, consenting to receive the adieux of those who were going, until it was time for them to depart in safety. As the day deepened into evening he quenched his thirst with a drink of iced water. Two daggers were brought to him and, after trying them both, he put one under his pillow. Being assured on inquiry that his friends had started, he spent a peaceful night, not; it is said, without sleep. At break of day [April 17] he fell upon his dagger. Hearing his dying groan, his slaves and freedmen entered with Plotius Firmus, the Prefect of the Guards, and found a single wound in his breast. The funeral was hurried forward out of respect for his own earnest entreaties; for he had been afraid his head might be cut off and subjected to outrage. The Guard carried the body, sounding his praises with tears in their eyes, and covering his hands and wounded breast with kisses. Some of the soldiers killed themselves beside the pyre, not because they had harmed Vitellius or feared reprisals, but from love of their emperor, and to follow his noble example. Similar suicides became common afterwards at Bedriacum and Placentia, and in other encampments. An inconspicuous tomb was built for Otho, as being less likely to be disturbed: and thus he ended his life in his thirty-seventh year.

Otho came originally from the borough of Ferentium. [Ferento in Etruria] His father had been consul and his grandfather praetor. His mother’s family was inferior, but not without distinction. [Albia Terentia was the daughter of a knight who had not risen to office] His boyhood and youth were such as we have seen. By his two great acts, [Galba’s murder and his own suicide] one most criminal and the other heroic, he earned in equal measure the praise and the reprobation of posterity. It would certainly be beneath the dignity of my task to collect fabulous rumours for the amusement of my readers, but there are certain popular traditions which I cannot venture to contradict. On the day of the battle of Bedriacum, according to the account of the local peasants, a strange bird appeared in a much-frequented grove near Regium Lepidum. [Reggio] There it sat, unterrified and unmoved, either by the crowds of people or by the birds which fluttered round it, until the moment at which Otho killed himself. Then it vanished. A calculation of the time showed that the prodigy’s appearance and disappearance coincided with the beginning of the battle [Accepting Meiser’s suggestion “cum initio pugnae et cum Othonis exitu”] and Otho’s death.

At his funeral the rage and grief of the soldiers broke out into another mutiny. This time there was no one to control them. They turned to Verginius and begged him with threats now to accept the principate, now to head a deputation to Caecina and Valens. However, Verginius escaped them, slipping out by the back door of his house just as they broke in at the front. Rubrius Gallus carried a petition from the Guards at Brixellum, and obtained immediate pardon. Simultaneously Flavius Sabinus surrendered to the victor the troops under his command.

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

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