Roman Empire:Vitellius’ Principate (Part 10)

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

Now that the war was everywhere ended, a large number of senators, who had quitted Rome with Otho and been left behind at Mutina, [Modena] found themselves in a critical position. When the news of the defeat reached Mutina, the soldiers paid no heed to what they took for a baseless rumour, and, believing the senators to be hostile to Otho, they treasured up their conversation and put the worst interpretation on their looks and behaviour. In time they broke into abusive reproaches, seeking a pretext for starting a general massacre, while the senators suffered at the same time from another source of alarm, for they were afraid of seeming to be slow in welcoming the victory of the now predominant Vitellian party. Terrified at their double danger, they held a meeting. For no one dared to form any policy for himself; each felt safer in sharing his guilt with others. The town-council of Mutina, too, kept adding to their anxiety by offering them arms and money, styling them with ill-timed respect ‘Conscript Fathers’.

A remarkable quarrel arose at this meeting. Licinius Caecina attacked Eprius Marcellus [A famous orator and informer, who from small beginnings acquired great wealth and influence under Nero. Best known as the prosecutor of Thrasea. He eventually conspired against Vespasian and was forced to commit suicide] for the ambiguity of his language. Not that the others disclosed their sentiments, but Caecina, who was still a nobody, recently raised to the senate, sought to distinguish himself by quarrelling with some one of importance, and selected Marcellus, because the memory of his career as an informer made him an object of loathing. They were parted by the prudent intervention of their betters, and all then retired to Bononia, [Bologna] intending to continue the discussion there, and hoping for more news in the meantime. At Bononia they dispatched men along the roads in every direction to question all new-comers. From one of Otho’s freedmen they inquired why he had come away, and were told he was carrying his master’s last instructions: the man said that when he had left, Otho was still indeed alive, but had renounced the pleasures of life and was devoting all his thoughts to posterity. This filled them with admiration. They felt ashamed to ask any more questions–and declared unanimously for Vitellius.

Vitellius’ brother Lucius was present at their discussion, and now displayed his willingness to receive their flattery, but one of Nero’s freedmen, called Coenus, suddenly startled them all by inventing the atrocious falsehood that the Fourteenth legion had joined forces with the troops at Brixellum, and that their sudden arrival had turned the fortune of the day: the victorious army had been cut to pieces. He hoped by inventing this good news to regain some authority for Otho’s passports, [They would entitle him to the use of post-horses, etc., as for public business] which were beginning to be disregarded. He did, indeed, thus insure for himself a quick journey to Rome, but was executed by order of Vitellius a few days later. However, the senate’s danger was augmented because the soldiers believed the news. Their fears were the more acute, because it looked as if their departure from Mutina was an official move of the Council of State, which thus seemed to have deserted the party. So they refrained from holding any more meetings, and each shifted for himself, until a letter arrived from Fabius Valens which quieted their fears. Besides, the news of Otho’s death travelled all the more quickly because it excited admiration.

At Rome, however, there was no sign of panic. The festival of Ceres [April 12-19] was celebrated by the usual crowds. When it was reported in the theatre on reliable authority that Otho had renounced his claim, [From this phrase it is not clear whether the actual news of his suicide had arrived. It took place on April 17] and that Flavius Sabinus, [Vespasian’s brother] the City Prefect, had made all the troops in Rome swear allegiance to Vitellius, the audience cheered Vitellius. The populace decked all the busts of Galba with laurel-leaves and flowers, and carried them round from temple to temple. The garlands were eventually piled up into a sort of tomb near Lake Curtius, on the spot which Galba had stained with his life-blood. In the senate the distinctions devised during the long reigns of other emperors were all conferred on Vitellius at once. To these was added a vote of thanks and congratulation to the German army, and a deputation was dispatched to express the senate’s satisfaction. Letters were read which Fabius Valens had addressed to the consuls in very moderate terms. But Caecina’s moderation was still more gratifying: he had not written at all. [By this time no one except the emperor was expected to address official letters referring to the general political situation to the consuls or the senate. Valens’ action was therefore presumptuou]

However, Italy found peace a more ghastly burden than the war. Vitellius’ soldiers scattered through all the boroughs and colonial towns, indulging in plunder, violence, and rape. Impelled by their greed or the promise of payment, they cared nothing for right and wrong: kept their hands off nothing sacred or profane. Even civilians put on uniform and seized the opportunity to murder their enemies. The soldiers themselves, knowing the countryside well, marked down the richest fields and wealthiest houses for plunder, determined to murder anyone who offered resistance. Their generals were too much in their debt to venture any opposition. Of the two Caecina showed less greed and more ambition. Valens had earned a bad name by his own ill-gotten gains, and was therefore bound to shut his eyes to others’ shortcomings. [The meaning seems to be that Caecina indulged the men in order to win popularity, Valens in order to obtain license for his own dishonesty] The resources of Italy had long been exhausted; all these thousands of infantry and cavalry, all this violence and damage and outrage was almost more than the country could bear.

Meanwhile Vitellius knew nothing of his victory. With the remainder of his German army he continued to advance as though the war had just begun. A few of the veterans were left in winter quarters, and troops were hurriedly enlisted in the Gallic provinces, to fill up the vacancies in what were now mere skeleton legions. [He had depleted them by sending detachments forward with Valens and Caecina] Leaving Hordeonius Flaccus to guard the line of the Rhine, Vitellius advanced with a picked detachment from the army in Britain, eight thousand strong. After a few days’ march he received news of the victory of Bedriacum and the collapse of the war on the death of Otho. He summoned a meeting and heaped praise on the courage of the troops. When the army demanded that he should confer equestrian rank on his freedman Asiaticus, he checked their shameful flattery. Then with characteristic instability he granted at a private banquet what he had refused in public. This Asiaticus, who was thus decorated with the gold ring, was an infamous menial who rose by his vices. [One of the vilest and most hated of imperial menials. The gold ring was a token of equestrian rank]

During these same days news arrived that Albinus, the Governor of Mauretania, had been murdered, and both provinces [Caesariensis (Fez) and Tingitana (Morocco). They had been imperial provinces since A.D. 40] had declared for Vitellius. Appointed by Nero to the province of Mauretania Caesariensis, Lucceius Albinus had further received from Galba the governorship of Tingitana, and thus commanded a very considerable force, consisting of nineteen cohorts of infantry, five regiments of horse, and an immense horde of Moors, well trained for war by their practice in plunder. After Galba’s murder he inclined to Otho’s side and, not contented with the province of Africa, began to threaten Spain on the other side of the narrow strait. Cluvius Rufus, alarmed at this, moved the Tenth legion [Gemina] down to the coast as though for transport. He also sent some centurions ahead to gain the sympathies of the Moors for Vitellius. The great reputation of the German army throughout the provinces facilitated this task, and they also spread a rumour that Albinus was not contented with the title of ‘Governor’, and wanted to adopt a regal style under the name of Juba. So the sympathies of the army shifted.

Asinius Pollio, who commanded the local cavalry, one of Albinus’ loyal friends, was assassinated. The same fate befell Festus and Scipio, who were in command of the infantry. [The military titles here used have a technical meaning which translation cannot convey. A senior centurion could rise to the command of an auxiliary cohort, like the Festus and Scipio here mentioned (“praefecti cohortium”). The next step would be to “tribunus legionis”, and from that again to “praefectus alae”. This was Pollio’s position, the highest open to any but soldiers of senatorial rank] Albinus himself embarked from Tingitana for Caesariensis, and was murdered as he landed. His wife confronted the assassins and was murdered too. How all this happened Vitellius never inquired? He passed by events of the highest importance after a few moments’ attention, being quite unable to cope with serious matters.

On reaching the Arar, [Saone] Vitellius ordered his army to march overland while he sailed down the river. Travelling with no imperial state, he had nothing but his original poverty [He was so poor, says Suetonius, that he had no money to take him out to Germany, when appointed to that province. He had to let his house and hire a garret for his wife and family, and to pawn one of his mother’s pearl ear-rings] to make him conspicuous, until Junius Blaesus, Governor of the Lyons division of Gaul, a member of an eminent family, whose liberality matched his wealth, provided the emperor with a staff and escorted him in person with great courtesy, an attention which proved most unwelcome to Vitellius, although he concealed his annoyance under the grossest flattery. At Lugdunum he found the generals of both parties awaiting him. Valens and Caecina were openly commended at a public meeting, and given places on either side of the emperor’s throne. He then sent the whole army to fetch his infant son, [Aged 6] and when they brought him wearing a general’s uniform, Vitellius took him up in his arms and named him Germanicus, at the same time decorating him with all the insignia of his imperial position. The exaggerated honours of these days proved the child’s only consolation for the evil times which followed. [He was executed by Mucianus]

The most energetic of Otho’s centurions were now executed, which did more than anything else to alienate the armies of Illyricum. The other legions also caught the infection, and their dislike of the German troops made them harbour thoughts of war. Suetonius Paulinus and Licinius Proculus were kept in mourning [He postponed the hearing of their case, and thus, as accused persons, they had by custom to wear mourning] and suspense, disheartened by delay. When at last their case was heard, their pleas savoured more of necessity than honour. They positively claimed credit for treachery, alleging that the long march before the battle, the fatigue of their troops, and the confusion created by the wagons in their lines were all due not to chance, but to their own treachery. Vitellius believed their protestations of treason, and acquitted them of all suspicion of loyalty.

Otho’s brother, Salvius Titianus, was in no danger. His affection for his brother and his personal inefficiency excused him. Marius Celsus was allowed to hold his consulship. But rumour gave rise to a belief which led to an attack being made in the senate against Caecilius Simplex, who was charged with trying to purchase the consulship and to secure Celsus’ destruction. [He postponed the hearing of their case, and thus, as accused persons, they had by custom to wear mourning] Vitellius, however, refused this, and afterwards allowed Simplex to hold the consulship without detriment to his conscience or his purse. Trachalus was protected against his accusers by Galeria, Vitellius’ wife. [As Trachalus’ gentile name was Galerius, she was presumably a relative]

With so many of the great in danger of their lives, an obscure creature called Mariccus, of the tribe of the Boii [Between the Loire and the Allier]-it is a sordid incident [Mariccus being a provincial ‘of no family’, Tacitus hardly likes to mention him]-endeavoured to thrust himself into greatness and to challenge the armies of Rome, pretending to be a minister of Heaven. This divine champion of the Gauls, as he had entitled himself, had already gathered a force of eight thousand men, and began making overtures [The word “trahebat” may here mean ‘began to plunder’, but this seems less likely] to the neighbouring Aeduan villages. But the chief community of the Aedui wisely sent out a picked force, with some Vitellian troops in support, and scattered the mob of fanatics.
Mariccus was captured in the engagement, and later thrown to wild beasts. [This punishment seems to have been reserved, appropriately enough, for those who stirred up popular sedition] As they refused to devour him, the common people stupidly believed him invulnerable, until he was executed in the presence of Vitellius.

No further measures were taken against the life or property of the rebels. [From Vitellius’ point of view the Othonians were rebels, since he had been declared emperor before Otho: or else as rebels against Galba] The estates of those who had fallen fighting for Otho were allowed to devolve by will or else by the law of intestate succession. Indeed, if Vitellius had set limits to his luxury, there was no need to fear his greed for money. It was his foul and insatiable gluttony. Rome and Italy were scoured for dainties to tickle his palate: from shore to shore the high roads rang with the traffic. The leading provincials were ruined by having to provide for his table. The very towns were impoverished. Meanwhile the soldiers were acquiring luxurious habits, learning to despise their general, and gradually losing their former efficiency and courage.

Vitellius sent a manifesto on to Rome in which he declined the title of Caesar, and postponed calling himself Augustus without giving up any portion of his power. All astrologers were exiled from Italy, and rigorous provision was made to restrain Roman knights from the disgrace of appearing at the games in the arena. [ i.e. as gladiators. Juvenal says this is what the spendthrifts come to: and also that they would do it for money, without any Nero to compel them. On the whole the bankrupt rich preferred ‘knock-about comedy’ to the very real dangers of a combat] Former emperors had paid, or more often compelled them to do this, and many of the provincial towns vied together in hiring the most profligate young aristocrats.

The arrival of his brother and the growing influence of his tutors in tyranny made Vitellius daily more haughty and cruel. He gave orders for the execution of Dolabella, whom Otho, as we have seen, had relegated to the colonial town of Aquinum. On hearing of Otho’s death, he had ventured back to Rome. Whereupon an ex-praetor, named Plancius Varus, one of Dolabella’s closest friends, laid information before the city prefect, Flavius Sabinus, maintaining that he had broken from custody to put himself at the head of the defeated party. He added that Dolabella had tried to tamper with the cohort stationed at Ostia. Having no proof of these very serious charges, he repented and begged for his friend’s forgiveness. But it was too late. The crime was committed. While Flavius Sabinus was hesitating what to do in such a serious matter, Lucius Vitellius’ wife, Triaria, whose cruelty was altogether unwomanly, terrified him by suggesting that he was trying to get a reputation for mercy at the expense of his emperor’s safety. Sabinus was naturally of a kindly disposition, but easily changed under the influence of fear. Though it was not he who was in danger, he was full of alarms, and hastened Dolabella’s impending ruin for fear of being supposed to have helped him.
Vitellius, accordingly, from motives both of suspicion and of hatred (Dolabella had married his divorced wife Petronia), summoned Dolabella by letter to avoid the crowded thoroughfare of the Flaminian road and to turn off to Interamnium, [Terni] where he gave orders for his murder. The assassin found the journey tedious; discovered his victim sleeping on the floor at a wayside inn, and cut his throat. This gave the new government a very bad name. People took it as a specimen of what to expect. Triaria’s shameless behaviour was further emphasized by the exemplary behaviour of her relative Galeria, the emperor’s wife, who kept clear of these dreadful doings. Equally admirable was the character of his mother, Sextilia, a woman of the old school. It was even on record that when her son’s first letters were read to her, she said, ‘It was no Germanicus, but a Vitellius that I brought into the world.’ From that time neither the attractions of her high station nor the unanimous flattery of Rome could win her over to complacence. She only shared the sorrows of her house.

When Vitellius left Lugdunum, Cluvius Rufus relinquished his Spanish province and followed him. He knew that serious charges had been made against him, and his smiling congratulations hid an anxious heart. A freedman of the imperial court, [i.e. the property, not of Vitellius personally, but of the imperial household] Hilarus by name, had given evidence against him, alleging that, when Cluvius heard of the rival claims of Otho and Vitellius, he had endeavoured to set up an independent authority of his own in Spain, and to this end had issued passports with no emperor’s name at the head. [He would entertain some natural doubt as to who “was” emperor. The incriminating suggestion is that he meant to insert his own name] Certain phrases in his speeches were also construed as damaging to Vitellius and as a bid for his own popularity. However, Cluvius’ influence carried the day, and Vitellius even had his own freedman punished. Cluvius was given a place at court, while still retaining Spain, of which he was absentee governor, following the precedent of Lucius Arruntius. In his case, however, Tiberius’ motive had been suspicion, whereas Vitellius detained Cluvius without any such qualms. [In the “Annals” Tacitus mentions Tiberius’ habit of appointing provincial governors without any intention of allowing them to leave Rome. See “Ann.” i. 80, vi. 27] Trebellius Maximus was not allowed the same privilege. He had fled from Britain to escape the fury of his troops. Vettius Bolanus, who was then about the court, was sent out to take his place.

The soldiers of the defeated legions still gave Vitellius a good deal of anxiety. Their spirit was by no means broken. They distributed themselves all over Italy, mingling with the victors and talking treason. The most uncompromising of all were the Fourteenth, who refused to acknowledge their defeat. At Bedriacum, they argued, it was only a detachment that had been beaten; the main strength of the legion was not present. It was decided to send them back to Britain, whence Nero had summoned them, and meanwhile they were to share their quarters with the Batavian irregulars, because of the long-standing feud between them. Quartered as they were under arms, their mutual hatred soon broke out into disorder.

At Turin [“Augusta Taurinorum”] one of the Batavians was cursing a workman for having cheated him, when a legionary, who lodged with the workman, took his part. Each quickly gathered his fellow soldiers round him, and from abuse they came to bloodshed. Indeed, a fierce battle would have broken out, unless two regiments of Guards had sided with the Fourteenth, thus giving them confidence and frightening the Batavians.

Vitellius gave orders that the Batavians should be drafted into his army, while the legion was to be marched over the Graian Alps [Little St. Bernard] by a detour which would avoid Vienne. [The legions there might make common cause with them] Its inhabitants were another cause for alarm. [They had suffered once already] On the night on which the legion started they left fires burning all over Turin, and part of the town was burnt down. This disaster, like so many others in the civil war, has been obliterated by the greater calamities which befell other cities. No sooner were the Fourteenth across the Alps than the most mutinous spirits started off to march for Vienne, but they were stopped by the unanimous interference of the better men, and the legion was shipped across to Britain.

Vitellius’ next cause of anxiety was the Guards. At first they were quartered apart, and then, appeased by an honourable discharge, [This meant about 200 to every man who had done sixteen years’ service] they gave up their arms to their officers. But when the news went round of the war with Vespasian, they enlisted again and formed the main strength of the Flavian party.

The First legion of marines was sent to Spain to cultivate docility in peace and quiet. The Eleventh and the Seventh were sent back to their winter quarters. [i.e. the Eleventh to Dalmatia, the Seventh to Pannonia] The Thirteenth were set to work to build amphitheaters. For Caecina at Cremona and Valens at Bononia was each preparing to give a gladiatorial show. Vitellius never let his anxieties interfere with his pleasures.

The losing party being thus dispersed by peaceful means, disorder broke out in the victorious camp. It originated in sport, but the number of deaths increased the feeling against Vitellius. He had invited Verginius to dine with him at Ticinum, and they had just sat down to table. The conduct of officers is always determined by the behaviour of their generals; it depends on that whether they adopt the simple life or indulge their taste for riotous living; [Literally, enjoy dinner-parties beginning at an early hour, i.e. before two o’clock. This was considered ‘fast’] this again determines whether the troops are smart or disorderly. In Vitellius’ army disorder and drunkenness were universal: it was more like a midnight orgy [The word here used by Tacitus, “pervigilia”, properly denotes all-night religious festivals. But-like Irish wakes-such festivals tended to deteriorate, and the word acquired a sinister sense] than a properly disciplined camp. So it happened that two of the soldiers, one belonging to the Fifth legion, the other to the Gallic auxiliaries, in a drunken frolic challenged each other to wrestle. The legionary fell; and when the Gaul began to exult over him, the soldiers who had gathered round took sides, and the legionaries, breaking out against the auxiliaries with murderous intent, actually cut to pieces a couple of cohorts. This commotion was only cured by another. A cloud of dust and the glitter of arms appeared on the horizon. Suddenly a cry arose that the Fourteenth had turned back and were marching on them. However, it was their own rear-guard bringing up the stragglers. This discovery quieted their alarm. Meanwhile, coming across one of Verginius’ slaves, they charged him with intending to assassinate Vitellius, and rushed off to the banquet clamouring for Verginius’ head. No one really doubted his innocence, not even Vitellius, who always quailed at a breath of suspicion. Yet, though it was the death of an ex-consul, their own former general, which they demanded, it was with difficulty that they were quieted. No one was a target for these outbreaks so often as Verginius. He still retained the admiration and esteem of the men, but they hated him for disdaining their offer.

On the next day Vitellius granted an audience to the deputation of the senate, which he had told to await him at Ticinum. He then entered the camp and spontaneously complimented the troops on their devotion to him. [Because they had seized one of Verginius’ slaves, as described in the last chapter] This made the auxiliaries grumble at the growing licence and impunity allowed to the legions. So the Batavians, for fear of some desperate outbreak, were sent back to Germany, where Fortune was contriving for us a war that was at once both civil and foreign. [The revolt of Civilis described in Book IV. His force included Roman legionaries as well as Batavians, Gauls, and Germans] The Gallic auxiliaries were also sent home. Their numbers were very large, and had been used at the first outbreak of the rebellion for an empty parade of force. Indeed, the imperial finances were already embarrassed by the distribution of largess, to meet the expenses of which Vitellius gave orders for depleting the strength of the legions and auxiliaries. Recruiting was forbidden, and discharges offered without restriction. This policy was disastrous for the country and unpopular among the soldiers, who found that their turn for work and danger came round all the more frequently, now that there were so few to share the duties. Besides, their efficiency was demoralized by luxury. Nothing was left of the old-fashioned discipline and the good rules of our ancestors, who preferred to base the security of Rome on character and not on money.

Leaving Ticinum Vitellius turned off to Cremona. There he witnessed Caecina’s games and conceived a wish to stand upon the field of Bedriacum, and to see the traces of the recent victory with his own eyes. Within six weeks of the battle, it was a disgusting and horrible sight; mangled bodies, mutilated limbs, rotting carcasses of men and horses, the ground foul with clotted blood. Trees and crops all trampled down: the country-side a miserable waste. No less revolting to all human feeling was the stretch of road which the people of Cremona had strewn with laurel-leaves and roses, erecting altars and sacrificing victims as if in honour of an Oriental despot. [The word ‘rex’ had still an ‘unroman’ sound] The rejoicings of the moment soon turned to their destruction. [Cremona was sacked and burnt in the following October] Valens and Caecina were in attendance and showed Vitellius over the battle-field: this was where their legions had charged: the cavalry took the field from here: this was where the auxiliaries were outflanked. The various officers [Literally, the tribunes of the legions and the prefects of the auxiliaries] each praised their own exploits, adding a few false or, at any rate, exaggerated touches. The common soldiers, too, turned gaily shouting from the high road to inspect the scene of their great struggle, gazing with wonder at the huge pile of arms and heaps of bodies.[ A friend told Plutarch that he had seen on this battle-field a pile of corpses so high that they reached the pediment of an ancient temple which stood there] There were a few who reflected with tears of pity on the shifting chances of life. But Vitellius never took his eyes off the field: never shuddered at the sight of all these thousands of Roman citizens lying unburied. [Suetonius attributes to him the remark, ‘A dead enemy smells good, a dead Roman better.’] On the contrary, he was very well pleased, and, unconscious of his own impending doom, he offered a sacrifice to the local deities.

They next came to Bononia, where Fabius Valens gave a gladiatorial show, for which he had all the apparatus brought from Rome. The nearer they drew to the city, the greater became the disorder of the march, which was now joined by troops of actors, eunuchs and the like, all in the true spirit of Nero’s court. For Vitellius always had a great personal admiration for Nero. He used to follow him about to hear him sing, not under compulsion–many a decent man suffered that fate—but because he was the slave of his stomach, and had sold himself to luxury.

To secure a few months of office for Valens and Caecina, the other consuls of the year had their terms shortened, while Martius Macer’s claim was ignored as belonging to Otho’s party. Valerius Marinus who had been nominated by Galba; had his term postponed not for any offence, but because he was a mild creature and too lazy to resent an injury. The name of Pedanius Costa was omitted altogether. Vitellius had never forgiven him for rising against Nero and instigating Verginius. However, he alleged other reasons. They all had to observe the servile custom of the time, and offer their thanks to Vitellius.

An imposture, received at first with great excitement, failed to last more than a few days. A man had appeared who gave out that he was Scribonianus Camerinus, [Dio tells us that he and his father were murdered by Nero’s slave Helios. He was probably related to M. Licinius Crassus Frugi, who was convicted of treason against Nero, and to Piso, Galba’s adopted successor] and that during Nero’s reign he had taken refuge in Histria, where the Crassi still had their old connation’s and estates, and their name was much respected. He accordingly took all the rascals he could find and cast them for parts. The credulous mob and some of the soldiers; who were either victims of the imposture or anxious for a riot; eagerly flocked to join him. However, he was taken before Vitellius and his identity examined. When it was found that there was no truth in his pretensions, and that his master recognized him as a runaway called Geta, he suffered the execution of a slave.

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

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