Roman Empire: Revolt of Vespasian (Part 11)

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

When once his couriers brought news from Syria and Judaea that the East had sworn allegiance to him, Vitellius’ vanity and indolence reached a pitch which is almost incredible. For already, though the rumours were still vague and unreliable, Vespasian’s name was in everybody’s mouth, and the mention of him often roused Vitellius to alarm. Still, he and his army seemed to suspect of no rival: they at once broke out into the unbridled cruelty, debauchery and oppression of some outlandish court.

Vespasian, on the other hand, was meditating war and reckoning all his forces both distant and near at hand. He had so much attached his troops to himself, that when he dictated to them the oath of allegiance and prayed that ‘all might be well’ with Vitellius, they listened in silence. Mucianus’ feelings were not hostile to him, and were strongly sympathetic to Titus. Tiberius Alexander, the Governor of Egypt, had made common cause with him. The Third legion, since it had crossed from Syria into Moesia, he could reckon as his own, and there was good hope that the other legions of Illyria would follow its lead. [This hope was fulfilled] The whole army, indeed, was incensed at the arrogance of Vitellius’ soldiers: truculent in appearance and rough of tongue, they scoffed at all the other troops as their inferiors. But a war of such magnitude demands delay. High as were his hopes, Vespasian often calculated his risks. He realized that it would be a critical day for him when he committed his sixty summers and his two young sons to the chances of war. In his private ambitions a man may feel his way and take less or more from fortune’s hands according as he feels inclined, but when one covets a throne there is no alternative between the zenith of success and headlong ruin.

Moreover, he always kept in view the strength of the German army, which, as a soldier, he realized. His own legions, he knew, had no experience of civil war, while Vitellius’ troops were fresh from victory: and the defeated party were richer in grievances than in troops. Civil strife had undermined the loyalty of the troops: there was danger in each single man. What would be the good of all his horse and foot, if one or two traitors should seek the reward the enemy offered and assassinate him then and there? It was thus that Scribonianus had been killed in Claudius’ reign, and his murderer, Volaginius, raised from a common soldier to the highest rank. It is easier to move men in the mass than to take precautions against them singly.

These anxieties made Vespasian hesitate. Meanwhile the other generals and his friends continued to encourage him. At last Mucianus after several private interviews went so far as to address him in public. ‘Everybody,’ he said, ‘who plans some great exploit is bound to consider whether his enterprise serves both the public interest and his own reputation, and whether it is easily practicable or, at any rate, not impossible. He must also weigh the advice which he gets. Are those who offer it ready to run the risk themselves? And, if fortune favours, who gains the glory? I myself, Vespasian, call you to the throne. How much that may benefit the country and make you famous it lies with you-under Providence-to decide. You need not be afraid that I may seem to flatter you. It is more of an insult than a compliment to be chosen to succeed Vitellius.

It is not against the powerful intellect of the sainted Augustus that we are in revolt; not against the cautious prudence of the old Tiberius; nor even against a long-established imperial family like that of Caligula, Claudius or Nero. You even gave way to Galba’s ancient lineage. To remain inactive any longer, to leave your country to ruin and disgrace, that would be sheer sloth and cowardice, even if such slavery were as safe for you as it would be dishonourable. The time is long past when you could be merely “suspected” of ambition: the throne is now your only refuge. Have you forgotten Corbulo’s murder? [Under Nero, after brilliant service in Armenia and Parthia. Nero was jealous and afraid of him. So is Vitellius jealous of Vespasian] He was a man of better family than we, I admit, but so was Nero more nobly born than Vitellius. A man who is feared always seems illustrious enough to those who fear him.

That an army can make an emperor Vitellius himself has proved. He had neither experience nor military reputation, but merely rose on Galba’s unpopularity. Even Otho fell not by the strategy or strength of his opponent, but by his own precipitate despair. And to-day he seems a great and desirable emperor, when Vitellius is disbanding his legions, disarming his Guards, and daily sowing fresh seeds of civil war. Why, any spirit or enthusiasm which his army had is being dissipated in drunken debauches: for they imitate their master. But you, in Judaea, in Syria, in Egypt, you have nine fresh legions. War has not weakened nor mutiny demoralized them. The men are trained to discipline and have already won a foreign war. [Against the Jews] Besides these, you can rely on the strength of your fleet, [From the Pontus] and of your auxiliaries both horse and foot, on the faithful allegiance of foreign princes, and on your own unparalleled experience.

‘For us I make but one claim. Let us not rank below Valens and Caecina. Nor must you despise my help because you do not encounter my rivalry. I prefer myself to Vitellius and you to myself. Your house has received the insignia of a triumph. [For his victories in Britain under the auspices of Claudius, who nominally shared with him the command of the expedition, A.D. 43] You have two young sons, one of whom is already old enough to fill the throne, and in his first years of service made a name for himself in the German army. [Titus, who was now thirty, had served as “Tribunus militum” under his father in Germany and in Britain] It would be absurd for me not to give way to one whose son I should adopt, were I emperor myself. Apart from this, we shall stand on a different footing in success and in failure, for if we succeed I shall have such honour as you grant me: of the risk and the dangers we shall share the burden equally. Or rather, do what is better still. Dispose your armies yourself and leave me the conduct of the war, and the uncertainties of battle.

‘At this moment the defeated are far more strictly disciplined than their conquerors. Indignation, hatred, the passion for revenge, all serve to steel our courage. Theirs is dulled by pride and mutiny. The course of the war will soon bring to light the hidden weakness of their party, and reopen all its festering sores. I rely on your vigilance, your economy, your wisdom, and still more on the indolence, ignorance, and cruelty of Vitellius. Above all, our cause is far safer in war than in peace, for those who plan rebellion have rebelled already.’

At the end of Mucianus’ speech the others all pressed round with new confidence, offering their encouragement and quoting the answers of soothsayers and the movements of the stars. Nor was Vespasian uninfluenced by superstition. In later days, when he was master of the world, he made no secret of keeping a soothsayer called Seleucus to help him by his advice and prophecy. Early omens began to recur to his memory. A tall and conspicuous cypress on his estate had once suddenly collapsed: on the next day it had risen again on the same spot to grow taller and broader than ever. The soothsayers had agreed that this was an omen of great success, and augured the height of fame for the still youthful Vespasian. At first his triumphal honours, his consulship, and the name he won by his Jewish victory seemed to have fulfilled the promise of this omen. But having achieved all this, he began to believe that it portended his rise to the throne.

On the frontier of Judaea and Syria [More exactly of Galilee and Phoenicia] lies a hill called Carmel. A god of the same name is there worshipped according to ancient ritual. There is no image or temple: only an altar where they reverently worship. Once when Vespasian was sacrificing on this altar, brooding on his secret ambition, the priest, Basilides, after a minute inspection of the omens said to him: ‘Whatever it is which you have in mind, Vespasian, whether it is to build a house or to enlarge your estate, or to increase the number of your slaves, there is granted to you a great habitation, vast acres, and a multitude of men.’ Rumour had immediately seized on this riddle and now began to solve it. Nothing was more talked of, especially in Vespasian’s presence: such conversation is the food of hope. Having come to a definite decision they departed, Mucianus to Antioch, Vespasian to Caesarea. The former is the capital of Syria, the latter of Judaea. [This is of course from the Roman point of view. Caesarea was the seat of the procurator. That Jerusalem was the national capital Tacitus recognizes in Book V]

The first offer of the throne to Vespasian was made at Alexandria, where Tiberius Alexander with great promptitude administered the oath of allegiance to his troops on the first of July. This was usually celebrated as his day of accession, although it was not until the third that the Jewish army took the oath in his presence. So eager was their enthusiasm that they would not even wait for the arrival of Titus, who was on his way back from Syria, where he had been conducting the negotiations between his father and Mucianus.

What happened was all due to the impulse of the soldiers: there was no set speech, no formal assembly of the troops. They were still discussing the time and the place, and trying to decide the hardest point of all, who should speak first, and while their minds were still busy with hopes and fears, reasons and chances, Vespasian happened to come out of his quarters. A few of the soldiers, forming up in the usual way to salute their general, saluted him as emperor. The others promptly rushed up calling him Caesar and Augustus, and heaping on him all the imperial titles. Their fears at once gave way to confidence.

Vespasian himself, unchanged by the change of fortune, showed no sign of vanity or arrogance. As soon as he had recovered from the dazzling shock of his sudden elevation, he addressed them in simple soldier fashion, and received a shower of congratulations from every quarter.

Mucianus, who had been waiting for this, administered the oath of allegiance to his eager troops, and then entered the theatre at Antioch, where the Greeks ordinarily hold their debates. There, as the fawning crowd came flocking in, he addressed them in their own tongue. For he could speak elegant Greek, and had the art of making the most of all he said or did. What most served to inflame the excitement of the province and of the army, was his statement that Vitellius had determined to transfer the German legions to peaceful service in the rich province of Syria, and to send the Syrian legions to endure the toil and rigours of a winter in Germany. The provincials were accustomed to the soldiers’ company and liked to have them quartered there, and many were bound to them by ties of intimacy and kinship, while the soldiers in their long term of service had come to know and love their old camp like a home.

Before the 15th of July the whole of Syria had sworn allegiance. The party also gained the support of Sohaemus, with all the resources of his kingdom and a considerable force, and of Antiochus, the richest of the subject princes, who owed his importance to his ancestral treasures. Before long Agrippa, too, received a secret summons from his friends at home, and leaving Rome [He had started for Rome with Titus, and continued his journey when Titus turned back] without the knowledge of Vitellius, sailed as fast as he could to join Vespasian. His sister Berenice showed equal enthusiasm for the cause. She was then in the flower of her youth and beauty, and her munificent gifts to Vespasian quite won the old man’s heart. Indeed, every province on the seaboard as far as Asia and Achaia, and inland to Pontus and Armenia swore allegiance to Vespasian, but their governors were without troops, for as yet no legions had been assigned to Cappadocia. [Cappadocia was under a procurator of equestrian rank until Vespasian some years later was forced to send out troops and a military governor]

A meeting was held at Berytus [Beyrut] to discuss the general situation. To this came Mucianus with all his officers and the most distinguished of his centurions and soldiers, besides the elite of the Jewish army in full uniform. All these cavalry and infantry, and the pageant of the subject princes, vying with each other in splendour, gave the meeting an air of imperial grandeur.

The first step was to levy new troops and to recall the veterans to the standards. Some of the strongest towns were told off to manufacture arms. New gold and silver were coined at Antioch. All these works were promptly carried out, each in the proper place, by competent officials. Vespasian came and inspected them himself, encouraging good work by his praises and rousing the inefficient rather by example than compulsion, always more ready to see the merits than the faults of his friends. Many were rewarded by receiving commands in the auxiliary forces or posts as imperial agents. [“Procuratio” covers the governorship of an imperial province such as Judaea, the post of financial agent in an imperial province where there was a military governor (“legatus Caesaris”), and the position of collector of imperial taxes in a senatorial province. “Praefectura”, may mean either a command in the auxiliary infantry or the governorship of certain imperial provinces. Here the former seems the more probable sense]

Still more were raised to senatorial rank. They were mostly men of distinction who soon rose high, and with others success atoned for any lack of merit. A donation for the troops had been mentioned by Mucianus in his first speech, but in very guarded terms. Even Vespasian offered for the civil war a lower figure than others gave in time of peace, for he had set his face with admirable firmness against largess to the soldiers, and his army was none the worse for it.

Envoys were dispatched to Parthia and Armenia to secure that the legions, while engaged in the civil war, should not be exposed to attack in the rear. [They would treat with Vologaeses, king of Parthia, and Tiridates of Armenia, and keep an eye on them. This they did with such success that Vologaeses offered Vespasian 40,000 cavalry] It was arranged that Titus should carry on the war in Judaea, while Vespasian held the keys of Egypt.[Alexandria and Pelusium] Against Vitellius it seemed sufficient to send a part of their forces under the command of Mucianus. He would have Vespasian’s name behind him and the irresistible force of destiny. Letters were written to all the armies and their generals with instructions that they should try to win over those of the Guards who were hostile to Vitellius by promising them renewal of service.

Meanwhile, Mucianus, who acted the part more of a partner than a subordinate, moved forward without the encumbrance of baggage, neither marching so slowly as to look like holding back, nor so rapidly as not to allow time for rumours to spread. He realized that his force was small, and that the less people saw the more they would believe of it. However, he had a solid column following in support, composed of the Sixth legion and some picked detachments numbering 13,000 men. [i.e. besides the Sixth Ferrata he had detachments from the other two legions in Syria, and from the three in Judaea] He had ordered the fleet to move from Pontus to Byzantium, for he was half-minded to leave Moesia and with his whole force to hold Dyrrachium, at the same time using his fleet to dominate the Italian sea. He would thus secure Greece and Asia in his rear, which would otherwise be at the mercy of Vitellius, unless furnished with troops. Vitellius also would himself be in doubt what points of the Italian coast to defend, if Mucianus with his ships threatened both Brundisium and Tarentum and the whole coastline of Calabria and Lucania.

Thus the provinces rang from end to end with the preparations for ships, soldiers and arms. But the heaviest burden was the raising of money. ‘Funds,’ said Mucianus, ‘are the sinews of war,'[Borrowing this platitude from Cicero, who got it from the Greek] and in his investigations he cared for neither justice nor equity, but solely for the amount of the sum. Informers abounded, and pounced on every rich man as their prey. This intolerable oppression, excused by the necessities of war, was allowed to continue even in peace. It was not so much that Vespasian at the beginning of his reign had made up his mind to maintain unjust decisions, but fortune spoilt him; he had learnt in a bad school and made a bold use of his lessons. Mucianus also contributed from his private means, of which he was generous, as he hoped to get a high rate of interest out of the country. Others followed his example, but very few had his opportunity of recovering their money.

In the meantime Vespasian’s progress was accelerated by the enthusiasm with which the Illyrian army [i.e. the legions in Moesia, Pannonia, and Dalmatia] espoused his cause. The Third set the example to the other legions of Moesia, the Eighth and the Seventh Claudian, both strongly attached to Otho, although they had not been present at the battle. On their arrival at Aquileia they had mobbed the couriers who brought the news of Otho’s fall, and torn to pieces the standards bearing Vitellius’ name, finally looting the camp-chest and dividing the money among them-selves. These were hostile acts. Alarmed at what they had done they began to reflect that, while their conduct needed excuse before Vitellius, they could make a merit of it with Vespasian. Accordingly, the three Moesian legions addressed letters to the Pannonian army, [XIII Gemina and VII Galbiana] inviting their co-operation, and meanwhile prepared to meet refusal with force.

Aponius Saturninus, the Governor of Moesia, took this opportunity to attempt an abominable crime. He sent a centurion to murder Tettius Julianus, who commanded the Seventh legion, alleging the interests of his party as a cloak for a personal quarrel. Julianus heard of his danger and, taking some guides who knew the country, escaped into the wilds of Moesia and got as far as Mount Haemus. [The Balkan range] After that he meddled no more in civil war. Starting to join Vespasian, he prolonged his journey by various expedients, retarding or hastening his pace according to the nature of the news he received.

In Pannonia the Thirteenth legion and the Seventh Galbian had not forgotten their feelings after the battle of Bedriacum. They lost no time in joining Vespasian’s cause, being chiefly instigated by Antonius Primus. This man was a criminal who had been convicted of fraud [He was concerned in the forgery of a will: see “Ann.” xiv. 40, where he is called ‘a man of ready daring’] during Nero’s reign. Among the many evils of the war was his recovery of senatorial rank. Galba gave him command of the Seventh legion, and he was believed to have written repeatedly to Otho offering his services as general to the party. But, as Otho took no notice of him, he was without employment in the war. When Vitellius’ cause began to decline, he joined Vespasian and proved an acquisition.

He was a man of great physical energy and a ready tongue; an artist in calumny, invaluable in riots and sedition. Light-fingered and free-handed, he was intolerable in peace, but by no means contemptible in war. The union of the Moesian and Pannonian armies soon attracted the troops in Dalmatia to the cause. Tampius Flavianus and Pompeius Silvanus, the two ex-consuls who governed respectively Pannonia and
Dalmatia, [These were imperial provinces, each governed by a “legatus Caesaris” and a “procurator”, the former a military, the latter a financial officer] were wealthy old gentlemen who had no thought of rising. But the imperial agent in Pannonia, Cornelius Fuscus, was a vigorous young man of good family. In his early youth a desire to make money [Reading “quaestus cupidine” (Grotius). The reading of the Medicean manuscript is “quietis cupidine”. But Fuscus, as the sequel shows, had little taste for a quiet life. It is more likely that his motives were mercenary, since both law and custom still imposed some restrictions upon a senator’s participation in ‘business’. In the “Annals” (xvi. 17) Tacitus says that Annaeus Mela abstained from seeking public office, because he ‘hoped to find a shorter road to wealth’ by entering, as Fuscus did, the imperial civil service. The statement that Fuscus loved danger better than money does not imply any rooted antipathy to the latter] had led him to resign his senatorial rank. He had headed the townsmen of his colony in declaring for Galba, and his services had won him a position as imperial agent. [ i.e. in Pannonia] Then he joined Vespasian’s party, giving a keen stimulus to the war; for, being attracted more by danger itself than by its prizes, he always disliked what was certain and long established, preferring everything that was new and dangerous and doubtful. So the Vespasian party used all their efforts to fan every spark of discontent throughout the empire. Letters were sent to the Fourteenth in Britain and to the First in Spain, since both these legions had stood for Otho against Vitellius. In Gaul, too, letters were scattered broadcast. All in an instant the war was in full flame. The armies of Illyricum openly revolted, and all the others were ready to follow the first sign of success.
REFERENCE: The Histories (Book 2) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus
Translated w/Notation: By W. HAMILTON FYFE (1912)
CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick

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