Roman Empire: Vitellius in Rome (Part 12)

While Vespasian and his generals were showing such activity in the provinces, Vitellius grew more contemptible and indolent every day. Halting at every town or country house that offered any attractions, he made his way to Rome with a heavy marching column of sixty thousand troops, demoralized by loose discipline, and an even greater number of menials as well as those camp-followers who are more troublesome than any slaves. Besides these he had the vast retinue of his generals and friends, which not even the strictest discipline could have kept under control. This mob was further encumbered by senators and knights, who came from Rome to meet him, some from fear, some from servility; and gradually all the others followed, so as not to be left behind by themselves. There flocked in, too, a crowd of low-bred buffoons, actors and chariot-drivers, who had gained Vitellius’ acquaintance by various dishonest services. He delighted in such discreditable connexions. To furnish supplies for this host not only were the colonies and country towns laid under contribution, but the farmers as well. The crops were just ripe and the fields were ravaged like an enemy’s country.

Many murderous affrays took place among the soldiers, for after the mutiny at Ticinum there were ceaseless quarrels between the legions and the auxiliaries. They only united to harry the villagers. The worst bloodshed took place at the seventh milestone from Rome. Here Vitellius had ready-cooked food served to each of the soldiers, as is done with gladiators in training, and the common people flocked out from Rome and wandered all over the camp. Some of these visitors indulged in a cockney practical joke, [The word ‘cockney’ may perhaps be admitted here to express that which is characteristic of the metropolitan masses. Similarly Petronius speaks of a man as ‘a fountain of cockney humour’ (“urbanitatis vernaculae fontem”)] and stole some of the soldiers’ swords, quietly cutting their belts while their attention was diverted. Then they kept asking them, ‘Have you got your sword on?’ The troops were not used to being laughed at, and refused to tolerate it.

They charged the defenseless crowd. Amongst others the father of one of the soldiers was killed while in his son’s company. When it was discovered who he was, and the news spread, they shed no more innocent blood. Still there was some panic in the city as the first soldiers arrived and began to roam the streets. They mostly made for the Forum, anxious to see the spot where Galba had fallen. [They were cast for the part of Galba’s avengers] They themselves were a sufficiently alarming sight with their rough skin coats and long pikes. Unused to towns, they failed to pick their way in the crowd; or they would slip on the greasy streets, or collide with someone and tumble down, whereupon they took to abuse and before long to violence. Their officers, too, terrified the city by sweeping along the streets with their bands of armed men.

After crossing the Mulvian bridge, Vitellius himself had been riding on a conspicuous horse, wearing his sword and general’s uniform, with the senate and people trooping in front of him. However, as this looked too much like an entry into a captured city, his friends persuaded him to change into civilian dress and walk on foot. At the head of his column were carried the eagles of four legions, surrounded by the colours belonging to the detachments of four other legions. [Only detachments of these latter four were present, so they had not got their eagles] Next came the standards of twelve regiments of auxiliary horse, then the files of infantry and the cavalry behind them.Then came thirty-four cohorts of auxiliaries, arranged according to their nationality or the nature of their weapons. In front of the eagles came the camp prefects and tribunes, and the senior centurions, [Under the empire there were six tribunes to each legion, and they took command on the march and on the field, acting under the orders of the “legatus legionis”. The ten centurions of the “pilani” or front rank each commanded his cohort] all dressed in white. The other centurions marched each at the head of his company, glittering with their armour and decorations. Gaily, too, shone the soldiers’ medals and their chains of honour. It was a noble spectacle, an army worthy of a better emperor. Thus Vitellius entered the Capitol, where he embraced his mother and conferred on her the title of Augusta.

On the following day Vitellius delivered a grandiloquent eulogy on his own merits. He might have been addressing the senate and people of some other state, for he extolled his own industry and self-control, although each member of his audience had seen his infamy for himself, and the whole of Italy had witnessed during his march the shameful spectacle of his sloth and luxury. However, the thoughtless crowd could not discriminate between truth and falsehood. They had learnt the usual flatteries by heart and chimed in with loud shouts of applause. They insisted in the face of his protests that he should take the title of Augustus. But neither his refusal nor their insistence made much difference. [The end was so near]

In Rome nothing passes without comment, and it was regarded as a fatal omen that Vitellius took office as high priest, and issued his encyclical on public worship on the 18th of July, which, as the anniversary of the disasters on the Cremera and the Allia, [At Cremera, near Veii, the Fabii died like heroes, 477 B.C., and on the Allia the Gauls won their victory over Rome, 390 B.C. The day was called Alliensis, and no work was to be done on it (Livy, vi. 1)] had long been considered an unlucky day. But his ignorance of all civil and religious precedent was only equalled by the incapacity of his freedmen and friends. He seemed to live in a society of drunkards. However, at the consular elections he canvassed for his candidates like a common citizen. [At this time the emperor had in theory only the right of nominating candidates for the consulships, but it was obviously unnecessary for him to do more. The alliteration in this sentence is Tacitus’.]

In everything he courted the favour of the lowest classes, attending performances in the theatre and backing his favourite at the races. This would undoubtedly have made him popular had his motives been good, but the memory of his former life made his conduct seem cheap and discreditable. He constantly attended the senate, even when the debates were on trivial matters. It once happened that Helvidius Priscus, then praetor elect opposed Vitellius’ policy. At first the emperor showed annoyance, but was content to appeal to the tribunes of the people to come to the rescue of his slighted authority. Afterwards, when his friends, fearing that his resentment might be deep-seated, tried to smooth matters, he replied that there was nothing strange in two senators disagreeing on a question of public policy: he himself had often opposed even such a man as Thrasea. Most people laughed at the impudence of this comparison; others were gratified that he had selected Thrasea, and not some court favorite, as an example of real distinction. [Thrasea, Helvidius’ father-in-law, was an honoured member of the Stoic opposition who had been executed by Nero A.D. 66. Here Vitellius is posing as an ordinary senator. If he had opposed so distinguished a man as Thrasea, why should not Helvidius oppose him? Thrasea’s end gives the remark a slightly sinister tone]

Vitellius had given the command of the Guards to Publilius Sabinus, who had commanded an auxiliary cohort, and Julius Priscus, hitherto only a centurion. Priscus owed his rise to Valens’ support, Sabinus to that of Caecina. The rivalry between Valens and Caecina left Vitellius no authority at all. They managed the government between them. They had long felt the strain of mutual dislike. During the war they had concealed it. Lately it had been fanned by dishonest friends and by life in the city, which so easily breeds quarrels. They were constant rivals, comparing their respective popularity, the number of their retinue, the size of the crowds that came to wait upon them. Meanwhile Vitellius let his favour alternate between them, for personal influence is not to be trusted beyond a certain limit. Meanwhile, they both feared and despised the emperor himself, who thus veered between sudden brusqueness and unseasonable flattery. However, they were not in the least deterred from seizing on the houses, gardens, and funds in the emperor’s patronage, while the crowd of miserable and needy nobles, whom Galba had recalled from exile with their children, derived no assistance from the emperor’s liberality. He earned the approval both of the upper classes and of the people by granting to the restored full rights over their freedmen. [A patron apparently could claim support from his freedmen if he was in want, as these restored exiles certainly were, since their property had been confiscated and was irrecoverable. In exile they had of course lost their rights] But the freed slaves with characteristic meanness did all they could to invalidate the edict. They would hide their money with some obscure friend or in a rich patron’s safe. Some, indeed, had passed into the imperial household and become more influential than their masters.

As for the soldiers, the Guards’ barracks were crowded, and the overflow spread through the city, finding shelter in colonnades and temples. They ceased to recognize any head-quarters, to go on guard, or to keep themselves in training, but fell victims to the attractions of city life and its unmentionable vices, until they deteriorated both physically and morally through idleness and debauchery. A number of them even imperilled their lives by settling in the pestilent Vatican quarter, thus increasing the rate of mortality. They were close to the Tiber, and the Germans and Gauls, who were peculiarly liable to disease and could ill stand the heat, ruined their constitutions by their immoderate use of the river. [This probably includes bathing as well as drinking] Moreover, the generals, either for bribes or to earn popularity, tampered with the rules of the service, enrolling sixteen regiments of Guards [Since Tiberius there had been only nine, and Vespasian restored that number] and four for the city garrison, each composed of a thousand men. In enlisting these troops Valens put himself forward as superior to Caecina, whose life he claimed to have saved. It is true, indeed, that his arrival had consolidated the party, and by his successful engagement he had silenced the current criticism of their slow marching. Besides which the whole of the army of Lower Germany was attached to Valens, and this is said to be the reason why Caecina’s loyalty first wavered.

Whatever indulgence Vitellius showed to his generals, he allowed still more license to the troops. Each man chose his service. However unfit, he might enlist in the Guards, if he preferred it. On the other hand, good soldiers were allowed, if they wished, to remain in the legions or the auxiliary cavalry. Many wished to do this that suffered from ill health and complained of the climate. However, the best soldiers were thus withdrawn from the legions and from the cavalry; and the Guards were robbed of their prestige when twenty thousand men were thus not so much selected for service with them as drafted at random from the whole army.

While Vitellius was addressing the troops, they demanded the execution of three Gallic chieftains, Asiaticus, Flavus, and Rufinus, on the ground that they had fought for Vindex. Vitellius never checked these outcries. For, apart from the innate cowardice of his nature, he knew that his donation to the soldiers was nearly due, and that he had no money for it; so he freely granted all their other demands. The imperial freedmen were forced to contribute a sort of tax, proportionate to the number of their slaves. Meanwhile, his one serious occupation was extravagance. He built stables for chariot-drivers, filled the arena with gorgeous shows of gladiators and wild beasts, and fooled away his money as though he had more than he wanted.

Moreover, Valens and Caecina celebrated Vitellius’ birthday [Probably September 24. He was 54] by holding gladiatorial shows in every quarter of Rome on a scale of magnificence hitherto unknown. Vitellius then gratified the rabble and scandalized all decent people by building altars in the Martian Plain, and holding a funeral service in honour of Nero. Victims were killed and burnt in public: the torch was applied by the Augustales, members of the college which Tiberius Caesar had founded in honour of the Julian family, just as Romulus similarly commemorated King Tatius.

It was not yet four months since Vitellius’ victory, and yet his freedman Asiaticus was as bad as a Polyclitus or a Patrobius, or any of the favourites whose names were hated in earlier days. At this court no one strove to rise by honesty or capacity. There was only one road to power. By lavish banquets, costly profusion, and feats of gastronomy, you had to try and satisfy Vitellius’ insatiable gluttony. He himself, without thought for the morrow, was well content to enjoy the present. It is believed that he squandered nine hundred million sesterces in these brief months. Truly it shows Rome’s greatness and misfortune, that she endured Otho and Vitellius both in the same year, and suffered humiliation of every kind at the hands of men like Vinius and Fabius, [Valens] Icelus and Asiaticus, until at last they gave way to Mucianus and Marcellus–a change of men but not of manners.

The first news of rebellion which reached Vitellius came from Aponius Saturninus, [Governor of Moesia] who, before himself going over to Vespasian’s side, wrote to announce the desertion of the Third legion. But a sudden crisis makes a man nervous: Aponius did not tell the whole story. So the emperor’s flattering friends began to explain it all away: what was the defection of a single legion, while the loyalty of the other armies remained unshaken? Vitellius himself used the same language to the soldiers. He accused the men, who had been recently discharged from the Guards, of spreading false rumours, and kept assuring them there was no fear of civil war. All mention of Vespasian was suppressed, and soldiers were sent round the city to frighten people into silence, which, of course, did more than anything else to make them talk.

Vitellius, nevertheless, sent for reinforcements from Germany, Britain, and the Spanish provinces, though with a lack of urgency which was intended to conceal his straits. The provinces and their governors showed the same want of enthusiasm. Hordeonius Flaccus, [He had been left to guard the Rhine] who had suspicions of the Batavi, was distracted with a war of his own, [He had been left to guard the Rhine] while Vettius Bolanus never had Britain under complete control: nor was the loyally of either beyond doubt. The Spanish provinces, where there was at the time no consular governor, [Cluvius Rufus was governing the Tarragona division from Rome. Lusitania was under a praetorian legate. Baetica was a senatorial province with no troops] were equally slow. The three officers in command of the legions held an equal authority, and if Vitellius’ cause had prospered, would have each outbid the other for his favour: but they all shared the resolve to leave his misfortunes alone. In Africa the legion and auxiliaries enlisted by Clodius Macer, and subsequently disbanded by Galba, took service again at Vitellius’ orders, and at the same time all the young men of the province eagerly enlisted. Vitellius had been an honest and popular pro-consul in Africa, while Vespasian had been distrusted and disliked. The provincials took this as an earnest of their reigns; but experience proved them wrong.

The military legate Valerius Festus [He had succeeded Clodius Macer in command of the Third Augusta, and in virtue of that command governed Numidia] at first loyally seconded the enthusiasm of the province. After a while he began to waver. In his official letters and edicts he still acknowledged Vitellius, while in secret communication with Vespasian and ready to support whichever party proved successful. In Raetia and the Gallic provinces some centurions and men carrying letters and edicts from Vespasian were taken prisoners and sent to Vitellius, who had them executed. But most of these envoys escaped capture either by their own ingenuity or the loyal help of friends. Thus, while Vitellius’ plans were known, Vespasian’s were for the most part still a secret. This was partly due to Vitellius’ negligence, but also to the fact that the garrisons on the Pannonian Alps stopped all messengers. By sea, too, the Etesian [These ‘annual’ winds blew steadily and gently from July 20 for a month] winds from the north-west favoured ships sailing eastward, but hindered the voyage from the East.

Terrified at last by the imminence of invasion and the alarming news that reached him from all quarters, Vitellius instructed Caecina and Valens to prepare for war. Caecina was sent on ahead, Valens, who was just recovering from a serious illness, being delayed by his weak state of health. Great, indeed, was the change in the appearance of the German army as it marched out of Rome. There was neither energy in their muscles nor fire in their hearts. Slowly the column straggled on, their horses spiritless, their arms neglected. The men grumbled at the sun, the dust, the weather, and were as ready to quarrel as they were unwilling to work. To these disadvantages were added Caecina’s inveterate self-seeking and his newly-acquired indolence. An overdose of success had made him slack and self-indulgent, or, if he was plotting treachery, this may have been one of his devices for demoralizing the army. It has often been believed that it was Flavius Sabinus [Vespasian’s brother] who, using Rubrius Gallus as his agent, tampered with Caecina’s loyalty by promising that, if he came over, Vespasian would ratify any conditions. It may have occurred also to Caecina to remember his quarrels and rivalry with Valens, and to consider that, as he did not stand first with Vitellius, he had better acquire credit and influence with the new emperor.

After taking an affectionate and respectful farewell of Vitellius, Caecina dispatched a body of cavalry to occupy Cremona. He soon followed with the detachments of the First, Fourth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth legions in the van. The center was composed of the Fifth and Twenty-second, and in the rear of the column came the Twenty-first Rapax and the First Italian legion, with detachments from the three legions of Britain and a select force of auxiliaries. When Caecina had started, Valens wrote instructions to the legions belonging to his old command [In Lower Germany] to await him on the march, saying that he and Caecina had arranged this. Caecina, however, took advantage of being on the spot, and pretended that this plan had been altered so as to enable them to meet the first outbreak of the war with their full strength. So some legions were hurried forward to Cremona [Only two legions went to Cremona] and part of the force was directed upon Hostilia. [Ostiglia] Caecina himself turned aside to Ravenna on the pretext of giving instructions to the fleet. Thence he proceeded to Patavium [Padua] to secure secrecy for his treacherous designs. For Lucilius Bassus, whom Vitellius, from a prefect of auxiliary cavalry had raised to the supreme command of the two fleets at Ravenna and Misenum, felt aggrieved at not being immediately given the praefecture of the Guards, and sought in dastardly treachery the remedy for his unjustifiable annoyance. It can never be known whether he influenced Caecina or whether one was as dishonest as the other.

There is seldom much to choose between rascals. The historians [e.g. Cluvius Rufus the elder Pliny and Vipstanus Messala] who compiled the records of this war in the days of the Flavian dynasty were led by flattery into adducing as the causes of the rebellion patriotism and the interests of peace. We cannot think them right. Apart from the innate disloyalty of the rebels and the loss of character after Galba’s betrayal, they seem to have been led by jealousy and rivalry into sacrificing Vitellius himself for fear that they might lose the first place in his favour. Thus when Caecina joined his army, [i.e. at Hostilia, coming back from Padua] he used every device to undermine the staunch fidelity of the centurions and soldiers to Vitellius. Bassus found the same task less difficult, for the fleet remembered that they had lately been in Otho’s service, and were therefore already on the brink of rebellion.


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


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