Roman Empire: Antonius’ Advance (Part 13)

On the Flavian side the generals concerted their plans for the war with greater loyalty and greater success. They had met at Poetovio [Petau] at the head-quarters of the Third legion, where they debated whether they should block the passage of the Pannonian Alps and wait until their whole strength came up to reinforce them, or whether they should take a bolder line, assume the offensive, and strike for Italy. Those who were in favour of waiting for reinforcements and prolonging the war dwelt on the strength and reputation of the German legions, and pointed out that the flower of the British army had lately arrived in Rome with Vitellius; [i.e. the detachments 8,000 strong from the army in Britain] their own forces were numerically inferior and had recently suffered defeat; moreover, conquered troops, however bold their language, never show the same courage. On the other hand, if they occupied the Alps, Mucianus would soon arrive with the forces from the East. Besides, Vespasian still [i.e. still, after parting with the force which he had sent forward under Mucianus] commanded the sea, and could count on the support of the fleets [Of Pontus, Syria, and Egypt] and of the provinces, where he could still raise material for a sort of second war. A salutary delay would bring them fresh forces without in any way prejudicing their present position.

In answer to these arguments Antonius Primus, who had done more than anyone else to stir up the war, stoutly maintained that prompt action would save them and ruin Vitellius. ‘Their victory,’ he said, ‘has not served to inspirit but to enervate them. The men are not held in readiness in camp, but are loitering in towns all over Italy. No one but their hosts has any call to fear them. The more unruly and ferocious they showed themselves before, the greater the greed with which they now indulge in unwonted draughts of pleasure. The circus, the theatre, and the charms of the capital have ruined their hardness and their health. But if we give them time to train for war they will regain their energy. It is not far to Germany, whence they draw their main strength. Britain is only separated by a narrow channel. Close at hand they have Gaul and Spain, from the provinces of which they can get men, horses, and subsidies. Then again, they can rely on Italy itself and all the resources of the capital, while, if they want to take the offensive, they have two fleets [Of Misenum and Ravenna] and full command of the Illyrian Sea. [Adriatic] Besides, what good to us are the ramparts of the mountains? Why should we drag on the war into another summer? Where can we get funds and supplies in the meanwhile? No, let us seize our opportunity.

The Pannonian legions are burning to rise in revenge. They were not defeated but deceived. The Moesian army has not yet lost a man. If you count not legions but men, our forces are superior both in numbers and in character. The very shame of our defeat [At Bedriacum] makes for good discipline. And even then our cavalry was not beaten. For though we lost the day, they shattered the enemy’s line. And what was the force that broke through the Vitellians? Two regiments of cavalry from Pannonia and Moesia. What have we now? Sixteen regiments. Will not their combined forces, as they roar and thunder down upon the enemy, burying them in clouds of dust, overwhelm these horses and horsemen that have forgotten how to fight? I have given you my plan, and, unless I am stopped, I will put it in operation. Some of you have not yet burnt your boats. [i.e. not yet declared finally against Vitellius] Well, you can keep back the legions. Give me the auxiliaries in light marching order. They will be enough for me. You will soon hear that the door of Italy is open and the power of Vitellius shaken. You will be glad enough to follow in the footsteps of my victory.’

All this and much else of the same tenor Antonius poured out with flashing eyes, raising his voice so as to reach the centurions and some of the soldiers, who had gathered round to share in their deliberations. [These were usually confined to the legates, camp-prefects, tribunes, and senior centurions] His truculent tone carried away even the more cautious and far-seeing, while the rest of the crowd were filled with contempt for the cowardice of the other generals, and cheered their one and only leader to the echo. He had already established his reputation at the original meeting, when Vespasian’s letter was read. Most of the generals had then taken an ambiguous line, intending to interpret their language in the light of subsequent events. But Antonius seemed to have taken the field without any disguise, and this carried more weight with the men, who saw that he must share their disgrace or their glory.

Next to Antonius in influence stood Cornelius Fuscus, the imperial agent. [In Pannonia] He, too, always attacked Vitellius in no mild terms, and had left himself no hope in case of failure. Tampius Flavianus [Military governor of Pannonia] was a man whose disposition and advanced years inclined him to dilatory measures, and he soon began to earn the dislike and suspicion of the soldiers, who felt he had not forgotten his kinship with Vitellius.

Besides this, when the legions first rose, he had fled to Italy and subsequently returned of his own free will, which looked like meditating treachery. [i.e. they suspected that he wanted to alienate the troops from Vespasian] Having once given up his province and returned to Italy, he was out of the reach of danger, but the passion for revolution had induced him to resume his title and meddle in the civil war. It was Cornelius Fuscus who had persuaded him to this—not that he needed his assistance, but because he felt that, especially at the outset of the rising, the prestige of an ex-consul would be a valuable asset to the party.

In order to make their march across into Italy safe and effective, letters were sent to Aponius Saturninus [Military governor of Moesia] to bring the Moesian army up as quickly as possible. To prevent the exposure of the defenceless provinces to the attacks of foreign tribes, the chiefs of the Sarmatian Iazyges, [They occupied part of Hungary between the Danube and the Theiss] who formed the government of the tribe, were enlisted in the service. They also offered their tribal force, consisting entirely of cavalry, but were excused from this contribution for fear that the civil war might give opportunity for a foreign invasion, or that an offer of higher pay from the enemy might tempt them to sacrifice their duty and their honour. [They took the chiefs as a pledge of peace and kept them safely apart from their tribal force] Sido and Italicus, two princes of the Suebi, [Tiberius’ son, Drusus, had in A.D. 19 settled the Suebi north of the Danube between the rivers March and Waag] were allowed to join Vespasian’s side. They had long acknowledged Roman sovereignty, and companionship in arms [Reading “commilitio” (Meiser). The word “commissior” in the Medicean manuscript gives no sense] was likely to strengthen the loyalty of the tribe. Some auxiliaries were stationed on the flank towards Raetia, where hostilities were expected, since the imperial agent Porcius Septiminus, [This being a small province the procurator was sole governor] remained incorruptibly loyal to Vitellius. Sextilius Felix was therefore dispatched with Aurius’ Horse [A squadron of Spanish horse, called after some governor of the province where it was raised] and eight cohorts of auxiliary infantry, together with the native levies of Noricum, to hold the line of the river Aenus, [The Inn] which forms the frontier of Raetia and Noricum. Neither side provoked a battle: the fortune of the rival parties was decided elsewhere.

Meanwhile, at the head of a picked band of auxiliaries and part of the cavalry, Antonius hurried off to invade Italy. He took with him an energetic soldier named Arrius Varus, who had made his reputation while serving under Corbulo in his Armenian victories. He was supposed to have sought a private interview with Nero, at which he maligned Corbulo’s character. His infamous treachery brought him the emperor’s favour and a post as senior centurion. This ill-gotten prize delighted him now, but ultimately proved his ruin. [Probably under Domitian, who married Corbulo’s daughter]

After occupying Aquileia, Antonius and Varus found a ready welcome at Opitergium and Altinum [Oderzo and Altino] and all the other towns in the neighbourhood. At Altinum a garrison was left behind to guard their communications against the fleet at Ravenna, for the news of its desertion had not as yet arrived. Pressing forward, they won Patavium and Ateste [Este] for the party. At the latter place they learnt that three cohorts of Vitellius’ auxiliary infantry and a regiment of cavalry, known as Sebosus’ Horse, [A Gallic troop called after some unknown governor] were established at Forum Alieni, where they had constructed a bridge. [Over the Adige] The report added that they were off their guard, so this seemed a good opportunity to attack them. They accordingly rushed the position at dawn, and cut down many of the men without their weapons. Orders had been given that, after a few had been killed, the rest should be terrorized into desertion. Some surrendered at once, but the majority succeeded in destroying the bridge, and thus checked the enemy’s pursuit. The first bout had gone in the Flavians’ favour.

When the news spread to Poetovio, the Seventh Galbian and the Thirteenth Gemina hurried in high spirits to Patavium under the command of Vedius Aquila. At Patavium they were given a few days’ rest, during which Minicius Justus, the camp-prefect of the Seventh legion, who endeavoured to enforce a standard of discipline too severe for civil war, had to be rescued from the fury of his troops and sent to Vespasian. Antonius conceived that his party would gain in prestige, if they showed approval of Galba’s government, and stood for the revival of his cause. So he gave orders that all the statues of Galba, which had been thrown down during the civil war, should be replaced for worship throughout the country towns. This was a thing that had long been desired, and in their ambitious imaginations it assumed an undue importance.

The question then arose where they should choose their seat of war. The best place seemed to be Verona. The open country round it was suited for the manoeuvres of the cavalry, in which their strength lay: and they would gain both prestige and profit by wresting from Vitellius a strongly garrisoned town. On the road they occupied Vicetia. [Vicenza] In itself this was a very small matter, since there was only a moderate force in the town, but it gained considerable importance from the reflection that it was Caecina’s birthplace: the enemy’s general had thus lost his native town. But Verona was well worthwhile. The inhabitants could aid the party with encouragement and funds: the army was thrust midway between Raetia and the Julian Alps, [The Brenner] and had thus blocked all passages by that route for the German armies.

This move had been made either without the knowledge or against the orders of Vespasian. His instructions were to suspend operations at Aquileia and wait for the arrival of Mucianus. He had further added this consideration, that so long as he held Egypt and the key to the corn-supply, [i.e. Alexandria] as well as the revenue of the richest provinces, [i.e. Egypt, Syria, Asia] he could reduce Vitellius’ army to submission from sheer lack of money and provisions. Mucianus had sent letter after letter with the same advice, pointing to the prospect of a victory without bloodshed or bereavement, and using other similar pretexts to conceal his real motive. This was ambition. He wanted to keep all the glory of the war to himself. However, the distance was so great that events outran his instructions.

Antonius accordingly made a sudden sally against the enemy’s outposts, and after a slight skirmish, in which they tested each other’s temper, both sides withdrew without advantage. Soon after, Caecina entrenched a strong position between a Veronese village called Hostilia [Ostiglia] and the marshes of the river Tartaro. Here he was safe, with the river in his rear and the marsh to guard his flanks. Had he added loyalty to his other advantages, he might have employed the full strength of the Vitellian forces to crush the enemy’s two legions, before they were reinforced by the Moesian army, or, at least, have forced them to retire in ignominious flight and abandon Italy. But Caecina used various pretexts for delay, and at the outset of the war treacherously yielded all his advantages to the enemy. While it was open to him to rout them by force of arms, he preferred to pester them with letters and to wait until his intermediaries had settled the terms of his treason. In the meantime, Aponius Saturninus arrived with the Seventh Claudian legion, [From Moesia] commanded by the tribune [The legate Tettius Julianus had fled] Vipstanus Messala, a distinguished member of a famous family, and the only man who brought any honesty to this war.[ He also wrote a history of the period, which Tacitus found useful. He is one of the characters in the “Dialogue on Oratory”, and many passages show that Tacitus admired him greatly, both for his character and his eloquence]

To these forces, still only three legions and no match for the Vitellians, Caecina addressed his letters. He criticized their rash attempt to sustain a lost cause, and at the same time praised the courage of the German army in the highest terms. His allusions to Vitellius were few and casual, and he refrained from insulting Vespasian. In fact he used no language calculated either to seduce or to terrorize the enemy. The Flavian generals made no attempt to explain away their former defeat.

They proudly championed Vespasian, showing their loyalty to the cause, their confidence in the army, and their hostile prejudice [The text here is doubtful. There seems to be no exact parallel to the absolute use of “praesumpsere”. In the Medicean MS. the whole passage, from “revirescere” at the end of chap. 7 down to “inimici” here, has been transposed to the beginning of chap. 5, where it stands between the second and third syllables of the word “Saturnino”. Thus in M. “praesumpsere” stands immediately after “partes”. It is possible that the word “partes” may belong to this passage as well as to the end of chap. 7. “Praesumpsere partes” would mean ‘they took their own cause for granted’ (cp. Quintilian xi. 1. 27). The addition of “ut inimici” would add the sense of ‘hostile prejudice’] against Vitellius. To the tribunes and centurions they held out the hope of retaining all the favours they had won from Vitellius, and they urged Caecina himself in plain terms to desert. These letters were both read before a meeting of the Flavian army, and served to increase their confidence, for while Caecina wrote mildly and seemed afraid of offending Vespasian, their own generals had answered contemptuously and scoffed at Vitellius.

When the two other legions arrived, the Third [Gallica] commanded by Dillius Aponianus, and the Eighth by Numisius Lupus, Antonius decided to entrench Verona and make a demonstration in force. It so happened that the Galbian legion, who had been told off to work in the trenches facing the enemy, catching sight of some of their allies’ cavalry in the distance, took them for the enemy, and fell into a groundless panic. Suspecting treachery, they seized their arms and visited their fury on Tampius Flavianus. They could prove no charge against him, but he had long been unpopular, and a blind impulse made them clamour for his head. He was Vitellius’ kinsman, they howled; he had betrayed Otho; he had embezzled their donative. They would listen to no defence, although he implored them with outstretched hands, groveling for the most part flat upon the ground, his clothes all torn, his face and chest shaken with sobs. This only served to inflame the soldiers’ anger. His very excess of terror seemed to prove his guilt.

Aponius [Saturninus] tried to address them, but his voice was drowned in their shouts. The others, too, were contemptuously howled down. They would give no one a hearing except Antonius, who had the power of authority as well as the arts of eloquence necessary to quiet a mob. When the riot grew worse, and they began to pass from insulting speeches to murderous violence, he gave orders that Flavianus should be put in chains. Feeling that this was a farce, the soldiers broke through the guards round the general’s quarters, prepared to resort to extremities. Whereupon Antonius, drawing his sword, bared his breast and vowed that he would die either by their hands or his own. Whenever he saw a soldier whom he knew or could recognize by his decorations, he called on him by name to come to the rescue. At last he turned towards the standards and the gods of war, [Mars, Bellona, Victoria, Pavor, etc., whose images were wrought in medallion on the shafts of the standards, which themselves too were held sacred] and prayed incessantly that they would rather inspire the enemy’s army with this mad spirit of mutiny. At last the riot died away and at nightfall they all dispersed to their tents. Flavianus left that same night, and on his way met letters from Vespasian, which delivered him from danger.

The infection seemed to spread among the legions. They next attacked Aponius Saturninus, who was in command of the Moesian army. This fresh disturbance was caused by the circulation of a letter, which Saturninus was supposed to have written to Vitellius, and it was the more alarming since it broke out not when they were tired by their labours but in the middle of the day. Once the soldiers had vied with each other in courage and discipline: now they were rivals in ribaldry and riot. They were determined that the fury with which they denounced Aponius should not fall short of their outcry against Flavianus. The Moesian legions remembered that they had helped the Pannonian army to take their revenge; while the Pannonian troops, feeling that their comrades’ mutiny acquitted them of blame, were glad enough to repeat the crime. They invaded the country house in which Saturninus was living. He escaped, however, aided not so much by the efforts of Antonius, Aponianus, and Messala, who did everything in their power to rescue him, but rather by the security of his hiding-place, for he concealed himself in the furnace of some disused baths. Eventually he gave up his lictors and retired to Patavium. The departure of both the consular governors left Antonius in supreme command of the two armies. His colleagues [i.e. Vedius, Dillius, Numisius, Vipstanus Messala] deferred to him and the men gave him enthusiastic support. It was even supposed by some that he had cunningly promoted both outbreaks, to secure for himself the full profit of the war.

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

REFERENCE: The Histories (Book 3) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus
Translated w/Notation: By W. HAMILTON FYFE (1912)
CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick

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