Roman Empire: Vitellius; Engagement At Cremona (Part 14)

Vitellius’ party was equally a prey to disquiet, and there the dissension was the more fatal, since it was aroused not by the men’s suspicions but by the treachery of the generals. The sailors of the fleet at Ravenna were mostly drawn from the provinces of Dalmatia and Pannonia, which were both held for Vespasian, and while they were still wavering, the admiral, Lucilius Bassus, decided them in favour of the Flavian party. Choosing the night-time for their treason, the conspirators assembled at head-quarters without the knowledge of the other sailors. Bassus, who was either ashamed or uncertain of their success, awaited developments in his house. Amid great disturbance the ships’ captains attacked the images of Vitellius and cut down the few men who offered any resistance. The rest of the fleet were glad enough of a change, and their sympathies soon came round to Vespasian. Then Lucilius appeared and publicly claimed responsibility. The fleet appointed Cornelius Fuscus as their admiral, and he came hurrying on to the scene. Bassus was put under honourable arrest and conveyed with an escort of Liburnian cruisers to Atria, [Atri] where he was imprisoned by Vibennius Rufinus, who commanded a regiment of auxiliary horse in garrison there. However, he was soon set free on the intervention of Hormus, one of the emperor’s freedmen. For he, too, ranked as a general.

When the news that the navy had gone over became known, Caecina, carefully selecting a moment when the camp was deserted, and the men had all gone to their various duties, summoned to head-quarters the senior centurions and a few of the soldiers. He then proceeded to praise the spirit and the strength of Vespasian’s party: ‘they themselves had been deserted by the fleet; they were cramped for supplies; Spain and Gaul were against them; Rome could not be trusted.’ In every way he exaggerated the weakness of Vitellius’ position. Eventually, when some of his accomplices had given the cue and the rest were dumbfoundered by his change of front, he made them all swear allegiance to Vespasian. Immediately the portraits [i.e. the medallions on the standards] of Vitellius were torn down and messengers dispatched to Antonius.

However, when the treason got abroad in the camp, and the men returning to head-quarters saw Vespasian’s name on the standards and Vitellius’ portraits scattered on the ground, at first there was an ominous silence: then with one voice they all vented their feelings. Had the pride of the German army sunk so low that without a battle and without a blow they should let their hands be shackled and render up their arms? What had they against them? None but defeated troops. The only sound legions of Otho’s army, the First and the Fourteenth, Vespasian had not got, and even those they had routed and cut to pieces on that same field. And all for what? That these thousands of fighting men should be handed over like a drove of slaves to Antonius, the convict! ‘Eight legions, forsooth, are to follow the lead of one miserable fleet. Such is the pleasure of Bassus and Caecina. They have robbed the emperor of his home, his estate, and all his wealth, and now they want to take away his troops. We have never lost a man nor shed a drop of blood. The very Flavians will despise us. What answer can we give when they question us about our victory or our defeat?’

Thus they shouted one and all as their indignation urged them. Led by the Fifth legion, they replaced the portraits of Vitellius and put Caecina in irons. They selected Fabius Fabullus, commanding the Fifth legion, and the camp-prefect, Cassius Longus, to lead them. Some marines who arrived at this point from three Liburnian cruisers, quite innocent and unaware of what had happened, were promptly butchered. Then the men deserted their camp, broke down the bridge, and marched back to Hostilia, and thence to Cremona to join the two legions, the First Italian and Twenty-first Rapax, which Caecina had sent ahead with some of the cavalry to occupy Cremona.


When Antonius heard of this he determined to attack the enemy while they were still at variance and their forces divided. The Vitellian generals would soon recover their authority and the troops their discipline and confidence would come if the two divisions were allowed to join. He guessed also that Fabius Valens had already started from Rome and would hasten his march when he heard of Caecina’s treachery. Valens was loyal to Vitellius and an experienced soldier. There was good reason, besides, to fear an attack on the side of Raetia from an immense force of German irregulars. Vitellius had already summoned auxiliaries from Britain, Gaul, and Spain in sufficient numbers to blight their chances utterly, had not Antonius in fear of this very prospect forestalled the victory by hurriedly forcing an engagement. In two days he marched his whole force from Verona to Bedriacum.[ About thirty-three miles] On the next day[October 27.] he left his legions behind to fortify the camp, and sent out his auxiliary infantry into territory belonging to Cremona, to taste the joys of plundering their compatriots under pretext of collecting supplies. To secure greater freedom for their depredations, he himself advanced at the head of four thousand cavalry eight miles along the road from Bedriacum. The scouts, as is usual, turned their attention further afield.

About eleven in the morning a mounted scout galloped up with the news that the enemy were at hand; there was a small body in advance of the rest, but the noise of an army in movement could be heard over the country-side. While Antonius was debating what he ought to do, Arrius Varus, who was greedy to distinguish himself, galloped out with the keenest of the troopers and charged the Vitellians, inflicting only slight loss; for, on the arrival of reinforcements, the tables were turned and those who had been hottest in pursuit were now hindmost in the rout. Their haste had no sanction from Antonius, who had foreseen what would happen. Encouraging his men to engage with brave hearts, he drew off the cavalry on to each flank and left a free passage in the center to receive Varus and his troopers. Orders were sent to the legions to arm and signals were displayed to the foraging party, summoning them to cease plundering and join the battle by the quickest possible path. Meanwhile Varus came plunging in terror into the middle of their ranks, spreading confusion among them. The fresh troops were swept back along with the wounded, themselves sharing the panic and sorely embarrassed by the narrowness of the road.

In all the confusion of the rout Antonius never for a moment forgot what befitted a determined general and a brave soldier. Staying the panic-stricken, checking the fugitives, wherever the fight was thickest, wherever he saw a gleam of hope, he schemed, he fought, he shouted, always conspicuous to his own men and a mark for the enemy. At last, in the heat of his impatience, he thrust through with a lance a standard-bearer, who was in full flight, then seized the standard and turned it against the enemy. Whereupon for very shame a few of his troopers, not more than a hundred, made a stand. The nature of the ground helped them. The road there was narrower; a stream barred their way, and the bridge was broken; its depth was uncertain and the steep banks checked their flight. Thus necessity or chance restored their fallen fortunes. Forming in close order, they received the Vitellians’ reckless and disordered charge, and at once flung them into confusion. Antonius pressed hard on the fugitives and cut down all who blocked his path. The others followed each his inclination, rifling the dead, capturing prisoners, seizing arms and horses. Meanwhile, summoned by their shouts of triumph, those who had just now been in full flight across the fields came hurrying back to share the victory.

Four miles from Cremona they saw the standards of the Rapax and Italian legions gleaming in the sun. They had marched out thus far under cover of their cavalry’s original success. When fortune turned against them, they neither opened their ranks to receive the routed troops nor marched out to attack the enemy, who were wearied with fighting and their long pursuit. While all went well the Vitellians did not miss their general, but in the hour of danger they realized their loss. The victorious cavalry came charging into their wavering line, and at the same time Vipstanus Messala arrived with the Moesian auxiliaries and a good number of men from the legions, who had kept up with the pace of their forced march.[ They would be more heavily laden than the Moesian auxiliaries] These combined forces broke the opposing column, and the proximity of Cremona’s sheltering walls gave the Vitellians more hope of refuge and less stomach for resistance.


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


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