Roman Empire: Fate of Cremona (Part 15)

Antonius did not follow up his advantage. He realized that, although the issue had been successful, the battle had long been doubtful, and had cost the troopers and their horses many wounds and much hard fighting. As evening fell, the whole strength of the Flavian army arrived. They had marched among heaps of corpses, and the still reeking traces of slaughter, and now, feeling that the war was over, they clamoured to advance at once on Cremona and either receive its submission or take it by storm. This sounded well for public utterance, but each man in his heart was thinking, ‘We could easily rush a city on the plain. In a night-assault men are just as brave and have a better chance of plunder. If we wait for day it will be all peace and petitions, and what shall we get for our wounds and our labours? A reputation for mercy! There’s no money in that. All the wealth of Cremona will find its way into the officers’ pockets. Storm a city, and the plunder goes to the soldiers: if it surrenders, the generals get it.’ They refused to listen to their centurions and tribunes and drowned their voices in a rattle of arms, swearing they would break their orders unless they were led out.

Antonius then went round among the companies, where his authoritative bearing obtained silence. He assured them that he had no wish to rob them of the glory and the reward they so well deserved. ‘But,’ he said, ‘an army and a general have different functions. It is right that soldiers should be greedy for battle, but the general often does more good not by temerity but by foresight, deliberation and delay. I have done all I could to aid your victory with my sword: now I will serve you by the general’s proper arts of calculation and strategy. The risks that face us are obvious. It is night; we know nothing of the lie of the city; the enemy is behind the walls; everything favours an ambush. Even if the gates were open, we cannot safely enter except by day and after due reconnoitering. Are you going to begin storming the town when you cannot possibly see where the ground is level and how high the walls are? How do you know whether to assault it with engines and showers of missiles, or with penthouses and shelters?’ Then he turned to individuals, asking one after another whether they had brought hatchets and pick-axes and other implements for storming a town. When they answered no, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘could any troops possibly break through walls or undermine them with nothing but swords and javelins?

Suppose it proves necessary to construct a mound and to shelter ourselves with mantlets and fascines, are we going to stand idle like a lot of helpless idiots, gaping at the height of the enemy’s towers and ramparts? Why not rather wait one night till our siege-train arrives and then carry the victory by force?’ So saying, he sent the camp-followers and servants with the freshest of the troopers back to Bedriacum to bring up supplies and whatever else was wanted.

The soldiers indeed chafed at this and mutiny seemed imminent, when some of the mounted scouts, who had ridden right up to the walls, captured a few stragglers from Cremona, and learnt from them that six Vitellian legions and the whole Hostilia army had that very day covered thirty miles, and, hearing of their comrades’ defeat, were already arming for battle and would be on them immediately. This alarming news cured their obstinate deafness to the general’s advice. He ordered the Thirteenth legion to take up their position on the raised Postumian high-road. In touch with them on the left wing in the open country were the Seventh Galbian, beside whom stood the Seventh Claudian, so placed that their front was protected by a ditch. On the right wing were the Eighth, drawn up along an open cross-road, and next to them the Third, distributed among some thick clumps of trees. Such, at any rate, was the order of the eagles and standards. In the darkness the soldiers were confused and took their places at random. The band of Guards [i.e. the band of Otho’s old Guards whom Vitellius had disbanded and Vespasian re-enlisted] was next to the Third, and the auxiliaries on the wings, while the cavalry were disposed in support round the flanks and the rear. Sido and Italicus with their picked band of Suebi fought in the front line.

For the Vitellians the right course was to rest at Cremona and recuperate their strength with food and a night’s rest, and then on the next day to crush and rout the Flavians when they were stiff with cold and weak from hunger. But they had no general;[Caecina was under arrest, Valens still on his way from Rome] they had no plan. Though it was nearly nine at night they flung themselves upon the Flavians, who were standing steady in their places to receive them. In their fury and the darkness the Vitellian line was so disordered that one can hardly venture to describe the disposition of their troops. However, it has been stated that the Fourth Macedonian legion were on the right flank; in the centre were the Fifth and Fifteenth with the detachments of the Ninth, the Second and the Twentieth from Britain; the Sixteenth, the Twenty-second, and the First formed the left wing. The men of the Rapax and Italian legions [XXI and I.] were distributed among all the companies. [Because they had already suffered heavy losses earlier in the day] The cavalry and auxiliaries picked their own position. All night the battle raged with varying fortune, never decided, always savagely contested. Disaster threatened now one side, now the other. Courage, strength were of little use: their eyes could not even see in front of them. Both sides were armed alike; the watchwords, constantly demanded, soon became known; the standards were all in confusion, as they were captured and carried off from one band to another. The Seventh legion, raised recently by Galba, suffered most severely. Six of the senior centurions fell and several standards were lost. They nearly lost their eagle too, but it was rescued by the bravery of the senior centurion, named Atilius Verus, who after great slaughter of the enemy fell finally himself.

Antonius had meanwhile called up the Guards to reinforce his wavering line. Taking up the fight, they repulsed the enemy, only to be repulsed in their turn. For the Vitellian artillery, which had at first been scattered all along the line, and had been discharged upon the bushes without hurting the enemy was now massed upon the high-road, and swept the open space in front. One immense engine in particular which belonged to the Fifteenth, mowed down the Flavian line with huge stones. The slaughter thus caused would have been enormous, had not two of the Flavian soldiers performed a memorable exploit. Concealing their identity by snatching up shields from among the enemy’s dead, [These shields would have Vitellius’ name on them, and thus conceal their identity] they cut the ropes which suspended the weights of the engine. They fell immediately, riddled with wounds, and so their names have perished. But of their deed there is no doubt.

Fortune had favoured neither side when, as the night wore on, the moon rose and threw a deceptive glamour over the field of battle. Shining from behind the Flavians the moon was in their favour. It magnified the shadows of their men and horses so that the enemy took the shadow for the substance, and their missiles were misdirected and fell short. The Vitellians, on the other hand, had the moon shining full on them and were an easy mark for the Flavians, shooting as it were out of cover. [Dio asserts that the moon was ‘black and bloody, and gave off other fearsome hues’]

Thus being enabled to recognize his own men, and to be recognized by them, Antonius appealed to some by taunting their honour, to many by words of praise and encouragement, to all by promising hope of reward. He asked the Pannonian legions why they had drawn their swords again. Here on this field they could regain their glory and wipe out the stain of their former disgrace.[ i.e. at the first battle of Bedriacum] Then turning to the Moesian troops, who were the chief promoters of the war, he told them it was no good challenging the Vitellians with verbal threats, if they could not bear to face them and their blows. Thus he addressed each legion as he reached it. To the Third he spoke at greater length, reminding them of their victories both old and new. Had they not under Mark Antony defeated the Parthians [36 B.C.] and the Armenians under Corbulo? [A.D. 63.] Had they not but lately crushed the Sarmatians? [ i.e. the Rhoxolani] Then he turned in fury on the Guards. ‘Peasants that you are,’ he shouted, ‘have you another emperor, another camp waiting to shelter you, if you are defeated? There in the enemy’s line are your standards and your arms: defeat means death and–no, you have drained disgrace already to the dregs.’

These words roused cheers on all sides, and the Third, following the Syrian custom, [They had served recently in Syria under Corbulo] saluted the rising sun. Thus arose a casual rumour–or possibly it was suggested by the general’s ingenuity—that Mucianus had arrived, and that the two armies were cheering each other. On they pressed, feeling they had been reinforced. The Vitellian line was more ragged now, for, having no general to marshal them, their ranks now filled, now thinned, with each alternation of courage and fear. As soon as Antonius saw them waver, he kept thrusting at them in massed column. The line bent and then broke, and the inextricable confusion of wagons and siege-engines prevented their rallying. The victorious troops scattered along the cross-road in headlong pursuit.

The slaughter was marked by one peculiar horror. A son killed his father. I give the facts and names on the authority of Vipstanus Messala. [An eyewitness] One Julius Mansuetus, a Spaniard who had joined the legion Rapax, had left a young son at home. This boy subsequently grew up and enlisted in the Seventh legion, raised by Galba. [In Spain.] Chance now sent his father in his way, and he felled him to the ground. While he was ransacking the dying man, they recognized each other. Flinging his arms round the now lifeless corpse, in a piteous voice he implored his father’s spirit to be appeased and not to turn against him as a parricide. The crime was his country’s, he cried; what share had a single soldier in these civil wars? Meanwhile he lifted the body and began to dig a grave and perform the last rites for his father. Those who were nearest noticed this; then the story began to spread, till there ran through the army astonishment and many complaints and curses against this wicked war. Yet they never ceased busily killing and plundering friends and relatives and brothers; and while they talked of the crime they were committing it themselves.

When they reached Cremona a fresh task of vast difficulty awaited them. During the war with Otho [i.e. at the time of the first battle of Bedriacum in April] the German army had entrenched their camp round the walls of Cremona and then erected a rampart round the camp; and these fortifications had been further strengthened. The sight of them brought the victors to a halt, and their generals were uncertain what instructions to give. The troops had had no rest for a day and a night. To storm the town at once would be an arduous and, in the absence of reserves, a perilous task. On the other hand, a retreat to Bedriacum would involve the intolerable fatigue of a long march, and destroy the value of their victory. Again, it would be dangerous to entrench themselves so close to the lines of the enemy, who might at any minute sally forth and rout them while they were dispersed and digging trenches. The chief anxiety lay in the temper of the men, who were much more ready to face danger than delay. To them discretion was disagreeable and hazard spelt hope. Their thirst for plunder outweighed all fears of wounds and bloodshed.

Antonius also inclined to this view and gave orders for them to surround the rampart. At first they stood back and delivered volleys of arrows and stones, suffering themselves the severer loss, for a storm of missiles rained down from the walls. Antonius then told off each legion to assault a different point of the rampart or one of the gates, hoping that by thus separating them he could distinguish the cowards from the brave and inflame them with a spirit of honourable rivalry. The Third and Seventh took the position nearest the road to Bedriacum; the Eighth and Seventh Claudian assaulted the right-hand side of the rampart; the Thirteenth swept up to the Brixian Gate. [i.e. the gate giving on to the road to Brescia] A brief delay was caused while some fetched mattocks and pickaxes from the fields and others hooks and ladders. Then holding their shields above their heads in close ‘tortoise’ formation, [In this famous formation the front-rank men kept close together and covered their bodies with long, concave shields, while the others, holding flat shields over their heads and pressing them one against another, formed a protecting roof. They could thus approach the walls under cover] they advanced under the rampart. Both sides employed Roman tactics. The Vitellians rolled down huge masses of stones, and, as the sheltering cover of shields parted and wavered, they thrust at it with lances and poles, until at last the whole structure was broken up and they mowed down the torn and bleeding soldiers beneath with terrible slaughter. The men would certainly have hesitated, had not the generals, realizing that they were really too tired to respond to any other form of encouragement, pointed significantly to Cremona.

Whether this was Hormus’s idea, as Messala records, or whether we should rather follow Caius Pliny, who accuses Antonius, it is not easy to determine. This one may say, that, however abominable the crime, yet in committing it neither Antonius nor Hormus belied the reputation of their lives. After this neither wounds nor bloodshed could stay the Flavian troops. They demolished the rampart, shook the gates, climbed up on each other’s shoulders, or over the re-formed ‘tortoise’, and snatched away the enemy’s weapons or caught hold of them by the arms. Thus the wounded and unwounded, the half-dead and the dying, all came rolling down and perished together by every imaginable kind of death.

The fight raged thickest round the Third and Seventh legions, and the general, Antonius, came up with a picked band of auxiliaries to support their assault. The Vitellians, finding themselves unable to resist the attack of troops thus stubbornly vying with each other, and seeing their missiles all glide off the shelter of shields, at last sent their engine of war crashing down upon their heads. For the moment it scattered and crushed beneath it the men on whom it fell, but it dragged with it some of the battlements and the top of the rampart. At the same moment one of the towers on the rampart gave way under a shower of stones. While the men of the Seventh struggled up to the breach in close column, the Third hewed down the gate with hatchets and swords. All the authorities agree that Caius Volusius of the Third legion was the first man in. Emerging on the top of the rampart, he hurled down those who barred his path, and from this conspicuous position waved his hand and shouted that the camp was taken. The others poured through, while the Vitellians in panic flung themselves down from the rampart, and the whole space between the camp and the walls became a seething scene of carnage.

Here, again, was a new type of task for the Flavians. Here were high walls, stone battlements, iron-barred gates, and soldiers hurling javelins. The citizens of Cremona were numerous and devoted to the cause of Vitellius, and half Italy had gathered there for the Fair which fell just at that time. Their numbers were a help to the defenders, but the prospect of plundering them offered an incentive to their assailants. Antonius ordered his men to bring fire and apply it to the most beautiful of the buildings outside the walls, hoping that the loss of their property might induce the citizens to turn traitor. The houses that stood nearest to the walls and overtopped them he crowded with his bravest troops, who dislodged the defenders with showers of beams and tiles and flaming torches. Meanwhile, some of the legionaries began to advance in ‘tortoise’ formation, while others kept up a steady fire of javelins and stones.

Gradually the spirit of the Vitellians ebbed. The higher their rank, the more easily they gave way to misfortune. For they were afraid that if Cremona too [As well as the buildings outside the walls] was demolished, there would be no hope of pardon; the victors’ fury would fall not on the common poor but on the tribunes and centurions, whom it would pay to kill. The common soldiers felt safe in their obscurity, and, careless of the future, continued to offer resistance. They roamed the streets or hid themselves in houses, and though they had given up the war, refused even so to sue for peace. Meanwhile the tribunes and centurions did away with the name and portraits of Vitellius. [i.e. tore them off the standards and shields, and broke the statues at head-quarters.] They released Caecina, who was still in irons, and begged his help in pleading their cause. When he turned from them in haughty contempt they besought him with tears. It was, indeed, the last of evils that all these brave men should invoke a traitor’s aid. They then hung veils and fillets out on the walls, and when Antonius had given the order to cease firing, they carried out their standards and eagles, followed by a miserable column of disarmed soldiers, dejectedly hanging their heads. The victors had at first crowded round, heaping insults on them and threatening violence, but when they found that the vanquished had lost all their proud spirit, and turned their cheeks with servile endurance to every indignity, they gradually began to recollect that these were the men who had made such a moderate use of their victory at Bedriacum. But when the crowd parted, and Caecina advanced in his consular robes, attended by his lictors in full state, their indignation broke into flame. They charged him with insolence and cruelty, and–so hateful is crime–they even flung his treachery in his teeth.[ i.e. even though it was in their own interest] Antonius restrained them and sent Caecina under escort to Vespasian.

Meanwhile the citizens of Cremona suffered sorely from the violence of the troops, and only the entreaties of their generals could withhold them from a general massacre. Antonius summoned a mass meeting and delivered a eulogy upon his victorious army, promising mercy to the vanquished and speaking of Cremona in ambiguous terms. Besides their natural passion for plunder, there was an old grudge which urged them to sack Cremona. The town was believed to have given assistance to the Vitellian cause before this in the war with Otho; and again, when the Thirteenth had been left behind to build an amphitheatre, the populace had shown its town-bred impertinence by assailing them with insolent ridicule. Other causes increased this bad feeling: it was here that Caecina had given his show of gladiators: the town had become for a second time the theatre of the war: the citizens had conveyed food to the Vitellians during the battle: some women had been killed, whose enthusiasm for the cause had led them to take part in the fight. Besides all this, the Fair had filled the rich city with an even greater display of wealth than usual. All eyes were now centered on Antonius, whose fame and good fortune overshadowed all the other generals. It so happened that he hurried off to the baths to wash off the stains of blood. Finding fault with the temperature of the water, he received the answer, ‘It will not be long before it is hot,’ and this phrase was caught up. The attendant’s words were repeated, and brought all the odium on Antonius, who was thus believed to have given the signal to set fire to Cremona, which was already in flames.[ The words were either attributed wrongly to Antonius or were supposed to be spoken in answer to his question, ‘Are the furnaces not lit?’ In either case they were taken to apply not to the heating of the baths but to the burning of the town]

Thus forty thousand soldiers burst into the town with a yet larger crowd of servants and sutlers, even more depraved than the soldiers in their readiness for cruelty and lust. Without any respect for age or for authority they added rape to murder and murder to rape. Aged men and decrepit old women, who were worthless as booty, were hustled off to make sport for them. If some grown girl or a handsome youth fell into their clutches, they would be torn to pieces in the struggle for possession, while the plunderers were left to cut each other’s throats. Whoever carried off money or any of the solid gold offerings in the temples was liable to be cut to pieces, if he met another stronger than himself. Some, disdaining easy finds, hunted for hidden hoards, and dug out buried treasure, flogging and torturing the householders. They held torches in their hands and, having once secured their prize, would fling them wantonly into an empty house or some dismantled temple. Composed as the army was of citizens, allies, and foreign troops, differing widely in language and customs, the objects of the soldiers’ greed differed also. But while their views of what was right might vary, they all agreed in thinking nothing wrong.

Cremona lasted them four days. While all other buildings sacred and secular sank in the flames, only the temple of Mefitis outside the walls was left standing, saved either by its position or the power of the presiding deity.[ i.e. the goddess of malaria, who reigned in terror by the swampy banks of the Po.]

Such was the end of Cremona two hundred and eighty-six years after its foundation. It had been originally built in the consulship of Tiberius Sempronius and Publius Cornelius, while Hannibal was threatening to invade Italy, to serve as a bulwark against the Gauls beyond the Po, [Cremona was founded in 218 B.C. as a Latin colony, together with Placentia, to keep the Gallic tribes of North Italy in check.] and to resist any other power that might break in over the Alps. And so it grew and flourished, aided by its large number of settlers, its conveniently situated rivers, [The Po, Adda, and Oglio.] the fertility of its territory, and its connation through alliance and intermarriage with other communities. Foreign invasions had left it untouched only to become the victim of civil war. Antonius, ashamed of his crime, and realizing his growing disfavour, proclaimed that no citizen of Cremona was to be kept as a prisoner of war; and, indeed, the unanimous feeling in Italy against buying such slaves had already frustrated the soldiers’ hope of profit. So they began to kill their captives, whose relatives and friends, when this became known, covertly bought their release. After a while, the rest of the inhabitants returned, and the squares and temples were rebuilt by the munificence of the burghers and under Vespasian’s direct patronage.

However, the soil was so foully infected by the reek of blood that it was impossible for the Flavians to encamp for long on the ruins of this buried city. They advanced along the road to the third milestone, and mustered the Vitellians, still straggling and panic-stricken, each under his own standard. The defeated legions were then distributed through Illyricum, for the civil war was still in progress and their fidelity could not be relied on. They then dispatched couriers to carry the news to Britain and the Spanish provinces. To Gaul they sent an officer named Julius Calenus, to Germany Alpinius Montanus, who had commanded an auxiliary cohort. Montanus was a Treviran and Calenus an Aeduan; both had fought for Vitellius and thus served to advertise Vespasian’s victory. At the same time garrisons were sent to hold the passes of the Alps, for fear that Germany might rise in support of Vitellius.


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


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