Roman Empire: Vitellius, State of the Provinces (Part 16)

When Caecina had left Rome, Vitellius, after an interval of a few days, sent Fabius Valens hurrying to the front, and then proceeded to drown his cares in self-indulgence. He neither made any provision for the war, nor tried to increase the efficiency of his troops either by haranguing or by drilling them. He did not keep himself in the public eye, but retired into the pleasant shade of his gardens, regarding past, present, and future with equal indifference, like one of those listless animals which lie sluggish, and torpid so long as you supply them with food. While he thus loitered languid and indolent in the woods of Aricia, [La Riccia] he received the startling news of Lucilius Bassus’ treachery and the disaffection of the fleet at Ravenna. Soon afterwards he heard with mixed feelings of distress and satisfaction that Caecina had deserted him and had been imprisoned by the army. On his insensate nature joy had more effect than trouble.

He returned in triumph to Rome and at a crowded meeting praised the devotion of the troops in extravagant terms. He gave orders for the imprisonment of Publilius Sabinus, the prefect of the Guards, on the ground of his intimacy with Caecina, and appointed Alfenus Varus [Hitherto camp-prefect] in his place.

He next delivered a pompous and elaborate speech in the senate, where he was loaded with far-fetched compliments by the members. Lucius Vitellius rose to propose a harsh sentence against Caecina. The rest of the house inveighed with assumed indignation against the consul who had betrayed his country, the general who had betrayed his commander-in-chief, the friend who had betrayed his benefactor to whom he owed all his riches and distinction. But their protestations of sympathy with Vitellius really voiced their personal vexation. [Against Caecina for his inefficiency] None of the speeches contained any criticism of the Flavian generals. They threw the blame on the misguided and impolitic action of the armies, and with cautious circumlocution avoided all direct mention of Vespasian. Caecina’s consulship had still one day to run, and Rosius Regulus actually made humble petition for this one day’s office, Vitellius’ offer and his acceptance exciting universal derision. Thus he entered and abdicated his office on the same day, the last of October. Men who were learned in constitutional history pointed out that no one before had ever been elected to fill a vacancy without the passing of a bill or some act of deprivation, although there was precedent for the one day consulship in the case of Caninius Rebilus when Caius Caesar was dictator and the civil war necessitated prompt rewards.[ This was in 45 B.C., when Caesar was carrying on the government with a high hand and small regard for precedent. Holding an election on the last day of the year, he was told that the consul was dead: there was no one to preside. So he promptly announced that Caninius was consul till the next morning. ‘So no one,’ says Cicero, ‘breakfasted during his consulship. However, there was no crime either, and his vigilance was such that he never closed an eye during his whole term of office.’]

It was at this time that the news of the death of Junius Blaesus gave rise to much talk. I give the story as I find it. When Vitellius was lying seriously ill at his house in the Servilian Park, he noticed that a neighbouring mansion was brilliantly illuminated at night. On asking the reason, he was told that Caecina Tuscus[This man had been prefect of Egypt, and had built special baths for Nero, who was expected to visit Alexandria. But he committed the indiscretion of washing in them first, for which Nero had banished him.] was giving a large dinner-party, at which Junius Blaesus was the chief guest. He further received an exaggerated account of their extravagance and dissipation. Some of his informants even made specific charges against Tuscus and others, but especially accused Blaesus for spending his days in revelry while his emperor lay ill. There are people who keep a sharp eye on every sign of an emperor’s displeasure. They soon made sure that Vitellius was furious and that Blaesus’ ruin would be an easy task, so they cast Lucius Vitellius for the part of common informer. He had a mean and jealous dislike for Blaesus, whose spotless reputation far outshone his own, which was tainted with every kind of infamy. Bursting into the emperor’s apartment, he caught up Vitellius’ young son in his arms and fell at his feet. When asked the reason of this excitement, he said it was due to no anxiety for himself; all his suit and all his prayers were for his brother and his brother’s children. Their fears of Vespasian were idle: between him and Vitellius lay all the legions of Germany, all those brave and loyal provinces, and an immeasurable space of land and sea. ‘It is here in Rome,’ he cried, ‘in the bosom of our household that we have an enemy to fear, one who boasts the Junii and Antonii as his ancestors, one who shows himself affable and munificent to the troops, posing as a descendant of imperial stock.[Both the Junii and Antonii could claim as an ancestor Augustus’ sister Octavia; and the Junii were also connected with M. Junius Silanus, Augustus’ great-great-grandson, whom Nero had put out of the way] It is to him that Rome’s attention turns, while you, Sire, careless who is friend or foe, cherish in your bosom a rival, who sits feasting at his table and watches his emperor in pain. You must requite his unseasonable gaiety with a night of deadly sorrow, in which he may both know and feel that Vitellius lives and is his emperor, and, if anything should happen, has a son to be his heir.’

Vitellius hesitated anxiously between his criminal desires and his fear that, if he deferred Blaesus’ death, he might hasten his own ruin, or by giving official orders for it might raise a storm of indignation. He decided to proceed by poison. The suspicion against him he confirmed by going to see Blaesus and showing obvious satisfaction. Moreover, he was heard to make the savage boast that he had, to quote his own words, ‘feasted his eyes on his enemy’s deathbed.’

Blaesus, besides his distinguished origin and refined character, was steadfastly loyal. Even before the decline of Vitellius’ cause he had been canvassed by Caecina and other party leaders, who were turning against the emperor, and had met them with a persistent refusal. He was a man of quiet and blameless life, with no ambition for the principate or, indeed, for any sudden distinction, but he could not escape the danger of being considered worthy of it.

Meanwhile Fabius Valens, encumbered by a long train of harlots and eunuchs, was conducting a leisurely advance, most unlike a march to the front, when couriers arrived post-haste with the news that Lucilius Bassus had surrendered the Ravenna fleet. If he had hurried forward on his march he might have been in time to save Caecina’s faltering loyalty, or to have joined the legions before the critical engagement was fought. Many, indeed, advised him to avoid Ravenna and to make his way by obscure by-roads to Hostilia or Cremona. Others wanted him to send to Rome for the Guards and to break through the enemy’s lines with a strong force. Valens himself, with helpless indecision, let the time for action go by while he took advice; and then rejecting the advice he was offered, chose the middle course, which is always the worst in a crisis, and thus failed both in courage and in caution.

He wrote to Vitellius demanding reinforcements, and there arrived three cohorts of Guards and a regiment of cavalry from Britain, too many to slip through unobserved and too few to force a passage. But even in such a crisis as this Valens’ reputation was as unsavoury as ever. He was still believed to use violence in the pursuit of illicit pleasures, and to betray the confidence of his hosts by seducing their wives and families. He had money and authority to help him, and the feverish impatience of one whose star is on the wane. At last the arrival of the reinforcements revealed the perversity of his strategy. He had too few men to assume the offensive, even if they had been unquestionably loyal, and their loyalty was under grave suspicion. However, their sense of decency and respect for the general restrained them for a while, though such ties are soon broken when troops are disinclined for danger and indifferent to disgrace.[ They had already incurred the disgrace of betraying first Galba, then Otho] Fearing trouble, he sent the Guards forward to Ariminum [Rimini] with the cavalry to secure the rear. Valens himself, with a few companions, whose loyalty had survived misfortune, turned off into Umbria and thence to Etruria, where he learnt the result of the battle of Cremona. Thereupon he formed a plan, which was far from cowardly and might have had alarming consequences, if it had succeeded. He was to seize ships and cross to some point on the coast of Narbonnese Gaul, whence he could rouse the provinces of Gaul and the native German tribes, and thus raise forces for a fresh outbreak of war.

Valens’ departure having dispirited the troops at Ariminum, Cornelius Fuscus [Now admiral of the Ravenna fleet] advanced his force and, stationing Liburnian cruisers along the adjoining coast, invested the town by land and sea. The Flavians thus occupied the Umbrian plain and the sea-board of Picenum; and the Apennines now divided Italy between Vitellius and Vespasian.

Valens, embarking from the Bay of Pisa, was either becalmed on a slow sea or caught by an unfavourable wind and had to put in at the harbor of Hercules Monoecus.[ Monaco] Stationed in the neighbourhood was Marius Maturus, the Governor of the Maritime Alps, who had remained loyal to Vitellius, and, though surrounded by enemies, had so far been faithful to his oath of allegiance. He gave Valens a friendly welcome and strongly advised him not to venture rashly into Narbonnese Gaul. This alarmed Valens, who found also that his companions’ loyalty was yielding to their fears.

For Valerius Paulinus, the imperial agent in the province, was an energetic soldier who had been friendly with Vespasian in old days, and had lately sworn all the surrounding communities to his cause. Having summoned to his flag all the Guards discharged by Vitellius, who needed no persuasion to resume the war, he was now holding the colony of Forum Julii,[ Frejus] the key to the command of the sea. His influence carried the more weight since Forum Julii was his native town and, having once been an officer in the Guards, he was respected by the men. Besides this, the inhabitants supported their fellow citizen, and in the hope of future aggrandizement rendered enthusiastic service to the party. When the news of these efficient preparations, somewhat exaggerated by rumour, came to the ears of the Vitellians, who were already in some doubt, Fabius Valens returned to the ships with four men of the Body Guard, three of his friends and three centurions, while Maturus and the rest preferred to remain and swear allegiance to Vespasian. As for Valens, though he felt safer at sea than among the cities on the coast, he was still full of doubts for the future, since he was certain what he had to avoid but quite uncertain whom he could trust. Eventually a gale drove him upon the Stoechades, [Iles d’Hyeres] some islands belonging to Marseilles, and there he was overtaken by the cruisers which Paulinus had sent in pursuit.


With the capture of Valens the tide had now fully turned in favour of Vespasian. The movement had been begun in Spain by the First legion “Adjutrix”, [The marines] whose reverence for Otho’s memory made them hate Vitellius. They carried the Tenth and the Sixth [X Gemina, VI Victrix] with them. The provinces of Gaul soon followed suit. Britain was bound to his cause by the favour felt for one who had been sent there by Claudius in command of the Second legion, and had fought with great distinction in the war. But the adherence of the province was to some extent opposed by the other legions, in which many of the centurions and soldiers had been promoted by Vitellius.

They were used to their emperor and felt some doubt about the change. This quarrel between the legions and the constant rumours of civil war, encouraged the Britons to take heart. Their chief instigator was one Venutius. He was of a ferocious disposition and hated the name of Rome, but his strongest motive was a private quarrel with Queen Cartimandua, a member of a powerful family, who ruled the Brigantes.[They occupied a large district of the north of England, from the Trent to the Tyne] Her authority had lately increased, since she had betrayed King Caratacus into the hands of the Romans, and was thus considered to have provided Claudius Caesar with material for his triumph.[ As a matter of fact his triumph took place in 44. Caratacus was brought to Rome in 51. Perhaps Tacitus regards this in itself as a ‘triumph’, or else he makes a venial mistake] Thus she had grown rich, and with prosperity came demoralization. She threw over Venutius, who was her husband, and gave her hand and kingdom to his squire, Vellocatus. This crime soon proved the ruin of her house. The people supported her husband: she defended her lover with passionate ferocity. Venutius therefore summoned assistance and, aided by the simultaneous revolt of the Brigantes, brought Cartimandua into dire straits. She petitioned for troops from Rome. Our auxiliaries, both horse and foot, then fought several engagements with varying success, but eventually rescued the queen. Thus the kingdom was left in the hands of Venutius and the war in ours.

Almost simultaneously a disturbance broke out in Germany, where the inefficiency of the generals, the disaffection of the troops, the strength of the enemy, and the treachery of our allies all combined to bring the Roman government into serious danger. The causes and history of this protracted struggle–for such it proved–we must leave to a later chapter.[The rebellion on the Rhine] Amongst the Dacians[In Roumania] also there was trouble. They could never be trusted, and now that the army was moved from Moesia they were no longer under the restraint of fear. At first they remained quiet and awaited developments. But when they saw Italy in the flames of war, and found the whole empire divided into hostile camps, they fell upon the winter-quarters of the auxiliary infantry and cavalry and began to occupy both banks of the Danube. They were on the point of storming the Roman camp as well, when Mucianus, who knew of the victory at Cremona, sent the Sixth legion [Ferrata] against them. For the empire was in danger of a double foreign invasion, if the Dacians and the Germans had broken in from opposite directions. But here, as so often, Rome’s good fortune saved her by bringing Mucianus on the scene with the forces of the East just at the moment when we had settled matters at Cremona. Fonteius Agrippa, who had for the last year been pro-consul in Asia, was transferred to the government of Moesia. His forces were strengthened by a draft from the defeated Vitellian army, for in the interest of peace it seemed prudent to distribute these troops over the provinces and to keep their hands tied by a foreign war.

The other people’s soon made their voices heard. Pontus [This little kingdom west of Trebizond was left to Rome by Polemo II, A.D. 63. Nero made it a Roman province under the name of Pontus Polemoniacus] had suddenly risen in a general rebellion at the instigation of a foreign menial, who was in command of what had once been the royal fleet. He was one of Polemo’s freedmen, by name Anicetus, who had formerly been influential and resented the change which had converted the kingdom into a province of the Roman empire. He accordingly enlisted the maritime tribes of Pontus in Vitellius’ service, attracting all the neediest ruffians with promises of plunder. At the head of no mean force he suddenly fell upon Trapezus, [Trebizond] an ancient and famous city, founded by Greek settlers on the frontier of the Pontic kingdom. There he cut to pieces the auxiliaries, who had once formed the king’s Body Guard, and, after receiving the Roman franchise, had adopted our ensigns and equipment, while still retaining all the inefficiency and insubordination of Greek troops. Anicetus also set fire to the fleet [Mucianus had ‘ordered the fleet to move from Pontus to Byzantium’ (ii. 83). This leads some editors to change the text, and others to suppose that a few ships were left behind] and thus enjoyed complete mastery of the sea, since Mucianus had moved the pick of his cruisers and all his troops to Byzantium. The sea was overrun by natives too, who had hurriedly built themselves boats. These, which they call ‘arks’, [Literally, arched boats. Tacitus describes somewhat similar craft in “Germania”] are broad-bottomed boats with low sides, built without any brass or iron rivets. In a rough sea, as the waves rise higher and higher, the height of the sides is raised by the addition of planks which, in the end, enclose the whole boat under a sort of roof. They are thus left to toss up and down on the waves. They have bows at both ends and the paddles can be used on either side, since it is as easy and as safe to row in one direction as in the other.

This state of things attracting Vespasian’s attention, he was obliged to send out a picked force of detachments from the legions under Virdius Geminus, a soldier of tried experience. He attacked the enemy while they were dispersed in all directions in quest of plunder, and drove them back to their ships. He then had some Liburnian cruisers hurriedly constructed and ran Anicetus to ground in the mouth of the river Chobus,[ The Khopi, which flows from the Caucasus into the Euxine] where he had taken refuge with the King of the Sedochezi tribe, whose alliance he had purchased by bribes. At first, indeed, the king endeavoured to protect his petitioner by using threats of violence, but he soon saw that it was a choice between making war or being paid for his treachery. The barbarian’s sense of honour was unequal to this strain. He came to terms, surrendered Anicetus and the other fugitives, and thus put an end to ‘the slaves’ war’.

This victory delighted Vespasian: everything was succeeding beyond his hopes: and to crown all the news of the battle of Cremona now reached him in Egypt. He hurried forward all the faster towards Alexandria with the object of bringing starvation[126] upon Vitellius’ defeated troops and the inhabitants of Rome, who were already feeling the pinch of diminished imports. For he was at the same time making preparations for an invasion of the adjacent province of Africa[Africa came next to Egypt in importance as a Roman granary] by land and sea. By cutting off their corn supply he hoped to reduce the enemy to famine and disunion.


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


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.