Roman Empire: Antonius’ Advance; Vitellius’ Defense Measures (Part 17)

Thus a world-wide convulsion marked the passing of the imperial power into new hands. Meanwhile, after Cremona, the behavior of Antonius Primus was not so blameless as before. He had settled the war, he felt; the rest would be plain sailing. Or perhaps in such a nature as his success only brought to light his greed and arrogance and all his other dormant vices. While harrying Italy like a conquered, country, he courted the goodwill of his troops and used every word and every action to pave his way to power. He allowed his men to appoint centurions themselves in place of those who had fallen, and thus gave them a taste for insubordination; for their choice fell on the most turbulent spirits. The generals no longer commanded the men, but were dragged at the heels of their caprices. This revolutionary system, utterly fatal to good discipline, was exploited by Antonius for his own profit.[ Would-be centurions doubtless bribed him to influence the soldiers in their favour] Of Mucianus’ approach he had no fears, and thus made a mistake even more fatal than despising Vespasian.[Vespasian was too big to mind being despised; Mucianus was not, and eventually retaliated]

His advance, however, continued. As winter was at hand [November] and the Po had inundated the meadows, his column marched unencumbered by heavy baggage. The main body of the victorious legions was left behind at Verona, together with such of the soldiers as were incapacitated by wounds or old age, and many besides who were still in good condition. Having already broken the back of the campaign, Antonius felt strong enough with his auxiliary horse and foot and some picked detachments from the legions. The Eleventh [From Dalmatia] had voluntarily joined the advance. They had held back at first, but, seeing Antonius’ success, were distressed to think they had had no share in it. The column was also accompanied by a force of six thousand Dalmatian troops, which had been recently raised. The ex-consul, Pompeius Silvanus, [Governor of Dalmatia] commanded the column, but the actual control was in the hands of a general named Annius Bassus. Silvanus was quite ineffective as a general, and wasted every chance of action in talking about it.

Bassus, while showing all due respect, managed him completely, and was always ready with quiet efficiency to do anything that had to be done. Their force was further increased by enlisting the best of the marines from the Ravenna fleet, who were clamouring for service in the legions. The vacancies in the fleet were filled by Dalmatians. The army and its generals halted at Fanum Fortunae, [Fano] still hesitating what policy to adopt, for they had heard that the Guards were on the move from Rome, and supposed that the Apennines were held by troops. And they had fears of their own. Supplies were scarce in a district devastated by war. The men were mutinous and demanded ‘shoe-money’, [Apparently soldiers’ slang. Probably at some period an officer had bribed his men under the pretence of making special grants for the purchase of nails for their shoes.] as they called the donative, with alarming insistence. No provision had been made either for money or for stores. The precipitate greed of the soldiers made further difficulties, for they each looted what might have served for them all.

I find among the best authorities evidence which shows how wickedly careless were the victorious army of all considerations of right and wrong. They tell how a trooper professed that he had killed his brother in the last battle, and demanded a reward from his generals. The dictates of humanity forbade them to remunerate such a murder, but in the interests of civil war they dared not punish it. They had put him off with the plea that they could not at the moment reward his service adequately. And there the story stops. However, a similar crime had occurred in earlier civil wars. In the battle which Pompeius Strabo fought against Cinna at the Janiculum,[ 87 B.C.E.] one of his soldiers killed his own brother and then, realizing what he had done, committed suicide. This is recorded by Sisenna.[L. Cornelius Sisenna, who died 67 B.C.E. in Pompey’s war against the pirates, wrote a history of his own time, dealing in particular with Sulla’s wars.] Our ancestors, it seems, had a livelier sense than we have both of the glory of good deeds and the shame of bad.[ This or some similar incident seems to have become a respected commonplace of history and poetry] These and other such instances from past history may be appropriately cited, whenever the subject seems to demand either an example of good conduct or some consolation for a crime.

Antonius and his fellow generals decided to send the cavalry ahead to explore the whole of Umbria, and to see whether any of the Apennines were accessible by a gentler route; to summon the eagles and standards [i.e. the main body of the legions] and all the troops at Verona, and to fill the Po and the sea with provision ships. Some of the generals continually suggested obstacles. Antonius had grown too big for his place, and they had surer hopes of reward from Mucianus. He was distressed that victory had come so soon, and felt that, if he was not present when Rome was taken, he would lose his share in the war and its glory. So he kept on writing to Antonius and Varus in ambiguous terms, sometimes urging them to ‘press forward on their path’, sometimes expatiating on ‘the manifold value of delay’. He thus managed to arrange that he could disclaim responsibility in case of a reverse, or acknowledge their policy as his own if it succeeded. To Plotius Grypus, whom Vespasian had lately raised to senatorial rank and put in command of a legion, and to his other trusty friends he sent less ambiguous instructions, and they all wrote back criticizing the haste with which Antonius and Varus acted. This was just what Mucianus wanted. He forwarded the letters to Vespasian with the result that Antonius’ plans and exploits were not appreciated as highly as Antonius had hoped.

This he took very ill and threw the blame on Mucianus, whose charges he conceived had cheapened his exploits. Being little accustomed to control his tongue or to obey orders, he was most unguarded in his conversation and composed a letter to Vespasian in presumptuous language which ill befitted a subject, making various covert charges against Mucianus. ‘It was I,’ he wrote, ‘who brought the legions of Pannonia into the field: it was my stimulus which stirred up the officers in Moesia:[ i.e. Aponius, Vipstanus Messala, Dillius, and Numisius] it was by my persistence that we broke through the Alps, seized hold of Italy and cut off the German and Raetian auxiliaries. When Vitellius’ legions were all scattered and disunited, it was I who flung the cavalry on them like a whirlwind, and then pressed home the attack with the infantry all day and all night. That victory is my greatest achievement and it is entirely my own. As for the mishap at Cremona, that was the fault of the war. In old days the civil wars cost the country far more damage and involved the destruction of more than one town. It is not with couriers and dispatches that I serve my master, but with my sword in my hand. Nor can it be said that I have interfered with the glory of the men who have meanwhile settled matters in Dacia.[ i.e. Mucianus and his officers] What peace in Moesia is to them, the safety and welfare of Italy are to me. It was my encouragement which brought the provinces of Gaul and of Spain, the strongest parts of the whole world, over to Vespasian’s side. But my labours will prove useless, if the reward for the dangers I have run is to fall to the man who was not there to share them.’ All this reached the ears of Mucianus and a serious quarrel resulted. Antonius kept it up in a frank spirit of dislike, while Mucianus showed a cunning which was far more implacable.


After the crushing defeat at Cremona Vitellius stupidly suppressed the news of the disaster, thus postponing not the danger itself but only his precautions against it. Had he admitted the facts and sought advice, hope and strength were still left to him: his pretension that all went well only made matters worse. He was himself extraordinarily silent about the war, and in Rome all discussion of the subject was forbidden. This only increased the number of people who, if permitted, would have told the truth, but in the face of this prohibition spread grossly exaggerated rumours. Nor were the Flavian leaders slow to foster these rumours. Whenever they captured Vitellian spies they escorted them round the camp to show them the strength of the winning army, and sent them back again. Vitellius cross-examined each of them in private and then had them murdered. A centurion named Julius Agrestis, after many interviews, in which he endeavoured in vain to fire Vitellius’ courage, at last with heroic persistence induced the emperor to send him to inspect the enemy’s forces and discover what had really happened at Cremona. He made no attempt to deceive Antonius by concealing the object of his mission, but openly avowed the emperor’s instructions, stated his intentions and demanded to be shown everything. He was given guides, who showed him the field of battle, the ruins of Cremona and the captured legions. Back went Agrestis to Vitellius. Finding that the emperor disbelieved his report and even suggested that he had been bribed, he said, ‘You want some certain evidence and, since you have no further use for me either alive or dead, I will give you evidence that you can believe.’ And he was as good as his word. He went straight from the emperor’s presence and committed suicide. Some say he was killed by order of Vitellius, but they give the same account of his heroic devotion. [This incident was probably another historical commonplace. See the story from Plutarch which is also told by Suetonius and Dio.]

Vitellius was like a man roused from sleep. He dispatched Julius Priscus and Alfenus Varus [The prefects of the Guards] with fourteen cohorts of Guards and all his available cavalry to hold the Apennines. A legion levied from the marines [At Misenum. (Leg. II Adjutrix.) The Ravenna marines were on the Flavian side] was sent after them. This large army of picked men and horses, if there had been any general to lead it, was strong enough to have even taken the offensive. His other cohorts [i.e. the rest of the Guards (2), with the city garrison (4), and police (7)] were given to his brother, Lucius Vitellius, for the protection of the city. The emperor himself gave up none of his habitual luxuries, but, feeling nervous and depressed, he hurried on the elections and nominated consuls for several years in advance. He lavished special charters [i.e. granting them special privileges denied to other communities in the same province] on allied communities and extended Latin rights [A sort of ‘half-way house to Roman citizenship’. Full commercial rights were included but not those of intermarriage. It was possible for individual citizens in a Latin town to obtain the full rights of a Roman] to foreign towns: he remitted taxation here, granted immunities there. In fact, he took no thought for the future, and did his best to cripple the empire. However, the mob accepted these munificent grants with open mouths. Fools paid money for them, but wise men held them invalid, since they could be neither given nor received without a revolution. At last he yielded to the demands of the army and joined the camp at Mevania, [Bevagna] where they had taken up their position. A long train of senators followed him, many moved by their ambition, but most by their fears. Here he was still undecided and at the mercy of treacherous advice.

During one of his speeches a portent occurred. A cloud of ill-omened birds [Dio makes them vultures and the scene a sacrifice: they scattered the victims and nearly knocked Vitellius off his pulpit.] flew over his head and its density obscured the daylight. To this was added another omen of disaster. A bull broke from the altar, scattered the utensils for the ceremony, and escaped so far away that it had to be killed instead of being sacrificed according to the proper ritual. But the chief portent was Vitellius himself. He was ignorant of soldiering, incapable of forethought: knew nothing of drill or scouting, or how far operations should be pressed forward or protracted. He always had to ask someone else. At every fresh piece of news his expression and gait betrayed his alarm. And then he would get drunk. At last he found camp life too tedious, and on learning of a mutiny in the fleet at Misenum he returned to Rome. Every fresh blow terrified him, but of the real crisis he seemed insensible. For it was open to him to cross the Apennines and with his full strength unimpaired to attack the enemy while they were worn out with cold and hunger. But by breaking up his forces he sent his keenest soldiers, stubbornly loyal to the last, to be killed or taken prisoner. The more experienced of his centurions disapproved of this policy and would have told him the truth, if they had been consulted. But the emperor’s intimates refused them admittance. He had, indeed, formed a habit of regarding wholesome advice as unpleasant, and refusing to listen to any that was not agreeable, and in the long run fatal.

In civil war individual enterprise counts for much. The mutiny of the fleet at Misenum had been engineered by Claudius Faventinus, a centurion whom Galba had dismissed in disgrace. To obtain his object he had forged a letter from Vespasian promising rewards for treachery. The admiral, Claudius Apollinaris,[ He had succeeded Bassus] was neither a staunch loyalist nor an enthusiastic traitor. Accordingly Apinius Tiro, an ex-praetor, who happened to be at Minturnae, [Near the mouth of the Liris] offered to take the lead of the rebels. They proceeded to win over the colonies and country towns. Puteoli in particular was strong for Vespasian, while Capua remained loyal to Vitellius, for they dragged their local jealousies into the civil war. To pacify the excited troops Vitellius chose Claudius Julianus, who had lately been in command of the fleet at Misenum and had allowed lax discipline. To support him he was given one cohort of the city garrison and the force of gladiators already serving under him. The two parties encamped close to one another, and it was not long before Julianus came over to Vespasian’s side. They then joined forces and occupied Tarracina, [Horace’s ‘Anxur perched on gleaming rocks’. It lay near the Pontine marshes on the Appian way.] which owed its strength more to its walls and situation than to the character of its new garrison.

When news of this reached Vitellius, he left part of his force at Narnia [Narni] with the prefects of the Guard, [Priscus and Varus] and sent his brother Lucius with six regiments of Guards and five hundred horse to cope with the threatened outbreak in Campania. His own nervous depression was somewhat relieved by the enthusiasm of the troops and of the populace, who clamoured loudly for arms. For he dignified this poor-spirited mob, which would never dare to do anything but shout, by the specious titles of ‘the army’ or ‘his legions’. His friends were all untrustworthy in proportion to their eminence; but on the advice of his freedmen he held a levy for conscription and swore in all who gave their names. As their numbers were too great, he gave the task of selection to the two consuls. From each of the senators he levied a fixed number of slaves and a weight of silver. The knights offered money and personal service, while even freedmen volunteered similar assistance. Indeed, protestations of loyalty prompted by fear, had gradually changed into real sympathy. People began to feel pity, not perhaps so much for Vitellius as for the throne and its misfortunes. He himself by his looks, his voice, his tears made ceaseless demands upon their compassion, promising rewards lavishly and, as men do when they are frightened, beyond all limits. He had hitherto refused the title of Caesar, but he now expressed a wish for it. He had a superstitious respect for the name, and in moments of terror one listens as much to gossip as to sound advice. However, while a rash and ill-conceived undertaking may prosper at the outset, in time it always begins to flag. Gradually the senators and knights deserted him. At first they hesitated and waited till his back was turned, but soon they ceased to care and openly showed their disrespect. At last Vitellius grew ashamed of the failure of his efforts and excused them from the services which they refused to render.


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


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