Roman Empire: Antonius’ crossing the Apennines (Part 18)

The occupation of Mevania had terrified Italy with the prospect of a revival of the war, but Vitellius’ cowardly retreat sensibly strengthened the popularity of the Flavian party. The Samnites, Pelignians, and Marsians were now induced to rise. They were jealous of Campania for stealing a march on them, and the change of masters, as so often happens, made them perform all their military duties with the utmost alacrity. But in crossing the Apennines Antonius’ army suffered severely from the rough December weather. Though they met with no opposition, they found it hard enough to struggle through the snow, and realized what danger they would have had to face if Vitellius had not happened to turn back. Certainly chance helped the Flavian generals quite as often as their own strategy. Here they came across Petilius Cerialis, [A distinguished officer, who successfully crushed the rebellion on the Rhine, and became governor of Britain in 71] who had been enabled by his knowledge of the country to elude Vitellius’ outposts, disguised as a peasant. As he was a near relative of Vespasian and a distinguished soldier he was given a place on the staff. Several authorities say that Flavius Sabinus and Domitian [Vespasian’s brother and younger son were both in Rome, the former still holding the office of city prefect] were also afforded facilities for escape, and that Antonius sent messengers who contrived by various devices to get through to them, and made arrangements for an interview and safe conduct. Sabinus, however, pleaded that his health was unequal to the fatigue of such a bold step. Domitian was quite ready to venture, but although the guards to whom Vitellius had entrusted him, promised that they would share his flight, he was afraid they might be laying a trap for him. As a matter of fact, Vitellius was too anxious for the safety of his own relatives to plot any harm against Domitian.

Arrived at Carsulae [Casigliano] the Flavian generals took a few days’ rest and awaited the arrival of the main legionary force. [From Verona] The place suited them admirably for an encampment. It commanded a wide view, and with so many prosperous towns in the rear their supplies were safe. The Vitellians too, were only ten miles away, and they had hopes of negotiating treason with them. The soldiers chafed at this delay, preferring victory to peace. They did not even want to wait for their own legions, for there would be more plunder than danger to share with them. Antonius accordingly summoned a meeting of the men and explained to them that Vitellius still had troops at his command. Reflection might make them waver, despair would steel their hearts. In civil war, he told them, the first steps may be left to chance, nothing but careful strategy can win the final victory. The fleet at Misenum and the richest districts of Campania had already deserted Vitellius, and in the whole world nothing was left to him now except the country between Narnia and Tarracina. The battle of Cremona had brought them credit enough, and the destruction of the town more than enough discredit. Their desire must be not to take Rome but to save it. They would gain richer rewards and far more glory if they could show that they had saved the senate and people of Rome without shedding a drop of blood. Such considerations as these calmed their excitement, and it was not long before the legions arrived.

Alarmed at the repute of this augmented army, Vitellius’ Guards began to waver. There was no one to encourage them to fight, while many urged them to desert, being eager to hand over their companies or squadrons to the enemy and by such a gift to secure the victor’s gratitude for the future. These also let the Flavians know that the next camp at Interamna[Terni] had a garrison of four hundred cavalry. Varus was promptly sent off with a light marching force, and the few who offered resistance were killed. The majority threw away their arms and begged for quarter. Some escaped to the main camp [At Narnia] and spread universal panic by exaggerating the strength and prowess of the enemy, in order to mitigate the disgrace of losing the fort. In the Vitellian camp all offences went unpunished: desertion met with sure reward. Their loyalty soon gave way and a competition in treachery began. Tribunes and centurions deserted daily, but not the common soldiers, who had grown stubbornly faithful to Vitellius. At last, however, Priscus and Alfenus [The two prefects of the guard] abandoned the camp and returned to Vitellius, thus finally releasing all the others from any obligation to blush for their treachery.

About the same time Fabius Valens was executed in his prison at Urbinum, and his head was exhibited to Vitellius’ Guards to show them that further hope was vain. For they cherished a belief that Valens had made his way into Germany, and was there mustering his old force and fresh troops as well. This evidence of his death threw them into despair. The Flavian army was vastly inspirited by it and regarded Valens’ death as the end of the war.

Valens had been born at Anagnia of an equestrian family. He was a man of loose morality, not without intellectual gifts, who by indulging in frivolity posed as a wit. In Nero’s time he had acted in a harlequinade at the Juvenalian Games. [ Properly a festival to celebrate the first cutting of the beard. Nero forced high officials and their wives to take part in unseemly performances, and the festivities became a public scandal, culminating in Nero’s own appearance as a lyrist] At first he pleaded compulsion, but afterwards he acted voluntarily, and his performances were rather clever than respectable. Rising to the command of a legion, he supported Verginius and then defamed his character. He murdered Fonteius Capito, whose loyalty he had undermined–or perhaps because he had failed to do so. He betrayed Galba and remained faithful to Vitellius, a merit to which the treachery of others served as a foil.

Now that their hopes were crushed on all sides, the Vitellians prepared to go over to the enemy. But even at this crisis they saved their honour by marching down with their standards and colours to the plains below Narnia, where the Flavian army was drawn up in full armour ready for battle in two deep lines on either side of the road. The Vitellians marched in between and were surrounded. Antonius then spoke to them kindly and told them to remain, some at Narnia and some at Interamna. He also left behind some of the victorious legions, which were strong enough to quell any outbreak but would not molest them so long as they remained quiet.


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


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