Roman Empire: Vitellius; Abdication and burning of Rome (part 19)

During these days Antonius and Varus kept sending messages to Vitellius, in which they offered him his life, a gift of money, and the choice of a safe retreat in Campania, if he would stop the war and surrender himself and his children to Vespasian. Mucianus wrote him letters to the same effect. Vitellius usually took these offers seriously and talked about the number of slaves he would have and the choice of a seaside place. He had sunk, indeed, into such mental torpor that, if other people had not remembered that he was an emperor, he was certainly beginning to forget it himself.

However, it was to Flavius Sabinus, the City Prefect, that the leading men at Rome addressed themselves. They urged him secretly not to lose all share in the glory of victory. They pointed out that the City Garrison was under his own command, and that he could count on the police and their own bands of slaves, to say nothing of the good fortune of the party and all the advantage that victory gives. He must not leave all the glory to Antonius and Varus. Vitellius had nothing left but a few regiments of guards, who were seriously alarmed at the bad news which came from every quarter. As for the populace, their feelings soon changed, and if he put himself at their head, they would be just as loud in their flattery of Vespasian. Vitellius himself could not even cope with success, and disaster had positively paralysed him. The credit of ending the war would go to the man who seized the city. It was eminently fitting that Sabinus should secure the throne for his brother, and that Vespasian should hold him higher than anyone else.

Age had enfeebled Sabinus, and he showed no alacrity to listen to such talk as this. Some people covertly insinuated that he was jealous of his brother’s success and was trying to delay its realization. Flavius Sabinus was the elder brother and, while they were both private persons, he had been the richer and more influential. It was also believed that he had been chary in helping Vespasian to recover his financial position, and had taken a mortgage on his house and estates. Consequently, though they remained openly friendly, there were suspicions of a secret enmity between them. The more charitable explanation is that Sabinus’s gentle nature shrank from the idea of bloodshed and massacre, and that this was his reason for so constantly discussing with Vitellius the prospects of peace and a capitulation on terms. After several interviews at his house they finally came to a settlement–so the report went–at the Temple of Apollo. [On the Palatine] To the actual conversation there were only two witnesses, Cluvius Rufus and Silius Italicus,[A friend of Vitellius and the author of the historical epic on the second Punic War] but the expression of their faces was watched from a distance. Vitellius was said to look abject and demoralized: Sabinus showed less sign of pride than of pity.

Had Vitellius found it no harder to persuade his friends than to make his own renunciation, Vespasian’s army might have marched into Rome without bloodshed. But as it was, each of his friends in proportion to his loyalty persisted in refusing terms of peace. They pointed to the danger and disgrace. Would their conqueror keep his promises any longer than he liked? However great Vespasian’s self-confidence, he could not allow Vitellius to live in private. Nor would the losers acquiesce: their very pity would be a menace. [This apparently means that, if Vitellius were spared, pity for his position would inspire his supporters to make further trouble] ‘Of course,’ they said, ‘you are an old man. You have done with fortune, good or bad. But what sort of repute or position would your son Germanicus enjoy? At present they are promising you money and a household, and the pleasant shores of Campania. But when once Vespasian has seized the throne, neither he nor his friends nor even his army will feel their safety assured until the rival claimant is dead. They imprisoned Fabius Valens and meant to make use of him if a crisis occurred, but they found him too great an incubus. You may be sure that Antonius and Fuscus and that typical representative of the party, Mucianus, will have no choice but to kill you. Julius Caesar did not let Pompey live unmolested, nor Augustus Antony. [Two good points, but both untrue] Do you suppose that Vespasian’s is a loftier disposition? Why, he was one of your father’s dependants, [This too is probably hyperbole, but Vespasian may have owed his command in Germany to the influence of Vitellius father’] when your father was Claudius’s colleague. No, think of your father’s censorship, his three consulships, and all the honour your great house has won. You must not disgrace them. Despair, at least, should nerve your courage. The troops are steadfast; you still enjoy the people’s favour. Indeed, nothing worse can happen to you than what we are eager to face of our own free will. If we are defeated, we must die; if we surrender, we must die. All that matters is whether we breathe our last amid mockery and insult or bravely and with honour.’

But Vitellius was deaf to all courageous counsel. His mind was obsessed with pity for his wife and children, and an anxious fear that obstinate resistance might make the conqueror merciless towards them. He had also a mother, very old and infirm, but she had opportunely died a few days before and thus forestalled the ruin of her house. All she had got out of her son’s principate was sorrow and a good name. On December 17 he heard the news that the legion and the Guards at Narnia had deserted him and surrendered to the enemy. He at once put on mourning and left the palace, surrounded by his sorrowful household. His small son was carried in a little litter, as though this had been his funeral. The populace uttered untimely flatteries: the soldiers kept an ominous silence.

On that day there was no one so indifferent to the tragedy of human life as to be unmoved by this spectacle. A Roman emperor, yesterday master of the inhabited world, had left the seat of his authority, and was now passing through the streets of the city, through the crowding populace, quitting the throne. Such a sight had never been seen or heard of before. The dictator, Caesar, had been the victim of sudden violence; Caligula of a secret conspiracy. Nero’s had been a stealthy flight to some obscure country house under cover of night. Piso and Galba might almost be said to have fallen on the field of battle. But here was Vitellius–before the assembly of his own people, his own soldiers around him, with women even looking on–uttering a few sentences suitable to his miserable situation. He said it was in the interest of peace and of his country that he now resigned. He begged them only to retain his memory in their hearts and to take pity on his brother, his wife, and his little innocent children. As he said this, he held out his son to them and commended him, now to individuals, now to the whole assembly. At last tears choked his voice. Turning to the consul, Caecilius Simplex, who was standing by, he unstrapped his sword and offered to surrender it as a symbol of his power over the life and death of his subjects. The consul refused. The people in the assembly shouted ‘No’. So he left them with the intention of depositing the regalia in the Temple of Concord and then going to his brother’s house. But he was faced with a still louder uproar. They refused to let him enter a private house, and shouted to him to return to the palace. They blocked every other way and only left the road leading into the Via Sacra open. [i.e. the way back from the Forum to the Palace] Not knowing what else to do, Vitellius returned to the palace.

A rumour of his abdication had preceded him, and Flavius Sabinus had sent written instructions to the Guards'[Including the city garrison and police] officers to keep the men in hand. Thus the whole empire seemed to have fallen into Vespasian’s lap. The chief senators, the majority of the knights, and the whole of the city garrison and the police came flocking to the house of Flavius Sabinus. There they heard the news of the popular enthusiasm for Vitellius and the threatening attitude of the German Guards.[three cohorts of Guards still faithful to Vitellius, and, that men from the legions of Germany had been enlisted in the Guards, the term “Germanicae cohortes” seems to refer to these three cohorts, in which perhaps the majority were men from the German army] But Sabinus had gone too far to draw back, and when he showed hesitation, they all began to urge him to fight, each being afraid for his own safety if the Vitellians were to fall on them when they were disunited and consequently weaker. However, as so often happens on these occasions, every one offered to give advice but few to share the danger. While Sabinus’ Body Guard were marching down by the Fundane reservoir [Said to be on the Quirinal] they were attacked by some of the most determined Vitellians. The surprise was unpremeditated, but the Vitellians got the best of an unimportant skirmish. In the panic Sabinus chose what was at the moment the safest course, and occupied the summit of the Capitol, [Either the whole hill, or, if the expression is exact, the south-west summit] where his troops were joined by a few senators and knights. It is not easy to record their names, since after Vespasian’s victory crowds of people claimed credit for this service to the party. There were even some women who endured the siege, the most famous of them being Verulana Gratilla, who had neither children nor relatives to attract her, but only her love of danger. [This seems to have led her later into the paths of conspiracy, for she is said to have been banished by Domitian for her friendship with Arulenus Rusticus]

The Vitellians, who were investing them, kept a half-hearted watch, and Sabinus was thus enabled to send for his own children and his nephew Domitian at dead of night, dispatching a courier by an unguarded route to tell the Flavian generals that he and his men were under siege, and would be in great straits unless they were rescued. All night, indeed, he was quite unmolested, and could have escaped with perfect safety. The Vitellian troops could face danger with spirit, but were much too careless in the task of keeping guard; besides which a sudden storm of chilly rain interfered with their sight and hearing.

At daybreak, before the two sides commenced hostilities, Sabinus sent Cornelius Martialis, who had been a senior centurion, to Vitellius with instructions to complain that the conditions were being violated; that he had evidently made a mere empty show of abdication, meant to deceive a number of eminent gentlemen. Else why had he gone from the meeting to his brother’s house, which caught the eye from a conspicuous position overlooking the Forum, and not rather to his wife’s on the Aventine. That was the proper course for a private citizen, anxious to avoid all pretension to supreme authority. But no, Vitellius had returned to the palace, the very stronghold of imperial majesty. From there he had launched a column of armed men, who had strewn with innocent dead the most crowded quarter of Rome, and even laid violent hands upon the Capitol. As for Sabinus himself, the messenger was to say, he was only a civilian, a mere member of the senate. While the issue was being decided between Vespasian and Vitellius by the engagement of legions, the capture of towns, the capitulation of cohorts; even when the provinces of Spain, of Germany, of Britain, had risen in revolt; he, though Vespasian’s brother, had still remained faithful to his allegiance, until Vitellius, unasked, began to invite him to a conference. Peace and union, he was to remind him, serve the interest of the losers, and only the reputation of the winners. If Vitellius regretted their compact, he ought not to take arms against Sabinus, whom he had treacherously deceived, and against Vespasian’s son, who was still a mere boy. What was the good of killing one youth and one old man? He ought rather to march out against the legions and fight for the empire on the field. The result of the battle would decide all other questions.

Greatly alarmed, Vitellius replied with a few words in which he tried to excuse himself and throw the blame on his soldiers. ‘I am too unassuming,’ he said, ‘to cope with their overpowering impatience.’ He then warned Martialis to make his way out of the house by a secret passage, for fear that the soldiers should kill him as an ambassador of the peace to which they were so hostile. Vitellius himself was not in a position to issue orders or prohibitions; no longer an emperor, merely an excuse for war.

Martialis had hardly returned to the Capitol when the furious soldiery arrived. They had no general to lead them: each was a law to himself. Their column marched at full speed through the Forum and past the temples overlooking it. Then in battle order they advanced up the steep hill in front of them, until they reached the lowest gates of the fortress on the Capitol. In old days there was a series of colonnades at the side of this slope, on the right as you go up. Emerging on to the roof of these, the besieged overwhelmed the Vitellians with showers of stones and tiles. The attacking party carried nothing but swords, and it seemed a long business to send for siege-engines and missiles. So they flung torches into the nearest[“Prominentem” seems to mean the one that projected towards them] colonnade and, following in the wake of the flames, would have burst through the burnt gates of the Capitol, if Sabinus had not torn down all the available statues–the monuments of our ancestors’ glory–and built a sort of barricade on the very threshold. They then tried to attack the Capitol by two opposite approaches, one near the ‘Grove of Refuge'[The space lying between the two peaks of the Capitoline] and the other by the hundred steps which lead up to the Tarpeian Rock. This double assault came as a surprise. That by the Refuge was the closer and more vigorous. Nothing could stop the Vitellians, who climbed up by some contiguous houses built on to the side of the hill, which in the days of prolonged peace had been raised to such a height that their roofs were level with the floor of the Capitol. It is uncertain whether the buildings at this point were fired by the assailants or–as tradition prefers–by the besieged in trying to dislodge their enemies who had struggled up so far. The fire spread to the colonnades adjoining the temples, and then the ‘eagles'[A technical term for the beams of the pediment] supporting the roof, which were made of very old wood, caught the flames and fed them. And so the Capitol, with its doors fast shut, undefended and unplundered, was burnt to the ground.

Since the foundation of the city no such deplorable and horrible disaster had ever befallen the people of Rome. It was no case of foreign invasion. Had our own wickedness allowed, the country might have been enjoying the blessings of a benign Providence; and yet here was the seat of Jupiter Almighty–the temple solemnly founded by our ancestors as the pledge of their imperial greatness, on which not even Porsenna,[ ‘Lars Porsenna of Clusium,’ 507 B.C.E.] when Rome surrendered, nor the Gauls, when they took it, had ever dared to lay rash hands–being brought utterly to ruin by the mad folly of two rival emperors![‘Burning the Capitol’ was a proverb of utter iniquity] The Capitol had been burnt before in civil war,[In the war between Sulla and Marius, 83 B.C.E.] but that was the crime of private persons. Now it had been openly assaulted by the people of Rome and openly burnt by them. And what was the cause of war? what the recompense for such a disaster? Were we fighting for our country?

King Tarquinius Priscus had vowed to build this temple in the Sabine war, and had laid the foundations on a scale that suited rather his hope of the city’s future greatness than the still moderate fortunes of the Roman people. Later Servius Tullius, with the aid of Rome’s allies, and Tarquinius Superbus, with the spoils of the Volscians after the capture of Suessa Pometia, [The capital town of the Volscians. This early history is told in the first book of Livy] continued the building. But the glory of completing it was reserved for the days of freedom. After the expulsion of the kings, Horatius Pulvillus, in his second consulship [507 B.C.E.] dedicated this monument on such a magnificent scale, that in later days, with all her boundless wealth, Rome has been able to embellish but never to enlarge it. After an interval of four hundred and fifteen years, in the consulship of Lucius Scipio and Caius Norbanus,[83 B.C.E. The interval is really 425 years] it was burnt and rebuilt on the same site. Sulla after his victory undertook the task of restoring it, but did not dedicate it. This only was lacking to justify his title of ‘Fortune’s Favourite’.[This, according to Pliny, was Sulla’s own saying] Much as the emperors did to it, the name of Lutatius Catulus [Consul in 69 B.C.E. He took the title of Capitolinus] still remained upon it up to the time of Vitellius.[On the monument which details his exploits Augustus says that he restored the Capitol at immense cost without inscribing his name on it] This was the temple that was now ablaze.

The besieged suffered more panic than their assailants. The Vitellian soldiers lacked neither resource nor steadiness in moments of crisis. But on the other side the troops were terrified, the general [Flavius Sabinus] inert, and apparently so paralyzed that he was practically deaf and dumb. He neither adopted others’ plans nor formed any of his own, but only drifted about from place to place, attracted by the shouts of the enemy, contradicting all his own orders. The result was what always happens in a hopeless disaster: everybody gave orders and nobody obeyed them. At last they threw away their weapons and began to peer round for a way of escape or some means of hiding. Then the Vitellians came bursting in, and with fire and sword made one red havoc. A few good soldiers dared to show fight and were cut to pieces. Of these the most notable were Cornelius Martialis, Aemilius Pacensis, Casperius Niger, and Didius Scaeva. Flavius Sabinus, who stood unarmed and making no attempt to escape, was surrounded together with the consul Quintius Atticus,[Consul for November and December. His colleague, Caecilius Simplex, was on the other side] whose empty title made him a marked man, as well as his personal vanity, which had led him to distribute manifestoes full of compliments to Vespasian and insults against Vitellius. The rest escaped by various means. Some disguised themselves as slaves: some were sheltered by faithful dependants: some hid among the baggage. Others again caught the Vitellians’ password, by which they recognized each other, and actually went about demanding it and giving it when challenged, thus escaping under a cloak of effrontery.

When the enemy first broke in, Domitian had taken refuge with the sacristan, and was enabled by the ingenuity of a freedman to escape among a crowd of worshippers in a linen dress, [The dress of the worshippers of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who considered woollen clothes unclean] and to take refuge near the Velabrum with Cornelius Primus, one of his father’s dependants. When his father came to the throne, Domitian pulled down the sacristan’s lodging and built a little chapel to Jupiter the Saviour with an altar, on which his adventures were depicted in marble relief. Later, when he became emperor, he dedicated a huge temple to Jupiter the Guardian with a statue of himself in the lap of the god.

Sabinus and Atticus were loaded with chains and taken to Vitellius, who received them without any language or looks of disfavour, much to the chagrin of those who wanted to see them punished with death and themselves rewarded for their successful labours. When those who stood nearest started an outcry, the dregs of the populace soon began to demand Sabinus’ execution with mingled threats and flatteries. Vitellius came out on to the steps of the palace prepared to plead for him: but they forced him to desist. Sabinus was stabbed and riddled with wounds: his head was cut off and the trunk dragged away to the Ladder of Sighs. [A flight of steps leading down from the Capitol to the Forum. On them the bodies of criminals were exposed after execution] Such was the end of a man who certainly merits no contempt. He had served his country for thirty-five years, and won credit both as civilian and soldier. His integrity and fairness were beyond criticism. He talked too much about himself, but this is the one charge which rumour could hint against him in the seven years when he was Governor of Moesia, and the twelve years during which he was Prefect of the City. At the end of his life some thought he showed a lack of enterprise, but many believed him a moderate man, who was anxious to save his fellow citizens from bloodshed. In this, at any rate, all would agree, that before Vespasian became emperor the reputation of his house rested on Sabinus. It is said that Mucianus was delighted to hear of his murder, and many people maintained that it served the interests of peace by putting an end to the jealousy of two rivals, one of whom was the emperor’s brother, while the other posed as his partner in the empire. [Mucianus]

When the people further demanded the execution of the consul, Vitellius withstood them. He had forgiven Atticus, and felt that he owed him a favour, for, when asked who had set fire to the Capitol, Atticus had taken the blame on himself, by which avowal–or was it a well-timed falsehood?–he had fixed all the guilt and odium on himself and exonerated the Vitellian party.


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


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