Roman Empire: End Of Vitellius; Sack of Rome (Part 20)

About this same time Lucius Vitellius, who had pitched his camp at the Temple of Feronia, [An Italian goddess of freedom. The temple is mentioned in Horace’s “Journey to Brundisium”, where Anxur = Tarracina, which was three miles from the temple] made every effort to destroy Tarracina, where he had shut up the gladiators and sailors, who would not venture to leave the shelter of the walls or to face death in the open. The gladiators were commanded, as we have already seen, by Julianus, and the sailors by Apollinaris, men whose dissolute inefficiency better suited gladiators than general officers. They set no watch, and made no attempt to repair the weak places in the walls. Day and night they idled loosely; the soldiers were dispatched in all directions to find them luxuries; that beautiful coast rang with their revelry; and they only spoke of war in their cups. A few days earlier, Apinius Tiro had started on his mission, and, by rigorously requisitioning gifts of money in all the country towns, was winning more unpopularity than assistance for the cause.

In the meantime, one of Vergilius Capito’s slaves deserted to Lucius Vitellius, and promised that, if he were provided with men, he would put the abandoned castle into their hands. Accordingly, at dead of night he established a few lightly armed cohorts on the top of the hills which overlooked the enemy. Thence the soldiers came charging down more to butchery than battle. They cut down their victims standing helpless and unarmed or hunting for their weapons, or perhaps newly startled from their sleep–all in a bewildering confusion of darkness, panic, bugle-calls, and savage cries. A few of the gladiators resisted and sold their lives dearly. The rest rushed to the ships; and there the same panic and confusion reigned, for the villagers were all mixed up with the troops, and the Vitellians slaughtered them too, without distinction. Just as the first uproar began, six Liburnian cruisers slipped away with the admiral Apollinaris on board. The rest were either captured on the beach or overweighted and sunk by the crowds that clambered over them. Julianus was taken to Lucius Vitellius, who had him flogged till he bled and then killed before his eyes. Some writers have accused Lucius Vitellius’ wife, Triaria, [He was in command of the rebels from the fleet at Misenum, and engaged in bringing over the country-towns] of putting on a soldier’s sword, and with insolent cruelty showing herself among the horrors of the captured town. Lucius himself sent a laurel-wreath to his brother in token of his success, and inquired whether he wished him to return at once or to continue reducing Campania. This delay saved not only Vespasian’s party but Rome as well. Had he marched on the city while his men were fresh from their victory, with the flush of success added to their natural intrepidity, there would have been a tremendous struggle, which must have involved the city’s destruction. Lucius Vitellius, too, for all his evil repute, was a man of action. Good men owe their power to their virtues; but he was one of that worst sort whose vices are their only virtue.


While things went thus on Vitellius’ side, the Flavian army after leaving Narnia spent the days of the Saturnalian holiday[December 17-23] quietly at Ocriculum.[Otricoli] The object of this disastrous delay was to wait for Mucianus. Antonius has been suspected of delaying treacherously after receiving a secret communication from Vitellius, offering him as the price of treason the consulship, his young daughter, and a rich dowry. Others hold that this story was invented to gratify Mucianus. Many consider that the policy of all the Flavian generals was rather to threaten the city than to attack it. They realized that Vitellius had lost the best cohorts of his Guards, and now that all his forces were cut off they expected he would abdicate. But this prospect was spoilt first by Sabinus’ precipitation and then by his cowardice, for, after very rashly taking arms, he failed to defend against three cohorts of Guards the strongly fortified castle on the Capitol, which ought to have been impregnable even to a large army. However, it is not easy to assign to any one man the blame which they all share. Even Mucianus helped to delay the victors’ advance by the ambiguity of his dispatches, and Antonius was also to blame for his untimely compliance with instructions–or else for trying to throw the responsibility [i.e. for the delay which gave time for the burning of the Capitol. The fact that he tried to shift the responsibility seemed to argue an uncomfortable conscience] on Mucianus. The other generals thought the war was over, and thus rendered its final scene all the more appalling. Petilius Cerialis was sent forward with a thousand cavalry to make his way by cross-roads through the Sabine country, and enter the city by the Salarian road. [i.e. through the Colline Gate] But even he failed to make sufficient haste, and at last the news of the siege of the Capitol brought them all at once to their senses.

Marching up the Flaminian road, it was already deep night when Antonius reached ‘The Red Rocks’. [ Grotta Rosa] His help had come too late. There he heard that Sabinus had been killed, and the Capitol burnt; the city was in panic; everything looked black; even the populace and the slaves were arming for Vitellius. Petilius Cerialis, too, had been defeated in a cavalry engagement. He had pushed on without caution, thinking the enemy already beaten, and the Vitellians with a mixed force of horse and foot had caught him unawares. The engagement had taken place near the city among farm buildings and gardens and winding lanes, with which the Vitellians were familiar, while the Flavians were terrified by their ignorance. Besides, the troopers were not all of one mind; some of them belonged to the force which had recently surrendered at Narnia, and were waiting to see which side won. Julius Flavianus, who commanded a regiment of cavalry, was taken prisoner. The rest fell into a disgraceful panic and fled, but the pursuit was not continued beyond Fidenae.

This success served to increase the popular excitement. The city rabble now took arms. A few had service-shields: most of them snatched up any weapons they could find and clamoured to be given the sign for battle. Vitellius expressed his gratitude to them and bade them sally forth to protect the city. He then summoned a meeting of the senate, at which envoys were appointed to go to the two armies and urge them in the name of public welfare to accept peace. The fortunes of the envoys varied. Those who approached Petilius Cerialis found themselves in dire danger, for the soldiers indignantly refused their terms. The praetor, Arulenus Rusticus, [A well-known member of the Stoic opposition, executed by Domitian’s order, A.D. 94] was wounded. Apart from the wrong done to a praetor and an envoy, the man’s own acknowledged worth made this seem all the more scandalous. His companions were flogged, and the lictor nearest to him was killed for venturing to make a way through the crowd. Indeed, if the guard provided by the general had not intervened, a Roman envoy, the sanctity of whose person even foreign nations respect, might have been wickedly murdered in the mad rage of civil strife under the very walls of Rome. Those who went to Antonius met with a more reasonable reception; not that the soldiers were less violent, but the general had more authority.

A knight named Musonius Rufus had attached himself to the envoys. He was a student of philosophy and an enthusiastic advocate of Stoicism. He mingled with the armed soldiers offering them advice and discoursing on the advantages of peace and the perils of war. This amused many of them and bored still more. Some, indeed, wanted to maul him and kick him out, but the advice of the more sober spirits and the threats of others persuaded him to cut short his ill-timed lecture. The Vestal Virgins, too, came in procession to bring Antonius a letter from Vitellius, in which he demanded one day’s postponement of the final crisis, saying that everything could easily be settled, if only they would grant this respite. Antonius sent the Virgins away with all respect, and wrote in answer to Vitellius that the murder of Sabinus and the burning of the Capitol had broken off all negotiations.

However, he summoned the legions to a meeting and endeavoured to mollify them, proposing that they should pitch their camp near the Mulvian Bridge and enter the city on the following day. His motive for delay was a fear that the troops, when once their blood was up after a skirmish, would have no respect for civilians or senators, or even for the temples and shrines of the gods. But they suspected every postponement as a hindrance to their victory. Moreover, some colours which were seen glittering along the hills, gave the impression of a hostile force, although none but peaceful citizens accompanied them.

The attack was made in three columns. One advanced from its original position on the Flaminian road, one kept near the bank of the Tiber, and the third approached the Colline Gate along the Salarian road. The cavalry rode into the mob and scattered them. But the Vitellian troops faced the enemy, themselves, too, in three separate divisions. Again and again they engaged before the walls with varying success. But the Flavians had the advantage of being well led and thus more often won success. Only one of the attacking parties suffered at all severely, that which had made its way along narrow, greasy lanes to Sallust’s Gardens [The historian. They now belonged to the emperor] on the left side of the city. Standing on the garden walls, the Vitellians hurled stones and javelins down upon them and held them back until late in the day. But at last the cavalry forced an entrance by the Colline Gate and took the defenders in the rear. Then the opposing forces met on the Martian Plain itself. Fortune favoured the Flavians and the sense of victories won. The Vitellians charged in sheer despair, but, though driven back, they gathered again in the city.

The people came and watched the fighting, cheering and applauding now one side, now the other, like spectators at a gladiatorial contest. Whenever one side gave ground, and the soldiers began to hide in shops or seek refuge in some private house, they clamoured for them to be dragged out and killed, and thus got the greater part of the plunder for themselves: for while the soldiers were busy with the bloody work of massacre, the spoil fell to the crowd. The scene throughout the city was hideous and terrible: on the one side fighting and wounded men, on the other baths and restaurants: here lay heaps of bleeding dead, and close at hand were harlots and their companions–all the vice and licence of luxurious peace, and all the crime and horror of a captured town. One might well have thought the city mad with fury and mad with pleasure at the same time. Armies had fought in the city before this, twice when Sulla mastered Rome, [88 and 82 B.C.E.] once under Cinna.[87 B.C.E.] Nor were there less horrors then. What was now so inhuman was the people’s indifference. Not for one minute did they interrupt the life of pleasure. The fighting was a new amusement for their holiday.[The Saturnalia] Caring nothing for either party, they enjoyed themselves in riotous dissipation and took a frank pleasure in their country’s disaster.

The storming of the Guards’ camp was the most troublesome task. It was still held by some of the bravest as a forlorn hope, which made the victors all the more eager to take it, especially those who had originally served in the Guards. They employed against it every means ever devised for the storming of the most strongly fortified towns, a ‘tortoise’, artillery, earthworks, firebrands. This, they cried, was the crown of all the toil and danger they had undergone in all their battles. They had restored the city to the senate and people of Rome, and their Temples to the gods: the soldier’s pride is his camp, it is his country and his home. If they could not regain it at once, they must spend the night in fighting. The Vitellians, for their part, had numbers and fortune against them, but by marring their enemy’s victory, by postponing peace, by fouling houses and altars with their blood, they embraced the last consolations that the conquered can enjoy. Many lay more dead than alive on the towers and ramparts of the walls and there expired. When the gates were torn down, the remainder faced the conquerors in a body. And there they fell, every man of them facing the enemy with all his wounds in front. Even as they died they took care to make an honourable end.

When the city was taken, Vitellius left the Palace by a back way and was carried in a litter to his wife’s house on the Aventine. If he could lie hid during the day, he hoped to make his escape to his brother and the Guards at Tarracina. But it is in the very nature of terror that, while any course looks dangerous, the present state of things seems worst of all. His fickle determination soon changed and he returned to the vast, deserted Palace, whence even the lowest of his menials had fled, or at least avoided meeting him. Shuddering at the solitude and hushed silence of the place, he wandered about, trying closed doors, terrified to find the rooms empty; until at last, wearied with his miserable search, he crept into some shameful hiding-place. There Julius Placidus, an officer of the Guards, found him and dragged him out. His hands were tied behind his back, his clothes were torn, and thus he was led forth–a loathly spectacle at which many hurled insults and no one shed a single tear of pity. The ignominy of his end killed all compassion. On the way a soldier of the German army either aimed an angry blow at him, or tried to put him out of his shame, or meant, perhaps, to strike the officer in command; at any rate, he cut off the officer’s ear and was immediately stabbed.

With the points of their swords they made Vitellius hold up his head and face their insults, forcing him again and again to watch his own statues hurtling down, or to look at the Rostra and the spot where Galba had been killed. At last he was dragged along to the Ladder of Sighs, where the body of Flavius Sabinus had lain. One saying of his which was recorded had a ring of true nobility. When some officer flung reproaches at him, he answered, ‘And yet I was once your emperor.’ After that he fell under a shower of wounds, and when he was dead the mob abused him as loudly as they had flattered him in his lifetime–and with as little reason.

Vitellius’ home was at Luceria. [The words are uncertain. There is probably a lacuna] He was in his fifty-seventh year, and had won the consulship, priesthoods, and a name and position among Rome’s greatest men, all of which he owed to no efforts of his own, but solely to his father’s eminence. Those who offered him the throne had not yet learnt to know him; and yet his slothful cowardice won from his soldiers an enthusiasm which the best of generals have rarely evoked. Still he had the qualities of candour and generosity, which without moderation are liable to prove disastrous. He had few friends, though he bought many, thinking to keep them, not by showing moral stamina, but by giving liberal presents. It was indubitably good for the country that Vitellius should be beaten. But those who betrayed him to Vespasian can hardly make a merit of their perfidy, for they were the very men who had deserted Galba for Vitellius.

The day was already sinking into evening. The magistrates and senators had fled in terror from the city, or were still in hiding at dependants’ houses: it was therefore impossible to call a meeting of the senate. When all fear of violence was at an end, Domitian came out [He had taken refuge with a humble friend] and presented himself to the generals of his party. The crowds of soldiers at once hailed him as Caesar, and marched off, still in full armour, to escort him to his father’s house.


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