Roman Empire: After Vitellius’s Fall (Part 21)

(January-July, A.D. 70) The death of Vitellius ended the war without inaugurating peace. The victors remained under arms, and the defeated Vitellians were hunted through the city with implacable hatred, and butchered promiscuously wherever they were found. The streets were choked with corpses; squares and temples ran with blood. Soon the riot knew no restraint; they began to hunt for those who were in hiding and to drag them out. All who were tall and of youthful appearance, whether soldiers or civilians, were cut down indiscriminately. [Because they were taken for members of Vitellius’ German auxiliary cohorts] While their rage was fresh they sated their savage cravings with blood; then suddenly the instinct of greed prevailed. On the pretext of hunting for hidden enemies, they would leave no door unopened and regard no privacy. Thus they began to rifle private houses or else made resistance an excuse for murder. There were plenty of needy citizens, too, and of rascally slaves, who were perfectly ready to betray wealthy householders: others were indicated by their friends. From all sides came cries of mourning and misery. Rome was like a captured city. People even longed to have the insolent soldiery of Otho and Vitellius back again, much as they had been hated. The Flavian generals, who had fanned the flame of civil war with such energy, were incapable of using their victory temperately. In riot and disorder the worst characters take the lead; peace and quiet call for the highest qualities.

Domitian having secured the title and the official residence of a Caesar, did not as yet busy himself with serious matters, but in his character of emperor’s son devoted himself to dissolute intrigues. Arrius Varus took command of the Guards, but the supreme authority rested with Antonius Primus. He removed money and slaves from the emperor’s house as though he were plundering Cremona. The other generals, from excess of modesty or lack of spirit, shared neither the distinctions of the war nor the profits of peace.

People in Rome were now so nervous and so resigned to despotism that they demanded that Lucius Vitellius and his force of Guards should be surprised on their way back from Tarracina, and the last sparks of the war stamped out. Some cavalry were sent forward to Aricia, while the column of the legions halted short of Bovillae. [These three towns are all on the Appian Way, Bovillae ten miles from Rome, Aricia sixteen, Tarracina fifty-nine, on the coast] Vitellius, however, lost no time in surrendering himself and his Guards to the conqueror’s discretion, and the men flung away their unlucky swords more in anger than in fear. The long line of prisoners filed through the city between ranks of armed guards. None looked like begging for mercy. With sad, set faces they remained sternly indifferent to the applause or the mockery of the ribald crowd. A few tried to break away, but were surrounded and overpowered. The rest were put in prison. Not one of them gave vent to any unseemly complaint. Through all their misfortunes they preserved their reputation for courage. Lucius Vitellius was then executed. He was as weak as his brother, though during the principate he showed himself less indolent. Without sharing his brother’s success, he was carried away on the flood of his disaster.

At this time Lucilius Bassus was sent off with a force of light horse to quell the disquiet in Campania, which was caused more by the mutual jealousy of the townships than by any opposition to the emperor. The sight of the soldiers restored order. The smaller colonies were pardoned, but at Capua the Third legion [Gallica] was left in winter quarters and some of the leading families fined. [Capua had adhered to Vitellius. Tarracina had been held for Vespasian] Tarracina, on the other hand, received no relief. It is always easier to requite an injury than a service: gratitude is a burden, but revenge is found to pay. Their only consolation was that one of Vergilius Capito’s slaves, who had, as we have seen, betrayed the town, was hanged on the gallows with the very rings[The insignia of equestrian rank] on his fingers which Vitellius had given him to wear.

At Rome the senate decreed to Vespasian all the usual prerogatives of the principate. [ The chief of these were the powers of tribune, pro-consul, and censor, and the title of Augustus] They were now happy and confident. Seeing that the civil war had broken out in the provinces of Gaul and Spain, and after causing a rebellion first in Germany and then in Illyricum, had spread to Egypt, Judaea, Syria, [Vindex had risen in Gaul; Galba in Spain; Vitellius in Germany; Antonius Primus in the Danube provinces (Illyricum); Vespasian and Mucianus in Judaea, Syria, and Egypt.] and in fact to all the provinces and armies of the empire, they felt that the world had been purged as by fire and that all was now over. Their satisfaction was still further enhanced by a letter from Vespasian, which at first sight seemed to be phrased as if the war was still going on. Still his tone was that of an emperor, though he spoke of himself as a simple citizen and gave his country all the glory. The senate for its part showed no lack of deference. They decreed that Vespasian himself should be consul with Titus for his colleague, and on Domitian they conferred the praetorship with the powers of a consul. [This was necessary in the absence of Vespasian and Titus]

Mucianus had also addressed a letter to the senate which gave rise to a good deal of talk. If he were a private citizen, why adopt the official tone? He could have expressed the same opinions a few days later from his place in the House. Besides, his attack on Vitellius came too late to prove his independence, and what seemed particularly humiliating for the country and insulting to the emperor was his boast that he had held the empire in the hollow of his hand, and had given it to Vespasian. However, they concealed their ill-will and made a great show of flattery, decreeing to Mucianus in the most complimentary terms full triumphal honours, which were really given him for his success against his fellow countrymen, though they trumped up an expedition to Sarmatia as a pretext. [A triumph could, of course, be held only for victories over a foreign enemy. Here the pretext was the repulse of the Dacians] On Antonius Primus they conferred the insignia of the consulship, and those of the praetorship on Cornelius Fuscus and Arrius Varus. Then came the turn of the gods: it was decided to restore the Capitol. These proposals were all moved by the consul-designate, Valerius Asiaticus. [Vitellius’ son-in-law] The others signified assent by smiling and holding up their hands, though a few, who were particularly distinguished, or especially practised in the art of flattery, delivered set speeches. When it came to the turn of Helvidius Priscus, the praetor-designate, he expressed himself in terms which, while doing honour to a good emperor, were perfectly frank and honest. [In the text some words seem to be missing here, but the general sense is clear] The senate showed their keen approval, and it was this day which first won for him great disfavour and great distinction.

Since I have had occasion to make a second allusion to a man whom I shall often have to mention again, [If Tacitus ever told the story of his banishment and death, his version has been lost with the rest of his history of Vespasian’s reign] it may be well to give here a brief account of his character and ideals, and of his fortune in life. Helvidius Priscus came from the country town of Cluviae. [In Samnium] His father had been a senior centurion in the army. From his early youth Helvidius devoted his great intellectual powers to the higher studies, not as many people do, with the idea of using a philosopher’s reputation as a cloak for indolence, [i.e. shirking the duties of public life] but rather to fortify himself against the caprice of fortune when he entered public life. He became a follower of that school of philosophy [i.e. the Stoic] which holds that honesty is the one good thing in life and sin the only evil, while power and rank and other such external things, not being qualities of character, are neither good nor bad. He had risen no higher than the rank of quaestor when Paetus Thrasea chose him for his son-in-law, and of Thrasea’s virtues he absorbed none so much as his independence. As citizen, senator, husband, son-in-law, friend, in every sphere of life he was thoroughly consistent, always showing contempt for money, stubborn persistence in the right, and courage in the face of danger.

Some people thought him too ambitious, for even with philosophers the passion for fame is often their last rag of infirmity. After Thrasea’s fall Helvidius was banished, but he returned to Rome under Galba and proceeded to prosecute Eprius Marcellus, who had informed against his father-in-law. This attempt to secure a revenge, as bold as it was just, divided the senate into two parties, for the fall of Marcellus would involve the ruin of a whole army of similar offenders. At first the struggle was full of recrimination, as the famous speeches on either side testify; but after a while, finding that Galba’s attitude was doubtful and that many of the senators begged him to desist, Helvidius dropped the prosecution. On his action in this matter men’s comments varied with their character, some praising his moderation, others asking what had become of his tenacity.

To return to the senate: at the same meeting at which they voted powers to Vespasian they also decided to send a deputation to address him. This gave rise to a sharp dispute between Helvidius Priscus and Eprius Marcellus. The former thought the members of the deputation ought to be nominated by magistrates acting under oath; Marcellus demanded their selection by lot. The consul-designate had already spoken in favour of the latter method, but Marcellus’ motive was personal vanity, for he was afraid that if others were chosen he would seem slighted. Their exchange of views gradually grew into a formal and acrimonious debate. Helvidius inquired why it was that Marcellus was so afraid of the magistrates’ judgement, seeing that he himself had great advantages of wealth and of eloquence over many others. Could it be the memory of his misdeeds that so oppressed him? The fall of the lot could not discern character: but the whole point of submitting people to the vote and to scrutiny by the senate was to get at the truth about each man’s life and reputation. In the interest of the country, and out of respect to Vespasian, it was important that he should be met by men whom the senate considered beyond reproach, men who would give the emperor a taste for honest language. Vespasian had been a friend of Thrasea, Soranus, and Sentius, [Soranus, like Thrasea, was a Stoic who opposed the government mainly on moral grounds. The story of their end is told in the “Annals”, Book XVI. Sentius was presumably another member of their party] and even though there might be no need to punish their prosecutors, still it would be wrong to put them forward. Moreover, the senate’s selection would be a sort of hint to the emperor whom to approve and whom to avoid. ‘Good friends are the most effective instruments of good government. Marcellus ought to be content with having driven Nero to destroy so many innocent people. Let him enjoy the impunity and the profit he has won from that, and leave Vespasian to more honest advisers.’

Marcellus replied that the opinion which was being impugned was not his own. The consul-designate had already advised them to follow the established precedent, which was that deputations should be chosen by lot, so that there should be no room for intrigue or personal animosity. Nothing had happened to justify them in setting aside such an ancient system. Why turn a compliment to the emperor into a slight upon someone else? Anybody could do homage. What they had to avoid was the possibility that some people’s obstinacy might irritate the emperor at the outset of his reign, while his intentions were undecided and he was still busy watching faces and listening to what was said. ‘I have not forgotten,’ he went on, ‘the days of my youth or the constitution which our fathers and grandfathers established. [He refers to Augustus’ regularization of the principate] But while admiring a distant past, I support the existing state of things. I pray for good emperors, but I take them as they come. As for Thrasea, it was not my speech but the senate’s verdict which did for him. Nero took a savage delight in farces like that trial, and, really, the friendship of such an emperor cost me as much anxiety as banishment did to others. In fine, Helvidius may be as brave and as firm as any Brutus or Cato; I am but a senator and we are all slaves together. Besides, I advise my friend not to try and get an upper hand with our emperor or to force his tuition on a man of ripe years, [Fifty-nine] who wears the insignia of a triumph and is the father of two grown sons. Bad rulers like absolute sovereignty, and even the best of them must set some limit to their subjects’ independence.’

This heated interchange of arguments found supporters for both views. The party which wanted the deputies chosen by lot eventually prevailed, since even the moderates were anxious to observe the precedent, and all the most prominent members tended to vote with them, for fear of encountering ill-feeling if they were selected.

This dispute was followed by another. The Praetors, who in those days administered the Treasury, [The administration of this office was changed several times in the first century of the empire. Here we have a reversion to Augustus’ second plan. Trajan restored Augustus’ original plan–also adopted by Nero–of appointing special Treasury officials from the ex-praetors.] complained of the spread of poverty in the country and demanded some restriction of expenditure. The consul-designate said that, as the undertaking would be so vast and the remedy so difficult, he was in favour of leaving it for the emperor. Helvidius maintained that it ought to be settled by the senate’s decision. When the consuls began to take each senator’s opinion, Vulcacius Tertullinus, one of the tribunes, interposed his veto, on the ground that they could not decide such an important question in the emperor’s absence. Helvidius had previously moved that the Capitol should be restored at the public cost, and with the assistance of Vespasian. The moderates all passed over this suggestion in silence and soon forgot it, but there were others who took care to remember it. [His offence lay in assigning to the emperor a merely secondary position]

It was at this time that Musonius Rufus brought an action against Publius Celer on the ground that it was only by perjury that he had secured the conviction of Soranus Barea.[Described in the “Annals”,] It was felt that this trial restarted the hue and cry against professional accusers. But the defendant was a rascal of no importance who could not be sheltered, and, moreover, Barea’s memory was sacred. Celer had set up as a teacher of philosophy and then committed perjury against his pupil Barea, thus treacherously violating the very principles of friendship which he professed to teach. The case was put down for the next day’s meeting. [Celer was convicted] But now that a taste for revenge was aroused, people were all agog to see not so much Musonius and Publius as Priscus and Marcellus and the rest in court.

Thus the senate quarreled; the defeated party nursed their grievances; the winners had no power to enforce their will; law was in abeyance and the emperor absent. This state of things continued until Mucianus arrived in Rome and took everything into his own hands. This shattered the supremacy of Antonius and Varus, for, though Mucianus tried to show a friendly face towards them, he was not very successful in concealing his dislike. But the people of Rome, having acquired great skill in detecting strained relations, had already transferred their allegiance. Mucianus was now the sole object of their flattering attentions. And he lived up to them. He surrounded himself with an armed escort, and kept changing his house and gardens. His display, his public appearances, the night-watch that guarded him, all showed that he had adopted the style of an emperor while forgoing the title. The greatest alarm was aroused by his execution of Calpurnius Galerianus, a son of Caius Piso. [C. Piso had conspired against Nero, A.D. 65] He had attempted no treachery, but his distinguished name and handsome presence had made the youth a subject of common talk, and the country was full of turbulent spirits who delighted in revolutionary rumours and idly talked of his coming to the throne. Mucianus gave orders that he should be arrested by a body of soldiers, and to avoid a conspicuous execution in the heart of the city, they marched him forty miles along the Appian road, where they severed his veins and let him bleed to death. Julius Priscus, who had commanded the Guards under Vitellius, committed suicide, more from shame than of necessity. Alfenus Varus survived the disgrace of his cowardice. [They had both abandoned their camp at Narnia] Asiaticus, who was a freedman, paid for his malign influence by dying the death of a slave.[ i.e. he was crucified]

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

REFERENCE: The Histories (Book 4) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus: Translated w/Notation: By W. HAMILTON FYFE (1912)
CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick

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