Roman Empire: Under Vespasian (Part 24)

During these events Vespasian took up his second consulship and Titus his first, both in absence. [We now reach the year A.D. 70. Vespasian had already been consul under Claudius in 51] Rome was depressed and beset by manifold anxieties. Apart from the real miseries of the moment, it was plunged into a groundless panic on the rumour of a rebellion in Africa, where Lucius Piso was supposed to be plotting a revolution. Piso, who was governor of the province, was far from being a firebrand. But the severity of the winter delayed the corn-ships, and the common people, accustomed to buy their bread day by day, whose interest in politics was confined to the corn-supply, soon began to believe their fears that the coast of Africa was being blockaded and supplies withheld. The Vitellians, who were still under the sway of party spirit, fostered this rumour, and even the victorious party was not entirely displeased at it, for none of their victories in the civil war had satisfied their greed, and even foreign wars fell far short of their ambition.

On the first of January the senate was convened by the Urban Praetor, [In the absence of both consuls] Julius Frontinus, and passed votes of thanks and congratulation to the generals, armies, and foreign princes. [i.e. Sohaemus, Antiochus, and Agrippa] Tettius Julianus, who had left his legion when it went over to Vespasian, was deprived of his praetorship, which was conferred upon Plotius Grypus. Hormus [Vespasian’s freedman] was raised to equestrian rank. Frontinus then resigned his praetorship and Caesar Domitian succeeded him. His name now stood at the head of all dispatches and edicts, but the real authority lay with Mucianus, although Domitian, following the promptings of his friends and of his own desires, frequently asserted his independence. But Mucianus’ chief cause of anxiety lay in Antonius Primus and Arrius Varus. The fame of their exploits was still fresh; the soldiers worshipped them; and they were popular in Rome, because they had used no violence off the field of battle. It was even hinted that Antonius had urged Crassus Scribonianus [The elder brother of Galba’s adopted son Piso] to seize the throne. He was a man who owed his distinction to famous ancestors and to his brother’s memory, and Antonius could promise him adequate support for a conspiracy. However, Scribonianus refused. He had a terror of all risks, and would hardly have been seduced even by the certainty of success. Being unable to crush Antonius openly, Mucianus showered compliments on him in the senate and embarrassed him with promises, hinting at the governorship of Nearer Spain, which the departure of Cluvius Rufus [He must by now have ceased to be absentee governor] had left vacant. Meanwhile he lavished military commands on Antonius’ friends. Then, having filled his empty head with ambitious hopes, he destroyed his influence at one stroke by moving the Seventh legion, [It was to the command of this legion that Galba promoted Antonius] which was passionately attached to Antonius, into winter-quarters. The Third, who were similarly devoted to Arrius Varus, were sent back to Syria, [Varus had served under Corbulo in Syria] and part of the army was taken out to the war in Germany. Thus, on the removal of the disturbing factors, the city could resume its normal life under the old regime of law and civil government.

On the day of his first appearance in the senate Domitian spoke a few moderate sentences regretting the absence of his father and brother. His behaviour was most proper, and, as his character was still an unknown quantity, his blushes were taken for signs of modesty. [In his life of “Agricola” Tacitus speaks of Domitian’s red face as ‘his natural bulwark against shame’.] He moved from the chair that all Galba’s honours should be restored, to which Curtius Montanus proposed an amendment that some respect should also be paid to the memory of Piso. The senate approved both proposals, though nothing was done about Piso. Next, various commissions were appointed by lot to restore the spoils of war to the owners; to examine and affix the bronze tablets of laws, which in course of time had dropped off the walls; to revise the list of public holidays, which in these days of flattery had been disgracefully tampered with; and to introduce some economy into public expenditure.

Tettius Julianus was restored to his praetorship as soon as it was discovered that he had taken refuge with Vespasian: but Grypus was allowed to retain his rank. It was then decided to resume the hearing of the case of Musonius Rufus against Publius Celer Publius was convicted and the shade of Soranus satisfied. This strict verdict made the day memorable in the annals of Rome, and credit was also due to private enterprise, for everybody felt that Musonius had done his duty in bringing the action. On the other hand, Demetrius, a professor of Cynic philosophy, earned discredit for defending an obvious criminal [i.e. Publius Celer. As this Demetrius was present with Thrasea at the end, holding high philosophical discourse with him (“Ann.” xvi. 34), he seems to have been a Cynic in the modern sense as well.] more for ostentatious motives than from honest conviction. As for Publius, courage and fluency alike failed him at the critical moment. This trial was the signal for further reprisals against prosecutors. Junius Mauricus [Another Stoic malcontent, brother of the Arulenus Rusticus] accordingly petitioned Domitian that the senate might be allowed access to the minutes of the imperial cabinet, in order to find out who had applied for leave to bring a prosecution and against whom. The answer was that on such a question as this the emperor must be consulted.

Accordingly, at the instigation of its leading members, the senate framed an oath in these words, ‘I call heaven to witness that I have never countenanced any action prejudicial to any man’s civil status, nor have I derived any profit or any office from the misfortune of any Roman citizen.’ The magistrates vied with each other in their haste to take this oath, and the other members did the same, when called upon to speak. Those who had a guilty conscience were alarmed, and managed to alter the wording of the oath by various devices. The house meanwhile applauded every sign of scruple, and protested against each case of perjury.

This kind of informal censure fell most severely on Sariolenus Vocula, Nonius Attianus, and Cestius Severus, who were notorious as habitual informers under Nero. Against Sariolenus there was also a fresh charge of having continued his practices with Vitellius. The members went on shaking their fists at him until he left the house. They next turned on Paccius Africanus, trying to hound him out in the same way. He was supposed to have suggested to Nero the murder of the two brothers Scribonius, [According to Dio they were two devoted and inseparable brothers. They became governors, one of Upper and the other of Lower Germany, and, being wealthy, were forced by Nero to commit suicide] who were famous for their friendship and their wealth. Africanus dared not admit his guilt, though he could not very well deny it. So he swung round on Vibius Crispus, who was pestering him with questions, and tried to turn the tables by implicating him in the charges which he could not rebut, thus shifting the odium on to his accomplice.

On this occasion Vipstanus Messala gained a great reputation, both for dutiful affection and for eloquence, by venturing to intercede for his brother Aquilius Regulus, although he had not attained the senatorial age.[Twenty-five.] Regulus had fallen into great disfavour for having brought about the ruin of the noble families of the Crassii and of Orfitus. It was supposed that, though quite a young man, he had voluntarily undertaken the prosecution, not to escape any danger which was threatening him, but from purely ambitious motives. Crassus’ wife, Sulpicia Praetextata, and his four sons were anxious to secure revenge if the senate would grant a trial. Messala therefore made no attempt to defend the case or the accused, but tried to shelter his brother, and had already won over some of the senators.

Curtius Montanus now attacked him in a savage speech, and even went so far as to charge Regulus with having given money to Piso’s murderer after Galba’s death, and with having bitten Piso’s head. [Piso was a brother of Regulus’ victim. He was therefore glad to see him incapable of reprisal] ‘That,’ said he, ‘Nero certainly did not compel you to do. You purchased neither position nor safety by that savage piece of cruelty. We may put up with the pleas of those wretches who prefer to ruin others rather than endanger their own lives. But your father’s banishment had guaranteed your security. His property had been divided amongst his creditors. [i.e. there was no property left to tempt Nero] You were not of an age to stand for office. Nero had nothing either to hope or to fear from you. Your talents were as yet untried and you had never exerted them in any man’s defense, yet your lust for blood, your insatiable ambition, led you to stain your young hands in the blood of Rome’s nobility. At one swoop you caused the ruin of innocent youths, of old and distinguished statesmen, of high-born ladies; and out of the country’s disaster you secured for yourself the spoils of two ex-consuls,[i.e. the money and other rewards won by prosecuting Crassus and Orfitus] stuffed seven million sesterces into your purse, and shone with the reflected glory of a priesthood. You would blame Nero’s lack of enterprise because he took one household at a time, thus causing unnecessary fatigue to himself and his informers, when he might have ruined the whole senate at a single word. Why, gentlemen, you must indeed keep and preserve to yourselves a counsellor of such ready resource. Let each generation have its good examples: and as our old men follow Eprius Marcellus or Vibius Crispus, let the rising generation emulate Regulus. Villainy finds followers even when it fails. What if it flourishes and prospers? If we hesitate to touch a mere ex-quaestor, shall we be any bolder when he has been praetor and consul? Or do you suppose that the race of tyrants came to an end in Nero? That is what the people believed who outlived Tiberius or Caligula, and meanwhile there arose one more infamous and bloodier still. [Nero] We are not afraid of Vespasian. We trust his years and his natural moderation. But a good precedent outlives a good sovereign. Gentlemen, we are growing effete: we are no longer that senate which, after Nero had been killed, clamoured for the punishment of all informers and their menials according to our ancestors’ rigorous prescription. The best chance comes on the day after the death of a bad emperor.’

The senate listened to Montanus’s speech with such sympathy that Helvidius began to hope that it might be possible to get a verdict even against Marcellus. Beginning with a eulogy of Cluvius Rufus, who, though quite as rich and as eloquent as Marcellus, had never brought any one into trouble under Nero, he went on to attack Marcellus, both by contrasting him with Rufus and by pressing home the charge against him. Feeling that the house was warming to this rhetoric, Marcellus got up as though to leave, exclaiming, ‘I am off, Helvidius: I leave you your senate: you can tyrannize over it under Caesar’s nose.’ Vibius Crispus followed Marcellus, and, though both were angry, their expressions were very different. Marcellus marched out with flashing eyes, Crispus with a smile on his face. Eventually their friends went and brought them back. Thus the struggle grew more and more heated between a well-meaning majority and a small but powerful minority; and since they were both animated by irreconcilable hatred, the day was spent in vain recriminations.

At the next sitting Domitian opened by recommending them to forget their grievances and grudges and the unavoidable exigencies of the recent past. Mucianus then at great length moved a motion in favour of the prosecutors, issuing a mild warning, almost in terms of entreaty, to those who wanted to revive actions which had been begun and dropped. Seeing that their attempt at independence was being thwarted, the senate gave it up. However, that it might not seem as if the senate’s opinion had been flouted and complete impunity granted for all crimes committed under Nero, Mucianus forced Octavius Sagitta and Antistius Sosianus, who had returned from exile, to go back to the islands to which they had been confined. Octavius had committed adultery with Pontia Postumina, and, on her refusal to marry him, had murdered her in a fit of jealous fury. Sosianus was an unprincipled scoundrel who had been the ruin of many. [He had recited some libellous verses on Nero and been condemned for treason] The senate had found them both guilty, and passed a heavy sentence of exile, nor had their penalty been remitted, although others were allowed to return. However, this failed to allay the ill-feeling against Mucianus, for Sosianus and Sagitta, whether they returned or not, were of no importance, whereas people were afraid of the professional prosecutors, who were men of wealth and ability and experts in crime.

Unanimity was gradually restored in the senate by the holding of a trial according to ancient precedent, before a court of the whole house. A senator named Manlius Patruitus complained that he had been beaten before a mob of people in the colony of Siena by order of the local magistrates. Nor had the affront stopped there. They had held a mock funeral before his eyes, and had accompanied their dirges and lamentations with gross insults levelled at the whole senate. The accused were summoned; their case was tried; they were convicted and punished. A further decree of the senate was passed admonishing the commons of Siena to pay more respect to the laws. About the same time Antonius Flamma was prosecuted by Cyrene for extortion, and exiled for the inhumanity of his conduct.

Meanwhile, a mutiny almost broke out among the soldiers. The men who had been discharged by Vitellius came together again in support of Vespasian, and demanded re-admission. They were joined by the selected legionaries who had also been led to hope for service in the Guards, and they now demanded the pay they had been promised. Even the Vitellians [i.e. those who had surrendered at Narnia and Bovillae, as distinct from those who had been discharged after Galba’s death] alone could not have been dispersed without serious bloodshed, but it would require immense sums of money to retain the services of such a large number of men. Mucianus accordingly entered the barracks to make a careful estimate of each man’s term of service. He formed up the victorious troops with their own arms and distinctive decorations, each company a few paces from the next. Then the Vitellians who had surrendered, as we have described, at Bovillae, and all the other soldiers who had been hunted down in the city and its neighbourhood, were marched out almost entirely without arms or uniforms. Mucianus then had them sorted out, and drew up in separate corps the troops of the German army, of the British army, and of any others that were in Rome. Their first glance at the scene astounded them. Facing them they saw what looked like a fighting front bristling with weapons, while they were caught in a trap, defenseless and foul with dirt. As soon as they began to be sorted out a panic seized them. The German troops in particular were terrified at their isolation, and felt they were being told off for slaughter. They embraced their comrades and clung upon their necks, asking for one last kiss, begging not to be left alone, crying out, ‘Our cause is the same as yours, why should our fate be different?’

They appealed now to Mucianus, now to the absent emperor, and lastly to the powers of Heaven, until Mucianus came to the rescue of their imaginary terrors by calling them all ‘sworn servants of one emperor’, for he found that the victorious army was joining in and seconding their tears with cheering. On that day the matter ended there. A few days later, when Domitian addressed them, they received him with renewed confidence, refused his offer of lands, and begged for enlistment and their pay instead. This was only a petition, but one that could not be refused: so they were admitted to the Guards. Subsequently, those who had grown old and completed the regular term of service [i.e. those who were either over fifty or had served in the Guards sixteen or in a legion twenty years] were honourably discharged. Others were dismissed for misbehaviour, but one by one at different times, which is always the safest method of weakening any kind of conspiracy.

To return to the senate; a bill was now passed that a loan of sixty million sesterces should be raised from private individuals and administered by Pompeius Silvanus. This may have been a financial necessity, or they may have wanted it to seem so. At any rate the necessity soon ceased to exist, or else they gave up the pretence. Domitian then carried a proposal that the consulships conferred by Vitellius should be cancelled, and that a state funeral should be held in honour of Flavius Sabinus. Both proposals are striking evidence of the fickleness of human fortune, which so often makes the first last and the last first.

It was about this time that Lucius Piso, the pro-consul of Africa, was killed. To give a true explanation of this murder we must go back and take a brief survey of certain matters which are closely connected with the reasons for such crimes. Under the sainted Augustus and Tiberius the pro-consul of Africa had in his command one legion and some auxiliaries with which to guard the frontier of the empire. [Africa was peculiar in that the pro-consul, who governed it for the senate, commanded an army. All the other provinces demanding military protection were under imperial control. Caligula, without withdrawing the province from the senate, in some degree regularized the anomaly by transferring this command to a ‘legate’ of his own, technically inferior to the civil governor] Caligula, who was restless by nature and harboured suspicions of the then pro-consul, Marcus Silanus, withdrew the legion from his command and put it under a legate whom he sent out for the purpose. As each had an equal amount of patronage and their functions overlapped, Caligula thus caused a state of friction which was further aggravated by regrettable quarrels. The greater permanence of his tenure [Whereas the pro-consul’s appointment was for one year only, the emperor’s legate retained his post at the emperor’s pleasure, and was usually given several years] gradually strengthened the legate’s position, and perhaps an inferior is always anxious to vie with his betters. The most eminent governors, on the other hand, were more careful of their comfort than of their authority.

At the present time the legion in Africa was commanded by Valerius Festus, an extravagant young man, immoderately ambitious, whose kinship with Vitellius had given him some anxiety. He had frequent interviews with Piso, and it is impossible to tell whether he tempted Piso to rebel or resisted Piso’s temptations. No one was present at their interviews, which were held in private, and after Piso’s death most people were inclined to sympathize with his murderer. Beyond doubt the province and the garrison were unfavourable to Vespasian.

Besides, some of the Vitellian refugees from Rome pointed out to Piso that the Gallic provinces were wavering. Germany was ready to rebel, and he himself was in danger; ‘and,’ they added, ‘if you earn suspicion in peace your safest course is war.’ Meanwhile, Claudius Sagitta, who commanded Petra’s Horse, made a good crossing and outstripped the centurion Papirius, who had been sent out by Mucianus and was commissioned, so Sagitta affirmed, to assassinate Piso. Sagitta further stated that Galerianus, Piso’s cousin and son-in-law, had already been murdered, and told him that while his one hope lay in taking a bold step, there were two courses open to him: he might either take up arms on the spot, or he might prefer to sail to Gaul and offer to lead the Vitellian armies. This made no impression on Piso. When the centurion whom Mucianus had sent arrived at the gates of Carthage, he kept on shouting all sorts of congratulations to Piso on becoming emperor. The people he met, who were astounded at this unexpected miracle, were instructed to take up the cry. With a crowd’s usual credulity, they rushed into the forum calling on Piso to appear, and as they had a passion for flattery and took no interest in the truth, they proceeded to fill the whole place with a confused noise of cheering. Piso, however, either at a hint from Sagitta, or from his natural good sense, would not show himself in public or give way to the excitement of the crowd. He examined the centurion, and learnt that his object was to trump up a charge against him and then kill him. [i.e. he hoped that Piso would accept the story with alacrity and thus commit himself] He accordingly had the man executed more from indignation against the assassin than in any hope of saving his life; for he found that the man had been one of the murderers of Clodius Macer, and after staining his hand in the blood of a military officer was now proposing to turn it against a civil governor. Piso then reprimanded the Carthaginians in an edict which clearly showed his anxiety, and refrained from performing even the routine of his office, shutting himself up in his house, for fear that he might by accident provide some pretext for further demonstrations.

When the news of the popular excitement and the centurion’s execution reached the ears of Festus, considerably exaggerated and with the usual admixture of falsehood, he at once sent off a party of horsemen to murder Piso. Riding at full speed, they reached the governor’s house in the twilight of early dawn and broke in with drawn swords. As Festus had mainly chosen Carthaginian auxiliaries and Moors to do the murder, most of them did not know Piso by sight. However, near his bedroom they happened on a slave and asked him where Piso was and what he looked like. In answer the slave told them a heroic lie and said he was Piso, whereupon they immediately cut him down.

However, Piso himself was killed very soon after, for there was one man among them who knew him, and that was Baebius Massa, one of the imperial agents in Africa, who was already a danger to all the best men in Rome. His name will recur again and again in this narrative, as one of the causes of the troubles which beset us later on. [Under Domitian he became one of the most notorious and dreaded of informers. His name doubtless recurred in the lost books of the Histories. But the only other extant mention of him by Tacitus is in the life of Agricola] Festus had been waiting at Adrumetum [On the coast between Carthage and Thapsus] to see how things went, and he now hastened to rejoin his legion. He had the camp-prefect, Caetronius Pisanus, put in irons, alleging that he was one of Piso’s accomplices, though his real motive was personal dislike. He then punished some of the soldiers and centurions and rewarded others; in neither case for their deserts, but because he wanted it to be thought that he had stamped out a war. His next task was to settle the differences between Oea and Lepcis. [Tripoli and Lebda] These had had a trivial origin in thefts of fruit and cattle by the peasants, but they were now trying to settle them in open warfare. Oea, being inferior in numbers, had called in the aid of the Garamantes, [Further inland; probably the modern Fezzan] an invincible tribe, who were always a fruitful source of damage to their neighbours. Thus the people of Lepcis were in great straits. Their fields had been wasted far and wide, and they had fled in terror under shelter of their walls, when the Roman auxiliaries, both horse and foot, arrived on the scene. They routed the Garamantes and recovered all the booty, except what the nomads had already sold among the inaccessible hut-settlements of the far interior.

After the battle of Cremona and the arrival of good news from every quarter, Vespasian now heard of Vitellius’ death. A large number of people of all classes, who were as lucky as they were adventurous, successfully braved the winter sea’s on purpose to bring him the news.[Vespasian was still at Alexandria] There also arrived envoys from King Vologaesus offering the services of forty thousand Parthian cavalry. It was, indeed, a proud and fortunate situation to be courted with such splendid offers of assistance, and to need none of them. Vologaesus was duly thanked and instructed to send his envoys to the senate and to understand that peace had been made. Vespasian now devoted his attention to the affairs of Italy and the Capitol, and received an unfavourable report of Domitian, who seemed to be trespassing beyond the natural sphere of an emperor’s youthful son. He accordingly handed over the flower of his army to Titus, who was to finish off the war with the Jews.

It is said that before his departure Titus had a long talk with his father and begged him not to be rash and lose his temper at these incriminating reports, but to meet his son in a forgiving and unprejudiced spirit, ‘Neither legions nor fleets,’ he is reported to have said, ‘are such sure bulwarks of the throne as a number of children. Time, chance and often, too, ambition and misunderstanding weaken, alienate or extinguish friendship: a man’s own blood cannot be severed from him; and above all is this the case with a sovereign, for, while others enjoy his good fortune, his misfortunes only concern his nearest kin. Nor again are brothers likely to remain good friends unless their father sets them an example.’ These words had the effect of making Vespasian rather delighted at Titus’ goodness of heart than inclined to forgive Domitian. ‘You may ease your mind,’ he said to Titus, ‘It is now your duty to increase the prestige of Rome on the field: I will concern myself with peace at home.’ Though the weather was still very rough, Vespasian at once launched his fastest corn-ships with a full cargo. For the city was on the verge of famine. [It had been Vespasian’s original plan to starve Rome out by holding the granaries of Egypt and Africa] Indeed, there were not supplies for more than ten days in the public granaries at the moment when Vespasian’s convoy brought relief.

The task of restoring the Capitol was entrusted to Lucius Vestinus, who, though only a knight, yet in reputation and influence could rank with the highest. He summoned all the soothsayers, [Probably from Etruria, where certain families were credited with the requisite knowledge and skill. Claudius had established a College of Soothsayers in Rome. They ranked lower than the Augurs] and they recommended that the ruins of the former temple should be carried away to the marshes [At Ostia] and a new temple erected on the same site: the gods were unwilling, they said, that the original form of the building should be changed. On the 21st of June, a day of bright sunshine, the whole consecrated area of the temple was decorated with chaplets and garlands. In marched soldiers, all men with names of good omen, carrying branches of lucky trees:[Their names would suggest prosperity and success, e.g. Salvius, Victor, Valerius, and they would carry branches of oak, laurel, myrtle, or beech] then came the Vestal Virgins accompanied by boys and girls, each of whom had father and mother alive,[This too was ‘lucky’ and a common ritualistic requirement] and they cleansed it all by sprinkling fresh water from a spring or river.[The ‘holy water’ must come from certain streams of special sanctity, such as the Tiber or its tributary, the Almo. The water would be sprinkled from the ‘lucky’ branches] Next, while the high priest, Plautius Aelianus, dictated the proper formulae, Helvidius Priscus, the praetor, first consecrated the site by a solemn sacrifice[To the god Mars] of a pig, a sheep and an ox, and then duly offering the entrails on an altar of turf, he prayed to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, as the guardian deities of the empire, to prosper the enterprise, and by divine grace to bring to completion this house of theirs which human piety had here begun. He then took hold of the chaplets to which the ropes holding the foundation-stone were attached. At the same moment the other magistrates and the priests and senators and knights and large numbers of the populace in joyous excitement with one great effort dragged the huge stone into its place. On every side gifts of gold and silver were flung into the foundations, and blocks of virgin ore unscathed by any furnace, just as they had come from the womb of the earth. For the soothsayers had given out that the building must not be desecrated by the use of stone or gold that had been put to any other purpose. The height of the roof was raised. This was the only change that religious scruples would allow, and it was felt to be the only point in which the former temple lacked grandeur.


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