Roman Empire: Loss of Germany (Part 25)

Meanwhile,[Tacitus here resumes the thread of his narrative of the rebellion on the Rhine, and goes back from July to January, A.D. 70] the news of Vitellius’ death had spread through Gaul and Germany and redoubled the vigour of the war. Civilis now dropped all pretence and hurled himself upon the Roman Empire. The Vitellian legions felt that even foreign slavery was preferable to owning Vespasian’s sovereignty. The Gauls too had taken heart. A rumour had been spread that our winter camps in Moesia and Pannonia were being blockaded by Sarmatians and Dacians: similar stories were fabricated about Britain: the Gauls began to think that the fortune of the Roman arms was the same all the world over. But above all, the burning of the Capitol led them to believe that the empire was coming to an end. ‘Once in old days the Gauls had captured Rome, but her empire had stood firm since Jupiter’s high-place was left unscathed. But now, so the Druids [The danger of Druidism was always before the eyes of the emperors. Augustus had forbidden Roman citizens to adopt it. Claudius had tried to stamp it out in Gaul and in Britain, yet they appear again here to preach nationalism. However, this seems to be their last appearance as leaders of revolt.] with superstitious folly kept dinning into their ears, this fatal fire was a sign of Heaven’s anger, and meant that the Transalpine tribes were destined now to rule the world.’ It was also persistently rumoured that the Gallic chieftains, whom Otho had sent to work against Vitellius, [Probably they were in Rome, and were sent back to their homes to intrigue against Vitellius’ rising power] had agreed, before they parted, that if Rome sank under its internal troubles in an unbroken sequence of civil wars, they would not fail the cause of the Gallic freedom.

Previous to the murder of Hordeonius Flaccus nothing had leaked out to arouse suspicions of a conspiracy, but when he had been assassinated, negotiations passed between Civilis and Classicus, who commanded the Treviran cavalry. Classicus was far above the rest both in birth and in wealth. He came of royal line and his stock was famous both in peace and war. It was his boast that his family had given Rome more enemies than allies. These two were now joined by Julius Tutor and Julius Sabinus, the one a Treviran, the other a Lingonian. Tutor had been appointed by Vitellius to watch the bank of the Rhine. [i.e. he was to prevent any incursions from Germany along the frontier of his canton, between Bingen and Coblenz.] Sabinus’ natural vanity was further inflamed by spurious pretensions of high birth, for he alleged that his great-grandmother’s beauty had caught the fancy of Julius Caesar during the campaign in Gaul, and that they had committed adultery. These four tested the temper of the rest in private interviews, and having bound to the conspiracy those who were considered fit, they held a conference at Cologne in a private house, the general feeling in the city being hostile to such plans as theirs. A few of the Ubii and Tungri, indeed, attended, but the Treviri and Lingonians were the backbone of the conspiracy. Nor would they tolerate deliberation or delay. They vied with each other in protesting that Rome was distracted by internal quarrels; legions had been cut to pieces, Italy devastated, the city was on the point of being taken, while all her armies were occupied with wars of their own in different quarters. They need only garrison the Alps and then, when liberty had taken firm root, they could discuss together what limit each tribe should set to its exercise of power.

All this was no sooner spoken than applauded. About the remnant of Vitellius’ army they were in some doubt. Many held that they ought to be killed as being treacherous and insubordinate and stained with the blood of their generals. However, the idea of sparing them carried the day. To destroy all hope of pardon would only steel their obstinacy: it was much better to seduce them into alliance: only the generals need be killed; a guilty conscience and the hope of pardon would soon bring the rest flocking over to their flag. Such was the tenor of their first meeting. Agitators were sent all over Gaul to stir up war. The conspirators themselves feigned loyalty to Vocula, hoping to catch him off his guard.[At Mainz] There were, indeed, traitors who reported all this to Vocula, but he was not strong enough to crush the conspiracy, his legions being short-handed and unreliable. Between suspected troops on one side and secret enemies on the other, it seemed his best course under the circumstances to dissemble, as they were doing, and thus use their own weapons against them. So he marched down the river to Cologne. There he found Claudius Labeo, who after being taken prisoner, as described above, and relegated to the Frisii, had bribed his guards and escaped to Cologne. He promised that if Vocula would provide him with troops, he would go to the Batavi and win back the better part of their community to the Roman alliance. He was given a small force of horse and foot. Without venturing any attempt upon the Batavi, he attracted a few of the Nervii and Baetasii to his standard, [These tribes lived between the Maas and the Scheldt, and the Marsaci were round the mouth of the Scheldt] and proceeded to harass the Canninefates and Marsaci more by stealth than open warfare.

Lured by the treachery of the Gauls, Vocula marched out against his enemy.[Civilis, again besieging Vetera] Not far from Vetera, Classicus and Tutor rode forward[i.e. from the rest of Vocula’s force, which they had not yet deserted] on a pretext of scouting, and ratified their compact with the German leaders. They were now for the first time separated from the legions, and entrenched themselves in a camp of their own. At this, Vocula loudly protested that Rome was not as yet so shattered by civil war as to earn the contempt of tribes like the Treviri and Lingones. She could still rely on loyal provinces and victorious armies, on the good fortune of the empire and the avenging hand of God. Thus it was that in former days Sacrovir and the Aedui, [The Aedui, one of the most powerful of the Gallic tribes, living between the Saone and the Loire had revolted in A.D. 21, and held out for a short time at their chief town (Autun).] more lately Vindex and the Gallic provinces had each been crushed at a single battle. Now, again, these treaty-breakers must expect to face the same powers of Providence and Destiny. The sainted Julius and the sainted Augustus had understood these people better: it was Galba’s reduction of the tribute [This had only been granted to a few tribes who had helped in crushing Vindex . The Treviri and Lingones had been punished.] that had clothed them in enmity and pride. ‘They are our enemies’ to-day because their yoke is easy: when they have been stripped and plundered they will be our friends.’ After these spirited words, seeing that Classicus and Tutor still persisted in their treachery, he turned back and retired to Novaesium, while the Gauls encamped a couple of miles away. Thither the centurions and soldiers flocked to sell their souls. This was, indeed, an unheard of villainy that Roman soldiers should swear allegiance to a foreign power, and offer as a pledge for this heinous crime either to kill or imprison their generals.

Though many urged Vocula to escape, he felt that he must make a bold stand, so he summoned a meeting and spoke somewhat as follows: ‘Never before have I addressed you with such feelings of anxiety for you, or with such indifference to my own fate. That plans are being laid for my destruction I am glad enough to hear: in such a parlous case as this I look for death as the end of all my troubles. It is for you that I feel shame and pity. It is not that a field of battle awaits you, for that would only accord with the laws of warfare and the just rights of combatants, but because Classicus hopes that with your hands he can make war upon the Roman people, and flourishes before you an oath of allegiance to the Empire of All Gaul. What though fortune and courage have deserted us for the moment, have we not glorious examples in the past? How often have not Roman soldiers chosen to die rather than be driven from their post? Often have our allies endured the destruction of their cities and given themselves and their wives and children to the flames, without any other reward for such an end save the name of honourable men. At this very moment Roman troops are enduring famine and siege at Vetera, and neither threats nor promises can move them, while we, besides arms and men and fine fortifications, have supplies enough to last through any length of war. Money, too–the other day there was enough even for a donative, and whether you choose to say that it was given you by Vespasian or by Vitellius, at any rate you got it from a Roman Emperor. After all the engagements you have won, after routing the enemy at Gelduba, at Vetera, it would be shameful enough to shirk battle, but you have your trenches and your walls, and there are ways of gaining time until armies come flocking from the neighbouring provinces to your rescue. Granted that you dislike me; well, there are others to lead you, whether legate, tribune, centurion, and even private soldier. But do not let this portent be trumpeted over the whole world, that Civilis and Classicus are going to invade Italy with you in their train. Suppose the Germans and Gauls lead the way to the walls of Rome, will you turn your arms upon your fatherland? The mere thought of such a crime is horrible. Will you stand sentry for the Treviran Tutor? Shall a Batavian give you the signal for battle? Will you swell the ranks of German hordes? And what will be the issue of your crime, when the Roman legions take the field against you?

Desertion upon desertion, treachery upon treachery! You will be drifting miserably between the old allegiance and the new, with the curse of Heaven on your heads. Almighty Jupiter, whom we have worshipped at triumph after triumph for eight hundred and twenty years; and Quirinus, Father of our Rome, if it be not your pleasure that under my command this camp be kept clean from the stain of dishonour, grant at the least, I humbly beseech ye, that it never be defiled with the pollution of a Tutor or a Classicus; and to these soldiers of Rome give either innocence of heart or a speedy repentance before the harm is done.’

The speech was variously received, with feelings fluctuating between hope, fear, and shame. Vocula withdrew and began to prepare for his end, but his freedmen and slaves prevented him from forestalling by his own hand a dreadful death. As it was, Classicus dispatched Aemilius Longinus, a deserter from the First legion, who quickly murdered him. For Herennius and Numisius imprisonment was thought sufficient. Classicus then assumed the uniform and insignia of a Roman general, and thus entered the camp. Hardened though he was to every kind of crime, words failed him, [His presumption took away his breath] and he could only read out the oath. Those who were present swore allegiance to the Empire of All Gaul. He then gave high promotion to Vocula’s assassin, and rewarded the others each according to the villainy of his service.

The command was now divided between Tutor and Classicus. Tutor at the head of a strong force besieged Cologne and forced the inhabitants and all the soldiers on the Upper Rhine to take the same oath of allegiance. At Mainz he killed the officers and drove away the camp-prefect, who had refused to swear. Classicus ordered all the greatest scoundrels among the deserters to go to Vetera and offer pardon to the besieged if they would yield to circumstances: otherwise there was no hope for them: they should suffer famine and sword and every extremity. The messengers further cited their own example.

Torn by a conflict of loyalty and hunger, the besieged vacillated between honour and disgrace. While they hesitated, all their sources of food, both usual and unusual, began to fail them. They had eaten their mules and horses and all the other animals which, though foul and unclean, their straits had forced into use. At last they took to grubbing up the shrubs and roots and the grass that grew between the stones, and became a very pattern of endurance in wretchedness, until at last they soiled their glory by a shameful end. Envoys were sent to Civilis begging him to save their lives. Even then he refused to receive their petition until they had sworn allegiance to All Gaul. He then negotiated for the plunder of the camp and sent guards, some to secure the money, servants and baggage, and others to conduct the men themselves out of the camp with empty hands. About five miles down the road their line was surprised by an ambush of Germans. The bravest fell on the spot; many were cut down in flight; the rest got back to camp. Civilis, indeed, complained that the Germans had criminally broken faith and rebuked them for it. There is no evidence to show whether this was a pretense or whether he was really unable to restrain his savage troops. The camp was plundered and burnt, and all who had survived the battle were devoured by the flames.

When Civilis first took up arms against Rome he made a vow, such as is common with barbarians, to let his ruddy hair[i.e. artificially reddened or blondish according to a Gallic custom] grow wild; now that he had at last accomplished the destruction of the legions he had it cut. It is said also that he put up some of the prisoners for his little son to shoot in sport with javelins and arrows. However that may be, he did not himself swear allegiance to All Gaul, nor did he force any of the Batavi to do so. He felt that he could rely on the strength of the Germans and that if any quarrel arose with the Gauls about the empire, his fame would give him an advantage. Munius Lupercus, one of the Roman commanding-officers, was sent among other presents to Veleda, a virgin of the Bructeran tribe who wielded a wide-spread authority. It is an ancient custom in Germany to credit a number of women with prophetic powers, and with the growth of superstition these develop into goddesses. At this moment Veleda’s influence was at its height, for she had prophesied the success of the Germans and the destruction of the Roman army. [Under Vespasian she inspired another rebellion and was brought as a captive to Rome, where she aroused much polite curiosity] However, Lupercus was killed on the journey. A few of the centurions and officers who had been born in Gaul were detained as a security for good faith. The winter camps of the legions and of the auxiliary infantry and cavalry were all dismantled and burnt, with the sole exception of those at Mainz and Vindonissa.[Windisch]

The Sixteenth legion and the auxiliary troops who had surrendered with it now received orders to migrate from their quarters at Novaesium to Trier, and a date was fixed by which they had to leave their camp. They spent the meantime brooding on various anxieties, the cowards all shuddering at the precedent of the massacre at Vetera, the better sort covered with shame at their disgrace. ‘What sort of a march would this be? Whom would they have to lead them? Everything would be decided by the will of those into whose hands they had put their lives.’ Others, again, were quite indifferent to the disgrace, and simply stowed all their money and most cherished possessions about their persons, while many got their armour ready and buckled on their swords, as if for battle. While they were still busy with these preparations the hour struck for their departure, and it proved more bitter than they had expected. Inside the trenches their disgrace was not so noticeable. The open country and the light of day revealed their depth of shame. The emperors’ medallions had been torn down [From the standards] and their standards desecrated, while Gallic ensigns glittered all around them. They marched in silence, like a long funeral procession, led by Claudius Sanctus, [Claudius the Holy; lucus a non lucendo.] a man whose sinister appearance–he had lost one eye–was only surpassed by his weakness of intellect. Their disgrace was doubled when they were joined by the First legion, who had left their camp at Bonn. The famous news of their capture had spread, and all the people who shortly before had trembled at the very name of Rome, now came flocking out from fields and houses, and scattered far and wide in transports of joy at this unwonted sight. Their insulting glee was too much for ‘The Picenum Horse’. [An auxiliary squadron of Italian horse, originally raised, we may suppose, by a provincial governor who was a native of Picenum] Defying all Sanctus’ threats and promises, they turned off to Mainz, and coming by chance upon Longinus, the man who killed Vocula, they slew him with a shower of javelins and thus made a beginning of future amends. The legions, without changing their route, came and camped before the walls of Trier.

Highly elated by their success, Civilis and Classicus debated whether they should allow their troops to sack Cologne. Their natural savagery and lust for plunder inclined them to destroy the town, but policy forbade; and they felt that in inaugurating a new empire a reputation for clemency would be an asset. Civilis was also moved by the memory of a past service, for at the beginning of the outbreak his son had been arrested in Cologne, and they had kept him in honourable custody.

However, the tribes across the Rhine were jealous of this rich and rising community, and held that the war could only be ended either by throwing the settlement open to all Germans without distinction or by destroying it and thereby dispersing the Ubii together with its other inhabitants. [The Ubii were distrusted as having taken the name Agrippinenses and become in some degree Romanized. The town was strongly walled, and Germans from outside only admitted on payment and under Roman supervision] Accordingly the Tencteri, their nearest neighbours across the Rhine, dispatched a deputation to lay a message before a public meeting of the town. This was delivered by the haughtiest of the delegates in some such terms as these:–‘We give thanks to the national gods of Germany and above all others, to the god of war, that you are again incorporate in the German nation and the German name, and we congratulate you that you will now at last become free members of a free community. Until to-day the Romans had closed to us the roads and rivers, and almost the very air of heaven, to prevent all intercourse between us; or else they offered a still fouler insult to born warriors, that we should meet under supervision, unarmed and almost naked, [Not, of course, to be taken literally. ‘The Germans do no business public or private except in full armour,’ says Tacitus in the “Germania”. So to them ‘unarmed’ meant ‘unclothed’] and should pay for the privilege. Now, that our friendly alliance may be ratified for all eternity, we demand of you that you pull down those bulwarks of slavery, the walls of your town, for even wild beasts lose their spirit if you keep them caged: that you put to the sword every Roman on your soil, since tyrants are incompatible with freedom; that all the property of those killed form a common stock and no one be allowed to conceal anything or to secure any private advantage. It must also be open both for us and for you to live on either river-bank, as our forefathers could in earlier days. As daylight is the natural heritage of all mankind, so the land of the world is free to all brave men. Resume again the customs and manners of your own country and throw off those luxurious habits which enslave Rome’s subjects far more effectively than Roman arms. Then, grown simple and uncorrupt, you will forget your past slavery and either know none but equals or hold empire over others.’

The townspeople took time to consider these proposals, and, feeling that their apprehensions for the future forbade them to assent, while their present circumstances forbade them to return a plain negative, they answered as follows: ‘We have seized our first opportunity of freedom with more haste than prudence, because we wanted to join hands with you and all our other German kinsmen. As for our town-walls, seeing that the Roman armies are massing at this moment, it would be safer for us to heighten them than to pull them down. All the foreigners from Italy or the provinces who lived on our soil have either perished in the war or fled to their own homes. As for the original settlers [i.e. the veterans whom Agrippina had sent out to her birthplace in A.D. 50], who are united to us by ties of marriage, they and their offspring regard this as their home, and we do not think you are so unreasonable as to ask us to kill our parents and brothers and children. All taxes and commercial restrictions we remit. We grant you free entry without supervision, but you must come in daylight and unarmed, while these ties which are still strange and new are growing into a long-established custom. As arbitrators we will appoint Civilis and Veleda, and we will ratify our compact in their presence.’

Thus the Tencteri were pacified. A deputation was sent with presents to Civilis and Veleda, and obtained all that the people of Cologne desired. They were not, however, allowed to approach and speak to Veleda or even to see her, but were kept at a distance to inspire in them the greater awe. She herself lived at the top of a high tower, and one of her relatives was appointed to carry all the questions and answers like a mediator between God and man.

Now that he had gained the accession of Cologne, Civilis determined to win over the neighbouring communities or to declare war in case of opposition. He reduced the Sunuci [West of the Ubii, between the Roer and the Maas] and formed their fighting strength into cohorts, but then found his advance barred by Claudius Labeo at the head of a hastily-recruited band of Baetasii, Tungri, and Nervii. He had secured the bridge over the Maas and relied on the strength of his position. A skirmish in the narrow defile proved indecisive, until the Germans swam across and took Labeo in the rear. At this point Civilis by a bold move–or possibly by arrangement–rode into the lines of the Tungri and called out in a loud voice, ‘Our object in taking up arms is not to secure empire for the Batavi and Treviri over other tribes. We are far from any such arrogance. Take us as allies. I am come to join you; whether as general or as private it is for you to choose.’ This had a great effect on the common soldiers, who began to sheathe their swords. Then two of their chieftains, Campanus and Juvenalis, surrendered the entire tribe. Labeo escaped before he was surrounded. Civilis also received the allegiance of the Baetasii and Nervii, and added their forces to his own. His power was now immense, for all the Gallic communities were either terrified or ready to offer willing support.

In the meantime, Julius Sabinus, who had destroyed every memorial of the Roman alliance,[e.g. the inscriptions recording the terms of alliance granted to the Lingones by Rome.] assumed the title of Caesar and proceeded to hurry a large unwieldy horde of his tribesmen against the Sequani,[Round Vesontio (Besancon).] a neighbouring community, faithful to Rome. The Sequani accepted battle: the good cause prospered: the Lingones were routed. Sabinus fled the field with the same rash haste with which he had plunged into battle. Wishing to spread a rumour of his death, he took refuge in a house and set fire to it, and was thus supposed to have perished by his own act. We shall, however, relate in due course the devices by which he lay in hiding and prolonged his life for nine more years, and allude also to the loyalty of his friends and the memorable example set by his wife Epponina.[The story, which Tacitus presumably told in the lost part of his “History”, dealing with the end of Vespasian’s reign, is mentioned both by Plutarch and Dio. Sabinus and his wife lived for nine years in an underground cave, where two sons were born to them. They were eventually discovered and executed]


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


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