Roman Empire: Events in Rome and the East (Part 27)

It was about this time that Mucianus gave orders for the murder of Vitellius’ son, on the plea that dissension would continue until all the seeds of war were stamped out. He also refused to allow Antonius Primus to go out on Domitian’s staff, being alarmed at his popularity among the troops and at the man’s own vanity, which would brook no equal, much less a superior. Antonius accordingly went to join Vespasian, whose reception, though not hostile, proved a disappointment. The emperor was drawn two ways. On the one side were Antonius’ services: it was undeniable that his generalship had ended the war. In the other scale were Mucianus’ letters. Besides which, everyone else seemed ready to rake up the scandals of his past life and inveigh against his vanity and bad temper. Antonius himself did his best to provoke hostility by expatiating to excess on his services, decrying the other generals as incompetent cowards, and stigmatizing Caecina as a prisoner who had surrendered. Thus without any open breach of friendship he gradually declined lower and lower in the emperor’s favour.

During the months which Vespasian spent at Alexandria waiting for the regular season of the summer winds [During June and July before the Etesian winds began to blow from the north-west] to ensure a safe voyage, there occurred many miraculous events manifesting the goodwill of Heaven and the special favour of Providence towards him. At Alexandria a poor workman who was well known to have a disease of the eye, acting on the advice of Serapis, whom this superstitious people worship as their chief god, fell at Vespasian’s feet demanding with sobs a cure for his blindness, and imploring that the emperor would deign to moisten his eyes and eyeballs with the spittle from his mouth. Another man with a maimed hand, also inspired by Serapis, besought Vespasian to imprint his footmark on it. At first Vespasian laughed at them and refused. But they insisted. Half fearing to be thought a fool, half stirred to hopes by their petition and by the flattery of his courtiers, he eventually told the doctors to form an opinion whether such cases of blindness and deformity could be remedied by human aid. The doctors talked round the question, saying that in the one case the power of sight was not extinct and would return, if certain impediments were removed; in the other case the limbs were distorted and could be set right again by the application of an effective remedy: this might be the will of Heaven and the emperor had perhaps been chosen as the divine instrument. They added that he would gain all the credit, if the cure were successful, while, if it failed, the ridicule would fall on the unfortunate patients. This convinced Vespasian that there were no limits to his destiny: nothing now seemed incredible. To the great excitement of the bystanders, he stepped forward with a smile on his face and did as the men desired him. Immediately the hand recovered its functions and daylight shone once more in the blind man’s eyes. Those who were present still attest both miracles to-day, [Circa A.D. 108] when there is nothing to gain by lying.

This occurrence deepened Vespasian’s desire to visit the holy-place and consult Serapis about the fortunes of the empire. He gave orders that no one else was to be allowed in the temple, and then went in. While absorbed in his devotions, he suddenly saw behind him an Egyptian noble, named Basilides, whom he knew to be laying ill several days’ journey from Alexandria. He inquired of the priests whether Basilides had entered the temple that day. He inquired of every one he met whether he had been seen in the city. Eventually he sent some horsemen, who discovered that at the time Basilides was eighty miles away. Vespasian therefore took what he had seen for a divine apparition, and guessed the meaning of the oracle from the name ‘Basilides’. [Meaning ‘king’s son’, and therefore portending sovereignty]

The origins of the god Serapis are not given in any Roman authorities. The high-priests of Egypt give the following account: King Ptolemy, who was the first of the Macedonians to put the power of Egypt on a firm footing, [i.e. Ptolemy Soter, who founded the dynasty of the Lagidae, and reigned 306-283 B.C.E.] was engaged in building walls and temples, and instituting religious cults for his newly founded city of Alexandria, when there appeared to him in his sleep a young man of striking beauty and supernatural stature, who warned him to send his most faithful friends to Pontus to fetch his image. After adding that this would bring luck to the kingdom, and that its resting-place would grow great and famous, he appeared to be taken up into heaven in a sheet of flame. Impressed by this miraculous prophecy, Ptolemy revealed his vision to the priests of Egypt, who are used to interpreting such things. As they had but little knowledge of Pontus or of foreign cults, he consulted an Athenian named Timotheus, a member of the Eumolpid clan, [They inherited the priesthood of Demeter at Eleusis and supplied the hierophants who conducted the mysteries] whom he had brought over from Eleusis to be overseer of religious ceremonies, and asked him what worship and what god could possibly be meant. Timotheus found some people who had travelled in Pontus and learnt from them, that near a town called Sinope there was a temple, which had long been famous in the neighbourhood as the seat of Jupiter-Pluto,[i.e. the sovereign god of the underworld] and near it there also stood a female figure, which was commonly called Proserpine. Ptolemy was like most despots, easily terrified at first, but liable, when his panic was over, to think more of his pleasures than of his religious duties. The incident was gradually forgotten, and other thoughts occupied his mind until the vision was repeated in a more terrible and impressive form than before, and he was threatened with death and the destruction of his kingdom if he failed to fulfil his instructions. He at once gave orders that representatives should be sent with presents to King Scydrothemis, who was then reigning at Sinope, and on their departure he instructed them to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. They made a successful voyage and received a clear answer from the oracle: they were to go and bring back the image of Apollo’s father but leave his sister’s behind.

On their arrival at Sinope they laid their presents, their petition, and their king’s instructions before Scydrothemis. He was in some perplexity. He was afraid of the god and yet alarmed by the threats of his subjects, who opposed the project: then, again, he often felt tempted by the envoys’ presents and promises. Three years passed. Ptolemy’s zeal never abated for a moment. He persisted in his petition, and kept sending more and more distinguished envoys, more ships, more gold. Then a threatening vision appeared to Scydrothemis, bidding him no longer thwart the god’s design. When he still hesitated, he was beset by every kind of disease and disaster: the gods were plainly angry and their hand was heavier upon him every day. He summoned an assembly and laid before it the divine commands, his own and Ptolemy’s visions, and the troubles with which they were visited. The king found the people unfavourable. They were jealous of Egypt and fearful of their own future. So they surged angrily round the temple. The story now grows stranger still. The god himself, it says, embarked unaided on one of the ships that lay beached on the shore, and by a miracle accomplished the long sea-journey and landed at Alexandria within three days. A temple worthy of so important a city was then built in the quarter called Rhacotis, on the site of an ancient temple of Serapis and Isis.[ It is evident from these words that the worship of Serapis was ancient in Egypt. It seems to be suggested that the arrival of this statue from Pontus did not originate but invigorated the cult of Serapis. Pluto, Dis, Serapis, are all names for a god of the underworld. Jupiter seems added vaguely to give more power to the title. We cannot expect accurate theology from an amateur antiquarian] This is the most widely accepted account of the god’s origin and arrival. Some people, I am well aware, maintain that the god was brought from the Syrian town of Seleucia during the reign of Ptolemy, the third of that name. [Ptolemy Euergetes, 247-222 B.C.E] Others, again, say it was this same Ptolemy, but make the place of origin the famous town of Memphis, [According to Eustathius there was a Mount Sinopium near Memphis. This suggests an origin for the title Sinopitis, applied to Serapis, and a cause for the invention of the romantic story about Sinope in Pontus] once the bulwark of ancient Egypt. Many take the god for Aesculapius, because he cures disease: others for Osiris, the oldest of the local gods; some, again, for Jupiter, as being the sovereign lord of the world. But the majority of people, either judging by what are clearly attributes of the god or by an ingenious process of conjecture, identify him with Pluto.

Domitian and Mucianus were now on their way to the Alps. before reaching the mountains they received the good news of the victory over the Trevirii, the truth of which was fully attested by the presence of their leader Valentinus. His courage was in no way crushed and his face still bore witness to the proud spirit he had shown. He was allowed a hearing, merely to see what he was made of, and condemned to death. At his execution someone cast it in his teeth that his country was conquered, to which he replied, ‘Then I am reconciled to death.’

Mucianus now gave utterance to an idea which he had long cherished, though he pretended it was a sudden inspiration. This was that, since by Heaven’s grace the forces of the enemy had been broken, it would ill befit Domitian, now that the war was practically over, to stand in the way of the other generals to whom the credit belonged. Were the fortunes of the empire or the safety of Gaul at stake, it would be right that a Caesar should take the field; the Canninefates and Batavi might be left to minor generals. So Domitian was to stay at Lugdunum and there show them the power and majesty of the throne at close quarters. By abstaining from trifling risks he would be ready to cope with any greater crisis.

The ruse was detected, but it could not be unmasked. That was part of the courtier’s policy. [i.e. Mucianus was too cunning to give Domitian any excuse for declaring his suspicions.] Thus they proceeded to Lugdunum. From there Domitian is supposed to have sent messengers to Cerialis to test his loyalty, and to ask whether the general would transfer his army and his allegiance to him, should he present himself in person. Whether Domitian’s idea was to plan war against his father or to acquire support against his brother, cannot be decided, for Cerialis parried his proposal with a salutary snub and treated it as a boy’s day-dream. Realizing that older men despised his youth, Domitian gave up even those functions of government which he had hitherto performed. Aping bashfulness and simple tastes, he hid his feelings under a cloak of impenetrable reserve, professing literary tastes and a passion for poetry. Thus he concealed his real self and withdrew from all rivalry with his brother, who’s gentler and altogether different nature he perversely misconstrued.


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