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


Roman Empire: Vetera; Siege and Relief (Part 23)

After the arrival of these veteran cohorts Civilis was now at the head of a respectable army. But being still uncertain of his plans, and engaged in reckoning up the Roman forces, he made all who were with him swear allegiance to Vespasian, and sent envoys to the two legions, who after their defeat in the former engagement had retired into Vetera, asking them to take the same oath. The answer came back that they never followed the advice either of a traitor or of an enemy: Vitellius was their emperor, and they would keep their allegiance and their arms for him so long as they had breath in their bodies. A Batavian deserter need not try to decide the destiny of Rome; he should rather expect the punishment he richly deserved. When this was reported to Civilis he flew into a passion, and called the whole Batavian people to take arms. They were joined by the Bructeri and Tencteri,[The Bructeri lived between the Lippe and the Upper Ems, the Tencteri along the eastern bank of the Rhine, between its tributaries the Ruhr and the Sieg, i.e. opposite Cologne] and Germany was summoned to come and share the plunder and the glory.

Threatened with this gathering storm, Munius Lupercus and Numisius Rufus, who were in command of the two legions, proceeded to strengthen the ramparts and walls. They pulled down the buildings near the military camp, which had grown into a small town during the long years of peace, fearing that the enemy might make use of them. But they omitted to provide a sufficient store of provisions for the camp, and authorized the soldiers to make up the deficiency by looting, with the result that what might have supplied their needs for a long time was consumed in a few days. Meanwhile Civilis advanced, himself holding the centre with the flower of the Batavi: on both banks of the Rhine he massed large bands of Germans to strike terror into the enemy: the cavalry galloped through the fields, while the ships were simultaneously moved up the stream. Here could be seen the colours of veteran Roman cohorts, there the figures of beasts which the Germans had brought from their woods and groves, as their tribes do when they go to battle. It seemed both a civil and a savage war at once; and this strange confusion astounded the besieged. The hopes of the assailants rose when they saw the circumference of the ramparts, for there were barely five thousand Roman soldiers to defend a camp which had been laid out to hold two legions.[i.e. about 12,000 men. The bulk of the Fifth and a detachment of the Fifteenth had gone to Italy] However, a large number of camp-followers had collected there on the break-up of peace, and remained to give what assistance they could to the military operations.

The camp was built partly on the gentle slope of a hill and partly on the level ground. Augustus had believed that it would serve as a base of operations and a check upon the German tribes: as for their actually coming to assault our legions, such a disaster never occurred to him. Consequently no trouble had been taken in choosing the site or erecting defenses: the strength of the troops had always seemed sufficient.

The Batavians and the Germans from across the Rhine [i.e. Frisii, Bructeri, Tencteri, etc] now formed up tribe by tribe–the separation was designed to show their individual prowess–and opened fire from a distance. Finding that most of their missiles fell harmlessly on to the turrets and pinnacles of the walls, and that they were being wounded by stones hurled from above, they charged with a wild shout and surged up to the rampart, some using scaling-ladders, others climbing over their comrades who had formed a ‘tortoise’. But no sooner had some of them begun to scale the wall, than they were hurled down by the besieged, who thrust at them with sword and shield, and buried under a shower of stakes and javelins. The Germans are always impetuous at the beginning of an action and over-confident when they are winning; and on this occasion their greed for plunder even steeled them to face difficulties. They actually attempted to use siege-engines, with which they were quite unfamiliar. But though they had no skill themselves, some of the deserters and prisoners showed them how to build a sort of bridge or platform of timber, on to which they fitted wheels and rolled it forward. Thus some of them stood on this platform and fought as though from a mound, while others, concealed inside, tried to undermine the walls. However, stones hurled from catapults soon destroyed this rude engine. Then they began to get ready hurdles and mantlets, but the besieged shot blazing spears on to them from engines, and even attacked the assailants themselves with fire-darts. At last they gave up all hope of an assault and resolved to try a waiting policy, being well aware that the camp contained only a few days’ provisions and a large number of non-combatants. They hoped that famine would breed treason, and counted, besides, on the wavering loyalty of the slaves and the usual hazards of war to aid them.

Meanwhile, Flaccus, [At Mainz] who had received news of the siege of Vetera, dispatched a party to recruit auxiliaries in Gaul, and gave Dillius Vocula, in command of the Twenty-second, a force of picked soldiers from his two legions. [His other legion was IV Macedonica] Vocula was to hurry by forced marches along the bank of the Rhine, while Flaccus himself was to approach by water, since he was in bad health and unpopular with his men. Indeed, they grumbled openly that he had let the Batavian cohorts get away from Mainz, had connived at Civilis’ schemes, and invited the Germans to join the alliance. Vespasian, they said, owed his rise more to Flaccus than to all the assistance of Antonius Primus or of Mucianus, for overt hatred and hostility can be openly crushed, but treachery and deceit cannot be detected, much less parried. While Civilis took the field himself and arranged his own fighting line, Hordeonius lay on a couch in his bedroom and gave whatever orders best suited the enemy’s convenience. Why should all these companies of brave soldiers be commanded by one miserable old invalid? Let them rather kill the traitor and free their brave hearts and good hopes from the incubus of such an evil omen. Having worked on each other’s feelings by these complaints, they were still further incensed by the arrival of a letter from Vespasian. As this could not be concealed, Flaccus read it before a meeting of the soldiers, and the messengers who brought it were sent to Vitellius in chains.

With feelings thus appeased the army marched on to Bonn, the head-quarters of the First legion. There the men were still more indignant with Flaccus, on whom they laid the blame of their recent defeat. It was by his orders, they argued, that they had taken the field against the Batavians on the understanding that the legions from Mainz were in pursuit. But no reinforcements had arrived and his treachery was responsible for their losses. The facts, moreover, were unknown to the other armies, nor was any report sent to their emperor, although this treacherous outbreak could have been nipped in the bud by the combined aid of all the provinces. In answer Flaccus read out to the army copies of all the letters which he had sent from time to time all over Gaul and Britain and Spain to ask for assistance, and introduced the disastrous practice of having all letters delivered to the standard-bearers of the legions, who read them to the soldiers before the general had seen them. He then gave orders that one of the mutineers should be put in irons, more by way of vindicating his authority than because one man was especially to blame. Leaving Bonn, the army moved on to Cologne, where they were joined by large numbers of Gallic auxiliaries, who at first zealously supported the Roman cause: later, when the Germans prospered, most of the tribes took arms against us, actuated by hopes of liberty and an ambition to establish an empire of their own when once they had shaken off the yoke.

Meanwhile the army’s indignation steadily increased. The imprisonment of a single soldier was not enough to terrify them, and, indeed, the prisoner actually accused the general of complicity in crime, alleging that he himself had carried messages between Flaccus and Civilis. ‘It is because I can testify to the truth,’ he said, ‘that Flaccus wants to get rid of me on a false charge.’ Thereupon Vocula, with admirable self-possession, mounted the tribunal and, in spite of the man’s protestations, ordered him to be seized and led away to prison. This alarmed the disaffected, while the better sort obeyed him promptly. The army then unanimously demanded that Vocula should lead them, and Flaccus accordingly resigned the chief command to him.

However, there was much to exasperate their disaffection. They were short both of pay and of provisions: the Gaul’s refused either to enlist or to pay tribute: drought, usually unknown in that climate, made the Rhine almost too low for navigation, and thus hampered their commissariat: patrols had to be posted at intervals all along the bank to prevent the Germans fording the river: and in consequence of all this they had less food and more mouths to eat it. To the ignorant the lowness of the river seemed in itself an evil omen, as though the ancient bulwarks of the empire were now failing them. In peace they would have called it bad luck or the course of nature: now it was ‘fate’ and ‘the anger of heaven’.

On entering Novaesium [Neuss] they were joined by the Sixteenth legion. Herennius Gallus [He commanded the First legion, which had joined the main column at Bonn] now shared with Vocula the responsibility of command. As they could not venture out against the enemy, they encamped at a place called Gelduba, [Gellep. Some words are lost, perhaps giving the distance from Novaesium] where the soldiers were trained in deploying, in fortification and entrenchment, and in various other military manoeuvres. To inspire their courage with the further incentive of plunder, Vocula led out part of the force against the neighbouring tribe of the Cugerni, who had accepted Civilis’ offers of alliance.

The rest of the troops were left behind with Herennius Gallus, [At Gelduba] and it happened that a corn-ship with a full cargo, which had run aground close to the camp, was towed over by the Germans to their own bank. This was more than Gallus could tolerate, so he sent a cohort to the rescue. The number of the Germans soon increased: both sides gradually gathered reinforcements and a regular battle was fought, with the result that the Germans towed off the ship, inflicting heavy losses. The defeated troops followed what had now become their regular custom, and threw the blame not on their own inefficiency but on their commanding-officer’s bad faith. They dragged him from his quarters, tore his uniform and flogged him, bidding him tell them how much he had got for betraying the army, and who were his accomplices. Then their indignation recoiled on Hordeonius Flaccus: he was the real criminal: Gallus was only his tool. At last their threats so terrified Gallus that he, too, charged Flaccus with treason. He was put in irons until the arrival of Vocula, who at once set him free, and on the next day had the ringleaders of the riot executed. The army showed, indeed, a strange contrast in its equal readiness to mutiny and to submit to punishment. The common soldiers’ loyalty to Vitellius was beyond question, while the higher ranks inclined towards Vespasian. Thus we find a succession of outbreaks and penalties; an alternation of insubordination with obedience to discipline; for the troops could be punished though not controlled.

Meanwhile the whole of Germany was ready to worship Civilis, sending him vast reinforcements and ratifying the alliance with hostages from their noblest families. He gave orders that the country of the Ubii and Treviri was to be laid waste by their nearest neighbours, and sent another party across the Maas to harass the Menapii and Morini [The Menapii lived between the Maas and the Scheldt; the Morini on the coast in the neighbourhood of Boulogne. They were a proverb for ‘the back of beyond’] and other frontier tribes of Gaul. In both quarters they plundered freely, and were especially savage towards the Ubii, because they were a tribe of German origin who had renounced their fatherland and adopted the name of Agrippinenses. A Ubian cohort was cut to pieces at the village of Marcodurum, [Dueren] where they were off their guard, trusting to their distance from the Rhine. The Ubii did not take this quietly, nor hesitate to seek reprisals from the Germans, which they did at first with impunity. In the end, however, the Germans proved too much for them, and throughout the war the Ubii were always more conspicuous for good faith than good fortune. Their collapse strengthened Civilis’ position, and emboldened by success, he now vigorously pressed on the blockade of the legions at Vetera, and redoubled his vigilance to prevent any message creeping through from the relieving army. The Batavians were told off to look after the engines and siege-works: the Germans, who clamoured for battle, were sent to demolish the rampart and renew the fight directly they were beaten off. There were so many of them that their losses mattered little.

Nightfall did not see the end of their task. They built huge fires of wood all-round the ramparts and sat drinking by them; then, as the wine warmed their hearts, one by one they dashed into the fight with blind courage. In the darkness their missiles were ineffective, but the barbarian troops were clearly visible to the Romans, and any one whose daring or bright ornaments made him conspicuous at once became a mark for their aim. At last Civilis saw their mistake, and gave orders to extinguish the fires and plunge the whole scene into a confusion of darkness and the din of arms. Discordant shouts now arose: everything was vague and uncertain: no one could see to strike or to parry. Wherever a shout was heard, they would wheel round and lunge in that direction. Valour was useless: chance and chaos ruled supreme: and the bravest soldier often fell under a coward’s bolt. The Germans fought with blind fury. The Roman troops were more familiar with danger; they hurled down iron-clamped stakes and heavy stones with sure effect. Wherever the sound of someone climbing or the clang of a scaling-ladder betrayed the presence of the enemy, they thrust them back with their shields and followed them with a shower of javelins. Many appeared on top of the walls, and these they stabbed with their short swords. And so the night wore on.

Day dawned upon new methods of attack. The Batavians had built a wooden tower of two stories and moved it up to the Head-quarters Gate, [ i.e. the gate on to the street leading to Head-quarters] which was the most accessible spot. However, our soldiers, by using strong poles and hurling wooden beams, soon battered it to pieces, with great loss of life to those who were standing on it. While they were still dismayed at this, we made a sudden and successful sally. Meanwhile the legionaries, with remarkable skill and ingenuity, invented still further contrivances. The one which caused most terror was a crane with a movable arm suspended over their assailants’ heads: this arm was suddenly lowered, snatched up one or more of the enemy into the air before his fellows’ eyes, and, as the heavy end was swung round, tossed him into the middle of the camp. Civilis now gave up hope of storming the camp and renewed a leisurely blockade, trying all the time by messages and offers of reward to undermine the loyalty of the legions.


Such was the course of events in Germany up to the date of the battle of Cremona.[The end of October, A.D. 69] News of this arrived by letter from Antonius Primus, who enclosed a copy of Caecina’s edict,[Caecina, as consul, had probably while at Cremona issued a manifesto in favour of joining the Flavian party] and Alpinius Montanus, who commanded one of the defeated auxiliary cohorts, came in person to confess that his party had been beaten. The troops were variously affected by the news. The Gallic auxiliaries, who had no feelings of affection or dislike to either party and served without sentiment, promptly took the advice of their officers and deserted Vitellius. The veterans hesitated; under pressure from Flaccus and their officers they eventually took the oath of allegiance, but it was clear from their faces that their hearts were not in it, and while repeating the rest of the formula they boggled at the name of Vespasian, either muttering it under their breath or more often omitting it altogether.

Their suspicions were further inflamed when Antonius’ letter to Civilis was read out before the meeting; it seemed to address Civilis as a member of the Flavian party, and to argue hostility to the German army. The news was next brought to the camp at Gelduba, where it gave rise to the same comments and the same scenes. Montanus was sent to carry instructions to Civilis that he was to cease from hostilities and not to make war on Rome under a false pretext; if it was to help Vespasian that he had taken arms, he had now achieved his object. Civilis at first replied in guarded terms. Then, as he saw that Montanus was an impetuous person who would welcome a revolution, he began to complain of all the dangers he had endured in the service of Rome for the last twenty-five years. ‘A fine reward I have received,’ he cried, ‘for all my labours–my brother’s execution, my own imprisonment, and the bloodthirsty clamours of this army, from which I claim satisfaction by natural right since they have sought my destruction. As for you Trevirans and all the rest that have the souls of slaves, what reward do you hope to gain for shedding your blood so often in the cause of Rome, except the thankless task of military service, endless taxation, and the rods and axes of these capricious tyrants? Look at me! I have only a single cohort under my command, and yet with the Canninefates and Batavi, a mere fraction of the Gallic peoples, I am engaged in destroying their great useless camp and besieging them with famine and the sword. In short, our venture will either end in freedom or, if we are beaten, we shall be no worse off than before.’ Having thus inflamed Montanus he told him to take back a milder answer and dismissed him. On his return Montanus pretended that his errand had been fruitless, and said nothing about the rest of the interview: but it soon came to light.

Retaining a portion of his force, Civilis sent the veteran cohorts with the most efficient of the German troops against Vocula and his army. [At Gelduba] He gave the command to Julius Maximus and his nephew Claudius Victor. After rushing the winter-quarters of a cavalry regiment at Asciburgium [Asberg] on their way, they fell upon the Roman camp and so completely surprised it that Vocula had no time to address his army or to form it for battle. The only precaution he could take in the general panic was to mass the legionaries in the centre with the auxiliaries scattered on either flank. Our cavalry charged, but found the enemy in good order ready to receive them, and came flying back on to their own infantry. What followed was more of a massacre than a battle. The Nervian cohorts, either from panic or treachery, left our flanks exposed; thus the legions had to bear the brunt. They had already lost their standards and were being cut down in the trenches, when a fresh reinforcement suddenly changed the fortune of the fight. Some Basque auxiliaries,[From the north-east frontier of the Tarragona division of Spain, of which Galba had been governor. Hordeonius explained that he had summoned aid from Spain] originally levied by Galba, who had now been summoned to the rescue, on nearing the camp heard the sound of fighting, and while the enemy were occupied, came charging in on their rear. This caused more consternation than their numbers warranted, the enemy taking them for the whole Roman force, either from Novaesium or from Mainz. This mistake encouraged the Roman troops: their confidence in others brought confidence in themselves. The best of the Batavians, at least of their infantry, fell. The cavalry made off with the standards and prisoners taken in the earlier stage of the battle. Though our losses that day were numerically larger, they were unimportant, whereas the Germans lost their best troops.

On both sides the generals deserved defeat, and failed to make good use of their success. Their fault was the same. Had Civilis furnished the attacking column with more troops, they could never have been surrounded by such a small force, and having stormed the camp would have destroyed it. Vocula, on the other hand, had not even set scouts to warn him of the enemy’s approach, and consequently no sooner sallied out than he was beaten. Then, when he had won the victory, he showed great lack of confidence, and wasted day after day before moving against the enemy. If he had made haste to follow up his success and struck at the enemy at once, he might have raised the siege of Vetera at one blow.

Meanwhile Civilis had been playing upon the feelings of the besieged by pretending that the Romans had been defeated and success had favoured his arms. The captured standards and colours were carried round the walls and the prisoners also displayed. One of these did a famous deed of heroism. Shouting at the top of his voice, he revealed the truth. The Germans at once struck him dead, which only served to confirm his information. Soon, too, the besieged saw signs of harried fields and the smoke of burning farms, and began to realize that a victorious army was approaching. When he was in sight of the camp Vocula ordered his men to plant the standards and construct a trench and rampart round them: they were to deposit all their baggage there and fight unencumbered. This made them shout at the general to give them the signal; and they had learnt to use threats too. Without even taking time to form their line they started the battle, all tired as they were, and in disorder. Civilis was ready waiting for them, trusting quite as much to their mistakes as to the merits of his own men. The Romans fought with varying fortune. All the most mutinous proved cowards: some, however, remembered their recent victory and stuck to their places, cutting down the enemy, and encouraging themselves and their neighbours. When the battle was thus renewed, they waved their hands and signalled to the besieged not to lose their opportunity. These were watching all that happened from the walls, and now came bursting out at every gate. It chanced that at this point Civilis’ horse fell and threw him; both armies believed the rumour that he had been wounded and killed. This caused immense consternation to his army and immense encouragement to ours. However, Vocula failed to pursue them when they fled, and merely set about strengthening the rampart and turrets, apparently in fear of another blockade. His frequent failure to make use of his victory gives colour to the suspicion that he preferred war. [Mr. Henderson calls this sentence ‘a veritable masterpiece of improbability’, and finds it ‘hard to speak calmly of such a judgement’. He has to confess that a military motive for Vocula’s inaction is hard to find. Tacitus, feeling the same, offers a merely human motive. Soldiers of fortune often prefer war to final victory, and in these days the dangers of peace were only equalled by its ennui. Besides, Tacitus’ explanation lends itself to an epigram which he would doubtless not have exchanged for the tedium of tactical truth.]

What chiefly distressed our troops was the lack of supplies. The baggage-train of the legions was sent to Novaesium with a crowd of non-combatants to fetch provisions thence by land, the enemy being now masters of the river. The first convoy got through safely, while Civilis was recovering from his fall. But when he heard that a second foraging-party had been sent to Novaesium under guard of several cohorts, and that they were proceeding on their way with their arms piled in the wagons as if it was a time of perfect peace, few keeping to the standards and all wandering at will, he sent some men forward to hold the bridges and any places where the road was narrow, and then formed up and attacked. The battle was fought on a long straggling line, and the issue was still doubtful when nightfall broke it off.

The cohorts made their way through to Gelduba, where the camp remained as it was, garrisoned by the soldiers who had been left behind there. It was obvious what dangers the convoy would have to face on the return journey; they would be heavily laden and had already lost their nerve. Vocula [Mr. Henderson calls this sentence ‘a veritable masterpiece of improbability’, and finds it ‘hard to speak calmly of such a judgement’. He has to confess that a military motive for Vocula’s inaction is hard to find. Tacitus, feeling the same, offers a merely human motive. Soldiers of fortune often prefer war to final victory, and in these days the dangers of peace were only equalled by its ennui. Besides, Tacitus’ explanation lends itself to an epigram which he would doubtless not have exchanged for the tedium of tactical truth.] accordingly added to his force a thousand picked men from the Fifth and Fifteenth legions who had been at Vetera during the siege, all tough soldiers with a grievance against their generals. Against his orders, more than the thousand started with him, openly complaining on the march that they would not put up with famine and the treachery of their generals any longer. On the other hand, those who stayed behind grumbled that they were left to their fate now that part of the garrison had been removed. Thus there was a double mutiny, one party calling Vocula back, the others refusing to return to camp.

Meanwhile Civilis laid siege to Vetera. Vocula retired to Gelduba, and thence to Novaesium, shortly afterwards winning a cavalry skirmish just outside Novaesium. The Roman soldiers, however, alike in success and in failure, were as eager as ever to make an end of their generals. Now that their numbers were swelled by the arrival of the detachments from the Fifth and the Fifteenth [From the Vetera garrison] they demanded their donative, having learnt that money had arrived from Vitellius. Without further delay Flaccus gave it to them in Vespasian’s name, and this did more than anything else to promote mutiny. They indulged in wild dissipation and met every night in drinking-parties, at which they revived their old grudge against Hordeonius Flaccus. None of the officers ventured to interfere with them–the darkness somehow obscured their sense of duty–and at last they dragged Flaccus out of bed and murdered him. They were preparing to do the same with Vocula, but he narrowly escaped in the darkness, disguised as a slave.

When the excitement subsided, their fears returned, and they sent letters round by centurions to all the Gallic communities, asking for reinforcements and money for the soldiers’ pay. Without a leader a mob is always rash, timorous, and inactive. On the approach of Civilis they hurriedly snatched up their arms, and then immediately dropped them and took to flight. Misfortune now bred disunion, and the army of the Upper Rhine [i.e. the troops which Flaccus at Mainz had put under Vocula for the relief of Vetera] dissociated itself from the rest. However, they set up the statues of Vitellius again in the camp and in the neighbouring Belgic villages, although by now Vitellius was dead.[It was therefore later than December 21] Soon the soldiers of the First, Fourth, and Twenty-second repented of their folly and rejoined Vocula. He made them take a second oath of allegiance to Vespasian and led them off to raise the siege of Mainz. The besieging army, a combined force of Chatti, Usipi, and Mattiaci,[The Usipi lived on the east bank of the Rhine between the Sieg and the Lahn; the Mattiaci between the Lahn and the Main, round Wiesbaden] had already retired, having got sufficient loot and suffered some loss. Our troops surprised them while they were scattered along the road, and immediately attacked. Moreover, the Treviri had built a rampart and breastwork all along their frontier and fought the Germans again and again with heavy loss to both sides. Before long, however, they rebelled, and thus sullied their great services to the Roman people.


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

Roman Empire: The Revolt of Civilis and the Batavi (Part 22)

The growing rumour of a reverse in Germany had not as yet caused any alarm in Rome. People alluded to the loss of armies, the capture of the legions’ winter quarters, and the defection of the Gallic provinces as matters of indifference. I must now go back and explain the origin of this war, and of the widespread rebellion of foreign and allied tribes which now broke into flame.

The Batavi were once a tribe of the Chatti, [One of the greatest and most warlike of the German tribes living in the modern Hessen-Nassau and Waldeck. Tacitus describes them at length in his “Germania] living on the further bank of the Rhine. But an outbreak of civil war had driven them across the river, where they settled in a still unoccupied district on the frontier of Gaul and also in the neighbouring island, enclosed on one side by the ocean and on the other three sides by the Rhine.[ i.e. a stretch of land about sixty miles in length, from Nymwegen to the Hook of Holland, enclosed by the diverging mouths of the Rhine, the northern of which is now called the Lek, the southern the Waal (in Tacitus’ time Vahalis). The name Betuwe is still applied to the eastern part of this island] There they fared better than most tribes who ally themselves to a stronger power. Their resources are still intact, and they have only to contribute men and arms for the imperial army. [In the “Germania” Tacitus says that, like weapons, they are kept exclusively for use in war, and are spared the indignity of taxation] After a long training in the German wars, they still further increased their reputation in Britain, where their troops had been sent, commanded according to an ancient custom by some of the noblest chiefs. There still remained behind in their own country a picked troop of horsemen with a peculiar knack of swimming, which enabled them to make a practice of crossing the Rhine with unbroken ranks without losing control of their horses or their weapons.

Of their chieftains two outshone the rest. These were Julius Paulus and Julius Civilis, both of royal stock. Paulus had been executed by Fonteius Capito on a false charge of rebellion. [Probably during the revolt of Vindex. Capito governed Lower Germany] On the same occasion Civilis was sent in chains to Nero. Galba, however, set him free, and under Vitellius he again ran great risk of his life, when the army clamoured for his execution. This gave him a motive for hating Rome, and our misfortunes fed his hopes. He was, indeed, far cleverer than most barbarians, and professed to be a second Sertorius or Hannibal, because they all three had the same physical defect.[The loss of an eye] He was afraid that if he openly rebelled against the Roman people they would treat him as an enemy, and march on him at once, so he pretended to be a keen supporter of Vespasian’s party. This much was true, that Antonius Primus had written instructing him to divert the auxiliaries whom Vitellius had summoned, and to delay the legions on the pretence of a rising in Germany. Moreover, Hordeonius Flaccus [Governor of Upper Germany] had given him the same advice in person, for Flaccus was inclined to support Vespasian and anxious for the safety of Rome, which was threatened with utter disaster, if the war were to break out afresh and all these thousands of troops come pouring into Italy.

Having thus made up his mind to rebel, Civilis concealed in the meantime his ulterior design, and while intending to guide his ultimate policy by future events, proceeded to initiate the rising as follows. The young Batavians were by Vitellius’ orders being pressed for service, and this burden was being rendered even more irksome than it need have been by the greed and depravity of the recruiting officers. They took to enrolling elderly men and invalids so as to get bribes for excusing them: or, as most of the Batavi are tall and good-looking in their youth, they would seize the handsomest boys for immoral purposes. This caused bad feeling; an agitation was organized, and they were persuaded to refuse service. Accordingly, on the pretext of giving a banquet, Civilis summoned the chief nobles and the most determined of the tribesmen to a sacred grove. Then, when he saw them excited by their revelry and the late hour of the night, he began to speak of the glorious past of the Batavi and to enumerate the wrongs they had suffered, the injustice and extortion and all the evils of their slavery. ‘We are no longer treated,’ he said, ‘as we used to be, like allies, but like menials and slaves. Why, we are never even visited by an imperial Governor [As a subordinate division of Lower Germany the Batavian district would be administered by ‘prefects’ subordinate to the imperial legate.]–irksome though the insolence of his staff would be. We are given over to prefects and centurions; and when these subordinates have had their fill of extortion and of bloodshed, they promptly find someone to replace them, and then there are new pockets to fill and new pretexts for plunder. Now conscription is upon us: children are to be torn from parents, brother from brother, never, probably, to meet again. And yet the fortunes of Rome were never more depressed. Their cantonments contain nothing but loot and a lot of old men. Lift up your eyes and look at them. There is nothing to fear from legions that only exist on paper. [Vitellius had reduced the strength of the legions] And we are strong. We have infantry and cavalry: the Germans are our kinsmen: the Gaul’s share our ambition. Even the Romans will be grateful if we go to war. [Because it would weaken the position of Vitellius] If we fail, we can claim credit for supporting Vespasian: if we succeed, there will be no one to call us to account.’

His speech was received with great approval, and he at once bound them all to union, using the barbarous ceremonies and strange oaths of his country. They then sent to the Canninefates to join their enterprise. This tribe inhabits part of the Island,[They lived north of the Batavi, between the Zuider Zee and the North Sea] and though inferior in numbers to the Batavi, they are of the same race and language and the same courageous spirit. Civilis next sent secret messages to win over the Batavian troops, which after serving as Roman auxiliaries in Britain had been sent, as we have already seen, to Germany and were now stationed at Mainz.[Mogontiacum]

One of the Canninefates, Brinno by name, was a man of distinguished family and stubborn courage. His father had often ventured acts of hostility, and had with complete impunity shown his contempt for Caligula’s farcical expedition. [Caligula’s only trophy had been helmetfuls of stones and shells from the sea-shore of Germany] To belong to such a family of rebels was in itself a recommendation. He was accordingly placed on a shield, swung up on the shoulders of his friends, and thus elected leader after the fashion of the tribe. Summoning to his aid the Frisii [Living in Friesland, north-east of the Zuider Zee]–a tribe from beyond the Rhine–he fell upon two cohorts of auxiliaries whose camp lay close to the neighbouring shore.[Reading “applicata” (Andresen) instead of “occupata”, which gives no sense. The camp was probably somewhere near Katwyk] The attack was unexpected, and the troops, even if they had foreseen it, were not strong enough to offer resistance: so the camp was taken and looted. They then fell on the Roman camp-followers and traders, who had gone off in all directions as if peace were assured. Finding the forts now threatened with destruction, the Roman officers set fire to them, as they had no means of defence. All the troops with their standards and colours retired in a body to the upper end of the island, led by Aquilius, a senior centurion. But they were an army in name only, not in strength, for Vitellius had withdrawn all the efficient soldiers and had replaced them by a useless mob, who had been drawn from the neighbouring Nervian and German villages and were only embarrassed by their armour.[The Nervii were a Gallic tribe living on the Sambre, with settlements at Cambray, Tournay, Bavay. Ritter’s alteration of “Germanorum” to “Cugernorum” is very probably right. They lived about a dozen miles west of Vetera, and are thus a likely recruiting-ground. They were of German origin, so if “Germanorum” is right, the reference will still be to them and the Tungri and other German Settlements on the east of the Rhine.]

Civilis thought it best to proceed by guile, and actually ventured to blame the Roman officers for abandoning the forts. He could, he told them, with the cohort under his command, suppress the outbreak of the Canninefates without their assistance: they could all go back to their winter-quarters. However, it was plain that some treachery underlay his advice–it would be easier to crush the cohorts if they were separated–and also that Civilis, not Brinno, was at the head of this war. Evidence of this gradually leaked out, as the Germans loved war too well to keep the secret for long. Finding his artifice unsuccessful, Civilis tried force instead, forming the Canninefates, Frisii and Batavi into three separate columns.[Here, however, it is not improbable that the word “cuneus” means a V-shaped formation. Tacitus’ phrase in “Germ.” 6 is generally taken to mean that the Germans fought in wedge-formation. The separation of the three tribes in three columns was also typical of German tactics. The presence of kinsmen stimulated courage] The Roman line faced them in position near the Rhine bank.[Presumably at the eastern end of the island, near either Nymwegen or Arnheim.] They had brought their ships there after the burning of the forts, and these were now turned with their prows towards the enemy. Soon after the engagement began a Tungrian cohort deserted to Civilis, and the Romans were so startled by this unexpected treachery that they were cut to pieces by their allies and their enemies combined. Similar treachery occurred in the fleet. Some of the rowers, who were Batavians, feigning clumsiness tried to impede the sailors and marines in the performance of their functions, and after a while openly resisted them and turned the ships’ sterns towards the enemy’s bank. Finally, they killed the pilots and centurions who refused to join them, and thus all the twenty-four ships of the flotilla either deserted to the enemy or were captured by them.

This victory made Civilis immediately famous and proved subsequently very useful. Having now got the ships and the weapons which they needed, he and his followers were enthusiastically proclaimed as champions of liberty throughout Germany and Gaul. The German provinces immediately sent envoys with offers of help, while Civilis endeavoured by diplomacy and by bribery to secure an alliance with the Gauls. He sent back the auxiliary officers whom he had taken prisoner, each to his own tribe, and offered the cohorts the choice of either going home or remaining with him. Those who remained were given an honourable position in his army: and those who went home received presents out of the Roman spoil. At the same time Civilis talked to them confidentially and reminded them of the miseries they had endured for all these years, in which they had disguised their wretched slavery under the name of peace. ‘The Batavi,’ he would say, ‘were excused from taxation, and yet they have taken arms against the common tyrant. In the first engagement the Romans were routed and beaten. What if Gaul throws off the yoke? What forces are there left in Italy? It is with the blood of provincials that their provinces are won. Don’t think of the defeat of Vindex. Why, it was the Batavian cavalry which trampled on the Aedui and Arverni, [The Aedui lived in Bourgogne and Nivernois, between the Loire and the Saone; the Arverni in Auvergne, north-west of the Cevennes. Both had joined Vindex] and there were Belgic auxiliaries in Verginius’ force. The truth is that Gaul succumbed to her own armies. But now we are all united in one party, fortified, moreover, by the military discipline which prevails in Roman camps: and we have on our side the veterans before whom Otho’s legions lately bit the dust. Let Syria and Asia play the slave: the East is used to tyrants: but there are many still living in Gaul who were born before the days of tribute.[‘Many’ must be an exaggeration, since Augustus’ census of Gaul took place 27 B.C.E., ninety-five years ago] Indeed, it is only the other day[Sixty years ago, to be exact] that Quintilius Varus was killed, when slavery was driven out of Germany, and they brought into the field not the Emperor Vitellius but Caesar Augustus himself. Why, liberty is the natural prerogative even of dumb animals: courage is the peculiar attribute of man. Heaven helps the brave. Come, then, fall upon them while your hands are free and theirs are tied, while you are fresh and they are weary. Some of them are for Vespasian, others for Vitellius; now is your chance to crush both parties at once. Civilis thus had his eye on Gaul and Germany and aspired, had his project prospered, to become king of two countries, one pre-eminent in wealth and the other in military strength.


Hordeonius Flaccus at first furthered Civilis’ schemes by shutting his eyes to them. But when messengers kept arriving in panic with news that a camp had been stormed, cohorts wiped out, and not a Roman left in the Batavian Island, he instructed Munius Lupercus, who commanded the two legions[V Alaudae and XV Primigenia, both depleted] in winter-quarters,[At Vetera] to march against the enemy. Lupercus lost no time in crossing the river,[Waal] taking the legions whom he had with him, some Ubii [They lived round their chief town, known since A.D. 50 as Colonia Agrippinensis, now Cologne] who were close at hand, and the Treviran cavalry who were stationed not far away. To this force he added a regiment of Batavian cavalry, who, though their loyalty had long ago succumbed, still concealed the fact, because they hoped their desertion would fetch a higher price, if they actually betrayed the Romans on the field. Civilis set the standards of the defeated cohorts round him in a ring to keep their fresh honours before the eyes of his men, and to terrify the enemy by reminding them of their disaster. He also gave orders that his own mother and sisters and all the wives and small children of his soldiers should be stationed in the rear to spur them to victory or shame them if they were beaten. [This was a German custom. We read in the “Germania” that in battle ‘they keep their dearest close at hand, where the women’s cries and the wailing of their babies can be heard’] When his line raised their battle-cry, the men singing and the women shrieking, the legions and their auxiliaries replied with a comparatively feeble cheer, for their left wing had been exposed by the desertion of the Batavian cavalry, who promptly turned against us. However, despite the confusion, the legionaries gripped their swords and kept their places. Then the Ubian and Treviran auxiliaries broke in shameful flight and went wandering all over the country. The Germans pressed hard on their heels and meanwhile the legions could make good their escape into the camp, which was called ‘Castra Vetera’. [This means, of course, simply The Old Camp, but, as Tacitus treats Vetera as a proper name, it has been kept in the translation. It was probably on the Rhine near Xanten and Fuerstenberg, some sixty-six miles north of Cologne] Claudius Labeo, who commanded the Batavian cavalry, had opposed Civilis as a rival in some petty municipal dispute. Civilis was afraid that, if he killed him, he might offend his countrymen, while if he spared him his presence would give rise to dissension; so he sent him off by sea to the Frisii.

It was at this time that the cohorts of Batavians and Canninefates, on their way to Rome under orders from Vitellius, received the message which Civilis had sent to them. They promptly fell into a ferment of unruly insolence and demanded a special grant as payment for their journey, double pay, and an increase in the number of their cavalry.[Who got better pay for lighter service] Although all these things had been promised by Vitellius they had no hope of obtaining them, but wanted an excuse for rebellion. Flaccus made many concessions, but the only result was that they redoubled their vigour and demanded what they felt sure he would refuse. Paying no further heed to him they made for Lower Germany, to join Civilis. Flaccus summoned the tribunes and centurions and debated with them whether he should use force to punish this defiance of authority. After a while he gave way to his natural cowardice and the fears of his subordinates, who were distressed by the thought that the loyalty of the auxiliaries was doubtful and that the legions had been recruited by a hurried levy. It was decided, therefore, to keep the soldiers in camp. [i.e. at Mainz, Bonn, Novaesium and Vetera] However, he soon changed his mind when he found himself criticized by the very men whose advice he had taken. He now seemed bent on pursuit, and wrote to Herennius Gallus in command of the First legion, who was holding Bonn, telling him to bar the path of the Batavians, and promising that he and his army would follow hard upon their heels. The rebels might certainly have been crushed had Flaccus and Gallus each advanced their forces from opposite directions and thus surrounded them. But Flaccus soon gave up the idea, and wrote another letter to Gallus, warning him to let the rebels pass undisturbed. This gave rise to a suspicion that the generals were purposely promoting the war; and all the disasters which had already occurred or were feared in the future, were attributed not to the soldiers’ inefficiency or the strength of the enemy, but to the treachery of the generals.

On nearing the camp at Bonn, the Batavians sent forward a messenger to explain their intentions to Herennius Gallus. Against the Romans, for whom they had fought so often, they had no wish to make war: but they were worn out after a long and unprofitable term of service and wanted to go home and rest. If no one opposed them they would march peaceably by; but if hostility was offered they would find a passage at the point of the sword. Gallus hesitated, but his men induced him to risk an engagement. Three thousand legionaries, some hastily recruited Belgic auxiliaries, and a mob of peasants and camp-followers, who were as cowardly in action as they were boastful before it, came pouring out simultaneously from all the gates, hoping with their superior numbers to surround the Batavians. But these were experienced veterans. They formed up into columns in deep formation that defied assault on front, flank, or rear. They thus pierced our thinner line. The Belgae giving way, the legion was driven back and ran in terror to reach the trench and the gates of the camp. It was there that we suffered the heaviest losses. The trenches were filled with dead, who were not all killed by the blows of the enemy, for many were stifled in the press or perished on each other’s swords. The victorious cohorts avoided Cologne and marched on without attempting any further hostilities. For the battle at Bonn they continued to excuse themselves. They had asked for peace, they said, and when peace was persistently refused, had merely acted in self defense.


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

Sparta: Lycurgus Lawgiver; Beginnings

Generally speaking it is impossible to make any undisputed statement about Lycurgus the Lawgiver, since conflicting accounts have been given of his ancestry, his travels, his death, and above all his activity with respect to his laws and government; but there is least agreement about the period in which the man lived. Some claim that he was in his prime at the same time as Iphitus and was his partner in instituting the Olympic truce. [According to legend, the earliest Olympic Games ere ones in which gods took part. These lapsed, but were revive by Iphitus of Elis-in 776 B.C.E. according to the reckoning made around the year 400 B.C.E. by his fellow Elean, the sophist (or teacher) Hippias. The sacred truce, whereby all greeks were expected to suspend hostilities between each other for the duration of the games anda period both before and afterward, was an essential feature of these and other pan-hellenic games]. But others like Eratosthenes and Apollodrus, who calculate his period by the succession of kings at Sparta, make the claim that he lived a great many years before the first Olympiad. Timæus conjectures that there were two Lycurguses at Sparta at different times, and that the achievements of both were attributed to one because of his renown. The older one might have lived close to Homer’s time: there are some who think that he even met Homer in person. Xenophon, too, suggests a very early date in the passage where he states that Lycurgus lived in the time of the Heraclids. Now of course the most recent Spartan kings were in fact Heraclids by ancestry, Xenophon evidently also wanted to call the first kings Heraclids, as being closely connected with Heracles. Nonetheless, even though this is such a muddled historical topic, we shall attempt to present an account of Lycurgus by following those treatments which offer the smallest contradictions or the most distinguished authorities.
The poet Simonidas maintains that Lucurgus’ father was not Eunomus, but that Lycurgus and Eunomus were the sons of Prytanis. Nearly all other, however, trace his genealogy differently, as follows: Procles, son of Aristodemus, was the father of Soüs; Eurypon was Soüs’ son; Prytanis was Eurypon’s son, Eunomus was Prytanis’ son; Eunomus had Polydectes by is first wife, and Lycurgus was his younger son by a second wife, Dionassa. This is the account given by Dieutychidas, which puts Lycurgus in the fifth generation after Procles and in the tenth after Heracles.
Among his ancestors Soüs was particularly admired: under him the Spartiates both made slaves of the helots and won further extensive Arcadian territory which they annexed. There is a story that when Soüs was being besieged by the Cleitorians in a rugged waterless spot, he agreed to surrender to them the territory which he had gained in the fighting if he and all those with him might drink from the spring nearby. Once the agreement had been confirmed under oath he assembled his men and offered to confer the kingship of the area upon the one who refrained from drinking. Not one, however, possessed such self-restraint, but they all drank. So Soüs went down after everyone else, and with the enemy still there just splashed himself. Then he moved off, but retained control of the land because not everyone had drunk.
Yet even thought he was admired for such act, his families were termed the Eurypontids, not after him but after his son, because Eurypon by courting popularity and ingratiating himself with the masses was evidently the first to relax the excessively autocratic character of the kingship. Syuch relaxation, however, led to a bolder attitude on the part of the people. Among the succeeding kings some were detested for ruling the people by force, while others were merely tolerated because their rule was either partisan or feeble. As a result, for a long period Sparta was gripped by lawlessness and disorder. It was as a consequence of this that Lycurgus’ father, too, met his death while king. He died from being struck by a butchers cleaver in the course of putting a stop to some brawl, and left his throne to his elder son Polydectes.
When Polydectes also died not long after, everyone reckoned that Lycurgus ought to be king. And king he was , until it became obvious that his brother’s widow was pregnant. As soon as he discovered this, he declared that the kingship belonged to the child if it should turn out to be male, while for his own part he would exercise power simply as a guardian: prodikoi [Literally, defenders in legal procceedings]was the term used by the Spartans for the guardians of kings without fathers. The mother, however, in secret communications explained to him her wish to abort the baby on condition that while he remained king of Sparta he would marry her. Though he loathed he morals, he raised no actual objection to the proposal, but pretended a to approve and accept it. He said that there was no need for her to suffer physical harm and to run the risk by inducing miscarriage and taking drugs, since he would ensure that the child should be disposed of as soon as it was born. By this means he continued to mislead the woman right up until the baby was due. Than as soon as he learned that she was in labour, he sent observers to be there at her delivery, as well as guards under orders, that should the baby turn out to be a girl, to hand it over to the women, but if it should be a boy, to bring it to him personally, whatever he might happen to be doing. It so happened that he was having a meal with the magistrates when a boy was born, and the servants appeared bringing him the infant. The story goes that he took him and said to those present: “Spartiates, a king is born to you”. The he laid him in the king’s place and named him Charilaus (Peoples Joy) because everyone, impressed at high-minded and fair Lycurgus was, felt overjoyed.
He was king, them, for eight months altogether. There were other reasons, too, for the citizens to admiration. In fact those devoted to him and willing to carry out his orders promptly because of his personal excellence outnumbered those obedient to him because he was a king’s guardian and had the royal prerogative. Yet there also some jealousy, as well as an effort to obstruct his upward rise when he was young, in particular by the relations and friends of the king’s mother, who felt injured by him. On one occasion her brother Leonidas abused Lycurgus quite offensively and added that he was fully aware of Lycurgus’s intention to become king. Leonidas thus roused suspicion and by his slander laid the ground for accusing Lycurgus of a plot, should the king come to any harm. Similar sorts of remarks were put about the king’s mother too. Since these caused him distress and fear about the uncertain future, he decided to avoid suspicion by going abroad and travelling around until his nephew should come of age and have a son to succeed to his throne.


So he set out and came first to Crete. Here he studied the forms of government and associated with the men of the highest reputations. Among the laws there were those that he admired and took note of with intention of bringing them home and putting them to use, but there were others which he thought little of. By the exercise of charm and friendship he prevailed upon one of those regarded there as shrewd and statesmanlike to undertake a mission to Sparta. This man, Thales, had some reputation as a composer of lyric poetry and had made this art his cover, though in fact his activities were precisely those of the most powerful lawgivers. For his songs were arguments to evoke ready obedience and concord. The Accompanying music and rhythms had a notably regular and soothing quality, so that those who heard them would unconsciously mellow in character. In place of the mutual ill-will which at the time prevailed there, they would instead become habituated to striving communally for excellence. Thus in a sense Thales paved the way for Lycurgus’ instruction of the Spartiates.
From Crete Lycurgus sailed to Asia. We are told that his plan was to compare the frugal, tough way of life in Crete with the extravagance and luxury of Ionia, and to observe the contrast in the ways of life and government– just like a doctor who compares bodies which are fasting or diseased with healthy ones. It was apparently in Ionia that he first encountered the poems of Homer, which Creophylus [Follower or even son-law of Homer] descendants were responsible for preserving. And when he observed that besides their tendencies to unrestrained indulgence they contained political and educational elements which were no less worthy of attention, he enthusiastically had them written down and collected them in order to bring them back home. Homer’s epics had already gained a certain vague reputation among the Greeks, and few individuals had acquired certain portions thanks to chance distribution of these works here and there; but in making known Lycurgus was the first and most successful.
The Egyptians thank that Lycurgus reached them too, and that their separation of the warrior class from the others particularly impressed him–the consequence being that h carried it over to Sparta, and by differentiating labourers and craftsmen demonstrated how genuinely refined and pure his constitution was. There are certainly even some Greek historians who endorse these claims by the Egyptians. Yet so far as I am aware nobody except the Spartiate Aristocrates, the son of Hipparchus, has maintained that Lycurgus also visited Libya and Iberia, and that in his wanderings round India he talked with the Gymnosophist [Literally “naked sophists”; indian philosophers and teachers]


The Spartans missed Lycurgus though out his absence and often summoned him back. To them the kings, while accorded a title an office, were in other ways not superior to the people, whereas Lycurgus they recognized a natural leader with the ability to attract followers. In fact even the kings were not reluctant to see him back again: their hope was that with his presence they would receive less offence from the people. So when Lycurgus did return to the populace in this kind of mod, his immediate attention was to sweep away the existing order and to make a complete change of constitution, since piecemeal legislation would have no effect or value. It was like the case of someone in bodily distress from a whole range of different disorders, who will begin a different, new life only by dissolving and changing his existing make-up with drugs and purges. Once Lycurgus had formed his intention he travelled first to Delphi. And after sacrificing to the god and consulting him, he returned bringing that famous oracle in which the Pythias called him ‘ dear to the gods’ and ‘a god rather than a man’: he had asked for Good order, and she declared that the god granted this and promised that his constitution would be by far the finest of all.


With this encouragement he made approaches to the most distinguished men and invited them to join in the task with him. Initially he conferred with his friends in secret, yet ever so gradually he won over more men and organized them for action. When the moment came, he ordered his thirty foremost men to proceed underarms into the agora at dawn, so as to shock and terrify his opponents. Hermippus has recorded the twenty most distinguished among these men. Arthmiadas is generally named as the one who was particularly associated with Lycurgus in all his operations, and who collaborated with him in formulating legislation. When the disturbance began, King Charilaus took fright because he thought that the whole action was being concerted against him, and so sought sanctuary within the goddess (Athena) in her Bronze House. But once reassured by an oath he emerged, and as a man of mil temperament played a part in Lycurgus’ programe. This mildness is reflected in the story of his fellow king Archelaus, who responded to praise of the youngster by saying “How could Charilaus be a gentleman, when he isn’t hard even on scoundrels?”

The Elders

First and most significant among Lycurgus’ numerous innovations was the institution of the Elders. According to Plato, [gerontes, literally ‘old men’] it’s combination with the king, arrogant rule, and the right to an equal vote on the most important matters, produced security and at the same time sound sense. For the state was unstable, at one moment inclining towards the kings and virtual tyranny, at another towards the people and democracy. But now by placing the office of the Elders in the middle as a kind of ballast, and thus striking a balance, it found the safest arrangement and origination, with the twenty-eight Elders always siding with the kings when it came to matters resisting democracy, yet in turn reinforcing the people against the development of tyranny. According to Aristotle this number of Elders was instituted because two of Lycurgus’ thirty leading associates panicked and abandoned the enterprise. But Sphaerus claims that from the outset there were twenty-eight collaborators in the scheme. Possibly the fact that this number is reached through multiplying seven by four also has something to do with it, as well as the point that being equal to the sum of its own divisors it is the next perfect number after six. Yet in my view the main reason for fixing this number of Elders was so that the total should be thirty when the two kings were added to the twenty-eight.
Lycurgus was so enthusiastic about this council that he brought an oracle about it from Delphi, which they call a rheta. [“a saying” opposed to “a writing”]It goes as follows ‘ after dedicating a temple to Zeus Scyllanis and Athena Scyllania, forming phylai and creating obai, and instituting a Gerousia of thirty including the founder-leaders, then from season to season apellaze between Babyca and Cnacion so as to propose and withdraw. Biut to the people should be long the right to respond as well as power” In this the phrases ; forming phylai’ and ‘ creating obai,’ refer to the division and distribution of the people in to groups, the former of which he termed phylai, the later obai. The ‘founder-leaders’ means the kings, while ‘to apellaze’ means to summon the assembly, because Lycurgus related the origin and source of his constitution to Pythian Apollo. Their present names for Babyca and Cnacion…. And Oinous. Aristotle says that Cnacion is a river, while Babyca is a bridge. It was between these that they used to hold their assemblies: there were no porticoes nor any other edifice. For in his opinion there were in no way conducive to sound deliberations, but instead harmful. They made those who assemble idiotic and give them silly, mindless notions, when at their meetings they can stare at statues and pictures, or else stage theatres, (21)or the richly decorated roofs of council chambers. When the populace was assembled, Lycurgus permitted no one else except the Elders and kings to make aproposal, although the authority to decide upon what the latter put forward did belong to the people. Later, however, when the people distorted proposals and mauled them by their deletions and additions, the kings Polydorus and Theopompus supplemented the rhetra as follows: ‘ if the people should make a crooked choice, the Elders and the founder-leaders are to set it aside’—this is, not to confirm it, but to withdraw if completely and to dismiss the people because they are altering and reformulated the proposal contrary to what was best. Moreover these kings persuaded the city that the god had ordered this supplement—as Tyrtaeus seems to be recalling in the following lines: Having listen to Phoebus they brought home from Pytho, the oracles of the god and his words which were to be fulfilled: To rule in council is for the kings (who esteemed by the gods and whose care is the lovely city of Sparta), And for the aged Elders; but then it is for the common people to respond in turn with straight rhetras’
While Lycurgus had thus incorporated a blend of elements in the constitution, Spartans after his day nonetheless still saw oligarchy as the one that was undiluted and dominate—or ‘ inflated and fervent’ (as Plato puts it) ‘ so that they imposed upon it the authority of the ephors to act as a curb.’ It was apparently about 130 years after Lycurgus’ time that the first ephors were appointed, headed by Elatus, during the reign of Theopompus. [Eurypontid king in the late 8th/early 7th B.C.E. For the Ephorate–a magistracy which Putarch significantly does not attribute to Lycurgus] This is the king about whom they also relate that when his fife criticized him because the kingship he would hand on to his sons would be less than the one he inherited, he replied: ‘No, greater—since it will last longer.’ In fact by its renunciation of excessive authority and the related resentment, the Spartan kingship escaped the danger of suffering the fate which Messenians and Argives inflicted upon their kings, who refused to concede anything, or yield and of their authority to the popular element. Lycurgus’ skill and foresight in this respect are also seen with special clarity in any review of the civil strife and misgovernment among the Spartans’ own kins-men and neighbors, the Messenians and Argives peoples and kings. Initially their circumstances and those of the Spartans had been equal, and in the allocations of land [According to legend there had been a agreed allocation of territories by lot at the time of the original occupation of Messenia, the Argolid and Laconia] they may even to have seemed to gain more than they did. However they did not prosper very long, but though the insolence of their kings on one side and the non-cooperation of their masses on the other, they threw their institutions into complete turmoil—thereby demonstrating what a truly divine blessing the Spartiates enjoyed in the man wo constructed their constitution and blended it for them. Yet these developments came later.


REFERENCE: Lives: Plutarch (Roman name: Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus)
SOURCE: On Sparta; Translation W/notes by: Richard J. A. Talbert

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]


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

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

Roman Empire: Vitellius; Abdication and burning of Rome (part 19)

During these days Antonius and Varus kept sending messages to Vitellius, in which they offered him his life, a gift of money, and the choice of a safe retreat in Campania, if he would stop the war and surrender himself and his children to Vespasian. Mucianus wrote him letters to the same effect. Vitellius usually took these offers seriously and talked about the number of slaves he would have and the choice of a seaside place. He had sunk, indeed, into such mental torpor that, if other people had not remembered that he was an emperor, he was certainly beginning to forget it himself.

However, it was to Flavius Sabinus, the City Prefect, that the leading men at Rome addressed themselves. They urged him secretly not to lose all share in the glory of victory. They pointed out that the City Garrison was under his own command, and that he could count on the police and their own bands of slaves, to say nothing of the good fortune of the party and all the advantage that victory gives. He must not leave all the glory to Antonius and Varus. Vitellius had nothing left but a few regiments of guards, who were seriously alarmed at the bad news which came from every quarter. As for the populace, their feelings soon changed, and if he put himself at their head, they would be just as loud in their flattery of Vespasian. Vitellius himself could not even cope with success, and disaster had positively paralysed him. The credit of ending the war would go to the man who seized the city. It was eminently fitting that Sabinus should secure the throne for his brother, and that Vespasian should hold him higher than anyone else.

Age had enfeebled Sabinus, and he showed no alacrity to listen to such talk as this. Some people covertly insinuated that he was jealous of his brother’s success and was trying to delay its realization. Flavius Sabinus was the elder brother and, while they were both private persons, he had been the richer and more influential. It was also believed that he had been chary in helping Vespasian to recover his financial position, and had taken a mortgage on his house and estates. Consequently, though they remained openly friendly, there were suspicions of a secret enmity between them. The more charitable explanation is that Sabinus’s gentle nature shrank from the idea of bloodshed and massacre, and that this was his reason for so constantly discussing with Vitellius the prospects of peace and a capitulation on terms. After several interviews at his house they finally came to a settlement–so the report went–at the Temple of Apollo. [On the Palatine] To the actual conversation there were only two witnesses, Cluvius Rufus and Silius Italicus,[A friend of Vitellius and the author of the historical epic on the second Punic War] but the expression of their faces was watched from a distance. Vitellius was said to look abject and demoralized: Sabinus showed less sign of pride than of pity.

Had Vitellius found it no harder to persuade his friends than to make his own renunciation, Vespasian’s army might have marched into Rome without bloodshed. But as it was, each of his friends in proportion to his loyalty persisted in refusing terms of peace. They pointed to the danger and disgrace. Would their conqueror keep his promises any longer than he liked? However great Vespasian’s self-confidence, he could not allow Vitellius to live in private. Nor would the losers acquiesce: their very pity would be a menace. [This apparently means that, if Vitellius were spared, pity for his position would inspire his supporters to make further trouble] ‘Of course,’ they said, ‘you are an old man. You have done with fortune, good or bad. But what sort of repute or position would your son Germanicus enjoy? At present they are promising you money and a household, and the pleasant shores of Campania. But when once Vespasian has seized the throne, neither he nor his friends nor even his army will feel their safety assured until the rival claimant is dead. They imprisoned Fabius Valens and meant to make use of him if a crisis occurred, but they found him too great an incubus. You may be sure that Antonius and Fuscus and that typical representative of the party, Mucianus, will have no choice but to kill you. Julius Caesar did not let Pompey live unmolested, nor Augustus Antony. [Two good points, but both untrue] Do you suppose that Vespasian’s is a loftier disposition? Why, he was one of your father’s dependants, [This too is probably hyperbole, but Vespasian may have owed his command in Germany to the influence of Vitellius father’] when your father was Claudius’s colleague. No, think of your father’s censorship, his three consulships, and all the honour your great house has won. You must not disgrace them. Despair, at least, should nerve your courage. The troops are steadfast; you still enjoy the people’s favour. Indeed, nothing worse can happen to you than what we are eager to face of our own free will. If we are defeated, we must die; if we surrender, we must die. All that matters is whether we breathe our last amid mockery and insult or bravely and with honour.’

But Vitellius was deaf to all courageous counsel. His mind was obsessed with pity for his wife and children, and an anxious fear that obstinate resistance might make the conqueror merciless towards them. He had also a mother, very old and infirm, but she had opportunely died a few days before and thus forestalled the ruin of her house. All she had got out of her son’s principate was sorrow and a good name. On December 17 he heard the news that the legion and the Guards at Narnia had deserted him and surrendered to the enemy. He at once put on mourning and left the palace, surrounded by his sorrowful household. His small son was carried in a little litter, as though this had been his funeral. The populace uttered untimely flatteries: the soldiers kept an ominous silence.

On that day there was no one so indifferent to the tragedy of human life as to be unmoved by this spectacle. A Roman emperor, yesterday master of the inhabited world, had left the seat of his authority, and was now passing through the streets of the city, through the crowding populace, quitting the throne. Such a sight had never been seen or heard of before. The dictator, Caesar, had been the victim of sudden violence; Caligula of a secret conspiracy. Nero’s had been a stealthy flight to some obscure country house under cover of night. Piso and Galba might almost be said to have fallen on the field of battle. But here was Vitellius–before the assembly of his own people, his own soldiers around him, with women even looking on–uttering a few sentences suitable to his miserable situation. He said it was in the interest of peace and of his country that he now resigned. He begged them only to retain his memory in their hearts and to take pity on his brother, his wife, and his little innocent children. As he said this, he held out his son to them and commended him, now to individuals, now to the whole assembly. At last tears choked his voice. Turning to the consul, Caecilius Simplex, who was standing by, he unstrapped his sword and offered to surrender it as a symbol of his power over the life and death of his subjects. The consul refused. The people in the assembly shouted ‘No’. So he left them with the intention of depositing the regalia in the Temple of Concord and then going to his brother’s house. But he was faced with a still louder uproar. They refused to let him enter a private house, and shouted to him to return to the palace. They blocked every other way and only left the road leading into the Via Sacra open. [i.e. the way back from the Forum to the Palace] Not knowing what else to do, Vitellius returned to the palace.

A rumour of his abdication had preceded him, and Flavius Sabinus had sent written instructions to the Guards'[Including the city garrison and police] officers to keep the men in hand. Thus the whole empire seemed to have fallen into Vespasian’s lap. The chief senators, the majority of the knights, and the whole of the city garrison and the police came flocking to the house of Flavius Sabinus. There they heard the news of the popular enthusiasm for Vitellius and the threatening attitude of the German Guards.[three cohorts of Guards still faithful to Vitellius, and, that men from the legions of Germany had been enlisted in the Guards, the term “Germanicae cohortes” seems to refer to these three cohorts, in which perhaps the majority were men from the German army] But Sabinus had gone too far to draw back, and when he showed hesitation, they all began to urge him to fight, each being afraid for his own safety if the Vitellians were to fall on them when they were disunited and consequently weaker. However, as so often happens on these occasions, every one offered to give advice but few to share the danger. While Sabinus’ Body Guard were marching down by the Fundane reservoir [Said to be on the Quirinal] they were attacked by some of the most determined Vitellians. The surprise was unpremeditated, but the Vitellians got the best of an unimportant skirmish. In the panic Sabinus chose what was at the moment the safest course, and occupied the summit of the Capitol, [Either the whole hill, or, if the expression is exact, the south-west summit] where his troops were joined by a few senators and knights. It is not easy to record their names, since after Vespasian’s victory crowds of people claimed credit for this service to the party. There were even some women who endured the siege, the most famous of them being Verulana Gratilla, who had neither children nor relatives to attract her, but only her love of danger. [This seems to have led her later into the paths of conspiracy, for she is said to have been banished by Domitian for her friendship with Arulenus Rusticus]

The Vitellians, who were investing them, kept a half-hearted watch, and Sabinus was thus enabled to send for his own children and his nephew Domitian at dead of night, dispatching a courier by an unguarded route to tell the Flavian generals that he and his men were under siege, and would be in great straits unless they were rescued. All night, indeed, he was quite unmolested, and could have escaped with perfect safety. The Vitellian troops could face danger with spirit, but were much too careless in the task of keeping guard; besides which a sudden storm of chilly rain interfered with their sight and hearing.

At daybreak, before the two sides commenced hostilities, Sabinus sent Cornelius Martialis, who had been a senior centurion, to Vitellius with instructions to complain that the conditions were being violated; that he had evidently made a mere empty show of abdication, meant to deceive a number of eminent gentlemen. Else why had he gone from the meeting to his brother’s house, which caught the eye from a conspicuous position overlooking the Forum, and not rather to his wife’s on the Aventine. That was the proper course for a private citizen, anxious to avoid all pretension to supreme authority. But no, Vitellius had returned to the palace, the very stronghold of imperial majesty. From there he had launched a column of armed men, who had strewn with innocent dead the most crowded quarter of Rome, and even laid violent hands upon the Capitol. As for Sabinus himself, the messenger was to say, he was only a civilian, a mere member of the senate. While the issue was being decided between Vespasian and Vitellius by the engagement of legions, the capture of towns, the capitulation of cohorts; even when the provinces of Spain, of Germany, of Britain, had risen in revolt; he, though Vespasian’s brother, had still remained faithful to his allegiance, until Vitellius, unasked, began to invite him to a conference. Peace and union, he was to remind him, serve the interest of the losers, and only the reputation of the winners. If Vitellius regretted their compact, he ought not to take arms against Sabinus, whom he had treacherously deceived, and against Vespasian’s son, who was still a mere boy. What was the good of killing one youth and one old man? He ought rather to march out against the legions and fight for the empire on the field. The result of the battle would decide all other questions.

Greatly alarmed, Vitellius replied with a few words in which he tried to excuse himself and throw the blame on his soldiers. ‘I am too unassuming,’ he said, ‘to cope with their overpowering impatience.’ He then warned Martialis to make his way out of the house by a secret passage, for fear that the soldiers should kill him as an ambassador of the peace to which they were so hostile. Vitellius himself was not in a position to issue orders or prohibitions; no longer an emperor, merely an excuse for war.

Martialis had hardly returned to the Capitol when the furious soldiery arrived. They had no general to lead them: each was a law to himself. Their column marched at full speed through the Forum and past the temples overlooking it. Then in battle order they advanced up the steep hill in front of them, until they reached the lowest gates of the fortress on the Capitol. In old days there was a series of colonnades at the side of this slope, on the right as you go up. Emerging on to the roof of these, the besieged overwhelmed the Vitellians with showers of stones and tiles. The attacking party carried nothing but swords, and it seemed a long business to send for siege-engines and missiles. So they flung torches into the nearest[“Prominentem” seems to mean the one that projected towards them] colonnade and, following in the wake of the flames, would have burst through the burnt gates of the Capitol, if Sabinus had not torn down all the available statues–the monuments of our ancestors’ glory–and built a sort of barricade on the very threshold. They then tried to attack the Capitol by two opposite approaches, one near the ‘Grove of Refuge'[The space lying between the two peaks of the Capitoline] and the other by the hundred steps which lead up to the Tarpeian Rock. This double assault came as a surprise. That by the Refuge was the closer and more vigorous. Nothing could stop the Vitellians, who climbed up by some contiguous houses built on to the side of the hill, which in the days of prolonged peace had been raised to such a height that their roofs were level with the floor of the Capitol. It is uncertain whether the buildings at this point were fired by the assailants or–as tradition prefers–by the besieged in trying to dislodge their enemies who had struggled up so far. The fire spread to the colonnades adjoining the temples, and then the ‘eagles'[A technical term for the beams of the pediment] supporting the roof, which were made of very old wood, caught the flames and fed them. And so the Capitol, with its doors fast shut, undefended and unplundered, was burnt to the ground.

Since the foundation of the city no such deplorable and horrible disaster had ever befallen the people of Rome. It was no case of foreign invasion. Had our own wickedness allowed, the country might have been enjoying the blessings of a benign Providence; and yet here was the seat of Jupiter Almighty–the temple solemnly founded by our ancestors as the pledge of their imperial greatness, on which not even Porsenna,[ ‘Lars Porsenna of Clusium,’ 507 B.C.E.] when Rome surrendered, nor the Gauls, when they took it, had ever dared to lay rash hands–being brought utterly to ruin by the mad folly of two rival emperors![‘Burning the Capitol’ was a proverb of utter iniquity] The Capitol had been burnt before in civil war,[In the war between Sulla and Marius, 83 B.C.E.] but that was the crime of private persons. Now it had been openly assaulted by the people of Rome and openly burnt by them. And what was the cause of war? what the recompense for such a disaster? Were we fighting for our country?

King Tarquinius Priscus had vowed to build this temple in the Sabine war, and had laid the foundations on a scale that suited rather his hope of the city’s future greatness than the still moderate fortunes of the Roman people. Later Servius Tullius, with the aid of Rome’s allies, and Tarquinius Superbus, with the spoils of the Volscians after the capture of Suessa Pometia, [The capital town of the Volscians. This early history is told in the first book of Livy] continued the building. But the glory of completing it was reserved for the days of freedom. After the expulsion of the kings, Horatius Pulvillus, in his second consulship [507 B.C.E.] dedicated this monument on such a magnificent scale, that in later days, with all her boundless wealth, Rome has been able to embellish but never to enlarge it. After an interval of four hundred and fifteen years, in the consulship of Lucius Scipio and Caius Norbanus,[83 B.C.E. The interval is really 425 years] it was burnt and rebuilt on the same site. Sulla after his victory undertook the task of restoring it, but did not dedicate it. This only was lacking to justify his title of ‘Fortune’s Favourite’.[This, according to Pliny, was Sulla’s own saying] Much as the emperors did to it, the name of Lutatius Catulus [Consul in 69 B.C.E. He took the title of Capitolinus] still remained upon it up to the time of Vitellius.[On the monument which details his exploits Augustus says that he restored the Capitol at immense cost without inscribing his name on it] This was the temple that was now ablaze.

The besieged suffered more panic than their assailants. The Vitellian soldiers lacked neither resource nor steadiness in moments of crisis. But on the other side the troops were terrified, the general [Flavius Sabinus] inert, and apparently so paralyzed that he was practically deaf and dumb. He neither adopted others’ plans nor formed any of his own, but only drifted about from place to place, attracted by the shouts of the enemy, contradicting all his own orders. The result was what always happens in a hopeless disaster: everybody gave orders and nobody obeyed them. At last they threw away their weapons and began to peer round for a way of escape or some means of hiding. Then the Vitellians came bursting in, and with fire and sword made one red havoc. A few good soldiers dared to show fight and were cut to pieces. Of these the most notable were Cornelius Martialis, Aemilius Pacensis, Casperius Niger, and Didius Scaeva. Flavius Sabinus, who stood unarmed and making no attempt to escape, was surrounded together with the consul Quintius Atticus,[Consul for November and December. His colleague, Caecilius Simplex, was on the other side] whose empty title made him a marked man, as well as his personal vanity, which had led him to distribute manifestoes full of compliments to Vespasian and insults against Vitellius. The rest escaped by various means. Some disguised themselves as slaves: some were sheltered by faithful dependants: some hid among the baggage. Others again caught the Vitellians’ password, by which they recognized each other, and actually went about demanding it and giving it when challenged, thus escaping under a cloak of effrontery.

When the enemy first broke in, Domitian had taken refuge with the sacristan, and was enabled by the ingenuity of a freedman to escape among a crowd of worshippers in a linen dress, [The dress of the worshippers of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who considered woollen clothes unclean] and to take refuge near the Velabrum with Cornelius Primus, one of his father’s dependants. When his father came to the throne, Domitian pulled down the sacristan’s lodging and built a little chapel to Jupiter the Saviour with an altar, on which his adventures were depicted in marble relief. Later, when he became emperor, he dedicated a huge temple to Jupiter the Guardian with a statue of himself in the lap of the god.

Sabinus and Atticus were loaded with chains and taken to Vitellius, who received them without any language or looks of disfavour, much to the chagrin of those who wanted to see them punished with death and themselves rewarded for their successful labours. When those who stood nearest started an outcry, the dregs of the populace soon began to demand Sabinus’ execution with mingled threats and flatteries. Vitellius came out on to the steps of the palace prepared to plead for him: but they forced him to desist. Sabinus was stabbed and riddled with wounds: his head was cut off and the trunk dragged away to the Ladder of Sighs. [A flight of steps leading down from the Capitol to the Forum. On them the bodies of criminals were exposed after execution] Such was the end of a man who certainly merits no contempt. He had served his country for thirty-five years, and won credit both as civilian and soldier. His integrity and fairness were beyond criticism. He talked too much about himself, but this is the one charge which rumour could hint against him in the seven years when he was Governor of Moesia, and the twelve years during which he was Prefect of the City. At the end of his life some thought he showed a lack of enterprise, but many believed him a moderate man, who was anxious to save his fellow citizens from bloodshed. In this, at any rate, all would agree, that before Vespasian became emperor the reputation of his house rested on Sabinus. It is said that Mucianus was delighted to hear of his murder, and many people maintained that it served the interests of peace by putting an end to the jealousy of two rivals, one of whom was the emperor’s brother, while the other posed as his partner in the empire. [Mucianus]

When the people further demanded the execution of the consul, Vitellius withstood them. He had forgiven Atticus, and felt that he owed him a favour, for, when asked who had set fire to the Capitol, Atticus had taken the blame on himself, by which avowal–or was it a well-timed falsehood?–he had fixed all the guilt and odium on himself and exonerated the Vitellian party.


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