Cornelius Tacitus

The Histories

Book III: XXXII-LVIII Events in Rome, Gaul and Germany

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved

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Contents


Book III:XXXII Antonius addresses the troops

Meanwhile the populace of Cremona were being harassed by the troops and were close to being massacred, until the generals with their pleas calmed the soldiers. Calling them together, Antonius spoke warmly of the victors, mildly of the defeated, and neutrally as regards Cremona.

The soldiers, with their innate desire for plunder and their abiding hatred, contemplated destroying the townspeople, believing that they had taken Vitellius’ side in the war with Otho, and moreover had later with insolent jibes, the urban mob being of an impudent nature, insulted the soldiers of the Thirteenth legion left behind to complete the amphitheatre. The troops’ anger was increased by Caecina’s having mounted a gladiatorial display there, by the town having twice been the site of the enemy headquarters, and having provided supplies to the Vitellian lines, with some of their women so eager for the cause they had been drawn into the battle and slaughtered. Moreover the market had filled the town, always wealthy, with a greater array of goods.

The other generals being relatively unknown, Antonius was brought by success and reputation to the notice of all. He quickly sought the baths to wash away the blood. On his complaining of their coolness, a voice was heard saying they would soon be hot enough: and this remark by a servant turned all the odium against him, as though he himself had given the order to burn Cremona, which was now in flames.

Book III:XXXIII The sacking of Cremona

Forty thousand armed men burst into the town, the number of camp-followers and servants being greater still, and they being readier to indulge in rape and savagery. Neither status nor age gave protection from those who mixed lust with slaughter, slaughter with lust. The oldest of old men, and women near their end, useless as slaves, were dragged away for sport: whenever they came across a mature woman or an outstandingly handsome youth, these were torn apart by the strength and violence of their warring captors until in the end their assailants even brought about their own destruction.

While some carried off masses of coin or gold donated to the temples, they were hacked at by others who were stronger. Those who scorned the obvious, flogged and tortured the owners of hidden wealth, to find and uncover their treasure. The firebrands in their hands, once their prize was assured, they threw wantonly into the unoccupied houses and empty sanctuaries. For in this army, composed of citizens, allies and foreigners, there was such a variety of languages and manners, with diverse forms of lust and greed, that everything seeming right to someone, nothing was unlawful.

Four days sufficed to destroy Cremona. When everything, sacred and profane, had fed the flames, the temple of Mefitis (Goddess of Malaria and Poisonous Vapours) stood alone outside the walls, protected by its location or its deity.

Book III:XXXIV The subsequent fate of Cremona

This was the end of Cremona, in the two hundred and eighty sixth year from its foundation, when Tiberius Sempronius and Publius Cornelius were consuls and Hannibal was attacking Italy, as a defence against the Gauls across the River Po, and any other force that might invade over the Alps. Then due to the large number of colonists, the usefulness of its streams, its fertile fields, and by the connections and intermarriage of its peoples, it grew and flourished, untouched by foreign wars, unhappy only by reason of civil conflict.

Now Antonius, ashamed of his crime, as indignation mounted, proclaimed that no one should detain a citizen of Cremona. The consensus throughout Italy, despising the purchase of such people as slaves, rendered the soldiers’ prizes useless to them: and so they began killing them; which led, as soon as it was known, to their kith and kin ransoming them.

Later, a remnant of the population returned to the site: the fora and the temples were restored through the munificence of the citizens, Vespasian encouraging this.

Book III:XXXV The Flavians advertise their victory

Now the risk of the soil harbouring infection did not allow the army to camp by the ruined city for long. The Flavians moved three miles off, the scattered and fearful Vitellians re-assembled, each to his standard, and the defeated legions were then dispersed throughout Illyricum lest they indulge in dubious activities, with the civil war still ongoing.

Messengers were sent to broadcast news of the victory to Britain and Spain, while Julius Calenus, a tribune, was sent to Gaul, and Apinius Montanus, a cohort prefect, to Germany, the latter being of the Treviri, while Calenus was of the Aedui, but both of Vitellius’s party.

At the same time, Flavian forces occupied the Alpine passes, given the suspicion that support for Vitellius was preparing in Germany.

Book III:XXXVI Events in Rome

Vitellius, once Caecina had departed, and after he had a few days later despatched Fabius Valens to the front, drowned his cares in pleasure. He issued no weapons, failed to inspire the troops by addressing them or exercising their skills, nor did he show his face to the masses, but hid in the garden shade, like those lazy creatures that lie torpid as long as you feed them, and dismissed to the same oblivion past, present and future. Indeed, he was idling away his time languishing in the Arician grove when he was startled to hear of Lucilius Bassus’ treachery and the defection of the fleet at Ravenna. Not long after, he was stirred to sorrow then delight by the news that Caecina had deserted to Vespasian but had been arrested by his troops.

His joy had more effect on his sluggish spirits than his anxiety, and he rode back to the City in great exultation, and in a crowded assembly heaped praise on his brave troops; then ordered Publilius Sabinus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, imprisoned because of his friendship for Caecina, replacing him with Alfenus Varus.

Book III:XXXVII Consul for a day

He later addressed the Senate in a grandiloquent speech, and was extolled by the Senators in terms of the utmost servility. Lucius Vitellius was the first to render harsh judgement against Caecina, the others following with a display of indignation, claiming that as consul he had betrayed the State, and as a general his emperor, who as a friend had loaded him with wealth and honours, expressing their own resentment under the guise of their complaints on behalf of Vitellius. But none spoke in disparagement of the Flavian leaders. While they blamed the troops for their errors and imprudence, they cautiously, with circumlocutions, avoided uttering Vespasian’s name.

Nor was there lacking one senator, Rosius Regulus, to coax from Vitellius the single day remaining of Caecina’s consulship, to great derision regarding both he who granted it and he who received it. Regulus began and ended his consulship therefore that thirty-first day of October. Knowledgeable people remarked that never before had a consul been appointed to replace another without the office falling vacant and a law being passed; for Caninius Rebilus had once been consul for a day (after the death in office of Quintus Fabius Maximus) during Julius Caesar’s dictatorship, Caesar hastening to reward him for his part in the civil war.

Book III:XXXVIII Junius Blaesus condemned

The news, at that time, of the death of Junius Blaesus caused much comment, of which we have learned the following: Vitellius, being afflicted with a painful illness, while in the gardens of Servilius noticed that a neighbouring tower was brightly lit at night. On asking the reason, he was informed that Caecina Tuscus was giving a large banquet at which Junius Blaesus was the guest of honour, exaggerating moreover its elaborateness and the wild nature of the entertainment.

There was no lack of those eager to condemn Tuscus and others, but especially Blaesus, who spent his days in pleasure while his emperor was ill. When Vitellius’ exasperation became clear to those with a keen eye for their prince’s displeasure and they saw that Blaesus could be destroyed, Lucius Vitellius, the emperor’s brother, was handed the role of informant. His hatred towards Blaesus sprang from the basest envy, since stained as he was by every vice, Blaesus’ reputation far surpassed his.

Entering the emperor’s chamber, he fell to his knees and embraced Vitellius’s son. When Vitellius asked the reason for the disturbance, Lucius replied that he had no fears for his own safety, but his prayers and tears were for his brother and his brother’s children. ‘It is idle to fear Vespasian,’ he said, ‘whose forces are held back by the weight of German legions, the brave and loyal provinces, and the immense stretches of sea and land. Beware the enemy in Rome, in your own heartland, who boasts that the Junii and Antonii are his ancestors, who claiming imperial descent displays his affability and magnificence to his men. All minds are drawn to him, while you, Vitellius, careless of friend and foe, nurture a rival who looks out from his banquets on his emperor’s distress. Repay his untimely joy with a night of pain and fatal suffering, that he might know and feel that Vitellius lives and rules, and should misfortune befall him, has a son.’

Book III:XXXIX The death of Blaesus

Hesitating between crime and fear; the fear that delaying Blaesus’ murder might bring immediate harm, and if ordered openly lasting hatred, Vitellius decided to employ poison; but added to a wide belief in his guilt by his obvious delight on visiting the stricken Blaesus. A vicious remark of his was overheard, in which (I quote the very words) he boasted of ‘feasting his eyes on the sight of a dying enemy’.

Blaesus was not only a man of distinguished descent but also of impeccable morals and unshakable loyalty. Even while the State was still united, he had been courted by Caecina and the party leaders dismissive of Vitellius, but Blaesus persistently refused their advances. Virtuous, peace-loving, with no sudden eagerness for honours, least of all an imperial throne, he could not escape being thought worthy of such.

Book III:XL Fabius Valens delays

Meanwhile, Fabius Valens, with his vast self-indulgent entourage of concubines and eunuchs, progressed too slowly for a general advancing to war, receiving news by express messenger on the way that Lucius Bassus had betrayed the Ravenna fleet to the Flavians. Even then, if he had hastened, he might have prevented Caecina’s defection, that traitor still wavering, or might have overtaken the legions before the decisive battle.

There were those who advised him to take a less obvious route to Hostilia or Cremona with his most loyal troops, so avoiding Ravenna. Others favoured his summoning the praetorian cohorts from Rome, and breaking through with a strong force. He himself, with vain delay, wasted the time for action in consultation, quickly scorning both suggestions, and taking a neutral course, the worst in times of doubt, showed a lack of courage and foresight.

Book III:XLI Valens plans to rouse Gaul and Germany

Valens sent despatches to Vitellius asking for help. Three cohorts and a squadron of British cavalry arrived, a force neither capable of escaping observation nor of forcing a passage. Even in such difficulties, Valens did not shun infamy, snatching illicit pleasures and with liaisons and debauchery polluting the homes of his hosts: holding to wealth and power and, though fortune failed, lust at the last.

Once those infantry and cavalry detachments finally appeared, his plans were evidently ruined, since so small a force, however loyal and their loyalty was not wholly unshaken, could not penetrate the enemy lines. Yet shame and respect for their commander restrained them, though those are weak constraints on those fearful of danger and careless of dishonour. He therefore sent the cohorts on to Rimini (Ariminum), ordering the cavalry to protect the rear, while he himself, with a few men whom adversity did not alter, detoured into Umbria and then Etruria.

There, learning the outcome of the battle of Cremona, he formed a daring plan, devastating if it had succeeded, to seize ships, make a landing somewhere in the province of Narbonne, and open a new front by rousing the Gallic provinces, their armies, and the German tribes.

Book III:XLII Italy divided

Valens’ digression unsettled the troops at Rimini. Cornelius Fuscus (now the Flavian admiral), advanced his forces and sent frigates along the neighbouring coastline, so cutting off the defenders by land and sea.

The Flavians now held the Umbrian plains and that area of Picenum bordering the Adriatic, such that the Apennine range divided Italy between Vespasian and Vitellius.

Fabius Valens now sailed from the harbour at Pisa, but a calm or adverse winds led him to anchor at the port of Monaco (Hercules Monoecus). Marius Maturus, procurator of the Maritime Alps, based not far off, was loyal to Vitellius, not having broken his oath of allegiance yet though all around him were hostile.

Marius received Valens courteously, and deterred him, by his warnings, from risking an incursion into Gallia Narbonensis while the loyalty of others was shaken by fear.

Book III:XLIII The capture of Fabius Valens

For Valerius Paulinus, the procurator, an energetic military man and a friend of Vespasian even before the latter’s rise, had bound the surrounding communities by an oath of allegiance. He had also recalled the veterans discharged by Vitellius who now freely re-armed, and had garrisoned Fréjus (Forum Julii), where Paulinus held the greater authority since it was his native city. He was respected by the praetorians whose tribune he had been and the locals, filled with support for a fellow citizen and expectations of his future power, favoured his faction.

When these preparations had been effected and, exaggerated by rumour, were widely reported to the wavering Vitellians, Fabius Valens returned aboard his flagship with four sea-pilots, three friends, and the same number of centurions; Maturus and the rest remained behind and chose to swear allegiance to Vespasian.

For all that the sea seemed safer to Valens than city or shore, the future was uncertain and therefore what to avoid being clearer than what to trust in he was driven by adverse winds to the Stoechadae islands (Îsles de Hyères) belonging to Marseilles. There he was captured by the frigates Paulinus sent after him.

Book III:XLIV Events in Gaul, Spain and Britain

Once Valens was captured, everything turned to the victors’ advantage, beginning in Spain with the First legion Adiutrix which, devoted to Otho therefore hostile to Vitellius, brought over the Tenth and Sixth legions also. Nor did the Gallic provinces hesitate. And sentiment in Britain inclined towards Vespasian, since Claudius had appointed him to command the Second legion there, where he had distinguished himself in battle. This won Vespasian the island, though not without resistance from the other legions, which contained numerous centurions and infantrymen promoted under Vitellius and now concerned at deserting an emperor whom they knew.

Book III:XLV Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes

The Britons, led by Venutius, were roused by the many rumours of discord and civil war. He, in addition to his innate courage and hatred of the Roman name, was stirred by his personal resentment of Queen Cartimandua. She ruled the Brigantes, empowered by her ancestry, increasing her power after she was thought to have captured King Caratacus through treachery, and providing thereby a trophy for the emperor Claudius’ triumph (51AD). From this she derived wealth and a wantonness bred by success.

Casting off Venutius (who was her husband), she took his squire Vellocatus as her consort and co-ruler. Her power was immediately threatened by this flagrant act: her husband favoured by the people, her lover by the queen’s fierce passion for him.

So Venutius summoning external aid, at the same time as the Brigantes were in rebellion, placed Cartimandua in a serious position. She then sought Rome’s protection. And our infantry and cavalry squadrons, after various encounters, finally rescued the queen from danger: the throne being left to Venutius, the fighting to us.

Book III:XLVI Germany and Moesia

At the same time, there was trouble in Germany, and Roman affairs almost met with disaster due to the idleness of the generals, mutinous legionaries, foreign incursions, and the treachery of our allies. The course of that war, with its causes and outcome, we shall describe later (since the conflict was extensive).

The Dacians, a people never trustworthy, were also active and without fear, our army in Moesia having been withdrawn. Though at first they observed events peacefully, once they heard Italy was beset by war, and the empire divided in hostility, they attacked our auxiliary infantry and cavalry in winter quarters, and occupied both banks of the Danube.

They were preparing to destroy the legionary encampments, but Mucianus brought the Sixth legion into play, having learned of the success at Cremona, and fearing that if the Germans and the Dacians broke through separately both those alien hordes might fall upon them. As so often before, fortune now favoured the Romans, in bringing Mucianus and the forces from the East to bear while also securing the victory at Cremona.

Fonteius Agrippa was now transferred from Asia Minor (where he had governed the province for a year as pro-consul) and entrusted with Moesia, being given additional troops from Vitellius’s forces, which for purposes of strategy and peace-keeping were distributed throughout the provinces, many being tied down in external conflict.

Book III:XLVII Uprising in Pontus

Nor were the other nations quiet. There was a sudden uprising in Pontus, led by a barbarian, who had once been admiral of the royal fleet, a freedman of Polemo II, named Anicetus, who having formerly held power was impatient of the change when the kingdom became a Roman province. As a result, he roused the tribes who inhabited Pontus, in the name of Vitellius, seducing the poorest with hopes of plunder. Commanding a not insignificant force, he suddenly attacked Trebizond (Trapezus), founded by Greeks at the far end of the Black Sea coast, and a city of ancient renown.

There he massacred a cohort, formerly auxiliaries of the king but later granted Roman citizenship, adopting Roman manners and weapons while retaining their Greek idleness and licence. Anicetus also set fire to the fleet, escaping over the sea, which was unpatrolled by Mucianus who had gathered the swiftest frigates and all their seamen at Byzantium. The barbarians, contemptuous of Rome and quickly constructing vessels, roamed at will.

They call such vessels camarae, broad-beamed but shallow, fastened together without bronze or iron spikes. In rough seas, the sailors raise the bulwarks with planking to counter the height of the waves, until they are enclosed as if by a roof. Protected thus they roll about in the water. Both ends are raised in a prow and the oars can be shifted, so they can be propelled here or there at will, and in safety.

Book III:XLVIII Viridius Geminus defeats the rebels

These events came to Vespasian’s attention, such that he dispatched legionary veterans there, led by Viridius Geminus, a well-tried military man. Attacking the enemy while they were in a state of disorder, having scattered in their search for plunder, he forced them to their boats, then swiftly assembling some light galleys he followed Anicetus to the mouth of the River Enguri (Chobus), where he was under the protection of the King of the Sedochezi, having secured his support with money and gifts.

The king at first defended his suppliant with weapons and menaces: later, having been offered a reward for treachery with war as the alternative, and being of uncertain loyalty as barbarians are, having agreed to the death of Anicetus he betrayed the fugitives, and that was an end of this slaves’ war.

While Vespasian was rejoicing in this victory, all things succeeding beyond expectations, news of the Battle of Cremona reached him in Egypt. He moved, as swiftly as possible, to Alexandria, so that he might bring famine on Vitellius’s shattered troops, and on a Rome needful of external resources. For he was ready to invade all that region of North Africa, by land and sea, and foster hardship and discord among his enemies by denying them the grain supply.

Book III:XLIX Events in Italy

Whilst imperial fortune was changing with these world-shaking events, Primus Antonius behaved less well after Cremona than he had before that battle, believing he had done enough to resolve the conflict and so the rest would be easy, or because success revealed, in a nature like his, avarice, pride and other previously hidden evils. He strutted about as if Italy had been taken captive, nurturing the legions as if they were his own, and with every word and action constructing his path to power.

To imbue the soldiers with a spirit of lawlessness, he offered the posts of fallen centurions to the rank and file. By their vote the most troublesome were elected; the soldiers were no longer ruled by their officers, rather the officers were subject to the soldiers’ whims. Antonius quickly turned sedition and the erosion of discipline to profit, free from fear of Mucianus’s arrival, which was ultimately more fatal to him than his scorn of Vespasian.

Book III:L Flavian troop movements

Meanwhile, with winter approaching and the plains flooded by the River Po, the Flavian troops travelled light. They left behind at Verona the standards and eagles of the victorious legions, soldiers burdened by wounds or age, and even a number who were fit to march; the auxiliary horse and foot along with picked legionaries seemed sufficient now that an end to the war seemed imminent.

The Eleventh legion had joined them, hesitating initially but, now things were going well, anxious that it was failing in its duty; a new levy of six thousand Dalmatians accompanied them, led by an ex-consul, Pompeius Silvanus, with advisory power vested in Annius Bassus, the legionary legate. Bassus directed Silvanus, who was apathetic in military matters and wasted the days of action in mere talk, by feigning deference while attending quietly but energetically to what needed doing. In addition, many of the marines at Ravenna sought service with the legions, and the best were enrolled, Dalmatians replacing them in the fleet.

The troops and their officers halted at Fano (Fanum Fortunae), hesitating as to their course of action, hearing that six praetorian cohorts had left Rome, and thinking the Apennine passes guarded; the commanders were also concerned at the lack of supplies in a region devastated by war and the mutinous demands of the soldiers for their gratuities, or their clavarium as they called it. The commanders had with them neither cash nor provisions, and were embarrassed by the haste and greed with which they had seized for themselves what might now have been welcome.

Book III:LI Moral bankruptcy in the Flavian army

I have it on the best authority that such disrespect for right and wrong had arisen in victory that a common trooper, confessing to have killed his own brother in the recent conflict, sought a reward from his commanders. The laws of humanity preventing them honouring such an atrocity, or the logic of war from punishing it, they deferred his request on the grounds that he merited a greater reward than could be immediately conferred; and nothing more was heard of the matter. Yet a similar iniquity occurred in a previous civil war. For one of Pompey’s men, during the struggle with Cinna on the Janiculum (87BC), killed his brother, then realising his transgression slew himself: so much keener was repentance for crime among our ancestors as well as the glorying in courageous action.

These and other things drawn from previous history I shall record without impropriety whenever the action or situation beg examples of virtue or relief from wrong.

Book III:LII Rivalry between Antonius and Mucianus

Antonius and the Flavian commanders resolved to send cavalry forward to reconnoitre through all Umbria to see whether the Apennine ridge could be approached quietly; and they also determined to summon the eagles and standards with their troops from Verona, and fill the sea and the River Po with supply convoys.

There were those among the commanders who contrived to delay: since Antonius was now above himself, and they hoped for more advantage from Mucianus, who taken aback by the swiftness of the victory, and thinking he would be denied his share of the glory gained from this war if he did not himself conquer Rome, kept writing to Primus and Varus, speaking, ambiguously, of the need to maintain the initiative yet benefit from delay, so proceeding that depending on the outcome he might repudiate failure or claim success.

He wrote more openly to Plotius Gryphus, lately made a senator by Vespasian and given a legion to command, and to others loyal to himself, admonishing them, and all replied unfavourably as to the haste shown by Primus and Varus, and favourably as to Mucianus himself. Sending these letters on to Vespasian, Mucianus ensured that Antonius’ actions and proposals were not valued as highly as the latter hoped.

Book III:LIII Antonius tries to undermine Mucianus

Antonius was angered, and blamed Mucianus for belittling the dangers he had run, by means of the latter’s slanders; nor was he temperate of speech, being a man extreme in his use of language and unaccustomed to deferring. He composed a letter to Vespasian, over-boastful to a commander-in-chief, covertly attacking Mucianus, saying that he himself had armed the Pannonian legions, he it was who had roused the Moesian commanders to action, and his firmness of purpose it was that had penetrated the Alps, seized Italy, and prevented intervention by Vitellian auxiliaries from Germany and Raetia.

As for the rout and dispersal of the Vitellian legions by a storm of cavalry, and their prompt pursuit throughout a day and a night by an infantry force, these were glorious actions of his own. The fate of Cremona he imputed to the necessities of war, maintaining that previous civil conflicts had caused greater loss and destroyed more cities. He was not one, he said, who fought for his emperor in letters and despatches but by force of arms; nor did he seek to tarnish the glory of those meanwhile who had calmed Dacia; they had desired to bring peace to Moesia, he safety and security to Italy. Due to his exhortations, he claimed, the Gallic Provinces and Spain, the most powerful provinces of the empire, had turned to Vespasian, but all his efforts would be null and void if the only reward for dangers run went to those who had experienced no danger.

None of this escaped the notice of Mucianus, the result of which was deep enmity, furthered openly by Antonius, and craftily and more implacably by Mucianus.

Book III:LIV Vitellius in denial

Meanwhile, Vitellius, weakened at Cremona, concealing news of the disaster, deferred the remedy for his misfortune, not the misfortune itself, by foolish dissimulation. For if he had acknowledged events and taken counsel he would have seen that he still had both hope and resources: while by pretending, on the contrary, that all was well, he worsened matters through self-deception. There was a wondrous silence, in his presence, regarding the war; and prohibiting talk of it in the city only resulted in more talk. If it had been allowed the truth would have been told, but since it was forbidden rumours even more terrifying were circulated.

Nor did the Flavian leaders fail to add to these by conducting the Vitellian spies they captured around their camp, showing them the victorious army’s strength, and then sending them back to Rome. All, having been questioned in secret, Vitellius ordered to be executed.

Julius Agrestis, a centurion, who with remarkable persistence had tried to rouse Vitellius to action but all in vain, persuaded the emperor to send him in person to view the enemy forces and investigate the action at Cremona. He did not attempt to deceive Antonius by visiting in secret, but openly professed to his imperial mandate, and his own purpose, and asked to see everything.

Having been shown the battlefield, the ruins of Cremona, and the captured legionaries, Agrestis returned to Vitellius. When the emperor rejected his report as untrue, and accused him of having been seduced by the enemy, he replied: ‘Since substantial evidence is required, and my life or death cannot serve you otherwise, I will provide you with something you can believe in.’ Saying this he departed, and made good his words by committing suicide. Some say he was executed by order of Vitellius, all attest to his loyalty and steadfastness.

Book III:LV Vitellius rouses himself

Vitellius, like a man now waking from sleep, ordered Julius Priscus and Alfenus Varus with fourteen praetorian cohorts and all the cavalry to block the Apennine passes: they were followed by a legion of marines. These many thousands of armed men, picked infantry and cavalry, under another leader would have provided sufficient strength to promote the war.

The remaining cohorts Vitellius gave to his brother Lucius to defend Rome. He himself, in no way abating his life of pleasure and diffident regarding what was to come, brought forward the elections, appointing consuls for multiple years; readily made treaties with allies or granted Latin rights to foreigners; was pleased to reduce various tributes and abolish others completely; in short without regard to the future he severely damaged the empire, though the mob assisted in this flow of privileges, the most foolish buying for money what the wise regarded as worthless, things which if the state were to survive should neither have been granted nor accepted.

In the end, Vitellius, under pressure from the army which was in camp at Bevagna (Mevania) in Perugia, joined them with a long line of senators, many drawn by ambition, most by fear, himself filled with uncertainty and wide open to treacherous advice.

Book III:LVI The emperor’s ineffectiveness

As Vitellius was speaking to the troops, such a flock of birds of ill-omen flew over him that, marvellous to say, they hid the sky like a dark cloud. A dire omen followed, a sacrificial bull fled from the altar, overthrew the paraphernalia of sacrifice, and was despatched some distance off, and not in the manner of a sacrificial victim.

But the most noticeable portent of things to come was Vitellius himself who, incompetent in military matters, lacking in foresight and in knowledge of the order of march, in the need for reconnaissance or the limits within which a campaign should be contracted or extended, endlessly interrogated others, showing concern in his gaze and unsteady walk at every item of news then drinking heavily.

Finally, tiring of the camp and learning of the defection of the fleet at Misenum (Miseno) he returned to Rome, fearful as ever at the latest blow, and indifferent as to the greatest source of risk. For when the Apennines might have been crossed with his army’s strength intact and the enemy wearied by winter weather and supply shortages, as it was open to him to command, by scattering his forces he delivered his best troops, loyal to the last, to death and captivity, though the most experienced centurions dissented and if asked would have spoken truly.

But Vitellius’ intimates kept them from him, so distorting his hearing that good advice sounded discordant, and he heard nothing but what was pleasing and therefore harmful.

Book III:LVII Defection and re-alignment

Meanwhile (such is the weight of individual initiative in a civil conflict) Claudius Flaventinus, a centurion handed a dishonourable discharge by Galba, prompted the fleet to defect by forging letters from Vespasian promising a reward for their treason. The then admiral of the fleet was Claudius Apollinaris who though uncertain in his loyalty had not determined on rebellion, and it was Apinius Tiro, an ex-praetor, then by chance at Minturnae (Minturno) who offered himself as acting leader of the defectors.

The municipalities and colonies were roused by them, Pozzuoli (Puetoli) for example eagerly supporting Vespasian, Capua in contrast remaining loyal to Vitellius, such that rivalry between them all became a feature of the civil war.

Vitellius appointed Claudius Julianus (who shortly before had commanded the fleet at Misenum with a light rein) to pacify the men, supporting him with a city cohort and the gladiators he was then in charge of. But the two camps being adjacent, Julianus joined Vespasian’s party with scant delay, and they occupied Terracina (Tarracina), better protected by its site and fortifications than its defenders’ skills.

Book III:LVIII Vitellius fails to command Equestrian loyalty

Learning of this, Vitellius left part of his force with the prefects of the praetorian guard at Terni (Narnia) and sent Lucius Vitellius, his brother, with six infantry cohorts and five hundred cavalry to oppose any outbreak of fighting in Campania.

He himself was troubled in mind, but the enthusiasm of the soldiers and the clamour of the populace demanding arms (as he addressed that cowardly mob, daring only in words, in lieu of legions and an army) restored him. Exhorted to do so by his freedmen (for the nobler his friends the less he trusted them) he ordered the people to assemble in tribes and administered the oath as they enrolled. The numbers being so great, he divided the selection of recruits between the consuls, imposing a levy of slaves and cash on the senators. The Equestrian order freely offered money and assistance, and even the freedmen demanded the same privilege.

This pretence of devotion, prompted by fear, proved supportive, yet it was born less out of concern for Vitellius than for the empire in its perilous state. He himself took every opportunity to elicit their sympathy, with tearful speech and gaze, and by copious and extravagant promises, as is the nature of the fearful. He now wished to be called Caesar, a title which he had indeed previously rejected, but which was now welcome because of its associations for the superstitious, for in time of fear the murmurs of the crowd are given equal weight with the counsels of the wise.

Yet, as all directives that spring from ill-conceived motives are strong at first but later weaken, the senators and knights gradually became dilatory, hesitating at first then, shortly, when Vitellius was not present, showing contempt and indifference, until in shame at the ineffectiveness of his dictum he excused them from an effort they failed to make.

End of the Histories Book III:XXXII-LVIII