Cornelius Tacitus

The Annals

Book XII: I-XL - Claudius and Agrippina, campaign in Britain

Caesar Deified

‘Caesar Deified’
History of Rome and the Roman people, from its origin to the establishment of the Christian empire - Victor Duruy (1811 - 1894) (p626, 1884)
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Book XII:I The selection of a new consort

The death of Messalina shook the imperial household, since a battle started among the freedmen, as to who should find a consort for Claudius, given his impatience with a celibate life and his submissiveness to a wife’s power. Competition was no less fierce among women: each put forward her nobility, beauty and wealth, and showed herself as worthy of so important an alliance.

The contest, however, was chiefly between Lollia Paulina, the daughter of Marcus Lollius, he being of consular rank, and Agrippina the Younger, daughter of Germanicus. The latter had the support of Pallas, the former of Callistus; though Narcissus favoured Aelia Paetina of the Tuberones family, Claudius’ ex-wife.

The emperor, being prepared to take any one of these, according to whichever recommendation he had last heard, called the disputants together and ordered each to express his opinion and give his reasons.

Book XII:II The freedmen make the case for their respective candidates

Narcissus spoke of Claudius’ early marriage to Aelia, of the daughter they shared (Claudia Antonia being the child of their union), and of the fact that there would be no disruption to his domestic life in the return of a spouse who would treat Britannicus and Claudia Octavia, almost as dear to her as her own children, with anything but a stepmother’s aversion.

Callistus, however, claimed that Aelia was disqualified on account of the previous divorce and that, if she were welcomed back, she would on that very account be inclined to arrogance. A better solution was to accept Lollia, who as she had never borne children, would be immune to jealousy and would act as a mother to her step-children.

Pallas, praising Agrippina the Younger highly, pointed out that she brought with her Germanicus’ grandson (Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the future emperor Nero), who was worthy of imperial rank: let Claudius unite in noble lineage the descendants of the Julian and Claudian families, lest a woman of proven fecundity, in the prime of youth, transfer the glory of the Caesars to some other house.

Book XII:III Agrippina the Younger is chosen

His argument prevailed, assisted by Agrippina’s seductive behaviour: whereby in a succession of visits to her uncle Claudius, ostensibly in her role as his niece, she so inveigled him that she saw off her rivals and though not yet his wife exercised a wife’s powers. For, once certain of the marriage, she extended her ambitions, and worked for a match between her son (the offspring of Gnaeus Ahenobarbus) and the emperor’s daughter Claudia Octavia, which could not be achieved without cunning, as Claudius had promised Octavia to Lucius Silanus, and had promoted him to public notice by awarding him triumphal insignia and mounting a magnificent gladiatorial display. Yet that problem seemed not insurmountable given the attitude of an emperor who showed neither approval nor dislike unless it was so imposed and decreed.

Book XII:IV Vitellius supports Agrippina’s scheming

Vitellius, therefore, foreseeing Agrippina’s impending domination, and hiding his servile intrigues behind his title of censor, sought her favour, by implicating himself in her schemes, and bringing charges against Silanus, whose beautiful but wayward sister, had indeed until recently been his own daughter-in-law, out of which the accusation arose, Vitellius treating as infamous her brother’s love for her, which though not incestuous was blatant.

Claudius lent an ear to this, his love for his daughter Octavia rendering him all the more ready to harbour doubts against her prospective husband. Silanus, ignorant of the plot against him and, by chance, praetor for the year, was suddenly removed from the Senate list, though the lustrum had been closed, and the roll was long complete. Simultaneously Claudius cancelled the proposed alliance, and Silanus was forced to resign his magistracy, the remaining day of his praetorship being conferred on Eprius Marcellus.

Book XII:V Vitellius speaks before the Senate

In the consulate of Gaius Pompeius and Quintus Veranius (AD49), the marriage pact between Claudius and Agrippina was already being affirmed by rumour and by their illicit lovemaking; though they had not yet dared to celebrate the nuptial ceremony, no precedent existing for a niece’s introduction to her uncle’s household: the relationship being indeed incestuous, it was feared that if that were ignored it would result in disaster for the State.

Their hesitation only ended when Vitellius determined to bring about the marriage by his own efforts. He started by asking Claudius whether he would concede to the people’s will and the Senate’s authority. Claudius replied that he was a citizen among citizens, and unequal to challenging such a consensus, and Vitellius then told him to wait there in the palace. He himself went to the Senate House, and claiming urgent State business demanded leave to speak first, beginning thus:

‘The emperor’s grave duties, which involve the whole world, must be supported so that he might attend to State matters free of domestic anxiety. What could more fittingly lighten a censor’s cares than to take a wife, a partner in good times and bad, to whom might be confided the intimate thoughts, and the young children, of an emperor who has been a stranger to pleasure or excess, but accustomed from his early youth to comply with the law.’

Book XII:VI Vitellius promotes the cause of Agrippina

As these positive opening remarks were well-received by the senators, he made a fresh start: ‘Since all advise that the emperor should marry, the woman chosen should be noble, have borne children, and be noted for her purity. Even a brief enquiry reveals that Agrippina is foremost among those of illustrious family: her fecundity is proven, and her virtue is in harmony with her other qualities. But above all, by divine providence, a widow would be united with an emperor who has known no marriage-bed but his own. You have heard from your fathers, and you yourselves have seen, how wives have been stolen from their husbands at a Caesars’ pleasure: such is far from the present principled intent.

A precedent would in fact be established, whereby an emperor’s wife would be chosen by the Senate. Yet it might be said that in Rome marriage with a brother’s daughter would be a new innovation, though it is accepted practice in foreign countries, and not prohibited by law, while marriage to a cousin, long unknown, has become more widespread with the passage of time. Custom adapts to suit what benefits us, and this too would be one of those changes which are quickly adopted.’

Book XII:VII Claudius accepts Agrippina as his wife

No small flood of senators from the House ensued, claiming publicly that if the emperor hesitated they would act in strength. A crowd, gathered at random, cried out that it was also the wish of the Roman people. Without delay, Claudius went to meet them in the Forum, accepted their congratulations, and entering the Senate asked for a decree whereby, in future, a man’s marriage with a brother’s daughter would be treated as legitimate. None the less, only one enthusiast for such a form of matrimony was discovered, Alledius Severus, a Roman knight, whose motive it was said was Agrippina’s favour.

The State was transformed by the marriage, and all were subject to a woman, but not in wantonness as Messalina toyed with all things Roman. Agrippina’s was a severe, almost masculine, tyranny: in public an austere and often arrogant stance; within her household nothing unchaste, unless it contributed to her power. A limitless desire for gold provided the pretext, as if designed to support her despotism. 

Book XII:VIII Silanus commits suicide

Silanus waited for the wedding day before committing suicide, either having maintained his hope of survival till then, or choosing that day to render it more inauspicious. His sister Calvina was banished from Italy. In addition Claudius, derided by all for choosing such a time to highlight the penalties and purifications demanded by incest, ordered sacrifices, in accordance with the laws decreed by King Tullus, and expiatory rites, to be performed by the pontiffs in Diana’s sacred grove.

However, Agrippina, not wishing to become known only for wrongdoing, obtained Seneca the Younger’s return from exile, with confirmation of a praetorship, thinking that his literary reputation would make her action pleasing to the public, and in order to employ so distinguished a man as tutor for Domitius (Nero), on his entering adolescence, and to profit from Seneca’s advice regarding her own ambitions, it being believed that Seneca was loyal to Agrippina because of his memories of her kindness, while hostile to Claudius through resentment of the injury done to himself.

Book XII:IX Domitius (Nero) gains position

It was now decided to delay no further, and Mammius Pollio, the consul designate, was induced by extraordinary promises to table a motion begging Claudius to pledge Octavia to Domitius (Nero), an action not implausible on grounds of age, while opening the path to greater things. Pollio employed not dissimilar language to that recently used by Vitellius; Octavia’s engagement followed, and Domitius (Nero), who over and above his former relationship to the emperor was now his prospective son-in-law, achieved equality with Britannicus, thanks to his mother’s zeal and the machinations of those who, having accused Messalina, feared the vengeance of her son.      

Book XII:X An embassy from Parthia

About this time, the Parthian envoys who had been sent, as I have mentioned, to seek the return of Meherdates, addressed the Senate concerning their mandate, in the following fashion: they were not unaware of the existing treaty, nor were they there in opposition to the Arsacids, but were calling on the son of Vonones, the grandson of Phraates, to counter the tyranny of Gotarzes, which was intolerable to the nobility and the masses alike.

Already brothers, dear ones, distant connections, had been annihilated by slaughter; add to that pregnant women and infants, while, inactive at home and a disaster in the field, Gozartes masked his cowardice with savagery. With us they had a friendship that was old, and forged in a time of national unity, and it was for us to assist them as allies, who though rivals in power yielded to us out of respect.

 The idea of giving the sons of kings as hostages, was that if the government at home became wearisome, they had recourse to the emperor and the Senate, and so that a more enlightened monarch, used to their ways, might be appointed.

Book XII:XI Claudius agrees to install Meherdates as king

In reply to these and similar representations, Claudius began to speak about Roman dignity and Parthian deference, and his parity with the divine Augustus whom they had asked to provide them with a king, neglecting to mention Tiberius, though he too had sent out candidates.

Since Meherdates was present, he added the suggestion that he should think not in terms of a tyrant and slaves, but of a governor and citizens, and exercise mercy and justice, things unknown to barbarous peoples, and therefore the more welcome.

Then, turning to the ambassadors, he praised this foster-child of Rome, who up to now had given evidence of his moderation: nevertheless the nature of kings had to be borne in mind, nor did frequent change serve any purpose. The Roman Empire, he added, now sated with glory, had reached the point where she wished peace on other countries also.

Gaius Cassius Longinus, who governed Syria, was then deputed to escort the young prince to the banks of the Euphrates.

Book XII:XII Cassius Longinus warns Meherdates

At that time, Cassius Longinus exceeded all others in his knowledge of the law: for the military arts are lost in times of quiet, and peace makes men of action and the sedentary as one. Yet, as far as was possible, in a period free of conflict, Cassius reverted to the ancient disciplinary code, exercised his legions, and acted with the same care and forethought as if an enemy was present: considering such conduct worthy of his ancestry and the Cassian family, celebrated even in those regions.

He therefore summoned those who had sought the appointment of a king, and pitched camp at Zeugma (Gaziantep province, Turkey), the most suitable place to cross the river. After the arrival of the Parthian leaders, and the Arab prince Acbarus (king of Osroene), he warned Meherdates that the eager enthusiasm of barbarians languishes with delay or turns to treachery: he should therefore pursue his objective.

The advice was ignored, due to Acbarus’ deceit; the inexperienced youth, who considered luxurious excess the height of good fortune, being detained by him, day after day, in the town of Edessa (Urfa, Turkey). Even when invited to take up his position by Carenes, who pointed out that all would be easy if they arrived promptly, he did not take the nearest road to Mesopotamia, but a circuitous route via Armenia, an unsuitable one at that time, when winter was setting in.

Book XII:XIII Meherdates advances

At last, wearied by snow-covered mountains, after reaching the plain, they joined forces with Carenes, and crossing the Tigris penetrated the country of the Adiabeni (Northern Assyria), whose king, Izates, appeared as Meherdates’ ally openly, but secretly, and with greater loyalty, supported Gozartes.

However in passing they captured Nineveh (Mosul, Iraq) the most ancient capital of Assyria, and also a series of defences known to history as the place where the Persian Empire fell, in the last battle between Darius and Alexander the Great.

Meanwhile, Gotarzes, was offering prayers to the local deities on a mountain named Sanbulos; the principal cult being that of Hercules, who at the appointed time warns his priests, in their sleep, to tether a number of horses, equipped for the hunt, beside his temple. The animals, adorned with quivers full of arrows, are loosed in the forest glades, returning only at nightfall, breathing heavily, and with empty quivers. In a further nocturnal vision, the god reveals his path through the forest, and the bodies of wild beasts are found there, scattered along the trail.

Book XII:XIV Meherdates is defeated

Gotarzes, his army not yet at full strength, used the river Corma as a natural defence, and in spite of derisive messages calling on him to fight, contrived delays, changed his location, and sent men to bribe his enemies to defect.

Izates was the first to defect, with his contingent of Adiabeni, then Acbarus and his Arabs, displaying the fickleness of that nation, and the inclination of barbarians to petition Rome for kings but not remain loyal to them, as proven by experience. Denuded of these auxiliary forces, and wary of treason on the part of the rest, Meherdates, taking the only course left to him, decided to take his chances in battle.

Gozartes, emboldened by this diminution of the enemy’s strength, did not decline to fight, and the armies met, with vast slaughter and an uncertain outcome, until Carenes, who had broken the opposite lines, advanced too far and was surrounded by fresh troops from the rear.

Meherdates, with all hope lost, deceived by the promises made by his father’s vassal Parraces, was thrown into chains through an act of treachery on the latter’s part, and surrendered to the victor. Gozartes abusing him, as neither a relative of his nor a member of the house of the Arsacids, but rather a foreigner and a Roman, cut off his ears while commanding him to live, to display his own mercy and our disgrace.

Later, however, Gotarzes died of disease, and Vonones II, then ruling the Medes, was summoned to the throne (AD51). He was memorable for neither his successes nor his defeats: but completed a brief and inglorious reign, the Parthian Empire passing to his son Vologeses I.

Book XII:XV Mithridates of the Bosporus seeks to retake his kingdom

Meanwhile, Mithridates III of the Bosporus, an exile since losing his throne, had learned that the Roman commander Didius Gallus had departed with most of his army, leaving Mithridates’ inexperienced younger brother Cotys I to begin his reign, along with a few Roman cohorts under Julius Aquila, a Roman knight. Scornful of both, Mithridates roused the tribes.

He attracted deserters, and finally, gathering an army, he drove out the king of the Dandaridae (a Sarmatian tribe), and seized his dominions. This being discovered, and his invasion of Bosporus being expected from day to day, Aquila and Cotys, mistrusting their own strength since Zorsines king of the Siraci (a second Sarmatian tribe) had resumed hostilities, sought outside help, following Mithridates’ example, by sending envoys to Eunones, the powerful king of the Aorsi (a third Sarmatian tribe).

An alliance was easy to forge, when they exhibited the power of Rome ranged against the rebel Mithridates. It was therefore arranged, that Eunones would command the cavalry engagements, while the Romans laid siege to the townships.

Book XII:XVI The Romans engage and advance

They then advanced with combined forces, the Aorsi holding the front and rear; the cohorts and the Bosporan troops, armed in our manner, holding the centre. Thus they drove back the enemy, and reached Soza, a town of the Dandaridae, relinquished by Mithridates, where, given the dubious support of the population, they thought it wise to leave a garrison.

They next advanced on the Siraci and, crossing the river Panda, surrounded Upse, set on a height and defended by walls and moat, though the walls, being made of wickerwork frames, with soil between, were too weak to withstand attack, while our siege towers, elevated higher, troubled the besiegers with spears and firebrands.

If nightfall had not interrupted the battle, the attack would have started and ended that same day.

Book XII:XVII Zorsines surrenders

On the next day, the town sent emissaries seeking terms for the free inhabitants, and offering ten thousand of the rest as slaves. This was rejected by the victors, because it would be difficult to guard so many, and cruel to massacre them given they had surrendered, better they should die fighting, under the rules of combat. The soldiers who had mounted scaling ladders, therefore, received the signal to grant no quarter.

The destruction of Upse, struck fear elsewhere, there being no safe haven, where men and defences, high or difficult terrain, rivers and townships, were equally surmounted. So Zorsines, after careful consideration as to whether to devote his attention to Mithridates’ desperate plight or his own ancestral kingdom, gave hostages, the interests of his own people prevailing, and prostrated himself before the emperor’s effigy, to the great glory of the Roman army which, victorious and unharmed, had taken up position within three days’ march of the river Don.

However, on withdrawing, their fortunes changed, as some of the ships (they were returning by sea) were driven onto the Crimean coast, and surrounded by barbarians who killed the prefect of one cohort and many of the auxiliaries.

Book XII:XVIII Mithridates turns for support to Eunones

Meanwhile, without recourse to arms, Mithridates considered where he should seek mercy. His brother Cotys, who had once betrayed him, and then acted as his enemy, was to be mistrusted: and the Romans in the region possessed insufficient authority for any great weight to be attached to their promises.

He turned to Eunones, who was not hostile to him through any personal animosity, and whose power was enhanced by his recent befriending of ourselves. With an expression and appearance suited to his present situation, he entered the palace therefore, and fell at the king’s knees, saying: ‘Mithridates, whom the Romans sought by land and sea for many years, is here of his own free will: use, as you wish, a descendant of the great Achaemenes, the one title my enemies have not taken from me.’

Book XII:XIX Eunones sends an embassy to Rome

Eunones, moved by the man’s fame, the reversal in his fortunes, and his scarcely ignoble plea, raised the suppliant, and praised him for choosing to seek mercy at the hands of himself and the Aorsi. He immediately sent an embassy to Claudius, with a letter in this manner: friendship between the Roman emperors and the kings of great nations arose from the similarity in their standing, while Claudius and himself were partners in victory. The noblest end to war was as often a question of clemency; thus Zorsines had been conquered but not despoiled.

On behalf of Mithridates, who merited graver punishment, he begged neither power nor royalty, but to be spared being led in triumph, and to escape with his life.

Book XII:XX Claudius chooses to grant mercy

Yet Claudius, mild though he was in his treatment of foreign nobility, was nevertheless uncertain whether it was better to receive the captive with a guarantee of safety, or to reclaim him by force. He was inclined to the latter, through resentment at the injury done him and a desire for vengeance, but against this it was urged that he would be waging war in a land without roads, on a coast without harbours, not forgetting the warlike kings, nomadic population, and infertile soil, as well as the tedium of delay, the danger of haste, the limited glory of victory, and the deep ignominy of defeat. Better to grasp the offer, and spare the exile, to whom every extension of impoverished life would be so much the greater a punishment.

 Won over by these arguments, he wrote to Eunones, saying that though it was true that Mithridates merited the death penalty, nor was it beyond his power to enforce it, yet it had been his ancestors’ belief that as much charity should be maintained towards suppliants as firmness towards their enemies, since triumphs were earned by defeating undefeated kings and peoples.

Book XII:XXI Mithridates is sent to Rome

In due course, Mithridates was handed over and taken to Rome by Junius Cilo, the procurator of Pontus. It is said that Mithridates was more outspoken before Claudius than his situation warranted, and one sentence of his came to public notice: ‘I have not been brought back to you, I have returned: if you doubt that, let me go, then try and fetch me.’ 

His features too remained unflinching, even when he was exposed to the populace beside the Rostra, and in the midst of his keepers. Consular insignia were granted to Cilo, bodyguard to Aquila.

Book XII:XXII The downfall of Lollia and Calpurnia

During the same consulate (AD49), Agrippina, savage in her hatreds, and an enemy of Lollia’s, since the latter was a rival for the emperor’s hand, appointed a prosecutor and laid charges against her, namely of consorting with astrologers and magicians, and consulting the oracular statue of Clarian Apollo regarding the emperor’s marriage.

Claudius, without a defence being heard, delivered a long speech in the Senate on the illustrious nature of her family, remarking on the fact that her mother was the sister of Lucius Volusius, her great-uncle Cotta Messalinus, herself the ex-wife of Memmius Regulus (her marriage to Caligula being deliberately suppressed), while adding that her intrigues were ruinous to the State, and that she must be denied the means to cause mischief: her property confiscated, she should leave Italy. Therefore only fifty thousand gold pieces of her vast assets remained to her in exile.

Calpurnia, another woman of high rank, was also ruined, because Claudius had praised her beauty, though not out of desire for her but simply in casual conversation such that Agrippina’s anger fell short of outright fury. In Lollia’s case, however, a tribune was sent to ensure her suicide.

A further conviction was that of Cadius Rufus on a charge of extortion brought by the Bithynians.

Book XII:XXIII Various public business

For showing a notable respect for the Senate, Narbonese Gaul was granted the right, which Sicily already possessed, whereby the senators from the province might visit their estates without requiring the emperor’s permission.

Judaea, and Ituraea (hill-country east of the Jordan) were attached to the province of Syria, on the deaths of their kings, Herod Agrippa I, and Sohaemus respectively.

It was agreed that the Augury of National Security, omitted for the previous seventy-eight years, should be revived, and continued in future.

Also, Claudius extended the city boundary (the pomerium), according to ancient practice, whereby an expansion of the empire conferred the right to enlarge the area of the city. Nevertheless, it was a right that, even after the conquest of powerful nations, had not been exercised by any Roman leader other than Lucius Sulla and the divine Augustus.

Book XII:XXIV The origins of the city boundary (the pomerium)

Varying accounts are given of the ambition or pride of the kings regarding this matter, but I think it reasonable to investigate the original nature and establishment of the pomerium, as determined by Romulus. A furrow to mark the city boundary was cut from the Forum Boarium (to the west, near the Tiber) where the likeness of a bronze bull can be seen, that animal having being yoked to the plough, so as to take in the great altar of Hercules (in the west). From there, boundary stones were set at fixed intervals along the base of the Palatine Hill to the altar of Consus (in the south), then to the old Senate House, then again to the shrine of the Lares, and after that to the Forum Romanum (in the north); the Forum and the Capitol, it is believed, being added to the city not by Romulus, but by Titus Tatius.

Later, the boundary was extended, in accordance with national success. The limits as set by Claudius are easily identifiable and inscribed in the public records.

Book XII:XXV Domitius (Nero) adopted by Claudius

In the consulate of Gaius Antistius and Marcus Suillius, the adoption by Claudius of Domitius (later the emperor Nero) was brought forward, at the instigation of Pallas who, bound to Agrippina as the promoter of her marriage and then involved with her in debauchery, urged Claudius to consult the public good, and provide robust protection for the young Britannicus: so Augustus’ step-children rose to prominence, he said, though he had grandsons to rely upon; and thus Tiberius promoted Germanicus above his own issue: let Claudius then take to himself a young man who would undertake to share responsibility.

His urging prevailed, and Claudius set Domitius, with three years’ seniority, above his son Britannicus, giving in his speech to the Senate the same justification he had accepted from his freedman. Experts have noted that there was no trace prior to this of any adoption into the patrician branch of the Claudians, who had succeeded in unbroken line from Attus Clausus onwards.

Book XII:XXVI Britannicus’ sad situation

Nevertheless, thanks were returned to the emperor, with more far-fetched flattery of Domitius, and the law was carried effecting his adoption into the Claudian House, with the name Nero. Agrippina was dignified with the title of Augusta.

When the matter was concluded, no one was so lacking in pity as to be free of sorrow at Britannicus’ fate. Stripped, little by little, of even the services of his slaves, the boy turned to mocking his stepmother’s attentions, aware of her hypocrisy. For, they say, he was not by nature without intelligence, perhaps speaking truly or perhaps, given the risks attendant on his situation, crediting him with a reputation never put to the test.

Book XII:XXVII Incursion of the Chatti in Upper Germany

Agrippina though, to advertise her power to the provinces as well, organised the settlement of a colony of veterans in the town of the Ubii where she was born, which took its name from hers (Cologne: Colonia Claudia Ara Augusta Agrippinensium). It was her grandfather, Agrippa, who happened to have granted protection to the tribe on their migration across the Rhine.

At about the same time, alarm was caused in Upper Germany by marauding contingents of the Chatti. Publius Pomponius, the legate, sent auxiliary forces of the Vangiones and Nemetes, supported by allied cavalry, with orders to head off the raiders or, if they attempted to disperse, surprise and surround them.

The general’s plan was attended by diligence from his men, marching in two columns, the first, towards the left, encircling a group of the enemy newly-returned from pillaging, who were sleeping heavily after enjoying to excess the results of their depredations. Adding to our delight was our redemption from slavery of various survivors of Varus’ disaster, forty years previously.

Book XII:XXVIII The Chatti marauders defeated by Pomponius

The column taking the shorter route to the right inflicted heavier losses on the enemy, who met them and dared to engage, while weighed down with spoils and honours our auxiliary forces then returned to the heights of Taunus, where Pomponius was waiting with the legions, hoping that the Chatti, eager for revenge, would offer him the chance of battle.

The Chatti, however, fearful of being trapped between the Romans on one side, and their undying enemies, the Cherusci, on the other sent a deputation and hostages to Rome. Pomponius was decreed triumphal honours, the least part of his reputation among later generations, being surpassed by the glory of his verse. 

Book XII:XXIX Vannius of the Suebi

At about that time, Vannius, who had been imposed on the Suebi by Drusus the Younger, was driven from his kingdom, having been accepted and esteemed by the populace in the first years of his reign though later, through the prolonged exercise of power turning tyrant, he succumbed to the hatred of his neighbours and internal discord.

The authors of his expulsion were Vibilius, king of the Hermunduri, and Vangio and Sido who were his own sister’s children. Claudius, despite frequent requests, had declined to intervene in this quarrel between barbarians, but had promised Vannius safe refuge if he were expelled. He also wrote to the governor of Pannonia, Palpellius Hister, ordering him to station a legion and picked auxiliaries from the province itself, on the bank of the Danube, to support the defeated, and deter the victors, lest elated by success they disturbed our peace.

For an innumerable horde of Lugians and others, were on the move, attracted by reports of the kingdom’s riches, which Vannius had augmented by thirty years of taxation and depredation. His own infantry force, and his cavalry recruited from the Iazyges of Sarmatia, were unequal to this multitude of foes, so he had decided to defend his fortresses and draw out the conflict.

Book XII:XXX Vannius flees to Pannonia

The Iazyges, however, impatient of delay, and scattered over the nearby plain, made battle imperative, the Lugians and Hermunduri racing to the attack. Vannius therefore descended from his fortresses only to be routed in the engagement, though winning praise in defeat, for fighting sword in hand and receiving his wounds in front.

He then fled to his fleet, moored on the Danube: followed later by his vassals, who obtained grants of land and were settled in Pannonia. Vangio and Sido divided the kingdom between them, showed great loyalty to ourselves yet, whether the fault lay with their own characters or was the result of despotism, they were loved by their subjects before winning power but hated to an even greater degree after doing so.

Book XII:XXXI The situation in Britain

Meanwhile, in Britain, the propraetor Publius Ostorius had received a troubled welcome, since our enemies had poured into the territory of our allies, with a violence all the greater given their belief that a new commander would not oppose them with an untried force at the start of winter.

Ostorius, aware that early results may engender fear or confidence, swiftly advanced his cohorts, killing those who resisted, chasing down the stragglers, and to prevent the enemy re-forming and a hostile and treacherous lull ensuing, which would allow no rest to himself or his men, prepared to disarm those he mistrusted, and control the whole area this side of the rivers Trent (? Trisantona) and Severn.

The first to deny him were the Iceni, a powerful tribe (in Eastern England), unbroken in battle as they had voluntarily acceded to an alliance with us. At their instigation, the surrounding tribes chose as their place to fight a position defended by a rough embankment with a narrow entrance, hostile to cavalry. This defence the Roman commander prepared to carry, though he led an auxiliary force without legionary strength, and arming the cavalry squadrons appropriately deployed them as infantry.

Then at a signal they broke through the embankment, and created confusion amongst men trapped by their own barrier. The Britons, conscience of being rebels, with their means of flight blocked, performed many outstanding feats, such that the legate’s son Marcus Ostorius earned the corona civica for saving a Roman life.

Book XII:XXXII The Brigantian uprising

The tribes wavering between war and peace were now quieted by the Icenian defeat, and the army was led against the Deceangi (in North Wales). The land was ravaged, spoils taken everywhere, while the enemy dared not fight, or was punished for his treachery whenever he stealthily tried to harass the columns.

Ostorius had now advanced to a position not far from the coast which looks towards Ireland, when the beginnings of a rebellion among the Brigantes (in Northern England) recalled a leader fixed on securing his previous conquests before attempting the new. It is true that the Brigantian uprising subsided with the execution of the few men who had begun hostilities, and pardons for the rest, but neither harshness nor clemency won over the Silurian tribe (in South-East Wales) who continued the fight, and were only repressed by establishing a legionary encampment.

To allow that more readily, a colony was founded by a strong detachment of veterans on land seized at Camulodunum (Colchester), as a defence against rebellion, and to accustom our native allies to their legal obligation.

Book XII:XXXIII Action against the Silurians and Ordovicians

Action was then taken against the Silurians, their own courage enhanced by their confidence in the power of Caratacus (the son of Cunobelinus), whose many partial or complete successes made him pre-eminent among the British chieftains.

But he, though preferring the treacherous nature of the terrain, being inferior in numbers, astutely migrated the conflict to the territory of the Ordovices (in mid-Wales), where joined by all who feared our peace, he made a last stand.

A site was chosen for battle, such that the approaches, means of withdrawal, all its features, were disadvantageous to us and favourable for him, with sheer cliffs and, where there was an easier ascent, stones piled as a rampart. A river, with a precarious ford, flowed below, and bands of warriors were in position in front of the defences. 

Book XII:XXXIV Caratacus rouses his warriors

In addition, the tribal chieftains were moving around, exhorting their men, strengthening their courage by minimising the risks, kindling hope, and employing every other incitement to battle: as for Caratacus, he flew here and there, proclaiming that this day, this field, would see them regain their freedom, or be slaves forever. And he invoked the names of their ancestors, who had driven off Julius Caesar the dictator, and through whose courage they were free of Roman rule, free of tribute, and would preserve inviolate the lives of their wives and children.

To these appeals, and the like, the warriors shouted assent, and every man swore a tribal oath to yield to neither weapon nor wound.

Book XII:XXXV Caratacus is defeated

This show of eagerness amazed the Roman general, and he was equally concerned by the river barrier, the added rampart, the looming cliffs, everywhere a host of defiant defenders. But his soldiers demanded battle, shouting that with courage every place could be taken, while the prefects and tribunes, with like words, roused the ardour of the troops.

Then Ostorius, having viewed the impenetrable and vulnerable points, leading his eager men, crossed the river without difficulty. When they came to the embankment, as long it was a war of missiles most of the wounds and the majority of deaths were on our side: but once the ‘tortoise’ was formed, the rough shapeless mass of stones demolished, and it came to an equal struggle at close quarters, the barbarians withdrew to the hills.

Yet there too our light and heavy troops broke through, the former attacking the disordered British line with javelins, the latter in close order; and the enemy, lacking the protection of helmets and breastplates, were either felled by the javelins and swords of the legionaries as they resisted the auxiliaries, or by the broadswords and lances of the auxiliaries as they faced the legionaries.

It was a famous victory, Caratacus’ wife and daughter being captured, and his brothers’ surrender received.

Book XII:XXXVI Caratacus taken and sent to Rome

Caratacus himself, since adversity seldom finds refuge, having sought the protection of Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, was arrested and handed over to his conquerors, in the ninth year after the start of the campaign in Britain.

His fame had spread, as a result, beyond the island, permeated the closest provinces, and was celebrated in Italy also, where there was curiosity to see the man who had defied our power for so long. The name of Caratacus was not without honour even in Rome; and Claudius, in seeking to extol his own worth, brought added glory to the vanquished. For the populace were summoned as if to a spectacle of note, the praetorian cohorts arrayed fully armed, on the field before their camp.

Then, while the chieftain’s vassals paraded past, ornaments and torcs won in his foreign wars were carried by, next his brothers, wife, and daughter appeared, and finally himself. The others were reduced by fear to unworthy pleas, but from Caratacus came not a downcast look, not a word seeking pity. When he reached the tribunal, he spoke in this manner:

Book XII:XXXVI Caratacus addresses Claudius

‘If my restraint in victory had matched my rank and fortune, I might have entered this city as a friend and not a captive, nor would you have disdained to welcome in peaceful alliance one who was born of famous ancestors, ruling many tribes. My present fate, hideous to me, to you adds splendour. I possessed men and horses, arms and wealth, what wonder if I lose them with reluctance? Why, though you wish to dominate the world, must it follow that the world should welcome servitude? Dragging me here, beaten, without a last struggle, would have made neither my downfall nor your triumph memorable; while to kill me will guarantee oblivion: but grant me life and I shall be an everlasting example of your mercy.’

At this, Claudius pardoned the chieftain, his wife and brothers, and the prisoners, freed from their chains, paid homage to Agrippina, conspicuous on a neighbouring platform, in the same terms of praise and gratitude as they had employed towards the emperor. That a woman should preside over the Roman standards, was indeed an innovation, one without precedent in ancient custom: she, flaunting her partnership in an empire forged by her ancestors.

The Noble Behaviour of Caractacus

‘The Noble Behaviour of Caractacus’
Charles Grignion (British, 1717 – 1810) after Francis Hayman (British, 1707/8 – 1776)
Yale Center for British Art

Book XII:XXXVII The conflict in Britain continues

The senators later convened, and spoke at length and floridly on the parading of the captive Caratacus, calling it no less glorious a spectacle than Publius Scipio’s exhibition (201BC) to the Roman people of Syphax the Numidian prince, or Lucius Paulus’ showing (167BC) of Perseus of Macedonia, or other generals’ displays of other kings in chains.

Triumphal insignia were awarded to Ostorius, whose affairs prosperous until then, soon became uncertain, either the loss of Caratacus causing the energy of our troops to wane, as if the conflict had ended, or the enemy’s sympathy for such a king as theirs firing their eagerness to avenge him.

A camp prefect and some legionary cohorts left behind to construct defensive positions in Silurian territory were surrounded, and if on the news of this the besieged men had not been swiftly relieved from the neighbouring forts, they would have been seized and slaughtered. As it was, the prefect, eight centurions, and the bravest of the soldiers were killed. And not long afterwards, a foraging party of ours, and the cavalry sent to its aid, were routed.

Book XII:XXXIX The death of Ostorius

Ostorius then sent in his light cohorts, even so failing to check the flight, until the legionaries took up the fight: their strength levelling the contest, which then proved more favourable to us. The enemy escaped with minor losses, due to daylight fading.

After this there were frequent engagements, often in the form of random or pre-planned raids, under command or without the leaders knowing, among the woods and marshes, out of frustration or for plunder, and decided by luck or bravery.

The obstinacy of the Silures was marked, they being incensed by a comment of the Roman commander’s which became known, that just as the Sugambri had been exterminated or transferred to Gallic territory (8BC), so the Silurian name should be wholly extinguished. They, in consequence, intercepted two auxiliary cohorts who because of their officers’ greed were raiding incautiously. The Silurians were also tempting the other tribes to rebel, with gifts of plunder and captives, when Ostorius, exhausted by a weight of cares, chanced to die; delighting the enemy, who considered that no single battle but certainly the whole campaign had removed a general whom it was impossible to despise.

Book XII:XL Cartimandua

Claudius, on hearing of the legate’s death appointed Aulus Didius to the province, so as not to leave it without a governor. Despite a swift crossing, he found the situation had deteriorated, since in the interim the legion led by Manlius Valens had been defeated. Reports of the affair were exaggerated by the enemy hoping to alarm the governor on his arrival, and by the governor himself who magnified what he had heard, in order to gain greater praise if he settled the disturbances, and a stronger excuse if they persisted.

Here too, the losses had been inflicted by the Silurians, and they led us a merry dance until driven back on the arrival of Didius. However, since the capture of Caratacus, the chief exponent of the art of war was Venutius of the Brigantes, as noted elsewhere. He had long been loyal, and was protected by Roman forces while married to queen Cartimandua; later a divorce followed, and immediately afterwards open warfare, with hostilities extended even to ourselves.

At first the conflict was mainly between themselves, with Cartimandua cunningly snaring Venutius’ brother and other relatives. Incensed by her actions, and smarting at the ignominy of submitting to the command of a woman, the enemy invaded her kingdom, with a powerful force of young and select warriors. That event we had foreseen, and the cohorts sent to her aid fought a sharp battle, initially uncertain in its result but ending more happily.

The outcome was no different in the case of the legion commanded by Caesius Nasica; Didius, weighed down by his years and with a host of honours, being content to act through his officers and keep the enemy at bay.

These actions, though carried out by two consecutive governors over a number of years (47-58AD), I have related consecutively, lest through being treated separately they fail to impress themselves on the memory: but I now return to the chronological order of events.

End of the Annals Book XII: I-XL