Cornelius Tacitus

The Histories

Book II: I-XXXI Continuing conflict, the Flavians in the East

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

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Book II:I Titus sets out for Rome

In a separate part of the empire, fate was already preparing the basis and opportunity for power, which through the vagaries of fortune would bring joy or dread to the state, and to the principals themselves prosperity or ruin.

Titus, son of Vespasian, had been sent from Judea to Rome while Galba ruled, the ostensible reason being to pay his respects to the emperor, and as a mature individual to seek office, though the masses, always ready to speculate, gave out that he had been summoned in order to be adopted. The basis for this gossip was the emperor’s age and childlessness, combined with the public propensity for nominating successors until one was chosen.

The rumour gained credence from Titus’s own character which was fitted for the highest destiny, from his handsome person and a certain majesty he possessed, from his father Vespasian’s good fortune, and from prophetic oracles, and even chance events which to minds inclined to credulity were received as omens.

When, on reaching Corinth in Achaia, he received the certain news of Galba’s death, and met with those who affirmed that Vitellius was in arms and at war, he anxiously summoned a few friends and fully considered his alternative courses of action. If he headed for Rome, he would be a hostage to Vitellius or Otho, receiving scant gratitude for a courtesy intended for Galba. If he returned to his father, however, the victor would certainly be offended, though if his father joined the successful party while success was still in the balance the son would be forgiven. And if Vespasian accepted imperial power, offences would be forgotten in the turmoil of war.

Book II:II Titus turns back, sailing via Cyprus

Though tossed in this way between hope and fear, hope finally won. Some believe that he turned back through his burning desire for Queen Berenice; nor was the young man’s heart averse to her, though that was no obstacle to action. True, he spent his youth in the pleasures of self-indulgence, but in power he was more temperate than his father.

Thus he sailed south-west along the coasts of Achaia and Asia Minor, heading for Rhodes and Cyprus then striking out boldly for Syria. While at Cyprus, he was seized by a desire to visit and inspect the temple of Paphian Venus, famed among residents and strangers. It may be worth briefly describing the origins of her worship, the rites of her temple, and the form she takes there (since she is not otherwise so represented).

Book II:III The worship of Venus-Aphrodite at Cyprus

An ancient tradition holds that the temple was founded by a king, Aerias, others say that this was a name for the goddess herself. More recently, it has been claimed the temple was consecrated by Cinyras, and that the goddess herself, born of the waves, was blown there by the winds; yet as the arts and skills of divination were imported by Tamiras, the Cilician, it was agreed the descendants of Tamiras and Cinyras should jointly preside over the sacred rites. Later, the immigrants relinquished the art they had brought, so that the royal stock might take precedence over that from outside: thus only a scion of Cinyras might be consulted as priest.

Sacrificial animals are as the worshipper chooses, though males are preferred: with the greatest belief placed in divination from the entrails of young goats. It is forbidden to shed blood on the altar: offerings there are of prayers and naked flames, and though in the open air it is never wet by rain.

The image of the goddess is not in human form, rather it is a cone, like a turning-post in the arena, broad at the base and tapering towards the top, though the reason is hidden.

Book II:IV Titus consults the oracle

Having viewed the treasures there, gifts dedicated by kings, and other things attributed to remote ages by the Greeks who delight in antiquities, Titus consulted the oracle regarding his journey. On learning his course was clear and the seas favourable, he offered up many animal sacrifices, then asked indirectly about himself. Sostratus (such was the priest’s name), seeing that the entrails were wholly favourable and the goddess favoured great projects, gave a customary brief response on the instant, but in private audience then revealed the future. His spirits raised, Titus sailed home to his father, bringing a great access of confidence to the anxious minds of the troops and inhabitants of the province (Judea).

Vespasian,  meanwhile, had almost ended the Jewish conflict, all but for the siege of Jerusalem, a task made difficult and arduous more by the nature of the hilltop citadel and the degree of religious fanaticism than any resources guaranteeing survival possessed by the besieged. As I have indicated, Vespasian possessed three legions, all hardened in warfare. Mucianus, commanded four in the neighbouring province (Syria), which was quiet, though a desire to emulate the achievements of Vespasian’s forces nearby had banished indolence; and just as effort and danger had increased the powers of resistance shown by Vespasian’s men, so Mucianus’ troops were fresh from an unbroken peace, with that desire for battle found among the as yet inexperienced.

Both generals had auxiliary cohorts and cavalry, naval forces and royal allies, and a famous name though differing reputations.

Book II:V Vespasian and Mucianus

Vespasian, energetic in military matters, marched with the vanguard; chose the places to camp; opposed the enemy, night and day, tactically and, if necessary, with his own hands; ate whatever chance brought; and in dress and bearing scarcely differed from a common soldier. In short, if he had lacked avarice, he would have been equal to the generals of old.

Mucianus, in contrast, was remarkable for his wealth and his magnificent life-style, much superior to that of a private citizen. He was readier of speech, and knowledgeable in arranging and anticipating civil matters.

If their faults could have been rectified and their virtues combined, that would have constituted a recipe for an outstanding emperor. Since Mucianus governed Syria and Vespasian Judea, neighbouring provinces, their jealousy had caused discord, but after Nero’s death they abandoned hostilities and consulted together, via friends at first; Titus, the chief agent of this concord, ending a dangerous quarrel by means of their mutual interest, he being suited by nature and ability to winning over even a character like Mucianus.

The tribunes, centurions and common soldiers were then co-opted, through their sense of duty or by being indulged, by means that is of their virtue or pleasures, according to their propensities.

Book II:VI The mood among their troops

Before Titus returned, both armies had sworn allegiance to Otho, since news arrived swiftly as ever, while civil conflict which the East now prepared for after a lengthy and harmonious peace, took time to initiate. Previously, the most significant civil wars had started in Italy or Gaul, involving western armies, while Pompey, Cassius, Brutus and Mark Antony, all of whom civil conflict had followed overseas, had come to no good end. Moreover, in Syria and Judea the Caesars were more often heard about than seen, and there had been no sign of sedition among the legions, only some threats against the Parthians, with varied outcomes. And then in the most recent civil disturbances, while others were shaken, here all was peaceful, hence the allegiance to Galba.

But when it shortly became known, that Otho and Vitellius were intending to seize Rome’s assets, illegally and by force, the soldiers began to murmur among themselves, and assess their own strength, lest the spoils of power accrued to others, leaving them obliged to serve.

They had seven legions to hand, as well as the extensive auxiliary forces of Syria and Judea; then there was Egypt to the west with two legions, and to the east Cappadocia, Pontus, and the garrisons on the Armenian border. Asia Minor and the other provinces were not short of men, and were rich in funds. Then there were the many islands the sea surrounded, and the sea itself, which was a welcome protection to them as they prepared for war.

Book II:VII Vespasian and Mucianus bide their time

The enthusiasm of the troops was not lost on the leaders, but they decided to await events while others fought. They knew that the winners and losers in civil wars are never reconciled again in perfect trust, regardless of whether fate allowed Otho or Vitellius to survive. Even great generals are spoiled by success: one of the two would perish in the field from the argumentativeness, cowardice and indiscipline of his soldiers, as well as his own shortcomings; the other would be ruined by victory.

So, Vespasian and Mucianus agreed to await the moment to deploy, though the rest of their troops were already intent on war; the finest of them were motivated by their concern for the state, many by the desire for plunder, others by their domestic embarrassments: thus good men and bad, for different reasons but with equal zeal, were all eager for war.

Book II:VIII The false Nero

Around this time, Asia and Achaia were made fearful by the appearance of a false Nero, the reports of that emperor’s death having been so many and varied that numbers of people speculated as to whether he was still alive, or indeed believed that he was. We will speak of the efforts and fortunes of other pretenders in context: but in this case a slave from Pontus, or as others claim, a freedman from Italy, skilled in the cithara and song and so, given his resemblance to Nero, gaining greater credibility for his deceit, recruited some deserters, penniless wanderers whom he corrupted by means of extravagant promises, and took to the high seas.

Driven to the island of Cythnus by a tempest, he co-opted soldiers from a military convoy returning from the East, ordering them killed if they refused to join him, robbed the traders and armed the most capable of the slaves. He made devious approaches to Sisenna, a centurion, who in the name of the army in Syria was carrying an emblem of friendship (worked in the form of clasped right hands) to the praetorians, until Sisenna, in trepidation and fearing violence, fled the island secretly and made good his escape. Then the disturbance spread more widely: many gathered to the celebrated name out of hatred for the present state of things and desire for something new.

The false Nero’s fame was growing day by day, until events dispelled it.

Book II:IX Calpurnius Asprenas intervenes

Galba had entrusted the provinces of Galatia and Pamphylia to Calpurnius Asprenas. As pursuit ships he had been given two triremes from the fleet at Misenum, with which he secured the island of Cythnus, where there was no lack of those who might try to win over the captains in Nero’s name.

The pretender, feigning grief, called on these soldiers, once Nero’s own, to defend him, and begged the captains to land him in Syria or Egypt. They, agreeing in order to deceive, insisted that they must speak to the soldiers and would return when all were ready. But instead they recounted everything faithfully to Asprenas, with whose encouragement they then stormed the pretender’s ship and killed him, regardless of his true identity.

The corpse, remarkable for its eyes, hair and wild expression, was transported to Asia Minor and then to Rome.

Book II:X The trial of Annius Faustus

In a state in conflict, on the borderline between freedom and lawlessness due to the rapid changes of emperor, even minor things caused a stir. Vibius Crispus, ranked by his wealth, power, and ability among the prominent if not the good, summoned Annius Faustus to trial before the senate: he, a knight, had been one of the informers in Nero’s reign, and the senators had recently voted under Galba that their accusers might file charges.

This senate ruling produced a variable outcome, being effective or not according to the poverty or wealth of the defendant, yet still retained some of its threat. Crispus, moreover, who had previously relied on his influence to ruin a man who had informed against his brother, now persuaded a large number of senators to demand Annius be sentenced to execution, undefended and unheard, though to counteract that nothing recommended the defendant to other senators more than his accuser’s excessive power. The latter group voted that time be granted, the charges published, and that however detested and seemingly guilty the defendant might be he must still be heard according to custom.

They succeeded initially, and the case was delayed a few days: but Faustus was subsequently condemned to death, though without that popular assent which his vile character merited: for the citizens knew Crispus himself as an informer for gain, and were displeased with the accuser if not the penalty.

Book II:XI Otho campaigns on the coast of Italy

Meanwhile the war had begun well for Otho, the armies in Dalmatia and Pannonia having been transferred to Italy at his command. There were four legions, of which two thousand men formed the advance party, the legions themselves following no great distance behind, consisting of the Seventh which had been raised by Galba, and the veterans comprising the Eleventh, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth, this last famed for crushing the revolt in Britain (AD61, Boadicea).

Nero had added to their reputation by electing them his crack troops, such that they had shown enduring loyalty to him, and were strong in support of Otho. However they advanced somewhat slowly with the self-confidence born of their strength in depth.

The main body of troops was preceded by cavalry and infantry, and there was a force drawn from the City which was not to be scorned, consisting of praetorian cohorts and detachments of cavalry from the First legion, as well as a force of irregulars, namely two thousand gladiators, a resource for even the most stringent of leaders in time of civil war.

Annius Gallus was placed in command of these forces, having been sent forward with Vestricius Spurinna to occupy the banks of the River Po, Otho’s initial strategy having been frustrated, Caecina having already crossed the Alps while Otho had hoped to confine him to Gaul.

Otho himself was accompanied by a hand-picked bodyguard, the remainder of the praetorian cohorts, praetorian veterans, and a large number of marines. His advance was neither slow nor marked by excess, instead he preceded the standards on foot, wearing an iron breastplate and, counter to his usual image, was ungroomed and unshaven.

Book II:XII The failure of his generals

Fortune smiled on him to begin with, his fleets commanding the sea making him master of the better part of Italy as far as the maritime Alps, the task of forcing which and attacking the province of Narbonensis he gave to his generals, Aemilius Pacensis, Antonius Novellus, and Suedius Clemens.

But Pacensis was clapped in chains by his mutinous soldiers, Antonius Novellus lacked authority, and Suedius Clemens ruled by means of currying favour with his men, as bad at maintaining discipline as he was eager to fight.

They behaved not as though they were approaching Italy and their native sites and settlements but, as if on a foreign shore among enemy townships, they looted, burned and laid all waste, the more terribly in that nowhere had any measures been taken to oppose them. The crops were ripe, the homesteads unsecured; the owners running with wives and children to meet them, thinking themselves safely at peace, were surrounded by the evils of war.

The procurator of the Maritime Alps at this time was Marius Maturus. Summoning the people to fight (there being no lack of young men), he tried to hold back Otho’s men at the border, but at the first encounter his mountaineers were slain or scattered, as irregular troops often are, unaccustomed to being led, unfamiliar with fortifications, and seeing neither glory in battle or shame in flight.

Book II:XIII Otho’s troops ravage Ventimiglia

Enraged by this action, since they had gained no plunder in the field, the people being poor, and their weapons worthless, and since they had failed to take captives as they were quick to scatter and knew the area, Otho’s troops vented their rage on the town of Ventimiglia (Albintimilium), satisfying their avarice by ruining the innocent.

Their abuses were highlighted by the noble example of a Ligurian woman who had hidden her son. When the soldiers, in the belief she had also concealed money, interrogated her under torture as to where she had hidden the boy, pointing to her own body she answered, ‘it is this that hides him’, after which neither threats of torment nor death could alter the magnificent resolve evidenced by her reply.

Book II:XIV The rival armies give battle

Meanwhile disturbing news was brought to Fabius Valens that Otho’s fleet threatened the province of Narbonensis, which had sworn allegiance to Vitellius; and envoys from the colonies came asking for help.

He sent off two cohorts of Tungrian infantry, four squadrons of cavalry, and the whole of the cavalry of the Treviri, under Julius Classicus’s command, part of this force to be stationed in the colony of Fréjus (Forum Julii), lest in sending all the force by an inland route Otho’s navy were to mount a swift attack on an undefended coastline.

Twelve squadrons of cavalry and hand-picked infantry moved against the enemy, reinforced by a cohort of Ligurians, an established force of local auxiliaries, and by five hundred Pannonians not yet fully enrolled. Battle was joined without delay: Otho’s lines were ordered so that mixed ranks comprising peasants and some of his marines held the high ground on the hills by the coast, while       his force of praetorians filled the level ground between hills and shore, and the fleet itself, inshore and cleared for action, facing the land offered a threatening front.

The Vitellians, less strong in infantry, but with elite cavalry, stationed their Ligurian Alpine force on the nearby heights, with the infantry in dense ranks behind the cavalry. Their squadrons of Treviri charged the enemy wildly, were received by veteran troops, and simultaneously assailed on their flanks by showers of stones skilfully hurled by the peasants scattered among the regulars, who daring or cowardly proved equally brave in victory.

Fear was added to consternation when, during the fight, the fleet attacked the Vitellians’ rear. Hemmed in on all sides, their whole force might have been destroyed had not the darkness of nightfall checked the victorious enemy and concealed the fugitives.

Book II:XV Otho’s troops achieve a costly victory

The Vitellians, though defeated, did not rest: using their auxiliary forces they attacked the enemy, who thought themselves secure, and were less effective, because of their previous success, killed their pickets, invaded their camp, and raised fears amongst the fleet, until Otho’s troops, as their initial alarm subsided, occupying a nearby hill for defensive purposes, engaged them once more.

The slaughter there was terrible, the Tungrian infantry whose commanders maintained formation for some time being overwhelmed by showers of missiles. Nor was it a bloodless victory for those of Otho’s men who incautiously pursued the enemy, since the Vitellian cavalry returned to encircle them.

Ultimately, as if a pact had been agreed whereby neither the Vitellian cavalry nor the Othonian fleet might cause sudden panic, the Vitellians withdrew to Antibes (Antipolis), the coastal town in Gallia Narbonensis, Otho’s forces to Albenga (Albingaunum) beyond the border, on the Ligurian shore.

Book II:XVI A short-lived revolt in Corsica

With news of his naval victory, Corsica, Sardinia and the other neighbouring islands stayed loyal to Otho’s cause. But Corsica was almost lost through the rashness of the procurator, Decumus Pacarius, which rashness contributed little to the outcome of the greater conflict, but caused his own death.

Hating Otho, he decided to use his Corsican forces to aid Vitellius, a pointless effort even if it had succeeded. Summoning the island’s leaders, he revealed his intent, and when the admiral of the Liburnian vessels there, Claudius Pyrrichus, and a Roman knight, Quintius Certus, dared to challenge him, he ordered their deaths. This terrified those present, and led them, along with the unknowing populace, who shared in ignorance others’ fears, to swear allegiance to Vitellius.

However, when Pacarius began to raise a levy and burden untrained men with military duties, they, hating the unfamiliar labour, considered the weakness of their position: they lived on an island, the German legions were a distant force, and even those protected by infantry and cavalry had been ravaged and plundered by Otho’s fleet. Suddenly repenting of their decision, they did not immediately resort to violence, but chose a fitting time to lay an ambush, waiting till those who attended on Pacarius had left him, naked and helpless, in his bath, then killing him. After which they slaughtered his followers.

The assassins carried the heads of the corpses to Otho, as if they were those of his enemies; yet Otho granted them no reward for this, nor did Vitellius later punish it, lost as it was in the sordid depths of greater crimes.

Book II:XVII The conflict in northern Italy

As I have said above, Silius’s cavalry had already entered Italy, bringing civil war. Though no one favoured Otho there, neither did they prefer Vitellius, rather the lengthy peace had accustomed them to every kind of servitude, leaving them open to the first comers and indifferent to the merit of the occupiers’ cause. Thus, with the arrival of the cohorts that Caecina had sent on ahead, the fairest region of Italy, all the cities and plains between the River Po and the Alps, was now held by Vitellius’s forces.

They captured a company of Pannonian infantry at Cremona, and a thousand marines and a hundred horsemen were intercepted between Piacenza (Placentia) and Pavia (Ticinum), with which successes Vitellius’s men were no longer to be thwarted by a river; in fact the very sight of the Po itself roused the Batavians and those from beyond the Rhine to a sudden crossing at Piacenza, whereby they captured some scouts and so terrified the rest that Otho’s troops claimed falsely, in their anxiety, that Caecina’s whole force had arrived.

Book II:XVIII Mutiny in Piacenza

Spurinna (he being the commander in Piacenza) was certain that Caecina had not yet arrived,  and that if he did approach the men should stand to the defences and not oppose Caecina’s force of veterans with only three praetorian cohorts, a thousand reserves, and a few cavalry.

However his troops, ungovernable and inexperienced in warfare, seized the standards and colours and advanced, and when their commander attempted to restrain them, they ignored the centurions and tribunes, and threatened him with their weapons.

Moreover, they shouted that Caecina had been invited there, and Otho was betrayed. Spurinna therefore, at first under coercion, was made a party to others’ rashness and thereafter acted as though it were his wish, so that his advice might possess the more authority if the mutiny subsided.

Book II:XIX Spurinna regains control

With the river in sight and night at hand, he decided to make camp and throw up fortifications. The effort involved, strange to urban troops, depressed their spirits, and the older among them began to question their own readiness to believe every rumour, and revealed their concern, pointing to the risk of Caecina surrounding their small force in open country.

More moderate views soon filled the camp, and the centurions and tribunes mingled with the men, praising their general’s foresight for selecting so substantial a colony as his base, one possessing robust defences on a site with innate strength.

Finally Spurinna, not so much decrying their error as expounding his strategy, himself led the men, less mutinous now and susceptible to direction, back to Piacenza, leaving a few scouts behind. The city walls were strengthened, bulwarks added, towers raised, and not only were weapons readied and in evidence, but also a new respect for obedience and discipline, the only thing previously lacking, since there was no deficit of courage.

Book II:XX Caecina advances to Piacenza

Meanwhile Caecina, having it seemed left cruelty and licence behind in crossing the Alps, advanced through Italy in sober order. The colonies and towns interpreted his manner of dress as due to arrogance, because he spoke to the toga-wearing citizens in a Gallic cloak of multi-coloured weave and trousers. They also took great offence at his wife, Salonina, for riding a fine horse with purple trappings, though it did none of them any harm, provoked by that trait in human nature whereby we look sourly at others’ recent good fortune, and demand restraint from none more than those whom we once viewed as our equals.

Caecina, having crossed the River Po, tested the loyalty of Otho’s followers by speaking with them and promising much, but was simply met with the same. Finally, after the words ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’ had been tossed to and fro in vain and ineffectual phrases, Caecina set his thoughts and intent on storming Piacenza with a mighty show of force, knowing that an early success in the conflict would establish his reputation as regards the future.

Book II:XXI The initial attack on the town

The first day’s fighting was a major attack, rather than skilful sorties by veterans: the troops heavy with food and wine manoeuvring beneath the walls openly and incautiously. During the conflict the fine amphitheatre, sited outside the walls, was set on fire either by the besiegers hurling burning brands, shot and missiles at the besieged, or by the besieged themselves making their reply. The populace, given to suspicion, thought that fuel for the flames had been introduced secretly by men from the neighbouring colonies, who  had viewed the amphitheatre with envy and rivalry, no other structure in Italy being of such capacity. Regardless of the cause, though the loss was considered minor while they feared still worse disaster, when security was regained they mourned it as though none greater could have occurred.

Caecina, however, was driven back with great losses to his troops, and the night was spent in fresh preparatory works. The Vitellians readied trench lining, roof-posts and roofing to protect them while undermining the walls, while the Othonians piled stakes and great masses of stone, lead, and bronze together, to shatter and destroy the enemy.

There was shame and pride on both sides, and contrasting exhortations, with the Vitellians praising the power of the legions and the army of Germany, the Othonians the heroism of their urban militia and the praetorian cohorts. The Vitellians attacked their enemy as idle and degenerate, corrupted by the circus games and theatricals, while they in turn called the Vitellians foreigners, invaders. Simultaneously celebrating or decrying Otho or Vitellius, they were roused to mutual insults more enthusiastically than to praise.

Book II:XXII Caecina repulsed

Not long before dawn the battlements were filled with defenders, and the plains glittered with armed men. The legionaries in dense ranks and the auxiliaries in sparse array attacked the higher parts of the walls with stones or arrows, and closed on the parts which were neglected and weakened by time.

Otho’s men hurled a shower of javelins, with more accurate and effective aim, at the German cohorts below, who approached rashly, singing wildly, their bodies naked as customary, brandishing their shields above their heads.

The legionaries, defended by their trench linings and wooden roofing, undermined the walls, raised banks of earth, and attacked the gates. The praetorians ranged against them, however, rolled down the great millstones they had prepared, which fell with a heavy crash. Many below were crushed, many pierced, bloodied and lacerated. As their panic added to the massacre, and the damage dealt from the battlements grew more severe, they retreated, dealing a blow to their cause.

Caecina, ashamed of this rash attempt to take the city, and not wishing to maintain a ridiculous and ineffectual position, crossed the River Po once more, aiming to attack Cremona. As he left, Turullius Cerialis with a large force of marines, and Julius Briganticus with a few horsemen, surrendered to him, the latter a Batavian by birth and commander of a cavalry squadron, the former a leading centurion, and no stranger to Caecina, since he had exercised a command in Germany.

Book II:XXIII Further setbacks for Caecina

Spurinna, learning of the enemy’s direction of march, informed Annius Gallius by despatch of the defence of Piacenza, the various events, and Caecina’s intentions. Gallus had been leading the First legion to the aid of Piacenza, fearing that its few cohorts might not be able to endure a long siege or the power of the army of Germany. When the news arrived that Caecina had been driven off, and was marching on Cremona, he could barely restrain his legionaries and with their ardour for battle almost mutinous halted them at Bedriacum, the village between Verona and Cremona now notorious for two defeats of Romans by Romans.

At this same time, Martius Macer (the Othonian general) fought a successful engagement not far from Cremona, through presence of mind transporting gladiators across the River Po in boats and releasing them suddenly against the enemy. This caused chaos among the Vitellian auxiliaries, those who resisted being killed, the rest fleeing to Cremona.

However, Martius checked the thrust of his victorious troops lest the enemy’s being strengthened by fresh reinforcements might sway the fortunes of war. His motives seemed suspect to his Othonians who placed a sinister interpretation on their leaders’ every act. Full of the effrontery that matched their cowardly spirits, they made various accusations against Annius Gallus, Suetonius Paulus and Marius Celsus (since Otho had appointed the latter two also as commanders).

Galba’s assassins were the most active in sowing discord and sedition, and filled with guilt and fear they wrought utter confusion, now by openly dangerous speeches, now in secret despatches to Otho. He wavered, believing the shallowest of men and fearing the virtuous, uncertain when things went well though better in adversity. As a result, summoning his brother Titianus he appointed him commander-in-chief.

Book II:XXIV The armies engage

Meanwhile, great things were achieved by the Othonian generals Paulinus and Celsus.

Tormented by the failure of his plans and his army’s waning reputation, thwarted at Piacenza, his auxiliaries cut down, and the skirmishing of his scouts, which was more frequent than worthwhile, proving ineffective, and fearing that on the approach of his rival Fabius Valens all the honour of the campaign must be conceded to that general, Caecina raced to recover his glory, with more eagerness than wisdom.

Twelve miles from Cremona (at a location known as Castors) he positioned the bravest of his auxiliaries in ambush among the woods that overhung the road, ordering the cavalry to advance further and provoke a fight then retreat of their own accord drawing the enemy into a hasty pursuit, whereby the hidden force could spring their trap. This plan was betrayed to Otho’s generals.

Paulinus commanding the infantry, Celsus the cavalry, they stationed a detachment from the Thirteenth legion on the left flank, with four cohorts of auxiliaries and five hundred cavalry; the centre of the roadway was occupied by three praetorian cohorts in column; while on the right flank they advanced the First legion with two auxiliary cohorts and five hundred horse. Besides these, they assembled a thousand praetorian and auxiliary cavalry, to add weight to victory or support any in difficulty.

Book II:XXV Vitellian retreat

Before the forces fully engaged, the Vitellian cavalry retreated, but Celsus aware of the tactic restrained his troops. Thus the Vitellians rashly sprang their ambush as Celsus gradually withdrew, pursued too far, and fell into a trap themselves. For the auxiliary cohorts pressed them on their flanks, the legions opposed them in front, and a sudden cavalry manoeuvre cut them off to the rear.

Suetonius Paulinus gave no immediate signal for the infantry to engage as he was cautious by nature, and preferred considered and well thought out tactics to chance successes.  He ordered ditches to be completed, the field of battle cleared, and his lines extended, thinking it soon enough to achieve victory once he had provided against defeat.

His delay gave the Vitellians time to retreat into the vineyards, obstructed by a network of vines, and a small wood close by from which they dared to sally, killing the nearest of the praetorian cavalry. Prince Epiphanes (of Commagene) was wounded as he furthered the fight in the name of Otho.

Book II:XXVI Suetonius Paulinus wins an incomplete victory for Otho

Then the Othonian infantry charged, drove in the enemy line, and even put the reinforcements to flight, since Caecina had not sent in his cohorts together but one after another, adding to the confusion of the conflict, as his troops, scattered and weakened, were swept away by those fleeing in panic. And there were signs of sedition in the Vitellian camp because their attack was not unified: they clapped the prefect, Julius Gratus, in irons for planning treachery with his brother, the tribune Julius Fronto, who was with Otho’s men, while the Othonians imprisoned that same brother on an identical charge.

Fear was now so universal among the Vitellians, among those attacking and those fleeing in the fight before the entrenchments, that it was claimed on both sides that Caecina’s whole army would have been destroyed if Suetonius Paulinus had not signalled a withdrawal.

Paulinus claimed he had feared that in the midst of a laborious pursuit Vitellians fresh from camp might attack his weary troops, and that if demoralised his men would lack supporting forces.  Amongst the few there was approval of their leader’s action, but in general there was adverse comment.

Book II:XXVII Previous mutiny among Fabius Valens’ Vitellian troops

This disaster for the Vitellians did not so much instil dread in them as awaken their sense of discipline; not only in those with Caecina, who himself blamed the men as readier for mutiny than battle, but also in the soldiers under Fabius Valens, now arrived at Pavia (Ticinum), who swallowed their scorn of their opponents, and eager to restore their reputation obeyed their commander with greater respect and consistency.

A serious mutiny had broken out among these previously, the account of which (not having wished to interrupt the sequence of Caecina’s activities) I shall now relate from that earlier time. As I have said elsewhere the Batavian cohorts, who on the uprising against Nero had withdrawn from the Fourteenth legion, hearing while on their way to Britain of Vitellius’s revolt, had joined Fabius Valens in the territory of the Lingones.

These cohorts, acting with insolence, approached each legion’s quarters boasting that they had checked the actions of the Fourteenth legion, taken Italy from Nero, and that the whole outcome of the war lay in their hands. This was insulting to the legionaries and offensive to their leader; discipline was ruined by their quarrelling and brawling; and finally given such impudence Valens even began to suspect their loyalty.

Book II:XXVIII Progress of the mutiny

Thus, when news arrived that a squadron of Treviran cavalry and Tungrian infantry had been defeated, and the province of Gallia Narbonensis was now blockaded by the Othonian navy, Valens ordered a detachment of Batavians to march to its aid, anxious to both assist his allies and, with military astuteness, disperse those mutinous troops who might prove too powerful if acting as one.

When the mass of his army heard of this, his allies were saddened, and the legionaries complained that they had been robbed of the help of the bravest troops; that the Batavian veterans, victorious in so many campaigns, were being withdrawn from the line while the enemy was in sight; and that if the province counted for more than Rome and the empire’s safety, they should all go with them, but if the thrust for victory was focused on Italy, the strongest limbs of the army must not be torn from its body.

Book II:XXIX The mutiny subsides

The soldiers, protesting fiercely even after Valens had sent his lictors among them to try and quell the mutiny, then attacked Valens himself, hurling stones, and pursuing him as he retreated. Crying out that he had hidden the spoils from the Gallic provinces and the gold from Vienne, the prize of their own efforts, they ransacked the goods in his tent, probing the very ground with their spears and lances, while Valens, disguised in slave’s clothing, hid in a cavalry officer’s quarters.

Then Alfenus Varus, the camp prefect, seeing their mutinous temper cooling, added to the process by forbidding the centurions to make their rounds of the pickets, and cancelling the usual trumpet call summoning the men to their duties. They all seemed astounded, gazing at each other in amazement, fearful of the very fact that no one appeared in command: in silence, submissively, and ultimately with pleas and tears, they begged forgiveness.

When Valens appeared, in rags, shedding tears, but beyond their expectation unharmed, joy, commiserations, and even acclaim ensued. Showing their delight, with a crowd’s tendency to extremes, they praised and lauded him, and carried him to the tribunal surrounded by the eagles and colours.

He, with a wise moderation, demanded no punishment for anyone, knowing that in civil conflicts more is allowed to the soldiers than their leaders, but laid the blame on a few, lest ignoring the matter might seem suspicious.

Book II:XXX Caecina’s and Valens’ forces combine

While the camp at Pavia was being fortified, news of Caecina’s defeat arrived, and the troops almost mutinied again, thinking they had missed the battle through deceit and delay on Valens’ part. Without rest or awaiting their general, they marched before the standards, urging on the standard-bearers, moving swiftly to join Caecina.

Valens had no good reputation among Caecina’s men who complained that he had left them open to an enemy whose strength was intact, while at the same time they lauded the force that had joined them not wishing to be thought of as cowards who had met with a defeat. Though Valens led the greater force, almost double the number of legionaries and auxiliaries, the troops were inclined to support Caecina, not only for a generosity of spirit which he showed more readily, but also because of his youthful vigour, his noble stature, and in truth a certain groundless popularity he enjoyed.

This prompted rivalry between the generals: Caecina mocking Valens as shamefully flawed, Valens calling Caecina vain and conceited. Nevertheless they set aside their mutual dislike for the sake of expediency, and in a host of despatches heaped unpardonable insults on Otho, though on Otho’s side the generals ignored the many grounds they had for abusing Vitellius.

Book II:XXXI  Otho’s and Vitellius’s reputation

Indeed, before Otho and Vitellius met their deaths, Otho adding nobly to his reputation while Vitellius suffered an infamous end, Vitellius’s idle pleasures were less feared than Otho’s blazing passions. Also there was the matter of the terror and hatred inspired by Galba’s murder, while no one blamed Vitellius for starting the ensuing conflict. Vitellius’s greed and indulgence were a personal disgrace, while Otho’s extravagance, savagery and impudence brought more danger to the state.

Once Valens and Caecina had joined forces they no longer hesitated to engage with all their strength, while Otho on the other hand considered whether to drag out the war or try his fortune now.

End of the Histories Book II:I-XXXI