Cornelius Tacitus

The Histories

Book II: LXV-CI Vespasian prepares his bid

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

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Book II:LXV The fate of Cluvius and others

After leaving Lyon, Vitellius was overtaken by Cluvius Rufus who had quit Spain and who gave the appearance of a man filled with delight, offering congratulations, though he was anxious at heart, knowing that accusations were being made against him. Hilarus, an imperial freedman, had denounced him, claiming that on hearing of both Otho and then Vitellius being made emperor he had tried to take power and possession in Spain for himself, omitting the emperor’s name from his directives; and that comments in his speeches could be interpreted as derogatory to Vitellius and populist as regarded himself.

Cluvius’s influence prevailed, such that Vitellius ordered his own freedman punished. Cluvius was admitted to the emperor’s retinue and not deprived of Spain, which he governed in absentia after the example of Lucius Arruntius. However Tiberius had kept Arruntius near him out of fear, while Vitellius had no such fear of Cluvius.

Trebellius Maximus failed to receive the same honour: he had fled Britain to escape the army’s anger; one of Vitellius’s entourage, Vettius Bolanus, replaced him.

Book II:LXVI The troublesome Fourteenth legion

Vitellius was disturbed by the spirit of the defeated legionaries, who were by no means cowed. Dispersed throughout Italy and mingling with his victorious troops, their speech was hostile, the men of the Fourteenth legion being particularly forthright in denying they had been conquered, saying that at Bedriacum only a few ranks of their veterans had been repulsed, and the legion’s full force had been absent.

Vitellius decided to send them back to Britain, from which Nero had withdrawn them, while having the Batavians camp with them, they having a long-standing grudge against the Fourteenth. Peace is short-lived when soldiers hate one another so deeply, and at Turin a Batavian called a workman, whom a legionary defended as his host, a thief, upon which their comrades rallied to their support, and harsh words changed to blows. A fierce battle would have ensued, if two Praetorian cohorts had not sided with the Fourteenth, bolstering their confidence and scaring off the Batavians. Vitellius, considering the Batavians loyal, ordered them to join his progress, while the Fourteenth were to cross the Graian Alps by a circuitous route avoiding Vienne, since the mood there also gave cause for concern.

On the night the legion set out, the soldiers left fires burning everywhere, and part of the colony of Turin went up in flames, which loss, like most ills of the war, was eclipsed by the greater disasters overtaking other cities. After the Fourteenth had crossed the Alps, the most mutinous among them were all for an attack on Vienne, but they were restrained by the better part of them acting in concert, and the legion was transported to Britain.

Book II:LXVII The re-assignment of other forces

The next concern for Vitellius were the Praetorian cohorts. At first they were kept apart and, with the added sop of honourable discharge, they began to turn their weapons over to the tribunes, until Vespasian’s war effort gathered pace, when they took up service again to become the backbone of the Flavian cause.

The First legion of marines Vitellius sent to Spain, to be calmed by its peace and quiet; the Seventh and Eleventh were returned to winter quarters (in Pannonia and Dalmatia), while the Thirteenth were ordered to work building amphitheatres, since Caecina was preparing to mount gladiatorial shows in Cremona, and Valens likewise in Bologna. Vitellius was never so intent on business that he neglected pleasure.

Book II:LXVIII Further mutiny

Vitellius had now dismantled the defeated faction without great show: but mutiny broke out among the victors, it began playfully but the resulting deaths added to Vitellius’s unpopularity. He was dining at Pavia (Ticinum) and Verginius was his guest at table. Legates and tribunes either imitate a commander’s character in severity or delight in extravagant banquets; and likewise the soldiers exhibit self-control or licence. In Vitellius’s army all was disorder, intoxication, night revels and bacchanalian orgies, rather than the discipline proper to a military camp.

Thus, two soldiers, a legionary of the Fifth and a Gallic auxiliary, challenged each other to a wrestling match, in sport, but when the legionary was thrown and mocked at by the Gaul the crowd who had gathered to watch took sides, the legionaries began killing auxiliaries, and two cohorts were massacred. The result of this riot was a second riot. Armed men and a cloud of dust were spied in the distance: and a sudden cry arose that the Fourteenth legion had retraced its line of march and was set for a fight: however it was simply the rear-guard, recognition of which quelled the panic.

Meanwhile one of Verginius’s slaves who chanced to be passing was taken for an assassin, Vitellius being the target, and the soldiers ran to the banquet to demand Verginius’s death. Though even Vitellius, who was fearful and suspicious of everything, never doubted his innocence. It was difficult nevertheless to calm those who called for the execution of this ex-consul who had once been their own commander. No one was so often threatened on every riotous occasion than Verginius: admiration for the man and his reputation remained strong, but the troops hated him for disdaining their offer of power.

Book II:LXIX Military policy

On the following day, Vitellius received the Senate delegation that he had ordered to attend him there, then went to the camp and praised the soldiers’ selfless devotion, to shouts of complaint from the auxiliaries regarding the legionaries’ arrogance and impunity.

Lest the Batavians run wild, he sent them back to Germany, for fate was preparing the scene for both civil and foreign conflict. The Gallic auxiliaries were dismissed to their homes, their numbers being great as they had been drafted at the very start of the revolt, one among the inanities of warfare.

Then, so that the imperial resources, depleted by largesse, might prove sufficient, he ordered a reduction in the numbers of legionaries and auxiliaries, with a ban on recruitment and an open offer of discharge. This was fatal to the state and unpopular with the men, the same workload being assigned to fewer troops so that danger and effort weighed more heavily on each. Their vigour was also impaired by pleasure, contrary to the former discipline and principles of our ancestors, among whom virtue rather than gold better upheld the state.

Book II:LXX Vitellius visits the battlefield at Bedriacum

Vitellius next detoured to Cremona and after watching the gladiatorial show presented by Caecina wished to visit the field of Bedriacum and view the aftermath of the recent victory with his own eyes. It was a vile and atrocious sight: almost forty days after the battle mutilated corpses, severed limbs, the rotting forms of men and horses, blood-soaked earth, toppled trees and trampled crops bore witness to foul devastation.

No less barbaric was a stretch of road which the citizens of Cremona had strewn with roses and laurels, erecting altars and performing sacrifices, as if for a king; which present rejoicing would soon provoke their ruin. Valens and Caecina were there, explaining the battle site, here the ranks of legionaries had charged, there the cavalry squadrons, and over there the auxiliaries surrounded the enemy. Tribunes and prefects also, each man praising his own actions, mixed truth with falsehood or at least exaggeration.

The mass of soldiers too, with victory cries, turned aside from the road, recognising the extent of the fighting, wondering at the piles of weapons and mounds of corpses. And some were moved to tears of pity by the vicissitudes of fate, but Vitellius never glanced away in horror at the sight of so many thousands of fellow citizens robbed of burial: rather he rejoiced, and unaware of his approaching fate, offered sacrifice to the local gods.

Book II:LXXI Vitellius approaches Rome

At Bologna, Fabius Valens presented his gladiatorial show, with equipment brought from Rome. The nearer Vitellius came to the latter, the greater the corruption; actors and crowds of eunuchs joining the procession, with every kind of creature that Nero’s court had contained. For Vitellius praised and admired that very Nero, whose singing tours he had accompanied, not under duress as so many honourable men had been, but like a slave bought with licence and gluttony.

Next, he shortened the terms of various consulships to free up sundry months in order to so honour Valens and Caecina, ignoring Marcus Macer as having been a leader of Otho’s faction. And he deferred Valerius Marinus’s consulship, he having been chosen by Galba, not because of any fault, but because he was mild-mannered and would suffer any slight without protest. Pedanius Costa was omitted also, being out of favour with Vitellius having dared to oppose Nero and urge Verginius to act, though other reasons were given. Gratitude was nevertheless expressed to Vitellius, as is the custom among the servile.

Book II:LXXII Geta the Pretender

A deception that met with a lively reception at first lasted only a few days. A man appeared pretending to be Scribonianus Camerinus and maintaining that during Nero’s reign he had been in hiding in Istria where his family the Crassi still had followers, lands and popular support. To bolster this tale he gathered a crew of villains, and the gullible masses and various soldiers, either believing it true or eager for trouble, were rallying to him when he was dragged before Vitellius and questioned as to his real identity.

 No credence being placed in his answers, once he had been recognised by his master as a runaway slave, named Geta, a slave’s punishment was enacted on him.

Book II:LXXIII Rumours concerning Vespasian

It is scarcely believable to relate how greatly Vitellius’s arrogance and complacency increased after informants from Syria and Judea reported that the East had sworn allegiance to him; for though the sources of rumour were vague and uncertain as yet, Vespasian was much talked of, and Vitellius was often disturbed to hear his name.

Nevertheless, Vitellius and his soldiers, as if free of rivals, erupted in bouts of savagery, sensuality and plunder, in the manner of barbarians.

Book II:LXXIV Vespasian assesses the situation

Vespasian however was reflecting on warfare, weapons and the situation of the armed forces far and near. His own soldiers were in such a state of readiness that when he administered the oaths and prayed for Vitellius’s good fortune, they listened in total silence.

Mucianus’s attitude to Vespasian was not hostile, and more favourable still to Titus; Tiberius Alexander the prefect of Egypt was attuned to Vespasian’s plans; the Third legion which had been transferred from Syria to Moesia would support him; and it was hoped other legions in Illyricum would follow their lead; for the whole army had been incensed at the arrogance of Vitellius’s men whenever they appeared who, savage in looks and barbarous in speech, mocked the rest as inferior.

But hesitation generally precedes such weighty conflicts; and Vespasian at one moment filled with hope, at the next pondered the difficulties: what would that day portend on which he committed his sixty years and those of his two young sons to war? Private purpose may make a move, and according as it wishes, accept more or less of what fate grants; but in the desire for supreme power there is no middle way between the summit and the abyss.

Book II:LXXV Vespasian’s vulnerability to assassination

Vespasian reflected on the strength of the troops from Germany, with the knowledge of a military man: his own legions were untested in civil conflict, Vitellius’s men knew victory, and there was more discontent than strength among the defeated. A soldier’s loyalty fluctuates in periods of disorder, while danger comes from individuals: what profit is there in ranks of soldiers, squadrons of cavalry, if one or two are ready to act in person and seek reward from the enemy?

So Scribonianus died in Claudius’s reign, so his assassin Volaginius was promoted from a common private to the highest rank: it is easier to impel many than evade the lone man.

Book II:LXXVI Mucianus argues for action

Hesitating among such fears, he was urged to a decision by his officers and friends, among them Mucianus, who after many conversations in private spoke out openly: ‘All those who take it upon themselves to plan great enterprises should consider whether what they are about to begin is beneficial to the state, will bring glory to themselves, and is readily or at least potentially achievable; and at the same time should consider who advises them, will those advisors share the risk as well as the counsel, and if fortune favours the undertaking, who are they to seek the highest honour?

I summon you to the throne, Vespasian, in whose hands, after the gods, lies the question of how beneficial to the state, and glorious to you that will prove. Fear no kind of flattery here: to be chosen to succeed Vitellius is more a cause for grief than celebration. We are not rising to oppose the all-powerful mind of a now-deified Augustus, nor the ever-wary nature of an aged Tiberius, nor even the long-established imperial house of a Caligula, a Claudius, or a Nero: you tolerated the presence even of Galba’s statues: but to indulge in torpor now and leave the state to ruin and corruption would seem like cowardice and indifference, even if subservience rendered you as secure as it would render you dishonourable. The time when you could appear without desire for power is past and gone: your only safety is as emperor. Have you forgotten Corbulo, murdered by Nero? His origins were greater than ours, but so was Nero more nobly born than Vitellius. Anyone feared it seems is deemed noble enough by the fearful.

Then you have proof from Vitellius’s own rise that an army can make an emperor, not through campaigns and military fame, in his case, but through its hatred of Galba. Already Vitellius has turned even Otho into a great and memorable emperor, defeated not by his rival’s skill or military strength but by his own headlong despair. Meanwhile Vitellius scatters his legions, disarms his auxiliaries, and sows new seeds of conflict day by day. All the courage and ardour of his soldiers is dissipated through gluttony and debauchery, in imitation of their emperor.

You have nine full legions in Judea, Syria and Egypt, nine legions not exhausted by battle or rife with dissent, but soldiers strengthened by action, victors of a foreign conflict; strong fleets, cavalry and auxiliary cohorts; princes loyal to you; and, above all, experience.’

Book II:LXXVII Mucianus concludes his exhortation

‘I ask nothing for myself save not to be counted less than Valens or Caecina: yet do not scorn Mucianus as a partner in this merely because you find in him no rival. I set myself above Vitellius, and you above me. Your house has had the honour of a triumph, and possesses two warriors, the other of whom is already capable of wielding power and having spent his first years of service in Germany is known to the forces there. It would be absurd of me not to yield power to one whose son I would adopt if I held power myself. For the rest, success and failure will have differing results where we are concerned; if we win I shall accept the honours you grant, risks and dangers will be shared alike. Or, better still, you direct the forces, and leave the fighting and the vicissitudes of battle to me.

At this moment, the conquered rather than the conquerors show better discipline. The defeated are roused to bold action by anger, hatred and eagerness for revenge: the victors are weakened by pride and obstinacy. War itself will open and lay bare the hidden swollen wounds of the victorious party. I have no less confidence in your vigilance, caution and wisdom than in Vitellius’s torpor, carelessness and savagery. Besides, our cause is better served by war than peace; for those who plan rebellion, are already rebels.’

Book II:LXXVIII Favourable omens

After Mucianus’s speech the others were emboldened and crowded round Vespasian, exhorting him, recalling the seers’ prophecies and the aspects of the constellations. Nor was he free of such superstitions, who later as emperor openly retained a certain astrologer, Seleucus, as his oracle and guide. Previous omens sprang to mind: a cypress tree of great height on his estate had suddenly collapsed, but rose as tall the next day, at the same spot, spreading wider than before.

This, the soothsayers agreed, was a great and favourable omen, and promised the highest honour for Vespasian, still then a youth. His glorious success in Judea, his triumph, and the consulship seemed to him at first to have fulfilled the omen’s promise: yet having so achieved, he then believed himself destined for imperial power.

Between Syria and Judea lies Carmel: so they name the mountain and the god. The god has neither image nor temple – such is the ancient tradition – simply an altar and due reverence. When Vespasian made sacrifice there, as he was pondering his secret hopes, Basilides the priest, after carefully inspecting the entrails proclaimed: ‘Vespasian, should you plan to raise your house, enlarge your estate, or increase the number of your servants, a mighty dwelling will be granted you, wide boundaries, and a host of men.’ This oracle which rumour had seized upon at the time, now bore interpretation; and nothing sprang to the lips of the masses more readily. The talk was still more open in his presence, as speech is freer to those with hopes.

With uncertainty dispelled, Mucianus left for Antioch, Vespasian for Caesarea: the former being the headquarters in Syria, the latter in Judea.

Book II:LXXIX Vespasian’s troops take the oath

The transfer to Vespasian of imperial power began at Alexandria, hastened by Tiberius Alexander who administered the oath of allegiance to his troops on the first of July. This day was celebrated later as the first of Vespasian’s reign, though the army in Judea were to swear the oath in front of Vespasian himself only on the third of July, he being too impatient nevertheless to wait for his son Titus, the medium of communication between Mucianus and his father, to arrive back from Syria. The whole thing was done at the urging of the soldiers without prepared speeches or a parade of the legions.

Book II:LXXX Mucianus administers the oath at Antioch

The time and place and, the most difficult thing in such situations, the person to give the opening speech were still being discussed, all minds filled with hopes, fears, plans and possibilities, when Vespasian left his quarters, whereupon a few soldiers drawn up in their usual order to salute him as their leader, saluted him as emperor. Then the rest gathered swiftly, celebrating him as Caesar, Augustus and bestowing on him all the imperial titles. Their thoughts turned from apprehension to belief in their success: Vespasian himself showed no pride or arrogance nor any sign of alteration despite his altered role.

As soon as he had shaken off the mist spread before his eyes by so great an elevation, and had spoken like the soldier he was, he received good news in abundance since, waiting only for this moment, Mucianus administered to his own eager troops the oath of allegiance to Vespasian. Then moving to the theatre where the people of Antioch held their public gatherings, he spoke to those who had hurried there, and were effusive in their adulation. He spoke well, even in Greek, knowing how to give a certain stylishness to all he said and did.

Nothing incensed the people and the soldiers as much as his assertion that Vitellius was determined to transfer the Syrian troops to Germany, with its wintry climate and onerous duties, while conversely the German legions would be assigned to wealthy and peaceful Syria; for these provincial citizens were used to, and delighted in the military presence and many were bound to the soldiers by ties of friendship and marriage, while the soldiers in turn from long service there prized their customary encampment as if it were their own home.

Book II:LXXXI Support for Vespasian in the East

By the fifteenth of July all Syria had likewise sworn allegiance. He was supported also by Sohaemus (King of Sophene, on the Euphrates), the strength of whose kingdom was not be despised, and by Antiochus (King of Commagene) the richest of the subject princes, with vast inherited wealth. Soon, Agrippa (the son of Herod Agrippa), summoned from Rome at the behest of private messages from his friends, swiftly sailed to join the cause, unbeknown to Vitellius.

Queen Berenice (Agrippa’s sister), in the flower of her youth and beauty, showed no less enthusiasm for his faction, and commended herself to him, for all his years, by the fine gifts she made him. Whatever provinces, washed by the seas, Asia and Achaea held, and whatever provinces were revealed inland as far as Pontus and Armenia, all swore allegiance; but they were devoid of military power, with no legions as yet present in Cappadocia.

A summit meeting convened at Beirut (Berytus). Mucianus attended with all his legates and tribunes, as well as his finest soldiers and centurions; and the army in Judea sent its foremost representatives. So great a gathering of infantry and cavalry, with princes emulating one another in royal display, crowned the emperor’s success.

Book II:LXXXII Vespasian prepares for war

The first concern in readiness for war was to raise levies and recall the veterans. Fortified towns were chosen to manufacture weapons; gold and silver coins were minted at Antioch, and all in turn was quickly executed by skilled agents.

Vespasian himself was there, exhorting them, spurring on the active with praise, the idle by example rather than coercion, glossing over his friends’ faults but not their virtues. Many he rewarded making them prefects and procurators, and many he raised to senatorial rank, outstanding individuals who later attained highest office; though in some cases it was a stroke of good fortune rather than a sign of merit.

Mucianus, in his first speeches, offered the soldiers hopes of only a modest bounty, not even Vespasian offering more in times of civil war than in peacetime, being firmly opposed to extravagant promises to the men, and on that account possessing finer troops.

Ambassadors were sent to the Parthians and Armenians, and provisions made for a rear-guard, to avoid exposure once the legions were deployed in the civil war. It was decided that Titus should pursue the conflict in Judea, while Vespasian barred the gateways to Egypt: it was deemed sufficient for only a section of the army, if led by Mucianus in Vespasian’s name, to oppose Vitellius, nothing being difficult where fate takes a hand.

Letters were despatched to all the armies and their legates, commanding them to tempt those praetorians who hated Vitellius with the promise of re-entering Vespasian’s service.

Book II:LXXXIII Mucianus advances

Mucianus, with a lightly-armed force, and acting more as a man sharing power than a subordinate, advanced neither too slowly, lest it convey uncertainty, nor too hastily, so as to allow time for rumour to spread, knowing his forces to be modest in size, for what is unseen is believed greater. Nevertheless the Sixth legion and thirteen thousand veterans followed in dense array.

He had ordered the Black Sea fleet to gather at Byzantium (Istanbul), uncertain as yet whether to bypass Moesia and occupy Dyrrachium (Durres) with infantry and cavalry, at the same time blockading Italian waters with his warships so as to protect Achaea and Asia to his rear which would be defenceless against Vitellius unless strongly guarded; while Vitellius would be unsure which parts of Italy to protect if he himself initiated a naval attack on Brindisi (Brundisium), Taranto (Tarentum) or the coasts of Calabria and Lucania.

Book II:LXXXIV Funding the civil war

Thus the provinces rang to the readying of ships, soldiers and weapons, though nothing troubled them as much as the difficulty of amassing funds: ‘they are the sinews of civil war’, Mucianus would say, neither truth nor justice in his sights but only the value of a defendant’s assets. Denunciations were frequent, and the wealthiest seized as prey. Heavy and intolerable as such things were when excused by the necessities of war, they continued even in peacetime, Vespasian himself at the start of his reign being less insistent on gain from such iniquities but eventually learning, through the indulgence of fortune and the depravity of his teachers, to dare likewise.

Mucianus contributed generously to the war from his own fortune, as free with his private means as he was greedy in acquiring public ones. The others followed his example in donating money, but it was a rare individual who possessed the same freedom in replenishing the same.

Book II:LXXXV The situation in Moesia

Meanwhile, Vespasian’s campaign was furthered by the eagerness with which the army in Illyricum changed sides; the Third legion setting an example to the other legions in Moesia, the Eighth and the Seventh Claudiana. Both imbued with loyalty to Otho, though they were not involved at Bedriacum, they had turned away the messengers bringing news of Otho’s defeat and, after advancing as far as Aquileia, torn down the banners proclaiming Vitellius’s name, and finally, seizing and dividing the military funds, initiated hostilities.

From this came apprehension, and from apprehension the thought that what might require Vitellius’s pardon might win credit with Vespasian. Thus these three legions in Moesia attempted to win over the army in Pannonia by diplomacy while preparing to use force if they refused. With that aim, the governor of Moesia, Aponius Saturninus, initiated a shameful attempt, prompted by a feud but presented as a blow for the cause, on the life of Tettius Julianus, legate of the Seventh legion. He sent a centurion, but Julianus, learning of the danger, fled accompanied by local guides. through the wilds of Moesia to the lands beyond Mount Haemus (Balkan Mountains).

He took no further part in the civil war, undertaking with sundry delays to join Vespasian, advancing then hesitating according to the latest news.

Book II:LXXXVI The gathering storm

However, in Pannonia the Thirteenth legion and the Seventh Galbiana, still angry and resentful over the fighting at Bedriacum, did not hesitate to support Vespasian, with visible impetus from their commander, Primus Antonius. He had been found guilty by the courts and condemned for fraud in Nero’s reign, but one among the many evils of war had been his recovery of senatorial rank.

Though Galba had placed him in charge of the Seventh legion, he is thought to have written to Otho offering his services as a general in Otho’s cause, but overlooked by Otho played no role in that war. Now Vitellius’s fortunes were in doubt, he sided with Vespasian and added significant momentum to his cause, being energetic in action, ready of speech, skilful at sowing animosity among others, prone to stirring discord and sedition, a robber, active in bribery, the worst of men in peacetime, but not to be scorned in war.

The alliance of the armies in Moesia and Pannonia won over the troops in Dalmatia, though the ex-consuls who governed the provinces were uninvolved. Tampius Flavianus ruled Pannonia, while Pompeius Silvanus held Dalmatia, both old men and wealthy; but the imperial agent Cornelius Fuscus was there too, he being vigorous in years and noble in birth.

In his youth he had relinquished senatorial rank out of the desire for a quiet life; at the same time he led his colony in supporting Galba, and thereby became a procurator. Espousing Vespasian’s cause he now brought all his fiery energy to the war: rather than the rewards danger might bring it was the danger itself that delighted him, preferring whatever was new, uncertain and filled with risk to old established interests.

So the movers and shakers began to rouse the discontented everywhere. They wrote to the Fourteenth legion in Britain, and the First legion in Spain, both having supported Otho against Vitellius; and letters were sown widely throughout the Gallic provinces. In a moment, a great war was alight, the army in Illyricum rebelling openly, the rest following on Fortune.

Book II:LXXXVII Vitellius’s degenerate army

While Vespasian and the leaders of his faction were achieving this in the provinces, Vitellius, daily more indolent and more despised, halting at every pleasant town and villa, neared Rome with his ponderous army.

Sixty thousand armed men followed him, tainted with indiscipline; the mass of camp-followers was greater still, and even amongst servants those of the soldiers’ were the most insolent; and there were countless officers and courtiers, a tribe incapable of obedience, even under the strictest of regimes. This multitude was swollen by the senators and knights from Rome who came out to meet him, some from fear, many to ingratiate themselves, the remainder, down to the last man, to avoid being left behind when the rest had gone. And the dregs of society gathered to him, known to Vitellius for their shameful and servile behaviour, jesters, actors, chariot racers, whose scurrilous friendship delighted him greatly.

Not only were the municipal towns and colonies plundered, as if this army were on foreign soil, but the farmers and their fields, on the point of harvest.

Book II:LXXXVIII The army on the rampage

There were many savage incidents among the soldiers; since after the first quarrel at Pavia the conflict between legionaries and auxiliaries continued, though they were united in their brawls with the country folk. However the worst massacre took place seven miles from Rome.

There, Vitellius distributed dressed meats to the soldiers as if he were nurturing gladiators; and crowds had streamed from Rome to fill the whole camp. Unknown to the soldiers – in a display of native wit – these visitors disarmed a few of them, slicing through their belts furtively, then asking where their weapons were. Spirits unused to insult cannot bear ridicule: the soldiers attacked the unarmed crowd with their swords. Among others the father of one of the soldiers was killed while accompanying his son; on this becoming widely known, the innocent were saved from further slaughter.

In Rome there was yet more trepidation with soldiers from the vanguard everywhere; they sought the forum first, eager to see the place where Galba’s corpse had lain. They presented no less savage a sight themselves; shaggy with the pelts of wild creatures and bristling with enormous spears, they unwittingly failed to avoid the crowds and, downed by slippery streets or collisions with citizens, fell to cursing and then fists and swords.

Even the tribunes and prefects swept through, their armed bands bringing terror.

Book II:LXXXIX Vitellius enters Rome

Vitellius himself, on a pedigree horse and wearing a general’s cloak, had set off from the Mulvian Bridge with the senate and people streaming before him, but dissuaded by his advisors from entering Rome as if it were a captured city he donned a senator’s toga and entered on foot with his columns of troops.

The eagles of four legions went in front, while the banners of four more were ranged around, then the standards of twelve cavalry squadrons and after them the foot and horse; next were thirty-four cohorts, distinguished by the names of their tribes or their assortment of weapons.

Before the eagles went the prefects of the camp, the tribunes and the leading centurions, dressed in white, and the remaining centurions, each with their men, their armour and decorations gleaming. And the soldiers’ medals and torques shone too: a fine sight but an army deserving of a finer emperor than Vitellius.

Thus he mounted the Capitol, and there embraced his mother (Sextilia) and  bestowed on her the title Augusta.

Book II:XC Vitellius speaks to the people

Next day, Vitellius made a pompous speech about himself, as if to the senate and people of some foreign state, lauding his own hard work and moderation, though his audience and indeed all Italy, through which he had progressed in shameful idleness and debauchery, were perfectly well aware of his failings.

Nevertheless, as ever, his hearers, mindlessly and with an inability to separate truth from falsehood, cried aloud in adulation as they had been taught to do; and despite his protestations forced him to adopt the title of Augustus, his acceptance as empty as his reluctance.

Book II:XCI Vitellius’s behaviour as emperor

In a city where everything was subjected to interpretation, it was naturally regarded as an evil omen that Vitellius, in his role of high priest, issued a proclamation, regarding public ceremonies, on the eighteenth of July. This was the date, long held to be unlucky, of the disasters at the River Cremera (477BC) and at the Allia (386BC). Thus, ignorant of all law, human and divine, he lived, as if among drunkards, as foolish a life as his freedmen and courtiers.

Yet he canvassed alongside his candidates at the consular elections like an ordinary citizen, repeated every cry in the theatre like a mere spectator, and sought to win at the races like any other patron: all of which would have proved welcome and popular if it had been prompted by virtue, but with the memory of his life to date still fresh it was seen as base and indecorous.

He often attended the senate, even when the senators were discussing minor issues. On occasion, Helvidius Priscus, praetor-elect, opposed Vitellius’s proposals. Vitellius was agitated, but did nothing more than call on the tribunes of the people in support of his slighted authority. Later, when his allies, fearing his anger might run deeper, sought mitigation, he replied that there was nothing strange in two senators disagreeing about public affairs; and that he indeed had spoken out against Thrasea (Helvidius’s father-in-law, executed by Nero in 66AD).

Many ridiculed this shameless comparison, while others were delighted that Vitellius himself had chosen not a man of power, but instead Thrasea as a model of true glory.

Book II:XCII Where real power lay

Vitellius appointed Publilius Sabinus, a cohort prefect, and Julius Priscus, a centurion, as prefects of the praetorian guard. Priscus owed his promotion to Valens, Sabinus to Caecina; over their disputes Vitellius had no authority, all imperial duties being performed by Caecina and Valens.

These two had a long-held hatred each other, barely concealed in camp or at war, which was fuelled by mischievous friends and civil affairs, always a fertile breeding-ground for enmity. As they contended, and their efforts in gathering followers and long lines of well-wishers were compared, Vitellius leaned now towards the one, now the other; where there is excessive power, there can never be complete trust: and at the same time they feared or despised that same Vitellius, so changeable in his manifestations of sudden offence or inappropriate flattery.

Not that this had made them slow to seize houses, gardens, and imperial wealth, while a lamentable crowd of poverty-stricken noblemen and their children, whom Galba had restored to the city, received no sympathy from their emperor.

Welcomed by the foremost citizens and approved even by the plebeian was the concession to the returnees from exile of power over their freedmen, though this was evaded by the freedmen, with the cunning of servants, in every way possible, placing their money with obscure friends or with ambitious patrons, with some entering Caesar’s household to become more powerful than their masters.

Book II:XCIII Disorganisation in the army

Meanwhile the soldiers, their camps full to overflowing with their numbers, wandered about among the porticos and temples, and throughout the entire city, unknown to headquarters, performing no guard-duties, and without beneficial employment. Through the shameful seductions of city life, their bodies were weakened by idleness, their minds by debauchery.

Moreover, with scant regard for their health, the majority of them camped in the pestilential Vatican quarter, with a host of deaths among their crew: with the Tiber nearby, the bodies of the Gauls and Germans in particular, who were unable to bear the heat and desperate for the river-water, were weakened and exposed to disease. Besides all this, military discipline was eroded by corrupt and self-serving actions.

Sixteen praetorian and four city cohorts, of a thousand men each, were enrolled. Valens ventured further to suggest, when selecting them, that he had rescued Caecina from great danger. It is true that the arrival of his forces had strengthened their side, and that success in the battle had quelled the unfortunate rumour that he had lingered en route. All the troops from Lower Germany adhered to Valens, and from that moment on it is thought Caecina’s loyalty to Vitellius wavered.

Book II:XCIV Vitellius indulges his troops

For the rest, Vitellius did not thus indulge his generals, without allowing the soldiers even greater licence. Every man entered whichever branch of the service he chose. However unsuited he might be, he was enrolled for service in the city, if that was what he wished. On the other hand, fine soldiers were permitted to remain voluntarily with the legions or cavalry. There was no lack of men, exhausted by disease and blaming the climate of Rome, who chose to do so; the strength of the legions and cavalry reduced all the same, and the praetorian camp’s prestige was impaired, its twenty thousand strong troop, taken from the whole army, being more a random mix than a picked body of men.

 On being addressed by Vitellius, they demanded the execution of the Gallic chieftains who had fought for Vindex, namely Asiaticus, Flavius, and Rufinus. Vitellius did not dismiss such demands: not only being cowardly by nature, but aware that he must soon pay his soldiers and lacking the means he indulged them in every other way.

The imperial freedmen were ordered to contribute funds based on the number of slaves they possessed; the emperor himself whose only concern was to spend those funds, built racing stables, filled the arena with gladiatorial and wild beast shows, and entertained himself to the full extent of his wealth.

Book II:XCV Vitellius’s profligacy

Indeed, Caecina and Valens celebrated his birthday with gladiatorial exhibitions throughout the city precincts, on a vast scale unheard of before their time. When Vitellius erected altars on the Campus Martius to make offerings to the dead Nero, the worst elements were delighted, while virtuous citizens were horrified. The sacrificial beasts were killed and burned on behalf of the state; and the flames were lit by the Augustales, a priesthood devoted by Tiberius to the Julian clan, as Romulus had devoted one to King Tatius (Titus Tatius, King of the Sabines).

It was not yet four months since Vitellius’s victory, and one freedmen of his, Asiaticus  was already a match for Polyclitus or Petrobius (Nero’s freedmen) and other odious names from the past. No one at his court rose through honesty or hard work: the one road to power was to attempt to satisfy Vitellius’s insatiable greed with prodigious banquets and extravagant suppers. Vitellius himself was more than happy to enjoy the present moment without thought for the future, and is thought to have squandered nine million gold pieces in those few months.

Our mighty and yet wretched state, enduring an Otho and a Vitellius in the very same year, suffered shameful vicissitudes of fate at the hands of Vinius, Fabius, Icelus and Asiaticus, until Mucianus and Marcellus replaced them; other men, but not other morals.

Book II:XCVI The defection of the Third legion

The first defection of a legion was that of the Third, reported to Vitellius in a letter sent by Aponius Saturninus (Governor of Moesia) before he too joined Vespasian’s faction; though Aponius, in his sudden excitement, had not written a full report, and the news was interpreted more favourably by obsequious courtiers: saying that the mutiny involved only one legion and the rest of the army remained loyal.

Vitellius relayed the news to his troops in the same manner, criticising the praetorians recently discharged as having spread false rumours, strongly asserting that there was no fear at all of civil war and suppressing Vespasian’s name, while soldiers roamed the city prohibiting people from commenting on the matter. This latter action above all fed the rumours.

Book II:XCVII Vitellius summons auxiliaries

Vitellius nevertheless summoned auxiliary troops from Germany, Britain and the Spanish provinces, but progressively, and hiding the necessity for his action. The governors and provinces moved ponderously in the same manner. Hordeonius Rufus, already suspicious of the Batavians, was concerned about a rebellion of his own, while Vettius Bolanus governed a Britain that was never fully quiet, and both were of uncertain loyalty. Nor were troops instantly sent from the Spanish provinces, which lacked a governor: their three legion commanders, equal in authority, who would have vied with each other in obedience if Vitellius’s affairs had been prospering, shrank equally from sharing in his waning fortunes.

In Africa, the legions and cohorts, raised by Clodius Macer, and later discharged by Galba, returned to the service on Vitellius’s orders, while the rest of its young men freely gave their names. Indeed Vitellius when pro-consul there had proved honest and popular, while Vespasian’s rule was notorious and hated: from this the allies had made assumptions about each as emperor, though experience revealed the reverse.

Book II:XCVIII Vitellius’s preparations become known

The commander of the Third legion in Africa, Valerius Festus, at first faithfully sided with the provincials, but soon wavered, openly favouring Vitellius in his public despatches and edicts, showing support for Vespasian in secret missives, furthering this interest or that, according to whichever gained in strength.

Various centurions and soldiers, despatched by Vespasian to Rhaetia and the Gallic provinces carrying despatches and proclamations, were sent to Vitellius and executed. The majority however evaded capture, escaping by their own devices, or concealed by allies. Thereby Vitellius’s actions became known, while much of Vespasian’s planning was hidden. This was primarily due to Vitellius’s foolishness, and secondly to the guards stationed in the Pannonian Alps detaining messengers. Furthermore with the Etesian winds blowing, the sea favoured navigation eastwards, but not the reverse.

Book II:XCIX Vitellius orders his generals to prepare for war

At last, Vitellius, fearful of enemy incursions and the dreadful news from every quarter, ordered Caecina and Valens to prepare for war. Caecina was sent forward, while Valens, only just recovered from a serious illness, was forced by physical weakness to delay.

Leaving the city, the army of Germany showed a very different appearance to that with which it had arrived; the soldiers’ bodies lacked vigour and their spirits ardour; their march was slow and strung out, their armour slack, their horses dull; yet the more these men, unable to withstand heat, dust or rain, were reluctant to endure toil, the readier they were to quarrel.

Add to that Caecina’s enduring ambition, and his recent torpor, an excess of good fortune having corrupted him with luxuries, or, while planning treachery, his scheming perhaps to destroy the army’s morale. It is generally believed that Flavius Sabinus’s advice swayed Caecina’s mind, Rubrius Gallus furthering the conversation, saying that the terms on which he might join them would be approved by Vespasian.

He was reminded at the same time of his dislike of, and envy towards, Fabius Valens, and advised that given the inequality in their influence with Vitellius he should seek power serving a new emperor.

Book II:C Caecina prepares to change sides

Caecina, leaving the embrace of Vitellius amidst great honours, sent a squadron of cavalry ahead to Cremona. Soon detachments of the First, the Fourth, the Fifteenth and the Sixteenth legions, and then the Fifth and the Twenty-Second followed; the Twenty-First Rapax and the First Italic formed the rear-guard, with detachments from the three legions of Britain and picked auxiliaries.

After Caecina had left, Fabius Valens wrote to those troops once under his command, ordering them to wait for him on the way: saying that he and Caecina had so agreed. But Caecina, being on the spot and thus advantaged, pretended that the plan had changed to one of waging all-out war on the enemy. The legions were therefore ordered to push on, some to Cremona, the rest to Hostilia (Ostiglia), while he himself diverted to Ravenna, on the pretext of addressing the fleet; shortly thereafter seeking the privacy of Padua to compound his treachery.

For, Lucilius Bassus, formerly merely the prefect of a cavalry squadron, had been given command of the fleets at Ravenna and Miseno (Misenum) by Vitellius. But because he had not promptly been made prefect of the praetorian guard, his unjust resentment indulged in shameful and treacherous revenge.

It is not known whether Bassus influenced Caecina or, given that men who do wrong often share a likeness, whether the same perversity drove them both.

Book II:CI Caecina and Bassus defect

The writers of the time, who composed their accounts of the war while the Flavian house held power, interpreted the actions of these two men as due to a concern for peace and a love of the state, and concealed the real motives out of a desire to flatter. However, it seems to me that the pair of them, beside possessing fickle natures and treating loyalty as an empty concept once they had betrayed Galba, overthrew Vitellius himself out of a sense of rivalry and envy, lest others surpass them in the emperor’s sight.

Caecina now renewed contact with his legions, and by various tactics undermined the centurions’ and soldiers’ steadfast support for Vitellius: Bassus found it easier still to achieve the same with the fleet, the sailors, fresh from their recent service to Otho, being already primed to shift their allegiance.

End of the Histories Book II:LXV-CI