Cornelius Tacitus

The Histories

Book III: I-XXXI The Flavian forces invade Italy

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

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.


Book III:I The Flavian campaign

The military commanders on the Flavian side drew up their plan of campaign under greater auspices and with greater loyalty. They had gathered at Poetovio in Styria (Ptuj, Slovenia) the winter quarters of the Thirteenth legion (Gemina). There they deliberated whether to hold the passes over the Pannonian Alps until they had the whole of their forces at their backs, or whether it was not more logical to go immediately on the offensive and contest possession of Italy.

Those minded to wait for the auxiliaries and prolong the war, stressed the strength and reputation of the German legions, and that the troops from Britain had recently arrived in strength to join Vitellius. They also spoke of the inferior number of recently defeated legions on their side, and that although the soldiers talked fiercely enough, there is always less courage among those who have lost.  Holding the Alps would allow Mucianus to arrive in the meantime with troops from the East.

Vespasian possessed a navy and ruled the waves, and had provincial support allowing him virtually to wage war on a second front and thus, they declared, delay was beneficial, while new forces would strengthen them, and none of their present advantages be lost.

Book III:II Antonius Primus urges haste

To this, Antonius Primus (commander of the Seventh legion, Galbiana, and the most passionate advocate for war) replied that speed favoured their cause, but would be ruinous to Vitellius: the victorious party had increased in idleness rather than gained confidence, nor were their soldiers confined to camp and on the alert: rather they were quartered throughout all the municipalities of Italy, objects of fear to their hosts, the ferocity they had once shown matched only by the avidity with which they had drunk of unaccustomed pleasures.

They had been weakened too by the theatres, the Circus, and the other delights of Rome or exhausted by the effects of disease; but given time even they would recover their strength and be ready for action. Germany, the fount of their strength, was not far off; Britain separated from them only by the straits; Gaul and Spain were neighbours, providing tributes of men and horses; and they held Italy itself and Rome’s wealth; and if they chose to advance beyond those limits they had twin fleets (at Miseno and Ravenna) and the Illyrian Sea lay open to them.

What profit was there then in blocking the mountain passes? What would be gained by extending the war a further summer? Where in the meantime would funds and supplies be found? It was better to make use of the fact that the Pannonian legions, deceived rather than conquered, were ready to rise in revenge; and the troops in Moesia had contributed their whole strength intact. If soldiers were numbered rather than legions, here was the greater force, free of dissipation; its discipline strengthened by feelings of shame over Bedriacum. Even there the cavalry had not been defeated; amidst the disaster they broke Vitellius’s line.

‘That day,’ Antonius Primus declared, ‘two squadrons of horse, from Pannonia and Moesia, shattered the enemy: now sixteen squadrons charging as one, with the noise and dust they raise, will overwhelm the men and horses of an enemy that has forgotten how to fight. Unless you restrain me, I shall not merely advise, but act on that advice. You, if you wish, resources still intact, hold back your legions: the light brigade will be enough for me. Soon you will hear that Italy lies open, Vitellius’s rule overthrown. May you delight in following, treading in the victor’s footsteps.’

Book III:III Antonius Primus inspires the troops

In this manner, eyes flashing, and in such fierce tones as to be more widely heard (since centurions and their men had infiltrated the council) Antonius Primus poured out his eloquence, inspiring even the cautious and most prudent, while a group of men and then the rest cheered him as the only true man and leader there, scornful of the other generals’ reluctance.

Primus had already won a prompt reputation at the rostrum, when after reading aloud a letter from Vespasian he had not argued in vague and general terms, leaning to this or that interpretation according to how it profited him, but seemed openly to have joined the cause, so carrying more weight with the soldiers as a partner in their guilt or in their glory.

Book III:IV Cornelius Fuscus adds his weight to the argument

Cornelius Fuscus, the procurator, held most influence after Primus. He had also been accustomed to attack Vitellius harshly, leaving himself with little to hope for in opposition.  Tampius Flavianus (the Governor of Pannonia), though, by years and nature more cautious, roused the soldiers’ suspicions, his family ties to Vitellius being recalled. Moreover, since he had departed at the first signs of rebellion among the legions, then returned of his own volition, it was thought he sought occasion for treachery.

Now Flavianus had left Pannonia for Italy and so avoided the issue, but felt impelled by his desire for a change of government to resume his title of governor and become involved in the civil conflict. He was urged to do so by Cornelius Fuscus not because he needed Flavianus’s contribution, but in order to add a consular name to their rising party in a shining display of virtue.

Book III:V Vespasian neutralises the forces in Raetia

In order to cross into Italy with impunity and gain the advantage, word was now sent to Aponius Saturninus (the Governor of Moesia) to make haste with his Moesian troops. And lest undefended provinces be exposed to the barbarian tribes, the princes of the Sarmatian Iazuges who held power over their people were admitted to serve with the army. They offered also their men and horses, their only strength: but this gift was refused, lest amid the conflict they might initiate other hostilities, or abandon right and justice if greater rewards promised elsewhere.

Sido and Italicus, kings of the Suevi, were drawn to Vespasian’s party, they having been faithful to the Romans for some time, a people more inclined to loyalty than taking orders. They stationed auxiliaries on their flank, since Raetia was hostile, Porcus Septimius, its procurator, being genuinely pro-Vitellius. Sextilius Felix, with the Aurian horse and eight infantry cohorts was therefore sent to hold the banks of the River Inn, which flows between Raetia and Noricum.

Neither side being inclined to test their strength, the fate of the parties was decided elsewhere.

Book III:VI Antonius Primus and Arrius Varus advance

Antonius advanced rapidly to the invasion of Italy, with his detachments of auxiliaries and cavalry, in collaboration with Arrius Varus, energetic in warfare, whose fame had grown as a general under Corbulo and through success in Armenia. This same Varus, rumour had it, had questioned Corbulo’s integrity, privately before Nero; his reward for this shameful act was the rank of leading centurion, which delighted him at the time but was later a cause of his ruin.

Be that as it may, Primus and Varus, having occupied Aquileia, were received with joy in the neighbouring region at Oderzo (Opitergium) and Altino (Altinum). A force was left at Altino to counter any initiative on the part of the fleet at Ravenna, as they were unaware as yet of its defection. They next won the support of Padua and Este (Ateste). At Este they learned that three Vitellian cohorts and a squadron of cavalry, the Sebosian, had occupied Forum Alieni and built a bridge there.

Primus and Varus thought it an opportunity to attack an enemy that appeared complacent, this being also reported to them. At first light, they killed many of the unarmed men. It had been suggested that if they did away with a few the rest might be forced in fear to change their allegiance. And there were some who surrendered immediately: the majority remaining however destroyed the bridge and blocked the road, so thwarting the enemy.

The opening of the campaign had brought success to the Flavians.

Book III:VII The Flavians reach Padua

With the victory common knowledge, the legions Seventh Galbiana and Tenth Gemina, under the command of Vedius Aquila, advanced rapidly to Padua. There they rested a few days, during which the prefect of the Seventh legion’s camp, Mincius Justus, whose discipline was more strict than troops in a civil war could tolerate, was spared the soldiers’ anger by being sent to Vespasian.

One action, long desired, but wrongly interpreted, won excessive credit: Antonius ordered that in every town where Galba’s statues had been toppled during the discord they should be rededicated, his real motive being the belief that it would further their cause to endorse Galba’s principate and revive his interests.

Book III:VIII The Flavians take Vicenza and Verona

The Flavians then debated where their wartime headquarters should be. Verona seemed best, surrounded by open country suitable for cavalry operations, in which they were strongest, while to deny a colony, so rich in assets, to Vitellius seemed expedient as regarded their own reputation.

Advancing, they took Vicenza (Vicetia), an action of little account in itself (it being a town with modest resources) yet a place of great significance considering it was Caecina’s birthplace and thus an enemy general’s native town had been seized.

Verona was the real prize: useful as a landmark gain with a wealth of resources; and the army, positioned between Raetia and the Julian Alps, could prevent the movement of forces from Germany (over the Brenner Pass).

All this was unknown to Vespasian or had been expressly forbidden by him: in fact he had ordered operations not to extend beyond Aquileia, pending Mucianus’s arrival; and he had given the reason for this, that holding Egypt and controlling the grain supply, while possessing the revenues also of the other two wealthiest provinces (Syria and Asia), Vitellius’s armies could be forced to surrender for want of food and pay.

Mucianus counselled this also in frequent despatches, on the pretext of seeking a bloodless and painless victory or variations on that theme, though in fact avid for glory and wanting all the military honours for himself. However his advice arrived after the event due to the distances involved.

Book III:IX Hostilities around Verona

Antonius then, at once rushed to attack the enemy positions: but after testing their courage in a minor skirmish withdrew with no advantage gained. Caecina soon finished fortifying his camp, between Ostiglia (Hostilia), in the region ruled by Verona, and the swamps of the River Tartaro, a defensible site, with the river at his back, and flanked on both sides by the marshes.

If Caecina had remained loyal, the combined forces of the Vitellians might have crushed the two legions at Verona still lacking the Moesian troops, or repulsed them such that they might have taken to a shameful flight, abandoning Italy. But by various delaying tactics he handed the military initiative to his enemies, whom his army might easily have driven off, writing them reproving letters, while concluding a treasonous pact via go-betweens.

In the meantime, Aponius Saturninus had arrived from Moesia with the Seventh legion Claudiana, commanded by the tribune, Vipstanus Messala, of distinguished ancestry and himself eminent, who alone brought integrity to the field of battle. Caecina sent missives to all the enemy troops, who were no match for the Vitellians (since as yet there were only three legions at Verona), accusing them of rashness in taking up arms after their defeat. He simultaneously praised the courage of the army of Germany, with slight passing mention of Vitellius, no abuse of Vespasian, and with absolutely no attempt to bribe or intimidate his opponents.

The leaders of the Flavian faction, omitting any reference to their past defeats, spoke out boldly in support of Vespasian, resolute in his cause, and confident of their men. They attacked Vitellius in a hostile manner, while raising an expectation among the enemy’s tribunes and centurions that they would retain the benefits with which Vitellius had favoured them, and openly urged Caecina to change sides.

Recited to the assembled Flavian soldiers, this exchange of letters gave them added confidence, for Caecina had written in a deferential manner, as if fearing to offend Vespasian, while their leaders had replied contemptuously as if in scorn of Vitellius.

Book III:X Antonius quells a mutiny

Two further legions then arrived, the Third commanded by Dillius Aponianus, the Eighth by Numisius Lupus, and the Flavians decided on a show of strength whereby Verona would be surrounded by a rampart. The Galbiana legion chanced to be assigned a section of the works facing the enemy, and catching sight of some allied cavalry in the distance took them wrongly, in a moment of panic, to be hostile. Fearing betrayal, they seized their weapons, and their anger fell on Tampius Flavianus (Governor of Pannonia), not because of any evidence of guilt on his part but because of their prior hatred of him.

In a show of rage, they demanded his death, shouting out that he was a relative of Vitellius’s, had betrayed Otho, and had diverted their gratuity. He had no chance to defend himself, though he raised his arms in supplication, repeatedly fell flat on the ground, and tore at his clothes, his mouth and chest convulsed with sobs. This itself incited them to further anger, thinking his terror a proof of guilt. When Aponius Saturninus (Governor of Moesia) tried to speak he was interrupted by the soldiers’ cries; others were greeted with groans and howls of scorn.

Only Antonius won a hearing; since he possessed the authority and eloquence to calm a mob. Seeing that the mutiny was growing, and the men were about to add violence to their noise and abuse, he ordered Flavianus clapped in irons. But the troops, sensing a ruse, pushed aside those guarding the platform, and prepared to use extreme force. Antonius, drawing his sword and pointing it at his breast, swore he would die by his own hand not theirs, and called by name to everyone in sight whom he knew or who bore a battle honour to come to his aid.

Then, turning towards the eagles and the images of the gods of war, he prayed that they might inspire this madness and discord in the enemy’s army rather than their own, until at last the mutiny died away, and as twilight fell, the soldiers slipped away each to their own quarters.

On setting off from the camp, that very night, Flavianus met with a despatch from Vespasian absolving him of all such charges.

Book III:XI A second mutiny leaves Antonius in sole command

The legions, as if tainted with the plague, now attacked Aponius Saturninus, the commander of the army of Moesia, and with the greater violence because they were not wearied by work and toil but inflamed at noon by rumours of some letters that Saturninus was thought to have written to Vitellius. Previously vying with each other in courage and discipline, they now competed in insolence and impudence, so that they might be seen as no less insistent in demanding Aponius’s punishment than that of Flavianus.

The legions from Moesia, having aided the Pannonian troops in their sedition, and the Pannonians, acting as if absolved by the others’ fresh mutiny, delighted in repeating the crime.  They rushed to the gardens in which Saturninus had his quarters. It was not however Primus, Aponianus and Messala who saved him, despite all their efforts, but rather the obscurity of the hiding-place where he lay concealed, closeted in the furnace-room of a bath-house that chanced to be unused: shortly after that, dismissing his attendants, he fled to Padua.

Once the ex-consuls had departed, all power and authority over both armies lay with Antonius alone, his fellow-officers yielding to him, and the soldiers’ affections enthusiastically his. Nor were their lacking those who thought Antonius had instigated both mutinies deceitfully, so that he alone would profit from the war.

Book III:XII Mutiny also on Vitellius’ side

Neither were spirits calm on Vitellius’s side: there the discord was more fatal, arising not from the soldiers’ suspicions but their commanders’ treachery. The admiral of the fleet at Ravenna, Lucilius Bassus, had persuaded those of uncertain loyalty among his men, of whom the majority came from Dalmatia and Pannonia, provinces held by Vespasian, to support his faction. Night was elected for the hour of betrayal, in order for the defectors to gather at headquarters, alone, without the others knowing. Bassus waited in his quarters, through shame or fear regarding the outcome.

The trireme captains, with a great shout, attacked the images of Vitellius, and a few of the crowd who resisted this being killed, the rest, eager for a change of power, favoured Vespasian. Then Bassus revealed himself openly as the initiator of the revolt. Cornelius Fuscus was chosen by the fleet themselves to be their admiral however, and he hastened to Ravenna. Bassus having been conducted to Atri (Adria), guarded in honourable fashion and with an escort of light frigates, was confined to his cabin there by the cavalry prefect, Vibennius Rufus, who commanded the garrison, but was immediately released from his confinement through the intervention of Hormus, one of Vespasian’s freedmen, who was also numbered among the Flavian leadership.

Book III:XIII Caecina tries to instigate a mass defection

Once the fleet’s defection was known, Caecina summoned the leading centurions and a few of their men to headquarters, taking advantage of the empty camp, the remainder being dispersed on military duty. There he extolled Vespasian’s virtues and the strength of his party: the fleet having deserted Vitellius, supplies running short, the Gallic provinces and Spain hostile, and nothing in Rome certain; and everything he said about Vitellius being of the worst.

Then, having begun with those in the know, he administered the oath of allegiance to Vespasian while the rest were still dazed by the turn of affairs. At the same time they tore down the images of Vitellius and sent news of the events to Antonius.

When news of this defection spread through the camp, however, the soldiers rushed to headquarters where they saw Vespasian’s name on the standards and the statues of Vitellius thrown down. There was total silence at first, and then a simultaneous and unanimous outburst. ‘Has the glory of our German army sunk so low,’ they cried, ‘that without a fight, without a drop of blood shed, we surrender our weapons and ourselves, in chains? Who are these enemy legions? Surely, the defeated; and though the prime force of Otho’s army, the First and the Fourteenth are absent, those too we overthrew and routed on that field. Shall all our armed thousands be gifted to that exile Antonius, like a crowd of slaves? Why not indeed add our eight legions to their solitary fleet! This Bassus, this Caecina, it seems, who rob our emperor of houses, gardens, wealth, want even his soldiers too! Without a wound, without a spot of blood upon us, reviled even by the Flavian faction, what shall we say to those who ask was this disaster or success?’

Book III:XIV Caecina’s attempt fails

Now individually, now as one, as indignation moved them, with such cries, and inspired by the men of the Fifth legion, they re-erected the statues of Vitellius, and clapped Caecina in irons. They chose as their commanders the legate of the Fifth, Fabius Fabullus, and the prefect of the camp, Cassius Longus.

Leaving camp, and meeting by chance with the marines from three light frigates, who had neither knowledge of nor involvement in the events, they killed them; then broke down the bridge and rushed back to Ostiglia (Hostilia), continuing on to Cremona to join the two legions Caecina had sent, along with a cavalry detachment, to secure the town, namely the First Italian and the Twenty-First Rapax.

Book III:XV Antonius takes up position near Bedriacum

When Antonius learned of this, he decided to attack the enemy army while they were distracted and their strength divided, before their leaders could recover their authority, the troops their discipline, and the legions a confidence derived from unity. He suspected that Fabius Valens had already left Rome and would move more swiftly once he heard of Caecina’s treachery; moreover Fabius was loyal to Vitellius and experienced in warfare.

At the same time, Antonius feared a major incursion of Germans via Raetia, while Vitellius had summoned auxiliaries from Britain, Gaul and Spain, with disastrous effect on the outcome, if Antonius had not feared this very thing and precipitated victory by pre-empting battle. He now moved his whole army from Verona to Bedriacum in two days.

Next day, retaining his legionaries to work on his defences, he sent auxiliary cohorts into the countryside around Cremona, under the pretext of replenishing military supplies, to assess the local wealth: he himself advanced eight miles beyond Bedriacum with four thousand horsemen so they might plunder more freely. His scouts as usual took soundings further off.

Book III:XVI Initial skirmish near Bedriacum

At the fifth hour of daylight, an express messenger announced that the enemy were in sight, led by a small advance party, the noise of their movement widely audible. While Antonius was considering what he should do, Arrius Varus, eager for vigorous action, charged with the boldest cavalrymen and drove back the Vitellians, though inflicting slight losses since fortunes reversed when larger numbers of the enemy arrived, and those who had pursued the Vitellians furthest now formed the rear of the retreat. Nor had Antonius, expecting such an outcome, desired this spontaneous initiative.

However he now urged his men to engage and fight with spirit, while withdrawing his squadrons to the flanks and leaving open ground in the centre to receive Varus and his cavalry. He ordered the legions to arm, and signalled to the field for his men to abandon their plunder, and hurry to the fight, at the nearest point of engagement. Meanwhile Varus, in panic, re-joined the main body, spreading fear and confusion. Wounded and whole alike were driven back, hindered by their own distress and the narrow roadways.

Book III:XVII Antonius inspires a Flavian victory

Amid this consternation, Antonius neglected no duty of the clear-headed general and brave military man. He checked the fearful, restrained those trying to flee, and wherever there was most trouble, wherever there was a glimpse of hope, by orders, actions, words of encouragement, he was apparent to the enemy, visible to his men.

Finally, urged to the heights of ardour, he transfixed a fleeing standard-bearer with a spear, and gripping the standard turned to face the enemy. Seized with shame, a group of no more than a hundred horsemen pressed the enemy hard: the ground was favourable, the road there narrow, and a bridge over an intervening stream shattered, so that flight was impeded by the steep banks and uncertain shallows. Necessity or good fortune thus rescued those who had almost met defeat.

Forming a solid echelon, they met with a wildly disordered Vitellian advance, and threw it into confusion. Antonius pursued those who fled, killed those who resisted, while his men, according to their nature, despoiled the dead, captured the living, and took possession of arms and horses. And those of his men who were, but now, openly fleeing the field, summoned by the shouts of success, now joined in the victory.

Book III:XVIII Antonius reins in his troops

At the fourth milestone from Cremona, the standards of the Rapax and Italica legions gleamed, they having hastened there after the initially successful cavalry skirmish. But when fate turned against them, the Vitellians did not change formation to receive the fugitives, nor did they advance to further threaten an enemy weary from their long march and the battle. Now ruled by fortune, they realised their need for leadership in adversity as they had failed to feel the lack of it in success. The enemy cavalry attacked their wavering lines; while Vipstanus Messala, the tribune, followed with their Moesian auxiliaries, whom many legionaries kept pace with despite their rapid advance: thus the Flavian cavalry and infantry broke the Vitellian legions, to whom the closeness of Cremona as a refuge gave hope while sapping their willingness to resist.

Yet Antonius did not press further, given the effort and the injuries incurred during a battle so uncertain in its progress despite its successful outcome, afflicting both the men and their mounts.

Book III:XIX The Flavian troops clamour to storm Cremona

As the shadows of evening fell, the main body of the Flavian force arrived. As they advanced through the piles of corpses, amidst the recent signs of slaughter thinking the conflict over, they demanded to march on to Cremona and receive the enemy surrender or storm the town. So they said in public, in fine words: but what each himself considered best was the latter option, that they could take the colony by force, situated as it was in the plain. Their courage would be no less if they attacked in darkness, and their freedom to plunder would be greater. Whereas if they waited for the light, there would be a truce, prayers for mercy, and in return for effort and injury they would bear away those empty prizes clemency and glory, while Cremona’s wealth would fill the prefects’ and legates’ purses, since if it is stormed a city’s plunder belongs to the soldier, it if surrenders to his officers.

They ignored their centurions and tribunes, rattling their weapons to drown out commands, ready to disobey orders if not led forward.

Book III:XX Antonius calms his men

Then Antonius made his way through the ranks, where his aspect and authority won silence, telling them that he would snatch no rewards or honours from those who had earned merit, but that soldiers and generals had differing responsibilities: it was fitting for soldiers to show eagerness for battle, but generals benefited them by foresight, deliberation, and more often by delay rather than rashness. Just as victory had been achieved through his efforts and wielding weapons to the best of his ability, he would now help them through wisdom and forethought, the skills of a leader. For there could be no doubt of the obstacles: night and the location of this city strange to them, an enemy in situ, and every opportunity for ambush. Even if the gates were open it should not be entered without reconnaissance and in daylight. Or a siege would be started without essential information, how level the ground was, how high the walls, whether to attack the city with artillery and missiles or siege-works and shelters.

Then directing himself to individuals, he asked whether they carried axes, picks, and the other tools with which to storm this city. When they said not, he asked: ‘Can anyone undermine, or hack through, walls with spears and swords? If earthworks need raising, or we need to defend ourselves with hurdles and roofing, must we stand here a useless improvident crew, admiring the enemy’s high towers and battlements? Or shall we, at the cost of a single night, assemble artillery and engines, and bring power and victory with us?’

At this same time he had sent servants and sutlers with the freshest cavalry to Bedriacum, to muster supplies and all they needed.

Book III:XXI The Vitellians make a night assault

The soldiers were finding it truly hard to accept the situation, and were near mutiny, when a cavalry squad who had ridden beneath the very walls of Cremona caught some stragglers, from whom they learnt that six Vitellian legions and the whole force from Ostiglia, having marched thirty miles that day and hearing of their comrades’ losses, were preparing for battle and would soon be there. This alarm opened minds previously closed to their general’s advice.

Antonius ordered the Thirteenth legion to take up position on the raised causeway of the Postumian road, flanked on the left by the Seventh Galbiana in open country, and then the Seventh Claudiana protected (as the ground lay) by a ditch. To the right flank were the Eighth legion on an open field-boundary, then the Third among dense thickets.

The order of the eagles and standards was as follows, the soldiers drawn up in the darkness as chance placed them; the praetorian standard was close to the Third legion, the auxiliary cohorts were on the wings, and the cavalry covered their flanks and rear; the Suebian princes Sido and Italicus with the chosen warriors of their tribes were in the front ranks.

Book III:XXII Stalemate in the darkness

Now it would have been wise for the Vitellian troops to remain at Cremona, and renew their strength with food and rest, then on the following day rout and destroy an enemy wearied by cold and hunger. But, leaderless, they made an unplanned attack on the opposition forces at about the third hour of darkness, the Flavians being ready and on the alert.

I would hesitate to give the Vitellian order of battle, their ranks being dispersed in their rage among the shadows of nightfall, though others state that the Fourth Macedonian legion formed their right; the Fifth, the Fifteenth and detachments of the Ninth, the Second and Twentieth British the centre; and the Sixteenth, Twenty-second and First their left. The Rapax and Italica merged ranks throughout, while the cavalry and auxiliaries made their own dispositions.

A savage and uncertain battle raged throughout the night, deadly now to one side now the other. Neither strength nor courage availed, in the absence of visibility to anticipate danger. Both side were armed alike, the watchwords were soon known through frequent challenge, and the standards confused, as some band or other captured them and carried them hither and thither.

The Seventh legion, lately enrolled by Galba, was the hardest pressed. Six of their first-rank centurions were lost, and various standards captured: the eagle itself being saved by Atilius Verus, a leading centurion, who killed many opponents before dying in turn.

Book III:XXIII Battle by moonlight

Antonius now strengthened his wavering line with the praetorians, who wherever they engaged drove back the enemy, to be driven back themselves, for the Vitellians had positioned artillery on the raised roadway so they might have free and open line of sight for their missiles, earlier shots dispersing and striking the trees without damage to the enemy.

A giant ballista worked by the Fifteenth legion shattered the Flavian line with its huge stones and would have caused widespread destruction if not for the outstanding bravery of two soldiers who, hidden behind two shields snatched from the dead, severed the springs and bindings of the machine. They were soon pierced through and through, their names forgotten but not so their deed.

Fortune favoured neither side, though with night the full moon rising revealed and deceived the Vitellian troops. It favoured the Flavians, ascending behind them, extending the shadows of men and horses, leading the enemy spears, aimed at what appeared to be their bodies, to fall short: while the Vitellians lit by the rays opposite offered themselves unwittingly to missiles hurled as if from darkness.

Book III:XXIV Antonius rouses his men

So Antonius, once he could distinguish his men in the shadows and be distinguished, roused them, reproaching and shaming the few, praising and encouraging the many, with promises and hope for all. He reminded the Pannonian legions why they had taken up arms once more: was this not the field on which they could erase the stains of their former disgrace, and regain their glory? Then, turning to the Moesian troops he called on them as the leaders and instigators of the struggles: challenging the Vitellians with words and threats was in vain if they could not endure their gaze and blows.

These words he spoke as he passed each legion, but he spoke at length to the men of the Third, recalling ancient and recent victories, their conquest of the Parthians under Mark Antony (36BC), the Armenians under Corbulo (63AD), and recently of the Sarmatians. Then to the praetorians he shouted fiercely: ‘And if you fail to win today, you clods, what other general, what other army will have you? There are your standards and your weapons, and death in defeat, for dishonour you have done with.’

There was a great clamour on all sides, and the Third (as is the custom in Syria) hailed the rising sun.

Book III:XXV The Flavians clear the path to Cremona

This led to a rumour, started deliberately perhaps by their general, that Mucianus had arrived, and their two forces had exchanged greetings. The Flavians then advanced as if reinforced by fresh troops, while the Vitellian line showed more ragged as, lacking leadership, the ranks parted or closed together driven by courage or fear. Once Antonius perceived their disruption, he attacked en masse. Their weakened lines were broken, and impeded by the wagons and artillery could not re-form. The victorious troops in swift pursuit were strung out along the road.

The slaughter was notable for the death of a father at the hands of his son. The names and facts I give on the authority of Vipstanus Messala. A certain Julius Mansuetus of Spain, enrolling in the legion Rapax, left behind him a young son. He as an adult was conscripted by Galba into the Seventh. He chanced unknowingly to come up against his father whom he wounded and struck down, then gazing at the man, who was near to death, he recognised and was recognised by him. Finally, embracing the corpse, his voice filled with tears, he begged his father’s shade to forgive him, not reject him as a parricide; calling it the State’s doing; asking what the individual counted for in a civil war, while raising up his father’s body. Then he dug a grave and performed the last rites for his parent.

Those nearby saw him, then others heard of it: until there came cries of horror and grief throughout the ranks, as they cursed against this cruellest of wars. Yet they were no less ready to slaughter and despoil their kith and kin, their brothers: they called the deed a crime, and still they did it.

Book III:XXVI The Flavians reach Cremona

On reaching Cremona, they encountered a new and immense task. During the war against Otho, the army of Germany had camped beneath Cremona’s walls, and built earthworks round their camp, defences which they had further strengthened. On seeing these, the victorious Flavians hesitated, their leaders being unsure of what orders to give.

To begin an arduous attack on the town, with troops wearied by a day and night of fighting, meant an uncertain outcome given the lack of reserves. But if they returned to Bedriacum, with the intolerable burden of a lengthy march, their victory would be in vain. Even to fortify a camp with the enemy nearby was a terrifying prospect, since scattered and involved with its construction they might be thrown into disarray by a sudden sortie.

Above and beyond all this, the Flavian generals feared their soldiers’ mood, they being readier for danger than delay, disregardful of their own safety and setting their hopes on bold action. Their desire for plunder outweighed all thought of death and disaster.

Book III:XXVII Attack on Cremona

This situation inclined Antonius towards an attack, and he ordered the enemy earthworks to be besieged. At first the Flavians fought at a distance, hurling stones and firing arrows, with greater loss to their own ranks, at whom missiles were thrown from above. Then Antonius assigned each legion a stretch of the wall, or the gateway, so that individual effort might distinguish the brave from the cowardly, and inflame their rivalry in winning glory.

The Third and the Seventh were positioned next to the Bedriacum road, the Eighth and the Seventh Claudiana took the section further to the right, while the Thirteenth spent their efforts on the gateway towards Brescia (Brixia). After a brief delay, while the men collected pickaxes and hoes from the neighbouring fields, while others brought up hooks and ladders, they advanced on the fortifications, shields above their heads in overlapping ‘tortoise’ formation.

Both sides were using Roman tactics: the Vitellians rolling down ponderous stones, and parting and loosening the cover of shields, prodding with pikes and lances, until they broke through the tight defence, hurling the dead and wounded to the ground in widespread slaughter. The attack would have faltered, if the Flavian commanders, seeing the soldiers growing weary and near to the point where exhortations might prove vain, had not pointed towards Cremona.

Book III:XXVIII Mass slaughter

Whether this was Hormus’s idea as Messala has it, or whether Gaius Pliny is right in blaming Antonius, I cannot easily judge, except to say that neither Antonius or Hormus was incapable, by history or reputation, of this worst of crimes. Neither wounds nor bloodshed further deterred the soldiers from their attempts to undermine the walls and break down the gates. Men renewed the ‘tortoise’, climbed it via their comrades’ shoulders, and seized their enemies’ weapons and forearms. The wounded and whole, the half-dead and dying rolled together, succumbing in every way to every form of  death.

Book III:XXIX The Flavians take the earthworks

The fiercest assault was made by the Third and Seventh legions; and general Antonius with picked auxiliaries attacked at the same point. When the Vitellians could no longer endure the sustained attack on them, their weapons thrown from above sliding uselessly over the ‘tortoise’, they finally propelled their ballista itself onto those beneath, whom it crushed or momentarily scattered while toppling the upper earthworks and parapet, at the very moment the neighbouring turret gave way under a shower of stones.

While the Seventh drove forward in wedge formation, the Third broke the gate down with their axes and swords. All the sources agree that Gaius Volusius, a private of the Third, was the first to rush through. He climbed the rampart, hurling down those who resisted, and raising his arm and voice aloft called out that the camp was taken; at which the rest burst in while the Vitellians in panic threw themselves from the ramparts.

All the open ground between the camp and the walls of Cremona was covered by the dead.

Book III:XXX The Flavians assault Cremona

But now fresh problems again presented themselves: namely the high city walls, its stone turrets, its iron-barred gates, defenders brandishing spears, and the massed population of citizens committed to the Vitellian cause. A great crowd of Italians were also gathered there for the market held at that time, their numbers assisting the defenders, though inciting the attackers to greater plunder.

Antonius ordered his troops to swiftly torch the finest buildings outside the walls, hoping that the citizens of Cremona might alter their allegiance faced by the loss of their properties. He also stationed his bravest men on the roofs of houses nearest the battlements and overtopping them, who dislodged the defenders with beams, tiles and firebrands.

Book III:XXXI Cremona is taken

With the Flavian legionaries now massing in ‘tortoise’ formation as others hurled spears and stones, the courage of the Vitellians slowly ebbed away. The higher the rank, the readier to yield, since when Cremona fell there would be no quarter given, the rage of the victors falling not on the masses, but on the tribunes and centurions themselves, whose death meant gain. The common soldiers however, foreseeing nothing and safer through their lowly status, held out: even when they gave up the fight they scattered through the streets, hid themselves in the houses, but would not beg for peace.

Their officers removed Vitellius’s name and images from their headquarters. They struck off Caecina’s fetters (even then he was still in chains) and begged him to intercede in pleading their cause. They wearied that proud disdainful general with their tears, all those bravest of the brave, in the extremity of distress, begging the traitor for help. Then as signs of surrender they spread wall-hangings and ribbons over the battlements.

Once Antonius had ordered the assault to cease, the defenders brought out their standards and eagles, followed by sorrowful lines of men their eyes on the ground. The victors stood around at first, hurling insults and threatening blows: then, as the defeated, enduring all, offered themselves to this invective without a spark of pride, the Flavians recalled to mind that these were the very men who had shown mercy after their recent victory at Bedriacum.

Nevertheless, when Caecina appeared dressed in his consular robe of office, the toga praetexta, escorted by lictors parting the crowd, they were enraged, taunting him for his arrogance, cruelty and (so hated is the crime) furthermore with treachery.

Antonius though intervened, granted him an armed escort, and sent him to Vespasian.

End of the Histories Book III:I-XXXI