Book III: LIX-LXXXVI The battle for Rome, the death of Vitellius
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
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- Book III:LIX The Flavians cross the Apennines
- Book III:LX Antonius counsels patience
- Book III:LXI Vitellian defeat at Interamna
- Book III:LXII The execution of Fabius Valens
- Book III:LXIII The Vitellians at Terni surrender
- Book III:LXIV Flavius Sabinus exhorted to seek his share of glory
- Book III:LXV Sabinus declines to act
- Book III:LXVI Vitellius is exhorted to action
- Book III:LXVII Vitellius prepares to surrender power
- Book III:LXVIII Vitellius seeks to abdicate
- Book III:LXIX Flavius Sabinus under threat
- Book III:LXX Flavius Sabinus sends Vitellius a message
- Book III:LXXI The Vitellian troops attack the Capitol
- Book III:LXXII The Capitol in flames
- Book III:LXXIII Vitellian forces take the Capitol
- Book III:LXXIV Domitian escapes, Flavius Sabinus is killed
- Book III:LXXV The character of Sabinus
- Book III:LXXVI Lucius threatens Terracina
- Book III:LXXVII Massacre at Terracina
- Book III:LXXVIII Flavian delay
- Book III:LXXIX The Vitellians defend Rome
- Book III:LXXX The Vitellians send envoys to the Flavians
- Book III:LXXXI Vitellius’ approaches rejected
- Book III:LXXXII The Flavians begin the battle for Rome
- Book III:LXXXIII Chaos in the city
- Book III:LXXXIV Rome, and Vitellius, captured
- Book III:LXXXV Vitellius killed
- Book III:LXXXVI Domitian returns home
Book III:LIX The Flavians cross the Apennines
While the occupation of Bevagna (Mevania) had terrified Italy and had seemed to begin the war afresh, there is no doubt that Vitellius’ timid retreat to Rome had increased support for the Flavian party. Excited by jealousy because Campania had pre-empted them, the Samnites Paelignians and Marsians were ready for all the tasks demanded by war, as with a fresh devotion.
Nevertheless when the army, contending with severe winter weather in crossing the Apennines, found difficulty in struggling through the snow even though untroubled by the enemy, it was clear what a risk it would have been if the good luck which served the Flavians as much as their planning had not caused Vitellius to return to Rome.
They had come across Petilius Cerialis who, disguised as a peasant and knowing the terrain, had escaped Vitellius’ pickets. Closely connected to Vespasian and not without military reputation himself, Cerialis was appointed as one of the commanders. Many say that Flavius Sabinus (Vespasian’s brother) and Domitian were offered a way to escape also; messengers sent by Antonius reached them, using diverse covert methods, and revealed a possible place of safety. However Sabinus gave the excuse that his state of health rendered him unequal to the effort and daring required. Domitian was spirited enough, but though the guards appointed to watch him promised to accompany his flight, he feared treachery. Besides,Vitellius himself had no terrible fate in mind for Domitian, out of concern for his own relatives.
Book III:LX Antonius counsels patience
The Flavian leaders, arriving at Casigliano (Carsulae), rested a few days, until the legionary eagles and standards arrived (from Verona). The site of their camp pleased them, offering a wide prospect, and secure sources of supply with prosperous towns at their back; and with Vitellius’ forces only ten miles away (at Terni) they hoped to speak with them and secure their defection. The Flavian troops however received this badly and preferred victory to peace-talks, opposed to waiting even for their own side’s legionaries to appear, who would share the profits not merely the risk.
Antonius, addressing the men, explained that Vitellius’ troops would waver in their allegiance if allowed to deliberate, but would be fierce in retaliation if rendered desperate. ‘How a civil war begins,’ he said, ‘is in the hands of fortune: but victory is achieved by strategy and wise counsel. The fleet at Misenum with the fair region of Campania have already defected, no more is left to Vitellius of all the wide world than what lies between Terracina and Terni. We gained glory enough in the battle for Cremona, but greater unpopularity through its destruction. We should not long to capture Rome, rather to save it. Greater reward will be yours and the highest honour if, without bloodshed, you ensure the safety of the senate and the people of Rome.’
These and similar arguments quieted their spirits.
Book III:LXI Vitellian defeat at Interamna
Not long after, the legionaries arrived at Casigliano. The terrifying news that the Flavian army had been reinforced caused Vitellius’ cohorts to waver, no one exhorted them to fight, many to desert, and they rivalled one another in handing over the centuries and cavalry squadrons as a present to the victors and as security for their own reward later.
The Flavians learned from them that Interamna (Interamna Nahars was the lowland site ‘between the two rivers’ while Narnia was the fortified hilltop site, modern Narni, both in close proximity to modern Terni) in the neighbouring plain was defended by only four hundred cavalry. Varus was sent with a lightly-armed detachment, and killed the few who resisted, the rest throwing away their weapons and seeking pardon.
Some of the Vitellians, fleeing back to the main camp, caused utter panic with exaggerated tales of the enemy’s bravery and numbers to ease their shame in having deserted their post. There was no punishment for cowardice among the Vitellians, defectors were rewarded for changing sides, and the only rivalry remaining was in the degree of treachery. Desertion was common among the tribunes and centurions, the ordinary soldiers remaining loyal to Vitellius until Priscus and Alfenus (the prefects of the praetorian guard) abandoned their post and, fleeing to Rome and Vitellius, absolved them of the shame of defection.
Book III:LXII The execution of Fabius Valens
At this time, Fabius Valens was executed while in custody at Urbino (Urbinum). His severed head was shown to the Vitellian troops to quench their hopes, since they had believed Valens had made his way to the German provinces where he was gathering forces old and new: the sight of the head drove them to despair, while the Flavian troops were hugely inspired by Valens’ execution, regarding it as putting an end to the war.
Valens was born at Anagni (Anagnia) of an Equestrian family. Bold in manner, he lacked nothing in intellect, only that he sought a reputation for wit through his impudence. During Nero’s Festival of Youth, he acted in mimes, at first it seems under compulsion, and then of his own free will, but more cleverly than well.
As a legionary legate he supported Verginius and then denounced him. He put Fonteius Capito to death after tempting him, or perhaps because he could not tempt him. A traitor to Galba he was loyal to Vitellius and gained glory through the disloyalty of others.
Book III:LXIII The Vitellians at Terni surrender
Now all hope was lost, the Vitellian troops were ready to defect, but without loss of honour, so they descended to the plain below Narnia under the sign of their banners and standards. The Flavian soldiers, equipped and prepared for battle, were drawn up in close order along the roadside. The Vitellians having been received in their midst, and surrounded, Antonius addressed them in terms of clemency: some being ordered to remain at Narnia, the rest at Interamna. Some of the victorious legions were also left there, not to oppress the Vitellians but sufficient to counter any rebellion.
Antonius and Varus did not omit sending frequent messages at this time to Vitellius, offering him refuge, money and a safe haven in Campania if he would forgo arms and surrender himself and his children to Vespasian. Mucianus also wrote him letters in the same vein; in all of which Vitellius tended to place his trust, speaking of the safe haven he might select, and the servants he might take with him. Such lethargy had invaded his spirit that if others had not remembered he was still emperor he himself would have forgotten.
Book III:LXIV Flavius Sabinus exhorted to seek his share of glory
However, the leading citizens of Rome, in secret, were urging Flavius Sabinus, the city prefect, to claim his share of glory and success. ‘You have your own force in the city militia, together with the fire and police cohorts and your slaves who will not fail you, nor will the good-fortune of our Flavian party and the subservience of all to the winning side. Do not yield your glory to Antonius and Varus.
Vitellius has only a few infantry, anxious at the gloomy news from all sides: the people are fickle and if you offer yourself as their leader, they will show the same adulation for Vespasian as emperor that they have for Vitellius; and Vitellius himself, unequal to success, is weakened by disasters.
Gratitude for ending the war will belong to the man who takes control of Rome: it is for you, Sabinus, to hold imperial power for your brother, for Vespasian to rank the rest below you, Sabinus.’
Book III:LXV Sabinus declines to act
Sabinus however, unfit through age, received such calls unmoved; though some people, with their own private suspicions, attacked him for hindering his brother’s rise. For Sabinus was the elder brother, and while they were private citizens he was the superior in wealth and authority. And, it was thought that when Vespasian had been in difficulties, Sabinus had given him only modest help, Vespasian’s house and land being pledged as security; so that, in spite of their apparent friendship, there was the fear of a hidden sense of injury.
A kinder interpretation of his reluctance, is that he was a gentle soul who abhorred bloodshed and slaughter, such that he had frequent conversations with Vitellius about peace, and abandoning force given certain conditions. They had often met privately, and finally, as rumour has it, made an agreement in the temple of Apollo. Their voices and statements were witnessed by Cluvius Rufus (the governor of Spain) and Silicus Italicus (the author of Punica): but distant bystanders noted their expressions, Vitellius with the downcast look of humiliation, Sabinus with that of pity rather than triumph.
Book III:LXVI Vitellius is exhorted to action
Now if Vitellius could have convinced his followers to remain inactive as easily as he had convinced himself, Vespasian’s troops would have entered Rome without bloodshed. As it was, those loyal to Vitellius rejected peace under any conditions, a peace where danger lay and dishonour, requiring faith in a capricious victor. ‘Vespasian is not confident enough,’ they told Vitellius, ‘to allow you to live as a private citizen, not even the defeated will suffer it: so there is risk for him in showing clemency. True you are old and have seen enough of success and adversity, but what will your son Germanicus’s status be? Now Vespasian promises you wealth and slaves and a delightful refuge in Campania: but once he has seized the imperium neither he, his friends, nor even the army will feel secure until his rival is destroyed.
Fabius Valens, though held as a hostage against unknown eventualities, was too great a burden to them, Will Primus, or Fuscus, or that exemplar of party Mucianus have any choice but to kill you? Pompey was not exempted from harm by Caesar, nor Antony by Augustus, yet perhaps Vespasian has a nobler soul, who was once the client of a Vitellius when that Vitellius was a colleague of the emperor Claudius?
No, you must prove worthy of a father who held the censorship and three consulships, and of all the honours granted your great house. In despair, at least rouse yourself to action. The soldiers are steadfast, the people still supportive; and then, nothing worse can come to those who rush willingly to their ruin, than that defeated they must die, surrendering they must die: all that matters is whether their last breath is taken amidst ridicule and insult, or with courage.’
Book III:LXVII Vitellius prepares to surrender power
Vitellius was deaf to bold advice: he was overwhelmed by anxiety and pity for his wife and children, fearing that stubborn conflict might render the victor less merciful to them. He also had a mother bowed down by her years, though her timely death anticipated the fall of her house by a few days, she gaining nothing by her son’s rise to emperor but grief and a reputation for virtue.
On the eighteenth of December, Vitellius, on hearing of the defection of the legions and cohorts that had surrendered at Narnia, descended from the Palatine wearing mourning clothes, surrounded by his sorrowful family, his little son being borne in a litter as if in funeral procession. The shouts of the crowd were strangely flattering, the soldiers ominously silent.
Book III:LXVIII Vitellius seeks to abdicate
There was no one so indifferent to human affairs as to remain unmoved by the sight. An emperor of Rome, but a moment before lord of all mankind, abandoned the heights of fortune, moving through the crowds in the heart of that city, to relinquish power. None had seen or heard of the like before. A stroke of violence had overthrown the dictator Julius Caesar, a secret plot Caligula, while darkness and hidden paths concealed Nero’s flight, Piso and Galba had fallen so to speak in battle: but Vitellius, in his own assembly, among his own men, the women watching, spoke briefly in a manner befitting his sad state – saying he yielded power for the sake of peace and the public good, asking them to remember him and have pity for his brother, and his wife and innocent young children – and as he did so holding out his young son, commending him now to one, now to all.
Finally, in tears, taking out the dagger at his side, he offered it to the consul standing beside him (Caecilius Simplex by name) as if surrendering the power of life and death over the citizens. When the consul refused, and those assembled shouted in agreement, Vitellius left them, intending to place the imperial insignia in the Temple of Concord, and retire to his brother’s home. A louder clamour then opposed his entering a private house, calling to him to re-enter the palace. Every other path was closed, except that leading to the Sacred Way, so he returned, his intentions thwarted, to the Palatine.
Book III:LXIX Flavius Sabinus under threat
The rumour that he was abdicating had already spread, and Flavius Sabinus had written to the cohort tribunes asking them to restrain the troops. Thus, the leading senators, most of the Equestrian order, and all the city guards and watchmen filled his house, as if the whole state had fallen into Vespasian’s hands. Word was brought concerning the mood of the people and the threats of the German cohorts. But he had already gone too far to retreat, and everyone urged the reluctant prefect to take up arms, fearing lest the Vitellians attack the Flavian forces while scattered and weak: though, as usually happens in such situations, advice was offered by all but few took up the challenge.
As Sabinus and his armed guard were descending by the reservoir of Fundanus, they were met by the most forward of the Vitellians. This sudden skirmish was of little account, but favoured the Vitellians. Things being uncertain, Sabinus took the safest course in the circumstances, and occupied the Capitoline citadel, with a mixed force, and various senators and knights, whose identity is doubtful since, following Vespasian’s victory, so many claimed this service to his party. Some women also endured the ensuing siege, the most noted being Verulana Gratilla, following neither children nor relatives but the war.
The Vitellian troops besieging them kept careless watch, and at night Sabinus summoned his sons and his nephew Domitian to the Capitol, and sent a messenger through the inattentive picket lines to the Flavian commanders, to report that they were under siege, and in difficulties unless reinforced. In truth the night was so free of conflict, that Sabinus could have left without risk: since Vitellius’s men whilst spirited when in danger, had scant regard for hard work or picket duty, and a sudden wintry downpour made it hard for them to see or hear.
Book III:LXX Flavius Sabinus sends Vitellius a message
At first light, before mutual hostilities could begin, Sabinus sent a leading centurion, Cornelius Martialis, to Vitellius with a mandate to complain that their agreement had been broken: ‘You have merely made a show and pretence of relinquishing power to deceive all these illustrious men. Why else did you go from the rostra to your brother’s house, which overlooks the Forum and attracts men’s eyes, rather than your wife’s house on the Aventine? That would have befitted a private citizen who wished to avoid all the trappings of power. On the contrary Vitellius returns to the Palace, the very citadel of that power, whence an armed force issued, and the most crowded place in Rome was strewn with the corpses of the innocent, not even the Capitol being safe!
I, Sabinus, am a mere civilian, and only one senator of many: while there was legionary conflict between Vespasian and Vitellius, the capture of cities, the surrender of cohorts, and though the Spanish, German and British provinces defected, and though I am Vespasian’s own brother, I remained loyal to you while I was called on to sit voluntarily in conference. It is the defeated whom Peace and concord benefit, they add mere glory to the victors.
If you regret our agreement do not seek to attack me, whom your treachery has deceived, or Vespasian’s son who is scarcely a youth – what benefit is there in killing an old man and a child? – you should rather go and face the legions and fight there for supremacy: everything depends on the outcome of that battle.’
Troubled by all this, Vitellius made a brief reply in excuse of his actions, laying the blame on his soldiers, his own moderation being unequal to their excessive ardour. And he warned Martialis to take a secret exit from the Palace in leaving, so that he would not be killed by the soldiers as the proposer of a peace they detested. For himself, he was powerless to command or forbid, being no longer emperor but a source of conflict.
Book III:LXXI The Vitellian troops attack the Capitol
Martialis had barely returned to the Capitol when the soldiers arrived in fury, leaderless, each his own general. Marching rapidly through the Forum, its temples looming above, they advanced uphill in column as far as the outer gates of the Capitoline citadel. There were some ancient colonnades on the right as you climb, on whose roof the defenders made a stand showering tiles and stones on the Vitellians.
The latter were unarmed except for swords, and realising it would take too long to fetch artillery and missiles they threw firebrands onto the projecting portico, followed the flames and, burning the gates of the Capitol, would have penetrated, if Sabinus had not ordered the statues everywhere, raised in honour of our ancestors, toppled and piled up to barricade the entrance. They then tried various routes to the hill, one by the Grove of Asylum, one by the hundred steps up the Tarpeian Rock. Both attacks were improvised; but that by the Asylum was closer and more menacing. Nor could the defenders prevent men climbing over neighbouring houses, built in peacetime to the level of the Capitol itself.
It is uncertain whether the besiegers set fire to the roofs, or the besieged, the more solid tradition claiming it was the latter, as they repelled the climbers and the advancing forces. From there the fire spread to the porticoes adjoining the temple; and soon the old eagle-shaped wooden supports for the roof burst into flame. So, its doors firmly shut, undefended and un-plundered, the Capitol burned.
Book III:LXXII The Capitol in flames
This was the most grievous and shameful event, in public life, to befall the people of Rome since the founding of the city. With no external enemy and the gods propitious, if our behaviour had allowed, the home of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, founded by our ancestors with due auspices as a pledge of empire, which neither Lars Porsenna when the city yielded to him (507BC) nor the Gauls when they captured it (387BC) could violate, was destroyed by the inanities of power.
True, the Capitol had been torched before in civil war (83BC), but that was the crime of private individuals (Marius and Sulla): now it was attacked publicly, burned publicly, and what was the cause of conflict, what was the price for so great a disaster? Yet it had stood firm while we fought for our country.
Our king, Tarquinius Priscus, at war with the Sabines, vowed its creation, and laid its foundations in hope of future greatness rather than according to the, as yet modest, means of the Roman people. Its later construction was due to Servius Tullius with help from eager allies, and then to Tarquinius Superbus with the proceeds of spoils taken when Suessa Pometia (the Volscian city) was captured from the enemy. But the glory of completion was reserved for liberty. After the expulsion of the kings, Horatius Pulvillus dedicated it, in his second consulship (507BC); its magnificence such that the vast later wealth of the Roman people served rather to adorn than increase its splendour.
After an interval of four hundred and twenty five years, it was burned to the ground in the consulship (83BC) of Lucius Scipio and Gaius Norbanus, but was rebuilt on the same spot, the victorious Sulla undertaking the work but not dedicating it: ‘the only thing denied his happiness’. That was left to Lutatius Catulus (in 69BC) whose name remained inscribed there, amidst the great works of the Caesars, down to Vitellius’s day. This then was the temple consumed in the flames.
Book III:LXXIII Vitellian forces take the Capitol
The fire did bring terror to the besieged however more than to the besiegers. Indeed, the Vitellian troops lacked neither skill nor steadfastness in the face of uncertainty: on the opposing side the men were fearful, the commander as if dumbfounded could not speak, nor could he hear, nor be guided by others’ counsel or his own, but was swayed this way and that by the hostile clamour, countermanding what he had ordered, ordering what he had forbidden and, as happens in desperate moments, soon all were shouting orders and none obeying, until in the end they threw down their weapons and looked for any means of flight or concealment.
The Vitellians broke through, and committed utter carnage with fire and sword. A few military men, among whom Cornelius Martialis, Aemilius Pacensis, Casperius Niger, and Didius Scaeva were the most distinguished, dared to fight and were killed. Flavius Sabinus, unarmed and not attempting to flee, was surrounded by the Vitellians, as was Quintus Atticus, the consul, who was marked by the emptiness of his title and his own foolishness in issuing edicts to the populace exorbitant in praising Vespasian while insulting to Vitellius.
The remaining defenders escaped by various means, some dressed as slaves, others protected by loyal clients and hidden among the baggage, while there were a few who learnt the password by which the Vitellians recognised one another, and themselves demanding it or giving it though unasked took refuge in audacity.
Book III:LXXIV Domitian escapes, Flavius Sabinus is killed
When the besiegers broke into the citadel, Domitian was concealed in a temple attendant’s rooms. Through the cleverness of a freedman and dressed in a linen robe he joined a crowd of devotees undetected, and took shelter in a house near the Velabrum, belonging to Cornelius Primus, one of his father’s clients.
After his father, Vespasian, came to power, Domitian had the temple attendant’s lodgings demolished, and built a small chapel to Jupiter the Preserver, with an altar showing his escape in marble relief: and when he himself inherited the imperium, he dedicated a vast temple to Jupiter the Guardian, with his own effigy in the lap of the god.
Sabinus and Atticus, loaded with chains, were dragged before Vitellius, who gave them neither a word or look in anger, though the right to kill them and be rewarded for the deed was demanded by the noisy mob. Those nearest began the cry, then the lowest plebeians shouted for Sabinus’ death, with a mixture of supplications and threats.
Vitellius standing on the palace steps tried to appeal to them but was forced to leave: then they ran Sabinus through, mutilated his flesh, and cutting off his head dragged the body to the Gemonian Stairs.
Book III:LXXV The character of Sabinus
So ended a man far from deserving of scorn. He had been involved in public affairs for thirty-five years, distinguished in domestic and military matters. His fairness and integrity were beyond question; though he spoke too effusively, which during his seven years governing Moesia, and his twelve as city prefect, was the only accusation against him.
At the end of his life, some thought him lethargic, many that he was a moderate, sparing of his country’s blood. All however agree that, until the time Vespasian won power, he was the glory of their house. We hear that his death gave pleasure to Mucianus. The majority did think it in the interests of peace since it eliminated the rivalry between the two, one who foresaw his role as the emperor’s brother, the other himself as partner in imperial power.
But Vitellius resisted the crowd’s demand to punish the consul, Quintus Atticus, since he felt well-disposed towards him and wished to repay his assumption of guilt when it was asked who had set fire to the Capitol. By this confession, or possibly deception to meet the circumstances, he seems to have acknowledged condemnation of the crime, and freed Vitellius’ faction from blame.
Book III:LXXVI Lucius threatens Terracina
During this time, Lucius Vitellius, camped at Feronia, threatened to destroy nearby Terracina (Tarracina), where he was besieging the Flavian gladiators and marines, the former led by Julianus the latter by Apollinaris as I have mentioned above, both leaders, through laziness and irresponsibility, being more gladiator than leader.
No watch was kept, nor effort made to strengthen the fragile walls: day and night they filled the pleasant coves with their echoes, the soldiers scattered in the service of their pleasure, and never spoke of war except over dinner.
A few days earlier, Apinius Tiro, the Flavian, had left Terracina and by his harshness in extracting gifts and money won unpopularity for his faction rather than adding to its strength.
Book III:LXXVII Massacre at Terracina
Meanwhile, one of Verginius Capito’s slaves had fled to Lucius’ camp saying he could deliver them an emptied citadel if given sufficient men. In the depths of night he guided a lightly-armed cohort onto the heights above their enemies, whence they rushed down to commit slaughter rather than fight.
They killed men armed, or arming, roused from sleep, confused by darkness, terror, the blare of trumpets and hostile cries. A few gladiators resisted and fell exacting vengeance: the rest ran to the ships, where equal panic gripped all, the Vitellians massacring soldiers and townsfolk alike. Six Liburnian galleys escaped at the first alarm, with their admiral of the fleet Apollinaris: the remainder were captured at anchor, or swamped by the weight of those who leapt aboard. Julianus was dragged before Lucius Vitellius, flogged, and executed before Lucius’ very eyes.
There were those who accused Lucius’ wife, Triaria, of behaving savagely and despotically, as if she had girded herself with a soldier’s sword, amongst the grief and slaughter when Terracina was taken. Lucius himself sent laurels to his brother to mark their success, asking there and then whether he ordered him to return to Rome, or press on and conquer Campania.
The attendant delay though helpful to Vespasian also helped the state, since if the troops, fresh from victory, and with pride at their success added to their native intransigence, had hastened to Rome, there would have been no slight conflict nor would the city have escaped destruction. For all his poor reputation Lucius had energy, drawing strength not like the good from his virtues, but like the worst of men from his vices.
Book III:LXXVIII Flavian delay
While these events were occurring on the Vitellian side, Vespasian’s army left Narni (Narnia) and celebrated the Saturnalia (17th-2rd December) quietly at Otricoli (Ocriculum, 12 miles south). The excuse for such untimely delay was that they were awaiting Mucianus.
Nor were those lacking who suspected Antonius also of a deceitful delay, he having received secret letters from Vitellius offering him a consulship, marriage with his daughter, and a large dowry for her as a reward for treachery.
Others considered these mere fictions devised for Mucianus’ benefit, some that all the leaders had been in league to threaten Rome with war rather than actually wage war, since the strongest cohorts had already abandoned Vitellius and it seemed likely that he would relinquish power if all his resources were exhausted: but their plans had been ruined by Sabinus’ haste and subsequent ineffectiveness, since he had armed rashly but then been unable to defend, against a mere trio of cohorts, the fortified Capitol whose strong defences should have been safe from the attacks of a much greater force.
However, it is not easy to attribute to any one person the blame that attached to all. For Mucianus delayed victory in letters filled with ambiguity, while Antonius, by too ready a compliance to them and shifting of the blame from himself, was worthy of condemnation; the rest of the generals also, thinking the war was over, guaranteed it an infamous end.
Not even Petilius Cerialis, sent forward with a thousand cavalry to ride by road across the Sabine country and enter Rome along the Salarian Way (from the north-east), advanced swiftly enough, until news the Capitol was under siege spurred all simultaneously to action.
Book III:LXXIX The Vitellians defend Rome
Antonius reached Saxa Rubra (nine miles north of Rome) by the Flaminian Way late at night but now too late to bring relief. There he heard only gloomy news, that Sabinus had been killed, the Capitol burned, and the city in panic; the populace too and the slaves were arming to support Vitellius. Moreover Petilius Cerialis’ cavalry had fought a losing battle. Advancing incautiously as if moving swiftly against a defeated force, he was intercepted by the Vitellians on foot and horseback.
A skirmish took place on the outskirts of the city, among houses and gardens in the winding lanes known to the Vitellians but strange to their nervous enemies. Nor were all the Flavian cavalry of a mind, some of those assigned having lately surrendered at Narni still speculating inwardly on the likely fortunes of the two factions.
Julius Flavianus, leading a cavalry squadron, was captured; the rest were shamefully scattered in flight, though the Vitellians did not chase them beyond Fidenae.
Book III:LXXX The Vitellians send envoys to the Flavians
This success increased the people’s enthusiasm; the urban populace took up arms. A few with shields, most seizing whatever weapons came to hand, they demanded the signal for battle. Vitellius thanked them, and ordered them to go out and defend the city. Later, the senate convened and delegated envoys to the Flavian forces to persuade them to agree to peace in the interests of the state. The fortunes of these envoys varied.
Those who met Petilius Cerialis ran the greatest risk, since his men rejected all peace terms, and indeed they wounded Arulenus Rusticus, the praetor; his being a man of great personal honour only adding to the indignation at this violence done to an envoy and a praetor. His attendants were pushed aside, the lictor at his side being killed as he ventured to make a path through the crowd: and if Cerialis had not provided a guard for the envoys, diplomatic protection, that even foreign countries afford us, would have been violated in the madness of civil conflict, and the envoys killed before the walls of their native city.
Those who went to meet Antonius were granted a more equitable hearing, not because his soldiers were more restrained, but because of his greater authority as leader.
Book III:LXXXI Vitellius’ approaches rejected
Musonius Rufus, the devoted philosopher and proponent of the Stoic doctrine, and a member of the Equestrian order, was among these envoys. He mixed with the men, and began admonishing those in arms, talking of the virtue of peace and the danger of war. Many found this ludicrous, more still considered it tedious: some would have knocked him down and trampled on him, if he had not heeded the warnings of the moderates, and the threats of others, and ceased his untimely preaching.
Vestal Virgins also went to meet the troops, bearing letters from Vitellius to Antonius asking that the ultimate conflict be postponed for a day, saying that if they only delayed a while they could reach a comprehensive agreement. The Vestals were sent back again with honour; but the answer to Vitellius was that in killing Sabinus and burning the Capitol he had put an end to all discussion of a treaty.
Book III:LXXXII The Flavians begin the battle for Rome
Nevertheless, Antonius still summoned his legions to an assembly, to try and reconcile them to camping by the Mulvian Bridge (where the Flaminian Way crossed the Tiber) and only entering the city on the following day. Delay seemed right to him, lest his troops exasperated by fighting might fail to respect the populace, senate, or even the shrines and temples of the gods. His men though were suspicious of any such delay as inimical to victory; and at that very moment standards gleaming among the hills, though followed by a crowd without weapons, gave the appearance of a hostile force.
So the Flavian forces advanced, in triple column; one column continuing south along the Flaminian Way and a second in parallel along the Tiber (both running to the west of the city), and the third approaching the Colline Gate (from due north) by the Salarian Way. The masses were dispersed by a cavalry charge; but Vitellian soldiers met the Flavians with their own triple defence.
There engagements before the walls were many and varied, but the Flavians being better-led triumphed more often. The only troops of theirs to be troubled had advanced west (from the Salarian Way) towards the Gardens of Sallust through the narrow slippery streets. The Vitellians, scrambling onto the perimeter walls of the Gardens, thwarted them with showers of stones and missiles until late in the day, when they were surrounded by the cavalry who had entered through the Colline Gate. Hostile forces also engaged on the Campus Martius (to the west, by the Tiber).
Fortune was with the Flavians who won many of the encounters. The Vitellians charged in sheer desperation and though driven back re-grouped within the city.
Book III:LXXXIII Chaos in the city
The populace looked on as spectators to the conflict, as if at the fights in the Circus, cheering on each party in turn with shouts and applause. If one side retreated, hiding or taking refuge in shops and private houses, the crowd demanded they be dragged out and killed: gaining for them a greater share of the plunder, since the soldiers were deep in blood and slaughter while the spoils were left to the mob.
Foul and hideous acts were witnessed throughout the city: here were conflict and wounds, there bath-houses and taverns were laid bare; beside the blood and corpses mingled whores and their clients alike; all the debauchery of the most dissolute peacetime, all the crimes of a most savage conquest; such that it seemed the city was at once mad with rage and lasciviousness.
True, armed men had fought their way through the city before this, twice when Lucius Sulla, and once when Cinna prevailed, with no less savagery: but now with an inhuman indifference, never pausing an instant in their wickedness: as if it were a fresh entertainment added to some festival, exulting, joyful, supporting neither side, revelling in civil disaster.
Book III:LXXXIV Rome, and Vitellius, captured
The greatest difficulty was found in taking the Praetorian Camp, which the bravest of the Vitellians defended as their last hope. At this the Flavians were rendered even more determined, especially former praetorians in their ranks. They promptly brought into play every device invented for the destruction of the strongest of defences; artillery, earthworks, the tortoise shield-formation, and lighted brands; crying out that all the toil and danger they had endured in a host of battles would be crowned by this effort. ‘The city will be returned to the senate and people of Rome, the shrines to their gods. A soldier’s glory is in his camp: that is his city, there are his household deities. We must spend the night in arms if the Camp is not swiftly taken.’
As against this, the Vitellians, though unequal in strength or good fortune, by troubling the victors, delaying the peace, and defiling the houses and altars with blood, took refuge in that last solace of the defeated. Many, mortally-stricken, breathed their last on the towers and battlements. When the gates were finally destroyed, a solid mass of survivors opposed the victors, and fell dealing blow for blow, facing the enemy, so anxious were they in dying to win a glorious end.
On the city being captured, Vitellius was carried in a sedan chair through the rear of the Palace to his wife’s house on the Aventine, so that if he survived the day without being discovered he might escape to his brother and his forces at Terracina. But his inconstant mind and the nature of great fear, which always makes the present situation seem most threatening to those who fear everything, drew him back to the empty Palace, seemingly deserted by even the lowliest servants who had slipped away or perhaps took care to avoid meeting him.
He feared the solitude and the silent spaces; trying the closed doors, he shuddered to find only echoing rooms; weary of wandering in a state of gloom, he hid himself in shameful concealment, but was dragged forth by Julius Placidus, the cohort tribune. With his arms tied behind his back, his clothes torn, he was led away, a melancholy sight, many crying out against him, none in tears: the distastefulness of the final scene dispelling pity.
A soldier from Germany came upon him and struck at him, perhaps in anger, perhaps to remove him more swiftly from insult, perhaps aiming at the tribune, it is uncertain: but he sliced off the tribune’s ear and was immediately run through.
Book III:LXXXV Vitellius killed
At sword-point, Vitellius was forced now to offer his face to his captors’ insults, now to witness the toppling of his statues and gaze again and again at the rostra and the place of Galba’s death, until finally the soldiers propelled him to the Gemonian Stairs, where Flavius Sabinus’ body had lain.
One utterance saved him from the charge of lack of nobility when, on being insulted by the tribune, he replied that: yet, he had been his emperor. Then he fell under a hail of blows. And the mob attacked him when dead with the same perversity as they fawned on him while living.
Book III:LXXXVI Domitian returns home
Vitellius’ native city was Luceria (Nuceria in Apulia, according to Suetonius): he was then fifty four years old (September AD15- December AD69). He attained the consulate, priesthood, and a name and place among the leading men of his day not through his own efforts but wholly because of his father’s distinction.
Those who brought him to power did not know him: seldom has an army’s support been won by great courage to the extent that he achieved through cowardice. Yet he showed qualities of simplicity and liberality, qualities which if unmodified prove disastrous. Thinking that friendship is maintained by lavish gifts rather than loyal behaviour, he bought more friends than he kept.
It was certainly to the state’s advantage that Vitellius fell, but the men who betrayed him to Vespasian can take no credit for that act of treachery, being those who had previously deserted Galba.
The day hastened to its end without the senate being summoned, due to the terror exhibited by the senators and officials who had slipped out of the city or hidden themselves in their clients’ houses. Domitian, with no enemies now to fear, presenting himself to the leaders of the Flavian party and being acclaimed as of the house of Caesar, was escorted to his ancestral hearth, by a crowd of soldiers as yet still under arms.
End of the Histories Book III:LIX-LXXXVI