The Setting Of The Story
Book One (1-11) of The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus

1. I shall begin my work with the year (A.D.69) in which Servius Galba and Titus Vinius were consuls, the former for the second time. My choice of starting-point is determined by the fact that the preceding period of 820 years dating from the foundation of Rome has found many historians. So long as republican history was their theme, they wrote with equal eloquence of style and independence of outlook. But when the Battle of Actium had been fought and the interests of peace demanded the concentration of power in the hands of one man, this great line of classical historians came to an end. Truth, too, suffered in more ways than one. To an understandable ignorance of policy, which now lay outside public control, was in due course added a passion for flattery, or else a hatred of autocrats. Thus neither school bothered about posterity, for the one was bitterly alienated and the other deeply committed. But whereas the reader can easily discount the bias of the time-serving historian, detraction and spite find a ready audience. Adulation bears the ugly taint of subservience, but malice gives the false impression of being independent. As for myself, Galba, Otho and Vitellius were known to me neither as benefactors nor as enemies. My official career owed its beginning to Vespasian, its progress to Titus and its further advancement to Domitian. I have no wish to deny this. But partiality and hatred towards any man are equally inappropriate in a writer who claims to be honest and reliable. If I live, I propose to deal with the reign of the deified Nerva and the imperial career of Trajan. This is a more fruitful and less thorny field, and I have reserved it for my declining years. Modern times are indeed happy as few others have been, for we can think as we please, and speak as we think.

2. The period upon which I embark is one full of incident, marked by bitter fighting, rent by treason, and even in peace sinister. Four emperors perished violently.(1) There were three civil wars, (2) still more campaigns fought against the foreigner, and often conflicts which combined elements of both. Success in the East was balanced by failure in the West. The Balkans were in turmoil, the Gallic provinces wavered in their allegiance, and Britain was left to fend for itself no sooner than its conquest had been completed. (3) The Sarmatian and Suebian peoples rose upon us, the Dacian distinguished himself in desperate battles won and lost, and thanks to the activities of a charlatan masquerading as Nero, even Parthia was on the brink of declaring war. (4) Finally, Italy itself fell victim to disasters which were quite unprecedented or had not occurred for many centuries. Whole towns were burnt down or buried throughout the richest part of the coast of Campania, and Rome suffered severely from fires that destroyed its most venerable temples, the very Capitol being set alight by Roman hands. Things holy were desecrated, there was adultery in high places. The Mediterranean swarmed with exiles and its rocky islets ran with blood. The reign of terror (5) was particularly ruthless at Rome. Rank, wealth and office, whether surrendered or retained, provided grounds for accusation, and the reward for virtue was inevitable death. The profits made by the prosecutors were no less odious than their crimes. Some helped themselves to priesthoods and consulships as the prize of victory. Others acquired official posts and backstairs influence, creating a universal pandemonium of hatred and terror. Slaves were suborned to speak against their masters, freedmen against their patrons, while those who had not an enemy in the world were ruined by their friends.

3. However, the period was not so barren of merit that it failed to teach some good lessons as well. Mothers accompanied their children in flight, wives followed their husbands into exile. There were resolute kinsmen, sons-in-law who showed steadfast fidelity, and slaves whose loyalty scorned the rack. Distinguished men driven to suicide faced the last agony with unflinching courage, and there were death-scenes not inferior to those held up to our admiration in the history of early Rome. In addition to manifold tragedy on the human plane, signs and wonders occurred in heaven and earth, premonitory lightnings and tokens of things to come, auspicious or ominous, doubtful or manifest. In short, Rome's unparalleled sufferings supplied ample proof that the gods are indifferent to our tranquillity, but eager for our punishment.

4. However, before embarking on my theme, it seems desirable to go back a little and survey the state of public opinion at Rome, the mind of the army, the attitude of the provinces, and the elements of strength and weakness throughout the Roman world. In this way it may be possible to appreciate not only the actual course of events, whose outcome, whether good or ill, is often dictated by chance, but also their underlying logic and causes.

The death of Nero had been welcomed initially by a surge of relief. But it had also evoked a variety of emotions in the senate, the populace, and the garrison of the capital, as well as in all the many legions and legionary commanders. A well-hidden secret of the principate had been revealed: it was possible, it seemed, for an emperor to be chosen outside Rome. But the senators were delighted, and promptly permitted themselves considerable freedom of speech in their negotiations with an emperor who was new to his task and absent from the capital. The leading members of the equestrian order were hardly less gratified than the senators. Hopes were raised among respectable middle-class Romans who had ties of duty towards the great families, as among the dependants and freedmen of condemned persons and exiles. The riff-raff haunting the circus and theatres, and the scum of the slave population, or those spendthrifts and bankrupts who had been the recipients of Nero's degrading charity were filled with gloom and hungry for the latest rumours.

5. The city garrison, for its part, had a long tradition of sworn allegiance to the Caesars, and had been induced to desert Nero more by cunning and suggestion than from any inclination of its own. It now discovered that payment of the bounty promised in the name of Galba was not forthcoming, and that there would not be the same scope for great services and rewards in peace as in war. These troops also realized that it was too late for them to ingratiate themselves with an emperor who owed his elevation to the legions. Already disaffected, they were made still more restless by the unscrupulous intrigues of their prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus, who was plotting to make himself emperor. It is true that Nymphidius was caught in the act and disposed of. But though the arch-rebel had been removed, many of the troops retained a guilty conscience.

There were rumours, too, about Galba's brutality and miserliness. His strictness had once been well spoken of and held up to admiration in military circles, but it now irritated men who would have nothing to do with the discipline of the past and who, in the course of fourteen years under Nero, had come to like the vices of emperors no less than they had once feared their virtues. To crown all, there was the famous remark by Galba— 'I select my troops, I don't buy them.' Impeccable as a statement of public policy, the epigram proved a two-edged weapon so far as Galba himself was concerned, for the rest of his behaviour failed to measure up to this standard.

6. Old and feeble, Galba was dominated by Titus Vinius and Cornelius Laco. The former of these was the most vicious of men, the latter the most idle. Between them, they saddled the emperor's reputation with crimes that caused public revulsion, and then ruined it altogether by an indolence that earned contempt.

Galba's march (6) had been slow and bloodstained. In the course of it, he had executed Cingonius Varro, a consul-designate, and the consular Petronius Turpilianus. The grounds were that the former was a confederate of Nymphidius and the latter a commander appointed by Nero. Allowed no proper trial or defence, these two had perished by what seemed a miscarriage of justice. An ominous gloom was cast over the emperor's entry into Rome by the massacre of thousands of unarmed troops, appalling even to the perpetrators. Owing to the arrival of the Spanish legions (7) and the retention in Rome of the formation raised by Nero from the fleet, the capital was crowded with a quite unusual garrison. In addition, there were numerous drafts from Germany, Britain and the Balkans. It was Nero who had selected these and sent them on ahead to the Caspian Gates for the campaign which he was mounting against the Albani, but had later recalled them to deal with the revolt of Vindex. Here was fuel in plenty for a new outbreak, lacking indeed a clear-cut preference for any one leader, but nevertheless readily available to any unscrupulous incendiary.

7. As it turned out, the news of the executions of Clodius Macer and Fonteius Capito arrived simultaneously. Macer, obviously bent on causing trouble in Africa, had been put to death by the imperial agent Trebonius Garutianus on the orders of Galba. (8) Capito, who harboured similar designs in Germany, had been assassinated by the legionary commanders Cornelius Aquinus and Fabius Valens, who did not wait for instructions. Some people believed a different story. According to this, despite his unsavoury reputation for money-grubbing and immorality, Capito had nevertheless had no idea of rebelling. But when his legionary commanders found him unresponsive to their suggestions for an armed revolt, it was alleged that they had put their heads together, accused Capito himself of sedition, and then treacherously murdered him, whereupon Galba's lack of firmness, or perhaps his anxiety not to probe too deep, had approved what could not be altered, however suspicious the circumstances.

Whatever the truth of the matter, both executions were ill received, and once the emperor had made himself unpopular, good deeds and bad brought him equal discredit. Everything had its price. The imperial freedmen wielded excessive influence and Galba's own servants had itching palms eager to catch at an unexpected windfall, for they knew their time was short in view of the emperor's age. The new court exhibited the same evils as the old equally serious, but not equally tolerable. The very fact that Galba was getting on in years provoked sneers and discontent among a populace which was used to the young Nero, and compared the two emperors, as the crowd will, for their looks and personal attractions.

8. So much for public opinion at Rome, naturally complex in view of the large numbers of people involved. Of the provinces, Spain was governed by Cluvius Rufus, a fine orator, who was tried in the arts of peace, but untried in wars. (9) The Gallic provinces were linked to the regime by their memory of Vindex, and, in addition, by the recent grant of Roman citizenship and the corresponding prospect of tax relief. But the Gallic communities closest to the military districts of Germany had not been so well treated. Some had actually suffered loss of territory and derived as little comfort from viewing the concessions accorded to others as from an estimate of their own sufferings.

The mood of the armies of Germany presented a particular danger in view of their strength. Anxious and resentful, they plumed themselves on their recent success, yet feared the consequences of having backed the wrong side. They had been slow to abandon Nero, nor had Verginius declared for Galba immediately. (10) Whether his ambitions extended to becoming emperor himself is doubtful, but it was common knowledge that the troops had offered him the position. Fonteius Capito's assassination still rankled, even with those who were in no position to complain. What was lacking was a leader, for Verginius had been removed, amid protestations of imperial favour. The troops, observing that he had not been sent back to Germany and indeed faced prosecution, felt that they were incriminated themselves.

9. The upper army despised its commander-in-chief, Hordeonius Flaccus. Elderly and lame, Flaccus lacked personality and prestige. Even when the troops were quiet, he was unable to maintain discipline; and by the same token, if the men were in an ugly mood, his feeble attempts to control them merely added fuel to the flames. The legions of Lower Germany were left without a governor for some time. Finally Galba's nominee appeared-Aulus Vitellius, son of the Vitellius who had held the censorship and three consulships. These, it seemed, were qualifications enough.

In the army of Britain there were no hard feelings. Indeed, throughout the period of civil war, no other legions acted with greater propriety. The reason may lie in the fact that they were far away, beyond the barrier of the North Sea; or perhaps they had learnt from continual campaigning to reserve their hatred for the enemy. There was peace, too, along the Danube, though the legions mobilized by Nero had sent deputations to sound Verginius during their period of waiting in Italy. But the formations were widely dispersed (always a very sound method of ensuring the loyalty of troops) and there was no concentration of forces or failings.

10. The East remained as yet quiescent. Syria, with four legions, was governed by Licinius Mucianus. He was a man much talked of, in fair days and foul alike. In his youth, he had courted the great with an eye to his own advancement. Then he ran through a fortune and his standing became precarious, for even Claudius was thought to disapprove of him. Removed to an isolated corner of Asia, he came as near to being an exile as later to being emperor. Mucianus' character was a compound of self-indulgence and energy, courtesy and arrogance, good and evil. A libertine in idle moments, he yet showed remarkable qualities once he had set his hand to a thing. To the world, his activities might seem laudable; but there were ugly rumours about his private life. Yet by a supple gift for intrigue he exercised great influence on his subordinates, associates and colleagues, and found it more congenial to make an emperor than be one.

The conduct of the Jewish War, ( A. D. 66-73 ) with the command of three legions, lay in the hands of Nero's nominee, Flavius Vespasian. That he had neither the wish nor the intent to oppose Galba is shown by his having sent his son Titus to do homage and pay his respects to the emperor, as I shall record in the appropriate context. It may be that mysterious prophecies were already circulating, and that portents and oracles promised Vespasian and his sons the purple; but it was only after the rise of the Flavians that we Romans believed in such stories.

11. Egypt, together with the forces designed to keep it in order, has been governed ever since Augustus' day by Romans of equestrian rank acting as successors to the Ptolemies. It seemed policy that a province of this sort — difficult of access, exporting a valuable corn-crop, yet divided and unsettled by strange cults and irresponsible excesses, indifferent to law and ignorant of civil government—should be kept under the immediate control of the imperial house. It was ruled at the moment by Tiberius Alexander, himself an Egyptian.

As for Africa and its legion, they had lived to see the execution of Clodius Macer and were content with any kind of emperor after experiencing a lesser master. The two Mauretanias, together with Raetia, Noricum, Thrace and the other minor commands, took their cue from the various armies near them, and were driven willy-nilly into support or hostility by the contact of more powerful influences. The ungarrisoned provinces— and above all Italy itself, the helpless victim of every overlord were doomed to be the spoils of war.

This, then, was the state of the Roman Empire when Servius Galba entered upon his second consulship as the colleague of Titus Vinius, at the start of a year which brought about their death and the near-destruction of Rome.

« NEXT » « The Histories » « History » « Classics » « Library »