A World Convulsed (36-48)
The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus

36. A few days after Caecina's departure (1), Vitellius induced Fabius Valens to leave for the front. This done, he concealed his anxieties behind a smoke-screen of dissipation, neither making preparations for war, nor stiffening morale among the troops by appeals and training, nor keeping himself in the public eye. Hidden in the shady arbours of his villa he had consigned past, present and future to universal oblivion — like those miserable animals that are content to lie and doze so long as food is put in front of them. And there, among the groves of Aricia, in the midst of sloth and languor, the treachery of Lucilius Bassus and the defection of the Ravenna fleet came on him as a sudden shock. Soon after, reports arrived of Caecina, good news and bad together, telling both of his desertion and of his arrest by the army. In a character so feeble, satisfaction outweighed concern. Exultantly he rode back to the capital, and before a crowded audience made a speech fulsomely praising the devotion of his troops. Publilius Sabinus, the pretorian prefect, was put under arrest by the emperor in view of his friendship with Caecina, Alfenus Varus taking his place.

37. Vitellius then addressed the senate in a speech carefully designed to impress, and was extolled by its members with studied flattery. A move for a severe resolution on Caecina came from Lucius Vitellius. It was taken up by the rest, who affected to be scandalized by the thought that the state had been betrayed by its consul, the emperor by his general, and a friend by one upon whom he had lavished wealth and honour. They were pretending to protest on behalf of Vitellius, but really voiced their own annoyance. Not a single speaker reproached the Flavian leaders. Criticising the armies for their error and lack of vision, they used elaborate circumlocution in their anxiety to avoid mentioning Vespasian. One senator actually wheedled himself into the one-day consulship left vacant by Caecina's disgrace. This earned both donor and recipient profound contempt. On 31 October, Rosius Regulus entered — and resigned — office. Constitutional experts noted that never before had a suffect magistrate (2) been appointed without the passing of a formal act of abrogation. The shortness of the term was not in itself a novelty, as Caninius Rebilus had been consul for one day magistrate (3) in the dictatorship of Julius Caesar when rewards for services in the civil war were being hurriedly distributed.

38. It was at this period that Junius Blaesus died. The news caused a great stir. The account which has come down to us is the following. Vitellius was lying seriously ill in the Servilian Park (4) when he noticed that a tall mansion in the neighbourhood was ablaze through-out the night with many lights. On inquiring the reason, he was told that Caecina Tuscus was holding a large dinner-party, and that the guest of honour was Junius Blaesus. The picture was filled in with an exaggerated account of lavish display and an atmosphere of licence. Critics readily came forward to denounce Tuscus himself and others for spending their days in merriment during their emperor's illness. These charges were levelled with particular venom at Blaesus. There are always courtiers who keep an eye open for an emperor's displeasure. When these were satisfied that Vitellius was offended and that Blaesus could be disgraced, the role of informer was given to Lucius Vitellius. He was Blaesus' enemy, bitterly jealous of him because his own scandalous life contrasted unfavourably with the other's excellent reputation. Lucius suddenly flung open the door of the emperor's room and knelt down before him, clasping Vitellius' young son in his arms. He was asked what the trouble was. He had come with appeals and tears, he replied, not because of his own personal fears and private anxieties, but from concern for the good of his brother and his brother's children.

There was no point in being afraid of Vespasian: from him they were shielded by the many legions of the garrison of Germany, by many loyal and stout-hearted provinces, and by vast areas of land and sea. It was in the capital and his own intimate circle that the emperor must guard against a traitor who boasted that he was descended from the Junii and Antonii, and who by affability and free spending sought to gain publicity among the troops as member of a ruling family. He was the centre of public attention, while Vitellius, heedless of friends and enemies alike, nursed a rival who contemplated the emperor's sufferings from the convenient distance of a banqueting table. Such untimely festivity should be repaid by a night of misery and death, in which he would learn to his cost that Vitellius was still alive and still emperor, and in the event of death had a son to succeed him.

39. His hearer hesitated between murder and fear. If he postponed Blaesus' execution, he might incur speedy ruin himself; while to order it openly would cause a terrible scandal. Finally he decided to use poison. What made people believe him guilty was the noticeable pleasure he took in visiting Blaesus. Indeed, Vitellius was heard to make a most inhuman remark: he boasted in so many words that 'he had feasted his eyes on the spectacle of his enemy's death.'

Blaesus possessed not only distinction of birth and the manners of a gentleman, but also unshakeable loyalty. Even before the Vitellian position became precarious, he was approached by Caecina and other prominent members of the party who were already turning against the emperor; but he persisted in refusing to join any plot. Despite a good life, a dislike for trouble-making and a lack of all ambition for sudden preferment to any post, let alone the principate, he had failed to avoid the danger of being thought worthy of it.

40. Meanwhile Fabius Valens, with a long and luxurious train of harlots and eunuchs, was advancing at a pace too sluggish for a campaign when (5) he was informed that the Ravenna fleet had been betrayed to the enemy by Lucilius Bassus. The news had travelled posthaste, and if Valens, who had just started on his journey, had hurried forward, he could have caught Caecina in time while the latter was still wavering, or else have overtaken the legions before the decisive battle. Some of his advisers did in fact suggest that he should take his trustiest men by secret tracks across the mountains (6), avoid Ravenna, and make straight for Hostilia or Cremona. Others again thought it best to summon the pretorians from Rome and force a way through in strength. Valens himself merely waited, which was useless, and frittered away in deliberation days that called for action. Then, rejecting both proposals, he hit upon the worst possible solution in a crisis, that of compromise, and so failed to achieve the necessary degree either of boldness or of caution.

41. He wrote to Vitellius to ask for help, and received three cohorts (7) together with a cavalry regiment from Britain. This was a contingent too large to escape detection and too small to cut its way through.

Even at such a critical moment, ugly stories still circulated about Valens. Men were convinced that he was grasping at forbidden pleasures while there was still time, and dishonouring the homes of his hosts by intrigues with their wives and daughters. He certainly had the power of compulsion, money and the urge of a doomed man to have a final fling.

It was only when the infantry and cavalry arrived that the wrongness of his strategy became obvious. He could not move straight through enemy territory with such a small force, however trusty. In fact, it turned out that the newcomers were of questionable loyalty. However, a sense of shame and the respect inspired by the presence of their commander restrained them for the time being —though these were no very lasting ties for men who were afraid of danger and cared nothing for dishonour. This was what Valens feared, and why he chose to be accompanied by only a few companions who were steadfast amid disaster. The cohorts he sent on to Ariminum, and told the cavalry regiment to watch the rear, while he himself with his small party left the main road and made for Umbria and then Etruria. In Etruria he heard the result of the battle of Cremona, and decided on a plan of action which showed some spirit and would have had dreadful consequences if it had been successful. This was to get hold of some shipping, land somewhere or other in the province of Narbonese Gaul, and incite the Gallic provinces, the armies and the German tribes to renew hostilities.

42. When Valens had left them, his demoralized forces garrisoned Ariminum, but Cornelius Fuscus moved up troops, dispatched a fast naval force along the adjacent coast, and cut the Vitellians off by land and sea. The victors now proceeded to occupy the Umbrian plain and the Adriatic seaboard of Picenum, so that Italy as a whole was divided between Vespasian and Vitellius by the Apennines. Fabius Valens set sail from Portus Pisanus, but was compelled by sluggish seas or contrary wind to put in at Portus Herculis Monoeci. Nearby were the headquarters of a staunch Vitellian, the governor of the Maritime Alps, Marius Maturus. Despite the hostility of the whole area around him, this man had not yet forgotten his oath of allegiance. He gave Valens a courteous welcome, but his advice deterred his guest from the rash step of entering Narbonese Gaul. What is more, the loyalty of Valens' followers was now sapped by fear. The prospect was indeed black.

43. So far as the neighbouring communities were concerned, the imperial agent (8) Valerius Paulinus, an energetic soldier, had made them swear obedience to Vespasian, whose friend he had been even before the latter's rise to power, and after recruiting all those who had been discharged from the Pretorian Guard by Vitellius and were only too ready to flock to the colours, he now held in force the town and naval base of Forum Julii. Paulinus' lead was readily followed because this was his native town, and he was looked up to by the pretorians whom he had once commanded as tribune. The civilians, too, were well-disposed towards a fellow-townsman, and hoped that he would be in a position to pull strings for them in the future. They thus supported the cause with enthusiasm. All this was a formidable show of strength, and rumour magnified it. As its impact upon the wavering minds of the Vitellians increased, Fabius Valens, accompanied by four bodyguards, three friends and the same number of centurions, returned to the ships. Maturus and the rest were content to stay behind and take the oath to Vespasian. As for Valens, the sea seemed less dangerous than the coast and its towns, but his future plans were undecided, and it was easier for him to know what to avoid than whom to trust. In the event, bad weather forced him to land in the Stoechades Islands which belonged to Marseilles, and there a flotilla of fast galleys sent by Paulinus effected his arrest.

44. With the capture of Valens the whole Roman world rallied to the winning side. The movement began in Spain with the First (Support) Legion, which remembered Otho and disliked Vitellius: its lead was followed by the Tenth and Sixth. Nor were the Gallic provinces reluctant. Britain joined in as well. Here the balance of opinion was already in favour of Vespasian, who had been posted to the country by Claudius to command the Second Legion and had fought there with distinction. (9) But there was some restlessness among the other legions in Britain, for they contained a number of centurions and N.C.O.s who owed their promotion to Vitellius and were doubtful about accepting a new emperor in exchange for one they knew.

45. These differences, and the spate of rumours about civil war, emboldened the Britons to pluck up their courage and follow a man called Venutius, who, quite apart from a violent character and a hatred of all things Roman, was goaded to fury by a personal feud with Queen Cartimandua. She had been for some time ruler of the Brigantes, and was a princess of high birth and hence influence. This she had increased thanks to her treacherous capture of King Caratacus, an action by which she was generally thought to have set the seal upon Claudius' triumph. (10) Hence came wealth and the self indulgence of prosperity. She tired of Venutius, who was her consort, and gave her hand and kingdom to his armour-bearer, one Vellocatus. This scandal immediately shook the royal house to its foundations. The discarded husband could rely on the support of the Brigantian people, the lover upon the infatuation of the queen and her ruthless cruelty. So Venutius summoned help from outside, and a simultaneous revolt on the part of the Brigantes themselves reduced Cartimandua to a position of acute danger, in which she appealed for Roman assistance. In the event, our cohorts and cavalry regiments did succeed, at the cost of desperate fighting, in rescuing the queen from a tight corner. Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting.

46. It was at this same time that there was trouble in Germany, and the slackness of our commanders, the mutiny of our legions, foreign invasion and allied treachery nearly caused the downfall of Rome. This war, with its various causes and incidents — for it was a long business—I shall deal with in due course (11). There was also a movement among the Dacians. Never a trustworthy people, they had now nothing to fear as the Roman army had been withdrawn from Moesia. They studied the initial phases of the civil war but took no action for the moment. When, however, they heard that fighting had flared up in Italy and that the whole world was at loggerheads, they stormed the winter-quarters of the cohorts and cavalry, and proceeded to make themselves masters of both banks of the Danube. They were on the point of moving in upon the legionary bases when Mucianus barred their way with the Sixth Legion. (12) He had not yet heard of the victory at Cremona and was anxious to forestall the overwhelming and double threat which would have been presented by a Dacian and German invasion at two different points. As so often, it was the luck of Rome that saved the day by bringing Mucianus and the forces of the East upon the scene, and because we meantime settled the issue at Cremona. Fonteius Agrippa, who had governed Asia as a proconsul for the normal period of one year, was appointed to administer Moesia, and was given additional forces from the army of Vitellius. To distribute this army among the provinces and to tie it down in a foreign war was an act at once of statesmanship and peace.

47. Nor did the other peoples of the Empire keep quiet. In Pontus there had been a sudden uprising led by a foreign slave and one-time commander of the royal fleet called Anicetus. He was a freedman of Polemo, (13) and having once wielded great influence could not stomach the changed circumstances caused by the conversion of the kingdom into a Roman province. So, in the name of Vitellius, he called to arms the tribes which border on the land of Pontus, luring on the destitute to hope for plunder. At the head of a considerable force, he swooped down on Trapezus, an ancient and famous city founded by the Greeks at the farthest point on the coast of Pontus. Here they cut to pieces a cohort which had once formed part of the royal army but had later been given Roman citizenship as well as Roman standards and equipment, while retaining the idle and licentious habits of the Greeks. Fresh fuel was added to the blaze by a rebel fleet, sailing where it pleased over a Black Sea which, thanks to Mucianus' action in withdrawing the best of the galleys and all the crews to Byzantium, had been left unpoliced. Even the uncivilized natives insolently roved the seas in hastily constructed boats. These they call 'arks': they are narrow above the waterline, but broad in the beam, (14) and neither bronze nor iron rivets are used in their construction. When the sea is choppy, they increase the freeboard by adding planks successively according to the height of the waves, until they are wholly enclosed by a sort of roof. In this fashion, they ride the waves. Identical in shape fore and aft the boats can be rowed in both directions since it does not matter whether they are beached stern or bow first: either way is equally safe.

48. This state of affairs alerted Vespasian. He put together a special force drawn from his legions and placed it under the command of an experienced soldier called Virdius Geminus. As the undisciplined hordes were scouring the countryside in an eager search for loot, Virdius surprised them, and forced them to take to their ships. Then, hurriedly building galleys, he came up with Anicetus at the mouth of the River Chobus, where the fugitive was safe under the protection of the king of the Sedochezi, whom he had induced to become his ally by a money bribe and other gifts. It is true that at first the king employed threats and armed force to save his guest. But when the choice between the wages of a traitor and outright war was dangled before his eyes, loyalty melted away in typical native fashion. He struck a bargain for the death of Anicetus, and surrendered the refugees. That was the end of this police action.

Everywhere, the tide now seemed to be turning in Vespasian's favour beyond his wildest dreams. He was congratulating himself on the success of the Pontus expedition when the news of the Battle of Cremona reached him in Egypt. (15) He hurried all the faster to Alexandria, for, now that Vitellius' army was shattered, his intention was to follow this up by a blockade of the capital, which depended on its imports. To this end he was already making preparations for a naval and land invasion of the province of Africa that lies farther along the same coast. By withholding the grain supplies, he aimed at sowing famine and dissension among his enemies. (16)