A Divided Senate (1-11)
The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus

1. The execution of Vitellius marked the end of hostilities rather than the beginning of peace. The victors roamed through the city sword in hand, hunting the vanquished down with relentless hate. The streets were choked with bodies, the squares and temples stained with blood. The Flavians slaughtered their victims wherever they happened to come across them. Soon discipline went to pieces, and they set to work to search for skulkers and drag them from their hiding places. Whenever a man of tall and military appearance came in sight, they cut him down regardless of whether he was a soldier or a civilian. While feeling still ran high, their brutality glutted itself with blood. Then it was transformed into an appetite for loot. They left no lurking-place untouched, no door unopened: the excuse was that supporters of Vitellius might be hidden there This was a signal for breaking into private mansions or, if resistance was offered, an excuse for murder. There were plenty of destitute Romans or vicious slaves ready to betray rich masters. Others again were denounced by their friends. Rome was filled with wailing and lamentation, and suffered the plight of a captured city. Indeed the unruly behaviour of the Othonian and Vitellian troops, which had been resented at the time, now seemed tolerable in retrospect. The Flavian generals had been keen enough to start the civil war, but they were incapable of exercising control in the day of victory. The truth is that revolution and strife put tremendous power into the hands of evil men, whereas peace and quiet call for good lives.

2. The title of Caesar, and the imperial palace, had been taken over by Domitian. While not yet prepared to give his mind to his official responsibilities, he was already playing the part of an emperor's son so far as seducing girls and women went. The post of pretorian prefect was assigned to Arrius Varus, but supreme control rested with Antonius Primus. The latter helped himself to money and servants from the emperor's palace as if they were the spoil of Cremona. As to the remaining commanders, their modest pretensions or humble birth had robbed them of the limelight in the fighting, and now deprived them of its profits.

The frightened and cringing populace of Rome urged that Lucius Vitellius should be intercepted on his way back from Tarracina with the cohorts, and the last remaining embers of war extinguished. The cavalry were sent on to Aricia, while the legions marched out and took up a position short of Bovillae. Vitellius, for his part, lost no time in surrendering himself and his cohorts to the victors at discretion, and his men threw down their luckless arms as much in disgust as fear. A long line of prisoners of war hedged in by armed guards marched through the city, none with looks of entreaty, but rancorous and resentful, facing unflinchingly the clapping and insults of the jeering mob. A few tried to break away but were dealt with by their escorts. The rest were put in a place of confinement. None of them said anything that could earn him discredit, and in the hour of calamity they kept their honour. Lucius Vitellius was then executed. As unprincipled as his brother, he showed the greater vigour during the latter's reign, and, while not closely associated with the emperor's success, he was swept irresistibly away by his fall.

3. In the course of these same days, Lucilius Bassus was sent off with a force of cavalry in battle order to restore peace in Campania. Here feeling ran high between the different communities, and this, rather than any act of insubordination against the new emperor, was the reason for the expedition. The sight of the troops had a calming effect, and the smaller towns were not penalized. But Capua had the Third Legion billeted upon it, and the leading families suffered severely. Tarracina, on the other hand, got no compensation, which shows that men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness: the truth is that gratitude is irksome, while vengeance is accounted gain. Some comfort was derived from the punishment meted out to Vergilius Capito's slave, who, as I have mentioned, had betrayed Tarracina to the enemy. He was nailed to the gallows, still retaining the very rings which Vitellius had given him to wear. (1)

At Rome, however, the senate awarded Vespasian all the usual imperial titles. It felt pleased and confident. The civil war, begun in the Gallic and Spanish provinces, spreading to Upper and Lower Germany and then the Balkans, finally traversing Egypt, Judaea, Syria and every province and garrison, now seemed to have purged the whole world of evil and run its course. The senate was further encouraged by a message from Vespasian written under the impression that the war was not ended. That at any rate was how it looked at the first glance. But he spoke as if he were truly emperor, modestly concerning himself, and on public issues like a statesman. The senate in its turn showed a proper respect. By its decree Vespasian received the consulship with his son Titus as colleague, and Domitian was accorded the praetorship and the powers of a consul.

4. Mucianus, too, had sent the senate a dispatch. This gave rise to comment. If he was not the emperor, why, it was asked, did he speak with the voice of authority? (2) He could have given the same report verbally in a few days' time when called upon to speak in the senate in the usual order of precedence. Besides, even his criticism of Vitellius came too late and was no proof of independence. But what really showed an attitude of contempt for the state and insult towards the emperor was his boast that the principate had been at his disposal, and had been handed to Vespasian as a gift. However, hard feelings were concealed, and flattery displayed. With many fine words, Mucianus was granted triumphal honours for a war waged against fellow-Romans, though his campaign against the Sarmatians was made the excuse. (3) Antonius Primus, too, received the insignia of consul, and Cornelius Fuscus and Arrius Varus those of praetor. (4) After that, it was heaven's turn: a motion for the restoration of the Capitol was approved. (5)

All these proposals were made by the consul-designate, Valerius Asiaticus, the rest of the senators signifying assent by a mere glance and gesture. A few who were especially prominent or had talent for flattery supported the resolutions with elaborate and hollow rhetoric. When it was the turn of the praetor-designate Helvidius Priscus to speak, he expressed himself in language which, while paying due respect to a good emperor, was remarkable for its frankness. There was no trace of insincerity, and the senate gave him a tremendous reception. For Helvidius this day above all others marked the beginning of great offence — and great glory. (6)

5. Since this is the second time that I have had occasion to refer to a man who must often recur in my narrative, it seems appropriate to provide a short review of his career and interests, and of how he fared in life. Helvidius Priscus came of an Italian family from the town of Cluviae, and his father had been the senior centurion of a legion. From early youth he devoted his brilliant gifts to academic studies. His aim was not — as so often happens— to disguise ease and idleness under a pretentious name, but to arm himself more stoutly against the unpredictable chances of a public career. He adhered to the school of philosophy (Stoicism) by which moral virtue is counted the only good and wickedness alone evil, while power, rank and other accidentals which do not lie within a man's will are reckoned neither good nor evil. When he had occupied no higher office than that of quaestor, he was chosen by Thrasea Paetus(7) for his daughter's hand. From his father-in-law's character he learnt, above all, the courage to be free. As citizen, senator, husband, son-in-law and friend, he met the varied obligations of life duly and consistently, contemptuous of wealth, unfaltering in his devotion to the right, and inflexible in the face of danger.

6. Some critics felt that he was too eager to make a name, for the last of all human infirmities to be shed, even by a philosopher, is a longing for glory. The fall of his father-in-law drove him into exile, but he returned on the accession of Galba and proceeded to impeach Thrasea's prosecutor, Eprius Marcellus. (8) This act of retaliation, perhaps idle, perhaps justified, deeply divided the senate at the time. If Marcellus were convicted, it meant the downfall of a whole army of potential defendants. The case opened with a stormy encounter, as the brilliant speeches of the two opponents show. But as time went on, the ambiguous attitude of Galba and the protests of a number of senators caused Priscus to drop the charge. Reactions varied, like men's characters. Some praised his restraint, others found him lacking in determination.

However, at the meeting of the senate that recognized Vespasian as emperor, it had been decided that a deputation should wait upon him. This led to a bitter altercation between Helvidius and Eprius. Priscus demanded that the members of the deputation should be chosen individually by the magistrates under oath, while Marcellus called for the use of lot in accordance with the motion of the consul designate.

7. But Marcellus' eagerness was really prompted by a desire to spare his own blushes and the fear that, if others were chosen, this would be interpreted as a reflection upon himself.

From brief exchanges, they gradually passed on to prolonged and bitter speeches, Helvidius asking why Marcellus was so frightened of the verdict of the magistrates. After all, he had money and eloquence sufficient to give him a lead over many of his competitors but for the handicap that men remembered his crimes. If lots were drawn, no distinction was made between men's characters. A senatorial vote and expression of opinion, on the other hand, was designed to probe the life and reputation of each and every candidate. Consideration for Vespasian, as well as for the public interests, required that the deputation should consist of the most irreproachable members of the senate — men who could accustom the emperor's ear to the language of honour. Vespasian had been friendly with Thrasea, Soranus and Sentius. However inadvisable it might be that their prosecutors should be punished, they had no business to be paraded before him. A verdict of the senate in this matter would be a hint to the emperor as to whom he should favour, and whom fear. Good advisers were the most valuable instrument of good government. Marcellus should be satisfied with having driven Nero to execute so many innocent victims. Let him make the most of his ill-gotten gains and his immunity from punishment, and resign Vespasian to better men.

8. Marcellus retorted that the policy under attack did not originate with him. It was the consul-designate who had put forward the proposal, he said, in accordance with long-standing precedents which fixed lot as the method employed to choose deputations, in order to give no loophole for self-seeking or personal vendettas. Nothing had happened to render an established principle obsolete, or to transform what was a tribute to the emperor into a reflection upon any particular person. They were all qualified to do homage. A more vital matter was to see that the stubbornness of certain individuals did not irritate susceptibilities which, in the early days of a reign, were inevitably on edge, anxiously eyeing everybody's remarks, and even glances. For his part, he added, he remembered the age in which he was born, and the constitution devised by their fathers and grandfathers. Earlier times earned his admiration, the present his allegiance. He prayed for good emperors, but took them as they came. The fall of Thrasea was attributable quite as much to a decision of the senate as to the speech he had himself made. This was the sort of fiction designed by the tyranny of Nero to mock them, and his friendship with such an emperor had been just as agonizing an experience for himself as exile had been for others. In short, Helvidius was welcome to boast of his resolution and intrepidity, and class himself with Cato, Brutus and their like. He, Marcellus, was merely a single member of a senate that had endured a common yoke. He had one further piece of advice for Priscus. Let him not seek to climb above his sovereign, or try to play the schoolmaster to a man like Vespasian who, no longer young, had held the honours of a triumph and was the father of grown-up sons. Evil emperors wanted unrestricted power, but even the best of them welcomed some limit to independence.

These conflicting views were debated with great vigour on both sides, and met with varying reactions. The voting went in favour of those who wanted the deputation elected by lot, even the moderates supporting tradition. The leading senators also came down on this side because they were afraid of their colleagues' jealousy if elected themselves.

9. This was followed by another dispute. The praetors of the treasury, who were at that time the officials responsible for its administration, had complained of the low state of the public finances, and asked for a limit on expenditure. The consul-designate suggested that the emperor should handle a situation where commitments were so heavy and the problem so intractable. Helvidius proposed senatorial action. When the consuls proceeded to invite other members to express their opinion in order of seniority, a tribune of the plebs called Vulcacius Tertullinus used his veto to prevent any decision being taken on this important issue in the absence of the emperor. Helvidius had already proposed that the restoration of the Capitol should be shouldered by the state with the assistance of Vespasian. This proposal was passed over, and afterwards forgotten, by the moderates. In certain quarters, however, it was remembered all too well.

10. Then Musonius Rufus attacked Publius Celer, (9) alleging that he had secured the fall of Barea Soranus (10) by false testimony it looked as if an inquiry into this would revive the bitterness aroused by the period of accusations. But in this case the defendant was despicable and guilty, and there was no question of shielding him. Soranus was remembered with reverence, while Celer, who claimed to be a philosopher, yet testified against Barea, had betrayed and dishonoured the ideal of friendship which he preached. The hearing was fixed for the next meeting of the senate. But now that there was a movement for settling old scores, it was not so much Musonius or Publius they were waiting for as Priscus, Marcellus and the rest of them.

11. Against this background— conflicts within the senate, a sense of grievance among the beaten, an inability on the part of the victors to command respect, Rome uncontrolled by either laws or emperor, Mucianus entered the capital and concentrated all power in his own hands. Antonius Primus and Arrius Varus now lost the control they had previously exercised. The resentment which Mucianus felt towards them was obvious, though his looks did not betray it. But Rome was shrewd enough to detect when a man had lost favour. Before long there was a swing of public opinion to the new master. Men courted and flattered Mucianus, and Mucianus alone. He in turn played up by constantly moving from one palace or park to another, closely surrounded by an armed escort. This taste for ostentation, processions and military guards shows how eagerly he assumed the reality of imperial power while waiving the title of emperor.

The greatest alarm was caused by the execution of Calpurnius Galerianus, the son of Gaius Piso. (11) He had kept out of political adventures, but his distinguished name and the good looks of youth made him the subject of popular gossip, and in a city which was still unsettled and always relished the latest rumours, idle tongues talked of him as a possible emperor. On the orders of Mucianus, he was put under military arrest. Within the walls of the city, his end would have attracted more notice, so that it was at a point forty miles from Rome along the Appian Way that his veins were opened and he bled to death. Julius Priscus, the prefect of the pretorian cohorts under Vitellius, committed suicide less from compulsion than a sense of shame, but Alfenus Varus managed to survive his cowardice and disgrace. Asiaticus, being a freedman, paid for his evil influence at court by suffering the execution appropriate to a slave (crucifiction).

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