11. Meanwhile, the opening of the campaign augured success for Otho. At his command, armies had moved up from Dalmatia and Pannonia. They comprised four legions, from each of which 2,000 men were sent ahead. The main parties followed at no great distance. The formations concerned were the Seventh, raised by Galba, and three veteran legions — the Eleventh, the Thirteenth, and above all the Fourteenth, whose men had covered themselves in glory by quelling the rebellion in Britain (1). Nero had enhanced their reputation by singling them out as his best troops — hence their protracted devotion to him and their lively enthusiasm for Otho. But excellent fighting qualities were offset by a corresponding fault bred of over-confidence: they were slow to move. As they marched, the legions were preceded by auxiliary cavalry and infantry, and from the capital itself came a sizeable contingent consisting of five pretorian cohorts and some squadrons of cavalry, together with the First Legion (2). In addition, there were 2,000 gladiators- an ill-favoured force to call upon, though employed in the civil wars even by strict commanders. These troops were placed under the command of Annius Gallus, who was sent ahead with Vestricius Spurinna to secure both banks of the Po in view of the fact that the original plan had fallen through owing to the passage of the Alps by Caecina, whom the emperor had at first hoped to contain within the Gallic provinces. Otho himself was attended by a personal bodyguard of picked physique and the remaining pretorian cohorts, by veterans of the Pretorian Guard, and by a large naval brigade. Nor did he travel slowly in luxurious comfort. He wore a steel cuirass, and marched on foot before the standards, ill-shaven, unkempt and belying his reputation.
12. At first fortune smiled on Otho's strategy. His ships and his command of the sea enabled him to dominate the greater part of Italy right up to the frontier with the Maritime Alps. He had selected Suedius Clemens, Antonius Novellus and Aemilius Pacensis for the task of raiding this province and threatening Narbonese Gaul. But Pacensis was put under arrest by his unruly men, and Antonius Novellus was a mere cipher. Control lay with the ambitious Suedius Clemens. Though susceptible to pressure in a way prejudicial to good discipline, he was spoiling for a fight. One would never have guessed that it was against Italy or the towns and homes of the mother country that the invasion was directed: it looked as if these were foreign shores and cities of the enemy. For they proceeded to burn, devastate and plunder them with a savagery rendered more frightful by the total lack of precautions everywhere against such an emergency. The men were in the fields, the farm-houses open and defenceless. As owners ran out with wives and children, they met their end, victims of war in what they thought was peace. (3)
The then governor of the Maritime Alps was Marius Maturus. He raised the alarm among the natives (there was, of course, a militia force), and prepared to man the frontiers of his province against the Othonians. But at the first charge the hill-folk were cut down and scattered. This was only to be expected of hastily gathered levies with no idea of what is meant by entrenching a camp or obeying orders, men who took no pride in victory and saw no dishonour in defeat.
13. This encounter provoked Otho's men into venting their spite on the town of Albintimilium. They had taken no booty in the fighting, as the country folk were poor and their accoutrements valueless. Nor indeed was it possible to capture tribesmen who were fleet of foot and knew the area intimately. But greed was satisfied at the cost of the inoffensive civilians. What intensified bitterness was the exemplary courage of a Ligurian woman. She hid her son, and when the soldiers, thinking that money was secreted with him, asked her under torture where she was concealing him, she pointed to her womb, and said 'Here'. No subsequent frightfulness, not even death, could make her modify this heroic reply.
14. The news that the Narbonese province, which had been made to swear allegiance to Vitellius, was threatened by Otho's fleet reached Fabius Valens on the lips of quaking messengers. Representatives of the more important towns presented themselves with requests for help. Fabius sent off two Tungrian cohorts, four squadrons of cavalry and a whole regiment of Treviran horse, with its commander Julius Classicus. A portion was kept in the rear at Forum Julii, because if the whole force had been thrown into the advance by land, the Othonian fleet might have sailed rapidly on through undefended waters. Twelve squadrons of cavalry and details from the cohorts made for the enemy, supported by a cohort of Ligurians which had long formed the local garrison, and 500 Pannonians not yet regularly embodied. Battle was not long delayed, and Suedius drew up his troops as follows: some of the naval personnel, together with an admixture of civilians, occupied rising ground on the hills near the sea; the flat land between the hills and the coast was held in strength by the pretorians, and on the sea, maintaining contact and ready for action, the fleet provided a menacing screen of prows turned towards the enemy. The Vitellians, inferior in infantry but well provided with horse, placed their Alpine troops on the neighbouring hills, and their cohorts in close order behind the cavalry.
The Treviran squadrons charged the enemy recklessly, and met stiff resistance from the veterans, while on the flank they suffered severely under a hail of stones hurled by the civilians. Even they were quite adept at this sort of thing, and being interspersed among troops, showed the same daring in the moment of victory, whatever their prowess or lack of it. The shattered troops were further demoralized when the fleet delivered an attack on their rear while they were still fighting. Thus encircled on every hand, the whole force would have been annihilated had not the winning side been hampered by dusk, which covered the escape of the fugitives.
15. The Vitellians were not idle either, despite their beating. They brought up reinforcements and fell upon an enemy whom success had rendered complacent and too slack. The sentries were cut down, the camp was penetrated, and panic reigned by the ships.
Gradually the alarm ebbed, and after rallying on a near-by hill the Othonians went over to the offensive. In this they inflicted severe losses, and the commanders of the Tungrian cohorts, who made a prolonged effort to hold out, were finally overwhelmed by a rain of missiles. Even the Othonians did not score a bloodless victory. Some of them launched a blind pursuit, and the cavalry faced about and surrounded them. A tacit truce was then concluded, and to obviate any surprise move by the fleet on the one side or the cavalry on the other, the Vitellians returned to Antipolis in Narbonese Gaul and the Othonians to Albingaunum further back in Liguria.
16. Corsica, Sardinia and the other Mediterranean islands in adjacent waters were kept on Otho's side by the prestige of the victorious fleet. But Corsica nearly came to grief through the recklessness of its governor Picarius Decumus. In fact, though his intervention in such a massive conflict was bound to be ineffectual, it proved fatal to himself. Hating Otho, he determined to help Vitellius by mobilising the resources of Corsica — trumpery aid even if the enterprise had succeeded. He summoned the leading personalities of the island and explained his plan. Those who ventured to demur — Claudius Pyrrhicus, captain of the galleys stationed off Corsica, and Quintius Certus, a Roman knight — he caused to be executed. This unnerved those who were there, and their fears communicated themselves to a spineless throng of people who did not know what was afoot. All of them promptly swore allegiance to Vitellius. But when Picarius began to enlist troops and burden primitive people with military duty, these unaccustomed exertions proved unpopular. They reflected on their powerlessness, telling themselves that they were islanders, while Germany and the might of the legions were far away. Even those who had cohorts and cavalry to protect them had been plundered and devastated by the fleet. There was a sudden change of mood, though without any public outbreak: they chose rather to strike in secret. When Picarius' following had left him and he was naked and helpless in the baths, he fell to an assassin's blow, and his staff shared his fate. Their heads, like those of outlaws, were taken to Otho by the murderers in person. But they got neither reward from Otho nor punishment from Vitellius, for in the world-wide upheaval of the time they were inextricably lost amid greater enormities.
17. As I have mentioned above, the Silian cavalry regiment was the unit responsible for opening the door to Italy and bringing the war south of the Alps. Otho was not popular with anyone. Yet the reason was not to be found in any preference for Vitellius. A long period of peace had made the Italians ready to submit tamely to any master. They were fair game for the first-comer, and had no interest in the relative merits of the rivals. As some cohorts sent ahead by Caecina had also arrived, the forces of Vitellius now controlled the most prosperous area of Italy, including all the flat country and the cities between the Po and the Alps . (4) A cohort of Pannonians was captured at Cremona. A hundred cavalrymen and l,000 sailors were rounded up between Placentia and Ticinum. These successes meant that the Vitellian army found its way no longer barred by enemy forces upon the Po or along its banks. Indeed, the mere presence of the river was a challenge to the Batavians and the Germans from beyond the Rhine. They crossed it without warning, opposite Placentia, and by surprising a few reconnaissance troops so demoralized the rest that they brought back a false and panic-stricken report that Caecina's whole army was at hand.
18. Spurinna, who held Placentia, was quite certain that Caecina was not yet in the offing, and if the enemy did approach, he had made up his mind to keep his men behind the fortifications and avoid exposing to a seasoned army his own force — three pretorian cohorts, 1,000 infantry drafted from the legions, and a small cavalry contingent. But the men were out of hand, and had seen no active service. Seizing the standards and flags, they ran amuck and offered violence to their general as he tried to restrain them, without bothering about the centurions and tribunes. Indeed they kept howling that treachery was afoot against Otho, and that Caecina had been invited into Italy. Then they marched off recklessly, and Spurinna went with them. He did so at first under compulsion, but later feigned acquiescence so that his views should carry more weight if the mutiny petered out.
19. When the Po was sighted (5) and night drew on, it was decided to entrench camp. The physical labour (a novelty for troops normally stationed in the capital) effectually broke their spirit. Then the older men began to denounce their own credulity, and point out the critical danger of their position if Caecina and his army surrounded their slender force of cohorts in the open plain. By this time sober language was heard throughout the camp, and when the centurions and tribunes went among the ranks, there was praise for the foresight of a commander who had chosen a populous and wealthy city as his strongpoint and headquarters. Finally Spurinna addressed them in a tone of explanation rather than criticism, and leaving a reconnaissance party behind, marched the rest back to Placentia in a less disorderly mood, ready to listen to orders. The city-walls were reinforced, parapets added, towers increased in height, and provision and preparation made in respect both of arms and of military obedience and discipline — the only thing the Othonian side lacked, since they could have no regrets on the score of courage.
20. As for Caecina, he seemed to have left violence and licence behind north of the Alps, and marched through the Italian country-side in an orderly fashion. His manner of dress was interpreted by the townsfolk as arrogance, for he made speeches to toga-clad audiences while himself wearing exotic garb — a parti-coloured cloak and trousers. (6) His wife Salonina attracted attention, too, by riding on horseback in a purple dress. No offence was meant, but the Italians took it as an insult. It is only human nature to submit fortune's latest favourite to a penetrating scrutiny, and a modest use of success is above all expected of those whom their critics have seen on a level with themselves.
Having crossed the Po, Caecina tried to lure the Othonians from their allegiance by negotiation and promises, and was himself subjected to the same process. At first some pretentious language about 'peace' and 'concord' was bandied about to little purpose. Then he tried intimidation, and directed all his plans and endeavours to the siege of Placentia. He was perfectly aware that the degree of success achieved in the opening phase of the campaign would determine his prestige later.
21. The first day's action, however, was marked by a vigorous offensive rather than by the skilled techniques of a seasoned army. The enemy approached the walls carelessly without cover, after heavy eating and drinking. It was in the course of this fighting that the fine amphitheatre outside the walls went up in flames, though it is an open question whether it was set on fire by the besiegers as they hurled torches, slingshots and incendiary missiles at the besieged, or by the latter as they responded. The ordinary townsfolk, always ready to suspect the worst, believed that inflammable material had been furtively brought into the building by certain people from neighbouring cities who were jealous and envied them the possession of an edifice unrivalled for size throughout Italy. Whatever the cause of the disaster, it was made light of so long as worse was to be feared, but once their worries were over they felt they could have suffered no heavier blow, and deeply regretted it. However that may be, Caecina was repulsed with serious casualties, and the night was spent in preparing siege-equipment. The Vitellians got ready screens, hurdles and mantlets in order to undermine the walls and protect the assault parties, while the Othonians provided themselves with stakes and immense masses of stone, lead and bronze designed to crush and annihilate the enemy. Both armies felt the call of honour and glory, but derived encouragement from different sources. One side stressed the military prowess of the legions and the army of Germany, the other the prestige attaching to the garrison of the capital and the pretorian cohorts. The Vitellians dismissed their opponents as a flabby and idle crew of circus-fans and theatregoers, and the Othonians spoke scornfully of the enemy as a lot of foreigners and aliens. The cult or criticism of Otho and Vitellius provided an added stimulus, less fruitful of praise than of mutual abuse.
22. Soon after first light, the walls were crammed with shock-troops, and the plains glittered with arms and men. The legionaries in close formation and the auxiliary forces in extended order assailed the top of the walls with arrows or stones and closed in upon stretches which had been neglected or were crumbling with age. The javelins hurled down by the Othonians gathered more momentum and found their target more surely amid the rashly advancing cohorts of Germans who, with wild battle-songs and bodies bared in traditional fashion, clashed their shields together with upraised arms. The legionary troops, protected by screens and hurdles, undermined the walls, built an earthen siege-mound, and attacked the gates with crow-bars. The pretorians facing them rolled down millstones disposed at various points along the wall for this purpose. Their weight and the consequent crashes were terrific. Some of the men at the foot of the walls were crushed to pieces, others hit, struck senseless or maimed. Panic made the slaughter worse and only served to intensify the effect of the murderous fire from the walls. The consequent retreat was a severe blow to the reputation of the Vitellians, and Caecina, who was ashamed of his reckless and ill-considered attack, and anxious not to encamp in the same spot to no purpose amid the jeers of his beholders, recrossed the Po and made for Cremona. As he departed, he received the surrender of Turullius Cerialis with a number of naval personnel and of Julius Briganticus with a few cavalrymen. The latter officer was a cavalry prefect of Batavian birth, the former a senior centurion known to Caecina because he had commanded a company in Germany.
23. On learning of the enemy's approach, Spurinna informed Annius Gallus (7) in writing of his measures to defend Placentia, the events of the past days, and Caecina's intentions. Gallus was at that moment leading the First Legion to the relief of Placentia, having no confidence in the ability of such a small number of cohorts to face a prolonged siege and the powerful army of Germany. When he heard that the discomfited Caecina was making for Cremona, he held back his legion. This was a difficult achievement, and the troops were on the brink of mutiny in their burning eagerness to fight. The place at which he halted them was Bedriacum, a village between Verona and Cremona, which thanks to two Roman catastrophes is now famous.
In the course of these same days, Martius Macer scored a success near Cremona. This enterprising general ferried his gladiators across the Po and staged a lightning raid on the opposite bank. Some Vitellian auxiliaries there were thrown into disorder, and when the rest of them fled to Cremona, those who had stood firm were cut to pieces. But the offensive was kept within bounds in case the enemy brought up reinforcements and turned the tables upon the victors. This created suspicion among the Othonian troops, who put an unfavourable construction on everything their generals did. Cowardly and loud-mouthed elements among them vied with each other in assailing Annius Gallus, Suetonius Paulinus and Marius Celsus, who had also been given command by Otho. The accusations were varied, but the most violent incitement to mutiny and sedition was offered by the murderers of Galba, who were crazed by guilt and fear. These men caused chaos, both by provocative remarks openly made and by communicating secretly with Otho. The emperor was always ready to listen to the lowest of the low, and it was good advice he feared. He now fell into a panic, being a man who was thrown off his balance by success and did better in the thick of disaster. So he summoned his brother Titianus and made him commander-in-chief. In the meantime, a brilliant action was fought under the command of Paulinus and Celsus.
24. Caecina had been tortured by the failure of all his moves and the fast-fading laurels of his army. Driven from Placentia, his auxiliaries lately cut to pieces, he had not even held his own in a series of brushes fought between patrols and scarcely worth mentioning. Fabius Valens was near, and to prevent the whole credit for the campaign going to him, Caecina hastened to retrieve his reputation with more greed than judgement. At a point called the 'Castores' (8), twelve miles from Cremona, he posted his most spirited auxiliaries in a hiding place afforded by some woods close to the road. The cavalry were told to go further forward, provoke a battle, and by voluntarily beating a retreat induce the enemy to gallop after them far enough for the auxiliaries to take them by surprise. This plan was betrayed to the Othonian leaders. Paulinus and Celsus assumed responsibility for the infantry and cavalry respectively. The advance-party of the Thirteenth Legion, with four cohorts of auxiliaries and 500 horse, was posted on the left. Three pretorian cohorts held the high road on a narrow front. On the right, the First Legion moved forward with two auxiliary cohorts and 500 horse. In addition, 1,000 cavalrymen drawn from the Pretorian Guard and the auxiliaries were set in motion as a reserve to put the finishing touches to a victory or help any troops in trouble.
25. Before the two sides made contact, the Vitellians turned about. Celsus knew this was a trick, and held back his men. But the Vitellians rashly issued from their ambush, and as Celsus slowly retreated, they followed him too far, and of their own accord fell headlong into the trap themselves. They had the cohorts on their flanks, the legions opposite them; and by a sudden dividing movement the cavalry had surrounded them in the rear. Suetonius Paulinus did not immediately give the infantry the signal to engage. He was by nature dilatory — the sort of man that prefers a cautious, well-considered plan to the luck of the gambler. So he had the ditches filled, the flat ground opened up, and the line extended, thinking that it would be soon enough to start winning when precautions had been taken against defeat. This delay gave the Vitellians a chance to retreat to a vineyard where a complex network of trellised vines impeded movement. There was a small wood close by, too. From this they ventured to stage a counter-attack, and in so doing managed to kill the most eager of the pretorian troopers. Among the wounded was Prince Epiphanes (9), who was eagerly leading his men into battle on Otho's side.
26. Then the Othonian infantry charged. The enemy line was trodden under foot, and the rout communicated itself to their reinforcements as they arrived. Caecina had not summoned his cohorts simultaneously, but one by one. This increased the panic and confusion on the field of battle, for the scattered groups, nowhere in strength, were borne away one after another by the stampede. Besides this, there was mutiny in the camp (10), caused by the discontent of the army at not being led out to battle en masse. They confined the camp-commandant, Julius Gratus, on the grounds that he was concerting treachery with his brother, who was serving with Otho. As it happened, the brother, a tribune named Julius Fronto, had been put in irons by the Othonians on the very same charge. However, there was such consternation everywhere among the fugitives and those who sought to make headway against them, in the front line no less than outside the camp, that it was rumoured on both sides that Caecina might have been destroyed with all his forces had not Suetonius Paulinus sounded the retreat. Paulinus for his part asserted that he had shrunk from making further demands on his men in the way of heavy fighting and a long pursuit, as the Vitellian troops might have fallen upon the wearied Othonians while themselves fresh from camp, and there would have been no reserve to back them up in the event of disaster. A few critics approved of the general's reasoning, but it was not well received by the rank-and-file.
27. This defeat caused some dismay among the Vitellians, but it was still more effective in restoring discipline. This is true not only of the army of Caecina, who threw the blame upon his men, as being readier to mutiny than fight: Fabius Valens, too, who had by this time reached Ticinum, found that his forces no longer underestimated the enemy and in their eagerness to retrieve their reputation obeyed his orders with greater respect and consistency.
Anyhow, there had previously been a serious outbreak of indiscipline. To explain its origin, it will be necessary for me to revert to an earlier stage in the narrative, as it would have been wrong to interrupt the sequence of Caecina's operations. I have already described how, during the fighting in Nero's reign, the Batavian cohorts separated themselves from the Fourteenth Legion and were on their way to Britain when they heard of Vitellius' moves and joined Fabius Valens in the territory of the Lingones. These Batavians now started to behave arrogantly. They would go up to the lines of each of the legions in turn and boast that they had put the Fourteenth in its place, robbed Nero of Italy and now held the whole issue of the war in the hollow of their hand. This attitude was an affront to the legions bitterly resented by their commander. Discipline was prejudiced by disputes and brawls. In the end, their insubordination led Valens to suspect treachery.
28. So when news came that the Treviran cavalry regiment and the Tungrians had been routed by Otho's fleet and that Narbonese Gaul was being isolated, Valens, anxious both to protect allied communities and by a clever stratagem to split up unruly cohorts that could be dangerous if united, ordered some of the Batavians to go to the rescue. When this leaked out and became common knowledge, it evoked regrets from the auxiliaries and protests from the legions. They complained that they were being deprived of the help of the best troops. Now that the enemy were within sight, the seasoned heroes who had won so many battles were to be practically withdrawn from the front-line! If a mere province were more important than the capital and the safety of the empire, then they should all follow the Batavians to Gaul. But if victory hinged on the preservation of Italy, the body of the army must not be mutilated by the amputation of its strongest limbs.
29. They aired these grievances in violent language, and when Valens started to check the mutiny by sending his lictors to make arrests, they attacked him personally, bombarded him with stones, and chased him as he ran for it, yelling out that he was hiding the Gallic loot and the gold of Vienne, which they had earned by their own exertions. They ransacked the general's kit, rummaged his tent and poked about in the very ground with spears and lances. Valens meanwhile was hiding in a cavalry officer's quarters, disguised as his servant. Then, as the mutineers gradually cooled down, the camp-commandant, Alfenus Varus, helped on the good work by a sensible decision. He told the centurions not to make their usual inspection of the pickets, and omitted the trumpet-calls which summon the troops to their duties. They all seemed paralysed into inaction as a result, looking round at each other in bewilderment, and unnerved by the mere fact that there was no one to give orders. Their silence, their submissiveness, and in the last resort their appeals and tears pleaded for pardon. But the climax came when Valens came out of hiding in his mean garb, weeping and surprised to find himself alive: their reaction was one of relief, sympathy and good will. The ordinary man always goes from one emotional extreme to the other, and there was now a revulsion of feeling. They exultantly gathered the eagles and standards about him and bore him to the dais in the square amid praise and congratulation. Valens was wise enough to avoid severity. He refrained from demanding that anyone should be executed, but in order not to increase suspicion by obvious insincerity, he denounced a few men as trouble-makers. He knew perfectly well that in a civil war the troops can take more liberties than their commanders.
30. His men were entrenching camp at Ticinum when word came of Caccina's defeat. The mutiny almost repeated itself, for there was an impression that they had been kept away from the scene of the fighting by Valens' underhand methods and repeated time-wasting. There was no question of the troops' wanting a rest or waiting for the general to act — they were off in advance of the standards, telling the bearers to get a move on. A rapid march brought them up with Caecina.
Valens was not highly thought of by Caecina's troops. They complained of having been left to face an enemy in the full vigour of his first engagement though themselves far inferior in numbers. In the same breath, they made a flattering estimate of the strength of the newcomers too. This was done in self-defence- they did not want to be looked down upon as men who were beaten and cowardly. Besides, although Valens disposed of a more powerful force and almost twice the number of legions and auxiliary units, yet the troops liked Caecina better. He was thought to be readier to show kindliness, and he was also a tall and well-built man in the prime of life, and possessed a sort of superficial charm. This was why the generals were jealous of each other. Caecina dismissed his rival as a disreputable money-grubber, and Valens responded by deriding the other as a pompous ass. But they concealed their enmity for the time being and pursued their common advantage, writing a stream of insulting letters to Otho. In so doing, they burnt their boats behind them, whereas the leaders of the Othonian faction abstained from abusing Vitellius, though the field for invective was an exceedingly rich one.
31. Admittedly, until the hour of death, in which Otho won glory and Vitellius infamy, the idle pleasures of Vitellius seemed less dangerous than Otho's complete lack of self-control. The latter had also earned himself men's dread and hatred by murdering Galba, whereas no one held Vitellius responsible for beginning the fighting. As the slave of his belly and his palate, he was felt to have brought discredit chiefly upon himself, while the pleasure-seeking, cruel and unscrupulous Otho seemed a deadlier threat to the community.
After the rendezvous of the armies of Caecina and Valens, the Vitellians had no further inducement to delay committing their combined forces. But Otho held a council-of-war to decide whether to wage a long campaign or try his luck immediately.
32. At this meeting Suetonius Paulinus thought he owed it to his military reputation — second-to-none at that time — to review the whole strategic position. He made a speech explaining that haste would serve the enemy's purpose and a waiting game their own. Vitellius' army had now arrived in full, but was weakly supported in the rear since the Gallic provinces were restive and it would be inadvisable to abandon the Rhine frontier when one must reckon with raids by bitterly hostile tribes. The garrison of Britain could not intervene because of its enemies and the sea. The Spanish provinces had practically no troops to spare. Narbonese Gaul, invaded by the fleet and defeated in battle, had received a severe shock. The Transpadane Region of Italy was enclosed by the Alps and could not be reinforced by sea, while the mere passage of an army through its countryside had wrought havoc. There was no corn available to the enemy army anywhere, and without supplies an army could not be kept together. Even the Germans, the most dreaded troops on the other side, would not stand up to the change of latitude and climate. If the war were prolonged to the summer, their health was bound to be impaired. A powerful initiative had often come to nothing in a context of boredom and delay. On their own side, all was different. The picture everywhere was one of abundant resources and confident devotion. They disposed of Pannonia, Moesia, Dalmatia and the East, with armies fresh and unimpaired; of Italy and the city which was the capital of the world; of the Roman senate and people — great names whose halo, if sometimes over-shadowed, was never eclipsed. They could call upon official and private resources, and those boundless riches which are more effective in civil dissension than the sword; upon soldiers whose constitutions were inured to Italy or else to tropical heat. They had the River Po to protect them, and cities securely defended by men and walls. That none of these would go over to the enemy was abundantly clear from the defence of Placentia. (11) Otho should therefore avoid an immediate decision. In a few days, the Fourteenth Legion would appear on the scene — itself famous and now supplemented by forces from Moesia. Then the emperor would consider the situation afresh, and if he decided on battle, they would fight with augmented strength.
33. The views of Paulinus were echoed by Marius Celsus and Annius Gallus (the latter had been injured a few days before by a fall from his horse, but messengers were sent to inquire what he thought and had already returned with his approval). Otho for his part was set upon forcing a decision. His brother Titianus and the pretorian prefect Proculus, with the eagerness of ignorance, claimed that fortune, heaven and Otho's guardian angel smiled upon their plans and would smile upon their performance: they had fallen back on flattery to prevent any attempt at opposition.
Once the decision to fight had been taken, the council-of-war considered whether it would be better for the emperor to be present at the battle or not. Reluctant to appear to expose him to danger, Paulinus and Celsus raised no further objections, and the same group of mistaken advisers induced Otho to retire to Brixellum and hold himself in readiness to take the supreme decisions, undisturbed by the alarms of battle. This day's work marked the beginning of the end for the Othonian cause. Not only did a strong force of pretorians, bodyguards and cavalry go with the emperor as he departed, but those who remained behind lost heart. This was because the generals were regarded with suspicion, and Otho had left the chain of command in uncertainty as he trusted no one but the troops and alone enjoyed their confidence.
34. All this was well known to the Vitellians, thanks to the continual desertions to be expected in civil war. Besides, the Othonian reconnaissance was so eager to discover the enemy's intentions that it failed to conceal its own. Coolly and calmly, Caecina and Valens kept their eyes open for the moment when the enemy would rush blindly to destruction. They had at least sense enough to wait for others to play the fool. Meantime they began building a bridge across the Po from its north bank in order to deal with the company of gladiators' on the other bank and save their own troops from suffering the effects of idleness. A line of pontoons was arranged facing against the current, equally spaced and secured by heavy timbers fore and aft. The structure was held rigid by anchors planted upstream with sufficient slack on the anchor-cables to allow :he boats to ride the mounting waters without losing formation. (12) A tower was put on board to enclose the further end of the bridge, and with the addition of each successive pontoon it was transferred to it. This was designed as a platform from which artillery of various kinds could keep the enemy at bay.
The Othonians, meanwhile, had erected a tower on the bank and were discharging stones and firebrands.
35. There was also an island in midstream to which both sides found their way, the gladiators by hard rowing, the Germans ( i.e. Batavians) swimming down with the current. It happened on one occasion that the latter had got across in some strength. Macer then manned some galleys and attacked them, using the keenest of his gladiators. But the latter did not exhibit the same steady courage as the regulars, and found it harder to shoot effectively from the heaving decks than did their enemies, who had a firm footing on the bank. As the frightened men shifted their position, so the boats swayed with their movements, and the rowers and fighters fell over each other in confusion. The Germans seized their chance. They plunged into the shallow water, held the ships back by the sterns, climbed on board the gangways or drowned their opponents in hand-to-hand tussles. The whole scene was played out under the eyes of the two armies. The Vitellians were delighted, and with corresponding bitterness the Othonians cursed the cause and architect of their defeat.
36. So far as the fighting was concerned, the surviving ships managed to get away and the retreat marked its end. But the gladiators clamoured for Macer's head. After wounding him with a lance thrown from some distance, they made to close in with drawn swords, but the tribunes and centurions intervened and rescued him. It was not long before Vestricius Spurinna arrived with his cohorts in accordance with Otho's orders, having left a small garrison to hold Placentia. Then Otho sent the consul-designate Flavius Sabinus to take over the force previously commanded by Macer. The troops were delighted at the change of general, and owing to the continual mutinies the generals were not keen on service under such vexatious conditions.
37 I find it stated by certain writers that in their dread of war or contempt for both emperors — whose wickedness and degradation became in fact daily more notorious — the two armies wondered whether they should not conclude an armistice under which they could either negotiate on their own or leave the choice of an emperor to the senate. According to these authorities, this was why the Othonian leaders suggested waiting for a while: Paulinus, it is alleged, was particularly keen on this because he was the senior officer of consular rank and had made a name for himself by service in the British campaigns. For myself, I am quite prepared to grant that in their heart of hearts a few men may have prayed for peace in preference to strife and for a good and honest ruler instead of two worthless and infamous scoundrels. Yet in an age and society so degenerate, I do not believe that the prudent Paulinus expected the ordinary soldier to exercise such self-control as to lay his arms down from an attachment to peace after disturbing the peace from love of war. Nor do I think that armies so different in tongue and habit (13) were capable of a union of this kind, or that officers and generals whose consciences were in most cases burdened with the recollection of a life of pleasure, bankruptcy and crime would have tolerated as emperor any other than a disreputable character from whom they could demand payment for the services they had rendered.
38. From time immemorial, man has had an instinctive love of power. With the growth of our empire, this instinct has become a dominant and uncontrollable force. It was easy to maintain equality when Rome was weak. World-wide conquest and the destruction of all rival communities or potentates opened the way to the secure enjoyment of wealth and an overriding appetite for it. This was how the smouldering rivalry between senate and people was first fanned into a blaze. Unruly tribunes alternated with powerful consuls. Rome and the Roman forum had a foretaste of what civil war means. Then Gaius Marius, whose origin was of the humblest, and Lucius Sulla, who outdid his fellow nobles in ruthlessness, destroyed the republican constitution by force of arms. (14) In its place they put despotism. After them came Gnaeus Pompey, who, though more secretive, was no better, and from then on the one and only aim was autocracy. Roman legions did not shrink from civil war at Pharsalia or Philippi (15), and there is even less likelihood that the armies of Otho and Vitellius would have made peace voluntarily. Now, as in the past, it was the same divine wrath, the same human infatuation and the same background of evil deeds that drove them to conflict. That each round of the contest was decided by a knock-out blow was merely the consequence of the feebleness of these rulers. But my reflections on the characteristics of ancient and modern times have made me digress too far. I shall now return to the chronological sequence of events.
39. After Otho's departure for Brixellum, the outward trappings of command were assumed by his brother Titianus, effective power and control by the prefect Proculus. Celsus and Paulinus, whose prudent advice fell on deaf ears, were generals in name only, serving as a screen to hide the criminal folly of others. The attitude of the tribunes and centurions was ambiguous, since the best of them were passed over and power lay with the worst. The ordinary soldiers showed enthusiasm, but of a kind that preferred to criticize the orders of generals rather than obey them.
It was decided to advance to a point four miles from Bedriacum (incidentally, the movement was carried out so unskilfully that they suffered from lack of water despite the fact that it was spring and there were plenty of rivers in the area), and once there they wondered whether to fight. Otho's dispatches pressed for speed, while the troops wanted the emperor's presence on the field and many demanded that the forces south of the Po should be brought up. It is hard to decide what would have been the best policy in the circumstances, but it is easy to conclude that the one adopted was the worst possible.
40. As the cumbrous army set itself in motion, an observer might have been pardoned for thinking that it was setting out for a campaign, not a battle. Its objective was the confluence of the Po and a tributary (16), sixteen miles away. Celsus and Paulinus were against exposing a footsore and heavily laden army to a foe who would not fail to seize his chance. In light battle-order, he would have barely four miles to advance (17) in order to fall upon the Othonians while they were still marching undeployed or else scattered and bent upon entrenching camp. Titianus and Proculus were outvoted in the council-of-war, but overruled opposition. It is true that a Numidian horseman had galloped up hot-footed with strongly worded instructions from Otho in which he denounced the generals for their slowness and commanded them to risk an action. Delay was torture to him, and he found the tension too much to bear.
41. On the same day, the commanders of two pretorian cohorts approached Caecina while he was busy with the construction of the bridge (18) and asked for an interview. He was on the point of listening to their proposals and making counter-suggestions, when his scouts hurried to him with the news that the enemy were at hand. The tribunes' remarks were cut short, which is why it was difficult to say with certainty whether they had in mind a trick or the surrender of their troops or else some scheme which was above board. (19) Dismissing the officers, Caecina rode back to camp and found that Fabius Valens had issued the signal for battle and that the troops were under arms. While the legions were drawing lots to determine the sequence of march, the cavalry galloped out of the camp. Surprisingly enough, they were repulsed by an inferior number of Othonians and would have been forced back against the rampart but for the courage of the Italian Legion's whose men drew their swords and compelled the retreating troops to retrace their steps and resume the engagement. The Vitellian legions deployed without fuss, for though the enemy was near, it was impossible to see any sign of an armed force owing to the densely planted trees that served as vine-props. The Othonians afforded a different spectacle - frightened generals who were unpopular with their men, a confusion of vehicles and camp-followers, and a road which, thanks to the sheer ditches which accompanied it on either side, would have been somewhat narrow even for a column advancing calmly. Some of the Othonian troops were massed round their respective standards, others were looking for them. Everywhere there was a confused hubbub of rushing and shouting men. Under the impulse of recklessness or fright, they would surge forward or drift back, making for front or rear.
42. The sudden threat had clearly caught them on the wrong foot. In this state of mind, a false piece of good news served merely to sap initiative. Certain individuals circulated a lying report that the Vitellian army had repudiated its emperor. It has not been fully established whether this rumour was spread by the Vitellian scouts or actually arose on Otho's side, either by design or chance. Whatever the facts, the Othonians lost all heart for fighting and took it into their heads to cheer their opponents. They were booed in reply, and as a number of troops on their own side did not know the reason for the cheers, all they succeeded in doing was to make men fear treachery. At this moment, the enemy advanced with unbroken ranks. In fighting qualities and numbers he had the advantage. As for the Othonians, scattered, outnumbered and weary as they were, they went into action gallantly enough. Indeed, as the battle was fought over a wide area thickly planted with a maze of vines and vine-props, it presented a variety of aspects. The two sides made contact at long and short range, in loose or compact formations. On the high road, Vitellians and Othonians fought hand-to-hand, throwing the weight of their bodies and shield-bosses against each other. The usual discharge of javelins was scrapped, and swords and axes used to pierce helmets and armour. Knowing each other (20), watched by their comrades, they fought the fight that was to settle the whole campaign.
43. As it turned out, two legions made contact in open country between the Po and the road. (21) They were the Vitellian Twenty-First (Hurricane), long known and famous, and on the Othonian side the First (Support) Legion, which had never fought before , but was in high spirits and avid of distinction in its first action. The First overran the front ranks of the Twenty-First, and carried off their eagle. Smarting under this humiliation, the latter got their own back by charging the First, who lost their commanding officer, Orfidius Benignus, and a great number of standards and flags. In another part of the field, the Fifth pushed back the Thirteenth Legion, while the contingent from the Fourteenth was outnumbered and rolled up. Long after the Othonian commanders had fled, Caecina and Valens were still bringing up reinforcements to strengthen their men. Then, at the eleventh hour, came the Batavians, after routing the force of gladiators. These had crossed the Po in their ships only to be done to death in the very water by the cohorts confronting them. As the sequel to this success, the Batavians now delivered their onslaught on the Othonian flank.
44. The penetration of the centre led to a general retreat in the direction of Bedriacum. The distance was enormous (22), the roads choked with heaps of dead. This only increased the casualties. After all, in civil war you cannot make money out of prisoners (23). Suetonius Paulinus and Licinius Proculus escaped by different routes, and kept away from the camp. Vedius Aquila, the commander of the Thirteenth, was so scared that he lost his head and exposed himself to the resentment of his troops. Entering the camp-defences late in the evening, he was immediately surrounded by a noisy mob of trouble-makers and runaways, who raised a deafening clamour. He was insulted, roughly handled and labelled deserter and traitor. He was not himself at fault, but the men accused others of their own infamous conduct. This, of course, is typical of the mob. Titianus and Celsus were lucky enough to arrive in the dark. By this time, sentries had been posted and the troops got under control by Annius Gallus, who by words of advice and appeal, and thanks to the respect he commanded, managed to persuade them not to aggravate the losses of defeat by butchering each other. Whatever happened, he remarked — whether this was the end of the war or whether they made up their mind to fight again another day — the losers could find relief only by acting together.
In general, the men were thoroughly dispirited. But the praetorians angrily protested that they had been beaten by treachery, not courage. Even the Vitellians, they added, had bought their victory dearly, as their cavalry had been routed and a legionary eagle captured. But the Othonians still had Otho himself and the troops that formed his escort south of the Po. The legions from Moesia were on their way and a large part of the army had stayed behind at Bedriacum. These at any rate had not been beaten and would find a more honourable grave, if need be, on the field of battle. Such then were the thoughts that embittered or dismayed them. But their utter desperation bred dogged resentment more often than fear.
45. However, five miles from Bedriacum, the Vitellian army bivouacked. Their commanders were chary of attacking the camp the same day, and they also hoped that the enemy would surrender of their own accord. The Vitellians had no entrenching-tools, having marched out with the sole intention of fighting an engagement; but arms and victory were their safeguard. (24)
On the next day, the attitude of the Othonian army was not in doubt, and the wilder elements had come to their senses. So a deputation was sent to the Vitellian leaders. They for their part had no hesitation in granting peace. The envoys were held up for a time, and this caused some suspense as the Othonians did not know whether their request had been granted or not. Later, the mission was sent back and the camp opened up. Then victors and vanquished alike burst into tears, cursing with melancholy delight the civil war to which fate had doomed them. They shared tents and nursed their wounded brothers or relatives. Hopes and rewards seemed problematic, but death and bereavement were sure. Everybody was involved in the tragedy and had someone's death to mourn. A search was made for the body of the legionary commander Orfidius, and it was cremated with the customary honours. A few were buried by their own kith and kin, but the vast majority of the dead remained lying where they had fallen.