Vitellius In Northern Italy (57-73)
The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus

57. Meanwhile Vitellius, unaware that he had won, was concentrating what remained of the pick of the German garrison under the impression that all the fighting lay ahead. A small number of men who had seen many years' service was left in the permanent forts, and recruiting was stepped up in the Gallic provinces in order to bring up to strength the legions that were staying behind, now reduced to skeleton formations. Responsibility for the Rhine frontier was entrusted to Hordeonius Flaccus. Vitellius supplemented his own army with 8,000 men drawn from the garrison of Britain. He had only completed a few days' march when he was informed of the victorious Battle of Bedriacum and that resistance had collapsed on the death of Otho. His reaction was to hold a parade and praise the valour of the troops fulsomely. The army asked him to give his freedman Asiaticus the rank of knight, but he checked this degrading flattery. Then he changed his mind with characteristic inconsistency. Taking advantage of the privacy of a dinner-party to grant the very concession he had publicly refused, he loaded the fellow with the knight's rings. This Asiaticus was a repulsive and designing creature who was eager to rise in the world by underhand means.

58. These events coincided with the news that both provinces of Mauretania had gone over to Vitellius as a sequel to the murder of their governor Albinus. Lucceius Albinus had been given Mauretania Caesariensis by Nero, Galba adding the control of Tingitana. The forces at the governor's disposal were considerable — nineteen cohorts, five cavalry regiments and a large force of Moorish irregulars who had acquired some military aptitude from their addiction to brigandage and robbery. On Galba's death, Albinus was inclined to back Otho, and, not content with Africa, threatened to invade Spain from which he was divided by a narrow strait. This alarmed Cluvius Rufus, who moved the Tenth Legion down to the coast as if in preparation for a crossing. Centurions were sent ahead to win over the Moors to Vitellius. This was indeed no very arduous matter in view of the fact that the army of Germany enjoyed a great reputation in every province. A rumour was also spread to the effect that Albinus, despising the title 'governor', had assumed the royal crown and the name Juba. (1)

59. — There was a revulsion of feeling, and the cavalry commander Asinius Pollio, one of Albinus' sturdiest supporters, and Festus and Scipio, two cohort commanders, were assassinated. Albinus himself, who was on his way from Tingitana to Mauretania Caesariensis, was murdered when he put in to land. His wife threw herself upon the assassins and met the same fate, though Vitellius made no investigation into the details of what had occurred. However important the news, he dismissed it with a brief hearing, being unequal to the more serious responsibilities of his position.

He ordered his army to proceed by road, while himself travelling by boat down the River Saône. His progress was remarkable for the straitened circumstances which he inherited from his past rather than for the pomp associated with an emperor. But in due course, the governor of Central Gaul, Junius Blaesus, who was a man of high birth, open-handed generosity and corresponding wealth, supplied the emperor with a suite of servants and accompanied him with a retinue worthy of a gentleman. This, however, earned him little gratitude, though Vitellius concealed his resentment beneath cringing compliments. At Lyons, the leaders of the victorious and vanquished sides waited upon him. Valens and Caecina received a glowing tribute from Vitellius at a military parade, and were stationed close to his official chair. Then he ordered the whole army to march out to meet his infant son, who was solemnly conducted to the spot and enveloped in a general's cloak. Holding the child in his arms, Vitellius gave him the name 'Germanicus' and surrounded him with all the emblems of imperial rank. This lavish honour in the hour of victory proved fatal to the child when trouble came.

60. Then the leading Othonian centurions were executed. This act, above all else, made enemies for Vitellius throughout the Balkan armies, while contact with troops from Germany, and bitter feelings towards them, helped to encourage a war mood in the other legions too. As for Suetonius Paulinus and Licinius Proculus, Vitellius kept the accused waiting in wretched suspense for quite a time before finally granting an audience. Here the pleas to which they were reduced did them little credit. They actually claimed credit for betraying their own side. The long march which preceded the battle, the exhaustion of the Othonians, the chaotic confusion of marching men and vehicles and a number of circumstances which were purely accidental were attributed by the defendants to their own duplicity. Vitellius promptly took them at their word in the matter of treachery, and acquitted them of good faith. Salvius Titianus was not in danger, for his indolence and the obligations he owed his brother Otho secured him a pardon. Marius Celsus retained his consulship. But it was commonly believed, and afterwards alleged in the senate to the prejudice of Caecilius Simplex, that the latter had been willing to purchase the office by a bribe and also at the cost of Celsus' life. Vitellius resisted this, and later awarded Simplex a consulship which cost him neither murder nor money. Trachalus was protected from his accusers by Vitellius' wife Galeria.

61. While great men went in peril of their lives, it cannot be recorded without a blush that a humble member of the Boian tribe,(2) a certain Mariccus, had the impudence to try to sneak into prominence and challenge the armed might of Rome by pretending to be divine. This self-styled 'champion of Gaul' and 'god' had raised a force of 8,000 men and was already making some impression on the neighbouring Aeduan cantons when the central authorities among the Aedui, showing a great sense of responsibility, called up their best militiamen and with the assistance of some cohorts assigned them by Vitellius scattered the mob of zealots to the four winds. In the fighting, Mariccus was captured. Later, he was thrown to the beasts, but they refused to tear him to pieces. This made the ignorant lower classes think that he bore a charmed life — until he was executed before the eyes of Vitellius.

62. No further measures of a severe kind were taken against the rebels or any man's property. Due effect was given to the wills of those Othonians who had fallen in battle, or else the law of intestacy was applied. Indeed, there was no reason to fear Vitellius' cupidity, if only he had been less addicted to high living. For rich fare he displayed a revolting and insatiable appetite. Delicacies were carted all the way from Rome and Italy to tickle his palate, and the routes which lead from the Tuscan and Adriatic Seas were loud with the sound of traffic. Leading members of the various cities found the provision of sumptuous banquets a heavy drain on their pockets, and the very cities were reduced to beggary. The Vitellian troops became flabby and work-shy as they acquired a taste for indulgence and a contempt for their leader.

Vitellius forwarded to Rome a decree postponing his acceptance of the title 'Augustus' and refusing that of 'Caesar', though he made no abatement of the powers implied thereby. Astrologers were expelled from Italy, and strict orders issued that Romans of equestrian rank were not to disgrace themselves by performing in the games and the arena. Previous emperors had driven them to this kind of thing by offering payment or, more often, by the use of force, and a number of Italian towns vied with one another in holding out financial inducements to undesirables among the younger generation.

63. With the arrival of his brother and the intrusion of crawlers who gave him lessons in tyranny, Vitellius became more overbearing and brutal. He gave orders for the execution of Dolabella, whose banishment to the city of Aquinum I have already recorded. Dolabella had found his way into the capital on learning of Otho's death, and this action had been the object of a charge which Plancius Varus, an ex-praetor and close intimate of Dolabella, laid before the city prefect Flavius Sabinus. The allegation was that he had broken out of custody in order to make a bid for the leadership of the beaten side. The accuser added that an attempt had been made to seduce the cohort stationed at Ostia. These serious charges were entirely unsupported, and Varus in due course repented of his action and begged for forgiveness. But it was too late, and the evil had been done. As Flavius Sabinus hesitated as to the course he should pursue in such grave circumstances, Lucius Vitellius' wife Triaria displayed a venom scarcely credible in a woman and worked upon his fears by hinting that he had no business to win a reputation for clemency by endangering the emperor's life. Sabinus was naturally a mild man, but his resolution was easily broken by threats. Fearing for his own skin in a situation which carried deadly menace for another, he contributed the final push which sent the unfortunate man headlong to his doom.

64. So it came about that Vitellius, who feared and hated Dolabella because he had married his divorced wife Petronia, summoned him by letter, and gave orders that the traveller should turn off from the busy Flaminian Way to Interamna, where he was to be put to death. This seemed too long-winded a business to the executioner. On the journey, he threw his victim to the ground in a wayside inn and cut his throat. The murder brought great discredit upon the new regime, for this was the first incident that afforded an insight into its character. Moreover the uncontrollable passions of Triaria were set in an unfavourable light by the proximity of one who was a pattern of moderation. This was the emperor's wife Galeria, who was not mixed up in these grim events. No less virtuous was Sextilia, the mother of the two Vitellii, who belonged to the old school. On first hearing from her son of his accession, she was said to have remarked that she had borne a 'Vitellius', not a 'Germanicus'. No subsequent allurements of rank, no flattering attentions from the public overcame this prejudice of hers or made her happy. It was merely the calamities of her house that touched her.

65. After Vitellius had departed from Lyons, he was overtaken by Cluvius Rufus, who had left Spain to look after itself Rufus' face wore an expression of delight and congratulation, but at heart he was worried and aware that charges had been levelled at him. An imperial freedman named Hilarus had alleged that on hearing of the elevation of Vitellius and Otho, Rufus had planned to make a bid for power himself with the Spanish provinces as his base. This, it was explained, was why the governor had not endorsed his travel-warrants with the name of any emperor. The accuser also quoted some passages from his speeches which he interpreted as insults towards Vitellius and claptrap in favour of himself. But Cluvius was too respected a figure, and Vitellius actually had his own freedman punished, while Cluvius was given a place in the emperor's suite without losing Spain, which he governed by proxy. A precedent for this was supplied by Lucius Arruntius, but this governor was kept at court by Tiberius because he feared him, whereas Vitellius was not frightened of Cluvius. The same concession was not made to Trebellius Maximus, who fled from Britain in the face of his troops' resentment. He was replaced by Vettius Bolanus, one of the courtiers in attendance.

66. Vitellius was worried by the attitude of the beaten legions, which was far from submissive. They were scattered throughout Italy in close association with the victors, and their language was the language of enemies. Particular defiance was shown by the Fourteenth Legion, whose men would not agree that they had been beaten. At the Battle of Bedriacum, they asserted, their advance-party alone had been routed, and the main body of the legion had not been present. It was decided that they should be returned to Britain, from which Nero had summoned them. In the meantime, they were to share camp with the Batavian cohorts, because the latter had long been on bad terms with them. Soon the bitter hostility between the groups of armed soldiers led to a breach of the peace. One day, a workman at Turin was being abused by a Batavian for cheating him, and defended by a legionary billeted on him. The two opponents were joined by their respective comrades, and from abuse the men passed to bloodshed. Indeed, desperate fighting would have broken out, had not two pretorian cohorts joined in on the side of the Fourteenth and thus encouraged them and intimidated the Batavians. Vitellius attached the latter to his column of march as a sign that he valued their loyalty, and ordered the legion to cross the Alps by the Little St Bernard and take a roundabout route avoiding Vienne, which was also regarded as a danger-point. On the night of their departure the legionaries left fires alight everywhere, and a part of the city of Turin was burnt down. The memory of this havoc, like that of many calamities in war, has been effaced by the more dreadful fate of other cities.

When the Fourteenth had descended from the Alps into lower country, the most unruly elements in the legion tried to lead the way to Vienne, but the more level-headed men got together and stopped this. So the legion crossed over into Britain without incident.

67. The next source of anxiety for Vitellius was provided by the pretorian cohorts. The men were first split up, and then offered the consolation of an honourable discharge from the forces. So they proceeded to hand in their equipment to their commanding officers, and this continued until Vespasian's bid for power gathered momentum. Then they rejoined the service, and formed a major factor in the Flavian strength.

The First (Naval) Legion was sent to Spain to cool down in an atmosphere of peace and quiet. The Eleventh and Seventh were returned to their respective permanent stations, while the Thirteenth was instructed to build amphitheatres, as Caecina and Valens were preparing to exhibit gladiatorial shows (at Cremona and Bononia respectively) and Vitellius was never so preoccupied by the cares of office as to forget his pleasures.

68. So far as the vanquished were concerned, Vitellius had managed to split them up without resorting to extreme measures. But there was trouble among the victors. Its origin was trifling, had not the number of dead lent one more sinister note to a sinister campaign. Vitellius was holding a dinner-party at Ticinum, Verginius being among the guests. Army officers take their cue from the behaviour of the supreme commander, copying his strictness or indulging in lengthy mess-dinners. By the same token the ordinary soldier either does his duty conscientiously or gets out of hand. In Vitellius' circle, all was chaos and drunkenness, an atmosphere approximating more closely to late hours and wild orgies than to discipline and normal camp life. Thus it happened that two soldiers — one belonging to the Fifth Legion, the other a Gallic auxiliary — were induced by high spirits to engage in a bout of wrestling. The legionary took a fall, and the Gaul jeered at his discomfited opponent. Thereupon the spectators who had gathered round took sides, the legionaries set about the auxiliaries, and two cohorts were annihilated. This alarming outbreak was cured by a second alarm. In the distance could be seen a cloud of dust and the glint of arms. The sudden cry went up that the Fourteenth Legion had turned on its tracks and was coming to the attack. But the troops were in fact the rearguard of Vitellius' army, and their recognition as such set minds at rest.

Meanwhile a slave of Verginius happened to appear on the scene. He was accused of planning to murder Vitellius, and the troops proceeded to invade the officers' mess, clamouring for Verginius' head. Even Vitellius, who was terrified by the slightest hint of a conspiracy, had no doubt that he was innocent. But it was difficult to restrain these men, who pressed for the execution of a senior statesman who had once been their own commander. Indeed, Verginius more than anybody else was the target of every act of insubordination. The great man still retained his magic, but the troops hated him because they felt he had slighted them.

69. On the next day Vitellius heard an address from a deputation of the senate which had been told by the emperor to await him at Ticinum. He then went over to the camp and made a point of praising the troops for their devotion, though the auxiliaries noisily protested at the free hand now accorded to the arrogant legionaries. To prevent the Batavian cohorts venturing upon some even more truculent act, they were sent back to Germany. By this move destiny paved the way for what was to be at once a civil war and a war fought against a foreign foe. (3) The Gallic auxiliaries were returned to their various communities. They formed a numerous contingent whose help had been accepted at the very beginning of the Vitellian uprising as a form of military window-dressing. However, to enable the now depleted resources of the empire to meet the drain of lavish bounties, Vitellius ordered the strength of legionary and auxiliary units to be reduced by a veto on recruiting, and men were offered their discharge right and left. This policy was fatal to the country and unpopular with the troops, who found that the same number of fatigues and duties had to be performed by a small number of men, so that danger and toil came round with greater frequency. Moreover their vigour was sapped by pleasures, in a way totally at variance with old-fashioned ideas of discipline and tradition, which found a better basis for Roman steadiness in character than in money.

70. From Ticinum Vitellius took the branch road to Cremona, and after viewing Caecina's gladiatorial show, insisted on walking over the battlefield of Bedriacum and inspecting the traces of the recent victory. It was a dreadful and revolting sight. Less than forty days had elapsed since the engagement, and mutilated corpses, severed limbs and the decaying carcasses of men and horses lay everywhere. The ground was bloodstained and the flattened trees and crops bore witness to the frightful devastation. Not less callous was the spectacle presented by the high road, which the Cremonese had strewn with laurel and roses, building altars and sacrificing victims after the fashion of an Oriental monarchy. These trappings afforded pleasure for the moment, but were soon to prove their undoing. Valens and Caecina were in attendance, pointing out the various localities connected with the battle: this was the starting point for the legions' forward thrust; from that point the cavalry had fallen upon the foe; and in a third place the auxiliary forces had surrounded their victims. Even the regimental officers contributed their quota, each magnifying his own performance in a hotchpotch of lies, truth and exaggeration. The ordinary soldiers, too, turned off the high road with shouts of glee, retracing the extent of the fighting and gazing admiringly at the heaps of equipment and corpses littering the plain. There were indeed some few observers who were deeply affected by the diverse influences exerted by an inscrutable destiny. They were moved to tears and pity. But not Vitellius. His gaze was unaverted, and he felt no horror at the multitude of fellow Romans lying there unburied. Blatantly exulting, and little knowing how near the day of judgement was, he proceeded to offer a sacrifice to the gods of the place.

71. After this, a gladiatorial show was put on by Fabius Valens at Bononia, the decorations being brought from the capital. Indeed, with every mile travelled towards Rome, the emperor's progress became more riotous. It was joined by actors and gangs of eunuchs and all the other idiosyncrasies of Nero's court. For Vitellius was a personal devotee of Nero. He had been in the habit of attending the emperor's song recitals, not like the better sort — under compulsion, but as the slave and hireling of pleasure and gluttony.

Desiring to find some spare months to accommodate Valens and Caecina in the consular list, Vitellius cut short the tenure of office of others, passing over that of Martius Macer on the ground that he had been a leading supporter of Otho, and postponing the consulship to which Valerius Marinus had been nominated by Galba. Valerius had done nothing to annoy Vitellius, but he was a mild man prepared to swallow any affront. The name of Pedanius Costa was omitted from the list because he had earned the emperor's ill will by his activities against Nero and support of Verginius, though the reasons adduced by Vitellius in public were different. That the emperor was thanked as well was a sign of the habitual servility of the time.

72. A case of impersonation now occurred. This proved merely a nine-days' wonder, though it evoked intense excitement at first. A man had turned up who alleged that he was Scribonianus Camerinus. (4) During Nero's reign of terror, Scribonianus had taken hiding in Histria, because in this area there were still some retainers and estates belonging to the ancient clan of the Crassi, whose name was one to conjure with. So the fellow got together some riff-raff to give colour to his story, and the gullible lower classes, together with some of the troops, started to flock around him eagerly, whether genuinely deluded or bent on mischief. But the man was brought before Vitellius and asked his identity. As his statement rang false and he was recognized by his master as a runaway slave called Geta, he was executed in the manner appropriate to persons of servile conditions ( i.e. Crucifixion).

73. It is hard to credit the degree of self-satisfaction and indolence assumed by Vitellius when officials from Syria and Judaea brought word that the East had recognized him as emperor. For there was gossip and rumour concerning Vespasian, however vague and ill-authenticated, and Vitellius usually showed alarm at the mention of his name. But now he and the army felt the way was clear, and in tyranny, debauch and rapine gave full rein to excesses that were quite un-Roman.