Vespasian Emperor (74-86)
The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus

74. As for Vespasian, he was engaged in taking careful stock of the military situation and the forces available to him far and near. The personal devotion of the troops to him is shown by the fact that when he dictated the formula of the oath of allegiance and prayed for Vitellius' success, they listened to him in silence. Mucianus, while not unfriendly to Vespasian, was still more attached to Titus. The prefect of Egypt, Tiberius Alexander, had already come to an understanding. Then there was the Third Legion. This Vespasian reckoned his own because before its transfer to Moesia it had been stationed in Syria. There were prospects that the remaining legions in the Balkans would follow any lead it gave, as the whole garrison had been furious at the arrogant behaviour of the bullying and blustering troops who came from Vitellius and derided everyone else as their inferiors. But men usually hesitate before assuming such crushing military responsibilities, and whatever his moods of optimism, Vespasian would sometimes reflect on the possibility of disaster. What would the day of decision mean to them — the day on which he committed his sixty years and two young sons to the hazards of war? One could press on or draw back in a private enterprise, and commit oneself more deeply or less at will, in accordance with the prospects of the moment. But in the pursuit of an empire there was no mean between the summit and the abyss.

75. Vespasian could clearly picture to himself the fighting qualities of the German garrison. Such things were naturally familiar to a military man. His own legions had no experience of civil war, while those of Vitellius had been victorious in it; and the beaten side was querulous rather than strong. When a country was divided, military loyalty was a precarious thing, and solitary assassins presented a danger. What was the use of cohorts and cavalry regiments if one or two men decided to earn easy money from the other side by murdering him at the first convenient occasion? That was how Scribonianus had met his end under Claudius, and how his assassin Volaginius had risen from the ranks to the highest posts in the army. It was easier to set whole armies in motion than avoid the lone killer.

76. Such were the fears that swayed Vespasian. Among the officers and friends who tried to reassure him was Mucianus. After many confidential discussions, he finally made an appeal to Vespasian before a select audience. Its tenor was as follows:

'All who plan great enterprises must calculate the degree to which their initiative is helpful to their country, creditable to themselves, and easily attainable or at least not unduly difficult. At the same time one must carefully scrutinize the advocate of any particular policy to see whether he is willing to back it by action involving danger to himself, and one must consider who is likely to gain the highest distinction in the event of success.

'I call upon you, Vespasian, to assume the position of emperor and so perform an act which is beneficial to our country and does honour to yourself. Under heaven, it lies within your grasp. There is no need for you to fear what might seem mere flattery: it is perhaps as much an insult as a compliment to be chosen to succeed Vitellius. We are not rising in revolt against the subtle statesmanship of Augustus, nor against the elaborate precautions of the elderly Tiberius, nor even against Gaius or Claudius or Nero, whose power was firmly based on a long dynasty. You yielded even to Galba's aristocratic pretensions, but further passivity in the face of a process in which our country suffers defilement and decay would smack of sloth and feebleness, even if such discreditable servility afforded you corresponding protection. But the time has gone and is now long past when it was possible for you to pretend to be indifferent to power. At the moment it is your only refuge. Have you forgotten the murder of Corbulo? It is true that he came of a more distinguished family than either of us, but Nero, too, was more highly born than Vitellius. In the eyes of a suspicious monarch no suspect can be too humble.

'Besides, the lesson that an army can create an emperor is one that Vitellius can learn from his own accession. He could boast no active service nor military distinction, and owed his promotion entirely to the unpopularity of Galba. Nor indeed was Otho beaten by general-ship or overwhelming odds, but by his own premature despair, and Vitellius has now made his predecessor seem a great emperor whose loss is regretted. Meantime he is scattering his legions, disarming his cohorts and sowing every day fresh seeds of conflict. Whatever keenness and dash his troops had in the past is being steadily dissipated in cafes and in drinking and imitation of their emperor. You, Vespasian, can draw on Judaea, Syria and Egypt for nine legions. These are formations which are unimpaired, without battle casualties, united. Your troops are in good training and have successfully fought a foreign foe; and to these must be added other powerful resources in the shape of fleets, cavalry regiments and cohorts, devoted native kings, and your own unrivalled experience.

77. 'For myself I shall make no greater claim than that of precedence over Valens and Caecina. But still you must not despise Mucianus as an ally because you have not to face him as a rival. I rank myself before Vitellius and after you. Your family can boast the distinctions of a triumph and the presence of two young men, one of whom is already competent to hold the position of supreme commander, and in the first years of his military career won distinction in the eyes of the very armies of Germany. It would be illogical not to concede the imperial supremacy to one whose son I should set about adopting if I were emperor myself. However, our relative positions will not be the same in success as in failure. If we win, I shall enjoy such status as you choose to give: the risk and dangers we shall share alike. Better still, you should concern yourself with the supreme command of your armies, and entrust to me the fighting and uncertainties of battle.

'At this moment the vanquished are better disciplined than the victors, for resentment, hatred and the thirst for vengeance kindle their courage, while boredom and insubordination continue to blunt the efficiency of the Vitellians. The hidden and festering scars of the victorious side will be revealed and reopened by the mere fact that they have to fight. Your faculties of watchfulness, restraint and wisdom give me great confidence; even greater is that which I derive from Vitellius' sloth, ignorance and malice. But our prospects arc better if we declare war than they would be if we kept the peace, for those who plan rebellion are already rebels.'

78. After Mucianus' speech, the rest clustered round Vespasian with greater unreserve, encouraging him with reports of the prophecies of soothsayers and the conjunctions of the stars. That such superstitious beliefs had some hold on Vespasian is evident from the fact that a little later, when he had gained supreme power, he openly kept at court one Seleucus, an astrologer, to guide him and give him knowledge of the future. His thoughts now went back to omens from the past, for instance the sudden fall of a remarkably tall cypress tree on his estate. On the following day it had sprung up again at the same spot, and in due course grew as lofty as ever, spreading its boughs even more widely and luxuriantly. The seers were unanimous that this was a notable sign of future prosperity, and it seemed that the highest honours were promised to Vespasian while he was still a very young man. But at first the omen appeared to find its fulfilment in his triumphal awards, the consulship and the renown of his Jewish victory. Once these were achieved, he thought he was fated to be emperor.

Between Judaea and Syria lies a mountain called Carmel, which is the name of the local god. Yet traditionally this god boasts neither image nor temple, only an altar and the reverence of his worshippers. Here Vespasian had offered sacrifice when he was turning over in his mind his secret ambitions. The priest Basilides time and again examined the entrails of the victims. Finally he declared:

'Whatever you are planning, Vespasian — be it the building of a house, an addition to your estate, or engaging more servants — this is granted you. You shall have a great mansion, far-flung boundaries and a host of people.'

This ambiguous statement had been immediately pounced upon by gossip, and was now given great publicity. Indeed ordinary people talked of little else. Still more lively was the discussion in Vespasian's immediate circle, for hope is eloquent. With minds made up, they parted company, Mucianus going to Antioch and Vespasian to Caesarea. These are the capitals of Syria and Judaea respectively.

79. The first move to convey imperial status to Vespasian took place at Alexandria. This was due to the eagerness of Tiberius Alexander, who caused his legions to swear allegiance to the new emperor on 1 July. The date was afterwards honoured as that of his accession, though on 3 July the army of Judaea had taken the oath before Vespasian in person. Such was the enthusiasm that they acted without even waiting for the arrival of his son Titus, who was on his way back from Syria, where he had acted as the link between Mucianus and his father in their negotiations. The whole affair was carried through by a spontaneous move on the part of the troops, and there was no time to weigh up the situation or concentrate the scattered legions.

80. It all happened while a search was still being made for a suitable time and place, and above all, for the mechanism of the initial acclamation — no easy matter this in such a delicate situation. Their imagination was dominated by hopes and fears, by calculation and the unpredictable. One day, as Vespasian came out of his bedroom, a small guard of honour who had been paraded to greet him in the usual way as provincial governor, substituted for this title that of 'emperor'. Then the rest hurried to the spot and heaped upon him all the imperial titles, including those of 'Caesar' and 'Augustus'. in a flash his supporters had moved from trepidation to confidence.

Vespasian for his part gave himself no airs. Though the situation was changed, there was no change in his modest bearing. For a moment a mist swam before his eyes at the thought of the giddy heights of power. But as soon as this cleared, he addressed his men in soldierly accents, and was greeted with universal congratulation and offers of support. Shortly afterwards, Mucianus, who had been waiting for just this, made his troops swear loyalty to Vespasian. They were nothing loath. Then he entered the theatre at Antioch, which is regularly used for their political meetings, and made a speech to the concourse which had flocked to the spot with flattering effusiveness. Mucianus was quite a graceful speaker, even in Greek, and had the art of displaying to advantage whatever he said and did. One thing in particular kindled intense indignation in province and garrison alike. Mucianus asserted that Vitellius had made up his mind to transfer the legions of Germany to a lucrative and quiet station in Syria, while those in Syria were to be moved to the bases in Germany, where the climate was severe and conditions hard. The fact is that even the provincials liked to deal with troops they were used to, and there was a good deal of intermarriage between the two. The troops, again, felt at home in the camp where they had served so long and for which they had acquired a real affection.

81. By 15 July the whole of Syria had taken the oath of allegiance to Vespasian. He had also gained the adhesion of Sohaemus and his kingdom (1) whose resources were not to be despised, and that of Antiochus, (2) who had great inherited wealth and was the richest client-king of all. Then Agrippa (3) arrived after a fast voyage from Rome, where secret emissaries from his people had brought him news which recalled him home while Vitellius was still in the dark. Equal enthusiasm marked the support given to the cause by Queen Berenice. She was in her best years and at the height of her beauty, while even the elderly Vespasian appreciated her generosity. All the coastal provinces up to and including Asia and Achaia, and the whole Roman territory (4) extending inland towards Pontus and Armenia acknowledged Vespasian as emperor. But these lands were controlled by governors who had no troops at their disposal, since at this date Cappadocia had not been given a legionary garrison. A council was held at Berytus to decide the main lines of policy. To this city came Mucianus with his legionary commanders and regimental officers, as well as the leading centurions and other ranks. The army of Judaea sent a distinguished representation. The accumulated array of infantry, cavalry, and client-kings, outbidding each other in splendour, provided a truly imperial setting.

82. First and foremost, the war effort demanded the levying of troops and the recall of reservists. A number of wealthy cities were selected for the manufacture of armaments. At Antioch gold and silver currencies were struck. All these endeavours were rapidly put in hand in the various localities under the supervision of appropriate officials. Vespasian personally assumed the task of inspection and encouragement, praising the efficient and spurring rather than correcting the idle. He preferred to hide the weaknesses of his friends rather than their merits. In a bid for popularity he made many of them prefects and procurators, and a number were granted senatorial rank. These were men of exceptional calibre, who were soon to rise to high place. With a few it was a question of money rather than solid merit. As for a bounty to the troops, Mucianus had only held out the prospect of a modest sum at the initial parade, and even Vespasian offered no more under conditions of civil war than others had in peacetime. Here he set an excellent example by his strong opposition to any bribery of the troops, and this was in itself enough to secure a better army. A mission was sent to Parthia and Armenia, and steps taken to safeguard the rear of the legions while they were preoccupied with the civil war. It was decided that Titus should keep up the pressure on Judaea while Vespasian secured Egypt, which held a key position. It seemed that a fraction of the forces available would be adequate to deal with Vitellius, given the abilities of Mucianus as a general, the magic of Vespasian's name and the irresistible trend of destiny. Letters were sent off to all the various armies and commanders with instructions to stimulate recruitment among the pretorians who hated Vitellius. They were to be offered an attractive bait - readmission to the Guard.

83. (5) Mucianus set off with a force in battle-order, behaving as the emperor's colleague rather than as his subordinate. He avoided marching slowly, for he had no wish to give the impression of dawdling. Nor on the other hand did he show great haste, allowing mere distance to amplify the stories of his strength. He realized only too well that his force was a slender one, but that the public forms inflated ideas of what it cannot see for itself. But behind him marched an impressive array — the Sixth Legion and a composite force of 13,000 men drafted from its fellow formations. He had ordered the fleet to sail from the Black Sea and concentrate on Byzantium. He was still undecided whether to carry on with his original plan, which was to by-pass Moesia and strike rapidly at Dyrrachium with his cavalry and infantry, at the same time employing warships to blockade the Adriatic. In this case, he need have no fears for Achaia and Asia in his rear. Otherwise these provinces, having no garrison, were likely to be at Vitellius' mercy unless specially reinforced. Another argument in favour of the plan was that Vitellius would not know which part of Italy to protect if Brundisium, Tarentum and the coasts of Calabria and Lucania were all to be exposed to invasion by sea.

84. So the eastern provinces now hummed with the preparation of ships, armies and equipment. The most exhausting imposition, however, was the financial levy. According to Mucianus, money was the sinews of civil war, and in his assessments he had eyes only for the depths of a man's purse, not for equity or truth. On every side accusers came forward, and the richer classes were plundered unmercifully. These grievous and intolerable burdens might be defended on the ground of military exigency, but they continued to be imposed even when peace came. At the beginning of his reign, Vespasian was not personally so set on retaining abuses, but in time the smiles of fortune and the instruction of evil tutors found in him an apt and willing pupil. Mucianus also helped the war effort with his own fortune. A lavish expenditure of private means gave him an excuse for helping himself to public money even more liberally. Of the rest who followed his lead in contributing their wealth, very few had the same opportunities to recoup themselves.

85. Meanwhile Vespasian's initial plans were accelerated by the eagerness with which the Balkan garrison came over to his side. The Third Legion set an example to its fellows in Moesia. These were the Eighth and Seventh (Claudian). They had taken no part in the First Battle of Bedriacum, though dyed-in-the-wool Othonians. On that occasion they had advanced as far as Aquileia. Messengers bringing news of Otho's defeat were roughly handled, and their flags, which displayed the name of Vitellius, torn to pieces. Finally the Moesian troops stole their money and divided it among themselves. In all these ways they had shown by their actions that they were Vitellius' enemies. This bred fear of the consequences, and in its turn fear generated policy. Actions for which it would be necessary to apologize to Vitellius could win gratitude from Vespasian. So the three legions in Moesia communicated with the garrison of Pannonia, suggesting that the latter should join in. They also prepared themselves to employ force to guard against a refusal. In this fluid situation, Aponius Saturninus, the governor of Moesia, ventured to commit an appalling act. He sent a centurion to assassinate the commander of the Seventh Legion, Tettius Julianus. The motive was a private dispute, camouflaged as a bid to help the Flavian cause. Julianus discovered he was in danger, and seeking the aid of natives who knew the geography of the area intimately, made his escape through the trackless wilds of Moesia to the region south of the Balkan range. Thereafter he took no part in the civil war, finding a number of excuses for spinning out his journey to Vespasian and in response to the latest news alternately loitering or hurrying forward.

86. In Pannonia, however, the Thirteenth and Seventh (Galbian) Legions declared for Vespasian promptly. They still felt badly about the Battle of Bedriacum, and their attitude was strongly influenced by the impetuous Antonius Primus, (6). This man had a criminal record, and in Nero's reign had been sentenced for forgery. It was one of the unfortunate results of civil war that he had managed to get back his rank as senator. By Galba he was given command of the Seventh Legion. It was believed that he had written more than once to Otho volunteering his assistance as a party leader, but the offer was disregarded, and he rendered no service in the Othonian campaign. Switching his allegiance to Vespasian as Vitellius' star waned, he gave a powerful impetus to the Flavian movement. A man of drive and eloquence, a skilful propagandist who came into his own in a period of dissension and revolt, light-fingered and open-handed, he was at once a vicious influence in peacetime and a general to be reckoned with in war.

In due course the joint action of the garrisons of Moesia and Pannonia induced the troops in Dalmatia to fall into line, although the governors of these provinces took no part in the movement. Pannonia and Dalmatia were governed respectively by Tampius Flavianus and Pompeius Silvanus, who were rich and elderly. But at their elbow stood the imperial agent Cornelius Fuscus. He was now in the prime of life, and came of a good family. In early youth Fuscus had resigned from the senatorial order because he had no ambition for an official career. Yet he induced his home town (7) to go over to Galba, and for these services won the office of procurator.

Once he had rallied to the Flavian side, his fanaticism did much to touch off the campaign. Exulting less in the prizes that danger wins than in danger for its own sake, he sacrificed the assured gains of the past to a novel and hazardous gamble. So these two — Primus and Fuscus — set to work everywhere to fish in troubled waters. Letters were despatched to the Fourteenth Legion in Britain and the First in Spain, because both these formations had supported Otho and opposed Vitellius. Messages were sent off to every quarter of the Gallic provinces, and in no time a great holocaust of war had been ignited. The Balkan armies were now in open rebellion, and the rest were likely to follow their lead if they proved successful.