Flavian Caution (1-10)
The Histories Book Two by Cornelius Tacitus

1. In a very different part of the world fortune was already planning the initial moves and motives for the creation of a new dynasty, whose varied complexion was to signify both happiness and misery for the state, and personal success or disaster for its rulers (1) . Titus Vespasianus had been sent off from Judaea by his father while Galba was still alive. The young man alleged that his journey was prompted by a desire to pay homage to the emperor and to stand for the public offices for which he was now of age to be a candidate. (2) But an imaginative public had spread the story that he had been summoned to Rome to be adopted as the emperor's heir. Such gossip found fuel in the fact of Galba's advanced age and childlessness, as well as in Rome's weakness for speculating on the chances of many possible candidates until such time as the successful one is chosen. Titus' reputation was rated all the higher because of his personal qualities. His intelligence fitted him for the most exalted station, while he had good looks, too, and a certain dignity of manner. Moreover Vespasian had been successful, prophecies were favourable. and a credulous society was disposed to regard even chance events as omens. At the city of Corinth in Achaia he was reliably informed of Galba's death, and met those who assured him that Vitellius was arming for war. In perplexity, he gathered round him a few friends and examined all the possibilities on either side. If he went on to the capital, he could expect no thanks for a gesture designed to honour another, and would merely be a hostage in the hands of either Vitellius or Otho. If, on the other hand, he returned to Judaea, the new emperor would undoubtedly take umbrage when he was victorious, though so long as victory was still undecided and provided his father joined the winner, he, the son, would be forgiven. If, however, Vespasian claimed the principate, such slights would inevitably be forgotten in the bustle of war.

2. These and similar arguments kept him hovering uneasily between hope and fear. Finally, hope triumphed. Some have held that his passion for Queen Berenice(3) made him turn back. It is quite true that she attracted the young man, but practical efficiency never suffered from this. (Titus led a life of pleasure in his youth, and proved more self-disciplined during his own reign than during his father's.) So he sailed along the coasts of Achaia and Asia, skirting the gulfs to the left(4) and making for the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus, and then, by the open sea, for Syria. He could not resist the temptation to go and visit the Temple of Venus at Paphos, which is famous among natives and visitors alike. It may perhaps be of some interest to say a few words about the origin of this cult, the temple ritual, and — since this is quite unique — the form in which the goddess is represented.

3. An ancient tradition declares that the temple was founded by King Aerias(5), while some authorities say that this is the name of the goddess herself. A more recent version tells us that the temple was consecrated by Cinyras and that it was here that the goddess landed after her birth from the sea. But the knowledge and skill of divination, it seems, was introduced from abroad by Tamiras of Cilicia, and it was agreed that control over ceremonial should be exercised alike by the descendants of both families. Later, to avoid a situation in which the royal line enjoyed no advantage over foreigners, the immigrants renounced the control of the very lore they had introduced, and now the only priest consulted is a descendant of Cinyras. The worshipper selects whatever sort of victim he has vowed to give, but the choice is restricted to male animals. The livers of kids are held to offer the surest prediction. Spilling blood upon the altar is forbidden. All that is offered upon it is prayer and pure fire, and despite its situation in the open, it is never wetted by rain. The goddess is not portrayed in the likeness of a human. Her image resembles a truncated cone, tapering from a broad circular base to a top of slender circumference. The reason for this is obscure.

4. Titus examined the rich treasures, which included gifts from kings and other objects for which the antiquarianism of the Greeks claims an origin lost in the mists of the past. Then he put his first question, which dealt with his voyage. On being assured of a clear passage and calm sea, he inquired in veiled language of his own future, offering a number of victims. Sostratus — for so the priest was named — observed that in every case the entrails showed favourable indications. The goddess was clearly intent on giving her blessing to a great enterprise. So for the time being he made a short and conventional reply, but asked for an interview in secret, and in this disclosed the future. Heartened by these assurances, Titus sailed on to rejoin his father. Amid the mood of uncertainty prevailing throughout the provinces and armies, his arrival inspired a surge of confidence.

The back of the Jewish War had already been broken by Vespasian. There remained the siege of Jerusalem, which promised to be a hard and uphill task, more because of the peculiar character of its mountain site and the bigotry of its inhabitants than because it had the means to endure a desperate struggle. I have already mentioned that Vespasian himself had three seasoned legions. Four others were commanded by Mucianus. These had seen no active service, but rivalry and the distinction of the neighbouring army of Judaea had put them on their mettle. If Vespasian's troops owed their toughness to danger and exertion, their rivals had acquired an equal degree of vigour from uninterrupted peace and the attractiveness of war to those who have no experience of it. Each of these two armies had its auxiliary cohorts and cavalry regiments, its fleets and client-kings and a great name based upon differing reputations.

5. Vespasian was a born soldier, accustomed to march at the head of his troops, to choose the place where they should camp, and to harry the enemy day and night by his generalship and, if occasion required, by personal combat, content with whatever rations were available and dressed much the same as a private soldier. In short, if one excepts his meanness in money matters, he was a worthy successor to the commanders of old. Mucianus was quite different, owing his eminence to lavish generosity, great wealth, and the lordly scale upon which he did everything. Happier in his choice of words as an orator than was Vespasian, he was an expert at manipulating a given political situation, and at foreseeing a future one. Freed of their several weaknesses, the combined virtues of these two would have comprised to a remarkable degree the qualities demanded of an emperor. However, as governors of Syria and Judaea respectively, Mucianus and Vespasian had been divided by the jealousy which is typical of the administration of neighbouring provinces. It was Nero's death that finally healed the breach and led to close collaboration, initially at staff level. Then Titus did much to inspire confidence. He managed to remove petty friction by an appeal to their common interests, and in him a nice admixture of frankness and diplomacy was able to fascinate even the sophisticated Mucianus. The support of tribunes, centurions and other ranks was secured by playing upon their industry and licence, their virtues and vices. Motives were as mixed as characters.

6. Before Titus' return, both armies had taken the oath to Otho. His accession had of course been speedily reported, and the massive machinery of civil war was slow to gather momentum. In any case this was the first occasion upon which the long peaceful and dormant East had embarked upon such a war. In the past, the great conflicts of Roman with Roman had started in Italy or Gaul, relying upon the resources of the West. Pompey, Crassus, Brutus and Antony, who drew civil war in their wake across the sea, had come to an unlucky end, and in Syria and Judaea the Caesars had been spoken of more often than seen. The legions had avoided mutiny and reserved their hostility for the Parthians, with varying success. In the most recent civil war(6), turmoil elsewhere contrasted with unbroken peace here, followed by allegiance to Galba. Later, when it became generally known that Otho and Vitellius proposed to tear the Roman state to pieces in a sacrilegious war, the troops began to fear that others would earn the prizes of empire and themselves nothing but the compulsion of slavery. So they proceeded to agitate and to count their own strength. For a starts there were seven legions as well as Syria and Judaea with their considerable auxiliary forces. On one side and in immediate proximity stood Egypt and its garrison of two legions, while on the other lay Cappadocia and Pontus and the fringe of camps facing Armenia, together with Asia and the other rich and populous provinces, all the islands in the Aegean Sea, and finally that sea itself, which offered support and protection during the interim period of mobilisation.

7. The commanders were perfectly aware that the troops wanted action, but so long as the others were fighting they decided to play a waiting game in the conviction that the winning and losing sides in a civil war never form a sincere and durable union. It made no difference whether it was Vitellius or Otho who happened to survive. Success rendered even good generals conceited, and their troops riotous. Thus idleness, high living and their innate viciousness would destroy one of the rivals in the fighting and the other in the day of victory. For these reasons, then, they proposed to hold their hand until the moment was propitious. The decision to fight was a recent one so far as Vespasian and Mucianus were concerned. The rest had long since decided, though their motives were mixed. Men of the highest character acted from love of their country. Many were stimulated by the attractive prospect of making a fortune, others again by financial embarrassment. Thus there were good men and bad, but for a variety of reasons and with equal enthusiasm all of them wanted a war.

8. About this time Achaia and Asia were upset by a false alarm. It was rumoured that Nero was on his way to them. There had been conflicting stories about his death, and so numbers of people imagined — and believed — that he was alive. I shall describe the adventures of the other claimants in their chronological context as my story develops. On this occasion the man concerned was a slave from Pontus, or, according to other accounts, a freedman from Italy. The circumstance that he was a harpist and singer by profession, when added to a facial resemblance, made the imposture all the more plausible. He was joined by some army deserters who had been roaming about in destitution until he bribed them to follow him by lavish promises.

With these men he embarked on board ship. A storm forced him to land on the island of Cythnus, where he recruited some troops returning from the east on leave, or had them murdered when they refused. He also robbed businessmen and armed the sturdiest of their slaves. A centurion named Sisenna, representing the army of Syria, happened to be bringing some symbolic "hand" to the praetorians as a token of friendship. He was subjected to a varied of artful approaches, but finally slipped away from the island and fled in fear of his life. This caused a wave of panic, and many restless or discontented creatures rallied with eagerness to a famous name. The bubble reputation, daily increasing, was abruptly pricked by one of the chances of history.

9. Galba had appointed Calpurnius Asprenas governor of the province of Galatia and Pamphylia. He had been given two triremes from the Ravenna fleet as escort, and with these he travelled east, putting in at the island of Cythnus. Here agents of the self-styled Nero invited the captains of the triremes to join him. Assuming a pathetic air, the fellow appealed to 'the allegiance of his former soldiers' and asked them to land him in Syria or Egypt. Half-convinced, or to trick him, the captains declared that they would have to talk to their crews, and would return when they had got them all into the right frame of mind. But in fact, as in duty bound, they made a full report to Asprenas, at whose instance the ship was overwhelmed, and the man of mystery put to death. His body, which arrested attention by the eyes, hair and savage expression, was taken to Asia and thence to Rome.

10. In a capital riven by dissension and hovering between liberty and licence as one emperor followed on the heels of another, even trivial matters were dealt with in a highly emotional atmosphere. Vibius Crispus, whose wealth, influence and intelligence classed him among Romans of distinction rather than merit, attacked Annius Faustus, a knight who had repeatedly acted as prosecutor in Nero's day. He impeached him before the senate, since, in the early days of Galba's reign, the fathers had resolved that the professional prosecutors should be put on trial. This senatorial decree had led to controversy. Ineffectual when a powerful man was accused, operative when the defendant was helpless, it still retained some power of intimidation. Besides, Crispus was a man to be reckoned with on his own account. He used all his powers to bring about the downfall of his brother's accuser, and had managed to bully a considerable proportion of the senate into demanding a sentence of execution without defence or hearing. Other members, however, viewed the matter differently. For them a strong argument in favour of the accused was the undue influence wielded by the prosecutor. They voiced the opinion that notice should be given, the heads of indictment published, and a proper hearing granted in accordance with tradition, however unpopular and vicious the accused might be. Indeed, this view prevailed at first, and the case was postponed for a few days. But then came Faustus' condemnation, though this was far from commanding the kind of backing from the public which he had richly deserved in view of his evil character. The trouble was that they remembered that Crispus himself had made a fortune by acting as prosecutor in the very same way, and their disapproval applied less to the fact than to the instrument of retribution.