Rome Under Vitellius
The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus —Book Two (87-101)

87. While Vespasian and his leaders were thus employed in the various provinces, Vitellius was moving ponderously towards Rome. Day by day more despicable and lazy, he made a point of stopping at every pleasant town and country seat. In his train followed 60,000 armed men, dissolute and undisciplined. Even larger was the number of soldiers' servants, and the camp-followers were remarkable even among slaves for their overbearing manners. So numerous was the escort of officers and courtiers that it alone would have presented problems of discipline, even if this had been strictly enforced. The unwieldy mob was further encumbered by a number of senators and knights who came out from the capital to meet it. Some had been induced to come by fear, many were prompted by the wish to flatter, while the rest, and in due course all of them, joined in because they did not want to be left behind. There was also an influx of members of the lower classes who had made Vitellius' acquaintance by rendering him disreputable services. Such were the buffoons, actors and charioteers, whose degrading friendship gave him extraordinary pleasure. It was not only the towns that were exhausted by the necessity of supplying the multitude with food: the very land-workers and the fields now ready for harvest were stripped bare, as if this were enemy soil. (1)

88. There were many dreadful instances of bloody quarrels among the troops, for the legionaries and auxiliaries still did not see eye to eye after the original outburst at Ticinum. When it came to attacking civilians, however, they agreed well enough. But the loss of life was severest at a point seven miles from Rome. Here Vitellius was one day engaged in issuing haversack rations as if he were fattening up a lot of gladiators, and the lower classes had poured out from the capital and were milling about everywhere in the camp. Taking advantage of the fact that the vigilance of the troops was relaxed, some crude practical jokers managed to cut off their belts without the victims' knowledge, and then kept asking them where their equipment was. The soldiers were not used to being jeered at and took the joke badly, attacking the unarmed populace with their swords. Among other casualties, the father of one of the soldiers was killed in the company of his son. Then his identity was realized, and the news of his death halted the onslaught on the hapless civilians.

However, there were anxious moments inside Rome, as the troops rapidly pressed forward at every point. They made chiefly for the forum, being eager to see the spot where Galba had fallen. No less grim was the spectacle they themselves presented, thanks to the shaggy hides of wild beasts and the long deadly weapons which they wore. Not being used to crowds, they did not bother about avoiding collisions, and sometimes fell over because the road was slippery or someone had jostled them. When this happened, the answer was abuse, developing in its turn into fisticuffs and sword-play. The officers, too, added to the general confusion by dashing about here, there and everywhere with armed escorts.

89. Vitellius himself, once the Milvian Bridge(2) was reached, mounted a fine charger, armed and wearing the full panoply of a general. In this guise he drove the senate and people before him like a herd of cattle. However, his entourage deterred him from entering Rome as if it were a conquered city; so he exchanged his uniform for a bordered toga, and marched at the head of his troops in good order. The front of the column displayed four legionary eagles surrounded by four flags representing the other legions. After that came twelve cavalry standards and the serried ranks of the infantry, followed by the cavalry. Then followed thirty-four auxiliary cohorts grouped according to nationality and type of equipment. In front of the eagles went the camp commandants, regimental staff officers and senior centurions in white raiment, the rest marching with their respective companies in full dress uniform with medals worn. The troops, too, were resplendent in their various decorations. It was a noble sight, and an army worthy of an emperor— though not when that emperor was Vitellius. In this fashion, then, he entered the Capitol and there embraced his mother and honoured her with the title 'Augusta' .

90. On the following day he delivered a boastful speech about himself as if he were addressing the senate and people of a foreign state. In this he dwelt upon his own energy and restraint, despite the fact that his scandalous behaviour was only too obvious to the audience and indeed to the whole of Italy through which he had made his lamentable way in sleep and revelry. The lower classes, however, are irresponsible and unable to discriminate between counterfeit and true. Adept in offering the usual flattery, they shouted and yelled their approval, and though Vitellius rejected the title 'Augustus', they compelled him to assume it. The acceptance was as pointless as the refusal.

91. One action of Vitellius' was regarded as ill-omened by a capital which reacted to every event. After assuming the office of Pontifex Maximus, he issued a decree concerning public worship. But he did this on 18 July, a date which from time immemorial has been regarded as unlucky because it is the anniversary of the defeats on the Cremera and the Allia. (3) This was typical of his ignorance of all law, human and divine. Equal indifference was displayed by his officials and courtiers, and the administration seemed to function in an atmosphere of carouse. But he carried out the consular elections in the presence of the candidates with constitutional formality, and lost no chance of wringing every plaudit from the lowest classes by appearing at the theatre as a member of the audience and at the race-course as a punter. If prompted by respectability, this would certainly have been a welcome and democratic gesture, but the memory of his past deprived it of credit and value. He made a habit of attending the senate even when the agenda was trivial. On one occasion, as it happened, the praetor-designate Helvidius Priscus had proposed a course of action which conflicted with Vitellius' own wishes. He was put out at first, though merely appealing to the tribunes of the plebs to take up this insult offered to the tribunician power of the emperor. But in due course his courtiers, who feared his deeper resentment, succeeded in mollifying him, and Vitellius remarked that there was nothing new in a difference of opinion between two senators on a matter of politics. He added that he had himself been in the habit of voicing his opposition to Thrasea. (4) A number of his hearers sneered at this impudent claim to be such a man's rival, while others approved of his choosing Thrasea rather than any of the favourites of the moment as the pattern of true glory.

92. To command the Pretorian Guard he had selected Publilius Sabinus, who had been prefect of an auxiliary cohort, and Julius Priscus, at the moment a centurion. Priscus could rely on the support of Valens, and Sabinus upon that of Caecina. In this conflict of rivals Vitellius was a mere pawn. The imperial functions were in fact discharged by Caecina and Valens. They had long warily watched each other with a hostility scarcely veiled by the exigencies of war and military requirements. Their enmity had grown even more deadly in the environment of a vicious entourage and of a capital prolific in intrigue. The struggle between these two found its measure in the flattery of their attendants and the endless queues of the levee. Vitellius supported now one, now the other, for rank autocracy is never confident of itself. An emperor who thus hovered between sudden offence and ill-timed complaisance was regarded with alternate-fear and contempt. This, however, had not stopped Valens and Caecina laying hands on mansions, parks and the riches of the empire, though the tearful and destitute throng of nobles who had been allowed by Galba to return home from exile with their children got no pity or assistance from the emperor. One decision was welcome to the leaders of society, and approved by the populace too. Vitellius had allowed returned exiles to resume the rights they had enjoyed over their freedmen, though these wily creatures tried to stultify the concession in every conceivable way by hiding fortunes under fake bank accounts or by buying favour Some of them transferred to the imperial household and became more powerful than their erstwhile masters.

93. But the troops were everywhere. The barracks could not accommodate all of them, so they roamed about the porticoes or temple precincts, and throughout the capital. There was no question of parades, proper sentry duty or a training programme. Amid the lures of the capital and pursuits too shocking to be described, they ruined their physique by idleness and their morals by indulgence. Finally, careless of life itself, many of them encamped in the unhealthy Vatican district. This caused an epidemic. The Tiber flowed near at hand, and the Germans and Gauls, who are in any case susceptible to illness, found their resistance further impaired by a passion for swimming, and by their inability to stand heat. What is more, the whole military organisation was thrown into confusion by misguided policy or selfish ambition. Sixteen pretorian and four urban cohorts were formed, each a thousand strong. (5) Valens showed the less scruple in levying these troops because he felt that it was he who had saved Caecina from disaster. It cannot be denied that Valens' arrival upon the scene had put fresh heart into the Vitellians, and the bad name he had won by marching so slowly had been effaced by victory. In any case all the troops from Lower Germany swore by Valens. It was this circumstance, as it was believed, that first caused Caecina's loyalty to flag.

94. However, Vitellius' indulgence towards his generals was as nothing compared with the licence accorded to the troops. Every man was allowed to pick his own arm of the service. The most worthless characters were taken on the strength of the garrison of Rome if that was their preference. On the other hand really deserving soldiers were permitted to stay with the legions or cavalry if they so desired. There was no dearth of such volunteers among those who were sick and blamed the extremes of the Italian climate. Nevertheless the legions and cavalry lost the pick of their men, and the prestige of service at Rome suffered a severe shock, for a procedure whereby 20,000 men were taken from the army as a whole was not selection, but chaos.

One day, during a speech made by Vitellius, a demand was raised for the execution of the Gallic leaders Asiaticus, Flavus and Rufinus. The ground was that they had fought for Vindex. Vitellius made no attempt to curb outcries of this sort. Quite apart from his constitutional indolence, the realization that a bounty was expected for which he had not the money made him lavish every other sort of concession on the troops. The freedmen of leading Romans were told to pay an extraordinary tax scaled in proportion to the number of their slaves. Vitellius himself was bent solely upon spending. He constructed larger stables for his charioteers, filled the circus with gladiatorial and wild-beast shows, and embarked on a spending spree as if his purse were bottomless.

95. Indeed, Caecina and Valens celebrated Vitellius' birthday ( 7 or 24 September) by giving gladiatorial shows throughout Rome and in every quarter of the city. Such lavish displays had rarely been seen before. To the delight of the rabble and with the disapproval of honest citizens, the emperor had organized a memorial service for Nero. Altars were set up in the Campus Martius, and sacrificial victims slaughtered and burnt at the public expense. The torch was applied to the pyre by the Augustales, a college of priests which Emperor Tiberius had instituted for the worship of the Julian clan, in imitation of Romulus' foundation in honour of King Tatius.

Four months had not yet elapsed since the advent of the new regime, yet Vitellius' freedman Asiaticus had already rivalled the efforts of Polyclitus, Patrobius and the hated names of the past. At such a court no one sought distinction by honesty or hard work. The one and only avenue to influence was to glut the insatiable appetites of Vitellius with lavish junketing, expenditure and debauch. The emperor himself, content to enjoy the present and thoughtless of the morrow, is held to have squandered 900 million sesterces in a very few months. Huge and helpless, the Roman state had suffered an Otho and a Vitellius within a single year; it had to endure a varied and ignominious fate as the helpless victim of men like Vinius, Fabius, Icelus and Asiaticus. In the end these yielded to Mucianus and Marcellus and a change of individuals rather than of outlook.

96. The legion whose defection was first to be announced to Vitellius was the Third, for Aponius Saturninus sent a letter with the news before he, too, joined Vespasian's side. But Aponius had not given a full account of what had happened. He was unnerved by the abruptness of the blow, and the courtiers of Vitellius played down the news with honied tongues. Only one legion was disaffected, they assured him, and the rest of the troops were unshakeably loyal. This was also the line which Vitellius adopted in a speech to the troops. In this he denounced the recently dismissed pretorians as rumour-mongers, and asserted that there was no danger of civil war. Any reference to Vespasian was censored, and troops patrolled the capital to stop the public gossiping. It was this that chiefly served to encourage rumours.

97. However, Vitellius called up reinforcements from Germany, Britain and the Spanish provinces, though in a dilatory fashion and without admitting the urgency of the situation. The governors and provinces were equally slow to act. Hordeonius Flaccus was by now suspicious of the Batavians and worried at the prospect of having a war on his own doorstep, while Vettius Bolanus felt that Britain was never a really peaceful country. Both alike were in two minds about supporting Vitellius. Nor did the Spanish provinces show any alacrity, as there was no governor there at the time. The three legionary commanders were on an equal footing, and while they would have competed in subservience if Vitellius had looked like winning, they were unanimous in their reluctance to back a loser. In Africa, the legion normally stationed there, together with the cohorts recruited by Clodius Macer and later disbanded by Galba, once more assumed action stations at Vitellius' command, and at the same time the residue of the men of military age signed on promptly. The reason for this was that while Vitellius had won golden opinions as an honest governor of Africa, Vespasian's tenure of office there had earned him discredit and unpopularity. So the provincials argued that they would display the same qualities as emperors. But experience showed otherwise.

98. Indeed, at first the legion's commander, Valerius Festus, faithfully supported the enthusiasm of the provincials. As time went on, however, he wavered. In official correspondence and proclamations he sided with Vitellius, but maintained secret contact with Vespasian, intending to champion the winning side. In various parts of Ractia and the Gallic provinces, a certain number of soldiers and centurions were arrested in possession of letters and proclamations of Vespasian. They were sent to Vitellius, and put to death. Even more avoided detection thanks to loyal friends or their own cleverness. In this way, Vitellius' measures became known, but on the whole Vespasian's intentions remained wrapped in mystery. This was partly due to Vitellius' slackness, but also to the fact that the blockade of the Pannonian Alps(6) held up news. Conditions in the Mediterranean helped, too: the Etesian winds provided an easy passage to the East and hampered the voyage in the opposite direction.

99. It was only when the invasion began(7) that the alarming news from every quarter finally shocked Vitellius into ordering Caecina and Valens to mobilize. Caecina was sent on ahead. At the time, Valens was just getting on his feet after a severe illness, and convalescence held him up. There was a vast alteration for the worse in the appearance of the army of Germany as it left the capital. Enfeebled and dispirited, the depleted ranks struggled slowly along. Their arms and equipment were sloppy, their horses lazy. The men were unable to stand up to sun, dust and bad weather. With this blunting of the will to face hardship went a corresponding readiness to make trouble. Then there was Caecina. He had always had an eye to his own advantage, but was now seized with something new— apathy. Indulgence in the spoils of power had turned him into a flabby pleasure-seeker, or perhaps he was toying with treachery and thought that sapping the army's morale was just another clever thing to do. Many have held the view that Caecina's loyalty was undermined by the policy of Flavius Sabinus, Rubrius Gallus acting as the go-between in their negotiations. In the course of these, Caecina was assured that any deal involving a change of side would be upheld by Vespasian. He was also reminded of the dislike and jealousy he felt for Fabius Valens. If his rival stood higher with Vitellius, it was up to Caecina to establish his position by courting a new emperor.

100. Caecina was given an effusive and gratifying send-off by Vitellius. On leaving the emperor, he sent part of his cavalry on in advance to make sure of Cremona. This force was followed by drafts from the First, Fourth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Legions, and later by the Fifth and Twenty-Second. The rearguard was formed of the Twenty-First (Hurricane) and First (Italian), accompanied by elements of the three legions forming the British garrison and by selected auxiliaries. Once Caecina had gone, Fabius Valens sent orders to the army which had been under his command to wait for him on the road. This, he said, was what he had agreed on with Caecina. But the latter was on the spot, and could exercise more control. So he pretended that this plan had been altered so as to permit of their deploying their full forces against the enemy penetration. Thus some of the legions; were ordered to hurry on to Cremona, others to make for Hostilia. Caecina himself branched off to Ravenna, ostensibly to address the fleet. Later, it leaked out that he had aimed at a secret interview in order to concoct treachery. His partner was Lucilius Bassus. This officer, after commanding a cavalry regiment, had been appointed by Vitellius admiral of both the Ravenna and the Misenum fleets. He quite unjustifiably took umbrage because he had not been made pretorian prefect immediately, and was now planning this dastardly treachery as his revenge. Nor indeed can we be sure whether it was he who induced Caecina to desert, or whether— since evil minds think alike— the same wicked impulse affected both.

101. Historians of this war who wrote during the Flavian dynasty have flatteringly described the motives of these men as 'concern for peace' and 'patriotism'. My own view is that in addition to a natural instability of character and the cheapening of loyalty which was a consequence of their betrayal of Galba, a jealous fear that rivals would outpace them in Vitellius' affections induced them to ruin Vitellius himself. Caecina overtook the legions, and employed various devices to undermine the obstinate devotion of the centurions and troops to Vitellius. Bassus had less difficulty in engineering a similar plot — the loyalty of the fleet had no very firm footing as it had not forgotten its recent campaign on behalf of Otho.

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