The struggle of the time of the ‘Four Emperors’—a real-life game of thrones
Civil war was not unusual in the history of ancient Rome, and this book concerns one of the most notable, complex and dramatic civil wars of the city-state, in which, within a few months, several great men had made their bid for control of the Roman Empire and paid for their failure with their lives. The struggle began with the fall of the infamous Nero. He was replaced by Galba, who set about making himself as unpopular as possible with almost everyone and was assassinated in the Forum—together with his heir, Lucius—by the Praetorian Guard. Otho then became emperor and seemed to be a popular, but he too was dead within twelve weeks as Vitellius, marching at the head of seven of Rome’s finest legions, bore down on the capital from Germania and inflicted a decisive defeat on Otho’s force at Bedriacum. Vitellius then embarked on a reign of terror. Mindful of recent events he bloodily eradicated everyone he thought might be a threat or from whose death he could materially benefit. Predictably, his reign was very short lived and in North Africa and the Middle East the legions acclaimed a new emperor, Vespasian. He proved to be a soldier and man of an entirely different calibre, and after invasion and battle Vespasian governed for a decade, was succeeded by his son Titus, and founded the Flavian dynasty. This book about a fascinating period of political upheaval and warfare in the ancient world, is accompanied in this Leonaur edition by an extract from Tacitus giving a contemporary view of the events covered in the main text.
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After Otho had departed from the camp at Bedriacum, the generals left in command prepared to carry out his orders. Part of the force under Gallus was kept in camp to guard it, and to await the arrival of the Danube army. The rest of it marched out on April 14, along the road to Cremona. In the day’s march they covered fourteen miles and halted for the night. The generals judged it safe to approach within eight miles of the city before diverging to the north. The troops were marching to take up a new position at the confluence of the Adda and Po, and entrench themselves there. They therefore were naturally in full marching kit and accompanied by a baggage train. It was most desirable to keep to the broad, paved way as long as possible. Hence the generals ventured along it as far as fourteen miles, and encamped for the night. Their ultimate objective, the confluence, lay some fifteen miles away in a straight line. The next day’s march would, however, have to be a longer one by reason of the detour round Cremona.
But neither generals nor troops were in good spirits. Even in April the sun can be extremely hot and the road exceedingly dusty between Calvatone and Cremona. The fourteen miles had been fatiguing, and the troops had been distressed for lack of water. This indeed was not the generals’ fault, unless (which seems improbable) they had been able to improvise water-carts and had neglected to do so. For although in the flat plain to the east of Cremona there are today ditches innumerable, yet in April these were either dry or contained only a little stagnant filthy water. Of rivers there were none; for every step along the road took the thirsty troops farther and farther from the Oglio, and their camp for the night in the neighbourhood of the modern hamlet of Pieve Delmona lay midway between the Oglio on the north and the Po on the south, and some six or seven miles from both. In the immediate presence of the unsuspecting enemy the men could not be allowed to straggle in search of water, either on the march or from the evening’s camp. It might indeed have been better if the generals had left the main road earlier and encamped beside the Oglio for the night. But the attractions of the highway proved too strong.
The soldiers were therefore in a bad temper and angry with their generals. In their discontent and impatience they loudly lamented the emperor’s absence. The generals meanwhile were fiercely quarrelling among themselves. Suetonius and Celsus disliked and distrusted the whole scheme from the beginning. They now gloomily pointed out its risks to Titianus and Proculus, who were, for their part, eager and ready to carry out Otho’s orders. The foe, urged the malcontents, were all but in sight. In case of attack these had but four miles to tramp (a characteristic underestimate). But their own troops were in marching order, not fighting trim, and wearied by the march. These recriminations and gloomy reflections came too late, and were indeed out of place. The troops could not but mark the acrimonious dissensions between their leaders, and these must have the worst effect upon them, especially in their present temper. There was no doubt that they had come too far along the road, too near the enemy, for safety. And now the generals were busy discussing again what had already been decided.
It was a grand error on Otho’s part to entrust the column to a committee of generals in place of one supreme commander. Roman generals did not always agree together. Two were bad enough, but a council of four was indeed likely to ruin any plan. The emperor sought to remedy the evil by his own control. He despatched a Numidian mounted orderly from Brescello with the stern and imperative order to the generals to advance. It may be that they misread the order, and thought that it countermanded the original plan in favour of a direct attack upon the Vitellians at Cremona. Or perhaps Otho himself, hearing that the force had come so near to the enemy, judged that there was no room for the flank march left, and himself commanded a frontal attack instead. Or, again, the generals may have relied on the enemy’s inactivity and still moved forward, intending to strike north presently, allured by the fatal attractions of the highway. Whose the blunder was can never now be determined. All that is certain is that Otho’s whole strategical scheme miscarried; for when the column resumed its march, obedient to orders, on April 15, they blundered straight upon the foe. The head of the column suddenly found the enemy’s horse charging full upon them.
Valens had not been caught unready that morning. Under screen of his cavalry charge he marched his army out of camp and drew it up ready for battle. Caecina and his men were quickly summoned from the half-made bridge. The full Vitellian army stood ready to fight, drawn up quietly despite the near approach of the foe. Thick brushwood on either side of the road hid the Othonian approach, and in consequence the Vitellian regiments moved to their allotted places without alarm or disorder. Their cavalry indeed came presently reeling back, for the head of the Othonian column stood its ground valiantly and repulsed them. It needed the levelled pikes and the taunts of the First infantry legion of the Vitellians to compel the shaken horse to pull bridle and rally. Then the whole army moved forward on a wide front stretching some distance on either side of the road. The repulse of the enemy’s cavalry had given the generals on the Othonian side time to extend their front, and dress it to meet their opponents to some degree. But their confusion was still great. Some indeed believed that the advancing foe had abandoned Vitellius’ cause and were joining them in all love and amity. Some pressed boldly on to the front seeking honour; some hurried as eagerly to the rear in search of safety. There was more uproar than there was discipline. At the height of the confusion the Vitellian line charged.
Fighting began about nine o’clock at night, and, as always happens in battles by night, was confused. Order was quickly lost, and hand-to-hand conflicts were waged all over the field. The two armies were armed alike; the watchwords quickly became known to the men on both sides; and captured standards displayed here and there by both combatants increased the perplexity and disarray. The Flavian left was hard pressed, and the Seventh Galbiana legion lost men quickly. Its very eagle was all but taken, and rescued only by the desperate valour of a centurion, who died to save it from the enemy. Antonius summoned the Praetorians from the right wing to strengthen the wavering line, and the battle, now restored, swayed to and fro in alternate advance and retreat. The Vitellian artillery had at the beginning of the fight been scattered up and down the line of battle, and its missiles had gone hurtling among the bushes opposite without doing great hurt to the enemy. But later all the engines were massed together on the high-road, and their fire, concentrated on the clear space in front of them, made the Flavian centre suffer heavily.
Here again the tide of war seemed setting against Antonius, when two of his soldiers found a remedy. Their names are not known, but their deed is not forgotten. Snatching up shields from two of the enemy’s dead, they made their way undetected over to the hostile line, and cut the ropes of the engines. At once they fell, pierced with wounds; but they had saved their comrades and their general, for now the enemy’s artillery was useless. Presently, late at night, the moon rose in the east, and shone full upon the faces of the Vitellians. The moonlight, disabling their own sight, exposed them to the sure aim of the foe, while they themselves smote vainly at the shadows which the dark figures of the soldiers opposite cast far on the ground before them. Ever and again clouds drifted over the face of the moon, and then, as by common consent, the fighters drew apart and rested, leaning on their weapons, until the moon shone out full again.
Women came out from Cremona, some themselves to plunge into the battle and be slain, fighting fiercely for the cause; some to carry food and drink to the soldiers of their army. The Vitellians ate and drank, and offered of the fare also to the enemy. “Come, comrades,” they cried. “Here is meat and drink: take and eat; take and drink; that we may slay and be slain, but strong and not fainting.” Then arms were grounded, and the men ate and drank together. But, the short rest over, they fell again to fighting with bitterness and anger all the greater.
All through the long autumn night the battle raged with unabated fury. Here son slew father unawares; here brother cut down brother. Men shuddered at such sights, and, hastening, did the like. The Flavian general was to be seen everywhere in his battle-line, encouraging, taunting, rebuking, cheering his soldiers on to yet stronger blows and a more stubborn stand.
On that same battlefield, yet cumbered with the relics of their dead, the Pannonian legions must redeem their honour from the stain of the defeat which they had once suffered there. The men of Moesia had been bold enough of speech against the foe: could they not show the deeds to match? Dared the men of the Third to shame the records of the regiment? Had it not fought under Mark Antony in Parthia, under Corbulo in Armenia? Had it not but newly crushed the wild Sarmatian invader and saved their province? Why above all, he fiercely demanded, were the Guards hanging back in the final hour of trial? Had they not even yet drained ignominy to the full? Boors and peasants that they were, soldiers no more, did there remain for them yet another Emperor, another camp, to shelter them? Their standards, their arms, were with the enemy; for them death alone was guerdon of defeat.
Everywhere the men wildly cheered their fiery leader as he rode up and down the line, and grimly they held their ground, until at last the sun rose upon the scene.
Then the Third legion, lately come from Syria, saluted it, as was their wont, and the chance salute decided at last the day. The word ran fast down the Flavian line that Mucianus and their comrades of the Eastern army had come at last. Their hopes rose high. The enemy caught the rumour and wavered. In one final heave of massed column the Flavians thrust desperately at the Vitellian line, now ragged, thin, despairing. The line bent and gave. There was no rally. Ensnared, inextricably involved, among the broken engines, the waggons, the heaps of slain, the. Army of Germany broke up into a rout of fugitives, and the enemy’s horse, cutting, hewing, butchering, drove them to their camp. The battle on the open field was ended.
The tide of victory surged up against the gates and ramparts of the camp. The troops had marched and fought for twenty miles and twenty hours. Still Antonius gave them no rest, but called on them for the last great effort, and, as one man, they answered to the call. A very storm of missiles raged for some time on either side. Then two columns of assault rushed at the ramparts and the gates on the eastern and the northern roads, towards Bedriacum and Brixia. The men were hurled back. Antonius flung himself among them. With significant gesture he pointed to the city: Cremona was theirs to sack, if they would rally. Himself at the head of the storming column, he led the Third and Seventh legions again up to the Bedriacum gate. Down crashing on their heads came the great engine of war itself, hurled by the desperate defenders, and they recoiled once more. It was but for a moment. The engine’s fall had torn away with it part of the rampart. Fresh assailants swarmed to the breach, the men of the two legions vying with one another in eager regimental rivalry. The gate was hewn down with axes and with swords. Volusius of the Third was the first man in. The others poured over and through the defences. The Vitellians leapt despairing from the ramparts as the foe rushed in. The camp was cleared of the living among the enemy up to the city’s walls.