Summer of Sixty Nine

May 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

TacitusTacitus: The Histories (translated by Kenneth Wellesley)

The year 69 AD was a particularly turbulent year in the history of the Roman empire. Few of the people who lived under its aegis would have counted that year among the best days of their lives, as armies crisscrossed the land with fire and sword in an orgy of violence, and civil war rent the fragile fabric of the Pax Romana. No fewer than four men declared themselves Imperator that year; no fewer than three of them met grievous and gory ends before the year was done.

Nero, the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, had committed suicide in June 68 AD. Fiddler or not (opinions vary) he had provided the empire with a stable central authority, and his sudden death sent shock waves in all directions. The dour septuagenarian Servius Galba, military governor of the Hispanic province, moved quickly into the void, but made no attempts to win over the army and aristocracy, and by the 15th of January, he was dead, murdered as part of a palace coup, and an old Nero favorite, Otho, seized the reins of empire. But Aulus Vitellius, commander of the powerful German legions, had already begun mobilizing, and Flavius Vespasian, master of the rich Roman possessions in the East, lay in wait with designs of his own. Vitellius’ battle-seasoned troops crossed the Alps and met the imperial armies at Cremona, where after a spirited engagement, the Vitellian Fifth and Twenty-first legions put the Othonian First and Thirteenth to flight. Two days later, on 16 April, Emperor Otho bid an affectionate farewell to his staff, destroyed a few documents, spoke calmly and softly to his brother’s son, had a good night’s sleep, woke up at dawn, presumably said oh well, let’s get this over with, then, and fell on his own dagger.


First Battle of Cremona (Courtesy Obrazy Klio, Pinterest)


And yet there was more blood to be spilt, and the year dragged on. The tempestuous German and Batavian provinces revolted against Roman rule under Civilis, and the Gauls wavered on the brink of mutiny. From the east Vespasian’s armies rolled in, bankrolled by the opulent provinces of Syria and Egypt, legions defected this way and that in confusion, and Cremona was again in the thick of the action. Antonius Primus, commanding the Seventh Galbian and assorted others, on the side of Vespasian, met a strong Vitellian force comprising the First, Fifth, Twelfth and Twenty-first legions whose commander had defected to the Vespasian side; the Vitellian army fought bravely without a commander, but gave up the next morning when part of Vespasian’s army turned to the east and raised a huge cry. It turns out that the Third Gallic had spent too many years in Syria and had adopted the local custom of saluting the rising sun; the Vitellian army thought they were cheering the arrival of reinforcements from the east and panicked. On such trivial misunderstandings stood the fate of imperial aspirations. Before the end of December, Rome had a new dynasty in place, the Flavians, and Vitellius lay dead, hunted out of his hiding place, dragged to the Gemonian stairs and there, hacked down brutally. In the pursuit of an empire, as Tacitus reminds us drily, there is no mean between the summit and the abyss.

Tacitus writes well. His story has causes and consequences, his protagonists have personalities and motivations; he takes sides without qualms. Thus Galba was a Draconian sourpuss, Otho was an opportunist though capable of nobility, and Vitellius an irresolute glutton. These lead characters, and a supporting cast of dozens, Tacitus presses into service to explain the events of that fateful year. His tale rings true, especially in its descriptions of the heaviest fighting and mob confusion: disorderly soldiers overruling their commanders in the heat of battle and deciding the course of action, conflicting rumors and contradictory advice of panicky officials, and emperors at the mercy of crowds. The overwhelming sense is of the  ‘great men of history’ being carried along in the current, not fully in control at any time, of their empires, their armies or indeed their own lives. And yet they weren’t innocent victims either: each of them had made conscious  decisions to strive for fame and glory. It is this potent combination of fate and free will that history is all about. When Shakespeare wrote, in his Julius Caesar, of a tide in the affairs of men, perhaps he had Tacitus in mind.

Read Tacitus. If you are a fan of military action, or enjoy meditating on what a rum old thing this life is, you will enjoy it.


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