Wednesday 19 December 2018

The Greatest Hits of Tacitus - By L.J.Trafford

This month my book, Vitellius’ Feast, was published. It is the last in my four book series that looks at the year 69AD. A year that saw four men compete to become emperor: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. It was Vespasian that triumphed and founded a dynasty that lasted 26 years.

Our best source for all the events of this tumultuous year is Cornelius Tacitus. A teenager in 69AD Tacitus wrote an account of this year, and part of the following one, called The Histories. At the time he was writing, under the Emperor Trajan, many of the men who’d played pivotal roles in 69AD were still alive. He was able to interview them about their experiences. This is unusual in ancient history where many texts are written hundreds of years after the events they describe. It is why The Histories is quite so detailed in its depiction of a very dramatic time.

I’ve carried a copy of Tacitus’ Histories in my handbag the last six years as my constant go to reference book whilst I wrote my series.  It’s done many miles in and out of London, it’s been on holiday with me to the beach, it accompanied me to the York Roman Festival in June this year. It’s looking battered. But loved.

I’ve now finished writing about 69AD. I have no need to carry my Tacitus around. I’m feeling ever so slightly sad about this. So I thought as a farewell to The Histories I’d select my all time favourite bits from that book. A compilation album if you like.

The Greatest Quote of All Time. 

Tacitus’ strength is that he is infuriatingly quotable. “They create a desert and call it peace” being
The author's own copy of Tacitus. 
one of many such dinner party enhancing chit chat. But beating even that into submission is this fabulous line on 69AD‘s first emperor Galba:

“So long as he was a subject he seemed too great a man to be one and by common consent possessed the makings of a ruler – had he never ruled.” 

Ooooo it’s good. And so very versatile. I dug it up for when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair, the election of Theresa May and when Chris Evans presented Top Gear. The key is to pause ominously before concluding in as deep a voice as you can manage, ‘had he never ruled.’

The Marriage Mystery 

Calvia Crispinilla had been Nero’s Mistress of the Wardrobe. She was charged with dressing the emperor's favourite eunuch, Sporus. In the aftermath of Nero’s death she fled to Africa and incited the governor there, Clodius Macer, into a rebellion. When this failed we might have expected Calvia to go the way of other traitors in this era. But she doesn’t. She lives to a ripe old age unmolested by official forces for her past actions. Why?
Tacitus tells us that she secured:
 “Her position by marriage to a senior statesman” 
Intriguingly he doesn’t name the senior statesman. Which makes me suspect it was:
a) Someone very, very important and 
b) Someone still alive at the time of Tacitus’ writing. 

Insert your own scandal here. 

The Difficulties of Organising a Coup

Galba was overthrown on 15th January by Otho. However this coup almost took place four days earlier:
“They were on the point of carrying Otho off to their barracks as he was returning home from a dinner, but were scared off by the uncertainties of night-time, the scattered location of the troops throughout Rome and the difficulty of achieving coordination between men who were the worse for drink.” 

Not unlike those heavy nights after last orders, when someone pipes up “Let’s all go clubbing!” And everyone is well up for it. Until a lone voice says, “I think we’ve all had enough. Let’s get a cab.”

Otho’s difficulties in coup organising continued on the appointed day when he went to meet his troops and discovered there were only twenty three of them. Never mind, Tacitus tells us: 
“Roughly the same number of soldiers joined the party along the way.” 

They made their way to the barracks where the duty officer in charge was somewhat surprised by the appearance of Otho and his army of 46. But decided to go along with it and Galba’s fate was sealed.He was decapitated in the Forum after only 7 months of rule. 

Vitellius’ Two Generals

In a plot twist worthy of a soap opera, after Otho had murdered his way to power, he entered the palace as Emperor and discovered rather a lot of post from Germania. It was not good news. On 1st January – two weeks earlier – Aulus Vitellius had been declared Emperor by the German legions. Two of his generals: Caecina Alienus and Fabius Valens were marching an army some 70,000 men towards Rome. Which I think we can all agree thoroughly serves Otho right.
Caecina and Valens are two of Tacitus’ most finely drawn characters. They are quite, quite brilliant.

Fabius Valens

Tactius states that Valens' reason for championing Vitellius was that he felt that Galba was not
Emperor Vitellius
sufficiently grateful for the murder of  Capito, the Governor of Lower Germania. Valens had claimed Capito was bound on insurrection and he had nobly killed him before he could put his dastardly plan into action. 
 “Some people believed in a different story,” says Tacitus. He then outlines an alternative sequence of events whereby Capito is murdered for not going along with a Valens proposed insurrection. Our historian stays very much on the fence but given that Valens a few weeks later proposes *guess what* an insurrection, I’m going to leap off that fence and declare Fabius Valens done it, in the barracks, with a sword.
Tacitus’ portrait of Valens’ is not flattering. Marching his troops down from Germany to Italy he threatened to burn down towns unless they paid him much money. If that was in short supply he was prepared to accept women as a substitute. Valens’ greed continued when he reached Rome and he helped himself to “mansions, parks and the riches of Empire.”

He is classic villain material. At least until his death when Tacitus throws us this little tip-bit:
 “During Nero’s reign he appeared on the music-hall stage at the emperor’s coming-of-age-party, ostensibly at imperial command and then voluntarily. In this, he displayed some skill, but little sense of decorum.” 

You what?? This hard nosed, greedy, cruel Roman general of the last several hundred pages was actually quite a good performer on the stage? Did he sing? Did he dance? I NEED more details. Naturally Tacitus the tease supplies none. Leaving us free to imagine Fabius Valens as quite a nifty little dancer. If only he’d stuck with that talent.

Caecina Alienus 

Vitellius’ other general was, as Tacitus tells us:
“Young, good looking, tall and upstanding, as well as possessing inordinate ambition and some skill in words.” 

Given how meanly mouthed Tacitus is in dishing out the compliments I believe from this we can deduce that Caecina was six foot plus of charming man hunk.
Hilariously, after only being posted in Germania for a short while, Caecina went full native and was never seen without a plaid tunic and *shock* trousers. During his march to Italy he manages to upset a previously entirely peaceable Gallic tribe into war and attempts to besiege the town of Plancentia drunk and without any siege equipment (read more about that disaster here in a previous History Girls piece ).
Caecina is a great example of how to manage the trickiness of 69AD politics. He starts off being obstinately for Galba. This steadfast loyalty to the emperor lasts up to the exact moment Galba discovers handsome, young Caecina has been embezzling funds. With a prosecution looming Caecina suddenly discovers that Vitellius would be a much better emperor. After fighting his way down to Italy on behalf of Vitellius and then enjoying all the splendours that are available to the emperor's close aids, Caecina notes that Vespasian is doing better and switches sides again. 

It’s mercenary, it’s self seeking. But it works. Caecina makes it to the end of 69AD. Unlike loyal nimble on his feet Fabius Valens, who does not. 

Sticks and Stones may break my bones

Having discovered that bit too late that 70,000 men are marching towards him, Otho tried everything in his power to induce Vitellius to relinquish his Imperial claim.  Or as Tacitus puts it:
 “ Otho kept up a lively correspondence with Vitellius. His letters were disfigured by alluring and
Otho lets it all hang out. Credit Ricardo André Frantz
unmanly bribes.” 

Vitellius responds in kind with similar bribery.  And with no deal forthcoming the men: “accused each other of debauchery and wickedness,” says Tacitus and concludes “Here at least they were both right.” Tee hee.

“The Vitellians dismissed their opponents as flabby and idle crew of circus-fans and theatregoers.” Ouch. 

The Othonian retaliation is nowhere near as good, the Vitellians are:
 “A lot of foreigners and aliens.” 

The Worst Assassins in the World 

So far in 69AD we have had the worst organised coup in the world which was abandoned due to everyone being too drunk. We’ve had the worst siege in the world, which failed because everyone was too drunk. Now we move onto the worst assassins in the world. Will it be because of booze again?
No, it’s not even that good. Tacitus sets us up for disappointment:
 “ Assassins were were sent by Otho to Germany, and by Vitellius to the capital. Both parties failed to achieve anything.” 

Vitellius’ agents got lost amongst the throngs of Rome and didn’t get anywhere near the Palace. In the close knit quarters of the German legions a sudden influx of fresh faced Italians asking questions were soon detected.  There is something cheerfully familiar about abject failure. We are so used to picturing the Romans as all conquering war machines that I love these stories of incompetence and general crapness.

Domitian Throws A Strop 

Though Vespasian’s forces defeated those of Vitellius’ in December 69AD, the new emperor himself didn’t reach Rome until the following year. Representing the Flavian Dynasty was Vespasian’s 18
Domitian in the Vatican. Credit Steerpike
year old son Domitian, who just happened to be in Rome at the time. He’d been getting on with whatever 18 year olds did in Rome (wrestling, poetry, moping) when his Dad was suddenly declared Emperor. Vitellius ordered him to be placed under house arrest and here he languished until his father’s army reached the city. 
There is quite a story involving a daring escape, a disguise and high drama. But that’s not the story I want to tell. My story is in the latter part of The Histories that deals with the beginnings of the year 70AD – so the year after the year of the four emperors.

The emperor is in the east and two of Vespasian’s generals were battling it out to be top dog of Rome: Muscianus and Antonius Primus. Muscianus is the governor of Syria who first persuaded Vespasian to go for the Emperor-ship in an early case of FOMO. Primus is the general who took Rome from the Vitellians. So they are both well qualified to be running the place until Vespasian gets there.
And the young prince, Domitian? He's not completely ignored. They give him things to do. He gets to address the Senate. He hands out honours and offices. They let him sign things. At a certain point the denarius drops and poor Domitian suddenly gets it:

 “Domitian realized that his elders despised his youthfulness and ceased to discharge even the slightest official duties he had previously undertaken. “ 

In other words he threw a strop and refused to do anything. Presumably hoping that would show Muscianus and Primus that they needed him. They didn’t. Domitian stropped about in the hope that someone would notice his absence, until his father turned up in Rome. And likely clipped him round the ear.

And so there you have it. My favourite bits from The Histories. I could have chosen lots more, maybe that time the Praetorian Guard stormed through an Imperial dinner party or perhaps the Second Battle of Cremona that was fought entirely in the dark or Caecina's daring ambush plan that resulted in him being ambushed. But that's the beauty of that book. Every line is a gem.

L.J. Trafford is the author of The Four Emperors Series set in 69AD.


Sue Bursztynski said...

It’s great to read work by someone who was there or who could speak to someone who was. I’ve read Suetonius, who says his father was around during that year and was with Otho. And he himself has a memory of the time of Domitian, when a 90 year old man was stripped in court to see if he was circumcised(the Jews not being popular with Domitian)lt really comes to life when a writer says, “I remember...” or “My father was there and he said...”

It was a crazy year, that year of four Emperors - I wonder what it was like to be an ordinary Roman in the street. “What, there’s a new Emperor - AGAIN?”

A bi5 like Australia’s frequent changes of Prime Ministers in recent years, although no one actually got his head cut off! 🙂

LJ Trafford said...

There's been a lot of revision of Domitian as an Emperor. Which I do agree with to a point, he isn't a bad emperor as such. But then you read Pliny the Younger's accounts of seeing Domitian lose his temper or the ritual burying of a Vestal. It's terrifying! Pliny and others were terrified and we can't dismiss their first hand experience of the times as mere bias.

Julia Ergane said...

I remember reading the great Roman historians back during my days as a history major. Tacitus and Suetonius were rather close to my heart. And 69CE -- what a year! Such idiocy to detail. The Peter Principle was flourishing in the minds of incompetents. I'm retired now and am thinking about returning to uni for the PhD in Classics.