69 A.D: The Year of Four Emperors

By Gwyn Morgan | Go to book overview
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The Opening of the Flavian Offensive
(August to October)

The campaign conducted by the legions under Antonius Primus' control falls naturally into two parts. Their initial moves, the subject of this chapter, established them firmly in northern Italy with the sack of Cremona, still the enemy's main base in the area. Then came their more dilatory advance south toward Rome, culminating in the killing of Vitellius in late December. For the first stage Dio provides material on a few episodes; Suetonius skips over almost every event between September and November, referring explicitly to the sack of Cremona only in his Life of Vespasian; and Josephus contributes an interesting snippet or two. So Tacitus is our most detailed and our most reliable source. Not that all agree. A discrepancy has been discerned in Tacitus' portrait of Antonius, a more heroic figure allegedly in the first stage of the campaign and in the second more of a villain. This supposed discrepancy in turn has been held to prove that Tacitus failed to combine two sources, one favorable to Antonius (no doubt the memoir by Vipstanus Messalla), and one to Vespasian whose plans Antonius wrecked so comprehensively. If we were to accept this thesis, we could impugn any detail we judged unsatisfactory on any ground and declare Tacitus wholly unreliable. But the thesis itself is misconceived. Tacitus may gloss over some of Antonius' mistakes, but at base he presents us with a man who might show scruples when circumstances permitted, but showed none when they did not.

The uprising against Vitellius started in August among the legions stationed in Moesia, and as Vespasian had hoped, III Gallica took the lead. But VII Claudia and VIII Augusta followed readily, as a result of events in April. As all three units had been gratified by the lavish rewards Otho heaped on them for the defeat of the Rhoxolani, they had obeyed his summons to join him in Italy. But none had advanced beyond Aquileia when they heard of his suicide. Suetonius and Tacitus disagree on what happened next. According to Suetonius' overly condensed and so misleading account, only the advance detachments had reached the town. They took the news badly, “giving way to every form of plundering.” But since they recognized that Vitellius would punish them eventually, they proclaimed


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