69 A.D: The Year of Four Emperors

By Gwyn Morgan | Go to book overview

10
End Game
(November and December)

The second half of the campaign that led to the overthrow of Vitellius was marked by three disasters, two major and one minor. The halfhearted attempt by Vespasian's brother, Flavius Sabinus, to carry out a coup in Rome when Vitellius attempted his half-baked abdication led to the destruction of the temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest on the Capitol, the most sacred shrine in the city. Then Vitellius' brother Lucius sacked Tarracina, a small town to the south, when he wiped out a group of renegades acting allegedly on Vespasian's behalf. Finally there was an assault on Rome, which culminated in the storming of the praetorian camp amid another welter of blood and gore. For what happened at Tarracina Lucius Vitellius had to bear the blame. For the two major mishaps Antonius Primus was apparently made the principal scapegoat, on the ground that if he had advanced more speedily, he could have saved Sabinus and averted the need for battles in Rome. Tacitus rejects this interpretation, but once again he does not defend Antonius' conduct. He holds that nobody emerged—or could emerge—from these events creditably.

Whatever faults we find in Tacitus, he remains our best guide to the last two months of Vitellius' reign. By now, Suetonius is so committed to his thesis that Vitellius is doomed that for him the only issue is when and how, not whether Vitellius will fall. And since he focuses so closely on the person of the emperor, he talks almost exclusively of Vitellius' last days. Dio's account need not have taken this line, but it was abridged so brutally by his epitomators that the effect is similar. Their summaries give the impression that Vitellius was doomed, not only because of assorted omens, but also because of his inability to follow a consistent course of action. So Dio's account too presses on to the attempts to abdicate. Tacitus, conversely, recognizes that the sack of Cremona marked a, not the turning point in the campaign. But because he is writing a comprehensive narrative, he treats it as a natural break in the action, and weaves into his account other more or less contemporaneous developments. As it happens, he does not say that much more about Vitellius personally,

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