Martial Epigrams

Readers and listeners like my books,
Yet a certain poet calls them crude.
What do I care, I serve up food
To please my guests, not fellow cooks.
(Book 9, poem 81)

The first thing you discover in the 1964 Penguin Classics paperback edition of Martial’s epigrams, as translated by James Michie, is that this is very far from being a complete edition, in fact it represents only about ten per cent of Martial’s total output.

Martial biography

Martial’s full name was Marcus Valerius Martialis, the cognomen ‘Martialis’ indicating that he was born in March. He was born about 40 AD in the Roman province of Spain and came to Rome around 63, during the reign of Nero. Here, apparently, rather than embark on the cursus honorem or sequence of recognised public offices (quaestor, praetor, aedile, consul) or undertake a recognised profession such as lawyer and advocate, Martial preferred to live by his wits, making himself a witty entertainer and dinner party companion to rich patrons.

Amazingly, Martial seems to have been able to support himself this way for 35 years until he retired back to Spain about 98. (12.18 is a good-humoured song of praise to the simple life back in his home town far from the rigours of Roman life, apparently addressed to his friend, Juvenal the satirist.)

During all those years Martial was dependent on his wealthy friends and patrons for gifts of money, for his dinner, and even for his dress. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in his earlier career he used to accompany his patrons to their villas at Baiae or Tibur and to attend their morning levées. Later on, he owned a own small country house near Nomentum, and sent a poem, or a small volume of his poems, as his representative to the morning levée. He cultivated patrons far and wide and was especially proud at being invited to dinner with Domitian.

And yet, God, it was a shabby, humiliating and tiring sort of life, as his later poems convey:

Have mercy on me, Rome, a hired
Flatterer desperately tired of flattery…
(10.74)

Martial is best known for his twelve books of epigrams, published in Rome between 86 and 103, during the reigns of the emperors Domitian (81 to 96), Nerva (96 to 98) and Trajan (98 to 117). Martial wrote a rather terrifying total of 1,561 epigrams, of which 1,235 are in elegiac couplets. This Penguin selection contains only about 150 of them. A notable feature of the Penguin edition is that it contains the Latin original next to Michie’s translation of it (although this seems to be standard practice; the much more recent Oxford University Press selection does the same).

What is an epigram?

“An epigram is a short, pithy saying, usually in verse, often with a quick, satirical twist at the end. The subject is usually a single thought or event.” (Academy of American Poets)

It derives from the Greek epigraphein, meaning ‘to write on, to inscribe’ and originally referred to the inscriptions written on stone monuments in ancient Greece. Slowly the term became separated from the act of inscription and by 300 BC referred to any brief, pointed poem, generally about or addressed to someone.

In his 1,500 epigrams Martial is widely agreed to have taken the form to its highest point and every proponent of the epigram for the following 2,000 years to some extent echoes or copies him.

Two texts preface the selection, a 2-page translator’s note by James Michie and an 8-page introduction by scholar Peter Howell.

Translator’s note

In his translator’s note, Michie says the selection is not intended as ‘Martial’s greatest hits’. Rather, the entries were selected to demonstrate Martial’s variety. The texts of the twelve books of epigrams which have come down to us were not arranged logically or thematically, but to ‘reflect the odd juxtapositions of life itself’.

Thus a scatological squib is followed by a deeply felt epitaph (for his 6-year-old slave, Erotion mentioned twice, in 5.34 and 10.61; for the dexterous slave boy Pantagathus, 6.52; or for Pompey the Great, 5.74); contrived panegyrics to Domitian (for liking his poems 4.8; for having impressive fish 4.30; for widening Rome’s roads, 7.61) next to scabrous abuse of someone with bad breath (1.87); a pornographic poem about buggery (1.46) next to a poem lamenting the fickle condition of the dinner party hanger-on (2.27); extended descriptions of a country house (4.64) next to a vivid description of a sumptuous dinner (5.78); corruption at the chariot races (6.46) next to comic behaviour at a slave auction (6.66); insults to a rival poet (7.3) next to a jokey profile of a woman who seems doomed to marry only effeminate men (7.58); a bitter complaint against a noisy schoolmaster whose shouts wake him up early (school lessons started at dawn; 9.68) next to a shrewd criticism of a friend who’s always complaining the world is going to hell (9.70); a fond poem to a friend who’s mean and stingy but makes up for it by being a wonderful farter (10.15) next to the anecdote of the retired boatman who used his boat, filled with rocks, to plug a gap in the Tiber banks (10.85); a comic portrait of the superthief Hermogenes (12.28) next to a short but heartfelt summary of the Good Life (10.47). Variety.

There are a lot of poems about heirs and hangers-on waiting for the elderly to snuff it so they can inherit their money, a lot of anxiety about who cranky old people are favouring in their wills that’s reminiscent of Dickens:

If you were wise as well as rich and sickly
You’d see that every gift means, ‘Please die quickly!’
(8.27)

Or:

She longs for me to ‘have and hold’ her
In marriage. I’ve no mind to.
She’s old. If she were even older,
I might be half inclined to.
(10.8)

(In his fascinating introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Juvenal’s satires, Peter Green says this was an obsessive subject for authors of this generation. Professional legacy hunters were called captatores and he reminds me that an entire chapter of Petronius’s Satyricon describes a visit to a town entirely populated by legacy hunters.)

There’s a recurring theme criticising the kind of affected connoisseur who dismisses the moderns and only values ‘the Classics’, a type the elegiac poets also despised:

Rigidly classical, you save
Your praise for poets in the grave.
Forgive me, it’s not worth my while
Dying to earn your critical smile.
(8.69)

Michie devotes half his note to an impressionistic prose summary of the cumulative portrait of late-first century Roman locations and people which Martial’s epigrams depict, the Rome of:

shops, amphitheatres, law courts, lavatories, temples, schools, tenements, gardens, taverns, and public baths, its dusty of muddy streets filled with traffic, religious processions, , and never-ending business, its slaves, millionaires, prostitutes, philosophers, quacks, bores, touts, dinner-cadgers, fortune-hunters, poetasters, politicians and layabouts. (Introduction, page 9)

Michie makes the point that the epigrammatist, rather like the satirist, has to pretend to be angry and full of bile, but that a cumulative reading of Martial makes you suspect this was just a pose – or the kind of sentiment appropriate to the genre. For, as you work through these scores of short sharp vignettes, what actually comes over is Martial’s ‘great capacity for fun and for friendship, and an evergreen curiosity about people’.

Michie doesn’t mention Chaucer, but Martial shares Chaucer’s fascination with the huge diversity of real people of his time, their names and occupations, and shapes and sizes and ages and habits and mannerisms and verbal tics and sex lives and businesses. Thus a poem about typical scenes through the hours of the day:

The first two hours of the morning tax
Poor clients; during the third advocates wax
Eloquent and hoarse; until the fifth hour ends
The city to her various trades attends;
At six o’clock the weary workers stop
For the siesta; all Rome shuts up shop
At seven; the hour from eight to nine supplies
The oiled wrestlers with their exercise;
The ninth invites us to recline full length,
Denting the cushions. At last comes the tenth…
(Book 4, poem 8)

Michie also doesn’t mention Baudelaire, but you could draw the comparison between the French poet’s fascination with the endlessly teeming life of Paris, and Martial’s endless snapshots of life in what was, at the time, the biggest city in the world, with its extremes of poverty and luxury, power and enslavements, stinks and smells and endlessly fascinating inhabitants. Maybe the thronged novels of Balzac are a better comparison and, in England, Dickens.

Introduction

The introduction is written by historian and editor of Martial, Peter Howell, who makes a number of points:

Spanish writers

Martial was one of a generation of talented writers who hailed from the fully Romanised province of Hispania, which included Seneca the Elder and Younger; the latter’s nephew, Lucan; Quintilian; and Columella.

A career choice

In their writings both Martial and Juvenal give the impression that they were forced by a social system which made if impossible for middle-class, well-educated men to earn a living by respectable means to become the hangers-on and flatterers of the rich, living from hand to mouth. But this was largely false. Friends urged Martial to take up the law or stand for public office, but he turned down both options.

Patrons and clients

The relation of patron and client evolved during the history of Rome. At the beginning it meant the relationship between a full Roman citizen and foreigners who wanted favours done for them within the legal and political system. By Martial’s time a wealthy, well-connected patron prided himself on having large numbers of dependents, clients or hangers-on. The client acquired protection (for example, from lawsuits) and welfare (most often in the form of being invited to lavish dinners) but in return the patron claimed the client’s support, in law courts, at election time, at social events, and their general flattery at all times:

Labullus, I court you,
I escort you, I support you
By lending an ear to your chatter,
And everything you say or do I flatter…
(11.24)

Clients were expected to be at their patron’s house early in the morning to greet them, then accompany them on their day of social duties, at the end of the day receiving maybe a little cash, preferably an invite to dinner. (See poem 2.27 quoted below.)

Hence the many poems Martial writes about the lamentable plight of the humiliated client and the expressions ‘parasite’, ‘dinner cadger’ and ‘hanger-on’ which Michie uses to describe this social type, known in Latin (and in Roman theatre) as the parasitus.

For hours, for a whole day, he’ll sit
On every public toilet seat.
It’s not because he needs a shit:
He wants to be asked out to eat.
(11.77)

The parasite as poet

Martial was a cut above the average parasitus because he quite early became famous as a poet. The earliest surviving work of his is called Liber Spectaculorum, written to celebrate the opening of the Flavian amphitheatre (what came to be called the Colosseum) in 80 AD. But it was the terse, witty epigrams which he appeared to be able to knock out at will, many either flattering a specific client or appealing to their sense of humour, which kept him in free dinners for 35 years.

How Roman authors made money

A Roman author didn’t make money by selling copies of a work. Copies had to be written out by hand and so remained limited in number. Instead there appear to have been two sources of income for an author:

  1. Dedicate your work to a patron who would respond in kind with gifts – the ultimate patron being the emperor, the classic example being Augustus who worked through his minister, Maecenas, to give both Virgil and Horace gifts of property, land and slaves which made them comfortable for life.
  2. It seems that some notable ‘publishers’ would pay an author for the privilege of having first dibs at copying a work they estimated would be popular and which they could guarantee selling copies of.

Thus by the time he came to publish what is conventionally known as Epigrams Book 1, in about 85, Martial must have been writing poetry for about 20 years and so is able to refer to himself as well known, even if all the other works he was known for, appear to have disappeared.

A Roman book

When all these authors refer to what is translated into English as ‘a book’, they mean a cylindrical roll of papyrus whose ends were often smoothed with pumice-stone and the whole roll wrapped in vellum (note, page 192). The wooden stave round which the papyrus was wrapped often had carved knobs at each end to secure the roll and make it easier to handle. The back of the papyrus was dyed yellow with cedar oil to preserve it from mould and moths (note, page 196). According to poem 1.117 a ‘book’ of Martial’s cost 5 dinarii.

Reasons for Martial’s popularity

Most contemporary poetry was long and long-winded, written about stock mythological subjects in elaborate and stylised verse. Thus Virgil’s Aeneid gave rise to poets who tried to ape his success with long epics such as Valerius Flaccus, Statius and Silius Italicus.

By contrast Martial developed a form which was not just short but very short, but which managed to create drama in a very small number of lines (sometimes as few as two lines). Despite their shortness the epigrams, when collected into books, were arranged to offer a pleasing sense of variety and range.

Martial’s epigrams are sometimes contrived in the sense of carefully structured to make a joke or damning point; but never contrived in the sense of striving to be grand and pompous. They are never pretentious.

No real people are skewered

The short poems of Catullus are packed with gleeful abuse of real individuals. The satires of his friend and contemporary, Juvenal, very much flay real life individuals, albeit under pseudonyms. But Martial, scathing though some of them may be, categorically states that he has not satirised any real people, even under fictitious names. Hence the large number of characters in the poem named Flaccus and Labulla and Lesbia and Cinna and Galla and Postumus. They’re just bland common names used as pegs for the jokes.

Obscenity

Many of the poems are what used to be called ‘obscene’ and still was at the date of this translation (1964). In one of the first poems he uses the same argument that Catullus and Ovid had, namely that although his verse may be pornographic his life is pure.

Roman sexual attitudes

The attitude towards sex that emerges from Martial is one of cheerful permissiveness but not wild and orgiastic promiscuousness. (Introduction, p.16)

Sex is acceptable (unlike in, say, Victorian England) and prostitution is widespread. Adultery is theoretically forbidden but in practice also widespread. Homosexuality and bisexuality are regarded as natural, especially with teenage boys. The active role in male gay sex was through acceptable but for an adult man to take the passive role was more shameful. Poem 12.75 is an amusing squib listing all the types of gay boys he’d prefer to ‘some bitch/Who’d make me miserably rich’ (12.75). The poem about the woman who weighs men’s penises erect and flaccid (10.55) is amusing but the long one complaining that his ‘wife’ isn’t sexually adventurous enough is genuinely funny because so outrageous (11.104).

Domitian

Howell entertainingly speaks up for the emperor Domitian (reigned 81 to 96). He says that Domitian had (as of 1964) the reputation of a Hitler (!) but claims this is the result of the works of Tacitus, Juvenal and ‘other biased writers’. Apart from his paranoid vendetta against the senatorial class (which Tacitus and Juvenal and the other biased writers wrote for) Howell claims Domitian’s rule was for everyone else ‘calm and prosperous, marked by beneficial social and moral legislation’ (p.16).

But Domitian liked Martial and awarded him the privileges of a father of 3 children although Martial was never, as far as we know, actually married and had no children. Hence Martial’s numerous poems sucking up to Domitian (as Virgil and Horace and Ovid shamelessly sucked up to Augustus) (I especially like the panegyric to the imperial fish, 4.30); although Howell disapproves of how, following Domitian’s assassination in 96, Martial quickly knocked off poems saying he’d never liked him anyway and praising the new regime.

Rhyming couplets

The great majority of Martial’s poems were written in elegiac couplets, one hexameter followed by a pentameter, such as we’ve encountered in all the elegiac poets (Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid). The most important single thing about Michie’s translation is he chooses to translate every poem he selects into rhyming couplets, quatrains or other rhyming forms. The precise metre varies from poem to poem, but pretty much all of them rhyme.

It’s a bold decision. It aligns Michie’s versions with the rhyming couplets of the Augustan Age of English verse, very roughly from the 1680s to the 1750s. On the upside rhyme in English poetry creates opportunity for humour and often prompts the author to ingeniously amusing collocations. Rhyme is associated with limericks and light verse of all types. On the down side, ‘serious’ modern poetry abandoned rhyme around the time of the First World War so the solid use of rhyme for all the translations signals and lack of…a lack of seriousness or depth, which, from what both Howell and Miche say about Martial, is maybe not appropriate in every instance.

The epigrams

There are all kinds of ways of grouping and categorising them, starting with the 12 books which Martial himself used as a structuring device. Very broadly there are two types of Martial epigram – ones you ‘get’, which have an appealing twist or sting or point which you can understand; and those which don’t have such an obvious payoff, which presumably made sense in their time but seem flat or pointless or even incomprehensible to us today, even with extensive notes. If a joke needs extensive notes to explain it, it isn’t a very good joke.

Themes

The poet as celebrity and showman

May I present myself – the man
You read, admire and long to meet,
Known the world over for his neat
And witty epigrams? The name
Is Martial. Thank you, earnest fan,
For having granted me the fame
Seldom enjoyed by a dead poet
While I’m alive and here to know it.
(Book 1, poem 1)

Insufferable amateur poets

Whether or not Apollo fled from the table
Thyestes ate his sons at, I’m unable
To say: what I can vouch for is our wish
To escape your dinner parties. Though each dish
Is lavish and superb, the pleasure’s nil
Since you recite your poems! To hell with brill,
Mushrooms and two-pound turbots, I don’t need
Oysters: give me a host who doesn’t read.
(3.45)

To Domitian, pleading his moral probity

Caesar, if you should chance to handle my book,
I hope that you’ll relax the frowning look
That rules the world. Soldiers are free to mock
The triumphs of you emperors – there’s no shame
In a general being made a laughing-stock.
I beg you, read my verses with the same
Face as you watch Latinus on the stage
Or Thymele the dancer. Harmless wit
You may, as Censor, reasonably permit:
My life is strict, however lax my page.
(1.4)

Heterosexual sex

Lesbia, why are your amours
Always conducted behind open, unguarded doors?
Why do you get more excitement out of a voyeur than a lover?
Why is pleasure no pleasure when it’s under cover?
Whores us a curtain, a bolt or a porter
To bar the public – you won’t find many chinks in the red-light quarter.
Ask Chione or Ias how to behave:
Even the cheapest tart conceals her business inside a monumental grave.
If I seem too hard on you, remember my objection
Is not to fornication, but to detection.
(1.34)

inside a monumental grave‘?

Gay sex

think what’s going on is the narrator is buggering a boy who, as a result, is on the edge of orgasm. I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve misunderstood.

When you say, ‘Quick, I’m going to come,’
Hedylus, I go limp and numb.
But ask me to hold back my fire,
And the brake accelerates desire.
Dear boy, if you’re in such a hurry,
Tell me to slow up, not to worry.
(1.46)

Slave or paedophile sex

The eroticism of being blocked or prevented is taken a step further in this poem:

The only kisses I enjoy
Are those I take by violence, boy.
Your anger whets my appetite
More than your face, and so to excite
Desire I give you a good beating
From time to time: a self-defeating
Habit – what do I do it for?
You neither fear nor love me more.
(5.46)

Heterosexual smears

Lesbia claims she’s never laid
Without good money being paid.
That’s true enough; when she’s on fire
She’ll always pay the hose’s hire.
(11.62)

Thumbnail sketches

Diaulus, recently physician,
Has set up now as a mortician:
No change, though, in his clients’ condition.
(1.47)

Or:

You’re an informer and a tool for slander,
A notorious swindler and a pander,
A cocksucker, gangster and a whore…
So how is it, Vacerra, you’re so poor?
(11.66)

Chaucerian physicality

Hoping, Fescennia, to overpower
The reek of last night’s drinking, you devour
Cosmus’ sweet-scented pastilles by the gross.
But though they give your teeth a whitish gloss
They fail to make your breath any less smelly
When a belch bubbles up from your abyss-like belly.
In fact, blended with the lozenges, it’s much stronger;
It travels farther and it lingers longer.
(1.87)

His cheap lodgings in a block of flats

Lupercus, whenever you meet me
You instantly greet me
With, ‘Is it alright by you if I send
My slave to pick up your book of epigrams? It’s only to lend:
I’ll return it when I’ve read it.’ There’s no call
To trouble your boy. It’s a long haul
To the Pear-tree district, and my flat
Is up three flights of stairs, steep ones at that…
(1.117)

Behaviour of a hanger-on and dinner cadger

When Selius spreads his nets for an invitation
To dinner, if you’re due to plead a cause
In court or give a poetry recitation,
Take him along, he’ll furnish your applause:
‘Well said!’ ‘Hear, hear!’ ‘Bravo!’ ‘Shrewd point!’ ‘That’s good!’
Till you say, ‘Shut up now, you’ve earned your food.’
(2.27)

Or this poem about not only being a client, but being a client’s client.

I angle for your dinner invitations (oh the shame
Of doing it, but I do it). You fish elsewhere. We’re the same.
I attend the morning levée and they tell me you’re not there,
But gone to wait on someone else. We make a proper pair.
I’m your spaniel, I’m the toady to your every pompous whim.
You court a richer patron. I dog you and you dog him.
To be a slave is bad enough but I refuse to be
A flunkey’s flunkey, Maximum. My master must be free.
(2.18)

Miniatures of abuse

You ask me what I get
Out of my country place.
The profit, gross or net,
Is never having to see your face.
(2.38)

And:

Marius’s earhole smells.
Does that surprise you, Nestor?
The scandal that you tell’s
Enough to make it fester.
(3.28)

Crude humour

If from the baths you hear a round of applause
Maron’s giant prick is bound to be the cause.
(9.33)

Or:

Why poke the ash of a dead fire?
Why pluck the hairs from your grey fanny?
That’s a chic touch that men admire
In girls, not in a flagrant granny…
(10.90)

Sarcasm about his readers

Caedicianus, if my reader
After a hundred epigrams still
Wants more, then he’s a greedy feeder
Whom no amount of swill can fill.
(1.118)

Self portrait in retirement

Poor morning client (you remind me
Of all I loathed and left behind me
In Rome), if you had any nous,
Instead of calling on my house
You’d haunt the mansions of the great.

I’m not some wealthy advocate
Blessed with a sharp, litigious tongue,
I’m just a lazy, far from young
Friend of the Muses who likes ease
And sleep. Great Rome denied me these:
If I can’t find them here in Spain,
I might as well go back again.
(12.68)


Credit

The Epigrams of Martial, translated by James Michie with an introduction by Peter Howell, was published by Penguin Books in 1973.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Life of Domitian by Suetonius

A sub-edited version of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation of Suetonius’s Life of Domitian by J.C. Rolfe, with comments and clarifications.

Summary of Domitian’s life (from Wikipedia)

Domitianus (Domitian) lived from 51 to 96 AD and reigned as Roman emperor from 81 to 96. The son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, his two predecessors on the throne, he was the third and final member of the Flavian dynasty. Domitian’s authoritarian style of ruling put him at odds with the senate, whose powers he drastically curtailed.

Domitian had an early moment of prominence in the Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, aged just 18, after Vitellius was assassinated and before Vespasian arrived in Rome to take power, when he was acclaimed ‘Caesar’ and nominally ran the government. Once Vespasian arrived in Rome and was enthroned, though, Domitian reverted to playing a minor and largely ceremonial role during the reigns of his father and brother.

After Titus died on 13 September 81, Domitian was declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard. His 15-year reign was to be the longest since that of Tiberius. As emperor, Domitian:

  • strengthened the economy by revaluing the Roman coinage
  • expanded the border defences of the empire
  • initiated a massive building program to restore the damaged city of Rome

Significant wars were fought in Britain, where his general Agricola attempted to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, where Domitian was unable to secure a decisive victory against King Decebalus.

Domitian’s government exhibited strong authoritarian characteristics. Religious, military, and cultural propaganda fostered a cult of personality. He nominated himself perpetual censor in an effort to control public and private morals.

As a result Domitian was popular with the people and the army but considered a tyrant by members of the senate. Domitian’s reign came to an end in 96 when he was assassinated by court officials. He was succeeded the same day by his advisor, Nerva.

After his death Domitian’s memory was condemned to oblivion by the Senate while senatorial and equestrian authors such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Suetonius propagated the view of Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. The later part of his rule was regularly described as a ‘tyranny’. (In the Penguin translation of the Epigrams of Martial, Peter Howell says that in his day, 1964, Domitian had a reputation little short of Hitler’s for evil tyranny.)

Modern revisionists have characterised Domitian as a ruthless but efficient autocrat whose cultural, economic and political programs laid the foundation of the peaceful second century.

The Life of Domitian by Suetonius

(1) Domitian was born on the ninth day before the Kalends of November [24 October] of the year when his father was consul elect and was about to enter on the office in the following month [51 AD] in a street of the sixth region called ‘the Pomegranate’, in a house which he afterwards converted into a temple of the Flavian family.

Domitian is said to have passed the period of his boyhood and early youth in great poverty and infamy for it is said that he did not possess a single piece of plate.

It is a well-known fact that Claudius Pollio, a man of praetorian rank, against whom Nero’s poem ‘The One-eyed Man’ is directed, preserved a letter in Domitian’s handwriting and sometimes exhibited it, in which the future emperor promised him an assignation [i.e. sex]. And some people claim that Domitian was also debauched [i.e. abused] by Nerva, who succeeded him.

In the war with Vitellius Domitian took refuge in the Capitol with his paternal uncle, Sabinus, and a part of the forces under him. When Vitellius’s forces stormed the hill and the temple of Jupiter was set alight, Domitian hid during the night with the guardian of the shrine. In the morning, disguised in the tunic of a follower of Isis​ and mingling with the priests of that fickle superstition, he went across the Tiber with a single companion to the mother of one of his school-fellows. There he was so effectually concealed that, although he was closely followed he could not be found, in spite of a thorough search. [For more on this episode, see Tacitus’s Histories.]

It was only after the Flavian forces took Rome that Domitian ventured out. After being hailed as ‘Caesar’,​ he assumed the office of city praetor with consular powers, but only in name, turning over all the judicial business to his next colleague.

Domitian exercised all the tyranny of his high position​ (i.e. son of the emperor) so lawlessly that it was even then apparent what sort of a man he was going to be. For example, after making free with the wives of many men, he went so far as to marry Domitia Longina who was the wife of Aelius Lamia. And in a single day he assigned more than twenty positions in the city and in the provinces, which led Vespasian to say more than once that he was surprised that his son did not appoint the emperor’s successor along with the rest.

(2) Domitian began an expedition against Gaul and the Germanies which was uncalled for and from which his father’s friends dissuaded him, simply to make himself equal to his brother Titus in power and rank. For this he was reprimanded and, to give him a better realisation of his youth​ (aged 18) and position, he was made to live with his father. When they appeared in public Domitian followed the emperor’s chair and that of his brother in a litter. He also attended their triumph over Judaea riding on a white horse. Of his six consul­ships before he became emperor only one was a regular one,​ and he obtained that only because his brother gave place to him and recommended his appointment.

Domitian made a pretence of modesty and especially of an interest in poetry, an art which had previously been as unfamiliar to him as it was later despised and rejected, and he even gave readings in public.

Yet in spite of all this, when Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, had asked for auxiliaries against the Alani and for one of Vespasian’s sons as their leader, Domitian made every effort to have himself sent rather than Titus and, when the affair came to nothing, he tried by gifts and promises to induce other eastern kings to make the same request.

On the death of his father and his older brother, Titus, succeeding, Domitian hesitated for some time whether to offer a largess​ to the soldiers twice as large as the one his brother gave. He often said that he had been left a partner in the imperial power [i.e. alongside his brother] but that the will had been tampered with.​

And from that time on he never ceased to plot against his brother secretly and openly, until Titus was seized with a dangerous illness whereupon Domitian ordered that he be left for dead before he had actually drawn his last breath. And after Titus’s death Domitian bestowed no honour upon him, save that of deification, and he often attacked his memory in ambiguous phrases, both in his speeches and in his edicts.

(3) At the beginning of his reign Domitian used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly-sharpened stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Caesar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply, ‘Not even a fly.’

He had his wife Domitia honoured with the title ‘Augusta’. He had had a son by her in his second consulship, whom he lost the second year after he became emperor. He divorced her because of her love for the actor, Paris, but could not bear the separation and soon took her back, alleging that the people demanded it. [It was for lampooning this actor, Paris, that the satirist Juvenal was, according to some biographies, exiled to Egypt.]

In his administration of the government Domitian for some time showed himself inconsistent, with about an equal number of virtues and vices, but eventually he turned the virtues into vices. For so far as one may guess, it was contrary to his natural disposition​ but he was made rapacious through need and cruel through fear.

(4) Domitian constantly gave grand costly entertainments, both in the amphitheatre​ and in the Circus, where in addition to the usual races between two-horse and four-horse chariots, he also exhibited two battles, one between forces of infantry and the other by horsemen, and he even gave a naval battle in the amphitheatre.

As well as these, he gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well. He was always present, too, at the games given by the quaestors, which he revived after they had been abandoned for some time, and invariably granted the people the privilege of calling for two pairs of gladiators from his own school, and brought them in last, in all the splendour of the court.

During the whole of every gladiatorial show there always stood at his feet a small boy clad in scarlet, with an abnormally small head, with whom he used to talk a great deal, and sometimes seriously. At any rate, he was overheard to ask him if he knew why he had decided at the last appointment day to make Mettius Rufus prefect of Egypt.

He often gave sea-fights almost with regular fleets, having dug a lake near the Tiber and surrounded it with seats. He continued to witness the contests even in heavy rains.

Domitian also celebrated the Secular games reckoning the time, not according to the year when Claudius had last given them, but by the previous calculation of Augustus. In the course of these, to make it possible to finish a hundred races on the day of contests in the Circus, he diminished the number of laps from seven to five.

Domitian also established a quinquennial contest in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus of a threefold character, comprising music, riding, and gymnastics, and with considerably more prizes than are awarded nowadays. For there were competitions in prose declamation​ both in Greek and in Latin, between lyre-players, between choruses of such players and in the lyre alone without singing. In the stadium there were races even between women.

Domitian presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. By his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales (established for the worship of the deified Flavian emperors) similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.

Domitian celebrated the Quinquatria​ every year in honour of Minerva at his Alban villa, and established for her a college of priests, from which men were chosen by lot to act as officers and give splendid shows of wild beasts and stage plays, besides holding contests in oratory and poetry.

Domitian made a present to the people of three hundred sesterces each on three occasions, and in the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills gave a plenti­ful banquet, distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate and knights and smaller ones to the commons, and he himself was the first to begin to eat. On the following day he scattered gifts of all sorts of things​ to be scrambled for, and since the greater part of these fell where the people sat, he had five hundred tickets thrown into each section occupied by the senatorial and equestrian orders.

(5) Domitian restored many splendid buildings which had been destroyed by fire, among them the Capitolium, which had again been burned [rebuilt after having been burned down in 69, the Capitoline temple was again burned down in 80]. In all cases he gave the new buildings the inscription of his own name only, with no mention of the original builder.

He also built a new temple on the Capitoline hill in honour of Jupiter Custos and the forum which now bears the name of Nerva [who finished and dedicated it]. He had built a temple to the Flavian family, a stadium, an Odeum [or music hall] and a pool for sea-fights.​ From the stone used in this last the Circus Maximus was afterwards rebuilt, when both sides of it had been destroyed by fire.

(6) Domitian’s campaigns he undertook partly without provocation and partly of necessity. That against the Chatti was uncalled for, while the one against the Sarmatians was justified by the destruction of a legion with its commander. He made two against the Dacians, the first when Oppius Sabinus an ex-consul was defeated, and the second on the overthrow of Cornelius Fuscus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, to whom he had entrusted the conduct of the war. After several battles of varying success he celebrated a double triumph over the Chatti and the Dacians.​ [Tacitus says that Domitian’s unjustified triumph over the Germans (and the Dacians) was a laughing-stock; Agricola, chapter 39.] His victories over the Sarmatians he commemorated merely by the offering of a laurel crown to Jupiter of the Capitol.

A civil war which was set on foot by Lucius Antonius, governor of Upper Germany, was put down in the emperor’s absence by a remarkable stroke of good fortune; for at the very hour of battle the Rhine suddenly thawed and prevented his barbarian allies from crossing over to Antonius. Domitian learned of this victory through omens before he actually had news of it, for on the very day when the decisive battle was fought a magnificent eagle enfolded his statue at Rome with its wings, uttering exultant shrieks. Soon afterwards the report of Antony’s death became so current that several went so far as to claim that they had seen his head brought to Rome.

(7) Domitian made many innovations in common customs. He abolished the distribution of food to the people​ and revived the custom of holding formal dinners.​ He added two factions of drivers in the Circus, with gold and purple as their colours, to the four former ones.​ He forbade the appearance of actors on the stage, but allowed the practice of their art in private houses. He prohibited the castration of males, and kept down the price of the eunuchs that remained in the hands of the slave dealers.

Once, upon the occasion of a plenti­ful wine crop attended with a scarcity of grain, thinking that the fields were neglected through too much attention to the vineyards, he made an edict forbidding anyone to plant more vines in Italy and ordering that the vineyards in the provinces be cut down, or that only half of them should be left standing; but he did not persist in carrying out the measure.​

Domitian opened some of the most important offices of the court​ [i.e. those that had formerly been restricted to the senatorial order] to freedmen and Roman knights.

He prohibited the uniting of two legions in one camp and the deposit of more than 1,000 sesterces by any one soldier at headquarters because it was clear that Lucius Antonius had been especially led to attempt a revolution by the amount of such deposits in the combined winter quarters of two legions.

He increased the pay of the soldiers one fourth, by the addition of three gold pieces each year [i.e. raised the amount from nine to twelve aurei: an aureus contained 100 sesterces.]

(8) Domitian administered justice scrupulously and conscientiously, frequently holding special sittings on the tribunal in the Forum. He rescinded such decisions of the Hundred Judges as were made from interested motives [i.e. to curry favour with the rich or powerful]. He often warned the arbiters​ not to grant claims for freedom made under false pretences. He degraded jurors who accepted bribes, together with all their associates.​

He also induced the tribunes of the commons to prosecute a corrupt aedile for extortion, and to ask the senate to appoint jurors in the case. He took such care to exercise restraint over the city officials and the governors of the provinces, that at no time were they more honest or just, whereas after his time we have seen many of them charged with all manner of offences.

In his role as censor he undertook the correction of public morals. He:

  • put an end to the licence at the theatres, where the general public occupied the seats reserved for the knights
  • did away with the prevailing publication of scurrilous lampoons in which distinguished men and women were attacked, and imposed ignominious penalties on their authors
  • expelled an ex-quaestor from the senate because he was given to acting and dancing
  • deprived notorious women of the use of litters, as well as of the right to receive inheritances and legacies
  • struck the name of a Roman knight from the list of jurors because he had taken back his wife after divorcing her and charging her with adultery
  • condemned several men of both orders, offenders against the Scantinian law
  • the incest of Vestal virgins, condoned even by his father and his brother, he punished severely in divers ways, at first by capital punishment and afterwards in the ancient fashion

For while Domitian allowed the sisters Oculata and Varronilla free choice of the manner of their death and banished their lovers, he later ordered that Cornelia, a chief-vestal who had been acquitted once but after a long interval again arraigned and found guilty, be buried alive and her lovers were beaten to death with rods in the Comitium – with the exception of an ex-praetor whom he allowed to go into exile, because he admitted his guilt while the case was still unsettled and the examination and torture of the witnesses had led to no result.

To protect the gods from being dishonoured with impunity by any sacrilege, Domitian caused a tomb which one of his freedmen had built for his son from stones intended for the temple of Jupiter of the Capitol to be destroyed by the soldiers and the bones and ashes contained in it thrown into the sea.

(9) In the earlier part of his reign Domitian so shrank from any form of bloodshed that while his father was still absent from the city, he planned to issue an edict that no oxen should be offered up, recalling the line of Virgil:

‘Ever yet an impious race did slay and feast upon bullocks.’

He was equally free from any suspicion of love of gain or of avarice, both in private life and for some time after becoming emperor. On the contrary, he often gave strong proofs not merely of integrity, but even of liberality.

He treated all his intimates most generously and there was nothing which he urged them more frequently, or with greater insistence, than that they should be niggardly in none of their acts. He would not accept inheritances left him by those who had children. He even annulled a legacy in the will of Rustus Caepio, who had provided that his heir should yearly pay a specified sum to each of the senators on his entrance into the House.​

He cancelled the suits against those who had been posted as debtors to the public treasury for more than five years and would not allow a renewal except within a year and on the condition that an accuser who did not win his suit should be punished with exile.

Scribes of the quaestors who carried on business, which had become usual although contrary to the Clodian law,​ he pardoned for past offences.

Parcels of land which were left unoccupied here and there after the assignment of lands to the veterans he granted to their former owners as by right of possession. He checked false accusations designed for the profit of the privy purse​ and inflicted severe penalties on offenders, and a saying of his was current, that an emperor who does not punish informers hounds them on.

(10) But Domitian did not continue this course of mercy or integrity, although he turned to cruelty somewhat more speedily than to avarice. He put to death a pupil of the pantomimic actor Paris, who was still a beardless boy and ill at the time, because in his skill and his appearance he seemed not unlike his master [who he had had executed for having an affair with his wife].

He executed Hermogenes of Tarsus because of some allusions in his History, besides crucifying even the slaves who had written it out.

A householder who said that a Thracian gladiator was a match for the murmillo, but not for the giver of the games,​ he caused to be dragged from his seat and thrown into the arena to dogs, with this placard: ‘A favourer of the Thracians who spoke impiously.’

Domitian put to death many senators, among them several ex-consuls, including Civica Cerealis, at the very time when he was proconsul in Asia; Salvidienus Orfitus; Acilius Glabrio while he was in exile — these on the ground of plotting revolution, the rest on any charge, however trivial.

He slew Aelius Lamia for joking remarks, which were reflections on him, it is true, but made long before and harmless. For when Domitian had taken away Lamia’s wife,​ the latter replied to someone who praised his voice: ‘I practise continence’, and when Titus urged him to marry again, he replied: ‘Are you too looking for a wife?’

He put to death:

  • Salvius Cocceianus because he had kept the birthday of the emperor Otho, his paternal uncle
  • Mettius Pompusianus because it was commonly reported that he had an imperial nativity and carried about a map of the world on parchment and speeches of the kings and generals from Titus Livius, besides giving two of his slaves the names of Mago and Hannibal
  • Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, for allowing some lances of a new pattern to be named ‘Lucullean’ after his own name
  • Junius Rusticus because he had published eulogies of Paetus Thrasea and Helvidius Priscus and called them the most upright of men – and on the occasion of this charge he banished all the philosophers from the city and from Italy

He also executed the younger Helvidius, alleging that in a farce composed for the stage he had under the characters of Paris and Oenone censured Domitian’s divorce from his wife. He executed Flavius Sabinus, too, one of his cousins, because on the day of the consular elections the crier had inadvertently announced him to the people as emperor elect, instead of consul.

After his victory in the civil war Domitian became even more cruel and to discover any conspirators who were in hiding, tortured many of the opposite party by a new form of inquisition, inserting fire in their privates, and he cut off the hands of some of them.

Of the more conspicuous only two were pardoned, a tribune of senatorial rank and a centurion, who the more clearly to prove their freedom from guilt, showed that they were of shameless unchastity and could therefore have had no influence with the general or with the soldiers.

(11) Domitian’s savage cruelty was not only excessive, but also cunning and sudden. He invited one of his stewards to his bed-chamber the day before crucifying him, made him sit beside him on his couch, and dismissed him in a secure and gay frame of mind, even deigning to send him a share of his dinner.

When he was on the point of condemning the ex-consul Arrecinius Clemens, one of his intimates and tools, he treated him with as great favour as before, if not greater, and finally, as he was taking a drive with him, catching sight of his accuser he said: ‘Pray, shall we hear this base slave to‑morrow?’

To abuse men’s patience the more insolently, he never pronounced an unusually dreadful sentence without a preliminary declaration of clemency, so that there came to be no more certain indication of a cruel death than the leniency of his preamble.

Domitian had brought some men charged with treason into the senate and when he had introduced the matter by saying that he would find out that day how dear he was to the members, he had no difficulty in causing them to be condemned to suffer the ancient method of punishment.​ Then, appalled at the cruelty of the penalty, he interposed a veto, to lessen the odium, in these words (for it will be of interest to know his exact language): ‘Allow me, Fathers of the senate, to prevail on you by your love for me to grant a favour which I know I shall obtain with difficulty, namely that you allow the condemned men free choice of the manner of their death; for thus you will spare your own eyes and all men will know that I was present at the meeting of the senate.’

(12) Reduced to financial straits by the cost of his buildings and shows, as well as by the additions which he had made to the pay of the soldiers, Domitian tried to lighten the military expenses by diminishing the number of his troops. But perceiving that in this way he exposed himself to the attacks of the barbarians, and nevertheless had difficulty in easing his burdens, he had no hesitation in resorting to every sort of robbery. The property of the living and the dead was seized everywhere on any charge brought by any accuser. It was enough to allege any action or word derogatory to the majesty of the prince.

Estates of those in no way connected with him were confiscated if but one man came forward to declare that he had heard from the deceased during his lifetime that Caesar was his heir.

Besides other taxes, that on the Jews​ [Titus had imposed a tax of two drachmas per head on Jews for permission to practise their religion] was levied with the utmost rigour, and people were prosecuted who, without publicly acknowledging that faith, yet lived as Jews [a possible reference to Christians who the Romans didn’t distinguish from the Jews], as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people.​

I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised.

From his youth Domitian was far from being of an affable disposition, but was on the contrary presumptuous and unbridled both in act and in word. When his father’s concubine Caenis​ returned from Histria and offered to kiss him as usual, he held out his hand to her.

(13) When he became emperor, Domitian did not hesitate to boast in the senate that he had conferred their power on both his father and his brother, and that they had but returned him his own; nor on taking back his wife after their divorce, that he had ‘recalled her to his divine couch’ [meaning the couch which held the household gods].

Domitian delighted to hear the people in the amphitheatre shout on his feast day:​ ‘Good Fortune attend our Lord​ and Mistress.’

Even more, in the Capitoline competition,​ when all the people begged him with great unanimity to restore Palfurius Sura who had been banished some time before from the senate, and on that occasion received the prize for oratory, he deigned no reply, but merely had a crier bid them be silent.

With no less arrogance he began a circular letter in the name of his procurators, ‘Our Master and our God bids that this be done.’ And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation.

​He allowed no statues to be set up in his honour in the Capitol, except of gold and silver and of a fixed weight. He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of Rome, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: ‘It is enough’ [the Greek word for enough sounds like the Roman word for arch].

Domitian held the consul­ship seventeen times, more often than any of his predecessors. Of these the seven middle ones were in successive years, but all of them he filled in name only, continuing none beyond the first of May and few after the Ides of January. Having assumed the surname Germanicus after his two triumphs, he renamed the months of September and October from his own names, calling them ‘Germanicus’ and ‘Domitianus’, because in the former he had come to the throne and was born in the latter.​

(14) In this way Domitian became an object of terror and hatred to all, but he was overthrown at last by a conspiracy of his friends and favourite freedmen, to which his wife was also privy.

He had long since had a premonition of the last year and day of his life, and even of the very hour and manner of his death. In his youth astrologers had predicted all this to him, and his father once even openly ridiculed him at dinner for refusing mushrooms, saying that he showed himself unaware of his destiny in not rather fearing the sword. Therefore he was at all times timorous and worried, and was disquieted beyond measure by even the slightest suspicions. It is thought that nothing had more effect in inducing him to ignore his proclamation about cutting down the vineyards​ than the circulation of notes containing the following lines:

‘Gnaw at my root, an you will; even then shall I have juice in plenty
To pour upon thee, O goat, when at the altar you stand.’​ [a quote from Ovid’s Fasti]

It was because of this same timorousness that although he was most eager for all such honours, he refused a new one which the senate had devised and offered to him, a decree that whenever he held the consul­ship Roman knights selected by lot should precede him among his lictors and attendants, clad in the trabea​ and bearing lances.

As the time when he anticipated danger drew near, becoming still more anxious every day, he lined the walls of the colonnades in which he used to walk with phengite stone, to be able to see in its brilliant surface the reflection of all that went on behind his back. And he did not give a hearing to any prisoners except in private and alone, even holding their chains in his hands. Further, to convince his household that one must not venture to kill a patron even on good grounds, he condemned Epaphroditus, his confidential secretary, to death, because it was believed that after Nero was abandoned​ Epaphroditus had actually held the dagger with which Nero stabbed himself.

(15) Finally Domitian put to death his own cousin Flavius Clemens, suddenly and on a very slight suspicion, almost before the end of his consul­ship. And yet Flavius was a man of most contemptible laziness and Domitian had openly named his sons, who were then very young, as his successors, changing their former names and calling the one Vespasian and the other Domitian. And it was by this deed in particular that he hastened his own destruction.

For eight successive months so many strokes of lightning occurred and were reported that at last he cried: ‘Well, let him now strike whom they will.’ The temple of Jupiter of the Capitol was struck and that of the Flavian family, as well as the Palace and the emperor’s own bedroom. The inscription on the base of a triumphal statue of his was torn off in a violent tempest and fell upon a neighbouring tomb.​ The tree which had been overthrown when Vespasian was still a private citizen but had sprung up anew suddenly fell down again. Fortune of Praeneste​ had throughout his whole reign, when he commended the new year to her protection, given him a favourable omen and always in the same words. Now at last she returned a most direful omen, not without the mention of bloodshed.

Domitian dreamed that Minerva, whom he worshipped with superstitious veneration, came forth from her shrine and declared that she could no longer protect him since she had been disarmed by Jupiter.

But there was nothing by which he was so much disturbed as a prediction of the astrologer Ascletarion and what befell him. When this man was accused before the emperor and did not deny that he had spoken of certain things which he had foreseen through his art, he was asked what his own end would be. When Ascletarion replied that he would shortly be rent by dogs, Domitian ordered him killed at once but, to prove the fallibility of his art, he ordered that Ascletarion’s funeral be attended to with the greatest care.​ While this was being done, it chanced that the pyre was overset by a sudden storm and that the dogs mangled the corpse, which was only partly consumed. An actor of farces called Latinus, who happened to pass by and see the incident, told it to Domitian at the dinner table, with the rest of the day’s gossip.

(16) The day before he was killed Domitian gave orders to have some apples which were offered to him kept until the following day, and added: ‘If only I am spared to eat them’. Then, turning to his companions, he declared that on the following day the moon would be stained with blood in Aquarius and that a deed would be done of which men would talk all over the world. At about midnight he was so terrified that he leaped from his bed. The next morning he conducted the trial of a soothsayer sent from Germany who, when consulted about the lightning strokes, had foretold a change of rulers and condemned him to death.

While he was vigorously scratching a festered wart on his forehead and had drawn blood, he said: ‘May this be all.’

Then he asked the time, and by pre-arrangement the sixth hour was announced to him, instead of the fifth, which he feared. Filled with joy at this, and believing all danger now past, he was hastening to the bath, when his chamberlain Parthenius changed his purpose by announcing that someone had called about a matter of great moment and would not be put off. Then he dismissed all his attendants and went to his bedroom, where he was slain.

(17) Concerning the nature of the plot and the manner of his death, this is about all that became known. As the conspirators were deliberating when and how to attack him, whether at the bath or at dinner, Stephanus, steward of his niece, Domitilla, and at the time under accusation for embezzlement, offered his aid and counsel.

To avoid suspicion, he wrapped up his left arm in woollen bandages for some days, pretending that he had injured it, and concealed in them a dagger. Then pretending to betray a conspiracy and for that reason being given an audience, he stabbed the emperor in the groin as he was reading a paper which the assassin handed him and stood in a state of amazement.

As the wounded prince attempted to resist, he was slain with seven wounds by Clodianus, a subaltern, Maximus, a freedman of Parthenius, Satur, decurion of the chamberlains, and a gladiator from the imperial school.

A boy who was engaged in his usual duty of attending to the Lares in the bedroom and so was a witness of the murder, gave this additional information. He was bidden by Domitian, immediately after he was dealt the first blow, to hand him the dagger hidden under his pillow and to call the servants. But he found nothing at the head of the bed save the hilt and in any case all the doors were closed.

Meanwhile the emperor grappled with Stephanus and bore him to the ground, where they struggled for a long time, Domitian trying now to wrest the dagger from his assailant’s hands and now to gouge out his eyes with his lacerated fingers.

Domitian was slain on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of October (18 September) in the forty-fifth year of his age and the fifteenth of his reign (96 AD).

His corpse was carried out on a common bier by those who bury the poor, and his nurse Phyllis cremated it at her suburban estate on the Via Latina. But his ashes she secretly carried to the temple of the Flavian family and mingled them with those of Julia, daughter of Titus, whom she had also reared.

(18) Domitian was tall of stature, with a modest expression and a high colour.​ His eyes were large, but his sight was somewhat dim. He was handsome and graceful too, especially when a young man, and in his whole body with the exception of his feet, the toes of which were somewhat cramped. In later life he had the further disfigurement of baldness, a protruding belly, and spindling legs, though the latter had become thin from a long illness.

Domitian was so conscious that the modesty of his expression was in his favour that he once made this boast in the senate: ‘So far, at any rate, you have approved my heart and my countenance.’

He was so sensitive about his baldness that he regarded it as a personal insult if anyone else was twitted with that defect in jest or in earnest.

(19) Domitian was incapable of exertion and seldom went about the city on foot, while on his campaigns and journeys he rarely rode on horseback but was regularly carried in a litter.

He took no interest in arms, but was particularly devoted to archery.​ There are many who have more than once seen him slay a hundred wild beasts of different kinds on his Alban estate, and purposely kill some of them with two successive shots in such a way that the arrows gave the effect of horns. Sometimes he would have a slave stand at a distance and hold out the palm of his right hand for a mark, with the fingers spread; then he directed his arrows with such accuracy that they passed harmlessly between the fingers.

(20) At the beginning of his rule Domitian neglected liberal studies although he provided for having the libraries, which were destroyed by fire, renewed at very great expense, seeking everywhere for copies of the lost works, and sending scribes to Alexandria to transcribe and correct them.

Yet he never took any pains to become acquainted with history or poetry or even to acquire an ordinarily good style.

He read nothing except the memoirs and transactions of Tiberius Caesar. For his letters, speeches and proclamations he relied on others’ talents.

Yet his conversation was not inelegant and some of his sayings were even noteworthy.

‘How I wish that I were as fine looking as Maecius thinks he is.’

He declared too that the head of a certain man, whose hair had changed colour in such a way that it was partly reddish and partly grey, was like ‘snow on which mead had been poured.’

(21) Domitian used to say that the lot of princes was most unhappy, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been killed.​

Whenever he had leisure he amused himself with playing at dice, even on working days and in the morning hours. He went to the bath before the end of the forenoon and lunched to the point of satiety, so that at dinner he rarely took anything except a Matian apple​ and a moderate amount of wine from a jug. He gave numerous and generous banquets, but usually ended them early; in no case did he protract them beyond sunset, or follow them by a drinking bout. In fact, he did nothing until the hour for retiring except walk alone in a retired place.

(22) Domitian was excessively lustful. His constant sexual intercourse he called ‘bed-wrestling’ as if it were a kind of exercise.

It was reported that he depilated his concubines with his own hand and swam with common prostitutes.

After persistently refusing his niece, who was offered him in marriage when she was still a maid, because he was entangled in an intrigue with Domitia, he seduced her shortly afterwards when she became the wife of another, and that too during the lifetime of Titus.

Later, when she was bereft of father and husband, he loved her ardently and without disguise, and even became the cause of her death by compelling her to get rid of a child of his by abortion.

(23) The people received the news of his death with indifference but the soldiers were greatly grieved and at once attempted to call him the Deified Domitian. They insisted on the execution of his murderers.

The senators, on the contrary, were so overjoyed that they raced to fill the House where they did not refrain from attacking the dead emperor with the most insulting and stinging reproaches. They even had ladders brought and his shields​ and images torn down before their eyes and smashed on the ground. Finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased and all record of him obliterated.​

A few months before he was killed, a raven perched on the Capitolium and cried ‘All will be well,’ an omen which some interpreted as follows:

‘High on the gable Tarpeian​ a raven but lately alighting,
Could not say “It is well,” only declared “It will be.”‘

Domitian himself, it is said, dreamed that a golden hump grew out on his back, and he regarded this as an infallible sign that the condition of the empire would be happier and more prosperous after his time. And this was soon shown to be true through the uprightness and moderate rule of the emperors who succeeded him.


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

The Life of Vespasian by Suetonius

This is a sub-edited version of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation of Suetonius’s Life of Vespasian by J.C. Rolfe, with a few comments of my own.

Summary (from Wikipedia)

Vespasian (9 to 79 AD) reigned as Roman emperor from 69 to 79 AD. The fourth and last emperor who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors, he founded the Flavian dynasty (consisting of himself and his sons Titus and Domitian) which ruled the Empire for 27 years (69 to 96). His fiscal reforms and consolidation of the empire created political stability, and he undertook a vast Roman building program.

Vespasian was the first emperor from an equestrian family and only rose late in his lifetime into the senatorial rank as the first member of his family to do so. Vespasian’s renown was based on his military success; he was legate of Legio II Augusta during the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 and pacified Judaea during the Jewish rebellion of 66 to 70.

In June 68, while Vespasian was besieging Jerusalem during the Jewish rebellion, Nero committed suicide and plunged Rome into a year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors. After Galba and Otho perished in quick succession, Vitellius became emperor in April 69. The Roman legions of Roman Egypt and Judaea reacted by declaring Vespasian, their commander, emperor on 1 July 69.

In his bid for imperial power, Vespasian joined forces with Gaius Licinius Mucianus, the governor of Syria, and Marcus Antonius Primus, a general in Pannonia, leaving his son Titus to command the besieging forces at Jerusalem. Primus and Mucianus led the Flavian forces against Vitellius in Italy, while Vespasian took control of Egypt. On 24 October 69 Vitellius’ army was defeated at the second Battle of Bedriaticum. It took another 2 months for the Flavian army to march to Rome and take it by storm. During the sack Vitellius was murdered by Vespasian’s soldiers, on 20 December 69, and the following day Vespasian was declared emperor by the Senate.

Little information survives about the government during Vespasian’s ten-year rule. He:

  • brought the campaign in Judaea to a successful conclusion
  • reformed the financial system of Rome
  • initiated several ambitious construction projects, including the building of the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum

Through his general, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Vespasian increased imperial territory in Britain. Vespasian is often credited with restoring political stability to Rome following the chaotic reigns of his predecessors. After he died in 79, he was succeeded by his eldest son Titus, thus becoming the first Roman emperor to be succeeded by his natural son (all the emperors of the preceding Julio-Claudian dynasty had appointed their successors by adoption).

The Life of Vespasian by Suetonius

(1) The empire, which had been unsettled by the usurpation and violent death of four emperors (Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius) was at last taken in hand and given stability by the Flavian family. This house was obscure and without family portraits, yet it was one of which Rome had no reason to be ashamed (even though it is the general opinion that the penalty which Domitian paid for his avarice and cruelty was fully merited [he was to be assassinated in 96]).

Vespasian’s ancestor ,Titus Flavius Petro, a burgher of Reate and during the civil war a centurion or a volunteer veteran​ on Pompey’s side, fled from the field of Pharsalus and went home, where after at last obtaining pardon and an honourable discharge, he carried on the business of a collector of moneys. His son, surnamed Sabinus (although some say that he was an ex-centurion of the first grade; others that while still in command of a cohort he was retired because of ill-health) took no part in military life, but farmed the public tax of a fortieth​ in Asia. [A fortieth was a duty (portorium) of two and a half per cent on imports and exports.] And there existed for some time statues erected in his honour by the cities of Asia, inscribed ‘To an honest tax-gatherer’.

Later Petro carried on a banking business in the Helvetian country and there he died, survived by his wife, Vespasia Polla, and by two of her children, of whom the elder, Sabinus, rose to the rank of prefect of Rome, and the younger, Vespasian, was to become emperor.

Polla, who was born of an honourable family at Nursia, had for father Vespasius Pollio, thrice tribune of the soldiers and prefect of the camp [a position held by tried and skilful officers, especially centurions of the first grade​] while her brother became a senator with the rank of praetor.

There is, on the top of a mountain near the sixth milestone on the road from Nursia to Spoletium, a place called Vespasiae, where many monuments of the Vespasii are to be seen, giving strong proof of the renown and antiquity of the house.​

I ought to add the rumour that Petro’s father came from the region beyond the Po and was a contractor for the day-labourers who come regularly every year from Umbria to the Sabine district, to till the fields, but that he settled in the town of Reate and there married. Personally I have found no evidence for this, in spite of careful investigation.

(2) Vespasian was born in the Sabine country, in a small village beyond Reate, called Falacrina,​ on the evening of the fifteenth day before the Kalends of December [17 November] in the consulate of Quintus Sulpicius Camerinus and Gaius Poppaeus Sabinus, five years before the death of Augustus [9 AD].

He was brought up under the care of his paternal grandmother Tertulla on her estates at Cosa. Even after he became emperor he used to visit the home of his infancy, where the manor house was kept in its original condition and he was so devoted to his grandmother’s memory that on religious and festival days he always drank from a little silver cup that had belonged to her.

After assuming the toga of manhood Vespasian for a long time made no attempt to win the broad stripe of senator, though his brother had gained it, and only his mother could eventually persuade him to bid for it. She at length drove him to it, but by sarcasm rather than entreaties or parental authority, since she constantly taunted him with being his brother’s ‘footman’. [This refers to the anteambulo who was a client who walked before his patron on the street and compelled people to make way for him.]

Vespasian served in Thrace as tribune of the soldiers. As quaestor he was assigned by lot to the province of Crete and Cyrene. He stood as a candidate for the aedile­ship, attaining it only after one defeat and then barely winning sixth place. He then stood for the praetor­ship, and was among the foremost candidates.

In his praetor­ship, Vespasian lost no opportunity of winning the favour of Gaius [Caligula] who was at odds with the senate, by asking for special games to celebrate the emperor’s victory in Germany and recommended as an additional punishment of the conspirators against the emperor, that they be cast out unburied. He also thanked the emperor, before the senate, because he had deigned to honour him with an invitation to dinner.

(3) Vespasian took to wife Flavia Domitilla, formerly the mistress of Statilius Capella, a Roman knight of Sabrata in Africa, a woman originally only of Latin rank. [This was a limited citizen­ship, taking its name from the old Latin cities and varying in different cases and at different times.] Later Flavia was declared a freeborn citizen of Rome in a suit before judges, brought by her father Flavius Liberalis, a native of Ferentum and merely a quaestor’s clerk.

By Flavia Vespasian had three children – two sons who were destined to become emperor after him, Titus and Domitian – and a daughter, Domitilla. Vespasian outlived his wife and daughter; in fact lost them both before he became emperor. After the death of his wife he resumed his relations with Caenis, a freedwoman and amanuensis of Antonia, and formerly his mistress. After he became emperor he treated her almost as a lawful wife.

(4) In the reign of Claudius, Vespasian was sent in command of a legion to Germany, through the influence of Claudius’s freedman and secretary, Narcissus. From there he was transferred to Britain,​ where he fought thirty battles with the enemy.

In Britain he reduced to subjection two power­ful nations, more than twenty towns, and the island of Vectis [the Isle of Wight], partly under the leader­ship of Aulus Plautius, the consular governor, and partly under that of Claudius himself.

For this he received the triumphal regalia and, shortly afterwards, two priesthoods, besides the consulship, which he held for the last two months of the year. The rest of the time up to his proconsulate he spent in rest and retirement, through fear of Agrippina [Claudius’s fourth wife and mother of the emperor Nero], who still had a strong influence over her son and hated any friend of Narcissus, even after the latter’s death.

The administrative lottery then gave him Africa, which he governed with great justice and high honour, save that in a riot at Hadrumetum he was pelted with turnips. Unusually for a Roman governor he returned from the post none the richer, for his credit was so nearly gone that he mortgaged all his estates to his brother, and had to resort to trading in mules​ to keep up his position. [Suetonius’s text refers to him by the slang term mango, which was applied to a dealer in slaves, cattle, or wares which he tried to give an appearance of greater value than they actually possessed. The nickname implies that Vespasian’s trade was in mules.] As a result he became known as ‘the Muleteer.’

He is also said to have been found guilty of squeezing 200,000 sesterces out of a young man for whom he obtained the broad stripe against his father’s wish, and to have been severely rebuked in consequence.

When he accompanied Nero on his tour through Greece, Vespasian bitterly offended the emperor by either leaving the room while Nero was singing, or falling asleep if he remained. He was, as a result, banished, not only from intimacy with the emperor but even from his public receptions, so he withdrew to a little out‑of-the‑way town, until a province and an army were offered him while he was in hiding and in fear of his life.

There had spread over all the Orient an old belief that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. The people of Judaea wrongly applied this prophecy to themselves (although, as later became clear, it referred to the future emperor of Rome) and so they revolted and, after killing their governor, routed the consular ruler of Syria as well, when he came to the rescue, and took one of his eagles.

Since putting down this rebellion required a considerable army with a leader of no little enterprise, yet one to whom such great power could be entrusted without risk, Nero chose Vespasian for the task, both as a man of tried energy and one not to be suspected of ambition due to the obscurity of his family and name.

Vespasian added to the forces in Judaea two legions, with eight divisions of cavalry and ten cohorts.​ He took his elder son, Titus, as one of his lieutenants, and as soon as he reached his province he attracted the attention of the neighbouring provinces by the way he at once reformed the discipline of the army. He fought one or two battles with such daring that in the storming of a fortress he was wounded in the knee with a stone and received several arrows in his shield.

(5) While Otho and Vitellius were fighting for the throne in Italy, Vespasian began to cherish the hope of imperial power which he had long nurtured because of the following portents:

  • On the suburban estate of the Flavii an old oak tree, which was sacred to Mars, on each of the three occasions when Vespasia was delivered of a child, suddenly put forth a branch from its trunk – obvious indications of the destiny of each child. The first was slender and quickly withered, and so the girl that was born died within the year; the second branch was strong and long and portended great success; but the third was the image of a tree.
  • Their father Sabinus, so they say, being further encouraged by an inspection of sacrificial victims, announced to his mother that a grandson had been born to her that would one day be a Caesar. But she only laughed, marvelling that her son should already be in his dotage, while she was still of strong mind.
  • Later, when Vespasian was aedile, Gaius Caesar, incensed at his neglect of his duty of cleaning the streets, ordered that he be covered with mud, which the soldiers accordingly heaped into the bosom of his purple-bordered toga. This some interpreted as an omen that one day, in some civil commotion, his country, trampled under foot and forsaken, would come under his protection and, as it were, into his embrace.
  • Once when Vespasian was taking breakfast, a stray dog brought in a human hand from the cross-roads​ and dropped it under the table.​ [The human hand was a symbol of power, and the word manus is often used in the sense of potestas or power.]
  • Again, when he was dining, an ox that was ploughing shook off its yoke, burst into the dining-room and, after scattering the servants, fell at the feet of Vespasian as he reclined at table and bowed its neck as if suddenly tired out.
  • Also, a cypress tree on his grandfather’s farm was torn up by the roots without the agency of any violent storm, then thrown down and, on the following day, rose again greener and stronger than before.
  • Vespasian dreamed in Greece that the beginning of good fortune for himself and his family would come as soon as Nero had a tooth extracted and on the next day it came to pass that a physician walked into the hall​ and showed him a tooth which he had just then taken out.
  • When Vespasian consulted the oracle of the god of Carmel in Judaea, the lots were highly encouraging, promising that whatever he planned or wished, however great it might be, would come to pass. One of his high-born prisoners, Josephus by name, as he was being put in chains, confidently declared that he would soon be released by the same man, who would then become emperor.

Omens were also reported from Rome:

  • Nero in his latter days was admonished in a dream to take the sacred chariot of Jupiter Optimus Maximus from its shrine to the house of Vespasian and from there to the Circus.
  • Not long after this, when Galba was on his way to the elections which gave him his second consul­ship, a statue of the Deified Julius of its own accord turned towards the East.
  • On the field of Bedriacum, before the battle began, two eagles fought in the sight of all and, when one was vanquished, a third came from the direction of the rising sun and drove off the victor.

(6) Yet Vespasian made no move (although his followers were quite ready and even urgent) until he was roused to it by the accidental support of men unknown to him and at a distance. Two thousand soldiers of the three legions that made up the army in Moesia had been sent to help Otho. When word came to them after they had begun their march that he had been defeated and had taken his own life, they none the less kept on as far as Aquileia, because they did not believe the report. There, taking advantage of the lawless state of the times, they indulged in every kind of pillage. Then, fearing that if they went back, they would have to give an account and suffer punishment, they took it into their heads to select and appoint an emperor, saying that they were just as good as the Spanish army which had appointed Galba, or the praetorian guard which had elected Otho, or the German army which had chosen Vitellius.

Accordingly the names of all the consular governors who were serving anywhere were taken up, and since objection was made to the rest for one reason or another, while some members of the third legion, which had been transferred from Syria to Moesia just before the death of Nero, highly commended Vespasian, they unanimously agreed on him and inscribed his name on all their banners.

When their action became known, Tiberius Alexander, prefect of Egypt, was the first to compel his legions to take the oath for Vespasian on the Kalends of July (1 July), the day which was afterwards celebrated as that of his accession. Then the army in Judaea swore allegiance to him personally on the fifth day before the Ides of July (11 July).

The enterprise was greatly forwarded by the circulation of a copy of a letter from the late emperor Otho to Vespasian (whether genuine or forged) urging him with the utmost earnestness to vengeance and expressing the hope that he would come to the aid of his country. It was further helped:

  1. by a rumour which spread abroad that Vitellius had planned, after his victory, to change the winter quarters of the legions and to transfer those in Germany to a safer and milder service in the Orient
  2. among the governors of provinces, by the support of Licinius Mucianus (governor of the neighbouring province of Syria) and, among the kings, by that of Vologaesus, the Parthian. The former (Mucianus), laying aside the jealousy which had created rivalry between them, promised Vespasian the support of the Syrian army; and the latter 40,000 bowmen

(7) Therefore Vespasian began another civil war by sending generals with troops to Italy while he crossed to Alexandria to take possession of the key to Egypt.​ Here he dismissed all his attendants and entered the temple of Serapis alone, to consult the auspices as to the duration of his power. And when after many propitiatory offerings to the god he at length turned about, it seemed to him that his freedman, Basilides​, offered him sacred boughs, garlands, and loaves as is the custom there and yet he knew very well a) that no one had let him in, b) that for some time he had been hardly able to walk by reason of rheumatism, and c) was far away. And immediately letters came with the news that Vitellius’s army had been defeated at Cremona and the Vitellius himself slain at Rome.

Vespasian as yet lacked prestige and a certain divinity, so to speak, since he was an unexpected and still new-made emperor; but these also were given him. A man of the people who was blind, and another who was lame, came to him together as he sat on the tribunal, begging for the help for their disorders which Serapis had promised in a dream; for the god declared that Vespasian would restore the eyes, if he would spit upon them, and give strength to the leg, if he would deign to touch it with his heel. Though Vespasian had hardly any faith that this could succeed and therefore shrank from even making the attempt, he was at last prevailed upon by his friends and tried both things in public before a large crowd – and they worked!

And, at this same time, by the direction of certain soothsayers, some vases of antique workman­ship were dug up in a consecrated spot at Tegea in Arcadia and on them was an image very like Vespasian.

(8) Returning to Rome under such auspices and attended by so great renown, after celebrating a triumph over the Jews, Vespasian added eight consul­ships to his former one. He also assumed the censor­ship and during the whole period of his rule he considered nothing more essential than first to strengthen the state, which was tottering and almost overthrown, and then to embellish it as well.

The soldiery, some emboldened by their victory and some resenting their humiliating defeat, had abandoned themselves to every form of licence and recklessness. The provinces, too, and the free cities, as well as some of the kingdoms, were in a state of internal dissension. Therefore Vespasian discharged many of the soldiers of Vitellius and punished many. But so far from showing any special indulgence to those who had shared in his victory, he was slow in paying them their lawful rewards.

To let slip no opportunity of improving military discipline, when a young man reeking with perfumes came to thank him for a commission which had been given him, Vespasian drew back his head in disgust, adding the stern reprimand: “I would rather you had smelt of garlic” and then revoked the appointment.

When the marines who march on foot by turns from Ostia and Puteoli to Rome asked that an allowance be made them for shoe money, not content with sending them away without a reply, he ordered that in future they should make the run barefooted, and they have done so ever since.

Vespasian made Roman provinces of Achaia, Lycia, Rhodes, Byzantium and Samos, taking away their freedom, and likewise of Trachian Cilicia and Commagene, which up to that time had been ruled by kings. He sent additional legions to Cappadocia because of the constant inroads of the barbarians, and gave it a consular governor in place of a Roman knight.

As Rome was unsightly from former fires and fallen buildings, Vespasian allowed anyone to take possession of vacant sites and build upon them, in case the owners failed to do so. He began the restoration of the Capitol in person [after the fire which broke out during the siege of his brother Sabinus – see Tacitus’s Histories for a detailed description of this event], was the first to lend a hand in clearing away the debris, and himself carried some of it off in a basket.

Vespasian undertook to restore the 3,000 bronze tablets which were destroyed with the temple, making a thorough search for copies. These included priceless and most ancient records of the empire, containing the decrees of the senate and the acts of the commons almost from the foundation of the city, regarding alliances, treaties and special privileges granted to individuals.

(9) Vespasian also undertook new works, the temple of Peace hard by the Forum and one to the Deified Claudius on the Caelian mount, which was begun by Agrippina but almost utterly destroyed by Nero. Also an amphitheatre in the heart of the city, a plan which he learned that Augustus had cherished. [This is the building we call the Colosseum, which was known as the Flavian amphitheatre until the Middle Ages.]

Vespasian reformed the two great orders [senators and knights], reduced by a series of murders and sullied by longstanding neglect, and added to their numbers, holding a review of the senate and the knights, expelling those who least deserved the honour and enrolling the most distinguished of the Italians and provincials.

Furthermore, to let it be known that the two orders differed from each other not so much in their privileges as in their rank, in the case of an altercation between a senator and a Roman knight, he rendered his decision: ‘Unseemly language should not be used towards senators, but to return their insults in kind is proper and lawful’ [i.e. a citizen could return the abuse of another citizen, regardless of their respective ranks].

(10) Lawsuit upon lawsuit had accumulated in all the courts to an excessive degree, since those of long standing were left unsettled through the interruption of court business​ during the civil wars and new ones had arisen through the disorder of the times. Vespasian therefore chose commissioners by lot to restore what had been seized in time of war, and to make special decisions in the court of the Hundred, reducing the cases to the smallest number, since it was clear that the lifetime of the litigants would not suffice for the regular proceedings.

(11) Licentiousness and extravagance had flourished without restraint so Vespasian induced the senate to vote that any woman who formed a connection with the slave of another person should herself be made a slave. Also that anyone who lent money to minors (meaning sons who were still under the control of their fathers, regardless of their age) should never have a legal right to enforce payment, that is to say, not even after the death of the fathers.

(12) In other matters Vespasian was unassuming and lenient from the very beginning of his reign until its end. He never tried to conceal his former lowly condition and often paraded it. Indeed, when certain men tried to trace the origin of the Flavian family to the founders of Reate and a companion of Hercules whose tomb still stands on the Via Salaria, he laughed at them for their pains.

So far was he from a desire for pomp and show that on the day of his triumph he did not hesitate to say: ‘It serves me right for being such a fool as to want a triumph in my old age, as if it were due to my ancestors or had ever been among my own ambitions.’

He did not even assume the tribunician power at once nor the title of Father of his Country until late.​ As for the custom of searching people who came to pay their morning calls to him, he gave that up before the civil war was over.

(13) Vespasian bore the frank language of his friends, the quips of pleaders, and the impudence of the philosophers with the greatest patience. Though Licinius Mucianus,​ a man of notorious unchastity, presumed upon his services to treat Vespasian with scant respect [claiming that, as leader of Vespasian’s army, he won Italy and Rome and, in effect, gave it to him], he never had the heart to criticize him except privately and then only to the extent of adding to a complaint made to a mutual friend, the words: ‘I at least am a man’ [implying that Mucianus was effeminate and unchaste].

When Salvius Liberalis ventured to say, while defending a rich client, ‘What is it to Caesar if Hipparchus had a hundred millions?’ he personally commended him. When the Cynic Demetrius met him abroad after being condemned to banishment, and without deigning to rise in his presence or to salute him, even snarled out some insult, Vespasian merely called him a dog.

(14) Vespasian was not inclined to remember or to avenge affronts or enmities, but made a brilliant match for the daughter of his enemy Vitellius, and even provided her with a dowry and a house-keeping outfit.

When he was in terror at being forbidden Nero’s court and asked what on earth he was to do or where he was to go, one of the ushers threw him out and told him to ‘go to Morbovia’ [a made-up name meaning ‘go to the devil’]. When the man later begged for forgiveness, Vespasian confined his resentment to words, and those of about the same number and purport.

Indeed, so far was he from being led by any suspicion or fear to cause anyone’s death that when his friends warned him that he must keep an eye on Mettius Pompusianus, since it was commonly believed that he had an imperial horoscope, he ignored them and made Mettius consul, guaranteeing that he would one day be mindful of the favour.

(15) It cannot be shown that any innocent person was punished save in Vespasian’s absence and without his knowledge, or at any rate against his will and by misleading him.

Although Helvidius Priscus was the only one who greeted him on his return from Syria by his private name of ‘Vespasian’ and, in his praetor­ship, left the emperor unhonoured and unmentioned in all his edicts, still Vespasian did not show anger until by the extravagance of his railing Helvidius had all but degraded him [meaning reduced him to the status of a common citizen].

But even in Helvidius’s case, though Vespasian did banish him and later order his death, he was most anxious for any means of saving him, and sent messengers to recall those who were to slay him; and he would have saved him, but for a false report that Helvidius had already been done to death. Certainly he never took pleasure in the death of anyone, but even wept and sighed over those who suffered merited punishment.

(16) The only thing for which Vespasian can be fairly censured was his love of money. For not content with reviving the taxes which had been repealed under Galba, he added new and heavy burdens, increasing the amount of tribute paid by the provinces, in some cases actually doubling it, and quite openly carrying on traffic which would be shameful even for a man in private life. He bought up certain commodities in order to distribute them at a profit.

Vespasian made no bones of selling offices to candidates and acquittals to men under prosecution, whether innocent or guilty. He is even believed to have deliberately advanced the most rapacious of his procurators to higher posts so that they might be the richer when he later condemned them. In fact, it was common talk that he used these men as ‘sponges’ because he ‘soaked’ them when they were dry and ‘squeezed’ them when they were wet.

Some say that Vespasian was naturally covetous and was taunted with it by an old herdsman of his who, on being forced to pay for the freedom for which he earnestly begged Vespasian when he became emperor, cried: ‘The fox changes his fur but not his nature.’

Others on the contrary believe that he was driven by necessity to raise money by spoliation and robbery because of the desperate state of the treasury and the privy purse. He testified to this at the very beginning of his reign by declaring that 40,000 millions were needed to set the state upright. This latter view seems the more probable, since he made the best use of his gains, ill-gotten though they were.

(17) He was most generous to all classes, making up the requisite estate​ for senators [this had been increased to 1,200,000 sesterces by Augustus] giving needy ex-consuls an annual stipend of 500,000 sesterces, restoring to a better condition many cities throughout the empire which had suffered from earthquakes or fires and, in particular, encouraging men of talent and the arts.

(18) Vespasian was the first to establish a regular salary of 100,000 sesterces for Latin and Greek teachers of rhetoric, paid from the privy purse. He presented eminent poets with princely largess and great rewards, and artists, too, such as the restorer of the Venus of Cos​ and of the Colossus.​

(19) At the plays with which he dedicated the new stage of the theatre of Marcellus, Vespasian revived the old musical entertainments. To Apelles, the tragic actor, he gave 400,000 sesterces; to Terpnus and Diodorus, the lyre-players, 200,000 each; to several, a hundred thousand; while those who received least were paid 40,000, and numerous golden crowns were awarded besides.

Vespasian gave constant dinner parties, too, usually formally​ and sumptuously, to help the marketmen. He gave gifts​ to women on the Kalends (first) of March [the Matronalia or feast of married women] as he did to the men on the Saturnalia.

Yet even so he could not be rid of his former bed reputation for covetousness. The Alexandrians persisted in calling him Cybiosactes,​ the surname of one of their kings who was scandalously stingy.

Even at his funeral, Favor, a leading actor of mimes, who wore his mask and, according to the usual custom, imitated the actions and words of the deceased during his lifetime, having asked procurators in a loud voice how much his funeral procession would cost, and hearing the reply ‘Ten million sesterces,’ cried out, ‘Give me a hundred thousand and fling me even into the Tiber.’

(20) Vespasian was well built,​ with strong, sturdy limbs, and the expression of one who was straining. Apropos of which a witty fellow, when Vespasian asked him to make a joke about him, replied, ‘I will, when you have finished relieving yourself.’

Vespasian enjoyed excellent health, though he did nothing to keep it up except to rub his throat and the other parts of his body a certain number of times in the tennis court, and to fast one day in every month.

(21) This was Vespasian’s manner of life. While emperor, he always rose very early, in fact before daylight. Then, after reading his letters and the reports of all the officials, he admitted his friends, and while he was receiving their greetings, he put on his own shoes and dressed himself. After despatching any business that came up, he took time for a drive and then for a nap, lying with one of his concubines, of whom he took several after the death of Caenis. After his siesta he went to the bath and the dining-room. It is said that this was the part of the day when he was most good-natured or indulgent, so that the members of his household eagerly watched for these opportunities of making requests.

(22) Not only at dinner but on all other occasions he was most affable, and turned off many matters with a jest. He was very ready with sharp sayings, albeit of a low and buffoonish kind, so that he didn’t refrain even from obscene expressions.​

Yet many of his remarks are still remembered which are full of wit, among them the following. When an ex-consul called Mestrius Florus called his attention to the fact that the proper pronunciation was plaustra (‘wagons’) rather than plostra, he greeted him next day as ‘Flaurus.’

When he was importuned by a woman, who said that she was dying for love for him, he took her to his bed and gave her 400,000 sesterces for her favours. Being asked by his steward how he wanted the sum entered in his accounts, he replied: ‘To a passion for Vespasian.’

(23) Vespasian also quoted Greek verses with great timeliness, saying of a man of tall stature and monstrous parts:

‘Striding along and waving a lance that casts a long shadow’ [Iliad 7.213.]

And of the freedman Cerylus, who was very rich, and to cheat the privy purse of its dues at his death had begun to give himself out as freeborn, changing his name to Laches:

‘O Laches, Laches,
When you are dead, you’ll change your name at once
To Cerylus again.’

But he particularly resorted to witticisms about his unseemly means of gain, seeking to diminish their odium by some jocose saying and to turn them into a jest.

Having put off one of his favourite attendants, who asked for a stewardship for a pretended brother, he summoned the candidate himself, and after compelling him to pay him as much money as he had agreed to give his advocate, appointed him to the position without delay. On his attendant’s taking up the matter again, he said: ‘Find yourself another brother; the man that you thought was yours is mine.’

On a journey, suspecting that his muleteer had got down to shoe the mules merely to make delay and give time for a man with a lawsuit to approach the emperor, he asked how much he was paid for shoeing the mules and insisted on a share of the money.

When Titus found fault with him for levying a tax on public conveniences, Vespasian held a piece of money from the first payment to his son’s nose, asking whether its odour was offensive to him. When Titus said, ‘No,’ he replied, ‘Yet it comes from urine.’

On the report of a deputation that a colossal statue of great cost had been voted him at public expense, he demanded to have it set up at once, and holding out his open hand, said that the base was ready.

He did not cease his jokes even when in apprehension of death and in extreme danger for when among other portents the Mausoleum​ opened on a sudden and a comet appeared in the heavens, he declared that the former applied to Junia Calvina of the family of Augustus, and the latter to the king of the Parthians, who wore his hair long. And as death drew near, he said: ‘Woe is me. I think I am turning into a god.’

(24) In his ninth consul­ship he had a slight illness in Campania and, returning at once to the city, he left for Cutiliae and the country about Reate, where he spent the summer every year. There, in addition to an increase in his illness, having contracted a bowel complaint by too free use of the cold waters, he nevertheless continued to perform his duties as emperor, even receiving embassies as he lay in bed.

Suddenly taken with such an attack of diarrhoea that he all but fainted, he said: ‘An emperor ought to die standing’, and, while he was struggling to get on his feet, he died in the arms of those who tried to help him. Vespasian died on the ninth day before the Kalends of July [23 June] at the age of sixty-nine years, seven months and seven days.​

(25) All agree that he had so much faith in his own horoscope and those of his family, that even after constant conspiracies were made against him he had the assurance to say to the senate that either his sons would succeed him or he would have no successor.

It is also said that he once dreamed that he saw a balance with its beam on a level placed in the middle of the vestibule of the palace, in one pan of which stood Claudius and Nero and in the other himself and his sons. And the dream came true, since both houses reigned for the same space of time and the same term of years.

[Suetonius’s Life of Vespasian should be read alongside Tacitus’s Histories, which give a detailed account of Mucianus’ and Primus’s military campaigns in north Italy which led to the overthrow of Vitellius as well as the siege of Sabinus on the Capitol.]


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

The Life of Vitellius by Suetonius

A sub-edited version of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation of Suetonius’s Life of Vitellius by J.C. Rolfe, with notes and comments.

Summary

Aulus Vitellius (15 to 69 AD) was Roman emperor for eight months, from 19 April to 20 December 69. Vitellius was proclaimed emperor following the quick succession of the previous emperors Galba and Otho in the year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors. Like his direct predecessor, Otho, Vitellius attempted to rally public support to his cause by honouring Nero who remained widely popular in the empire.

Vitellius had been a companion of Tiberius’ retirement on Capri and there befriended Caligula. He was elected consul in 48, and served as proconsular governor of Africa in either 60 or 61. In 68, he was chosen to command the army of Germania Inferior. In January 69 he was proclaimed emperor by the armies of Germania Inferior and Superior, beginning a revolt against Galba. In Rome Galba was murdered in the coup of Marcus Otho and Vitellius then marched his army south to face Otho in battle. Vitellius defeated Otho’s army at the Battle of Bedriacum on 14 April 69 and, although he had enough troops in reserve and reinforcements on the way, Otho chose to commit suicide rather than fight on. With Otho out of the way the senate recognised Vitellius as emperor.

However, Vitellius’s claim to the throne was soon challenged by the legions stationed in the eastern provinces, who proclaimed their commander Vespasian emperor instead. Vespasian sent his armies through Greece and the Balkans into northern Italy where a complex series of military engagements followed, climaxing with a crushing defeat for Vitellius at the Second Battle of Bedriacum on 24 October 69.

Vitellius tried to abdicate in favour of Vespasian but was prevented by his political supporters, the praetorian guard and many of the people. This meant that instead of peacefully marching into Rome the armies of Vespasian had to fight their way into the city, with much destruction and loss of life. When Vespasian’s soldiers came upon Vitellius, he was lynched on 20 December 69.

The Life of Vitellius by Suetonius

(1) Different and widely varying accounts are given of the origin of the Vitellii, some saying that the family was ancient and noble, others that it was new and obscure, if not of mean ex traction. I should believe that these came respectively from the flatterers and detractors of the emperor, were it not for a difference of opinion about the standing of the family at a considerably earlier date.

We have a book of Quintus Elogius addressed to Quintus Vitellius, quaestor of the Deified Augustus, in which it is written that:

  • the Vitellii were sprung from Faunus, king of the Aborigines, and Vitellia, who was worshipped as a goddess in many places
  • that they ruled in all Latium
  • that the surviving members of the family moved from the Sabine district to Rome and were enrolled among the patricians
  • that traces of this stock endured long afterwards in the Vitellian Road, running from the Janiculum all the way to the sea, as well as in a colony of the same name, which in ancient days the family had asked the privilege of defending against the Aequicoli with troops raised from their own line
  • that when, afterwards, a force was sent into Apulia at the time of the Samnite war, some of the Vitellii settled at Nuceria,
  • that after a long time their descendants returned to the city and resumed their place in the senatorial order

(2) On the other hand, several have written that the founder of the family was a freedman, while Cassius Severus and others say further that he was a cobbler and that his son, after making a considerable fortune from the sale of confiscated estates and the profession of informer, married a common strumpet, daughter of one Antiochus who kept a bakery, and became the father of a Roman knight. But this difference of opinion may be left unsettled.

In any event, Publius Vitellius of Nuceria, whether of ancient stock or of parents and forefathers in whom he could take no pride, unquestionably a Roman knight and a steward of Augustus’s property, left four sons of high rank with the same name and differing only in their forenames: Aulus, Quintus, Publius and Lucius. Aulus, who was given to luxury and especially notorious for the magnificence of his feasts, died a consul, appointed to the office with Domitius, father of the emperor Nero. Quintus lost his rank at the time when it was decided, at the suggestion of Tiberius, to depose and get rid of undesirable senators.​

Publius, a member of Germanicus’ staff, arraigned Gnaeus Piso, the enemy and murderer of his commander, and secured his condemnation. Arrested among the accomplices of Sejanus, after holding the praetor­ship, and handed over to his own brother to be kept in confinement, he opened his veins with a penknife but allowed himself to be bandaged and restored, not so much from unwillingness to die as because of the entreaties of his friends; and he met a natural death while still in confinement.

Lucius attained the consulate and then was made governor of Syria where, with supreme diplomacy he not only induced Artabanus, king of the Parthians, to hold a conference with him,​ but even to do obeisance to the standards of the legion. Later he held, with the emperor Claudius, two more regular consul­ships and the censor­ship. He also bore the charge of the empire while Claudius was away on his expedition to Britain. He was an honest and active man but gained a bad reputation because of his passion for a freedwoman which went so far that he used her spittle mixed with honey to rub on his throat and jaws as a medicine, not secretly nor seldom, but openly and every day.

Lucius also had a wonder­ful gift for flattery and was the first to begin to worship Gaius Caesar as a god; for on his return from Syria he did not presume to approach the emperor except with veiled head, turning himself about and then prostrating himself.

To neglect no means of gaining the favour of Claudius, who was a slave to his wives and freedmen, Lucius begged of Messalina as the highest possible favour that she would allow him to take off her shoes. And when he had taken off her right slipper he constantly carried it about between his toga and his tunic and sometimes kissed it. He also honoured Claudius’s powerful advisers, Narcissus and Pallas, by cherishing their golden images among his household gods. It was Lucius who made the famous remark, ‘May you often do it,’ when he was congratulating Claudius at the celebration of the Secular games.

(3) Lucius died of a paralytic stroke on the second day after he was seized, leaving two sons (begotten of Sestilia, a most worthy woman and of no mean family) and having lived to see them consuls both in the same year, and for the whole year, since the younger succeeded the elder for six months. On his decease the senate honoured Lucius with a public funeral and with a statue on the rostra with this inscription: ‘Of unwavering loyalty to his emperor.’

The emperor Aulus Vitellius, son of Lucius, was born on the eighth day before the Kalends of October (or, according to some, on the seventh day before the Ides of September) in the consul­ship of Drusus Caesar and Norbanus Flaccus (15 AD).

His parents were so aghast at his horoscope as announced by the astrologer that his father tried his utmost, while he lived, to prevent the assignment of any province to his son; and when he was sent to the legions and hailed as emperor, his mother immediately mourned over him as lost.

Vitellius spent his boyhood and early youth at Capri among the wantons of Tiberius, being branded for all time with the nickname ‘Spintria’ and suspected of having been the cause of his father’s first advancement at the expense of his own chastity.

(4) Stained by every sort of baseness as he advanced in years, Vitellius held a prominent place at court, winning the intimacy of Gaius (Caligula) by his devotion to driving and of Claudius by his passion for dice. But he was still dearer to Nero, not only because of these same qualities, but because of a special service besides. For when he was presiding at the contests of the Neronia​ and Nero wished to compete among the lyre-players but did not venture to do so although there was a general demand for him and accordingly left the theatre, Vitellius called him back, alleging that he came as an envoy from the insistent people and thus gave Nero a chance to yield to their entreaties.

(5) Having in this way through the favour of three emperors been honoured not only with political positions but with distinguished priesthoods as well, Vitellius afterwards governed Africa as proconsul and served as curator of public works, but with varying purpose and reputation.

In his province he showed exceptional integrity for two successive years, for he served as deputy to his brother who succeeded him. But in his city offices he was said to have stolen some of the offerings and ornaments from the temples and changed others, substituting tin and brass for gold and silver.

(6) Vitellius married Petronia, daughter of an ex-consul, and had by her a son Petronianus, who was blind in one eye. Since this son was named as his mother’s heir on condition of being freed from his father’s authority, he manumitted him, but shortly afterwards killed him, according to the general belief, charging him with attempted parricide and alleging that (his son’s) guilty conscience had led him to drink the poison which he had mixed for his intended crime (of murdering Vitellius).

Soon afterwards Vitellius married Galeria Fundana, daughter of an ex-praetor, and from her too he had a son and a daughter, but the former stammered so that he was all but dumb and tongue-tied.

(7) Galba surprised everyone by sending Vitellius to Lower Germany. Some think that it was due to Titus Vinius, who had great influence at the time and whose friendship Vitellius had long since won through their common support of the Blues (one of the teams in the chariot races). But since Galba openly declared that no men were less to be feared than those who thought of nothing but eating, and that Vitellius’s bottomless gullet might be filled from the resources of the province, it was clear to everyone that he was chosen rather through contempt than favour.

It is notorious that when he was about to set off he lacked means for his travelling expenses and that his need of funds was such, that after consigning his wife and children, whom he left in Rome, to a hired garret, he rented out his house for the rest of the year. And that he took a valuable pearl from his mother’s ear and pawned it to defray the expenses of his journey.

He had to resort to false accusation to get rid of the throng of creditors that lay in wait for him and tried to detain him, including the people of Sinuessa and of Formiae whose public revenues he had embezzled. For he brought an action for damages against a freedman who was persistent in demanding what was due to him, alleging that he had been kicked by him, and would not let him off until he had squeezed him to the tune of 50,000 sesterces.

On Vitellius’s arrival in Germany the army, which was disaffected towards the emperor and inclined to mutiny, received him gladly with open arms as if he had come to them as a gift from the gods, since he was the son of a man who had thrice been consul, in the prime of life, and of an easy-going and lavish disposition.

Vitellius took care to boost good opinion of himself by recent acts, for throughout the march he kissed even the common soldiers whom he met and at the posthouses and inns he was unusually affable to the mule drivers and travellers, asking each of them in the morning whether they had breakfasted and even showing by belching that he had done so.

(8) As soon as he had entered the camp, Vitellius granted every request that anyone made and even of his own accord freed those in disgrace from their penalties, defendants of suits from their mourning,​ and the convicted from punishment. Therefore hardly a month had passed, when one evening the soldiers took him from his bedroom, just as he was, in his common house-clothes,​ and hailed him as emperor. Then he was carried about the most populous villages, holding a drawn sword of the Deified Julius, which someone had taken from a shrine of Mars and handed him during the first congratulations.

He did not return to headquarters until the dining-room caught fire from the stove and was ablaze and then, when all were shocked and troubled at what seemed a bad omen, he said: ‘Be of good cheer; to us light is given,’ and this was his only address to the soldiers.

When he presently received the support of the army of the upper province too, which had previously transferred its allegiance for Galba to the senate, he eagerly accepted the surname of Germanicus, which was unanimously offered him, put off accepting the title of Augustus, and forever refused that of Caesar.

(9) Hearing of the murder of Galba [15 January 69] Vitellius settled affairs in Germany and made two divisions of his forces, one to send on against Otho, and the other to lead in person. The former was greeted with a lucky omen at the start, for an eagle suddenly flew towards them from the right and after hovering about the standards, slowly preceded their line of march. But, on the contrary, when he himself began his advance, the equestrian statues which were being set up everywhere in his honour on a sudden all collapsed with broken legs, and the laurel crown which he had put on with due ceremony fell into a running stream. Later, as he was sitting in judgment on the tribunal at Vienna,​ a cock perched on his shoulder and then on his head.​ And the outcome corresponded with these omens for it turned out that he was not by his own efforts able to retain the power which his lieutenants secured for him.

(10) Vitellius heard of the victory at Betriacum and of the death of Otho (16 April 69) while he was still in Gaul, and without delay by a single edict he disbanded all the praetorian cohorts, as having set a pernicious example,​ and bade them hand over their arms to their tribunes. Furthermore, he gave orders that 120 of them should be hunted up and punished, having found petitions which they had written to Otho, asking for a reward for services rendered in connection with Galba’s murder. These acts were altogether admirable and noble, and such as to give hope that he would be a great prince, had it not been that the rest of his conduct was more in harmony with his natural disposition and his former habits of life than with imperial dignity.

For when he had begun his march, Vitellius rode through the middle of the cities like a triumphing general, and on the rivers he sailed in most exquisite craft wreathed with various kinds of garlands, amid lavish entertainments, with no discipline among his household or the soldiers, making a jest of the pillage and wantonness of all his followers. For not content with the banquets which were furnished them everywhere at public expense, they set free whatever slaves they pleased, paying those who protested with blows and stripes, often with wounds, and sometimes with death.

When Vitellius came to the plains where the battle was fought and some shuddered with horror at the mouldering corpses, he had the audacity to encourage them by the abominable saying that the odour of a dead enemy was sweet and that of a fellow-citizen sweeter still. But nevertheless, the better to bear the awful stench, he openly drained a great draught of unmixed wine and distributed some among the troops.

With equal bad taste and arrogance, gazing upon the stone inscribed to the memory of Otho, he declared that he deserved such a Mausoleum, and sent the dagger with which his rival had killed himself to the Colony of Agrippina,​ to be dedicated to Mars. He also held an all-night festival​ on the heights of the Apennines.

(11) Finally, Vitellius entered Rome to the sound of the trumpet, wearing a general’s mantle and a sword at his side, amid standards and banners, with his staff in military cloaks and his troops with drawn swords.

Then showing greater and greater disregard for the laws of gods and men, he assumed the office of high priest on the day of Allia,​ held elections for ten years to come, and made himself consul for life. And to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind what model he chose for the government of the state, he made funerary offerings to Nero in the middle of the Campus Martius, attended by a great throng of the official priests. And when, at the accompanying banquet a flute-player was received with applause, he openly urged him ‘to render something from the Master’s Book​ as well’, and when he began the songs of Nero, Vitellius was the first to applaud him and even jumped for joy.

(12) Beginning in this way, Vitellius regulated the greater part of his rule wholly according to the advice and whims of the commonest of actors and chariot-drivers, and in particular of his freedman Asiaticus. This fellow had immoral relations with Vitellius in his youth but later grew weary of him and ran away. When Vitellius came upon him selling posca​ at Puteoli, he put him in irons, but at once freed him again and made him his favourite. His vexation was renewed by the man’s excessive insolence and thievishness and he sold him to an itinerant keeper of gladiators. When, however, he was once reserved for the end of a gladiatorial show, Vitellius suddenly spirited him away, and finally on getting his province set him free. On the first day of his reign Vitellius presented Asiaticus with the golden ring at a banquet, although in the morning, when there was a general demand that Asiaticus be given that honour, he had deprecated in the strongest terms such a blot on the equestrian order.

(13) But Vitellius’s besetting sins were luxury and cruelty. He divided his feasts into three, sometimes into four a day – breakfast,​ luncheon, dinner, and a drinking bout – and he was readily able to do justice to all of them through his habit of taking emetics. Moreover, he had himself invited to each of these meals by different men on the same day, and the materials for any one of them never cost less than 400,000 sesterces.

Most notorious of all was the dinner given by his brother to celebrate the emperor’s arrival in Rome, at which 2,000 of the choicest fishes and 7,000 birds are said to have been served. He himself eclipsed even this at the dedication of a platter, which, on account of its enormous size, he called the ‘Shield of Minerva, Defender of the City.’ In this he mingled the livers of pike, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingos and the milt of lampreys, brought by his captains and triremes from the whole empire, from Parthia to the Spanish strait.​

Possessing an appetite that was not only boundless but also regardless of time or decency, Vitellius could never refrain, even when he was sacrificing or making a journey, from snatching bits of meat and cakes amid the altars, almost from the very fire, and devouring them on the spot, and in the cookshops along the road, viands smoking hot or even those left over from the day before and partly consumed.

(14) Vitellius delighted in inflicting death and torture on anyone whatsoever and for any cause whatever, putting to death several men of rank, fellow students and comrades of his, whom he had solicited to come to court by every kind of deception, all but offering them a share in the rule. This he did in various treacherous ways, even giving poison to one of them with his own hand in a glass of cold water, for which the man had called when ill of a fever.

Vitellius spared hardly one of the money-lenders, contractors, and tax-gatherers who had ever demanded of him the payment of a debt at Rome or of a toll on a journey. When one of these had been handed over for execution just as he was paying his morning call and at once recalled, as all were praising the emperor’s mercy, Vitellius gave orders to have him killed in his presence, saying that he wished to feast his eyes. In another case he had two sons who attempted to intercede for their father put to death with him.

A Roman knight, who cried as he was being taken off to execution, ‘You are my heir,’ he compelled to show his will and, reading that one of the man’s freedmen was put down as joint-heir with himself, he ordered the death of both the knight and the freedman.

Vitellius even killed some of the common people merely because they had openly spoken ill of the Blue faction, judging that they had ventured to do this from contempt of himself and in anticipation of a change of rulers.

Vitellius was especially hostile to writers of lampoons​ and to astrologers and whenever any of them was accused, he put him to death without trial. He was particularly incensed because after a proclamation of his in which he ordered the astrologers to leave the city and Italy before the Kalends of October, a placard was at once posted, reading: ‘By proclamation of the Chaldeans,​ God bless the State!​ Before the same day and date let Vitellius Germanicus have ceased to live.’

When his mother died, Vitellius was suspected of having forbidden her being given food when she was ill, because a woman of the Chatti, in whom he believed as he would in an oracle, prophesied that he would rule securely and for a long time, but only if he should survive his parent. Others say that, through weariness of present evils and fear of those which threatened, she asked her son for poison and obtained it with no great difficulty.

(15) In the eighth month of his reign the armies of the Moesian provinces and Pannonia revolted against Vitellius, and also the provinces of Judaea and Syria, the former swearing allegiance to Vespasian in his absence and the latter in his presence. Therefore, to retain the devotion and favour of the rest of the people, there was nothing that Vitellius did not lavish publicly and privately, without any limit.

Vitellius held a levy in Rome, promising those who volunteered not only their discharge upon his victory but also the rewards and privileges given to veterans after their regular term of service. Later, when his enemies were pressing him hard by land and sea, he opposed to them in one quarter his brother with a fleet manned by raw recruits and a band of gladiators, and in another the forces and leaders who had fought at Bedriacum. And after he was everywhere either worsted or betrayed, he made a bargain with Flavius Sabinus, the brother of Vespasian, that he should have his own life and a hundred million sesterces.

As the tide turned against him, Vitellius declared from the steps of the palace before his assembled soldiers that he withdrew from the rule which had been given him against his will. But when all cried out against this, he postponed the matter and, after a night had passed, went at daybreak to the rostra in mourning clothes and with many tears made the same declaration, but from a written document.

When the people and soldiers again interrupted him and begged him not to lose heart, vying with one another in promising him all their efforts in his behalf, Vitellius again took courage and by a sudden onslaught drove Sabinus and the rest of the Flavians, who weren’t expecting an attack, into the Capitol. Then he set fire to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus and destroyed them, viewing the battle and the fire from the house of Tiberius, where he was feasting. [Suetonius’s account should be compared with Tacitus’s much longer and more detailed account of the same events in his Histories.]

Not long afterwards he repented of his action and throwing the blame upon others, called an assembly and took oath, compelling the rest to do the same, that there was nothing for which he would strive more earnestly than for the public peace.

Then he took a dagger from his side and offered it first to the consul, and when he refused it, to the magistrates, and then to the senators, one by one.​ When no one would take it, he went off as if to place it in the temple of Concord. But when some cried out that he himself was Concord, he returned and declared that he would not only retain the steel but would also adopt the surname Concordia.

(16) Vitellius also persuaded the senate to send envoys with the Vestal virgins to sue for peace or at least to gain time for conference.

The following day, as he was waiting for a reply, word was brought by a scout that the enemy were drawing near. Then he was at once hurried into a sedan with only two companions, a baker and a cook, and secretly went to his father’s house on the Aventine, intending to flee from there to Campania. Presently, on a slight and dubious rumour that peace had been granted, he allowed himself to be taken back to the palace. Finding everything abandoned there, and that even those who were with him were making off, he put on a girdle filled with gold pieces and took refuge in the lodge of the door-keeper, tying a dog before the door and putting a couch and a mattress against it.

(17) The advance guard of the Flavian army had now forced their way into the city and, since no one opposed them, were ransacking everything in the usual way. They dragged Vitellius from his hiding-place and when they asked him his name (for they did not know him) and if he knew where Vitellius was, he attempted to escape them by a lie. Being soon recognised, he did not cease to beg that he be confined for a time, even in the prison, alleging that he had something to say of importance to the safety of Vespasian. But they bound his arms behind his back, put a noose about his neck, and dragged him with rent garments and half-naked to the Forum. All along the Sacred Way he was greeted with mockery and abuse, his head held back by the hair, as is common with criminals, and even the point of a sword placed under his chin, so that he could not look down but must let his face be seen.

Some pelted him with dung and ordure, others called him incendiary and glutton, and some of the mob even taunted him with his bodily defects. He was in fact abnormally tall, with a face usually flushed from hard drinking, a huge belly and one thigh crippled from being struck by a four-horse chariot when he was in attendance on Gaius (Caligula) as he was driving. At last, on the Stairs of Wailing,​ he was tortured for a long time, then killed and dragged off with a hook to the Tiber.

(18) Vitellius met his death, along with his brother and his son, in the fifty-seventh year of his age, fulfilling the prediction of those who had declared from the omen which befell him at Vienna​ that he was destined to fall into the power of some man of Gaul. For he was slain by Antonius Primus, a leader of the opposing faction, who was born at Tolosa [modern-day Toulouse].

[Suetonius’s Life of Vitellius should be read alongside Tacitus’s account of the same events in his Histories.]


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

The Life of Otho by Suetonius

A sub-edited version of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation of Suetonius’s Life of Otho by J.C. Rolfe, with added notes and comments.

Summary

Marcus Otho (April 32 to April 69) was the seventh Roman emperor. He ruled for three months from 15 January to 16 April 69. He was the second emperor of the Year of the Four Emperors (69).

A member of a noble Etruscan family, Otho was, as a young man, a friend and courtier of the young emperor Nero. But when Nero wanted to have an affair with Otho’s wife, Poppaea Sabina, the emperor dispatched him to the governorship of the remote province of Lusitania (roughly modern-day Portugal) in 58. By all accounts Otho ruled there moderately and well.

During the revolts of 68, Otho allied himself with Galba, the governor of neighbouring Hispania Tarraconensis, and accompanied him on his march to Rome, where he Galba was acclaimed emperor on 8 June. Six months later, at the start of 69, Otho mounted a coup during which Galba was murdered.

Otho inherited the problem of the rebellion of Vitellius, commander of the army in Germania Inferior, who had also risen against Galba, at the start of the year (69). To crush this rebellion, Otho led an army north to meet Vitellius’s legions marching south from Germany. The two sides met at the Battle of Bedriacum on 14 April 69. Initial fighting resulted in 40,000 casualties and the retreat of his forces. His officers and supporters urged him to fight on but Otho refused and, early the next morning, committed suicide in his tent rather than spill more Roman blood, an act which was hailed as a noble sacrifice. As a result Vitellius was proclaimed emperor, the third of the year 69 so far.

The Life of Otho by Suetonius

[Like most Roman texts, this is divided up into short, numbered sections called ‘chapters’.]

1. The ancestors of Otho came from an old and illustrious family in the town of Ferentium​ and were descended from the princes of Etruria.​ His grandfather, Marcus Salvius Otho, whose father was a Roman knight but whose mother was of lowly origin and perhaps not even free-born, became a senator through the influence of Livia Augusta in whose house he was reared, but did not advance beyond the grade of praetor.

His father, Lucius Otho, came from a distinguished family on his mother’s side, with many power­ful connections, and was so beloved by Tiberius and so like him in appearance, that he was believed by many to be the emperor’s son.

In the regular offices at Rome, the proconsulate of Africa, and several special military commands, Lucius conducted himself with extreme severity. In Illyricum he even had the courage to punish some soldiers with death, because in the rebellion of Camillus,​ repenting of their defection, they had killed their officers on the ground that these officers were the ringleaders in the revolt against Claudius. Lucius had them executed in his presence at his headquarters, because of this act of mutiny, although he knew that they had been promoted by Claudius precisely because of this very act. By this deed, while he increased his reputation, Otho’s father lost favour at court.

But then he speedily regained it by detecting the treachery of a Roman knight, whose slaves betrayed their master’s plan to assassinate the emperor.​ As reward for this, the senate conferred a very unusual honour on him by setting up his statue in the palace and Claudius enrolled him among the patricians and, after praising him in the highest terms, added these words: ‘He is a man of greater loyalty than I can even pray for in my own children.’

By Albia Terentia, a woman of an illustrious line, Lucius had two sons, Lucius Titianus and a younger, called Marcus, who had the same surname as himself. (He also had a daughter whom he betrothed to Drusus, son of Germanicus, almost before she was of marriageable age).

2. The future emperor Otho was born on the fourth day before the Kalends of May [28 April] in the consulate of Camillus Arruntius and Domitius Ahenobarbus [32 AD]. From his earliest youth Otho was so extravagant and wild that his father often flogged him. They say that he used to rove about Rome at night and lay hands on anyone whom he met who was feeble or drunk and toss him in a blanket.

After his father’s death, Otho pretended love for an influential freedwoman of the court, although she was an old woman and almost decrepit, so that he might win her favour. Having, through her, wormed his way into Nero’s good graces, Otho easily took the first place among the emperor’s friends because of the similarity of their characters – although some people claim it was also through having immoral relations with the emperor.

3. Otho was privy to all the emperor’s plans and secrets and on the day which Nero had chosen for the murder of his mother he gave both of them a most elaborate banquet in order to avert suspicion.

Also, when Poppaea Sabina, who up to that time had been Nero’s mistress, was separated from her husband, on the emperor’s orders Otho pretended marriage with her to prove cover for their affair. In the event, Otho became so devoted to Poppaea that he couldn’t endure the thought of having Nero as a rival. The result was that he not only wouldn’t admit servants whom Nero sent to fetch Poppaea, but that on one occasion he even shut out the emperor himself, who stood before his door mingling threats and entreaties and demanding the return of his trust.

Therefore Nero annulled the marriage​ and, under colour of appointment as governor, banished Otho to Lusitania, worried that if he inflicted a severer punishment he would make the whole farce public. Even as it was, the affair was published abroad in this couplet:

‘Why, do you ask, in feigned honour does Otho in banishment languish?
With his own wedded wife he had begun an intrigue.’

With the rank of quaestor, Otho governed Lusitania for ten years with remarkable moderation and integrity.

4. Then, at last, an opportunity for revenge arose. Otho was the first to espouse Galba’s cause [when the latter rose in rebellion against Nero], but at the same time conceived ambitions of imperial power for himself due to the troubled state of the times. He was encouraged in his hopes by the astrologer Seleucus for this astrologer had not only promised Otho some time before that he would survive Nero but now unexpectedly appeared and made the further promise that he, Otho, would soon become emperor himself.

Accordingly, Otho let slip no opportunity for flattery or attention to anyone. Whenever he entertained the prince at dinner he gave a gold piece to each man of the cohort on guard and put all the soldiers under obligation in one form or another. Chosen to be judge by a man who was involved in a law case with his neighbour about a part of his estate, Otho bought the whole property and presented it to him. As a result there was hardly anyone who did not both think and openly declare that he alone was worthy to succeed to the empire.

5. After the fall of Nero, Otho hoped to be adopted by Galba and looked forward to it from day to day. But when Galba adopted Piso instead [on 10 January 69] and Otho at last lost that hope, he resorted to force, spurred on not merely by feelings of resentment but also by the greatness of his debts. For he flatly declared that he could not keep on his feet unless he became emperor, and that it made no difference whether he fell at the hands of the enemy in battle or at those of his creditors in the Forum.

Otho had extorted a million sesterces from one of the emperor’s slaves a few days before for getting him a steward­ship. This was the entire capital for his great undertaking. At first the enterprise was entrusted to five of his bodyguard, then to ten others, two being chosen by each of the first five. To all of them 10,000 sesterces were paid at once and they were promised 50,000 more. These then won others over to Otho’s cause, giving him confidence that more would join him when the business was afoot.

6. Otho had been inclined to seize the army camp immediately after the adoption of Piso and set upon Galba as he was dining in the palace, but he had been deterred out of consideration for the cohort which was on guard at the time, and a reluctance to increase its ill repute. For it was while that same cohort was at its post that both Galba had been slain and Nero had been abandoned. The intervening time​ was lost owing to bad omens and the warnings of Seleucus.

Accordingly, when the day was set [15 January 69], after admonishing his confederates to await him in the Forum at the golden mile-post​ near the temple of Saturn, Otho called upon Galba in the morning and was welcomed as usual with a kiss. He also attended the emperor as he was offering sacrifice and heard the predictions of the soothsayer.

Then a freedman announced that the architects had come, which was the signal agreed on, and going off as if to inspect a house which was for sale, he rushed from the palace by a back door and hastened to the appointed place. Others say that he feigned an attack of fever and asked those who stood near him to give that excuse, in case he should be missed.

Then, hurriedly entering a closed sedan such as women use, Otho hurried to the camp but got out when the bearers’ strength flagged and started to run. His shoe came untied and he stopped, whereupon without delay he was at once taken up on the shoulders of his companions and hailed as emperor. In this way he arrived at headquarters, amid acclamations and drawn swords, while everyone whom he met fell in, just as though he were an accomplice and a participator in the plot. He then sent emissaries to kill Galba and Piso and made no further promises in the assembly to win the loyalty of the soldiers than to declare that he would only take whatever [i.e. as much power as] they would give him.

7. Next, as the day was drawing to its close, Otho entered the senate and, after giving a brief account of himself, alleging that he had been carried off in the streets and forced to undertake the throne. He promised that he would exercise power in accordance with the general will then proceeded to the palace.

When in the midst of the other adulations of those who congratulated and flattered him, he was hailed by the common mob as Nero, he made no sign of dissent. On the contrary, according to some writers he even made use of that surname in his commissions and his first letters to some of the governors of the provinces. He allowed Nero’s busts and statues to be set up again and reinstated his procurators and freedmen in their former posts, while the first grant that he signed as emperor was one of 50 million to complete the construction of Nero’s Golden House.

It is said that he had a fearful dream that night, uttered loud groans, and was found by those who ran to his aid lying on the ground beside his couch. It is said that he tried by every kind of expiatory rite to propitiate the shade of Galba, by whom he dreamed that he was ousted and thrown out and that, on the next day, as he was taking the auspices, a great storm arose and he had a bad fall.

8. Now at about this same time the armies in Germany swore allegiance to Vitellius [Otho overthrew Galba on 15 January 69; the German legions had acclaimed Vitellius on 1 January].

When Otho learned of this, he persuaded the senate to send a deputation to say that an emperor had already been chosen and to counsel peace and harmony. But in spite of this he offered Vitellius by messengers and letters a share in the imperial dignity and proposed to become his son-in‑law. But when it became clear that war was inevitable and the generals and troops which Vitellius had sent in advance were approaching Rome he was given a proof of the affection and loyalty of the praetorians towards himself which almost resulted in the destruction of the senate.

It had been resolved that some arms should be removed and carried back​ on shipboard by the marines but as these were being taken out​ in the camp towards nightfall, some suspected treachery and started a riot. Then, suddenly, all the soldiers hastened to the palace without any particular leader, demanding the death of the senators. After putting to flight some of the tribunes who attempted to stop them, and killing others just as they were, all blood-stained, the soldiers burst right into the dining-room demanding to know where the emperor was and they could not be quieted until they had seen him.​

Otho began his expedition against Vitellius with energy and in fact too hastily, without any regard even for the omens, and in spite of the fact that the sacred shields had been taken out but not yet put back, which for ages has been considered unlucky.

  • He began on the very day, too, when the worshippers of the Mother of the Gods​ begin their wailing and lamentation, and also with most unfavourable auspices. For having offered up a victim to father Dis he had good omens whereas in such a sacrifice, adverse indications are more favourable.
  • And when he first left Rome, Otho was delayed by floods of the Tiber, while at the twentieth milestone he found the road blocked by fallen buildings.

9. Although no one doubted that the proper course was to protract the war, since the enemy were hard pressed by hunger and by the narrowness of their quarters – Otho rashly decided to fight a decisive battle as soon as possible, either because he could not endure the continued worry and hoped that the war could be ended before the arrival of Vitellius, or from inability to resist the impetuosity of his soldiers, who clamoured for the fight. He himself did not take part in any of the battles but remained behind at Brixellum.

He was victorious in three minor battles – in the Alps, near Placentia, and ‘at Castor’s’, as the place is called – but they were irrelevant to the main contest. In the final and decisive struggle at Bedriacum he was defeated, but through treachery. For hope of a conference was offered and when his soldiers were led out in the belief that they were to discuss terms of peace a battle was forced upon them unexpectedly, just as they were exchanging greetings with the foe.

After the defeat, Otho at once resolved to take his own life, rather from a feeling of shame (as many have thought with good reason) and an unwillingness to persist in a struggle for imperial power at the expense of such danger to life and property, than from any despair of success or distrust of his troops. For despite the defeat, he still had a fresh and strong force which he had held in reserve for a second attempt, while other legions were on their way from Dalmatia, Pannonia, and Moesia. Even the defeated troops were not so crushed as not to be able to fight on and, even without further support, undertake to avenge their disgrace.

10. My father Suetonius Laetus took part in that war as a tribune of the equestrian order in the Thirteenth legion. He used often to say afterwards that Otho, even when he was a private citizen, so loathed civil strife that at the mere mention of the fate of Brutus and Cassius at a banquet he shuddered and that he would not have engaged with Galba if he had not felt confident that the affair could be settled peacefully. Moreover that Otho was led to hold his life cheap at that time by the example of a common soldier. This man on bringing news of the defeat of the army was believed by no one but was accused by the soldiers of falsehood and cowardice and fleeing the battle. At which, to prove his honesty, the soldier fell on his sword at the emperor’s feet. My father used to say that at this sight Otho cried out that he would no longer endanger the lives of such brave men who had deserved so well.

Having therefore advised his brother, his nephew, and his friends one by one to look out each for his own safety as best they could, Otho embraced and kissed them all and sent them away. Then, going to a retired place, he wrote two notes, one of consolation to his sister, and one to Nero’s widow Messalina, whom he had intended to marry, commending to her his corpse and his memory. Then he burned all his letters to prevent them from bringing danger or harm to anyone at the hands of the victor. He also distributed what money he had with him among his servants.

11. When Otho had thus made his preparations and was resolved to die, learning from a disturbance which meantime arose that those who were beginning to depart and leave the camp were being seized and detained as deserters, he said: ‘Let us add this one more night to our life’ (these were his very words), and he forbade the offering of violence to anyone. Leaving the door of his bedroom open until a late hour, he gave the privilege of speaking with him to all who wished to come in.

After that, quenching his thirst with a draught of cold water, he caught up two daggers and, having tried the point of both of them, put one under his pillow. Then, closing the doors, he slept very soundly. When he at last woke up at about daylight he stabbed himself with a single stroke under the left breast and breathed his last. He was hastily buried (for such were his orders) in the thirty-eighth year of his age and on the ninety-fifth day of his reign.

12. Neither Otho’s person nor his bearing suggested such great courage. He is said to have been of moderate height, splay-footed and bandy-legged, but almost feminine in his care of his person. He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head that no one suspected it. They say that he used to shave every day and smear his face with moist bread, beginning the practice with the appearance of the first down so as never to have a beard. Also that he used to celebrate the rites of Isis publicly in the linen garment prescribed by the cult.

I am inclined to think that it was because of these habits that a death so little in harmony with his life excited the greater wonder. Many of the soldiers who were present kissed his hands and feet as he lay dead, weeping bitterly and calling him the bravest of men and an incomparable emperor, and then at once slew themselves beside his bier. Many of those who were absent too, on receiving the news attacked and killed one another from sheer grief.

In short, the greater part of those who had hated Otho most bitterly while he lived, praised him to the skies when he was dead. It was even commonly declared that he had put an end to Galba not so much for the sake of ruling as of restoring the republic and liberty.

Thought

Nothing became Otho’s life so much as the leaving it. When you read that many of his soldiers committed suicide to copy and honour him, your first reaction is simply to disbelieve it. But the Roman cult of principled suicide goes way beyond what we can really understand.

[Suetonius’s Life of Otho should be read alongside Tacitus’s account of the same events in his Histories.]


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

The Life of Galba by Suetonius

As an experiment I’m juxtaposing an edited-down version of the Wikipedia article about Galba with an edited-down version of an online English translation of Suetonius’s Life of Galba. Suetonius’s lives are often inaccurate and omit important facts. On the other hand, they contain much detail and comment which is omitted by encyclopedia articles. So I’ve set the two side by side to see how they complement each other. The most obvious learning is discovering just how much of the Wikipedia article is taken almost verbatim from Suetonius.

Servius Sulpicius Galba (3 BC to 69 AD) was the sixth Roman emperor, ruling briefly from the suicide of Nero on 8 June 68 AD to his own assassination on 15 January 69. After his adoption by his stepmother, and before becoming emperor, Galba was known as Livius Ocella Sulpicius Galba. He was the first of the emperors who ruled in the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD).

1. Galba Wikipedia article

Background

Galba was born into a wealthy and distinguished family. His father and brother, both named Gaius, were consul in 5 BC and AD 22 respectively. Galba held at various times the positions of praetor, consul, and governor to the provinces of Aquitania, Upper Germany, and Africa during the first half of the first century AD. He retired from his positions during the latter part of Claudius’ reign (with the advent of Agrippina the Younger as Claudius’s fourth wife), but Nero later granted him the governorship of Hispania.

Taking advantage of the defeat of the uprising against Nero of Gaius Julius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, in early 68, Galba marched with his army on Rome, prompting Nero’s suicide on 9 June 68 whereupon Galba was declared emperor by the senate, with the support of the Praetorian Guard.

Galba’s physical weakness and general apathy led to him being easily led by favorites. Unable to gain popularity with the people or maintain the support of the Praetorian Guard (not least by not paying them the bounty he had promised), Galba was murdered by troops supporting Marcus Otho, governor of the neighbouring province of Lusitania, who had accompanied Galba in the march on Rome but was aggrieved at being passed over for high office.

Galba was distantly related to the empress Livia, who he respected and who, in turn, advanced his career. In her will Livia left him 50 million sesterces. Emperor Tiberius, however, cheated Galba by reducing the amount to 500,000 sesterces and never even paid Galba the reduced amount.

Galba was gay. According to Suetonius ‘he was more inclined to … the hard-bodied and those past their prime.’ Nevertheless, he married a woman named Aemilia Lepida and had two sons. Aemilia and their sons died during the early years of the reign of Claudius and Galba never remarried.

Career

In 39 Galba was appointed general of the Upper German legions. According to one report, Galba curried favour with the emperor Caligula by running alongside his chariot for twenty miles. As commander of the legions of Upper Germany, Galba gained a reputation as a disciplinarian. Suetonius writes that Galba was advised to seize the throne following the assassination of Caligula in 41, but instead loyally served Caligula’s uncle and successor Claudius.

Claudius appointed Galba governor of Africa in 44 or 45. He retired at an unknown point during the reign of Claudius, possibly in 49. He was recalled in 59 or 60 by the emperor Nero to govern Hispania.

Revolt

A rebellion against Nero was orchestrated by Gaius Julius Vindex in Gaul on the anniversary of the death of Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, in 68. Shortly afterwards, Galba, in Spain, disavowed the title ‘General of Caesar’ in favour of ‘General of The Senate and People of Rome’.

Among several contenders for the throne who arose in light of Vindex’s revolt, Galba was supported by the influential imperial official Tigellinus. At midnight on 8 June, another imperial official, Nymphidius Sabinus, falsely announced to the Praetorian Guard that Nero had fled to Egypt, and the Senate proclaimed Galba emperor. Nero, who had fled to a suburban villa, committed assisted suicide with help from his secretary.

Reign

Galba was 72 when he came to the throne. Upon becoming emperor, he was faced by the rebellion of Nymphidius Sabinus, who had his own aspirations for the imperial throne. However, Sabinus was killed by the Praetorians before he could take the throne.

While Galba was arriving at Rome with the Lusitanian governor Marcus Salvius Otho, his army was attacked by a legion that had been organized by Nero. A number of Galba’s troops were killed in the fighting.

Galba surrounded himself with a group of cronies who gave him bad advice. He seized the property of Roman citizens, disbanded the German legions, and didn’t pay the Praetorian Guard and the soldiers who fought for him against Vindex. He condemned to death distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial. He became unpopular.

Mutiny on the frontier and assassination

On 1 January 69, the day Galba and Vinius took the office of consul, the fourth and twenty-second legions of Upper Germany refused to swear loyalty to Galba. They toppled his statues, demanding that a new emperor be chosen. On the following day, the soldiers of Lower Germany also refused to swear their loyalty and proclaimed the governor of the province, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor.

Galba tried to ensure his authority as emperor by adopting a successor, the young handsome nobleman Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus. But it was too little too late. Galba was killed by the Praetorian Guard on 15 January.

Marcus Salvius Otho was angry that he had been passed over for adoption and had organised a conspiracy with a small number of Praetorian Guards to murder the aged emperor and elevate himself. The soldiery in the capital, composed not just of Praetorians but of Galba’s legion from Spain and several detachments of men from the Roman fleet, Illyria, Britain, and Germany, were angered at not having received a donative i.e. reward for supporting him.

They also resented Galba’s purges of their officers and fellow soldiers (this was especially true of the men from the fleet). Many in the Praetorian Guard were shaken by the recent murder of their Prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus – some of the waverers were convinced to come over to Otho’s side out of fear that Galba might yet take revenge on them for their connection to Sabinus.

120 men later petitioned Otho that they had killed Galba. They would all be executed by Vitellius. A company of German soldiers to whom he had once done a kindness rushed to help Galba, however they took a wrong turn and arrived too late. He was killed near the Lacus Curtius.

Of Galba’s cronies: Vinius tried to run away, calling out that Otho had not ordered him killed, but was run through with a spear. Laco was banished to an island where he was later murdered by soldiers sent by Otho. Icelus was publicly executed. Piso was also killed; his head along with Galba’s and Vinius’s were placed on poles and mocked by the soldiers.

Galba’s head was brought by a soldier to Otho’s camp where camp boys mocked it. Vinius’s head was sold to his daughter for 2,500 drachmas. Piso’s head was given to his wife. Galba’s head was bought for 100 gold pieces by a freedman who threw it at Sessorium where his master, Patrobius Neronianus, had been killed by Galba. So much killing.

2. Suetonius’s Life of Galba

Suetonius gives Galba’s life in 23 short ‘chapters’ (compare with the 56 for Nero). I’ve copied and sub-edited the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation by J. C. Rolfe.

Nero was the last who bore the name ‘Caesar’ because of his connection with the family of Augustus; after him it turned from being a family name into a designation of rank.

1. With Nero the line of the Caesars became extinct. [Suetonius is as superstitious as Plutarch or Tacitus and so records a crop of the usual bad omens.]

  • the holy laurel tree from which the emperors had their wreaths made wilted
  • the temple of the Caesars​ was struck by lightning which decapitated all the statues at the same time
  • Augustus’s sceptre was dashed from his hand

2. When he became emperor, Galba displayed a family tree in his hall claiming his ancestry went back on his father’s side to Jupiter and on his mother’s to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos.

3. Nobody knows how the name Galba was introduced into the clan Sulpicii which he belonged to. One theory is that after a long siege of some Spanish town the Sulpicius in question set fire to it with torches smeared with resin (galbanum). Others because this ancestor during a long illness resorted to galbeum, a sort of poultice, that is to say of remedies wrapped in wool. Others think he was very fat man, the Gallic word for which is galba. Others that he was, on the contrary, like the galba, a creature which breeds in oak trees. [Shows you how wild and inaccurate Roman attempts at etymology were.]

His ancestor, Servius Galba, served as consul, was the most eloquent speaker of his time and triggered the war with Viriathus because, while governing Spain, he treacherously massacred 30,000 Lusitanians.

Galba’s great-grandfather was blocked by Julius Caesar in his campaign for the consulship in 49 BC and so joined Brutus’s conspiracy and was one of Caesar’s assassins. From him were descended the grandfather and the father of the emperor Galba. The former published a voluminous and painstaking history.

Galba’s father attained the consulship and, despite being a hunchback, was an effective advocate. He had two wives: Mummia Achaica, great-granddaughter of Lucius Mummius who destroyed Corinth, bore him two sons, Gaius and Servius (our protagonist). Gaius committed suicide because Tiberius would not allow him to take part in the allotment of the provinces in his year (i.e. following immediately his consulship). When Achaica died, Galba’s father married Livia Ocellina, a very rich and beautiful woman, who adopted Servius as her step-son.

4. The future emperor Servius Galba was born in the consulship of Marcus Valerius Messala and Gnaeus Lentulus (3 BC), on the ninth day before the Kalends of January i.e. 24 December, in a country house situated on a hill near Tarracina.

Adopted by his stepmother Livia, he took her name and the surname Ocella, and also changed his forename, using Lucius instead of Servius from that time until he became emperor.

Suetonius has some entertaining anecdotes. It was, he says, well known in his day that when Galba was a boy and called to pay his respects to Augustus with others of his age, the emperor pinched his cheek and said in Greek: ‘You too will taste a little of my power, child.’

And Tiberius too, when he heard that Galba was destined to be emperor, but in his old age, said: ‘Well, let him live then, since that does not concern me.’

When he reached adult years, Galba dreamed that Fortune said that she was tired of waiting outside his door and, unless he let her in, she would be fair game for the next passerby. When he awoke and opened the door into the hall he found a bronze statue of Fortune about two feet high. This he carried lovingly to his summer house a Tusculum, and consecrated it in a room there, worshiping it from that time on with monthly sacrifices and an annual vigil. [Compare and contrast with Nero’s alleged attachment to a small figure of a girl sent him by an unnamed commoner.]

As a young man he persisted in keeping up an old and forgotten custom which survived only in his own household, of having his freedmen and slaves appear before him twice a day in a body, greeting him in the morning and bidding him goodnight at evening, one by one.

5. Galba applied himself to liberal studies, particularly the law.

He took marriage seriously but after his wife Lepida and the two sons he had by her died, he remained a widower. He could not be tempted afterwards by any match, not even with the redoubtable Agrippina [mother of Nero], who no sooner lost [her first husband] Domitius by death than she made such shameless advances to him, while his wife was still alive, that Lepida’s mother gave her a public reprimand, going so far as to slap her.

Galba showed marked respect to Livia Augusta, to whose favour he owed great influence during her lifetime and by whose last will he almost became a rich man; for he had the largest bequest among her legatees, one of 50 million sesterces. But because the sum was designated in figures and not written out in words, Tiberius, who was her heir, reduced the bequest to 500,000, and Galba never received even that amount.

6. Galba began his career of office before the legal age, and in celebrating the games of the Floralia in his praetorship he gave a new kind of exhibition, namely of elephants walking the rope.​ Then he governed the province of Aquitania for nearly a year and soon afterwards held a regular consulship​ for six months. It chanced that in this office he succeeded Lucius​ Domitius, the father of Nero, and was succeeded by Salvius Otho, the father of the emperor Otho, a kind of omen of what happened later, when he became emperor between the reigns of the sons of these two men.

Appointed governor of Upper Germany by Gaius Caesar, the day after he appeared before the legions Galba put a stop to their applause at a festival which chanced to fall at that time, by issuing a written order to keep their hands under their cloaks; and immediately this verse was bandied about the camp:

‘Soldier, learn to play the soldier; ’tis Galba, not Gaetulicus.’

With equal strictness Galba put a stop to the requests for furloughs. He got both the veterans and the new recruits into condition by plenty of hard work, speedily checked the barbarians, who had already made inroads even into Gaul. When Gaius (Caligula) arrived on a tour of inspection, Galba and his army made such a good impression that out of the great body of troops assembled from all the provinces none received greater commendation or richer rewards. Galba particularly distinguished himself while directing the military manoeuvres shield in hand, by running for twenty miles close beside Caligula’s chariot.

7. When the murder of Caligula was announced, although many urged Galba to take advantage of the opportunity, he preferred quiet. Hence he was in high favour with Claudius, became one of his staff of intimate friends, and was treated with such consideration that the departure of the expedition to Britain was put off because Galba was taken with a sudden illness (of no great severity).

Galba governed Africa for two years with the rank of proconsul, being specially chosen​ to restore order in the province, which was disturbed both by internal strife and by a revolt of the barbarians. He was successful owing to his insistence on strict discipline and his observance of justice even in trifling matters. When provisions were very scarce during a foray and a soldier was accused of having sold for a hundred denarii a peck​ of wheat which was left from his rations, Galba gave orders that when the man began to lack food, no one should help him and so he starved to death.

On another occasion, when Galba was holding court and the question of the ownership of a beast of burden was laid before him, as the evidence on both sides was slight and the witnesses unreliable so that it was difficult to get at the truth, Galba ruled that the beast should be led with its head muffled up to the pool where it was usually watered, that it should then be unmuffled, and should belong to which of the men it returned to of its own accord.

8. Galba’s services in Africa at that time, and previously in Germany, were recognised by the triumphal regalia and three priesthoods, for he was chosen a member of the Fifteen,​ of the brotherhood of Titius,​ and of the priests of Augustus.

After that he lived for the most part in retirement until about the middle of Nero’s reign, never going out even for recreation without taking a million sesterces in gold with him in a second carriage. Finally, while he was staying in the town of Fundi, the province of Hispania Tarraconensis was offered to him.

It happened that as he was offering sacrifice in a public temple after his arrival in the province, the hair of a young attendant who was carrying an incense-box suddenly turned white all over his head. Some interpreted this as a sign of a change of rulers and of the succession of an old man to a young one, that is to say, of Galba to Nero. Not long after this, lightning struck a lake of Cantabria and twelve axes were found there, an unmistakable token of supreme power.

9. For eight years Galba governed the province in a variable and inconsistent manner. At first he was vigorous and energetic and even over-severe in punishing offences. For example, he cut off the hands of a money-lender who carried on his business dishonestly and nailed them to his counter. He crucified a man for poisoning his ward, whose property he was to inherit in case of his death and when the man invoked the law and declared that he was a Roman citizen, Galba, pretending to lighten his punishment by some consolation and honour, ordered that a cross much higher than the rest and painted white be set up, and the man transferred to it.

But he gradually changed to sloth and inaction, not to give Nero any cause for jealousy and, as he used to say himself, because no one could be forced to render an account for doing nothing.

As he was holding the assizes at New Carthage, Galba learned of the rebellion of the Gallic provinces through an urgent appeal for help from the governor of Aquitania. Then came letters from Vindex, calling on Galba to make himself the liberator and leader of mankind. So, without much hesitation, Galba accepted the proposal, led by fear as well as by hope. For he had intercepted despatches ordering his own death, which had been secretly sent by Nero to his agents.​

Galba was encouraged too, in addition to most favourable auspices and omens, by the prediction of a young girl of high birth; and also because the priest of Jupiter at Clunia, directed by a dream, had found in the inner shrine of his temple the very same prediction, likewise spoken by an inspired girl 200 years before. The drift of the verses​ was that one day there would come out of Spain the ruler and lord of the world.

10. Accordingly, pretending that he was going to attend to the manumitting of slaves, Galba mounted the tribunal, on the front of which he had set up as many images as he could find of those who had been condemned and put to death by Nero – and having by his side a boy of noble family whom he had summoned for that very purpose from his place of exile hard by in the Balearic Isles – he deplored the state of the times.

Being hailed as emperor by his troops, Galba declared that he was their governor, representing the senate and people of Rome.​ Then, proclaiming a holiday, he enrolled from the people of the province legions and auxiliaries in addition to his former force of one legion, two divisions of cavalry and three cohorts.

But from the oldest and most experienced of the nobles Galba chose a kind of senate who he might refer matters of special importance to whenever it was necessary. He also chose young men of the order of knights, who were to have the title of volunteers​ and guard his bedchamber in place of the regular soldiers, without losing their right to wear the gold ring.​ He also sent proclamations throughout the province, urging all men individually and collectively to join the revolution and aid the common cause in every possible way.

More omens and portents:

  • During the fortification of a town which he had chosen as the seat of war, a ring of ancient workmanship was found, containing a precious stone engraved with a Victory and a trophy.
  • Immediately afterwards a ship from Alexandria loaded with arms arrived at Dertosa without a pilot, without a single sailor or passenger, removing all doubt in anyone’s mind that the war was just and holy and undertaken with the approval of the gods.

Then suddenly and unexpectedly the whole plan almost failed. One of Galba’s two divisions of cavalry,​ repenting of its change of allegiance, attempted to desert Galba as he was approaching his camp and was only with difficulty prevented.

Some slaves too, whom one of Nero’s freedmen had given to Galba with treachery in view, nearly assassinated him as he was going to the bath through a narrow passage-way. They would have succeeded had they not been overheard discussing ‘the opportunity’ and, when interrogated about what ‘the opportunity’ referred to, confessed.

11. To these great perils was added the defeat and death of Vindex by forces loyal to Nero. This made Galba panic and even contemplate taking his own life, believing the cause of insurrection was lost. But when some messengers came from Rome, reporting that Nero was dead and that all the people had sworn allegiance to him, Galba, he laid aside the title of governor and assumed that of Caesar.

He then began his march to Rome in a general’s cloak with a dagger hanging from his neck in front of his breast and he did not resume the toga until he had overthrown his opponents, Nymphidius Sabinus, prefect of the praetorian guard at Rome, and in Germany and Africa the governors Fonteius Capito and Clodius Macer.

12. Galba’s double reputation for cruelty and avarice had gone before him. Men said that he had punished the cities of the Spanish and Gallic provinces which had hesitated about taking sides with him by imposing heavier taxes and even razing the walls of some of them, executing the governors and imperial deputies​ along with their wives and children.

It was further alleged that he had melted down a golden crown of fifteen pounds weight, which the people of Tarraco had taken from their ancient temple of Jupiter and presented to him; he ordered that the three ounces which it fell short by should be exacted from them.

Galba’s reputation for harshness was confirmed immediately on his arrival in Rome. He compelled some marines whom Nero had made regular soldiers to return to their former position as rowers and, when they refused and obstinately demanded an eagle and standards, Galba not only dispersed them by a cavalry charge but had them decimated.

Galba also disbanded a cohort of Germans, whom the previous Caesars had made their bodyguard​ and had found absolutely faithful in many emergencies, and sent them back to their native country without any rewards. He alleged that they were favourably inclined towards Gnaeus Dolabella, near whose gardens they had their camp.

The following tales were told in mockery of him, whether truly or falsely:

  • that when an unusually elegant dinner was set before him, he groaned aloud
  • that when his duly appointed steward presented his expense account, he handed him a dish of beans in return for his industry
  • that when the flute player Canus greatly pleased him, he presented him with five denarii, which he took from his own purse with his own hand i.e. he acquired a reputation for being stingy

13. Accordingly Galba’s arrival in Rome was not so welcome as it might have been. This was apparent at the first performance in the theatre, for when the actors of an Atellan farce began the familiar lines:

‘Here comes Onesimus from his farm’

all the spectators at once finished the song in chorus and repeated it several times with appropriate gestures, as if it mockingly referred to Galba.

14. Thus Galba’s popularity and prestige were greater when he won than while he ruled the empire, although he gave many proofs of being an excellent prince. But he was more hated for his bad acts than loved for his wise ones.

Galba was wholly under the control of three men who were commonly known as his tutors because they lived with him in the palace and never left his side. These were:

  • Titus Vinius, one of his generals in Spain, a man of unbounded covetousness
  • Cornelius Laco, advanced from the position of judge’s assistant to that of prefect of the Guard and intolerably haughty and indolent
  • his own freedman Icelus, who had only just before received the honour of the gold ring​ and the surname of Marcianus, yet already aspired to the highest office open to the equestrian order

Galba was so under the influence of these men with their different agendas that his conduct was inconsistent: sometimes he was exacting and niggardly, other times more extravagant and reckless than became a prince chosen by the people and of his time of life.

Galba condemned to death various distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial. He rarely granted Roman citizenship, and granted the privileges of threefold paternity​ to hardly one or two men, and even to those only for a fixed and limited time.

When the jurors petitioned that a sixth division be added to their number, he not only refused but even deprived them of the privilege, granted by Claudius, of not being summoned for court duty in winter and at the beginning of the year.

15. It was thought too that Galba intended to limit the offices open to senators and knights to a period of two years, and to give them only to such as did not wish them and declined them.​

He had all the grants of Nero revoked, allowing only a tenth part to be retained and he demanded repayment with the help of fifty Roman knights, stipulating that even if the actors and athletes had sold anything that had formerly been given them (by Nero), it should be taken away from the purchases, in case the recipient had spent the money and could not repay it.

On the other hand, there was nothing that he did not allow his friends and freedmen to sell at a price or bestow as a favour, taxes and freedom from taxation, the punishment of the guiltless and impunity for the guilty.

More, when the Roman people called for the punishment of Halotus and Tigellinus, the most abandoned of Nero’s creatures, not content with saving their lives, Galba honoured Halotus with an important stewardship and, in the case of Tigellinus, issued an edict rebuking the people for their cruelty in criticising him.

16. Having thus incurred the hatred of almost all men of every class, Galba was especially detested by the soldiers, for although their officers​ had promised them a larger gift than common when they swore allegiance to Galba in his absence, so far from keeping the promise, Galba declared more than once that it was his habit to levy troops, not to buy them. With this policy he embittered the soldiers all over the empire. He filled the praetorians with fear and indignation by discharging many of them from time to time as under suspicion of being partisans of Nymphidius.

But loudest of all was the grumbling of the army in Upper Germany, because it was defrauded of the reward for its services against the Gauls and Vindex. This is why these troops were the first to venture on mutiny, refusing on the Kalends of January to swear allegiance to anyone save the senate, and at once resolving to send a deputation to the praetorians with the following message: that the emperor created in Spain did not suit them and the Guard must choose one who would be acceptable to all the armies.

17. When this was reported to Galba, thinking that it was not so much his age as his lack of children that was criticised, he picked out Piso Frugi Licinianus from the throng at one of his morning receptions, a young man of noble birth and high character, who had long been one of his special favourites and always named in his will as heir to his property and his name.

Calling him ‘son’, Galba led Piso to the praetorian camp and adopted him before the assembled soldiers. But even then he made no mention of largess (i.e. money for the soldiers), thus making it easier for Marcus Salvius Otho to overthrow him just six days after the adoption.

18. Many prodigies from the start of his reign had foretold Galba’s end exactly as it happened:

  • when animals were being slain to right and left all along his march to Rome in every town,​ an ox, maddened by the stroke of an axe, broke its bonds and charged the emperor’s chariot and deluged him with blood
  • as Galba dismounted, one of his guards, pushed forward by the crowd, almost wounded him with his lance
  • as he entered Rome, and later the Palace, he was met by a shock of earthquake and a sound like the lowing of cattle

There followed even clearer signs: he had set apart from all the treasure a necklace made of pearls and precious stones, for the adornment of his image of Fortune at Tusculum.​ This on a sudden impulse he consecrated to the Capitoline Venus, thinking it worthy of a more august position. The next night Fortune appeared to him in his dreams, complaining of being robbed of the gift intended for her and threatening to take away what she had bestowed. When day came Galba hastened in terror to Tusculum to offer expiatory sacrifices because of the dream, and sent men ahead to make preparations for the ceremony. But on arrival, he found on the altar nothing but warm ashes and beside it an old man dressed in black, holding the incense in a glass dish and the wine in an earthen cup.​

It was also noticed that as Galba was sacrificing on the Kalends of January, the garland fell from his head and that, as he took the auspices, the sacred chickens flew away.

As he was on the point of addressing the soldiers on the day of the adoption,​ his camp chair, through the forgetfulness of his attendants, was not placed on the tribunal, as is customary. In the senate his curule chair was set wrong side foremost.

19. As Galba was offering sacrifice on the morning before he was killed, a soothsayer warned him to look out for danger, since assassins were not far off.

Not long after this Galba learned that Otho had taken possession of the camp of the Praetorian Guard. When advisers recommended that Galba go there as soon as possible — for they said that he could win the day by his presence and prestige — he decided to do no more than hold his present position and strengthen it by assembling a guard of the legionaries, who were camped around Rome.

Galba did put on a linen cuirass, though he admitted it would give little protection against so many swords. But he was lured out by false reports, circulated by the conspirators, to induce him to appear in public. They assured him that the trouble was over, that the rebels had been overthrown, and that the rest were coming in a body to offer their congratulations, ready to submit to all his orders.

So Galba went out to meet them with so much confidence that when one of the soldiers boasted that he had slain Otho, he asked him, ‘On whose authority?’ and then he went on to the Forum. There the cavalry who had been bidden to slay him, spurring their horses through the streets and dispersing the crowd of civilians, caught sight of him from a distance and halted for a moment. Then they rushed upon him again and butchered him, abandoned by his followers.

20. Some say that at the beginning of the disturbance Galba cried out, ‘What mean you, fellow soldiers? I am yours and you are mine,’ and that he even promised them largess. But the more general account is that he offered them his neck without resistance, urging them to do their duty​ and strike, since it was their will.

It might seem surprising that none of those present tried to help their emperor, and that everyone who Galba sent for treated the summons with contempt, except for a company of German troops. These responded because of his recent kindness in showing them great indulgence when they were weakened by illness, and they ran to his help but, not knowing their way round Rome, took a roundabout way and arrived too late.

Galba was killed beside the Lake of Curtius​ and was left lying just as he was, until a common soldier, returning from a distribution of grain, threw down his load and cut off the head. Since there was no hair by which to grasp it, the soldier put it under his robe, but later thrust his thumb into the mouth and so carried it to Otho.

Otho handed the head over to his servants and camp-followers, who stuck it on a lance and paraded it about the camp with jeers, crying out from time to time: ‘Galba, thou Cupid, exult in thy vigour!’ The point of this joke was that the report had gone around a few days earlier that when someone had congratulated him on still looking young and vigorous, Galba had replied:

‘As yet my strength is unimpaired.’

The head was bought from these camp followers by a freedman of Patrobius Neronianus for 100 pieces of gold and thrown in the place where his patron had been executed on Galba’s orders.

At last, however, Galba’s steward, Argivus, consigned it, with the rest of the body, to the tomb in Galba’s private gardens on the Aurelian Road.

21. Galba was of average height, very bald, with blue eyes and a hooked nose. His hands and feet were so distorted by gout that he couldn’t bear to wear a shoe for long, to unroll a book, or even to hold one. The flesh on his right side too had grown out and hung down to such an extent that it could only with difficulty be held in place by a bandage.

22. It’s said that Galba was a heavy eater and in winter time used to take food even before daylight, while at dinner he helped himself so lavishly that he would have the leftovers placed in front of him to finish off before he distributed it among his attendants.

Galba was more inclined in his sexual tastes to men and, of those, vigorous and older ones. They say that when Icelus, one of his old favourites, brought him news in Spain of Nero’s death, he not only received him openly with the fondest kisses, but begged him to ‘prepare himself’ without delay and took him to one side [i.e. buggered him].

23. Galba met his end in the seventy-third year of his age and the seventh month of his reign. The senate, as soon as it was allowed to do so, voted him a statue standing on a column decorated with the beaks of ships, in the part of the Forum where he was killed. But Vespasian [after he came to power in July 69] annulled this decree, believing that Galba had sent assassins from Spain to Judaea to murder him.

[Suetonius’s Life of Galba should be read alongside Tacitus’s account of the same events in his Histories.]


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

Histories by Tacitus

Biography

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, generally referred to simply as Tacitus, was a Roman statesman and historian. He lived from 56 to 120 AD. Like many Roman writers he had an eminent career in politics and public service. He started his career under the emperor Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79) and entered political life as a quaestor in 81 or 82 under Titus (ruled 79 to 81). He became praetor under Domitian (ruled 81 to 96) in 88 and then a quindecimvir, a member of the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular Games.

Tacitus gained acclaim as a lawyer and as an orator, then served in the provinces from about 89 to about 93, either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. He became suffect consul (someone appointed to replace an elected consul who had vacated their office before the completion of their year-long term) in 97, during the short reign of Nerva (ruled 96 to 98).

It was about this point that he embarked on a career as a writer, producing two historical monographs – a biography of his father-in-law Julius Agricola which, because the latter had served as governor of Britain, contains much interesting information about the tribes and geography of ancient Britain; and the Germania, an ethnographic study of the tribes of Germany, both published in 98.

Tacitus returned to public life during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 to 117). In 100 he and his friend, Pliny the Younger, prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption. Priscus was found guilty and sent into exile. Pliny wrote in a letter a few days later that Tacitus had spoken ‘with all the majesty which characterises his usual style of oratory’.

Tacitus spent the next decade or so researching his two major works, the Histories and the Annals but in 112 to 113 was back in public service, recorded as holding the highest civilian governorship, of the Roman province of ‘Asia’ i.e. western Turkey. He probably died in the 120s, though the precise date is not known.

The point of recounting all this is to emphasise that Tacitus understood military and political power from the inside. He was a noted public speaker, lawyer and prosecutor, and held senior administrative posts. This profound understanding of all aspects of the Roman political system explains why Tacitus’s histories feel so authoritative and rich. He is speaking from deep experience of how Roman government worked, along with all the scheming, backstabbing and politicking which accompanied it.

The Histories

Together, the Histories and Annals were designed to give a continuous, year-by-year history of Rome under the rule of the first 12 emperors, from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian i.e. from 14 to 96 AD, taking in the ten emperors in between (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).

Tacitus composed the Annals second but they deal with the earlier period, Augustus to Nero (14 to 68). He composed the Histories first but they deal with the later period, Galba to Domitian (68 to 96).

Both books are missing large sections. The Annals is missing a big chunk in the middle, covering the last two years of Tiberius, the entire reign of Caligula (37 to 41) and the first six years of Claudius (41 to 47). Very frustrating.

But the Histories are even more mutilated. Originally 12 or 14 books in length, all that survive are the first four books and part of the fifth so that, instead of the 30 or so years from 68 to 96, all we have is just the first two years of his intended period, namely a brief summary of 68, all of 69 and some of 70.

The 1964 Penguin Classics paperback translation by British historian Kenneth Wellesley (1911 to 1995) is 260 pages long. That’s a lot of pages for just 2 years, so straightaway you know the Histories are going to cover the period in great detail.

If it’s a shame that we’ve lost most of the Histories and thus Tacitus’s accounts of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, looking on the bright side, what we do have is a detailed account of a pivotal moment, the so-called Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, when, following Nero’s suicide in June 68, four successive military leaders contested the imperial throne.

Nero was the last representative of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which had ruled Rome since 27 BC, but it was not only a dynasty that was overthrown; such was the chaos that it looked to contemporaries as if the unified, centralised structure of the Roman Empire itself might come to an end.

Four emperors died violently:

  • Nero in June 68, suicide (1. 4)
  • Galba in January 69, murdered by soldiers (1.41)
  • Otho in April 69, suicide (2.49)
  • Vitellius in December 69, murdered by soldiers (3.85)

Synopsis

Nero overthrown

In summer 68 reports reached Nero that the governor of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, had rebelled against him. In order to gain support Vindex declared he was rebelling in support of the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba. The commander of the Germania Superior army, Lucius Verginius Rufus, remained loyal to Nero and led his army against Vindex and appears to have beaten him at the battle of Vesontio, where Vindex was killed. But in the meantime, momentum had shifted to Galba. Other army leaders swung behind him and the senate declared for him. Abandoned by the legions in Italy, Nero fled to a villa outside Rome and, hearing hostile troops approaching, committed suicide rather than be dragged back to Rome and executed.

Reign of Servius Sulpicius Galba (8 June 68 to 15 January 69)

So the senate declared for Galba and he undertook the long march from Spain to the capital, where he was acclaimed emperor in June 68. However, Galba was:

  • old – he was 70 when he came to power
  • ruled badly and inconsistently, swayed by a cabal of corrupt advisers
  • didn’t pay the army as generously as it was expecting, especially the all-important Praetorian Guard which, as a result, turned against him (1.4)c

More importantly, on 1 January 69, the same day that Galba took the office of consul alongside Titus Vinius, the legions of Upper Germany refused to swear loyalty to the new emperor. They toppled the statues of Galba and demanded that a new emperor be chosen. The following day, the soldiers of Lower Germany also refused to swear their loyalty and proclaimed the governor of their province, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor.

In a bid to secure his position, on 10 January Galba held a ceremony to adopt the 31-year-old Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus as his successor but it didn’t work. Just 5 days later, on 15 January, Galba was murdered by the Praetorian Guard (1.41). His successor, Piso, fled to the Temple of Vesta, but was dragged out and killed (1.43). Their heads were cut off and paraded round on pikes.

Reign of Marcus Otho (15 January to 16 April 69)

Tacitus’s account describes in detail how his successor, Marcus Otho, based in Rome, organised the conspiracy to assassinate Galba. Otho had been close to the centre of power for over a decade. He had initially been a friend and courtier of the young Nero, but Nero had an affair with and eventually married his wife, Poppaea Sabina, so had had Otho was dispatched to be governor the remote province of Lusitania in 58.

According to Tacitus Otho ruled Lusitania moderately for a decade. In the turmoil of summer 68, Otho allied himself with Galba, who was governor of neighbouring, Hispania Tarraconensis, and he accompanied Galba on his march to Rome, not unreasonably expecting a reward for his support. He was, therefore, aggrieved when Galba overlooked him to adopt Piso.

However, all these personal motives were dwarfed when Otho, now appointed emperor, read Galba’s imperial correspondence and for the first time realised the scale of the revolt of the army in Germany. Vitellius was leading his legions on a march on Rome à la Galba. Otho made an effort to negotiate, offering Vitellius a share in ruling the empire. When this was rejected, he assembled a fleet to control the coast and led his legions north where they undertook savage attacks on the civilians in the region.

Tacitus gives a detailed account of the movements of the legions of the various armies, Vitellius’s under the ambitious Aulus Caecina Alienus, Otho’s under Suetonius Paulinus. Paulinus defeated Caecina at a battle near Cremona but Caecina was then joined by the other Vitellian army led by Fabius Valens for the key battle of the campaign which took place at Bedriacum on 14 April 69.

It was a disaster for Otho’s forces, with the historian Dio Cassius claiming that 40,000 Roman soldiers were killed on both sides. (Tacitus makes the interesting point that in a civil war there’s less point, in fact it’s illegal, to take prisoners and ransom to their families, as you can in war against foreigners. So you might as well just kill them.) The next day Otho’s forces surrendered and swore allegiance to Vitellius (2.45).

Otho had retained substantial forces at his main base at Brixellum, a few miles from the battlefield and they advised him to fight on but Otho, reluctant to be responsible for more Roman lives lost, chose to commit suicide. Otho was mocked during his life for his debauched lifestyle and flamboyant homosexuality. But his suicide struck the true Roman Stoic note and was remembered and praised. Tacitus treats Otho’s death nobly and gives him a stirring speech to his men (2.46 to 49):

It may be that others have held the principate longer, but I shall make sure that no one quits it more courageously.

(A note on the Roman cult of suicide: Tacitus claims that a number of troops committed suicide beside Otho’s funeral pyre, and at the other Othonian camps both high and low committed suicide in order ‘to share his glory.’)

Reign of Aulus Vitellius (19 April to 20 December 69)

With Otho dead, Vitellius continued his march on Rome, where he made a triumphal entry and was recognized as emperor by the Senate. Tacitus then enjoys himself hugely recounting the multiple instances of Vitellius’s disgraceful debauchery, spending fortunes on games and entertainments, listening to whoever flattered him most, letting the troops he’d brought to the capital run rampant and lose all discipline. Among the numerous executions and appointments, Vitellius failed to defuse the long-running rivalry between the two generals who had won his victory at Bedriacum, Caecina and Valens.

Indeed, as Tacitus repeatedly points out, it proved to be easier to claim the throne than to hold onto it. Vitellius’s claim was soon challenged by the legions stationed in the East (Judaea and Egypt) who proclaimed their commander, Titus Flavius Vespasian, emperor instead.

Vespasian had a formidable reputation as a military commander, having played a key role in Claudius’s invasion of Britain in 43, and he was involved in suppressing the Jewish rebellion (which had started in 66) when Nero committed suicide.

Leaving his son (and future emperor) Titus, in charge of the siege of the Jews in Jerusalem, Vespasian recruited the governor of Syria, Mucianus, and Marcus Antonius Primus, a general in Pannonia, to his cause, and sent them to march on Rome, the third such march by Roman legions in 12 months.

Vespasian himself was in Egypt securing its vital grain supply when his troops entered Italy from the north-east under Primus’s leadership. With his determination, personal courage and charisma, Primus emerges as the ‘hero’, as Wellesley puts it, of book 3 of the Histories. After a confused series of clashes and manoeuvres, Primus’s legions defeated Vitellius’s army at the second battle of Bedriacum on 24 October 69. They then stormed and sacked the nearby town of Cremona in scenes of chaos, rapine and then fire. Tacitus is ashamed of the utter destruction wrought by Roman troops on a venerable Roman city (3.33).

Meanwhile the two generals who had led Vitelius to the throne, Caecina and Valens, both abandoned him in different ways. Caecina led the first Vitellian forces north but betrayed them and his emperor by going over to the Vespasians. Valens was slow to leave Rome and when he learned of the defeat of the Vitellians at Bedriacum he abandoned his legions and took ship to Monaco, with a plan to enter Narbonensian Gaul and raise a general rebellion of the Gaulish and German tribes against Vespasian. As Tacitus comments, this would have been catastrophic if it had succeeded (3.41) but it didn’t. Valens’s ship was overtaken by a flotilla of fast Vespasian galleys. With his capture the wind went out of the Vitellian forces:

With the capture of Valens the whole Roman world rallied to the winning side. (3.44)

Tacitus emphasises that Vitellius still had ample forces around Rome and if he had crossed the Apennines to attack the exhausted Flavian troops before reinforcements had arrived, could quite possibly have won. But he hadn’t a clue about military matters and surrounded himself with flattering courtiers who refused admittance to the centurions and commanders who could have given him sound advice (3.56).

Tacitus describes the confused scenes in Rome when Vitellius came down from the palace dressed in black, made an impassioned speech to the people, but was prevented by them, the Praetorian Guard and the German auxiliaries, from abdicating as he wanted to. (3.67-68) If his wish had been carried out much bloodshed and destruction would have been avoided.

If Vitellius had found it as easy to convert his follower as to give way himself, the army of Vespasian would have entered the capital without bloodshed. (3.66)

But Vitellius’s supporters’ obstinacy meant that the Flavian forces had to fight their way into Rome, destroying property and spreading carnage as they went.

The extraordinary story of Sabinus and Domitian

Vespasian had an older brother, Titus Flavius Sabinus, who had had a successful public career. Throughout the year he had remained in Rome as successive rulers rose and fell. Staying with him was his nephew, Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian. Tacitus tell us that Vitellius was well aware of their presence but took no action against them so that his, Vitellius’s, extended family, living in various provinces, would also be unharmed.

But Sabinus wasn’t stupid and had reached out to the anti-Vitellian factions in the nobility and, when news came that Vitellius had abdicated, he mobilised these individuals and cohorts (‘the leading senators, a number of knights and representatives of the urban troops and of the watch’) and they declared for Vespasian as emperor. Then came the news that Vitellius had been forced to remain in power and the position of Sabinus’s little troupe became desperate. Scuffles between the opposing forces turned into fighting and Sabinus led his force up to the Capitoline Hill where they barricaded themselves in, where he was joined by his family and Domitian.

There followed an intense siege of the hill by the pro-Vitellian forces (3.71). Nobody knows whether it was the attackers or defenders who resorted to fire but somehow a fire started and spread to surrounding buildings, above all the venerable Temple to Jupiter the Best and Greatest. This ancient building, full of tributes and testimonials from centuries of Roman history and military achievement, was burned to the ground.

This was the most lamentable and appalling disaster in the whole history of the Roman commonwealth. (3.72)

Eventually the Vitellians stormed the hill, while panic-stricken Flavians fled or hid or disguised themselves. Sabinus was seized along with his lieutenant, Quintius Atticus, put in chains and dragged before the now-powerless emperor who spoke calmly to them but was unable to stop them being dragged off by the impassioned mob, which stabbed and hacked Sabinus to death, cut off his head and threw his body onto the Gemonian Steps. Thus the end of a great Roman patriot, one among thousands of victims of Vitellius’s inability to rein in his own followers.

The fate of his nephew, Vespasian’s son and the future emperor Domitian, is even more colourful. As the besiegers broke in, Domitian hid in the house of the caretaker of the temple. Helped by a freedman he put on ‘a linen mantle’ and pretended to be a priest in order to get through the lines and then hide at the house of one of the family dependants. Once Vespasian was in power, Domitian demolished the caretaker’s house and built a small temple to Jupiter the Preserver. When he himself became emperor, he had a bigger temple erected to Jupiter the Guardian, with a statue depicting himself ‘under the protecting arm of the god’ (3.74).

So Primus’s legions were forced to fight their way into Rome with much bloodshed and destruction and, seizing the forlorn emperor-in-name-only Vitellius, they dragged him to the same Gemonian Steps where Sabinus’s body had been thrown a few days earlier, and there hacked him to death, on 20 December 69.

Throughout book 3 Tacitus describes how the Flavian side, although generally victorious in battle, was guilty of disagreement and delay, especially how Primus waited for the arrival of Mucianus and his Syrian troops. Other leaders heard of Vitellius’s abdication and thought the war was over. Tacitus finds it hard to apportion blame, but the combined effect was delay which was ‘fatal’ and had ‘tragic’ consequences of ‘unrelieved disaster’ i.e. the siege of the Capitol, the burning of the temple, the execution of Sabinus, and the eventual storming of Rome. The advance guard attacked the city walls on the evening of 19 December 68.

Next day the Flavian armies forced entry to the city at various gates amid scenes of rape and massacre. Tacitus vividly describes how the fighting took place in front of the entire population which watched it like spectators applauding a mock battle in the arena (3.83). Next day Domitian came out of hiding and was awarded the title Caesar but real power rested with the head of the conquering army, Antonius Primus. Within a few days the governor of Syria, Municianus arrived, and power shifted to him as official representative of Vespasian. Tacitus shows how the day-to-day business of politics i.e. speechifying, backstabbing, conspiring, senators prosecuting each other, carried on unchanged.

Reign of Vespasian (July 69 to June 79)

Vespasian ruled for ten years, establishing the Flavian dynasty (which lasted 27 years) which consisted of himself, his eldest son Titus (79 to 81) and second son, Domitian (81 to 96), survivor of the escapades on the Capitoline Hill. In fact Vespasian was the first Roman emperor to be succeeded by his biological son; the succession of emperors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty had all been by adoption. Vespasian:

  • reformed Rome’s financial system of Rome
  • brought the campaign against the Jews to a successful conclusion with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 and the mass suicide of Jewish resisters at Masada in 74
  • initiated ambitious construction projects including commissioning the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum

Civilis’ revolt

But Tacitus doesn’t get round to any of this in what we have of his account. Instead, book 4 of his narrative focuses on developments in Germany. Here, months before the Flavian forces had even triumphed in Italy, a Romanised Batavian prince named Gaius Julius Civilis led a rebellion of German and Gaulish tribes which, at one point, threatened the complete independence of Gaul from Rome.

Tacitus describes the complex sequence of events by which Civilis united the tribes and then their attacks on Roman strongholds (notably the long siege of the Roman camp of Vetera), along with the appalling mismanagement on the Roman side, punctuated by mutinies by dissident soldiers (4.12 to 37).

Back in Rome

Tacitus cuts back to Rome to describe the start of the new year (70 AD) and the nominal consulships of Vespasian and his son Titus. However, as both were still absent in the East, it was Vespasian’s 18-year-old Domitian who found himself titled ‘Caesar’ and officiating at the first meetings of the Senate. Tacitus lists the usual senate business of making speeches, arguing about who was guilty of what crimes and betrayals during the reigns of Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, feuds and prosecutions.

Vespasian, still in Egypt supervising Rome’s corn supply, was told bad things about Domitian arrogating too much power to himself, which threatened to turn him against his son, but this is the peg for Titus to make a speech asking clemency for his brother, on the basis that emperor’s needed to keep family close and well as the only true support they had (4.52). Tacitus then describes the reconsecration of the great temple of Jupiter (4.53).

More Civilis’ revolt

The interlude in Rome over, Tacitus returns to Julius Civilis’s rebellion on the Rhine (4.55 to 80). This continues to be very complex, in terms of the continually changing alliance between the tribes and their leaders (Civilis, Classicus, Tutor), the multiple military encounters at different locations, and the fact that one Roman legion is persuaded to defect to the tribals.

Despite setbacks the Romans won a hard-fought battle when the German coalition (the Batavi, Ubii, Lingones, Bructeri and Tencteri) attacked the Roman camp at Augusta Treverorum (Trier). The Roman commander was Quintus Petillius Cerealis who rallied his troops to hold the narrow bridge over the Rhine before counter-attacking and destroying the German camp (4.77). But there were other German and Gaulish forces scattered around the Rhineland, not least in Cologne, so the war was far from over.

Book 4 ends with a few short passages describing Vespasian’s ongoing sojourn in Egypt and some anthropology about the origin of the popular god Serapis, but the war on the Rhine far from resolved.

Book 5

The Jews

The fifth book, of which only the first 26 chapters survive, opens by ignoring the situation in Germany and shifting the scene about 2,000 miles East to Jerusalem. The Jews had risen against Roman rule in 66 AD. Tacitus picks up the story at the start of 70 AD as Vespasian dispatches Titus to Judaea to undertake the siege of Jerusalem. This would fall amid general bloodshed in August of that year although Tacitus’s history breaks off before then.

First though Tacitus treats his readers to an extended history of the Jews, review of their religion and traditions which, as Wellesley puts it, is a ‘fascinating farrago of truth and lies’ (introduction, page 14). But Tacitus gets it right about the Jews’ seven-day week, their monotheism, their fierce attachment to discriminatory customs such as circumcision, eschewing pork, not ‘marrying out’ and so on.

All this leads up to a description of Titus, having pacified the rest of Judaea, arriving before the impressive walled city of Jerusalem which itself contains the citadel within a city of the Temple complex. The city is packed with refugees from the other Jewish cities Roman armies had reduced, and Titus sets about mounting a siege in the approved Roman fashion. (5.13)

Back to Civilis’ revolt

At this point the text leaves Titus to return to the war in Germany. Here there are many more battles and skirmishes between Civilis’s tribes and Romans, including a close escape when Cerealis’s camp is invaded. But the Romans survived and attacked the island in the Rhine estuary where the Batavians lived, devastating it.

As summer turned into autumn Cerealis kept up a flow of secret correspondence with the Germans offering them peace and a return to the status quo ante. The chiefs of the German tribes are coming to realise that they cannot defeat the Romans and have been led into a ruinous unwinnable war by Civilis. The narrative breaks off as Civilis calls Cerealis to a conference at either side of a ruined bridge at Nabalia and begins to justify his actions…

In other words we don’t get to see Titus conclude the siege of Jerusalem or Vespasian set sail for, let alone arrive at, Rome.

The Agricola

In 78 Vespasian appointed as governor of Britain Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who aggressively expanded Roman territory far into Scotland. In the same year the young historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus married Agricola’s daughter. Twenty years later, in an act of filial duty, Tacitus wrote a biography of Agricola which survives in its entirety and contains much invaluable information about the first century British, their tribes and customs. This book, the Agricola, was published around 98 AD. It was the first of his historical works.

Tacitus shares his editorial decisions

A very winning habit of Tacitus’s is to share with the reader the balance of the evidence in front of him and his opinions about it, particularly when it is questionable. He steps out of his narrative, as it were, and we get a strong sense of his personality, brisk, logical, hard-headed:

  • Though I feel that a wilful search for old wives’ tales and the use of fiction to divert the reader is quite inappropriate in a serious work of this type, I hesitate all the same to be sceptical about events widely believed and handed down. (2.50)
  • Historians of this war who wrote during the Flavian dynasty have flatteringly described the motives of these men as ‘concern for peace’ and ‘patriotism’. My own view is that in addition to a natural instability of character and the cheapening of loyalty which was a consequence of their betrayal of Galba, a jealous fear that rivals would outpace them in Vitellius’s affections induced them to ruin Vitellius himself. (2.101)
  • I find that some widely read historians vouch for the truth of the following story…(3.51)

Tacitus tells us (3.25) that for the detail of the fighting he follows the account of Lucius Vipstanus Messalla, a Roman of senatorial status, who was directly involved in the war, being temporary commander of the legion VII Claudia stationed in Moesia which entered the civil war on the Flavian side, and who wrote an account of the war once it was over. This history is now lost but young Tacitus befriended the older man and used it as one of the prime sources for this history.

Sententiae

Sententia is the Roman word for the kind of pithy general statement about human life, the universe etc that we call by the names proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims or apophthegms. The plural form is sententiae. 1) A sententia is a general reflection on life which can arise from the previous narrative, acting as a kind of summary, summarising events or someone’s character in a pithy generalisation. So after describing the differing views among the army and its commanders in the East, he summarises:

Thus there were good men and bad, but for a variety of reasons and with equal enthusiasm all of them wanted war. (2.7)

2) A bit more squarely in the definition is this example where Tacitus describes the feverish rumours in Rome as Vitellius marched against Otho and then explains it by using a generalisation that his elite, crowd-despising, aristocratic audience would heartily endorse:

The cheers and cries of the crowd followed the usual pattern of flattery in being overdone and insincere…The passion for self-abasement operated as it does among domestic slaves, for each individual was prompted by selfishness and the decencies of public life now meant nothing. (1.89)

Hear hear, old chap. In fact the emptiness of public acclamation and the crassly craven behaviour of all mobs is a recurring theme and you can hear in Tacitus’s voice the scorn of a republican lamenting the hollow mob rule which the imperial form of government encouraged:

  • This was merely the accepted tradition whereby any emperor, no matter who he was, was acclaimed with extravagant applause and empty demonstration. (1.32)
  • [The defeated Othonian army turn on their leaders, blaming everyone except themselves.] This, of course, is typical of the mob. (2.44)
  • [On the entry of the despicable Vitellius into Rome] The lower classes are irresponsible and unable to discriminate between counterfeit and true. Adept in offering the usual flattery, they shouted and yelled their approval. (2.90)
  • In moments of fear the voice of wisdom and the gossip of the mob are listened to with equal alacrity. (3.58)

3) Or a sententia can be included in a flow of argument as a kind of proof. An author may cite a sententia summarising a common opinion or experience, with a view to winning the reader over to his point of view or recruiting the reader to his framework, his analysis:

  • Suspicion and hatred must always be the reaction of rulers towards the man talked of as the next in succession. (p.35)
  • Man’s character is such that he will always prefer to believe in mysteries. (1.22)
  • The ordinary man always goes from one emotional extreme to the other. (2.29)
  • Men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness. (4.3)
  • As good men derive their effectiveness from their virtues, so those who are really evil, derive theirs from their vices. (3.77)

This type assert a view of human nature or society which he uses as evidence to bolster his interpretation.

4) Or Tacitus may sometimes be consciously creating new generalisations to express his point of view. This was part of the new, briefer, more pithy style expected of Silver Age authors. (In Latin literature the Golden Age is said to have lasted from 70 BC to 18 AD, especially the long reign of Augustus, 27 BC to 14 AD; while the Silver Age is said to be the period from about 18 to 133 AD.)

Cicero write long, flowing, declamatory prose. Tacitus also writes long sentences, but more packed with information than concern for writerly balance. And they are frequently punctuated by shorter, pithy reflections and summaries. With sententia:

  • No one has ever made good use of power evilly gained. (1.30)
  • As is so often the case with brazen falsehoods, certain individuals asserted that they had been present when the deed was done and had witnessed it. (p.40)
  • Once killing starts it is difficult to draw the line. (1.39)
  • Discipline, however inflexible in peace-time, is relaxed in civil conflicts, where agents are ready to discourage disloyalty on either side, and treachery goes unpunished. (1.51)
  • There are always courtiers who keep an eye open for an emperor’s displeasure. (2.38)
  • Revolution and strife put tremendous power into the hands of evil men, whereas peace and quiet call for good lives [or ‘the practice of virtue]. (4.1)

Tacitus frequently made me smile with his droll comments on human nature. On several occasions emperors tried to smother bad news about defeats in the field, but banning rumour only ’caused it to multiply’. (3.54) That Homo sapiens, eh? Those mobs, those crowds, those foolish fickle humans.

Pithy

Sometimes Tacitus is just wonderfully brief and punchy.

  • A war of boundless havoc seemed imminent. (3.15)
  • Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting. (3.45)
  • [Of Vitellius] Emperor no longer, he was merely the cause of the fighting. (3.70)

Conclusions

1. Instability of the emperor

Tacitus draws the major conclusion from all these events right at the beginning: the revolt of Gaius Julius Vindex and then Galba revealed the secret of the principate which had been concealed throughout the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which was that: it was possible for an emperor to be chosen from outside Rome (1.4). More specifically, it set the pattern for centuries to come, of new emperors being acclaimed by provincial armies then marching on Rome to establish their claim.

For some periods of time ‘dynasties’ endured which ordered the succession through biological or adopted relatives. But throughout 400 year history of the Roman Empire from this year onwards, simmering beneath the appearance of stability, was the threat of the violent rise of a provincial leader to overthrow the central imperial power.

2. Instability of the army

The second conclusion, closely related to the first, is that the troops were motivated not by ideology or loyalty but, above all, by the promise of loot. Time after time in the 280 pages of this narrative, commanders, governors and emperors are threatened by their own men, surrounded, mobbed, shouted at, with the soldiers’ goal almost always being the same: loot. Vitellius was unable to control the praetorian guard or German auxiliaries in Rome, and then Antonius Primus was unable to stop the sack and fire and massacre of the triumphant army as it ransacked every house looking for valuables or women to rape.

As the narrative proceeds Tacitus gives evermore examples of the terrible discipline into which all the legions and cohorts, on all sides, seemed to fall.

The troops clamoured for immediate action and threatening their officers had by now become a habit. (4.34)

3. Permanent war

Stepping back a bit, I might be missing the wood for the trees because I suppose the biggest take home from this long text is that Rome was a military empire engaged in almost constant warfare. All of Rome’s politicians and statesmen were expected to take command of armies engaged in real warfare at the drop of a hat (even Cato in North Africa, even Cicero during his year in Asia). It was a militaristic culture in which the activity of war dominated all aspects of politics and culture to an extent I don’t think we moderns can really understand.

Reading experience and translations

Once you bed down into it, Tacitus’s account is gripping. He is, after all, reporting a very dramatic series of events:

The story upon which I embark is one full of incident, marked by bitter fighting, rent by treason and even in peace, sinister. (1.2)

The course of events allows him to stage melodramatic scenes and give stirring speeches to key characters at decisive moments. But he is a master of narrative. Possibly because the subject matter itself is gripping and fast-moving, but I found the Histories a much more enjoyable read than the more diffuse and sometimes repetitive Annals (all those informers, all those treason trials, all those forced suicides – even Tacitus himself admitted to getting bored with his own narrative).

Take the couple of chapters describing the abortive rising of Sabinus and the other pro-Flavians when they thought Vitellius had abdicated, which leads into the siege of the Capitoline Hill, the fire destroying the Temple of Jupiter, Sabinus arrest and lynching and the daredevil escape of young Domitian. This is a wonderfully dramatic and exciting story and Tacitus tells it clearly and vividly.

Some of the narrative’s power must be down to Wellesley’s translation which enlivens the bare Latin with colloquial English phrases (‘old wives’ tales’, ‘run for the hills’, ‘discipline went to pieces’ 4.1, ‘he was the last man to make trouble’, 4.38, ‘Marcellus looking daggers, Crispus all smiles’ 4.43) which really bring the narrative to life, giving it a more popular, colourful vibe than I suspect a literal translation would.

Also, it appears that at least some of the pithiness which I so enjoy derives from Wellesley. Here’s Anthony Kline’s translation of the first phrase of book 3 chapter 79. I assume Kline gives a literal translation of the Latin which explains why it is rather flat and factual.

Antonius reached Saxa Rubra (nine miles north of Rome) by the Flaminian Way late at night but now too late to bring relief.

And here’s Wellesley’s version:

The night was far advanced before Antonius, marching to the rescue down the Flaminian Way, reached Saxa Rubra. It was too late. (3.79)

You can see that Wellesley has altered it in several ways, two of which stand out. 1) ‘The night was far advanced’ sounds like a boy’s own adventure trope, on a par with ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ It introduces a dash of Victorian adventure story flavour. 2) Where Kline has the flat ‘but now too late to bring relief’ Wellesley makes this phrase into a separate, clipped sentence, creating the taut, laconic style of a thriller. He does this throughout the text, sprinkling tough punchy little sentences which convey an enjoyable sense of narrative threat and suspense:

The explosion was not long in coming. (4.32)

In other words, Wellesley’s translation (as far as I can tell) tends to turn Tacitus into a gripping adventure story and ripping yarn, which is part of what makes his version such a compelling read. Along with Rolfe Humphries’ Englishing of Lucretius and Peter Green’s versions of Ovid, it’s one of the most enjoyable translations I’ve read.


Credit

The Histories of Tacitus, translated by Kenneth Wellesley, was published by Penguin Books in 1964. All quotes are from the 1986 revised paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Satyricon by Petronius Arbiter

‘Here you are, gifted with talents enough to make your fortunes and you still lead a life of misery, and every day you bring new torments upon yourselves, as the fruits of your own acts!’
(Eumolpus castigating Encolpius and Giton in the Satyricon, Fragment 98)

I admit I have done many wrong things. After all, I am a man…
(Encolpius in a letter to Circe, Fragment 130)

A text has come down to us in many manuscript copies, titled the Satyricon. It consists of over 100 fragments, some as short as a single sentence, most a paragraph or so long, and a handful of longer, more complete, episodes. What we have, collected together, makes about 150 pages of paperback text. Scholars think the original text had upwards of 80 chapters and would have been as long as a huge eighteenth century novel like Tom Jones, five or six hundred pages long.

Menippean satire

The work was a satirical medley, meaning it was a deliberate hodge-podge or prose and poetry, a loose narrative giving room for digressions about contemporary art and literature, interpolated folk tales (such as the ones about a werewolf and witches told during Trimalchio’s feast), traditional stories (the woman from Ephesus, Fragment 111), lots of poetic interludes of varying lengths in varying styles, and so on. The combination of humorous prose and mock poetry was known as Menippean satire.

This form was developed in ancient Greece and named after its chief practitioner, Menippus. Menippus of Gadara (3rd century BC) was a Cynic satirist. All of his works are lost but later authors described him as both an important purveyor of Cynic philosophy and a major comic influence.

According to later summarisers, Menippus discussed serious subjects in a spirit of ridicule; he particularly mocked the two main philosophical schools of Epicureans and Stoics. The translator of the Penguin edition of the Satyricon says it was the distinctive characteristic of Menippean satire that it mixed humour with philosophy (or whatever aesthetic principles the author might substitute) (Introduction, page 18).

Thus the Satyricon‘s author uses characters to criticise contemporary art, literature, rhetoric, education, poetry and – in the long chapter on Trimalchio’s feast – the behaviour, manners, vulgarity and crude display of the Roman nouveaux riches.

What makes the Satyricon distinctive is that this Menippean approach (humour mixed with occasional serious subjects) was combined with a completely different genre, the idealising and sentimental Greek romance.

This is present in the Satyricon at least two ways: one is the long-running relationship between the loved-up narrator, Encolpius, and his handsome 16-year-old boy lover or ex-slave or rent boy, Giton. They’re constantly bursting into tears and forgiving each other for their lovers’ tiffs and jealousies: ‘Come to my arms, dear Giton.’ More narrowly, it colours the sentimental romance between Encolpius and Chrysis in the final passages of the text.

The translator of the Penguin edition, J.F. Sullivan, characterises these two elements vying in the text, as the satirist and the novelist, because Petronius selects subjects common in satire – low city life, sexual decadence, vulgarity of the nouveaux riches – but he doesn’t judge them with the same moral fury that satirists from Juvenal to Swift use. He is more detached than that, interested and amused by the behaviour of his characters in themselves rather than as epitomes of the usual moral rules.

It is this combination of the satirical tone and frequent reversion to poetry (of Menippean satire) with a consistent (if episodic) narrative, and an overall lack of moral judging, which was, apparently, something quite new in Roman literature.

The adventures of Encolpius

For at its core, long and rambling with many digressions though it appears to have been intended, the Satyricon nonetheless has a simple premise: it is a first-person account of the peripatetic adventures of Encolpius, and his companion, slave and boyfriend, Giton.

The deep driver of the plot is the wrath of the god Priapus (god of procreation; guardian of gardens and vineyards; personification of the phallus) against the hero. At some point, before the narrative we have opens, Encolpius had offended Priapus (maybe by looting a temple of his?), and now the offended god dogs and frustrates his every move. This is intended as a mockingly knowing reference to the way the offended Poseidon blocks Odysseus’s return to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey and the offended Juno blocks Aeneas’s journey to Italy in the Aeneid.

(To be candid, although all the introductions make much of this alleged persecution of the hero by Priapus, when you come to read the actual text it only really crops up in the Quartilla passage at the start, and then re. his problem with impotence and encounter with the priestess of Priapus, Oenothea, towards the very end.)

The surviving sections of the novel begin with Encolpius traveling with a companion and former lover named Ascyltos, who has joined Encolpius on his adventures. They appear to be in the port town of Puteoli (not explicitly named, so scholars debate this). Meanwhile, Encolpius’s boyfriend, Giton, is back at the lodging house they’ve rented. As the text we have progresses we learn that Encolpius and Ascyltos have made some kind of pact, to undertake illegal activities together, and also to share Giton’s affections. Encolpius at one point says of himself: ‘I escaped the law, cheated the arena, killed a host.’ (Fragment 81). They also appear to have stolen gold from someone they murdered (?) and hidden it in a tunic, which Encolpius then managed to lose.

But the overall point is that the narrative takes us through a series of adventures among the middling and common people of Rome i.e. the mass of the population who we never hear about in the predominantly aristocratic literature which has come down to us.

Obscure descriptions of sex

In particular, the work describes Encolpius’s involvement in orgies: in the wider sense of riotous dinner parties (Trimalchio’s banquet), and in the narrower sense of scenes of eroticism and sexual decadence.

For a long time, throughout early modern history and into the Victorian era, this meant the book was often published in limited editions, with scandalously explicit illustrations. However, reading it nowadays, the most noticeable thing is that: a) there aren’t as many explicitly sexual scenes as you might expect, and b) they aren’t very explicitly described, in fact they are so obscurely or elliptically described that I barely noticed some of them or, when I did, was frequently puzzled by what was going on.

For example, here’s a fragment (Fragment 21) from the scene where Quartilla, her maid Psyche, and their little girl, are joined by a male prostitute in invading the lodgings of Encolpius, Ascyltus and Giton.

Finally, up came a pansy dressed in myrtle-green shaggy felt, which was tucked up under his belt. He pulled the cheeks of our bottoms apart, then he slobbered vile, greasy kisses on us, until Quartilla, carrying a whale-bone rod, with her skirts up round her, put an end to our sufferings. (p.40)

Now, I can see that this is certainly intimate what with their buttocks being pulled apart, presumably to expose their anuses. But in a standard porn narrative you’d expect the next step for them to be buggered. I don’t follow the logic of pulling someone’s buttocks apart and then…kissing them? Kissing their faces or mouths presumably involves turning them round to face you? Or are they turning their heads sideways and backwards to be kissed while the pansy buggers them? Or is the pansy meant to be kissing their anuses? I suppose it’s possible, but it’s not, I’d have thought, the obvious thing to do.

And I don’t understand at all why Quartilla is then introduced into the scene nor why she is holding a whale-bone rod? Is it to bugger them with?? Are the male prostitute’s slobbery kisses by way of lubricating their anuses in preparation for Quartilla using the rod to sodomise them? But if so, how could this be described as putting an ‘end’ to their sufferings, when it sounds very much to me as if that would be the start of their sufferings?

A lot of the sex scenes in the Satyricon are like this: something very rude and intimate is definitely going on, but the descriptions are bewilderingly at odds with any description of sexual acts I’m used to, for example in the surprisingly explicit novels of David Lodge, let alone ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’-style modern erotica.

In summary, I didn’t find any of the sex scenes in the Satyricon at all erotic; I generally found them as puzzling as a Wordle problem or a jigsaw.

Outline synopsis

There’s a fairly detailed synopsis of the work in the Wikipedia article. This is a list of key incidents:

In Puteoli

  • Argument with Agamemnon The text starts in mid-sentence with Encolpius arguing with Agamemnon the sophist against the florid Asiatic style and false taste in literature
  • Wrong directions Lost in this strange town, Encolpius asks the way of an old lady and is led to a brothel.
  • Reunion Encolpius finds his way back to the boarding house to be reunited with Ascyltos and Giton.
  • Lovers’ quarrel Later, Encolpius tries to have sex with Giton but is interrupted by Ascyltos, who assaults him after catching the two in bed. They all make up.
  • At the market The trio go to the market where they appear to discover the tunic filled with gold but there is an argument with the stallholder which threatens to escalate so they escape back to the boarding house.
  • Quartilla and the great debauch Here they are confronted by Quartilla, a priestess of the god Priapus, who condemns their eavesdropping on the cult’s secret rites (something which obviously took place before our text begins). Our three companions are overpowered by Quartilla, her maid Psyche and a gay prostitute. This leads to an orgy which is described in scattered and puzzling fragments. In the final part, Psyche suggests to Quartilla that they get the little 7-year-old girl they’ve brought with them, Pannychis, ‘married’, so they hold a little ceremony wedding her to young Giton then bundle them both into a side room to , while Quartilla spies on them through a crack in the door, dragging Encolpius down to share the view and kiss him in her excitement.

Trimalchio’s dinner

  • Trimalchio’s dinner Next day, recovering from their ‘ordeal’, Encolpius and companions are invited by one of Agamemnon’s slaves to a feast at the estate of Trimalchio, a freedman or liberti of enormous wealth. After a preliminary meeting at the town baths, the guests proceed to Trimalchio’s huge mansion where they are entertained with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance.

In this excellent blog post, author Suzette Field gives a forensic summary of all aspects of the banquet given by vulgar, bragging parvenu Trimalchio and his fat, ex-chorus girl wife, Fortunata, listing the guests, detailing the astonishing dishes, the music and entertainments (including a mock hunt), the rambling variety of conversational topics, including guests describing encounters with a werewolf (p.73) and witches (p.74).

  • The escape Sickened by the food and the vulgarity, Encolpius and his companions make their escape but only with some difficulty and after falling into a big fishpond, and after the party has made such a racket the local fire brigade are called to break it up.
  • The argument Back at the inn, next morning the trio fall out after Encolpius discovers Ascyltos in bed with Giton. He forces the boy to choose between the two men and is shocked when Giton chooses to leave with Ascyltos.
  • The soldier After two or three days sulking Encolpius sets out sword in hand to find and take revenge on Ascyltos but is disarmed by a soldier he encounters in the street.

Eumolpus the poet

  • The art gallery Wandering into a nearby art gallery Encolpius meets an old poet, Eumolpus. a) Eumolpus describes an affair with a youth in Pergamon while employed as his tutor but who wore him out with his sexual demands b) the pair discuss the inferiority of modern painters and writers to the good old days: ‘but we, besotted with drink and whoring, don’t study any arts with a tradition.’
  • Eumolpus stoned Eumolpus had ended their discussion with a long poem on the subject of the Trojan war and, comically, this prompted all the passersby to pelt him with stones. Feeling sorry for him, Encolpius invites Eumolpus to dinner (90).
  • Reunited with Giton Back at his lodgings Encolpius encounters Giton who begs him to take him back as his lover. They are reconciled. ‘I hugged him to my heart.’ Eumolpus arrives from the baths and reveals that a man there (evidently Ascyltos) was looking for someone called Giton.
  • Comedy suicides Encolpius and Eumolpus fight over Giton. Eumolpus grabs Giton, runs out the door and locks it from the outside. Encolpius is so distraught he decides to hang himself and is dangling from a belt when the pair return and hurriedly take him down. Giton in turn is distraught and grabs a razor from Eumolpus’s servant and slashes his own throat, falling to the floor. Encolpius snatches up the razor and cuts his throat only to realise it is a ‘practice’ razor for apprentice barbers to use. Farce.
  • The fight At this moment, the landlord of these seedy lodgings, Marcus Manicius, arrives and accuses our boys of being runaways slaves or preparing to abscond without paying. Eumolpius slaps him in the face, the landlord throws a pot which hits him on the head, and the two stumble out into the landing where the landlord’s slaves get involved, plus an old hag bringing up a guard dog, and the whole thing degenerates into a big fight. Encolpius enjoys watching it through a spyhole in their bedroom door. When soft-hearted Giton suggests intervening he boxes the boy on the head, so he retired crying to the bed.
  • Bargates The ‘agent for the building’ Bargates intervenes to break up the fight. He recognised Eumolpus and asks him to write a lampoon against his mistress.
  • Reward At this point a ‘cryer’ accompanied by Ascyltos and a crowd arrives announcing a reward of 1,000 sesterces for information on the whereabouts of a curly-haired boy named Giton. Encolpius tells the boy to hide under the bed. When the search party arrives at their room, Encolpius has bolted the door so the searchers have to pry it off its hinges with axes. Then Encolpius throws himself at Ascyltos’s feet and offers his neck to the axe to be killed. Ascyltos assures him he means no harm, he just wants the boy back.
  • The sneezes They don’t find Giton hiding under the bed, so leave. At this moment Eumolpus re-enters the bedroom. Encolpius lies, assuring Eumolpus that Giton has disappeared off into the streets and weepingly begging him to help find him. He’s nearly persuaded him, when Giton lets out three loud sneezes, thus revealing his position under the bed to Eumolpus. (All this is literally a bedroom farce.) Eumolpus is upset at the deception but Giton, with characteristic gentleness, treats Eumolpus’s head wound then gives the old poet his own cloak, thus winning him round. Giton laments that he should be the cause of endless fights between his two lovers (Encolpius and Ascyltos). Eumolpus castigates the threesome for failing to use their talents and instead contriving to lead a never-ending life of misery.

Ship and shipwreck

  • Boarding ship Eumolpus suggests they escape all their troubles by taking ship, so they do, along with Eumolpus’s hired servant, later named as Corax.
  • Lichas and Tryphaena Suddenly they hear two voices which strike terror into them. Eumolpus explains the ship belongs to, and is captained by, an old enemy of theirs, Lichas of Tarentum. Scholars calculate, from scattered hints, that Encolpius had a) stolen something from Lichas b) seduced his wife c) somehow publicly humiliated him in the portico of a temple to Hercules – all this must have taken place in lost passages earlier in the text. It certainly explains their horror at now finding themselves in Lichas’ power. The other voice belongs to Tryphaena, who appears to have taken a fancy to Giton, also in an earlier, lost, section.
  • Disguise They discuss plans to escape the moving ship but settle on a scheme to pretend to be Eumolpus’s slaves, shaving their hair off and having their faces printed with the formula for renegade slaves (usually this is tattooed into the skin; our heroes have it done in ink). To no avail, and Lichas and Tryphaena recognise them.
  • Fight onboard Eumolpus mounts a mock defence of the pair, which doesn’t work. Encolpius threatens Tryphaena if she tries to take possession of Giton and this escalates into a fight, with Lichas’ men taking one side, our heroes, Emolpus and his servant the other. Giton tries to stop the fighting by threatening to cut off his cock and balls (‘the cause of all our misery’) as a threat to Tryphaena, who clearly wants him for sexual purposes. In the end the navigator parlays a truce, and both parties sign a mock peace treaty (p.118).
  • Wigs Since so much appears to derive from Tryphaena’s unfulfilled love/lust for Giton, her maids take the boy belowdecks, give him a wig and paint back on his eyebrows, so he emerges looking prettier than ever (110).
  • The widow of Ephesus At first she planned to starve herself to death in her husband’s tomb, but she was seduced by a soldier guarding crucified corpses, and when one of these was stolen she offered the corpse of her husband as a replacement.
  • The storm A big storm blows up and the ship is wrecked (114). Giton ties himself to Encolpius with a belt so they’ll survive or drown together. Tryphaena is bundled into a lifeboat by her maids. Encolpius, Giton Eumolpus and the latter’s servant all get to shore safely. Here Encolpius observes Lichas’ corpse being washed ashore, triggering stock reflections about fate, Fortune, the fickleness of man’s estate etc. The build a pyre for him and Eumolpas writes an epigram.

On the road to Croton

Croton was a former Greek colony on the toe of Italy. Sullivan in his notes points out that the narrative in this section is more fantastical and less realistic than the section in Puteoli because a) Petronius was a lot less familiar with Croton, and b) the subject – the iniquity of legacy hunters – was a familiar, stock literary topic, therefore the section is more invented, literary and bookish. In fact, it has the fantastical feel of medieval allegory or Gulliver’s Travels.

  • The farmer A farmer explains that the inhabitants are notorious legacy-hunters, that anyone who has and raises children is despised, whereas childless parasites are held in the highest opinion.
  • The scam They cook up a scam that Eumolpus will pose as a man of enormous wealth who has recently lost his son, and just been shipwrecked, but owns vast estates with countless slaves in North Africa. Encolpius and Giton will pose as his slaves, alongside his servant Corax.
  • Parody of Lucan As they walk towards Croton Eumolpus delivers a serious lecture on the shortcomings of contemporary poetry, which he claims has abandoned depth of meaning, the apparatus of divine involvement in human affairs, and smooth flow in favour of shiny epigrams. He then proceeds to regale his companions (and readers) with an extended rendition (nearly 300 lines) of his own poem on the subject of the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey. This has universally been taken of criticism of, and a parody of, the Pharsalia of Petronius’s contemporary, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, known simply as Lucan. (It is notable that Sullivan deliberately echoes the Cantos of Ezra Pound in the style of his translation of this passage [see p.132] as he warned us he would in his introduction, an interesting indication of how widespread Pound’s influence still was in 1964; Pound only died in 1972. Unfortunately, Sullivan’s idiosyncratic version makes it impossible to compare with the relatively sensible translation of the Pharsalia by Anthony Kline which I’ve just finished reading.)
  • Arriving in Croton They find the legacy-hunters very willing to believe Eumolpus is an heirless millionaire, so he receives invites to multiples homes and they all compete to put their finances at his disposal (in the hope that they’ll be named heirs in his will). In other words, their scam is working.

In Croton

There is then a Big Gap in the text. When it resumes, the companions have apparently been in Crotona for some time.

  • Chrysis Encolpius, as part of his pose of being Eumolpus’s slave, has adopted the name Polyaenus. Chrysis is a maid of the beautiful Circe. The fragment opens with them talking together in some kind of public park. Chrysis describes her mistress as the type of woman who likes a bit of rough i.e. gladiators slaves. The type of woman who is aroused by kissing the whipmarks on slaves’ bodies (p.143). Whereas Chrysis explains that she aspires to more upmarket lovers. In other words, each woman is aroused by the opposite class to themselves.
  • Circe Chrysis now swiftly introduces Circe, who is breath-takingly beautiful and wants to become Encolpius’s lover. She knows about his love for Giton, and says she is willing to be Encolpius’s girlfriend alongside his boyfriend, an interesting comment on Roman tolerance in relationships and complete acceptance of bisexuality. They lie down on the grass and start snogging.
  • Encolpius’s impotence In the next fragment Circe is upset because Encolpius can’t get an erection. She asks Chryses if she smells or something about her is ugly, then runs off to a temple of Venus leaving Encolpius feeling mortified.
  • Letters Circe sends a letter hoping Encolpius will recover his ‘strength’. Encolpius sends a reply, confessing he is a terrible man, he has ‘killed a man and robbed a temple’, but he will be restored to virility if she will punish and redeem him.
  • Proselenus Next morning Chrysis brings round the wizened old crone, Proselenus, who uses crude magic (spit, dust, hot pebbles) and gives Encolpius a magnificent erection.
  • Failure and flogging However, when Encolpius goes to Circe’s house and she invites him onto her couch and after much kissing prepares to be embraced…he can’t get an erection, again. Infuriated, Circe has him whipped, assembles the entire household to spit at him, has Chrysis flogged and Proselenus thrown out. Oh well.
  • Punishing Percy Encolpius is tempted to cut off his penis but makes do with giving it a stern telling off.
  • Prayer to Priapus Encolpius goes to the temple of Priapus and delivers a long prayer from which we deduce that, earlier in the narrative, he stole something from another temple of Priapus. Now he begs forgiveness and promises lavish offerings, when he has the money…
  • Thrashing Old Proselenus appears, berates Encolpius for his failure to get an erection, leads him into a side room of the temple and delivers a sound thrashing. What I don’t understand is a) Encolpius makes no resistance even through the thrashing cuts him and b) it cuts him in the groin so she appears to be whipping his front.
  • Oenothea priestess of the temple arrives. Proselenus explains Encolpius’s impotent and Oenothea, who is also a sorceress, says she can cure him.
  • Cooking In a sentence-long fragment Oenothea lays on a bed and kisses Encolpius. But we don’t get any sex because the fragment immediately following describes her starting to cook a knackered old piece of ham and ordering him to shell some beans i.e. there’s a sizeable gap.
  • The geese Suddenly it is the old woman who is cooking, and a stool she’s standing on breaks and she knocks over the pan into the fire and gets her face covered in soot. While she goes off to clean up, Encolpius is suddenly attacked by the temple’s sacred geese. He beats one to death with a leg from the rickety stool.
  • Oenothea’s horror Encolpius hides the goose, bathes his wound in vinegar and is just about to leave the cottage when Oenothea returns. When she asks where the beans are he was meant to be shelling, he explains that a bunch of geese invaded the house and ate them but he managed to kill one and shows her. Oenothea is horrified, claiming these are holy geese sacred to Priapus. He could be crucified for this crime and she could be expelled as priestess. Encolpius desperately offers to replace the dead goose with an ostrich.
  • Cash Proselenus returns to the cottage and is equally horrified. Encolpius offers them two gold pieces as compensation.

In its last pages the text disintegrates into a series of very short, often one-sentence fragments, which give snapshots of successive scenes:

  • Oenothea opens the dead goose and uses its liver to foretell Encolpius’s future.
  • Then she cuts it up and cooks it and they all enjoy a very good meal.
  • Oenothea brings out a leather dildo, rubs it with oil, ground pepper and crushed nettle seed, and inserts it into Encolpius’s anus.
  • She mixes the juice of cress with some southern-wood, soaks his cock and balls in it, then starts whipping them with a fresh stinging nettle stalk.
  • Cut to Encolpius, presumably having fled this treatment, being pursued through the street by the two old women.
  • In one sentence, Chrysis declares her undying love for Encolpius.
  • A paragraph of Encolpius begging to be taken back into Circe’s house so he can prove himself.
  • Suddenly he is back at base with Giton, who tells him a very elegant lady came asking about him the day before.
  • Chrysis clasps him to her bosom and tells him she will love him forever.
  • One of Eumolpus’s new servants tells Encolpius that his master is furious at him for being absent for two days (presumably he was kidnapped by Proselenus and Oenothea?).

In the last substantial piece of text (one page long) we are told about an aging legacy-huntress named Philomela. Now too old to seduce rich men, she prostitutes out her son and daughter and is now proceeding to ‘place’ them with Eumolpus, ostensibly for their education.

A comic sex scene which, for once, I did understand: Eumolpus has told everyone he is a martyr to gout and other ailments in order to secure loans and favours from all the legacy hunters. Therefore he cannot have sex with the daughter in the usual athletic way. Therefore he lies on a bed, gets the girl to straddle him, and gets his servant, Corax, to lie directly underneath him, under the bed, and move his thighs and hips up and down, so that Eumolpus’s penis enters and exits the daughter’s vagina, without Eumolpus actually moving. Presumably this had Nero’s courtiers in fits of laughter when read out to them.

Encolpius finds the brother watching this performance through a spy hole.

(This is a recurrent theme of the narrative. Early on in the text, Encolpius watches Giton and the 7-year-old having some kind of sex through a crack in the door; then watches Eumolpus being beaten up through a spy hole. In his notes, Sullivan refers to this recurring theme as scopophilia which means, literally, ‘love of looking’.)

Anyway, in this fragment, despite the boy being willing, Encolpius yet again can’t get an erection, attributing it to the recurring theme of ‘divine hostility’ i.e Priapus’s enmity.

However, abruptly, in the next fragment, he can! attributing his blessed cure to Mercury. He lifts up his tunic to show Eumolpus his erection and the old poet, just to be sure, ‘held in both hands the gift of the gods.’

In the last few one-line fragments, someone is warning Eumolpus that the ships of wealth he had told everyone would soon arrive from Africa have not showed and therefore the many legacy-hunters they’ve been bilking are starting to get impatient and suspicious.

A sentence, apparently from Eumolpus’s will, promising that all his creditors will be paid but only on condition that they cut up his corpse and eat it in front of the people.

Then the implication that one, at least, of the creditors, blinded by greed, was ready to do this.

The final paragraph lists reasons for agreeing to cannibalism – pretend you’re eating something else; an hour of disgust will buy a lifetime of wealth; all meats are disgusting, that’s why we season them – and some historical examples of cannibalism in cities under siege.

And with this gruesome little fragment, the text of the Satyricon ENDS.

Petronius Arbiter

All scholars and introductions devote some time to the problem of identifying the author of the work. The manuscripts of the Satyricon ascribe the work to a ‘Petronius Arbiter’. Most scholars identify this with the young author and dandy named Petronius who flourished at the time of the emperors Claudius (41 to 54) and Nero (54 to 68). Tacitus mentions him in his Annals, telling us that Petronius had been at one time governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. On his return to Rome the young man-about-town was brought into Nero’s inner circle as its arbiter elegantiae or arbiter of taste, elegance and wit.

According to Tacitus, Petronius fell victim to ‘the jealousy of [Nero’s secretary] Tigellinus against an apparent rival, more expert in the science of pleasure than himself’, Tigellinus turned Nero against him and, as with Seneca, as with Lucan, Nero compelled him to commit suicide.

The Satyricon is one of the very few light-hearted/humorous prose works from the Roman period and helped to found the picaresque tradition. This is the tradition of prose narratives describing a young hero (or picaro, in Spanish) having a series of rambling comic adventures, generally with a sidekick and comic companion, which was, from the early modern period (1550) to become such a major thread in European literature, enduring, in some comic writers, up to the present day.

Two translations

I read two translations in tandem, the Penguin Classics version by J.P. Sullivan, first published in 1965, and the online Project Gutenberg version, which reproduces the 1922 translation by W. C. Firebaugh (with wonderfully solid illustrations by Norman Lindsay).

The style of the 1922 is cumbersomely Victorian BUT it includes passages of text which scholars now think are later forgeries by otherwise unknown authors named Nodot and Marchena, plus the readings introduced into the text by a scholar named De Salas. The point is that these much later interpolations were made to smooth out the narrative and they do, making the Victorian version a much more enjoyable and continuous read.

By contrast the translator the Penguin edition, J.P. Sullivan, takes the intellectually reputable line of sticking solely to what scholars think Petronius actually wrote – with the result that his text is much more fragmented and puzzling. The Gutenberg edition may be old fashioned, and include blatant forgeries, but it is the better read.

There’s also a 2018 translation by A.S. Kline. This is a little more lucid than the Sullivan version but, like him, excludes all the forgeries and interpolations, and so shares the same fragmentary feel.


Related links

Roman reviews

The Pharsalia by Lucan – 2: Summary

In this book-by-book summary of Lucan’s Pharsalia, I started with the short text summaries provided by Wikipedia, pasted in the section summaries provided by A.S. Kline’s online translation, and then added my own observations.

Book 1 The civil war begins (695 lines)

After a brief introduction lamenting the idea of Romans fighting Romans there is a flattering dedication to Nero (‘to me you are already divine…you alone grant power to Roman verse’). Considering that Nero had Lucan killed, some critics read this as deeply ironic. But Susan Braund (translator of the Oxford University Press edition of the Pharsalia) sees no reason to. Before their falling out, while he was writing the early books of the poem, they were close friends and the first part of Nero’s reign was seen by many as ideal, peaceful and just.

The narrative summarizes background material leading up to the present war and introduces Caesar in northern Italy. Despite an urgent plea from the Spirit of Rome to lay down his arms, Caesar crosses the Rubicon, rallies his troops and marches south to Rome, joined by Curio along the way. The book closes with panic in the city, terrible portents and visions of the disaster to come.

Lines 1 to 32: The ruinous nature of civil war on earth and chaos in the heavens

33 to 66: Sycophantic homage to Nero, saying that if it took a civil war to produce such a wise and good emperor, then maybe it was worth it

67 to 97: The motives of the two leaders

98 to 157: Comparisons, Pompey the old oak tree and Caesar the unstoppable bolt of lightning

158 to 182: The hidden causes of the war, namely Rome’s wealth and decadence, bribery and corruption

183 to 227: Despite a vision of Italy as a weeping woman, Caesar denies her accusations and crosses the Rubicon

228 to 265: Caesar’s entry into Ariminum whose citizens lament that they are the first stopping point for all invaders

266 to 351: The exiled tribunes: Curio’s speech whips Caesar up to a speech detailing his grievances against Pompey and the Senate

352 to 391: The troops hesitate but are convinced by the speech of Laelius, the chief centurion

392 to 465: Caesar gathers his forces

466 to 525: Rumour triggers panic in Rome which is cowardly abandoned by its population

526 to 583: Ghosts and portents, anarchy in heaven, terrify the world

584 to 637: The soothsayer Arruns reads the future in the rotten entrails of a sacrificed bull and predicts disaster

638 to 672: Figulus reads the prophecies in the heavens

673 to 695: Apollo inspires a Roman matron in a frenzied vision to see the locations of all the forthcoming battles and bloodshed

Book 2 Pompey flees Italy (736 lines)

In a city overcome by despair, an old veteran presents a lengthy interlude regarding the previous civil war that pitted Marius against Sulla. Cato the Younger is introduced as a heroic man of principle; as abhorrent as civil war is, he argues to Brutus that it is better to fight than do nothing. After siding with Pompey—the lesser of two evils—he remarries his ex-wife, Marcia, and heads to the field. Caesar continues south through Italy and is delayed by Domitius’ brave resistance. He attempts a blockade of Pompey at Brundisium, but the general makes a narrow escape to Greece.

Lines 1 to 66: In Rome women beat their breasts in lamentation and men wish they were fighting Rome’s enemies not each other

67 to 138: An elder gives a detailed account of Marius’s career i.e. flight, then vengeful bloody return to Rome

139 to 233: The same elder recalls Sulla’s victory and vengeance against the Marian party, recalls seeking the body of his murdered brother, the Tiber was clogged with corpses

234 to 285: Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger visits Cato and makes a long speech

286 to 325: Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger’s speech of reply: wherever fate leads, virtue must follow without fear; he wishes his death could unite the enemies

326 to 349: Marcia knocks on the door; she has come from burying her husband, Hortensius, and wants to remarry Cato in order to share his tribulations

350 to 391: So Marcia and Cato marry on the spot, with Brutus as witness, but Lucan emphasises Cato’s stern devotion to duty and Rome above personal reward or pleasure

392 to 438: Pompey bases himself at Capua, with an extended geographical description of the city’s location among the Apennine mountains

439 to 461: Caesar advances into Italy

462 to 525: Commander after commander abandons his post and cities fall before Caesars advance, with the noble exception of Domitius who tried to defend Corfinium, before being given up his soldiers and then ignominiously granted clemency by Caesar (the fate Cato is determined to avoid)

526 to 595: Pompey’s speech to the army defending his cause against Caesar’s ‘pitiful madness’ and listing his many triumphs

596 to 649: But little applause follows his speech, and Pompey leads his troops to Brindisi, which is given an extended geographical description, like Capua, above; he sends his son and envoys to raise allies in Greece and the East

650 to 703: Caesar lays siege to Brindisi

704 to 736: Pompey escapes Brindisi, taking his fleet across the Adriatic to Illyricum

Book 3 War in the Mediterranean (762 lines)

As his ships sail, Pompey is visited in a dream by Julia, his dead wife and Caesar’s daughter. Caesar returns to Rome and plunders the city while Pompey reviews potential foreign allies. To protect his read Caesar heads for Spain, but his troops are detained at the lengthy siege of Massilia (Marseille). The city ultimately falls in a bloody naval battle.

Lines 1 to 45: Pompey’s vision of Julia, his previous wife, daughter of Caesar, who bound the two rivals together until her early death in 54 BC

46 to 83: Caesar sends officers to secure the grain supply from Sicily and Sardinia, then marches on Rome

84 to 140: While the senators are ignominously summoned to the House to hear Caesar, the tribune Lucius Metellus defends the treasury with his life

141 to 168: Metellus is pushed aside and the cumulated treasury of the ages seized

169 to 213: A long list of cities in Greece and Asia Minor who send men to Pompey

214 to 263: The Middle East and India rally to Pompey

264 to 297: The Black Sea and North Africa rally to Pompey – these three sections comprise a massive list of tribes and cities and peoples on the model of the List of Allies in the Iliad, itself copied in the Aeneid

298 to 357: speech of the Greek inhabitants of Marseille opposing Caesar, arguing to remain neutral

358 to 398: Caesar blockades Marseille, throwing up an enormous earthwork

399 to 452: Caesar destroys the sacred grove

453 to 496: Caesar leaves for Spain but the siege of Marseille continues, Roman siege techniques described in detail

497 to 537: The Greek inhabitants of Marseille mount a successful sortie so the Romans initiate a naval battle

538 to 582: The fleets engage with a vivid description of grappling irons, hand to hand fighting and thousands of soldiers dying in the sea, hit by random arrows, javelins, fire and sinking ships

583 to 634: The death of Catus, Telo, Gyareus, the mutilated twin

635 to 669: The death of Lycidas, the man skewered by two prows meeting

670 to 708: The death of Phoceus, who drowned many before hitting the keel of a ship, many more drown, are crushed, transfixed

709 to 751: Lygdamus, a Balearic sling-thrower, blinds Tyrrhenus who, in turn, throws a javelin which kills Argus, whose father is so distraught he stabs himself then jumps overboard – the focus on gruesome anatomical details recalls the Iliad

752 to 762: Lamentation of the women and parents of Marseille as they embraced mangled corpses or fought over headless bodies to place on funeral pyres

Book 4 Caesar victory in Spain

The first half of this book describes Caesar’s victorious campaign in Spain against Afranius and Petreius. Lucan then switches scene to focus on Pompey, his forces intercept a raft carrying Caesarians, who prefer to kill each other rather than be taken prisoner. The book concludes with Curio launching an African campaign on Caesar’s behalf, where he is defeated and killed by the African King Juba.

1 to 47: Caesar attacks the base of the two Pompeian leaders in Spain, Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius, but his soldiers, fighting uphill, are thrown back

48 to 120: Caesar’s camp is flooded, interesting because of the extended description of the geography of Spain and the causes of heavy rain and, after the flooding, the famine

121 to 156: The campaign is renewed: Caesar builds bridges across the river Sicoris, prompting Petreius to abandon the heights of Ilerda and head for central Spain

157 to 207: The two armies camp within sight of each other and this prompts many to call out then go and meet friends on the other side; Lucan praises the god Harmony, soon bitterly to be broken

208 to 253: Angry, Petreius gives a speech rousing his troops in the name of the Senate and Pompey and Freedom, whipping them up to attack the friends of Caesar’s army who had come among them, bloodshed, horror

254 to 318: Afranius loses the moral high ground with this action; Caesar pursues his army to high ground, with no water, and there surrounds it, ordering his army to resist attacks and wear the trapped enemy down from extreme thirst

319 to 362: Worn down by privations Lucius Afranius surrenders with a dignified speech

363 to 401: Pompey’s army in Spain disbands and immediately quench their thirst at the river Caesar had prevented them reaching; they are lucky, banned from fighting they will see out the long civil war in peace

402 to 447: Conflict in Dalmatia, where Gaius Antonius’s Caesarian force builds rafts to escape the island of Curicta

448 to 528: One of these rafts, bearing 600 Caesarians commanded by Vulteius, is surrounded by Pompeyan forces; as night falls Vulteius makes a long speech advocating their noble suicide

529 to 581: Vulteius and his men commit suicide

582 to 660: The myth of Hercules and Antaeus i.e. their legendary wrestling match

661 to 714: Pompey’s African army under Varus i.e. another long list of allied tribes and peoples; Caesarian Curio determines to throw his army against Varus

715 to 787: King Juba’s army lures Curio into an ambush, surrounds and massacres the Romans

788 to 824: How jarring that Pompey’s side could only triumph by pleasing the shades of Hannibal and the Carthaginians with a north African defeat of Roman legions; lament that so noble a figure as Curio was corrupted by the degenerate times to take Caesar’s shilling and inflame civil war

Book 5 Caesar in Illyria (815 lines)

The Senate in exile confirms Pompey the true leader of Rome. Appius consults the Delphic oracle to learn of his fate in the war, and leaves with a misleading prophecy. In Italy, after defusing a mutiny, Caesar marches to Brundisium and sails across the Adriatic to meet Pompey’s army. Only a portion of Caesar’s troops complete the crossing when a storm prevents further transit; he tries to personally send a message back but is himself nearly drowned. Finally, the storm subsides, and the armies face each other at full strength. With battle at hand, Pompey sends his wife to the island of Lesbos, despite her protests.

1 to 70: The consul Lentulus addresses the senators in exile in Epirus, telling them wherever they are, that is the Roman state; the senators appoint as allies the kings who have rallied to their cause

71 to 101: History of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi and speculation about how it works, what god lies buried deep in Mount Parnassus and speaks through the priestess

102 to 140: History of the oracle’s most famous predictions and why it was shut down; Appius Claudius tries to reopen the shrine, Phemonoe, the priestess, tries to resist him

141 to 197: The priestess pretends to prophesy but Appius realises she is faking and pushes her towards the chasm until she is possessed by Apollo and delivers a genuine prophecy which is that Appius will escape the storms of war

198 to 236: Further description the wild frenzy the priestess had been thrown into, then lament that Appius, like so many others, misread the oracle to mean that he was safe, when what it really meant was his premature death

237 to 299: Caesar’s troops on the verge of mutiny: given a long speech which displays Lucan’s skill at suasoria

300 to 373: Caesar quells the mutiny, exposing his chest to them, daring them to mutiny; but Lucan says shame on him for delighting in a war his own men condemn; Caesar more or less calls his men scum:

The gods will never stoop so low as to care about
the lives or deaths of such as you; events depend
on the actions of great men: humankind lives for
the few.

374 to 402: While his armies assemble at Brundisium Caesar hurried to half-empty Rome where has himself declared dictator; Lucan laments that this age ‘invented all the false titles that we have granted our masters for so long’

403 to 460: Arriving back at Brundisium Caesar finds the sea beset by storms; he persuades his fleet to set sail but, ironically, once out of sight of land it is becalmed; next morning a wind picks up and blows Caesar’s fleet to Paeneste

461 to 503: Caesar impatiently summons Mark Antony with the rest of his fleet and army

504 to 576: Caesar dresses in disguise and visits the hut of a humble fisherman, Amyclas, and persuades him, against his better judgement, to take him across the sea to Italy

577 to 637: Then the seas blow up into a real storm which Lucan with hyperbole describes as nearly drowning the entire world, till Jupiter intervenes

638 to 677: Exulting, Caesar defies the storm, saying its epic force matches his world-shattering ambition, at which point a freak wave carries the little boat back to shore and flings him safely on the beach

678 to 721: Next morning the troops in Caesar’s camp reproach him for risking his life without them; the sun comes out and Mark Anthony beings the rest of Caesar’s fleet over from Italy to Nymphaion

722 to 760: Pompey tells his wife Cornelia that Caesar’s army has landed in Illyria and so he is sending her to Lesbos for her own safety

761 to 815: Cornelia’s gives a long speech in which she laments that Caesar is forcing her and Pompey’s marriage to come to an end, laments that she won’t be with him (Pompey) when the great battle occurs, if Pompey is defeated would rather know the news at once so she can kill herself if he dies; then she packs hurriedly and is taken down to the ship to Lesbos; next night she sleeps alone in an alien bed – but Fate held worse in store

Book 6 Thessaly and Erictho the witch (830 lines)

Pompey’s troops force Caesar’s armies – featuring the heroic centurion Scaeva – to fall back to Thessaly. Lucan describes the wild Thessalian terrain as the armies wait for battle the next day. The remainder of the book follows Pompey’s son Sextus, who wishes to know the future. He finds the most powerful witch in Thessaly, Erictho, and she reanimates the corpse of a dead soldier in a terrifying ceremony. The soldier predicts Pompey’s defeat and Caesar’s eventual assassination.

Lines 1 to 27: Pompey moves to seize the town of Dyrrachium

28 to 63: Caesar hems Pompey in by building a vast fortification around his army; Lucan laments at so much effort expended for such a futile end

64 to 117: Both camps afflicted: horses die and illness spreads in Pompey’s camp, while Caesar’s men begin to starve

118 to 195: The super-heroism of the centurion Scaeva who single-handedly rallies Caesar’s troops when Pompey’s army attempts a breakout at Minicius

196 to 262: More of Scaeva’s superhuman resistance, fighting single-handed against a wall of enemies till his mutilated face is one mass of bleeding flesh; the arrival of Caesarian reinforcements puts the Pompeyans to flight, and only then does Scaeva collapse. But, Lucan asks, what was it all for?

But you can never adorn the Thunderer’s shrine
with your trophies, nor will you shout for joy
in the triumph. Unhappy man, how great your
bravery that merely paved the way for a tyrant!

263 to 313: Pompey attacks at points along the perimeter wall; at one of them Caesar counter-attacks but then Pompeyan forces charge from all sides; the civil war might have ended there in total defeat for Caesar except that Pompey ‘restrained his army’ and Caesar’s army regrouped and fought its way clear; Lucan laments the lost opportunity and lists all the disasters which would follow:

Cruel fate! Libya and Spain would not have mourned for
the disasters at Utica and Munda; neither would the Nile,
defiled by vile bloodshed, have borne that corpse nobler
than a Pharaoh’s; King Juba’s naked body would not have
burdened the African sand, nor Metellus Scipio appeased
the Carthaginian dead with his blood; nor the living have
lost their virtuous Cato. That day might have ended your
ills, Rome, and erased Pharsalia from the scroll of fate.

314 to 380: Caesar strikes camp and marches east into the interior, into Thessaly

381 to 412: Extensive description of the geography and legendary history of Thessaly or ‘the accursed land’ as Lucan calls it (see above)

413 to 506: The armies follow then camp near each other with a growing sense of Fate, that this is where the Great Confrontation will take place; but Pompey’s son, Sextus, wants to know more and, as it happens, his side have camped ‘near the dwellings of those Thessalian witches whom no conjuring of imaginary horrors can outdo’; a very long passage about their supernatural powers, especially to affect rain and tides, the oceans and even the earth’s rotation

507 to 568: An extended description of the wickedness of Erictho who is the worst witch ever

569 to 623: Erictho is pointed out to Sextus by a local guide, sitting on a high cliff, casting spells unknown to wizards in order to keep the armies at Pharsalus and make the great massacre happen here; Lucan blames Erictho for magically making the armies stay here; she’s doing this so that she can use the blood and bones and body parts of the dead soldiers in her magic rites

624 to 666: Erictho picks a corpse off the battlefield and drags it to her terrifying cave where she ties her hair with snakes and prepares to bring it back to life

667 to 718: Erictho invokes the infernal powers with tremendous power, at considerable length

719 to 774: Erictho raises the dead body to life to prophesy

775 to 830: The prophecy of the dead

Book 7 Pompey loses the Battle of Pharsalia (872 lines)

The soldiers are pressing for battle, but Pompey is reluctant until Cicero convinces him to attack. Against all the odds, the Caesarians are victorious, and Lucan laments the resulting loss of liberty. Caesar is especially cruel as he a) mocks the dying Domitius and b) forbids the cremation of the dead Pompeians. The scene is punctuated by a description of wild animals gnawing at the corpses and a lament from Lucan for Thessalia infelix, ill-fated Thessaly.

Lines 1 to 44: Pompey dreams that he is in Rome enjoying the cheers of his victories in Spain against Sertorius in 73 BC; he would have been happy if he had died at that moment; unlucky Rome, never to see him again

45 to 86: Cicero’s speech summing up the general mood, asking why Pompey is delaying battle

87 to 130: Pompey’s reply, pointing out that he is slowly winning and counselling patience, lamenting that he is being forced into a confrontation he will lose

What evil and suffering this day will bring
the nations! How many kingdoms will be ruined!

131 to 184: Omens and portents

185 to 214: The augur’s cry

215 to 234: Pompey deploys his army, including many foreign kings (Gauls and Spanish)

235 to 302: Caesar addresses his men, pointing out most of Pompey’s army is made of foreigners who care nothing for Rome

303 to 336: Continuation of Caesar’s speech in which he associates Pompey with Sulla, and says if that if the Caesarians lose, he, Caesar, will kill himself rather than be taken in chains to Rome to be punished in the Forum; his army tramples down their camp and trench and throw themselves into battle formation

337 to 384: Pompey addresses his men

385 to 459: The effects of the Battle of Pharsalia: Lucan attributes all Rome’s subsequent failings, the loss of an entire generation, the failure to expand the borders of empire, all to this fateful day:

The fields of Italy are tilled by men in chains, no one
lives beneath our ancient roofs, rotten and set to fall;
Rome is not peopled by citizens; full of the world’s
dross we have so ruined her, civil war among such
is no longer a threat. Pharsalia was the cause of all
that evil.

460 to 505: Battle is joined

506 to 544: Caesar destroys Pompey’s cavalry who Lucan depicts as mostly ill-disciplined foreigners and barbarians

545 to 596: Caesar seizes victory

597 to 646: ‘There all the glory of our country perished… a whole world died there’; Lucan associates the defeat with the birth of the imperial tyranny he says he and his generation still live under a hundred years later:

we were laid low for centuries, all
generations doomed to slavery were conquered
by those swords. What fault did we, their sons,
their grandsons, commit that we deserved to be
born under tyranny?

647 to 697: Pompey takes flight

698 to 727: Pompey reaches Larissa, where he is enthusiastically greeted, even though he has lost

728 to 780: Caesar encourages his men to loot Pompey’s abandoned camp, but that night his men have guilty dreams about murdering their kin

Neither Pentheus raving nor Agave newly sane
were subject to greater horror or mental turmoil.

781 to 824: Caesar also has poisonous dreams but awakes and orders his dining table to be set out on the battlefield which he can survey choked with Roman dead: Caesar denies them burial

825 to 872: Wolves, dogs, birds of prey, descend to ravage the many dead bodies on the battlefield; which god did Thessaly offend to not only host the disastrous battle of Pharsalus, but its echo, Philippi, six years later?

Book 8 The death of Pompey in Egypt (870 lines)

Pompey himself escapes to Lesbos, reunites with his wife, then goes to Cilicia to consider his options. He decides to enlist aid from Egypt, but the Pharaoh (Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator) is fearful of retribution from Caesar and plots to murder Pompey when he lands. Pompey suspects treachery; he consoles his wife and rows alone to the shore, meeting his fate (assassination) with Stoic poise. His headless body is flung into the ocean, but washes up on shore and receives a humble burial from Cordus.

Lines 1 to 85: Pompey sails to Lesbos; Cornelia, scanning the seas, faints when she sees his approach; he revives her, saying now is the time for her love and loyalty

86 to 108: Cornelia says she brings a curse to everyone she marries and wishes Julia would come and take her as a sacrifice so as to spare Pompey; everyone bursts into tears

109 to 158: The people of Lesbos beg Pompey to stay another night and put themselves at his disposal; Pompey is moved by their loyalty, pays them tribute, but sets sail with Cornelia

159 to 201: Pompey asks the ship’s navigator to explain how he navigates by the stars

202 to 255: Though defeated, Pompey retains loyalty; he sends Deiotarus to rally the kingdoms of the East, especially Parthia, to his cause; detailed geographical description of his route by sea

256 to 330: Pompey sails along the coast of Cilicia (southern Turkey) till he arrives at the port of Syhedra where he addresses the senators and other leaders who followed him: he rejects Ptolemy of Egypt and King Juba of Africa as allies; instead he says they must ally in the East with the Parthians, with the bonus that Parthians killed in this civil

331 to 455: Lentulus speaks against Pompey’s plans, scandalised that he is considering relying on Rome’s most ancient enemy; also the Parthians are soft and lousy fighters, and Lentulus goes on to accuse Easterners in general of polygamy, sexual perversions, incest; all Roman armies should be uniting against the Parthians to avenge the infamous massacre of Crassus’s legions; he advocates going to Egypt

456 to 535: As Pompey reaches Egypt, debate among the young Pharaoh’s advisers, with a long speech by Pothinus, his regent, counselling amoral Realpolitik, namely that Pompey has obviously lost, that they don’t want to be dragged down with him: he argues they should kill Pompey

536 to 636: The Egyptian council approve this policy; thus Pompey approaches the sandy shore, is met by a rowing boat and invited to step down into it, is rowed to the beach and there stabbed to death, shamefully by a renegade Roman servant of Pharaoh’s, Septimius: Lucan gives Pompey a last internal soliloquy as he overcomes pain and fear at his death

637 to 662: Cornelia laments and begs to be killed, herself

663 to 711: The assassins hack off Pompey’s head and take it to Pharaoh who has it embalmed, leaving his headless body to be battered by the surf and rocks

712 to 822: Cordus, a former soldier of Pompey’s, claims his corpse from the sea, builds a makeshift pyre from a wrecked boat, places the body amidst it and lights it, hours later, at dawn, scoops up the bones, buries the ashes under sand and a stone, a memorial wildly out of keeping with Pompey’s world-straddling achievements

823 to 870: A curse on Egypt

Book 9 Cato in Libya

Pompey’s wife mourns her husband as Cato takes up leadership of the Senate’s cause. He plans to regroup and heroically marches the army across Africa to join forces with King Juba, a trek that occupies most of the middle section of the book. On the way, he passes an oracle but refuses to consult it, citing Stoic principles. Caesar visits Troy and pays respects to his ancestral gods. A short time later he arrives in Egypt. When Pharaoh’s messenger presents him with the head of Pompey, Caesar feigns grief to hide his joy at Pompey’s death.

It’s important to realise that Cato didn’t support Pompey, he went along with Pompey because he offered the best chances of achieving what Cato really wanted which was the restoration of the Republic with no strong men. When Pompey dies it doesn’t mean the end of the struggle (as it does for many of the allies); for Cato it means one strongman down, just one more to finish off (Caesar) then Freedom can be restored.

1 to 50: Pompey’s spirit rises into the lower heavens, realm of demi-gods, to watch the stars, then back down to earth to imbue Cato with more resolution to oppose Caesar (and later, to fortify Caesar’s assassin, Brutus)

51 to 116: Cornelia laments her fallen husbands (she was previously married to ill-fated Crassus) then repeats Pompey’s last message to his sons, namely to raise fleets to plague Caesar, recommending Cato as the only leader to follow; she locks herself belowdecks as a storm hits the fleet

117 to 166: Sextus Pompeius tells his older brother, Gnaeus, about the murder of their father; Gnaeus vows fierce revenge on Egypt

167 to 214: Cornelia sails west to meet with Cato at Utica, and burns all Pompey’s belongings in a big pyre; Cato eulogises Pompey and praises suicide

215 to 252: Many of the rulers who followed Pompey now depart Cato’s stronghold, explaining that they followed the man not the cause and now he is dead, they will return tom their homelands and take their chances

253 to 293: Cato wins them over (‘Shame on you, vile slaves’)

294 to 347: Another extended geographical description, of ‘the Syrtes’ on the coast of Libya, which Cato’s fleet skirts as it sails along the coast to Lake Tritonis

348 to 410: Mythological background of the region, including the story of Hercules stealing apples from the Garden of the Hesperides: Cato gives a speech encouraging the men to march inland from the coast across the desert

411 to 462: Geographical description of North Africa

463 to 510: The Romans battle on through a massive sandstorm

511 to 586: Description of the Libyans’ god Ammon; Labienus persuades Cato to consult the oracle because he has ‘always ruled your life according to heavenly law, a follower of the divine’; Cato gives a sound rebuttal, with the Stoic argument that God planted all the knowledge in our mind at birth to live virtuous lives, he doesn’t need oracles in the desert

587 to 618: Cato leads the men on the long march

619 to 699: Digression for the mythical tale of Perseus and Medusa; Perseus flew over Libya carrying Medusa’s severed head which dropped blood onto the desert and spawned countless species of poisonous snakes

700 to 760: Catalogue of the snakes of Libya; the gruesome death of standard bearer Aulus, bitten by a dipsas (species of poison snake)

761 to 788: The cruel death of Sabellus, bitten by a seps, which makes its victims’ bodies melt!

789 to 838: Further deaths by snake bite

839 to 889: The soldiers’ heroic endurance and many deaths, Cato always being at the soldier’s side to make them unafraid

890 to 937: One local tribe is immune to the snakebites, being the Psylli of Marmarica; they select their infants by exposing them to snakebites, the survivors joining the tribe; how they help Cato and his soldiers survive snake bites

938 to 986: Finally Cato and his men arrive at inhabited territory near to Leptis where they erect winter quarters. Cut to Caesar as he visits the site of Troy, taking a detailed tour; triggering Lucan to promise that his poem will live and preserve its protagonists’ names, as long as Homer’s did

987 to 1,063: Caesar prays to the gods of Troy that if they make his journey prosper, he will rebuild their city; sails to Egypt; is met by an envoy who presents him with Pompey’s head; Lucan flays Caesar’s hypocrisy at pretending to be upset and weeping

1,064 to 1,108: Caesar’s speech berating Pharaoh for murdering Pompey because it prevented Caesar from exercising his clemency; he had wanted to triumph, yes, but then be reconciled with Pompey; he orders the Egyptians to gather Pompey’s ashes and erect a proper shrine

Book 10 Caesar in Egypt and Cleopatra

Caesar in Egypt is beguiled by the Pharaoh’s sister, Cleopatra. A banquet is held. Pothinus, Ptolemy’s cynical and bloodthirsty chief minister, plots an assassination of Caesar but is killed in his surprise attack on the palace. A second attack comes from Ganymede, an Egyptian noble, and the poem breaks off abruptly as Caesar is fighting for his life.

Lines 1 to 52: Caesar visits Alexander’s grave; Lucan calls him a ‘chance marauder’, ‘a plague on earth’, another conqueror and tyrant

53 to 103: The people of Alexandria bridle at Roman occupation; Caesar takes Pharaoh hostage; Cleopatra smuggles herself into the palace, ‘Egypt’s shame, Latium’s Fury’; Lucan execrates Caesar for letting himself be seduced, giving into ‘adulterous lust’, engendering siblings for his dead Julia: Cleopatra’s speech, pointing out her father intended her to be co-ruler and saying her brother the Pharaoh is in the clutches of the advisor, Pothinus

104 to 135: Cleopatra seduces Caesar; they sleep together; description of Cleopatra’s magnificent palace

136 to 193: At a luxurious feast (‘Caesar learns how to squander the riches of a ransacked world’); Caesar asks Acoreus the priest to give him some background on Egypt’s geography and history, starting with the source and flooding of the Nile

194 to 267: Acoreus discourses on the sources of the Nile, invoking a lot of useless astrology and then reviewing a series of theories, all of them nonsense

268 to 331: Acorius discourses more on the source of the Nile, about which he knows nothing (cf my review of Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal)

332 to 433: A very long speech in which Pharaoh’s regent, Pothinus, tells Achillas (one of the two men who assassinated Pompey) that they must do the same to Caesar i.e. assassinate him that very evening; but when evening comes, they bottle out and miss the opportunity

434 to 485: Next morning the conspirators lead an entire army against Alexandria; seeing it approach the city, Caesar barricades himself into the royal palace, taking Pharaoh as a hostage, while the Egyptians set up a siege

486 to 546: The siege includes ships blocking the harbour; Caesar orders these set fire and the fire spreads to houses on the mainland; he seizes the Pharos, the island attached to the mainland by a mole, which controlled entrance to Alexandria’s port; Caesar has Pothinus beheaded; Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoe, is smuggled out of the palace to take control of the besieging army where she in turn has the incompetent Achillas executed; Caesar is moving his troops onto the empty ships in the harbour when he is attacked from all sides, from the Pharos, from the sea, and from the mainland – at which point the poem abruptly stops

Horror and madness

Lucan emphasises the horrific nature of his subject matter in the poem’s first seven lines (the same number as the opening sentence of Virgil’s Aeneid):

I sing of a worse than civil war, of war fought between kinsmen
over Pharsalia’s plains, of wickedness deemed justice; of how
a powerful people turned their own right hands against themselves;
of strife within families; how, with the first Triumvirate broken,
the forces of the quivering globe contended in mutual sinfulness;
standard ranged against standard, eagle matched against eagle,
spear threatening spear. What madness, my countrymen, how wild
that slaughter!

Any civil war represents the complete inversion of all the normal rules and values of society, starting with patriotism and love of your fellow countrymen.

Events throughout the poem are described in terms of madness and sacrilege. Far from glorious, the battle scenes are portraits of bloody horror, where nature is ravaged to build terrible siege engines and wild animals tear mercilessly at the flesh of the dead (perhaps reflecting the taste of an audience accustomed to the bloodlust of gladiatorial games).

Horror

Arruns reading the entrails:

Behold, he saw a horror never once witnessed
in a victim’s entrails without disaster following;
a vast second lobe grew on the lobe of the liver,
so that one part hung flabby with sickness,
while the other quivered and its veins trembled
to an a-rhythmic beat.

Madness

War’s madness is upon us,
where the sword’s power will wildly confound
all law, and vicious crime be called virtue.
(1.665)

Say, O Phoebus,
what madness embroils Roman arms
and spears in battle, in war without a foe?
(1.679)

Terror

Julia doesn’t just appear as just a ghost to Pompey, but as a Fury:

Julia, a phantom full of menace and terror, raising her
sorrowful face above the yawning earth, stood there in
the shape of a Fury amid the flames of her funeral pyre.
(3.8 to 10)

But then again, if Seneca’s tragedies are anything to go by, elite audiences in Nero’s Rome revelled in horrific subject matter, in the depiction of madness, horror, incest, mutilation, all wrapped in the most lurid, extreme rhetoric the poet could concoct.

Anti-imperialism

Given Lucan’s clear anti-imperialism, the flattering Book I dedication to Nero is somewhat puzzling. Some scholars have tried to read these lines ironically, but most see it as a traditional dedication written at a time before the (supposed) true depravity of Lucan’s patron was revealed. The extant “Lives” of the poet support this interpretation, stating that a portion of the Pharsalia was in circulation before Lucan and Nero had their falling out.

Furthermore, according to Braund, Lucan’s negative portrayal of Caesar in the early portion of the poem was not likely meant as criticism of Nero, and it may have been Lucan’s way of warning the new emperor about the issues of the past.

The poem as civil war

A critic named Jamie Masters has come up with a clever idea which is that the Pharsalia is not just a poem about a civil war but, in a metaphorical way, is a civil war. Not only are the two characters, Caesar and Pompey, at war with each other, but the poem can be divided into Pompeian and Caesarian styles and approaches.

Thus the sections about Pompey are slow, embody delay, and revels in delay, and dwell on the horrors of civil war. The passages describing Caesar are noticeably faster, cover more ground, with less lamenting and more energy.

This leads Masters to maybe overdo it a bit, suggesting the conflict was ultimately within Lucan’s mind so that the binary opposition that he sees throughout the entire poem embodies Lucan’s own ‘schizophrenic poetic persona.’

Lucan’s influence

Lucan’s work was popular in his own day and remained a school text in late antiquity and during the Middle Ages. Over 400 manuscripts survive. Its interest to the court of Charlemagne is proved by the existence of five complete manuscripts from the 9th century. Dante includes Lucan among other classical poets in the first circle of the Inferno, and draws on the Pharsalia in his scene with Antaeus (the giant depicted in Lucan’s book 4).

Christopher Marlowe wrote a translation of Book 1. Thomas May followed with translation of the other nine books in 1626, and then went on to invent a continuation, adding seven books to take the story up to Caesar’s assassination.

Suetonius’s Life of Lucan

Suetonius’s Life of Lucan is very short. This is it, in its entirety, in the Loeb Classical Library 1914 translation:

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus of Corduba made his first appearance as a poet with a ‘Eulogy of Nero’ at the emperor’s Quinquennial Contests,​ and then gave a public reading of his poem on the ‘Civil War’ waged between Pompey and Caesar. In a kind of introduction to the latter, comparing his time of life and his first essays with those of Vergil, he had the audacity to ask:

“How far, pray, do I fall short of the Culex”?​

In his early youth, learning that his father was living in the remote country districts because of an unhappy marriage…He was recalled from Athens by Nero and made one of his intimate friends, besides being honoured with the quaestor­ship; but he could not keep the emperor’s favour. For piqued because Nero had suddenly called a meeting of the senate and gone out when he was giving a reading, with no other motive than to throw cold water on the performance,​ he afterwards did not refrain from words and acts of hostility to the prince, which are still notorious. Once for example in a public privy, when he relieved his bowels with an uncommonly loud noise, he shouted out this half line of the emperor’s, while those who were there for the same purpose took to their heels:

“You might suppose it thundered ‘neath the earth.”

He also tongue-lashed not only the emperor but also his most power­ful friends in a scurrilous poem. Finally, he came out almost as the ringleader​ in the conspiracy of Piso, publicly making great talk about the glory of tyrannicides, and full of threats, even going to the length of offering Caesar’s head to all his friends. But when the conspiracy was detected, he showed by no means equal firmness of purpose; for he was easily forced to a confession, descended to the most abject entreaties, and even named his own mother among the guilty parties, although she was innocent, in hopes that this lack of filial devotion would win him favour with a parricidal prince.

But when he was allowed free choice of the manner of his death, he wrote a letter to his father, containing corrections for some of his verses, and after eating heartily, offered his arms to a physician, to cut his veins. I recall that his poems were even read in public,​ while they were published and offered for sale by editors lacking in taste, as well as by some who were painstaking and careful.


Related links

Roman reviews

The Pharsalia by Lucan – 1: Introduction

O mighty the sacred labour of the poet! He rescues
all from fate, and grants immortality to mortal beings.
(Pharsalia Book 9, lines 980 to 981)

Lucan biography

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39 to 65 AD), generally referred to in English simply as ‘Lucan’, was a Roman poet, born in Corduba (modern-day Córdoba) in the Roman province of Hispania. Although he was ordered to kill himself by the emperor Nero at the age of just 25, Lucan is regarded as one of the outstanding figures of the Imperial Latin period, particularly for his (unfinished) epic poem, Pharsalia.

Lucan was the son of Marcus Annaeus Mela, younger brother of Seneca the Younger i.e. he was Seneca’s nephew.

Lucan’s father was wealthy, a member of the knightly class, and sent him to study rhetoric at Athens and he was probably tutored in philosophy, and especially Stoic philosophy, by his uncle (maybe by Seneca’s freedman, Cornutus, who also tutored the slightly older poet, Persius).

Lucan was a precocious talent and was welcomed into the literary and philosophical circles around the young emperor Nero, who was only two years older than him (born 37 AD). In 60 AD i.e. aged barely 21, Lucan won prizes for extemporising poems at Nero’s new Quinquennial Games. Nero rewarded him by appointing him to the office of augur, a plum position in Rome’s religious hierarchy.

Soon afterwards Lucan began circulating the first three books of what was intended to be an epic poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (generally referred to as Pompey). This has come down to us with the title Pharsalia, or De Bello civili (‘On the civil war’) in other manuscripts. It’s titled Pharsalia because the action focuses on the decisive Battle of Pharsalus, fought on 9 August 48 BC, at which Caesar decisively defeated Pompey’s army.

At some point Nero and Lucan fell out. According to Tacitus (Annals, book 15, section 49) Nero became jealous of Lucan and ordered him to stop publishing the Pharsalia. According to Suetonius (in his brief Life of Lucan, cited in full at the end of this blog post), Nero disrupted a public reading by Lucan by leaving and calling a meeting of the senate. Lucan responded by writing insulting poems about Nero – which is always a bad thing to do against a tyrant. The grammarian Vacca mentions that one of Lucan’s works was entitled De Incendio Urbis (‘On the Burning of the City’) which presumably contained criticism of Nero’s role in the Great Fire of Rome (July 64). This is confirmed by a reference in a poem by Lucan’s younger contemporary, Publius Papinius Statius (45 to 96 AD).

As further proof, after the pro-Nero eulogy of the opening book, nearly all the subsequent references to emperors and the empire are vitriolically anti-imperial and pro-republic in tone. To take an example at random, Lucan’s biting criticism of not only Alexander the Great’s achievements, but of the cult of imperial Alexander which followed his death.

For, if the world had regained a shred of liberty
his corpse would have been retained as an object
of derision, not shown as an example to the world
of how a host of lands were subjected to one man.
He left his Macedonian obscurity, spurned Athens
that his father had conquered, and spurred on by
the power of destiny ran amok among the realms
of Asia, slaying humankind, putting every land
to the sword. He stained far-off rivers, Persia’s
Euphrates, India’s Ganges with blood; a plague
on earth, a lightning bolt that struck all peoples
alike, a fateful comet flaring over every nation.

But what ended Lucan’s life was his involvement in Gaius Calpurnius Piso’s conspiracy against Nero, uncovered in 65. Lucan was one of many conspirators revealed by torturing suspects. According to Suetonius he miserably truckled to his persecutors, giving them names of further conspirators, including even his own mother, in the vain hope of winning a pardon.

Once his guilt was established Nero ordered Lucan to commit suicide by opening a vein (the alternative being arrest, torture and public execution). According to Tacitus, as Lucan bled to death he recited some lines he had written about a wounded soldier. I wonder if they were from the passage about the 600 Caesarians who chose suicide rather than surrender to Pompey, in book 4:

how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide
(4.577)

Alternatively, according to Suetonius, Lucan in his dying minutes wrote a letter to his father containing corrections to some of his verses and, after eating heartily, offered his arms to a physician to cut his veins. Lucan’s father and both his uncles, i.e all three sons of Seneca the Elder, were also compelled to kill themselves.

(Statius wrote an elegy to Lucan, the Genethliacon Lucani, which was addressed to his widow, Polla Argentaria, on the dead man’s birthday. It was written during the reign of Domitian (81 to 96) and included in Statius’s collection, Silvae).

Themes in the Pharsalia

De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) or the Pharsalia is long and dense with themes and ideas, some of which I will now consider:

1. No gods

The traditional epic poem is packed with gods, supporting various protagonists and intervening in the events. The entire narrative of the Aeneid exists because of the enmity of the queen of the gods, Juno, to the hero, Aeneas, who she continually enters the story to block and stymy, in doing so setting herself against fellow goddess, Venus, who, for her part, does everything she can to support Aeneas (who is her son). This leads to great set-piece debates in heaven between the rival gods, adjudicated by the king of the heavens, Jupiter.

There’s none of this in Lucan. Lucan took the decision to dispense with all the divine interventions associated with traditional epic. Lucan replaces them with the more up-to-date Stoic notions of Fate and Fortune. These two forces, sometimes blurring into each other and overlapping, at other moments appear as clearly distinct entities, names for two different forces operating at different levels of the universe.

Fate, fatum or fata is Destiny – the fixed, foreordained course of events which underpins the universe. Fate is the name given to the working through of the deep plan for the world and the nations in it.

And now, as light dispersed the chill shades of night,
Destiny lit the flames of war, setting the spur to Caesar’s
wavering heart, shattering the barriers shame interposed
and driving him on to conflict. Fate worked to justify
his rebellion, and found a pretext for his use of arms.
(Book 1, lines 261 to 265)

What but the power of destiny, that tragic fate
decreed by the eternal order, drew him, doomed
to die, to that shore…Yet
Pompey yielded to fate, obeying when requested
to leave his ship, choosing to die rather than show
fear…
(8.571 ff.)

By contrast, Fortune, fortuna, is Chance, a fickle, unpredictable force, continually turning her wheel, ensuring that anyone at the peak of professional or social success, can never be certain that Fortune won’t turn her wheel and plunge them down to the pits of failure.

At a deep level, Fate determines the occurrence of a civil war and that Caesar will win. But Fortune decides the outcome of specific events and details.

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
due to idleness, but summoned all his forces scattered
throughout Gaul, moving every legion towards Rome.
(1.392 to 395)

Susan Braund explains all this in the introduction to her translation of the Pharsalia published by the Oxford University Press. The distinct operational levels of the two forces are sometimes made particularly clear:

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
(1.392-3)

Where Destiny is the overall force or plan but whether individual elements of the plan fall this way or that, depends on Fortune. Or:

Fate stirred the peoples and sent them as companions
to a great disaster, as a funeral train fit for Pompey’s
exequies. Even horned Ammon was not slow to send
squadrons from Africa to battle, from all parched Libya,
from Morocco in the west to Egyptian Syrtes in the east.
So that Caesar, fortune‘s favourite, might win all with
a single throw, Pharsalia brought all the world to battle.
(3.291 to 297)

The distinction is made particularly clear in the long speech by the witch Erictho in book 6, where she makes a distinction between ‘the chain of events fixed from the beginning of the world’ which nobody can change or alter, and ‘lesser decrees of fate’, which witches like her can alter. Level 1 and Level 2. (6.609 to 621)

However, at other moments I found the concepts a lot less clear cut, for example in this passage where you’d expect the Pompey’s ultimate death, the deep pattern of his life, to be described as his Fate not his Fortune.

Pompey by then, had gained the open sea, but the luck
that aided his past hunts for pirates was his no longer,
and Fortune, wearied by his triumphs, proved untrue.

And sometimes the two concepts seem interchangeable:

Greedy quicksand and spongy marshes hid the secret
Fate had placed there; yet later that aged general’s flesh
was scarred by iron fetters reduced by long vile imprisonment.
He was to die though as Fortune’s friend, as consul in a Rome
he had ruined.
(2.71 to 75)

Anyway, Lucan’s neglect of the traditional apparatus of gods and his focus on Fate and Fortune do two things for the poem:

  1. Lots of gods would have distracted attention away from what was a very human catastrophe and away from the all-too-human human protagonists.
  2. Also the gods can, in some sense, be appealed to and swayed by humans. Whereas Fate and Fortune are profoundly impersonal forces and so bring out the horror of the unstoppable nature of civil war, Fate emphasising the deep inevitability of the outcome, with Fortune standing for the many chance victims along the way.

There is a simpler explanation, which is that the introduction of the kind of gods found in Virgil was simply inappropriate – would have appeared gauche and clumsy – in a poem dealing with very events almost within living memory. Roman literature – Classical literature generally – was very concerned with what was and wasn’t appropriate for every genre, in terms of subject matter, tone and even individual words. Including the gods in a historical epic would have breached the conventions of the genre.

2. No heroes

Epic poems feature the adventures of more-than-human heroes, from Gilgamesh, through Achilles and Aeneas, to Beowulf, humans not only with superhuman power but often the progeny of the gods. Whereas a historical epic like the Pharsalia is concerned with real historical personages, many of whose relatives were still alive when Lucan wrote.

Not only that, but epics generally feature one obvious central protagonist (Gilgamesh, Achilles, Beowulf) but just as there are no gods or divine intervention in the Pharsalia, so there is no one hero or central protagonist. Instead there are three leading but not totally dominating figures:

1. Gaius Julius Caesar

Caesar is the most prominent character in the first part of the poem, active, clear-sighted, ambitious, a force of nature – but not likeable. Lucan’s Caesar approaches closest to the figure of traditional epic hero. He has no moderating feminine influence on him until right at the end, in book 10, where his encounter with Cleopatra is a meeting of two cynical players. After the climactic battle of Pharsalus, however, Caesar is depicted as becoming more ambitious and imperial.

2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

Pompey is portrayed as the opposite – vacillating, indecisive, and past his prime (‘the mere shadow of a mighty name’) but, in scenes with friends, followers and especially his wife, Cornelia, far more human than Caesar. At the end, after Pharsalus, Pompey is transformed into a stoic martyr, receiving a kind of visionary treatment as he nears his tragic death on the beach in Egypt which he meets with Stoic calm acceptance.

3. Marcus Porcius Cato

And, after the death of Pompey in book 8, Cato emerges as the strongest leader of the Republican cause, holed up with Republican legions in north Africa. Cato epitomises stern old-fashioned values. He stands for Roman patriotism and Stoic contempt for death, notably in the episode in book 9 where he scorns to consult the oracle of Ammon, saying God gave us all the knowledge we need to live a virtuous life at birth; which triggers adulation from Lucan:

Behold, the true father of his
country, a man worthy to be worshipped,
Rome, at your altars; by whom none need
blush to swear, and who, if you ever free
your neck from the yoke, shall be made a god.

In fact, in a striking episode on the march across the desert, Cato not only embodies Stoic resolution in the face of death but inspires it in others:

Alone he was present at every
death; whenever they call, he goes, and confers that
mighty benefit, more than life: the courage to die;
so that, with him as witness, any man was ashamed
to die with a groan on his lips.
(9.882)

When Cato’s first wife, Marcia, returns to him the narrative emphasises that their marriage is sexless; it symbolises his adherence to defunct, sterile values. Many critics think Lucan intended Cato to develop into the central figure of the poem, with the narrative designed to end with his famous suicide in the besieged garrison town of Utica, symbolising the moral victory of Stoic principle and Freedom against Tyranny.

There’s a case for saying the three figures are on a spectrum: Caesar is over-balanced in one direction, all energy and decision and lust (‘impetuous in everything’ 2.657); Cato stands at the other pole, arid, sexless, aloof; with Pompey standing in the middle, reasonable and given scenes of touching married love with Cornelia. As this blog shrewdly suggests, it’s as if the heroic protagonist of Virgil’s epic, Aeneas, has decomposed into three characters, none of which are heroic.

3. The gruesome and the macabre

The supernatural

If the Pharsalia doesn’t have gods, what it does have in abundance is the Supernatural – the poem is awash with visions, dreams, ghosts, magic, rituals and so on. Braund sees the supernatural as falling into two categories, ‘dreams and visions’ and ‘portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers’.

a) Dreams and visions

There are four important dream or vision sequences in the poem:

  1. Caesar’s vision of Roma as he is about to cross the Rubicon.
  2. The ghost of Julia (his beloved dead wife) appearing to Pompey (3.1 to 45)
  3. Pompey’s dream of his happy past (7.1 to 30)
  4. Caesar and his troops’ dream of battle and destruction.

All four of these dream-visions are placed strategically throughout the poem to provide structure, and to dramatise key turning points in the narrative.

b) Portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers

Lucan describes a number of portents, with two specifically oracular episodes. What is a portent? “A sign or warning that a momentous or calamitous event is likely to happen.” So, on the morning of the fateful battle:

Now Fortune too did not hesitate to reveal the future
by diverse signs. When the army made for Thessaly’s
fields, the whole sky opposed their march, hurling
meteors against them, columns of flame, whirlwinds
sucking up water and trees together, blinding their
eyes with lightning, striking crests from their helms,
melting the swords in their scabbards, tearing spears
from their grasp while fusing them, their evil blades
smoking with air-borne sulphur. The standards too
could barely be plucked from the soil, their great
weight bowing the heads of the standard-bearers;
and the standards wept real tears…
(7.151 to 162)

The central example is the necromancy which takes up half of book 6, when Pompey’s son, Sextus, goes to consult the witch Erachtho. Lucan’s description of the witch and her ritual take up half the entire book (lines 413 to 830).

All this appealed to contemporary taste for the macabre. Braund cites events in one of the tragedies of Lucan’s uncle, Seneca, his Oedipus, which contains a) a visit to the Delphic oracle, b) a gruesome description of the sacrifice and entrail examination of a bull and heifer (haruspicy), and c) the even more macabre magical rituals by which Tiresias raises the ghost of dead King Laius to accuse Oedipus of his murder.

Chaos on earth reflected in heaven

It is a central feature of the histories that war and disruption on earth must inevitably be accompanied by chaos in the heavens – just as in his uncle Seneca’s tragedies where mayhem on earth is matched and mimicked by cosmic catastrophes. In both Lucan and Seneca the entire universe often seems to be trembling on the brink of complete dissolution.

So when the fabric
of the world dissolves, in that final hour that gathers in the ages,
reverting to primal chaos, star will clash with star in confusion,
the fiery constellations will sink into the sea, and earth heaving
upwards her flat shores will throw off the ocean, the moon will
move counter to her brother, and claiming the rule of day disdain
to drive her chariot on its slanting path, and the whole discordant
frame of the shattered firmament will break free of every law.
(1.72 to 79)

This worldview, the intimate parallelism between human and supernatural affairs, is very prevalent in the biographers Plutarch and Suetonius, writing a generation later.

Haruspicy and necromancy

Along the way, Braund gives useful definitions of two key Roman practices:

  • haruspicy (haruspicies) is the art of studying animal entrails, usually the victims of ritual sacrifices
  • necromancy is the art of getting the dead to speak prophecy; necromancy is not only the general practice of this craft, but you perform a necromancy

4. Extreme rhetoric

Education for Roman aristocrats focused on rhetoric, the ability to speak eloquently and make a persuasive argument. We know from contemporary comments and satires that under the empire many of the exercises which students were given became steadily more extreme and exaggerated. This was reflected in the poetry of the age; from what survives the most extreme example might be the bloodthirsty and over-written tragedies of Seneca.

A central part of the curriculum was the suasoria, an exercise where students wrote speeches advising an historical figure on a course of action. This obviously fed into the largely invented speeches which fill Tacitus’s histories as much as Lucan’s poem.

Lucan is sometimes criticised for the extremity of his rhetoric and the luridness of scenes and imagery. But Susan Braund comes to his defence, with two arguments. One is that Lucan was a product of his times. There was a taste for melodrama and Gothic hyperbole which Lucan catered to.

More interesting is the second argument. This is to do with Virgil. Virgil was the undisputed king of Roman poets and his epic, the Aeneid, was acknowledged as a classic even as he was writing it. The problem for ambitious poets in all the succeeding generations was how to escape Virgil’s dominating influence, how to do anything new. Braund says Ovid found one way, in his Metamorphoses, which was to drop the notion of one, unified, linear narrative and instead string together hundreds of stories and episodes.

Lucan adopted another strategy which was to import into his text the ‘discourse of contemporary rhetoric’, in all its exaggeration and extremity. For there’s another aspect here, which is not to forget that a poem like this was meant to be recited aloud to audiences. Before the rule of Augustus, poetry was recited to group of like-minded friends or patrons. During Augustus’s reign it became common to recite it to larger audiences. We have accounts of Virgil reciting to the emperor and his extended family. Horace was commissioned to write odes to be declaimed at public games.

Braund argues that this trend for declamation had two consequences: it tended to promote more striking and vibrant imagery/style. And it incentivised the poet to think in terms of episodes.

5. Episodic structure

The Aeneid is very carefully constructed and susceptible to many types of structural analysis. Although critics have, of course, made a case for the existence of a deep structure in the Pharsalia (for example, a tetradic structure whereby the first four books focus on Caesar, the next four on Pompey and the final four on Cato) Braund disagrees. She thinks the narrative is far more episodic. In this respect it is like the highly episodic structure of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with one story leading to another, then another, then another – itself a strategy for escaping the highly unified and centralised narrative of the Aeneid.

Like the Metamorphoses, this lack of a single unifying narrative in the Pharsalia allows for more episodes, more adventures, more flicking between channels – episodes which contain are like mini-genres, containing their own appropriate languages, structure and style.

Lucan is fond of discontinuity. He presents his narrative as a series of discrete scenes, often without any transitional or scene-changing lines. Rather than a continuous narrative, it often feels like scenes are balanced within a book or between books, working by correspondence, similarity and difference between them.

We can imagine how well these dramatic episodes would have gone down as stand-alone recitations to a sophisticate audience of Roman aristocrats. I’m thinking of Appius’s confrontation with the priestess at Delphi or the terrific storm scene or Caesar’s speech of defiance to his mutinous troops, all in book 5.

6. Lucan and Virgil

Lucan frequently appropriates ideas from Virgil’s epic and inverts them to undermine their original, heroic purpose. Sextus’ visit to the Thracian witch Erictho in book 6 is the most obvious example, the scene and language clearly referencing Aeneas’ descent into the underworld (in Book 6 of the Aeneid), but while Virgil’s description, despite its gloomy setting, is an optimistic, nay triumphant vision of the future heroes of Rome leading up to the glories of Augustan rule, Lucan uses his scene to convey a bitter and bloody pessimism about the loss of liberty under the coming empire.

7. Epic similes

Braund and other critics emphasis the way that Lucan seeks to break free from the epic conventions, in particular the way he references Virgil in order to reverse or invert his technique and meaning. But in one respect Lucan strongly conforms with the tradition, which is in his use of epic similes. Straight-up epic similes really litter the narrative. Here’s the famous extended comparison of Pompey, larded with triumphs, to a venerable oak tree:

So some oak-tree towers in a rich grove,
hung with a nation’s ancient trophies, sacred gifts of the victors,
and though its clinging roots have lost their strength, their weight
alone holds it, spreading naked branches to the sky, casting shade
not with leaves but its trunk alone, and though it quivers, doomed
to fall at the next gale, among the host of sounder trees that rise
around it, still it alone is celebrated.
(1.137 to 143)

Or the inhabitants of towns which Caesar’s army approached were conflicted about who to support.

Though loyalty contended with the threat of danger,
they still favoured Pompey, as when a southerly rules
the waves, and all the sea is stirred by its vast power,
so that even if Aeolus’ trident opens the solid earth,
and lets an easterly loose on the mounting breakers,
the ocean, though struck by that second force, stays
true to the first, and though the sky surrenders itself
to the rain-filled easterly, the sea asserts the southerly’s
power.
(2.452 to 460)

Describing Octavius’s naval strategy:

So the hunter works,
holding back the net of coloured feathers that scares
the deer with its scent, till he can pen them all, or
quieting the noise of the swift Molossian hounds,
leashing the dogs of Crete and Sparta, till he has set
his stakes and nets, leaving one hound alone to range
the ground, it puzzling out the scent and only barking
when the prey is found, content then to point toward
the creature’s lair while tugging at the leash.
(4.436 to 444)

Or describing the way Cato’s speech in book 9 persuades the allies to remain with the anti-Caesarian army:

So, when hosts of bees
depart the hive, where their young have hatched,
they neglect the waxy cells, their wings no longer
brush one another, each takes its own way, idling,
refraining now from sipping the flowering thyme
with its bitter taste; yet if the sound of Phrygian
cymbals rises, they interrupt their flight, in alarm,
returning to the performance of their flowery task,
and their love of gathering pollen. The shepherd
in Hybla’s meadows is relieved, delighted that
his honey harvest is secured. So Cato’s speech
persuaded his men to endure the lawful conflict.
(9.282 to 293)

Nothing particularly lurid or extreme or melodramatic or supernatural about these. Very conventional epic similes.

8. Geographical descriptions

Before I started reading the poem I was impressed by Braund’s introduction and its emphasis on the macabre and bloodthirsty in Lucan. But once I began reading, I realised there were a lot of other, more low-key, less sensational elements that go to make up the text. More frequent than descriptions of battle, let alone supernatural visions, are the frequent very long passages describing the precise geography of a particular location, such as the region around Capua where Pompey first took his army or, in book 6, this very long description of Thessaly.

Mount Pelion’s ridge bounds Thessaly in the quarter where
the winter sun rises, Mount Ossa where in high summer
its shade obstructs the rays of Phoebus rising in the dawn;
while wooded Othrys dispels the flames of the southern sky,
at midsummer, opposing the brow of the all-devouring Lion;
and Mount Pindus outfacing westerlies and north-westerlies,
where daylight ebbs hastens evening on; while those who live
at the foot of Olympus never dreading the northerlies, know
nothing of the Great Bear’s stars shining a whole night long.
The low-lying lands in the region between these mountains
were once covered with endless marshes; since the plains
retained the waters, and the Vale of Tempe was insufficient
for them to reach the sea they formed continuous swampland,
and their only course was to rise. But when Hercules lifted
Ossa’s weight from Olympus, the sea felt a sudden onrush
of waters as Thessalian Pharsalos, that realm of Achilles
the hero born of a sea-goddess, rose above the surface,
a realm better drowned forever. There rose too, Phylace
whose king was first to land in the war at Troy; Pteleos;
Dorion, that laments the Muses’ anger and blind Thamyris;
Trachis; Meliboea whose Philoctetes received Hercules’
bow, for lighting that hero’s funeral pyre; Larisa, powerful
once; and the sites where the plough now passes over famed
Argos, where Echion’s Thebes once stood, to which Agave
howling bore the head of Pentheus giving it to the funeral
pyre, grieving to have carried off no other part of his flesh.
Thus the swamp was drained forming a host of rivers. From
there the Aeas, clear in its flow but of little volume, runs
westward to the Ionian Sea, the Inachus glides with no more
powerful a current (he was the river-god, father of ravished Io)
nor the Achelous (he almost won Deianeira, Oeneus’ daughter)
that silts the Echinades islands; there, the Euhenos, stained
as it is with Nessus’ blood runs through Meleager’s Calydon;
there Spercheos’ swift stream meets the Malian Gulf’s wave,
and the pure depths of the Amphrysos water those pastures
where Apollo herded cattle. There, the Asopos starts its flow,
and the Black River, and the Phoenix; there, the Anauros,
free of moist vapours, dew-drenched air, capricious breezes.
There too are the rivers which do not reach the sea themselves
but are tributaries of Peneus – the Apidanus, robbed of its flow,
the Enipeus never swift until it finds Peneus, and the Titaresos,
which alone, meeting with that river, keeps its waters intact,
glides on the surface, as though the greater river were dry land,
for legend says its stream flows from the pool of Styx, and so,
mindful of its source, scorns commingling with common water,
inspiring still that awe of its current the gods themselves feel.
Once the waters had flowed away leaving dry land, the fertile
soil was furrowed by the ploughs of the Bebryces; the labour
of Leleges drove the share deep; the ground was broken by
Aeolidae and Dolopians, by Magnesians breeders of horses,
Minyae builders of ships.
(6.398 to 416)

Long, isn’t it? A tourist’s guide to the region. I imagine the long list of not only place names but myths and legends associated with them were a) appropriate to the grandeur of the epic genre, magnifying the action b) awed Lucan’s readers or auditor’s with the poet’s impressive erudition c) made those in the aristocratic audience who had visited some or many of those sites nod with smug recognition.

9. Natural history

In his last few years, Lucan’s uncle, Seneca the Younger, composed an enormous work of natural history, the Naturales quaestiones, an encyclopedia of the natural world. A decade later, 77, Pliny the Elder published the first 10 books of his compendious Naturalis Historia (Natural History) (the largest single work to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day).

I mention these works to indicate that a taste for ‘natural history’ was obviously in the air and maybe explains the presence of the extended passages of natural history in the Pharsalia. The obvious example is the really extended passage about the snakes of Libya which takes up over 300 lines in book 9.

10. Is the Pharsalia unfinished?

Almost all scholars agree that the Pharsalia as we now have it is unfinished. Lucan was working in book 10 when Nero’s order to commit suicide came through. Book 10 breaks off with Caesar in Egypt. There are numerous theories about this as about all other aspects of the poem. Here are some:

  • Some argue that Lucan intended to end his poem with the Battle of Philippi (42 BC).
  • Some critics speculate that the narrative was intended to continue all the way to the assassination of Julius Caesar four years after the Battle of Pharsalus, in 44 BC.
  • Some even think it was meant to continue all the way to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

The latter two theories, in particular, suppose that Lucan intended to write a work many times larger than what we have. The 10-book poem we have today covers a total of 20 months i.e. roughly a book per 2 months; so the 48 months to Caesar’s assassination would imply another 24 books; the 17 years (204 month) to Actium, imply another 102 books!

Another problem with the timeline continuing as far as Caesar’s assassination is that, with both Pompey and Cato dead, Lucan would have had to embark on building up a new set of characters, in particular the leaders of Caesar’s assassination, Cassius and Brutus.

Which is why Braund ends up going with the simplest hypothesis which is that Lucan’s original intent was a 12-book poem, mirroring the length of the Aeneid. The strongest piece of evidence for Lucan consciously modelling the Pharsalia on Virgil is the way Lucan introduces an extended necromantic ritual in his sixth book that deliberately parallels and inverts many of the motifs found in Virgil’s sixth book. Thus Braund goes with the view that the poem was to be 12 books long and was heading towards the suicide of Cato (as the army of Julius Caesar approached his stronghold of Utica in North Africa) held up as a model of Stoic dignity rising above tyranny.

There are a few more scenarios: one is that the Pharsalia in in fact finished, was meant to end at the end of the tenth book, and is complete as we have it. This is the view of Classicist Jamie Masters but most other scholars disagree.

But there is one last logical possibility, which is that Lucan did in fact complete the poem but, for whatever reason, the final few books of the work were lost at some point. Braund notes that little evidence has been found one way or the other, so this question will remain a matter of speculation.

11. The Roman cult of suicide

Throughout the poem suicide is praised as a noble and dignified way to take control of your life. Nothing becomes a true Roman man so much as either a) dying in battle or b) controlling the time and place of his death, especially when faced with tyranny. Thus Afranius contemplates suicide before surrendering to Caesar (book 4), Vulteius and his men actually do commit suicide, en masse, rather than be captured:

No instant is too short for a man
to kill himself; suicide is no less glorious when death
at another’s hand approaches.
(4.480)

Even Julius Caesar unashamedly tells his mutinying soldiers that, if they lose, he will commit suicide:

I shall seek
my own salvation in suicide; whoever looks back
if the foe is unbeaten, will see me stab my breast.
(7.308)

From which Lucan draws the general lesson that suicide is the ultimate way to escape from tyranny:

Yet even after the example set
by such heroes, nations of cowards still do not comprehend
how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide; so the tyrant’s
power is feared, freedom is constrained by savage weapons,
while all remain ignorant that the sword is there to deliver
every man from slavery.

For me, the careful seeding of examples of, and praise of, and defences of, suicide, strongly suggest the poem was building up to the suicide of Cato as its climax and crowning example of resistance. Thus it is that Cato himself sternly celebrates Pompey’s death after defeat:

O happy was he, whose ending
followed on defeat, the Egyptian swords
offering the death he should have sought.
He might perhaps have lived on instead
under Caesar’s rule

Because:

the highest fate
is to know when to die, and the second
best to have such death forced upon one.

The ‘highest fate’, the best thing a man can do, the greatest achievement of human reason, is to know when to die. All the more ghoulishly ironic that Lucan himself was forced to commit suicide before he could complete the depiction of his Stoic hero committing suicide.

12. Lucan and Seneca

I finished reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic weeks after reading the Pharsalia. Reviewing my notes I realise the tremendous overlap in ‘philosophy’, namely the absolutely central role played in both texts by suicide as escape from tyranny. It is the central theme of both works. But as I point out in my review of the letters, suicide my be an acceptable theme for a poem, but not for a really long work of moral exhortation (the letters) which claim to be instructions on how to live and think. Personally, I recommend not thinking about suicide every moment of every day, as a healthier way to live.

Modern views

Since the Enlightenment the Pharsalia has commonly been considered a second rank offering, not in the same league as the king of the Roman epics, the Aeneid. But in recent decades more sophisticated literary analysis has brought out how the poem’s ‘studied artifice enacts a complex relationship between poetic fantasy and historical reality’.

His narrative of the civil war is pared down to a bare minimum; but this is overlaid with a rich and varied virtuoso display of learning which reflected contemporary interests. (Braund, Introduction, page 37)

All I can add is that I found the Pharsalia a surprisingly gripping and interesting read.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon by Adolphe Yvon (1875)


Related links

Roman reviews

%d bloggers like this: