Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: AD 69: Emperors, Armies & Anarchy by Nic Fields (non-fiction)

A history resource article by  © 2015

"Historians generally like to encourage us to remember Rome as a glorious font of western civilization.  I find it difficult to agree with this proposal.  Rather than be dazzled by its so-called glory, Rome is better seen as 'that immense monument of human arrogance'.  So from here on abandon any notions about the glory that was Rome or the noble legacy it ostensibly left us." - Nic Fields, AD69: Emperors, Army and Anarchy

After reading the above paragraph along with others disparaging academia and claiming much of what is written about Rome has been composed by "dewey-eyed Western romantics" culpable of "Eurocentric cultural imperialism", I wondered why this former Royal Marine turned classicist even bothered to write the book.

I never thought of myself as a "dewey-eyed Western romantic", although I do feel there is much to admire in Roman civilization.  On the other hand I am well aware of the brutal nature of ancient warfare and some of the less savory aspects of life under Roman rule.  So I hope I examine Roman history through a relatively unbiased lens and it is from this viewpoint that I continued to read Fields' account of this tumultuous year.

Fields recounts the events of the Year of the Four Emperors as viewed by Tacitus, one of our most reliable ancient sources, but, unfortunately, couples his research with condescending asides about the Romans as a people.

A representation of Tacitus outside the Austrian Parliament
in Vienna, Austria.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

"As a race they were passionately unpretentious, enormously addicted to pattern, with a faculty beyond all other people of ignoring their neighbours, their surroundings, or in the last resort, themselves.  Because the Romans were the worst kind of liberty takers, violence was acceptable, the unwilling cajoled and the openly hostile duly crushed, harshness and hatred for 'the Other' was actively encouraged, moderation and magnanimity was for the weak." - Nic Fields, AD69: Emperors, Army and Anarchy

Fortunately, I was already familiar with most of the main events of this period after reading Douglas Jackson's excellent novel "Sword of Rome."  I even got a glimpse of life in Rome itself during the Year of the Four Emperors in Kate Quinn's "Daughters of Rome".  But I have continued to be puzzled why Vespasian did not make his move to grasp the purple until Vitellius wrested the throne from the blood-stained hands of Otho.  Vespasian supported Galba as Nero's successor and, even though Otho ultimately ordered the assassination of Galba, Vespasian appeared to make no protest about that either.  So what was it about Vitellius that was so repugnant to Vespasian? I hoped Fields might share some light on this.

Fields points out that, according to Tacitus, there were rumors Galba intended to adopt Titus, Vespasian's oldest son.

"Titus Vespasian had been sent from Judaea by his father while Galba still lived, and alleged as a reason for his journey the homage due to the Emperor, and his age, which now qualified him to compete for office. But the vulgar, ever eager to invent, had spread the report that he was sent for to be adopted. The advanced years and childless condition of the Emperor furnished matter for such gossip, and the country never can refrain from naming many persons until one be chosen. The report gained the more credit from the genius of Titus himself, equal as it was to the most exalted fortune, from the mingled beauty and majesty of his countenance, from the prosperous fortunes of Vespasian, from the prophetic responses of oracles, and even from accidental occurrences which, in the general disposition to belief, were accepted as omens." - Tacitus, The Histories, Book II.1
Portrait bust of Titus Flavius Vespasianus at the Capitoline
Museum in Rome, Italy.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2005
But Tacitus tells us Titus only made it as far as Corinth where he received the news of Galba's assassination.

"At Corinth, the capital of Achaia, he received positive information of the death of Galba, and found men who spoke confidently of the revolt of Vitellius and of the fact of war. In the anxiety of his mind, he sent a few of his friends, and carefully surveyed his position from both points of view. He considered that if he should proceed to Rome, he should get no thanks for a civility intended for another, while his person would be a hostage in the hands either of Vitellius or of Otho..." - Tacitus, The Histories, Book II.1

Fields points out that that Titus decides to return to his father and stops off in Cyprus to visit the temple of Aphrodite at Paphos.  There Titus consults the oracle and the omens were pronounced as favorable.  Even the high priest, Sostratos, assured Titus of his great destiny in a private interview. So Fields thinks this was the beginning of Flavian aspirations for the throne.

However, if we examine Tacitus a little more closely, we find Tacitus describes Titus' ruminations about the consequences of failing to offer support to whomever would end up on top in Rome while he is still in Corinth and speculates about "father joining the party".  This would lead me to conclude that Vespasian was already considering entering the fray before Titus even left Judea and may not have felt any loyalty to Otho or Vitellius even though the eastern legions had sworn loyalty to Otho by the time Titus got back.

So, why Vespasian and not Caius Lucius Mucianus, legate governor of Syria, or Tiberius Julius Alexander, prefect of Egypt?

Portrait bust of the Roman emperor Vespasian
near the Forum Romanum in Rome, Italy
Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2005
Fields tells us  the childless senator  Mucianus despised Vespasian but was a close friend of Titus, finding the young man easy-going and congenial (much as Galba had).  Furthermore, although Mucianus had leadership gifts, he lacked the will to reach for the throne himself.  Apparently, Alexander didn't either as he quickly switched sides as well and hailed Vespasian emperor.  Whether this was from lack of will or lack of courage, Fields does not speculate (Alexander may have felt his Alexandrian Jewish origins would not be acceptable to the patrician class in Rome), but points out even Vespasian realized he was being offered an opportunity that may look like a compliment but was, in reality, a possible death sentence.  Still Vespasian agreed to undertake the task and the three conspired to starve Rome of grain while Mucianus marched towards Italy with components of many of his Syrian legions via Asia Minor and Thrace.  They even arranged for a mock revolt of the Batavi at the mouth of the Rhine.

As it turns out, though, Rome didn't get an opportunity to starve because, Fields tells us, Marcus, Antonius Primus, a gifted commander and tough fighting legate of the recently formed Legio VII Galbiana, took the initiative with the Danube legions, attacking and routing the Vitellians near Cremona, the original site of the victory of the Vitellians over the Othonians.

A 17th-century rendition of Marcus Antonius Primus at the
Musee des Augstins in Toulouse, France.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.

This is the part of the book I found most fascinating as I was unaware of the exploits of Antonius Primus who ended up recapturing Rome for the Flavians yet was not rewarded with any prestigious position by Vespasian or any of the other Flavian emperors.

"In an impressive display of rapid marching, his [Antonius Primus] rush down Italy echoed the approach of his Olympian namesake, Marcus Antonius, by relying on speed and decisiveness to surprise the enemy.  Despite the dark depths of winter fast approaching, he took advantage of the flight of the Vitellians to cross the snows of the Apennines, for it was now the month of December." - Nic Fields, AD69: Emperors, Army and Anarchy

Rather than the Olympian namesake, I thought Antonius Primus' valiant dash sounded more like Julius Caesar!

But, despite the execution of Vitellius and many of his followers and the power vacuum that created, the patrician class would probably not accept someone with the obscure origins of Antonius Primus, a native of Tolosa (modern day Toulouse, France), in any permanent imperial position.

"Like Achilles, he was a man who fitted uneasily, if at all, into a chain of command.  The embodiment of ferocity, a fierce restless warrior, he could not, or would not, march in step.  There are many ways to lead an army.  Being a warrior is one way and not necessarily the best." - Nic Fields, AD69: Emperors, Army and Anarchy

Although Antonius Primus was granted the rank of consul by the Senate, when the high born Mucianus finally arrived, Antonius Primus left Rome forever and retired to his estates in Tolosa.

Fields goes on to critique the battle of second Cremona (Bedriacum) and the ultimate victor of the struggles of AD69, Vespasian, and provides black and white images of sculpture, coins, grave reliefs and the modern day countryside around Cremona.  He also adds eleven appendices covering everything from legionary weapons and food to the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus.  These provide interesting information although only obliquely related to the events recounted in the books' nine chapters.

Fields scholarship is solid.  I just found some of his opinions somewhat abrasive.  But then, maybe I'm just a closet romantic after all!

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