Three subjects always dominated talk at the taverns, in the baths, and on the barbers’ stools of Rome, and all involved macho deeds—chariot races, gladiatorial contests, and legion battles. And when a Roman legion won a crushing victory, and against odds of 23 to 1, they became famous overnight, and their deed would be talked about and boasted of until this generation went to its grave, and looked back on by future generations with awe. What the 14th Gemina—as it was now commonly known—had achieved at Watling Street made the legion the Elvis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Elway, Tiger Woods, and Muhammad Ali of the Roman world all rolled into one. In their hometowns, relatives of 14th Gemina legionaries would have become minor celebrities.
Six years after the battle, the 14th was still as famous as the day its exploits against the Britons had made headline news. The fact that it had been way off in Britain all this time only enhanced the legion’s mystique. So imagine the reception the men of the 14th Gemina received from every town it marched by on the way from Britain on a slow progress to a new temporary posting in the Balkans in late A.D. 66 and early A.D. 67.
All the way across Europe, deputations would have come from local councils bearing gifts of food, wine, and money. Like groupies plaguing rock stars, starstruck local girls would have trailed the legion for miles to admire the physiques of the supermen of the 14th, or joined their camp followers, or simply struck alluring poses as the legionaries passed, with centurions barking orders for their charges to keep their eyes to the front and their minds on the march, and doubling the marching camp guard at night to keep girls and soldiers apart. At Lyons, their delight increased when they received their latest pay, in gold freshly minted in the city at the imperial mint.
For some time, Nero’s Palatium had been planning two major offensives. One was to be an expeditionary push south from Egypt. The other would be a drive into Parthia, aiming for the Caspian Gates passes in Iran, a variation of the operation on which Julius Caesar had been about to embark when he was killed. Units across the empire were ordered to join the buildup for the operations—legions and auxiliaries were transferred, Evocati militia units were called up and transported from Europe to the East. The legion chosen to lead the Parthian operation was the “most effective” 14th Gemina. It was ordered to Carnuntum in Pannonia, along with the 10th Gemina from Spain. Both were to prepare to march on Parthia as early as the following spring.
A new unit also was raised in A.D. 66 by Nero for the Parthian operation, the 1st Italica Legion—the first Roman legion recruited in Italy south of the Po since Augustus freed Italians from legionary service. According to Suetonius, the Italica’s conscripts all had to be five feet eight and one-half inches or more. He says the unit was equipped as a Greek phalanx—the unit’s twenty-one-foot spears were to be used to counter the infamous Parthian cavalry that had destroyed Marcus Crassus’s legions at Carrhae in 53 B.C., cavalry still the backbone of the Parthian army. The 1st Italica went into training in Cisalpine Gaul.
After its triumphant march across Europe, the 14th Gemina arrived at Carnuntum beside the Danube and settled into camp, keyed up for the new year’s operation. But dramatic events soon put Nero’s two operations on hold. First, in the summer of A.D. 66, Jewish partisans rose up in revolt in Judea, inflicting heavy casualties on Roman forces in the region. By the beginning of A.D. 67, Jewish successes required significant resources to be diverted to a counteroffensive, under Vespasian, former commander of the 2nd Augusta and now a lieutenant general. It would take four years to put down the revolt.
Then, in February of A.D. 68, Julius Vindex, Governor of Gallia Lugdunensis in France, revolted against Nero. By April his forces had been routed in Gaul by the A.U.R. Nero’s Palatium now shelved its Parthian and Ethiopian plans indefinitely. The 1st Italica was ordered to Gaul to restore order, and the 10th Gemina was sent back to Spain from Carnuntum. But the rot had set in. Servius Serpicius Galba, Governor of Nearer Spain, had supported Vindex. Now Galba raised the new 7th Galbiana Legion in Spain and marched on Rome to dethrone Nero. Overnight, the emperor disappeared. Suetonius wrote a highly colored and suspect account of Nero committing suicide on June 9 just outside Rome, but there is no confirmation as to how and when Nero died, and over the next twenty years reports of him turning up in the East abounded.
Galba reached Rome, having already been declared emperor by the Senate. Yet he had set a dangerous precedent. A man without connection to the imperial family of the Caesars had taken the throne. His claim was based on might alone, with the backing of the legions. Even the 14th Gemina, waiting impatiently for action at Carnuntum, initially swore loyalty to him. But after the dust of revolution had settled, the legions soon came to realize a simple fact: what an army can give, an army can take away.
“Prepare to March” was being trumpeted through the quarters of the 14th Gemina Legion at Carnuntum. It was late March in A.D. 69, and the legion had been summoned to the support of their new emperor. Not Galba. He was dead. On January 15, just weeks after he’d celebrated his seventieth birthday and seven months into his reign, Galba had been murdered in the Forum at Rome by Legionary Camurius of the 15th Primigeneia Legion. The celebrating soldiers with Camurius carried the dead emperor’s head around the capital on the end of a pike.
Galba’s gruesome end had been set in motion on New Year’s Day, when the four legions of the Army of the Upper Rhine refused to renew their allegiance to him with the traditional January 1 oath. The A.U.R. legionaries were unhappy they hadn’t received the financial rewards promised after supporting Galba, and angry that the Gauls who’d supported Vindex had been pardoned by the new emperor while the legions’ friends, the neighboring Germans, Dutch, and Belgians west of the Rhine, had been treated like enemies. The four A.L.R. legions, led by Brigadier General Fabius Valens, commander of the 1st Legion, had then hailed their commander in chief as their emperor—the respected, fifty-three-year-old Lieutenant General Aulus Vitellius, whose uncle had been the General Vitellius who had served under Germanicus on the Rhine, and whose father had three times been consul. The A.U.R. immediately followed suit, and the disaffection had quickly spread to the troops Galba was keeping with him at Rome, including Legionary Camurius.
But instead of supporting Vitellius, the Praetorian Guard and German Guard at Rome had chosen their own emperor: thirty-six-year-old Marcus Salvius Otho, Nero’s former best friend, until recently Governor of Lusitania, modern Portugal. Otho was endorsed by the Senate as the new emperor of Rome, and when the news reached the legions stationed in Pannonia—the 14th Gemina at Carnuntum and the 13th Gemina at Petovio in present-day Slovenia—both quickly swore allegiance to him, as did the two legions stationed nearby in Dalmatia, the 7th Galbiana and the 11th Claudia. While young Otho had no military reputation, he came from a famous and respected family. His father, a consul and lieutenant general, had been sent by Claudius to settle matters in Dalmatia after the A.D. 42 Scribonianus Revolt.
Tacitus says that the men of the 14th Gemina had long been faithful to Nero, and that this kindled their zeal for Otho, his former intimate friend. Now that allegiance to Otho was being put to the test. Lieutenant General Vitellius was sending two armies from the Rhine to invade Italy and take the throne from the new emperor. In response, Otho’s Palatium sent orders for the legions in Pannonia, Dalmatia, and Moesia to march to Italy as quickly as possible and link up with forces being assembled at Rome by the emperor.
For speed, the two thousand or so men of the three senior cohorts of each of the 13th and the 14th would go on ahead at forced-march pace. The seven remaining cohorts of each legion would follow with their unit’s baggage train as fast as they could. The two-thousand-man advance party of the 13th Gemina set off from Petovio, led by the legion’s commander, Brigadier General Vedius Aquila. The remaining cohorts of the 13th Gemina would be brought on by the legion’s second in command, Colonel Suetonius Laetus, father of the writer Suetonius, who was born this same year. Suetonius Jr. tells of his father often dining with Otho, so prior to promotion to the 13th the colonel would have served as a prefect of auxiliaries in Lusitania when Otho was governor between A.D. 58 and 68.
With farther to go, the three senior cohorts of the 14th Gemina marched from Carnuntum at the same time, apparently led by the legion’s senior tribune, as no commander is mentioned for the 14th at this point. The 14th also marched to Italy without auxiliary support. The legion had split, violently, with its longtime auxiliary colleagues of the Batavian light infantry and Batavian Horse, back at the beginning of winter. The Batavians had been angry because their people had been harshly treated by Galba for opposing Vindex. They also were upset because one of their former cohort commanders, Colonel Julius Civilis, a member of the former Batavian royal house, had been arrested when he returned to the Rhine at the end of his twenty-five-year enlistment the previous year. Convicted of conspiracy against Galba, he’d been sentenced to death by A.L.R. commander Lieutenant General Fonteius Capito. But, on their own authority, although apparently with Galba’s sanction, Brigadier Generals Valens and Aquinus, two of Capito’s own legion commanders, had then arrested Capito on a trumped-up charge of conspiracy. In the fall Capito was executed by his own troops, with Civilis still in prison. As Capito’s replacement, Galba chose General Vitellius, who, after arriving on the Rhine at the end of November, set Civilis free and began extending cordial treatment to the people on the lower Rhine, including the Batavi. On hearing this, the Batavian auxiliaries had naturally begun to feel favorably toward Vitellius.
It’s probable that the legionaries of the 14th Gemina hadn’t agreed with the freeing of Civilis. He’d served alongside the 14th for a quarter of a century, and they knew he was superambitious and courted influential friends. They would have felt that where there was smoke there was fire, that if Civilis had been accused of sedition there was probably something in it. And it hadn’t helped Civilis’s cause that his brother Claudius had previously been executed by Capito for involvement in a conspiracy against Rome. With these conflicting allegiances, arguments between Batavian auxiliaries serving alongside the 14th Gemina and legionaries of the 14th had subsequently become common. When Galba’s Palatium was informed that the Batavians were brawling with their legion companions, transfer orders had gone to Pannonia. The Batavians were instructed to return to Britain, still considered their long-term station. So in December, after decades of marching and fighting alongside the 14th Gemina in Britain, from the A.D. 43 invasion to the Caratacus chase, the taking of Anglesey, and the defeat of Boudicca, the infantrymen of the eight Cohortes Batavior and the troopers of the famous Batavian Horse parted company with their legion comrades, and on bad terms at that. The Batavians marched out of Pannonia into Italy, then crossed the Alps into France.
As the Batavians arrived in the territory of the Lingones in southeastern France they heard that Galba had been assassinated and that the Praetorians had placed Otho on the throne. The Lingone people around them swore allegiance to Vitellius, and the Batavian troops did the same, sending riders from the Batavian Horse galloping north to the Rhine with a message for Vitellius, declaring they were with him. Vitellius welcomed them into his fold and instructed the Batavians to join with the army he was sending to Italy from the lower Rhine under Brigadier General Fabius Valens, when it reached France.
In early April, the separate 13th Gemina and 14th Gemina advance columns marched into northeastern Italy from Pannonia. They were met by dispatches from Rome ordering them to link up with Otho’s forces at the Po River. Within weeks, the contest between Vitellius and Otho would erupt into a battle between Roman and Roman of the kind not seen since the civil wars of the previous century.