XXV

STORM ON THE RHINE

To the men of the 14th Gemina, it was natural justice. The story of how it ended reached them in Britain a few weeks after the event. It had taken place on December 20, A.D. 69. Seven months after he’d taken the throne, the emperor Vitellius was alone inside the vast, echoing Palatium, deserted by even his closest servants. An army was at the gates of Rome. Vitellius’s best general, Valens, was dead. General Caecina was a prisoner. Caecina’s legions had been defeated in a fierce two-day battle at Cremona. The German Guard had left the palace and was making a last stand at the Castra Praetoria. Half of Vitellius’s Praetorian Guard had surrendered at Narni, north of Rome. The other half was in Campania, to the south, with his brother Lucius, too far away to help him now.

In July, even before Vitellius entered Rome, the legions of the East had hailed Field Marshal Vespasian—commander in Judea and onetime commanding officer of the 2nd Augusta Legion—as their emperor. Other legions had swiftly followed suit, in Moesia, Pannonia, and Dalmatia. As an army marched from Syria to depose Vitellius, troops in Slovenia loyal to Vespasian had set out for Italy under a brigadier general, Primus Antonius. Joined by more and more supporters, Antonius’s small force had grown into an army that defeated Caecina’s legions at Cremona and was now fighting its way into Rome.

Vitellius tried to close the massive doors to his Palatium apartments, but couldn’t. Terrified, he concealed himself in what Tacitus calls “an unseemly hiding place.” Suetonius says it was a janitor’s room and that he chained a dog outside the door. Taking Suetonius’s lead, the equally colorful Dio says it was a doghouse, with the dogs still in it, and they bit him. The emperor was hauled from his hiding place by Colonel Julius Placidus, a cohort commander with the City Guard or Night Watch, and dragged from the Palatium, through the Forum, to the Gemonian Stairs. There, days before, the severed head of the commander of the City Guard and Night Watch, Lieutenant General Flavius Sabinus, brother of Vespasian and former commander of the 14th Gemina, had been displayed after his execution. Sabinus had tried to engineer a bloodless transition of power from Vitellius to Vespasian, but the German Guard had arrested and killed him.

Vitellius, hands bound, surrounded by angry City Guard and Night Watch troops and a mob baying for his blood, stunned more than frightened, looked around the hate-filled faces in disbelief. In days, the closer Vespasian’s legions had come in their march on Rome, Vitellius had gone from feared emperor to despised tyrant. There, at the foot of the stairs, a dozen swords were plunged into him. And so died Rome’s fourth emperor in fifteen months. The following day, December 21, the Senate met and confirmed the absent Vespasian as the new emperor of Rome.

It had been a typically icy, damp autumn and winter on the Welsh border for the men of the 14th Gemina Legion, with the weather quickly deteriorating as early as September. Since returning to Britain in the summer, they’d been sitting at fortresses along the frontier in present-day Shropshire, their cohorts separated, facing the bleak hills and mountains of North Wales, which were still to be conquered by Rome, hearing via occasional dispatches about the exploits of other units involved in the fighting in Italy.

The legion’s main fortress was at Viroconium, the former capital of the Cornovii tribe. At that time one of the largest towns in Britain, it mutated into the present-day small village of Wroxeter. The fortress, capable of holding half the legion, was just north of the town, a short way from the east bank of the snaking Severn River. Men of the 14th had been based here before they were sent to Pannonia three years back, so they knew the place well enough. It’s likely there would have been one or two local ladies more than happy to see them again, and others who grieved when they learned that this centurion or that legionary had died at Bedriacum.

There at Wroxeter, huddled around the fires of their damp wooden barrack buildings over the fall and winter of A.D. 69-70, playing board games, and jawing as soldiers do, the men of Rome’s most famous legion would have celebrated Vitellius’s demise and cheered each other with reminders that they had little more than eighteen months left to go before their twenty-year enlistments were up. After all they’d been through since they’d joined in A.D. 51 or A.D. 31, they would have been ready to call it quits when the time came, and they would have been thinking about a few acres of their own, preferably someplace hot and dry, with a buxom wife to warm the bed and healthy children to warm the heart. But there were one or two battles for them to fight before they enjoyed the pleasures of retirement. One was with a hidden enemy.

For it seems that a fatal illness hit the 14th Gemina at Wroxeter, as early as the fall. Possibly a strain of influenza or viral pneumonia, the epidemic took the lives of several men, legionaries as well as auxiliaries of the Thracian Equitatae combined cavalry and infantry unit now serving with the legion in place of the Batavians. Their bodies were laid in a military cemetery on the main road into the town, northeast of the fortress.

We know that these were men who died from natural causes because Roman troops killed in battle were buried or cremated where they fell, if at all. Besides, the legion saw no action on its return to Britain. The other three legions in the province had verged on mutiny throughout this war of succession, and the current governor, Vettius Bolanus, merely kept his head down, gave no orders, and commissioned no military expeditions against the tribes during his tenure. For his legions, his period of command was one long vacation.

Among those who died in this epidemic at Wroxeter and were commemorated with tombstones that survive to the present day were Legionary Titus Flaminius and Standard-Bearer Marcus Petronius of the 14th Gemina. In eighteen years with the 14th, thirty-eight-year-old Petronius had fought Caratacus and Boudicca. With fewer than two years of his enlistment to go, Petronius had been back at the Wroxeter base only months before he died in the late fall or early winter.

In the spring of A.D. 70 the men of the legion packed their gear to leave Wroxeter—for good, as it turned out. Vespasian, their new emperor, had work for them. The legion was to take part in a major operation in Belgium and Germany. It would have given the men of the 14th great satisfaction to hear their orders. They were to go after the Batavians who’d once been their friends and now were their implacable enemies. More than just upsetting an emperor, as the Batavians had done in Italy, now they had started a revolt on the Rhine against Rome. And it was the 14th Gemina’s job to finish it.

The revolt was led by Colonel Julius Civilis, a man the legionaries of the 14th knew all too well. The Batavian, a descendant of King Chariovalda, resented the execution of his brother and his own imprisonment. He resented seeing often inept Roman youths go from the Juvena Collega training school to officer cadet, prefect, tribune, legion commander, senator, praetor, and consul while he remained a mere cohort commander for twenty-five years. And then he saw a golden opportunity.

It had begun as a diversion. Civilis, who in A.D. 69 had been released from custody by Vitellius and resumed command of a Batavian cohort on the Rhine, had years before formed a friendship with Vespasian when the pair served in Britain. In the summer, supposedly to help Vespasian’s cause by tying up Vitellianist troops on the Rhine, Civilis had led Batavian auxiliaries in an uprising that had soon been joined by other German and Gallic auxiliary units. Before long the affair had embroiled all seven legions that had left elements on the Rhine when Generals Caecina and Valens and then Vitellius himself had marched on Italy. By early A.D. 70, with some of their generals dead and the rest captured, the men of the Rhine legions had either been killed or gone over to the rebels, as Civilis declared an “Empire of Gaul,” with him as its emperor. Every Roman base on the Rhine from the North Sea to Switzerland had been taken by the rebels, and German tribes beyond the Rhine were sending Civilis reinforcements. With the tribes of central and southern Gaul considering joining Civilis’s Gallic Empire, Rome was on the verge of losing all its territories in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, and western Germany.

With Vitellius dead, once Vespasian’s chief deputy, Field Marshal Licinius Mucianus, had reached the capital from Syria, Rome was able to turn its undivided attention to Civilis. Commander of the task force sent by the Palatium to the Rhine in the spring of A.D. 70 was Lieutenant General Annius Gallus, the same General Gallus who had surrendered the 14th Gemina at Bedriacum. As Gallus’s deputy, Mucianus chose Major General Quintus Cerialis, the same General Cerialis who’d led two thousand men of the 9th Hispana to their deaths at the hands of Boudicca’s rebels outside Colchester in A.D. 60. Back in December, Cerialis had slipped out of Rome and joined General Antonius and his Vespasianist army north of the city. When word had arrived that after a failed attempt to negotiate Vitellius’s abdication, General Sabinus had holed up on Capitol Hill with his son Clemens and Vespasian’s youngest son, Domitian, supported by Sabinus’s men of the Night Watch, but surrounded and under siege by three cohorts of Vitellius’s German Guard, Cerialis had led a thousand cavalry from General Antonius’s army galloping south to save them. While smoke billowed from the burning Capitol in the distance like a distress beacon, Cerialis and his troopers had been repulsed at the city’s Colline Gate by Vitellius’s troops. As Cerialis was forced to withdraw, Sabinus was captured and killed.

Despite these two significant failures, Cerialis was entrusted with the job of second in command of Gallus’s army on the strength of the fact he was married to the new emperor’s cousin. With General Gallus unwell and being carried to the Rhine in a litter, General Cerialis eagerly headed off with an advance force—the 21st Rapax Legion, auxiliary infantry, and cavalry, including the Singularian Horse, the elite German unit created by Vitellius to replace the Praetorian Cavalry. Simultaneously, movement orders went out to legions in Italy, Spain, and the 14th Gemina in Britain, telling them to head to the Rhine.

Shipped across from England by the Britannic Fleet, the 14th Gemina and their supporting auxiliary cohorts landed at Boulogne and were met by Brigadier General Fabius Priscus, the legion’s new commander, sent by Field Marshal Mucianus. General Priscus immediately marched the force into Belgium. As Priscus’s troops moved northeast, ships of the Britannic Fleet shadowed it up the coast to provide close support.

The 14th Gemina had heard that General Cerialis had retaken Mainz and then, as legionaries previously with the rebels came back over to Rome, he’d defeated the Treveri tribe of Belgium and Luxembourg in a battle at Rigodulum near their capital, Trier, on the Moselle River. They’d also heard how Civilis had made a surprise attack on Trier itself, which General Cerialis had only just repelled. As the rebels withdrew up the Rhine toward Batavia, Cerialis followed. The 14th Gemina marched with orders to subdue central Belgium, then link up with General Cerialis’s main force at Cologne.

The Canninefates, allies of the Batavians on the Dutch coast, were determined to resist the 14th Gemina’s push north. Excellent seamen, with a sizable fleet of small craft, they sailed south as the Roman fleet drew nearer. The admiral commanding the Britannic Fleet was taken completely by surprise as little craft swarmed around his cruisers like angry bees stinging lumbering bears. More than half the Roman vessels were either sunk or boarded and captured by the Canninefates. The rest of the Britannic Fleet turned tail and fled back to Boulogne, leaving the troops onshore to their own devices.

Undaunted, General Priscus slogged on with the 14th Gemina. Crossing the Scheldt River, he swung the legion due east and pushed into the heart of Belgium, accepting the surrender of two tribes that had been supporting Civilis since early in the revolt. First it was the Nervii of central Belgium. Then it was the turn of the Tungri, former Germans who had made their home in King Ambiorix’s Eburone lands, with their capital at Atuatuca Tongrorum, today’s Tongres, the same Atuatuca remembered by every enlistment of the 14th as the spiritual birthplace of their legion back in 54 B.C.

As the 14th Gemina continued east, heading for Cologne, the Nervians, eager to prove their renewed loyalty to Rome, sent their young men to punish the Canninefates for attacking the Roman fleet. The Nervian youths were quickly wiped out by Civilis’s allies.

While General Cerialis awaited reinforcements at Cologne, he dispatched his cavalry on a probe up the Rhine. Near Neuss, rebel cavalry under Civilis’s deputy Julius Classicus sent the Roman troopers, including the proud Singularians, reeling in bloody retreat.

The 6th Victrix Legion, a unit that hadn’t seen action in decades, now joined General Cerialis after marching from Nearer Spain, where it had been based for the past hundred years. To put some backbone into the Singularian Horse, the 6th Victrix’s second in command, Colonel Gaius Minicius, was transferred to the command of the unit’s 1st Wing. On the heels of the 6th Victrix, the brand-new 2nd Adiutrix Legion arrived from Ravenna, where it had been training. Its young French recruits were as green as grass but determined to show the shamed veterans of the Rhine legions how to fight. And then Brigadier General Priscus arrived from Belgium with the crack troops of the famous 14th Gemina, their appearance boosting already high spirits in Cerialis’s army. These legions doubled the size of Cerialis’s force, to more than fifty thousand men.

The Roman general resumed the advance. As his legions came up the Rhine, the rebels pulled back. Cerialis found the former legionary fortress at Neuss a blackened ruin. Approaching Old Camp, he saw that the rebels had dammed the Rhine, flooding his path. Advancing across the water-logged river plain, the Roman army was attacked on the flanks by Germans who were at home in the marshy terrain, dashing in for hit-and-run attacks before splashing away again. Roman officers kept formations together, reined in panicking horses, calmed young soldiers, and collected their wounded as they went. The army made slow, plodding, painful progress, taking casualties all the way, until they reached high ground not far from Old Camp, where a marching camp was pitched.

At Old Camp, over the remains of four thousand Roman soldiers of the 5th Alaudae and 15th Primigeneia Legions massacred by the rebels only months before, Civilis had built a new fortress; here he prepared to make a stand. In the day’s twilight, German skirmishers returned to the Old Camp redoubt in high spirits, boasting to their comrades how they’d made General Cerialis’s Romans bleed every step of the way north.

At sunset, at the marching camp in the hills, as they cooked their dinner bread and patched their wounds, the Roman legionaries could hear Germans singing down beside the Rhine in celebration of their day’s work. In the early evening, the word was quickly spread around the tents of the 14th Gemina by their guard sergeants as they took around the watchword for the next twenty-four hours: prepare for battle. General Cerialis was determined to have it out with the rebel army come the new day.

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