HEROD’S death took place ten years ago to-day and I shall tell as briefly as possible what has happened in the East since then; though the East will now have little interest for my readers, I feel conscientiously bound to leave no loose threads in this story. Marsus, as soon as he heard of Herod’s death, came down to Caesarea and restored order there and in Samaria. He appointed an emergency governor of Herod’s dominions: this was Fadus, a Roman knight who had big mercantile interests in Palestine and was married to a Jewish woman. I confirmed this appointment and Fadus acted with the necessary firmness. The arms that had been distributed to the Jews had not all been returned to Helcias: the men of Gilead kept theirs for use against eastern neighbours, the Arabs of Rabboth Ammon. There were also a great many arms not returned by Judaeans and Galileans, and robber bands were formed which did the country a great deal of damage. However, Fadus, with the help of Helcias and King Herod Pollio, who were anxious to show their loyalty, arrested the leading Gileadites, disarmed their followers, and then hunted down the robber bands one by one.
The confederate Kings of Pontus, Commagene, Lesser Armenia, and Iturea took the advice Herod had sent them by his brother and resumed their allegiance to Rome, excusing themselves to Bardanes for not marching to meet him on the borders of Armenia. Bardanes nevertheless continued his westward progress: he was determined to recover Armenia. Marsus sent him a stern warning from Antioch that war against Armenia would spell war with Rome. The King of Adiabene thereupon told Bardanes that he would not join in the expedition, because his children were at Jerusalem and would be seized as hostages by the Romans. Bardanes declared war on him and was about to invade his territory when he heard that Gotarzes had raised another army and had resumed his pretensions to the Empire. Back he marched again, and this time the battle between the brothers was fought out stubbornly on the banks of the River Charinda, near the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Gotarzes was beaten and fled away to the land of the Dahians, which lies 400 miles away to the east. Bardanes pursued him; but, after defeating the Dahians, he could persuade his victorious army to march no farther, for he had passed the bounds of the Parthian Empire. He returned in the following year and was on the point of invading Adiabene when he was assassinated by his nobles; they decoyed him into an ambush when he was out hunting. I was relieved when he was out of the way, for he was a man of great gifts and unusual energy.
Meanwhile Marsus’s term of office had come to an end and I was glad to have him back at Rome to advise me. I sent out Cassius Longinus to take his place. He was a celebrated jurist, whom I had often consulted on difficult legal points, and a former brother-in-law of my niece Drusilla. When the news of Bardanes’s death reached Rome Marsus was not surprised: it seems that he had had a finger in the plot. He now advised me to send out, as a claimant to the Parthian throne, Meherdates, the son of a former King of Parthia, who had been kept as a hostage at Rome for many years now. He said that he could undertake that the nobles who had killed Bardanes would favour Meherdates. However, Gotarzes reappeared with a Dahian army and the assassins of Bardanes were forced to pay him homage, so Meherdates had to remain at Rome until a favourable opportunity presented itself for us to send him east. Marsus thought that this would be soon: Gotarzes was cruel, capricious, and cowardly, and could not keep the loyalty of his nobles for long. Marsus was right. A secret embassy came two years later from various notables of the Parthian Empire, including the King of Adiabene, asking me to send them Meherdates. I agreed to do so, giving Meherdates a good character. In the presence of the ambassadors I admonished him not to play the tyrant but to regard himself merely in the light of a chief magistrate and his people as his fellow-citizens: justice and clemency had never yet been practised by a Parthian king. I sent him to Antioch, and Cassius Longinus escorted him as far as the River Euphrates and there told him to push on to Parthia at once because the throne was his if he acted with speed and courage. However, the King of Osroëne, a pretended ally who secretly favoured Gotarzes, purposely detained Meherdates at his court with luxurious entertainments and hunting and then advised him to go round by way of Armenia instead of risking a march direct through Mesopotamia. Meherdates took this bad advice, which gave Gotarzes time to make preparations, and lost several months in taking his army through the snow-covered Armenian highlands. On emerging from Armenia he marched down the Tigris and captured Nineveh and other important towns. The King of Adiabene welcomed him on his arrival at the frontier, but immediately summed him up as a weakling and decided to abandon his cause at the first opportunity. So when the armies of Gotarzes and Meherdates met in battle, Meherdates was suddenly deserted by the Kings of Osroëne and Adiabene. He fought bravely and nearly won, for Gotarzes was such a cowardly commander that his generals had to chain him to a tree to stop him from running away. In the end, Meherdates was captured and the gallant Gotarzes sent him back to Cassius in mockery with his ears sliced off. Shortly afterwards Gotarzes died. More recent events in Parthia will certainly not interest my readers more than they have interested me, which is very little indeed.
Mithridates kept his Armenian throne for some years but was finally killed by his nephew, the son of his brother the King of Georgia. That was a curious story. The King of Georgia had been ruling for forty years and his eldest son was tired of waiting for him to die and leave him the kingdom. Knowing his son’s character and fearing for his own life, the King advised him to seize the throne of Armenia which was a bigger and richer kingdom than Georgia. The son agreed. The King then made a pretence of quarrelling with him, and he fled to Armenia, to Mithridates’s protection, and was kindly received by him and given his daughter in marriage. He immediately busied himself with intrigues against his benefactor. He returned to Georgia, pretending to be reconciled to his father, who then picked a quarrel with Mithridates and gave command of an invading army to his son. The Roman colonel who acted as Mithridates’s political adviser proposed a conference between Mithridates and his son-in-law, and Mithridates agreed to attend it: but he was treacherously seized by Georgian troops as a blood-covenant was on the point of being sealed, and smothered with blankets. The Governor of Syria, when he heard of this horrid act, called a council of his staff to decide whether Mithridates should be avenged by a punitive expedition against his murderer, who now reigned in his stead; but the general opinion seemed to be that the more treacherous and bloody the behaviour of Eastern kings on our frontier, the better for us – the security of the Roman Empire resting on the mutual mistrust of our neighbours – and that nothing should be done. However, the Governor, to show that he did not countenance the murder, sent a formal letter to the King of Georgia ordering him to withdraw his forces and recall his son. When the Parthians heard of this letter they thought it a good opportunity for winning back Armenia. And so they invaded Armenia, and the new king fled, and then they had to abandon the expedition because it was a very severe winter and they lost a lot of men from frost-bite and sickness, so the king returned – but why continue the story? All Eastern stories are the same purposeless on-and-on to-and-fro story, unless very seldom, so seldom as almost to be never, a leader arises to give purpose and direction to the flux. Herod Agrippa was such a one, but he died before he could give full proof of his genius.
As for the Jewish hope of the Messiah, it was kindled again by one Theudas, a magician of Gilead, who gathered a great following during Fadus’s governorship and told them to follow him to the River Jordan, for he would part it as the prophet Elisha had once done and lead them dry-shod across to take possession of Jerusalem. Fadus sent a troop of cavalry across, charged the fanatical crowd, captured Theudas and cut off his head. (There have been no subsequent pretenders to the title, though indeed the sect about which Herod wrote to me, the followers of Joshua ben Joseph, or Jesus, seems to have made considerable headway recently, even at Rome. Aulus Plautius’s wife was accused before me of having attended one of their love-feasts; but Aulus was in Britain and I hushed the affair up for his sake.) Fadus’s task was made difficult by a failure of the Palestinian harvest: Herod’s treasury was found to be nearly empty (and no wonder, the way he spent his money), so there was no means of relieving the distress by buying corn from Egypt. However, he organized a relief committee among the Jews and money was found to get them through the winter; but then the harvest failed again, and if it had not been for the Queen-Mother of Adiabene, who gave her entire wealth to the purchase of corn from Egypt, hundreds of thousands of Jews must have died. The Jews viewed the famine as God’s vengeance on the whole nation for Herod’s sin. The second failure of the harvest was indeed not so much the fault of the weather as the fault of the Jewish farmers: they were so low-spirited that instead of sowing the seed-corn with which they had been supplied by Fadus’s successor (the son of Alexander the Alabarch, who had abandoned Judaism) they ate it or even left it to sprout in the sack. The Jews are an extraordinary race. Under the governorship of one Cumanus, who came next, there were great disturbances. Cumanus was not a good choice, I am afraid, and his term of office began with a great disaster. Following Roman precedent, he had stationed a battalion of regulars in the Temple cloisters to keep order at the great Jewish Passover feast, and one of the soldiers who had a grudge against the Jews let down his breeches during the holiest part of the festival and exposed his privy members derisively to the worshippers, calling out: ‘Here, Jews, look this way! Here’s something worth seeing.’ That started a riot, and Cumanus was accused by the Jews of having ordered the soldier to make this provocative and very foolish display. He was naturally annoyed. He shouted to the crowd to be quiet and continue their festival in an orderly manner: but they grew more and more threatening. It seemed to Cumanus that a single battalion was not enough in the circumstances. To overawe the crowd he sent for the entire garrison: which in my opinion was a grave error of judgement. The streets of Jerusalem are very narrow and tortuous and were crowded with vast numbers of Jews who had come as usual from all over the world to celebrate the festival. The cry went up: ‘The soldiers are coming. Run for your lives!’ Everyone ran for his life. If anyone stumbled and fell he was trampled underfoot, and at street corners where two streams of fugitives met the pressure was so great from behind that thousands were crushed to death. The soldiers did not even draw their swords, but no less then 20,000 Jews were killed in the panic. The disaster was so overwhelming that the final day of the festival was not celebrated. Then as the crowd dispersed to its homes a party of Galileans happened to overtake one of my own Egyptian stewards, who was travelling from Alexandria to Acre to collect some money due to me. He was doing some business of his own on the side and the Galileans robbed him of a very valuable casket of jewels. When Cumanus heard of this he took reprisals on the villages nearest the scene of the robbery (on the borders of Samaria and Judaea), disregarding the fact that the robbers were plainly Galileans, by their accents, and only passing through. He sent a party of soldiers to plunder the villages and arrest the leading citizens. They did so and one of the soldiers in plundering the houses came across a copy of the Laws of Moses. He waved it over his head and then began reading out an obscene parody of the sacred writings. The Jews screamed in horror at the blasphemy and rushed to take the parchment from him. But he ran away laughing, tearing the thing in pieces as he went and scattering them behind him. Feeling ran so high that when Cumanus heard the facts he was forced to execute the soldier as a warning to his comrades and as a sign of goodwill to the Jews.
A month or two later Galileans came up to Jerusalem to another festival and the inhabitants of a Samaritan village refused to let them pass, because of the previous trouble. The Galileans insisted on passing and in the ensuing fight several were killed. The survivors went to Cumanus for satisfaction, but he gave them none, telling them that the Samaritans had a perfect right to forbid their passage through the village: why couldn’t they have gone round by the fields? The foolish Galileans called a famous bandit to their aid and revenged themselves on the Samaritans by plundering their villages with his aid. Cumanus armed the Samaritans and with four battalions of the Samaria garrison made a drive against the Galilean raiders and killed and captured a great number of them. Later, a delegation of Samaritans went to the Governor of Syria and asked satisfaction from him against another party of Galileans whom they accused of setting fire to their villages. He came down to Samaria determined to end this business once and for all. He had the captured Galileans crucified and then went carefully into the origin of the disturbances. He found that the Galileans had a right of way through Samaria and that Cumanus should have punished the Samaritans for the disturbances instead of supporting them, and that his action in taking reprisals on Judaean and Samaritan villages for a robbery committed by Galileans was unjustified; and further, that the original breach of the peace, the indecent self-exposure of the soldier during the Passover Festival, had been countenanced by the colonel of the battalion, who had laughed loudly and said that if the Jews did not like the sight they were not compelled to look at it. By a careful sifting of evidence he also decided that the villages had been burned by the Samaritans themselves and that the compensation which they asked was many times more than the value of the property destroyed. Before the fire had been started all objects of value had been carefully removed from the houses. So he sent Cumanus, the colonel, the Samaritan plaintiffs, and a number of Jewish witnesses to me at Rome, where I tried them. The evidence was conflicting, but I eventually came to the same conclusion as the Governor. I exiled Cumanus to the Black Sea; ordered the Samaritan plaintiffs to be executed as liars and incendiaries; and had the colonel who laughed taken back to Jerusalem to be led through the streets of the city for public execration and then executed on the scene of his crime – for I regard it as a crime when an officer whose duty it is to keep order at a religious festival deliberately inflames popular feeling and causes the death of 20,000 innocent people.
After Cumanus’s removal I remembered Herod’s advice and sent Felix out as governor: that was three years ago and he is still there, having a difficult time, because the country is in a most disturbed state and overrun with bandits. He has married the youngest of Herod’s daughters; she was previously married to the King of Homs, but left him. The other daughter married the son of Helcias. Herod Pollio is dead, and young Agrippa who governed Chalcis for four years after his uncle’s death I have now made King of Bashan.
At Alexandria there were fresh disturbances three years ago and a number of deaths. I inquired into the case at Rome and found that the Greeks had provoked the Jews once more by interrupting their religious ceremonies. I punished them accordingly.
So much, then, for the East, and perhaps it would now be as well to wind up my account of events in other parts of the Empire, so as to be able to concentrate on my main story, which centres now in Rome.
At about the same time as the Parthians sent to Rome for a king, so did the great German confederation over which Hermann had ruled, the Cheruscans. Hermann had been assassinated by members of his own family for trying to reign over a free people in a despotic manner, and a feud had then started between the two principal assassins, his nephews, which led to a prolonged civil war and finally to the extinction of the whole Cheruscan royal house, with one single exception. This was Italicus, the son of Flavius, Hermann’s brother. Flavius remained loyal to Rome at the time that Hermann treacherously ambushed and massacred Varus’s three regiments, but had been killed by Hermann in battle some years after while serving under my brother Germanicus. Italicus was born at Rome and was enrolled in the Noble Order of Knights, as his father had been. He was a handsome and gifted young man and had been given a good Roman education, but foreseeing that he might one day occupy the Cheruscan throne I had insisted on his learning the use of German weapons as well as Roman ones, and on his studying his native language and laws with close attention: members of my bodyguard were his tutors. They also taught him to drink beer: a German prince who cannot drink pot for pot with his thegns is considered a weakling.
A Cheruscan delegation then came to Rome to ask for Italicus as their new king. They created a great stir in the Theatre on the first afternoon of their arrival. None of them had even been in Rome before. They called on me at the Palace and were told that I was at the Theatre, so they followed me there. A comedy of Plautus’s, The Truculent Man, was being played, and everyone was listening with the greatest attention. They were shown into the public seats, and not very good ones either, high up, almost out of earshot of the stage. As soon as they had settled down they looked about them and began asking in loud tones: ‘Are these honourable seats?’
The ushers whisperingly tried to assure them that they were.
‘Where’s Caesar sitting? Where are his chief thegns?’ they asked.
The ushers pointed down to the orchestra. ‘There’s Caesar. But he only sits down there because he’s slightly deaf. The seats you are in are really the most honourable seats. The higher, the more honourable, you know.’
‘Who are those dark-skinned men with jewelled caps, sitting quite close to Caesar?’
‘Those are Parthian ambassadors.’
‘A great Empire in the East.’
‘Why are they sitting down there? Aren’t they honourable? Is it because of their colour?’
‘Oh no, they are very honourable,’ the ushers said. ‘But please don’t talk so loud.’
‘Then why are they sitting in such humble seats?’ the Germans persisted.
(‘Hush, hush!’ ‘Quiet there, Barbarians, we can’t hear!’ and similar protests from the crowd.)
‘Out of compliment to Caesar,’ the ushers lied. ‘They swear that if Caesar’s deafness forces him to occupy such a lowly seat, they won’t presume to sit any higher.’
‘And do you expect us to be outdone in courtesy by a miserable parcel of blackamoors?’ the Germans shouted indignantly. ‘Come on, brothers, down we go!’ The play was held up for five minutes as they forced their way down through the packed seats and fetched up triumphantly among the Vestal Virgins. Well, they meant no harm, and I greeted them honourably as they deserved, and at dinner that night consented to let them have the king they wanted; I was, of course, very glad to be able to do so.
I sent Italicus across the Rhine with an admonition that contrasted strangely with the one I had given Meherdates before I sent him across the Euphrates; for the Parthians and the Cheruscans are the two most dissimilar races, I suppose, that you could find anywhere in the world. My words to Italicus were these: ‘Italicus, remember that you have been called upon to rule over a free nation. You have been educated as a Roman and accustomed to Roman discipline. Be careful not to expect as much from your fellow tribesmen as a Roman magistrate or general would expect from his subordinates. Germans can be persuaded but not forced. If a Roman commander says to a military subordinate: “Colonel, take so many men to such-and-such a place and there raise an earthwork so-and-so many paces long, thick, and high,” he replies, “Very good, General”: off he goes without argument and the earthwork is raised within twenty-four hours. You can’t speak to a Cheruscan in that style. He’ll want to know precisely why you want the earthwork raised and against whom, and wouldn’t it be better to send someone else of less importance to perform this dishonourable task – earthworks are a sign of cowardice, he’ll argue – and what gifts will you bestow on him if he consents, of his own free will, to carry out your suggestion? The art of ruling your compatriots, my friend Italicus, is never to give them a downright order, but to express your wishes clearly, disguising them as mere advice of State policy. Let your thegns think that they are doing you a favour, and thus honouring themselves, by carrying out these wishes of their own free will. If there is an unpleasant or thankless task to be done, make it a matter of rivalry between your thegns who shall have the honour of undertaking it, and never fail to reward with gold bracelets and weapons services which at Rome would be regarded as routine duties. Above all, be patient and never lose your temper.’
So he went off in high hopes, as Meherdates had gone off, and was welcomed by a majority of the thegns, the ones who knew that they had no chance of succeeding to the vacant throne themselves, but were jealous of all native-born claimants. Italicus did not know the ins-and-outs of Cheruscan domestic politics and could be counted on to behave with reasonable impartiality. But there was a minority of men who thought themselves worthy of the throne themselves and these temporarily sank their differences to unite against Italicus. They expected that Italicus would soon make a mess of the government from ignorance, but he disappointed them by ruling remarkably well. They therefore went secretly round to the chiefs of allied tribes raising feeling against him as a Roman interloper. ‘The ancient liberty of Germany has departed,’ they lamented, ‘and the power of Rome is triumphant. Is there no native Cheruscan worthy of the throne, that the son of Flavius, the spy and traitor, should be permitted to usurp it?’ They raised a large patriotic army by this appeal. Italicus’s supporters, however, declared that Italicus had not usurped the throne, but had been offered it with the consent of a majority of the tribe; and that he was the only royal prince left and though born in Italy had studiously acquainted himself with the German language, customs, and weapons, and was ruling very justly; and that his father Flavius, far from being a traitor, had on the contrary sworn an oath of friendship with the Romans approved by the whole nation, including his brother Hermann, and unlike Hermann had not violated it. As for the ancient liberty of the Germans, that was hypocritical talk: the men who used it would think nothing of destroying the nation by renewed civil wars.
In a great battle fought between Italicus and his rivals, Italicus came off victorious, and his victory was so complete that he soon forgot my advice and grew impatient of humouring German independence and vanity: he began ordering his thegns about. They drove him out at once. Afterwards he was restored by the armed assistance of a neighbouring tribe, and then ousted again. I made no attempt to intervene: in the West as in the East the security of the Roman Empire rests largely on the civil dissensions of our neighbours. At the time of writing Italicus is king once more but much hated although he has just fought a successful war against the Chattians.
There was trouble farther north about this time. The Governor of the Lower Rhine province died suddenly and the enemy began their cross-river raids again. They had a capable leader of the same type as the Numidian Tacfarinas who had given us so much trouble under Tiberius: like Tacfarinas he was a deserter from one of our auxiliary regiments and had picked up a considerable knowledge of tactics. Gannascus was his name, a Frisian, and he carried on his operations on an extensive scale. He captured a number of light river transports from us and turned pirate on the coasts of Flanders and Brabant. The new Governor I appointed was called Corbulo, a man for whom I had no great personal liking but whose talents I gratefully employed. Tiberius had once made Corbulo his Commissioner of Highways and he had soon sent in a severe report on the fraud of contractors and the negligence of provincial magistrates whose task it was to see that the roads were kept in good repair. Tiberius, acting on the report, had fined the accused men heavily; and out of all proportion to their culpability because the roads had been allowed to get into a bad condition by previous magistrates and these particular contractors had only been employed to patch up the worst places. When Caligula succeeded Tiberius and began to feel the need of money, amongst his other tricks and shifts he brought out the Corbulo report and fined all previous provincial magistrates and contractors on the same scale as the ones who had been fined by Tiberius; he gave Corbulo the task of collecting the money. When I succeeded Caligula I paid back these fines, only retaining as much as was needed to repair the roads – about one-fifth of the total amount. Caligula had not, of course, used any of the money for road-repairs, and neither had Tiberius, and the roads were in a worse condition than ever. I really did repair them and introduced special traffic-regulations limiting the use of heavy private coaches on country roads. These coaches did far more damage than country wagons bringing in merchandise to Rome, and I did not think it right that the provinces should pay for the luxury and pleasure of wealthy idlers. If rich Roman knights wished to visit their country estates, let them use sedan-chairs, or ride on horseback.
But I was speaking of Corbulo. I knew him for a man of great severity and precision, and the garrison of the Lower Province needed a martinet to restore discipline there: the Governor who had died was much too easy-going. Corbulo’s arrival at his headquarters at Cologne recalled Galba’s at Mainz. (Galba was now my Governor of Africa.) He ordered a soldier to be flogged whom he found improperly dressed on sentry-duty at the camp gate. The man was unshaved, his hair had not been cut for at least a month, and his military cloak was a fancy yellow colour instead of the regulation brownish-red. Not long after this Corbulo executed two soldiers for ‘abandoning their arms in the face of the enemy’: they were digging a trench and had left their swords behind in their tents. This scared the troops into efficiency, and when Corbulo took the field against Gannascus and showed that he was a capable general as well as a strict disciplinarian they did all that he could have expected of them. Soldiers, or at least old soldiers, always prefer a reliable general, however severe, to an incompetent one, however humane.
Corbulo fitted out war-vessels, chased and sank Gannascus’s pirate fleet, and then marched up the coast and compelled the Frisians to give hostages and swear allegiance to Rome. He wrote out a constitution for them on the Roman model and built and garrisoned a fortress in their territory. This was all very well, but instead of stopping here Corbulo pushed on into the land of the Greater Chaucians, who had taken no part in the raids. He heard that Gannascus had taken refuge in a Chaucian shrine and sent a troop of cavalry to hunt him down and kill him there. This was an insult to the Chaucian Gods, and after Gannascus’s assassination the same troop rode on to the Ems and there at Emsbuhren presented the Chaucian tribal council with Corbulo’s demands for their instant submission with payment of a heavy yearly tribute.
Corbulo reported his actions to me and I was furiously angry with him; he had done well enough in getting rid of Gannascus, but to pick a quarrel with the Chaucians was another matter. We had not sufficient troops to spare for a war: if the Greater Chaucians called in the Lesser Chaucians to their assistance and the Frisians revolted again I would have to find strong reinforcements from somewhere, and they were not to be had, because of our commitments in Britain. I wrote ordering him to recross the Rhine at once.
Corbulo received my orders before the Chaucians had had time to reply to his ultimatum. He was angry with me, thinking that I was jealous of any general who dared to rival my military feats. He reminded his staff that Geta had not been awarded proper honours for his fine conquest of Morocco and the capture of Salabus; and said that, though I had now made it legal for generals who were not members of the Imperial Family to celebrate a triumph, in practice, it seemed, no one but myself would be allowed to conduct a campaign for which a triumph could legally be awarded. My anti-despotic pretensions were mere affectation: I was just as much of a tyrant as Caligula, but I concealed it better. He said too that I was lowering Roman prestige by going back on the threats that he had made in my name; and that our allies would laugh at him, and so would his own troops. But this was only an angry talk to his staff. All that he told the troops when he sounded the signal for a general retirement was: ‘Men, Caesar Augustus orders us back across the Rhine. We do not yet know why he has reached this decision, and we cannot question it, though I confess that I, for one, am greatly disappointed. How fortunate were the Roman generals who led our armies in the days of old!’ However, he was awarded triumphal ornaments and I also wrote him a private letter exculpating myself from the angry charges which, I told him, I had heard that he had made against me. I wrote that if he had been angry, why, so had I, on hearing of his provocation of the Chaucians; and that though he should have thought better of me than to accuse me of jealous motives, I blamed myself for sending him so curt a dispatch instead of explaining at length my reasons for ordering him to withdraw. I then explained these reasons. He wrote back in handsome apology, withdrawing the charges of despotism and jealousy, and I think now that we understood each other. To keep his troops occupied and allow them no leisure for laughing at him, he put them to work on a canal twenty-three miles long between the Meuse and the Rhine, to carry off occasional inundations of the sea in this flat region.
Since that time there have been no other events of importance to record in Germany except, four years ago, another raid by the Chattians. They crossed the Rhine in great force one night a few miles north of Mainz. The Commander of the Upper Province was Secundus, the Consul who had behaved with such indecision when I became Emperor. He was also supposed to be the best living Roman poet. Personally, I think very little of the moderns, or indeed of the Augustans: their poetry does not ring true to me. To my mind Catullus was the last of the true poets. It may be that poetry and liberty go together: that under a monarchy true poetry dies and the best that one can hope for then is gorgeous rhetoric and remarkable metrical artifice. For my part I would exchange all twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid for a single book of Ennius’s Annals. Ennius, who lived in Rome’s grandest Republican days and counted the great Scipio as his personal friend, was what I would call a true poet: Virgil was merely a remarkable verse-craftsman. Compare the two of them when they are both writing about a battle: Ennius writes like the soldier he was (he rose from the ranks to a captaincy), Virgil like a cultured spectator from a distant hill. Virgil borrowed much from Ennius. Some say he overshadowed Ennius’s rude genius by his cultured felicity of phrase and rhythm. But that is nonsense. It is like Aesop’s fable of the wren and the eagle. The birds all competed as to which could fly the highest. The eagle won, but when he tired and could go no higher, the wren, who had been nestling on his back, mounted up a few score feet and claimed the prize. Virgil was a mere wren by comparison with Ennius the eagle. And even if you concentrate on single beauties, where in Virgil will you find a passage to equal in simple grandeur such lines of Ennius’s as these? –
Fraxinu’ frangitur atque abies consternitur alta.
Pinus prōcēras pervortunt: omne sonabat
Arbustum fremitu silvaï frondosaï.
The ash was hewn, the high white fir laid low,
Down toppled they the princely pines, and all
That grove of countless leaves rang with the timber’s fall.
But they are untranslatable, and in any case I am not writing a treatise on poetry. And though Secundus’s poetry was, in my opinion, as disingenuous and unpraiseworthy as his behaviour in the Senate House that day, he was at least capable of dealing decisively with the Chattians on their return in two divisions from the plunder of our French allies. Victory disorganizes the Germans, especially if their plunder includes wine, which they swill as if it were beer, disregarding its greater potency. Secundus’s forces surrounded and defeated both enemy divisions, killing 10,000 men and capturing as many prisoners. He was given triumphal ornaments, but the regulations controlling the award of triumphs did not permit me to grant him one.
I had recently granted a similar honour to Secundus’s predecessor, one Curtius Rufus, who, though only the son of a sword-fighter, had risen under Tiberius to the dignity of first-rank magistrate. (Tiberius had won him this appointment, in spite of the competition of several men of birth and distinction, by remarking: ‘Yes, but Curtius Rufus is his own illustrious ancestor’.) Rufus had become ambitious for triumphal ornaments but was aware that I would not approve of his picking a quarrel with the enemy. He knew of a vein of silver that had been discovered a few miles across the river, in the reign of Augustus, just before Varus’s defeat, and sent a regiment across to work it. He got a good deal of silver out before the vein ran too far underground to be manageable – sufficient silver indeed to pay the whole Rhine army for two years. This was naturally worth triumphal ornaments. The troops found the mining very arduous and wrote me an amusing letter, in the name of the entire army:
The loyal troops of Claudius Caesar send him their best wishes and sincerely hope that he and his family will continue to enjoy long life and perfect health. They also beg that, in future, he will award his generals triumphal ornaments before he sends them out to command armies, because then they will not feel obliged to earn them by making Caesar’s loyal troops sweat and drudge at silver-mining, canal-digging, and suchlike tasks which would be more suitably done by German prisoners. If Caesar would only permit his loyal troops to cross the Rhine and capture a few thousand Chattians, they would be very pleased to do so, to the best of their ability.