TACITUS: The Histories [Book III]

Vitellius’ forces challenged by Vespasian’s in Italy – Vespasian desired to win the war by depriving Vitellius’ forces of food and money. Vespasian controlled the majority of Italy’s grain supply from Egypt, and he also controlled the richest provinces in the Roman Empire, so his plan was sound. Furthermore, he did not desire to unnecessarily shed the blood of Romans. However, his orders did not reach his commanders until after they had engaged Vitellius’ forces in Italy.

Vitellius’ forces give way rather fast, eventually only holding Rome and the Latium – Vespasian’s forces utterly rout Vitellius’ forces at Cremona. Vespasian’s army loots the town, killing and enslaving the citizens. The soldiers were so undisciplined that they killed one another in their attempts to secure booty.

Vitellius murdered in Rome by troops favoring Vespasian – Vespasian’s army storms Rome. The forces of Vitellius put up resistance, but are eventually overcome. Vespasian’s supporters drag Vitellius to the Gemonian stairs and kill him.

Tacitus’ tone in Book III is melancholy. He expresses sorrow over the degeneration of Roman values and virtues. Both armies lack discipline – Vespasian’s army destroyed the entire city of Cremona and Vitellius’ army is generally debauched. They respect neither others nor themselves. When the famous Stoic philosopher, Musonius Rufus, extols the virtues of peace and condemns the vices of war, the soldiers threaten him into silence. This incident indicates the Roman populace’s movement away from the Stoic values that built Rome and towards the Epicurean values that caused its destruction.


He happened to meet his father, whom he wounded and struck down; then, as he looked closely at the dying man, the father and son recognized each other; the son embraced his expiring father and prayed with tears in his voice that his father’s spirit would forgive him and not abhor him as a patricide. “The crime,” he cried, “is the State’s; and what does a single soldier count for in a civil war?” At the same time he lifted up the body and began to dig a grave, performing the last duties toward a father. The soldiers near first noticed it, presently more; then through the whole line were heard cries of wonder, of pity, and of cursing against this most horrible war. Yet not one whit did they slacken their murder of relatives, kinsmen, and brothers. They called the deed a crime but did it.

We must die if conquered; die likewise if we surrender. The only question is whether we shall breathe our last breath amid mockery and insults or in valorous action.

Musonius Rufus had joined these delegates. He was a member of the equestrian order, a man devoted to the study of philosophy and in particular to the Stoic doctrine. Making his way among the companies, he began to warn those in arms, discoursing on the blessings of peace and the dangers of war. Many were moved to ridicule by his words, more were bored; and there were some ready to jostle him about and to trample on him, if he had not listened to the warnings of the quieter soldiers and the threats of others and give up his untimely moralizing.

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