Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Burning of the Capitol

The last month of the tragical "year of the three Emperors" had begun, and the throne of Vitellius, the last of the three, was tottering to its fall. About seven weeks before, Bedriacum, the battle-field on which Otho's fortunes had received a fatal blow, had witnessed the discomfiture of the army of his successor.

At first Vitellius had refused to credit the news of this disaster; an officer sent by himself to examine the state of affairs found his report refused belief and himself charged with having been bribed to exaggerate the defeat.

"You want a proof;" he exclaimed, "as my life or death can be of no further use to you, I will give you one that you can trust," and leaving the imperial presence he put an end to his own life. Then only the supine Vitellius was roused to action. He sent a strong force to occupy the passes of the Apennines, and even summoned up resolution to leave Rome, and show himself in the camp. Even this vigorous action might have at least postponed the end, if it could not change the issue of the campaign. But Vitellius had no faithful friends, and had lost all his energies in excess. He returned hastily to Rome and not long afterwards the army which he had deserted surrendered to the generals of Vespasian.

There was still a possibility, even a probability of a final struggle for the possession of Rome, and this the conquerors were anxious to avoid. They offered terms to Vitellius. His life should be spared; his property should remain intact, and he might choose any retreat that he pleased for the remainder of his days, if only he would quietly abdicate power. The terms of an agreement were actually discussed between the Emperor and Flavius Sabinus, the elder brother of Vespasian, and at that time Governor of the city. The two had several meetings, the last being held in the famous library of the Palatine Apollo in the presence of Cluvius Rufus a governor of Spain, and Silius Italicus, one of the consuls, the author of the Punica, a still extant poem of which every scholar knows the name, but which has seldom been read, so portentous is its dulness.

Vitellius was ready enough to abdicate. His spirit was completely crushed. It was a more creditable motive that he hoped to secure the safety of his family by a speedy submission. His followers were otherwise disposed.

"Vespasian," they told him, "cannot afford to spare you. Whatever promises he may now make you of a peaceful life in some luxurious retreat, be sure that he will not keep them. Neither his friends nor yours will allow him to do so, for peace would never be assured while there was an ex-Emperor alive. Caesar could not let Pompey live, nor Augustus Antony; possibly Vespasian may be more magnanimous, Vespasian who used to wait on Vitellius when he was the Emperor's colleague. Anyhow a man who has had so many honours of his own, and inherited so many from his father is bound not to fall without a struggle."

All this made little or no impression on the Emperor. He had at least the merit of being resigned to his fate, and he was above all things anxious to bespeak the favour of the conqueror for his wife and children.

On the 18th of December he heard of the defection of the force which was garrisoning the Apennine passes, and proceeded to carry out his intention of abdicating. He left the Palace at the head of a procession of freedmen and slaves which bore all the melancholy aspect of a funeral, and walked to the Forum. Such a sight, the historian tells us, had never before been witnessed in Rome. Other Emperors had fallen; the great Julius had been struck down in the Senate House; Caligula had been slain in the retirement of his palace; Nero had perished, but it was where there had been none to see it; Galba had fallen, it might be said, on the battle-field. Here was a man, who but the day before had been the master of the world, voluntarily giving up his throne in an assembly called by himself, and before soldiers who had sworn allegiance to him.

After a brief speech in which he announced his resignation, and an earnest entreaty to all who were present that they would protect his son—the child was present—Vitellius unfastened the dagger which he carried at his side and which was the emblem of his power of life and death, and would have given it up to the consul. The consul refused to receive it, and there was a general shout of protest. Vitellius then turned away, intending to deposit the emblem of imperial power in the Temple of Concord; and to take up his abode in his brother's house. His partisans refused to allow him to enter a private mansion, and blocked up every road but that which led to the Palace. Thither accordingly he returned.

Flavius Sabinus had heard of this resolve to abdicate, and had taken measures accordingly, especially writing to the Tribunes of the Praetorians to confine their soldiers to their quarters. He was in fact preparing to act as his brother's vice-gerent, when he and his friends were startled by the report that the intention of Vitellius had been baffled. Sabinus had now gone too far to retreat. He was advised to take up arms; but some who gave this counsel declined to share the risk. A collision took place between his party and the adherents of Vitellius, and Sabinus found it his safest course to occupy the Capitoline Hill with such a force as he had at his disposal, a miscellaneous company of troops with a few senators and knights. Some ladies unwilling to leave brothers, children, or husbands, went with him. One, Verulana Gratilla by name, had no motive but the sheer love of adventure.

The troops of Vitellius blockaded the Capitol, but kept so indifferent a watch that Sabinus was able at dead of night to bring his own children and his nephew Domitian into the Capitol, and to send a message to the generals, commanding the advancing, force, begging for speedy relief. He had no means, he informed them, of standing a long siege. He might have escaped, so negligent were the besiegers, but for some reason preferred to remain.

Early the next morning he despatched a praetorian officer to Vitellius. The envoy was the bearer of a strong remonstrance. "Was the abdication," Sabinus asked, "a mere pretence intended to delude a number of distinguished men? If you were bent on resigning, why not go quietly to your wife's house on the Aventine, where no one would have seen you. Your brother's mansion, overlooking the Forum as it does, was most dangerously public. I was still faithful to you, though province after province, army after army had left you. Brother as I am to Vespasian, I did nothing in his interest, till you yourself invited me to treat. What good will it do you to slay an old man and a boy? If you want to fight for your throne, go and meet the armies of your rival in the field."

Vitellius had nothing to reply, except that he was not his own master; the troops had taken the law into their own hands, and he could not hold them back. He could not even protect the person of the envoy, and advised him to leave the Palace unobserved if he would escape death at the hands of the soldiers.

The officer had scarcely regained the Capitol when a furious onslaught was made on the place by the besieging force on the position of Sabinus. The Capitoline Hill had two summits, the Citadel (Arx) on the North east, the Capitol proper on the South-west. Between them was a depression known as the Asylum. There were two approaches: one accessible by vehicles, called the slope (clivus); another for pedestrians only, the hundred steps. The assailants first attempted the former. It was flanked on the right by a colonnade, and the besieged mounting the roof of this building showered down stones and tiles on the attacking party. These were armed with swords only. To send for regular siege artillery meant long delay; they replied by hurling lighted torches on to the colonnade. The building caught fire and the conflagration spread to the doors which, at the top of the ascent, closed the entrance to the Capitol itself. These were partially burnt through, and would have given way but for an extemporised wall built up behind them out of the statues, many of them works of great antiquity and interest, with which the place was ornamented. An assault was now delivered in two fresh directions, one by the hundred steps, the other by the Asylum. It was the second of these attacks which seemed the more formidable. The fact was that the Capitol had ceased to be fortress. During a long period of peace, buildings had been allowed to grow up in the valleys between the two hills, the roofs of which were on a level with the higher ground on either side. The besiegers climbed on to these roofs, and superior as they were both in numbers and courage, could not be dislodged. And now occurred the fatal catastrophe which made the day one of the most disastrous in the history of Rome. Whether the besieged tried to drive back the attacking party by using fire-brands against them, or whether the latter tried again the tactics that they had employed successfully before is not certain. Tacitus is inclined to the former theory of the cause of the conflagration. The result was that the flames caught first the colonnades round the three temples, and then the great beams (called eagles) which supported the roofs. In a few moments the Capitol was in flames.

This deplorable event, which Tacitus does not scruple to describe as the greatest humiliation that Rome had ever endured, had the immediate effect of paralysing the defence. The troops, mostly unknown to each other and unaccustomed to act together, were struck with panic; Sabinus lost his presence of mind altogether. He seemed unable either to speak plainly or to hear what was said to him. It is doubtful whether anyone could have saved the place; with Sabinus it was hopeless. Very soon the assailants were inside the walls, and though a few officers preferred to die sword in hand, there was a general rush to escape.

In this many succeeded. Some disguised themselves as slaves, some were protected by humble friends, others, again, contrived to pick up the watchword of the assailants and so made their way out unhurt. Domitian hid himself in the house of a temple-servant.

A freedman conceived the ingenious idea of dressing him up in the white linen vestment worn by the attendants of Isis. He thus escaped detection for the time, and found shelter afterwards in the house of a humble friend of the family. During his father's reign he showed his gratitude by building a chapel on the site of the temple-servant's house, and erecting an altar adorned with the story of his escape represented in marble; when he became Emperor he erected a magnificent temple in memory of the incident. Sabinus was murdered by the populace, against the wishes of Vitellius, who would gladly have preserved his life. One of the consuls, who was captured with him, escaped by taking upon himself the blame of the conflagration. He acknowledged, or rather pretended, that he had fired the Capitol with his own hand.