Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Story of Epponina

Vespasian, as has been said, was proclaimed Emperor by the legions of the East on July 1st. 69, A. D. A little more than fourteen months afterwards, (Sept. 8th. 70) Jerusalem was taken, and the peace of the East was assured for some years to come. Meanwhile Rome had triumphed over a more formidable enemy in the west, for the disaffection of the Jews, however troublesome it might have been, could never have endangered the stability of the Empire. It was otherwise with the movement commonly called the revolt of Civilis. At one time it seemed as if this might end in the establishment of a Northern Empire.

The march of Vitellius on Italy drained the camps on the Rhine frontier of their best troops. The forces of Upper and Lower Germany consisted of seven legions. All of these contributed to make up the armies which Vitellius and his two lieutenants, Cæcina and Valens, led across the Alps. Tacitus tells us that Cæcina had thirty thousand and Valens forty thousand troops, and that Vitellius himself had a still larger force under his command. The three legions from Britain furnished, we know, considerable contingents, and doubtless various local forces swelled the numbers of this vast host. But it is clear and indeed we are expressly told, that the frontier garrisons were brought to a condition of the utmost weakness, and that they were hastily supplemented by levies made on the spot.

Of this fact Civilis, a chieftain of the Batavi, who inhabited the region now known as Holland, was not slow to avail himself. He had private reasons for hating Rome. His brother had been put to death on a charge of treason, and he had been himself in imminent peril of his life. And his ambition was stirred by what seemed to him a great opportunity of establishing a kingdom that should be independent of Rome. The Batavi were a warlike tribe who were indeed nominally subject to Rome, but whose dependence did not go beyond the liability to supply a military contingent to the Imperial armies. Their adherence he secured, for his personal prestige was great, while his family was the most distinguished in the whole nation. He found allies in those German tribes which were nearest the Roman frontier, tribes which had been attacked by Rome more than once, and which were always afraid of losing their independence. And he looked also to Gaul for help. Much of this country was indeed by this time thoroughly Romanized, but there were tribes, especially in the North and East, which still cherished the traditions of independence. To these Civilis appealed. He flattered their national vanity by talking of a Gallic Empire, which was to be built on the ruins of the Roman power, though he was perfectly well aware that any new Empire, should any such be established, would be not Gallic but Batavian or German. And he met with some success. The Lingones inhabiting the northern part of the range of the Vosges, and the Treveri, a half German tribe, who occupied the valleys of the Mosel and the Saar, joined him almost en masse, and he found adherents among other tribes of the North-east.

It is not my purpose to tell the story of this struggle, but only to give the narrative of one pathetic episode in it. The Lingon chief that took the chief part in bringing his tribe over to the side of Civilis was a certain Julius Sabinus. He prided himself upon his descent from the great Julius. One would have thought it in any case a strange subject for pride, for he did not assert that it was legitimate, while it seems the very weakest of claims to be set up by a pretender to a national empire of Gaul. We may presume he made the boast in days when the idea of independence had not yet presented itself, and that he sought to utilize it as a distinction appealing in some sort to the popular imagination when the scheme of a Gallic Empire had taken shape.

It was doubtless to the general advantage of the country, that the man's rashness and incompetency brought this scheme, which, indeed, could never have been successfully carried out, to a speedy end. Early in 70 A. D., anxious, it would seem to anticipate all other possible claimants to the new throne, he called his tribe to arms. His first care was to destroy all the public records of the alliance between the state of the Lingones and Rome. The pillars and obelisks on which these were inscribed were thrown to the ground. Having thus proclaimed the independence of the Lingones, he directed his followers to salute him as Emperor. He seems to have been of a weak and foolish nature, and his movement was, as will be seen, almost immediately crushed. Still his name may be remembered as the first of many pretenders who claimed an Empire independent of Rome.

Sabinus' first and last effort to assert his power was directed against his neighbours the Sequani, a Keltic people who occupied the country between the Jura range and the Saône. This tribe he attacked with a hastily levied force of his tribesmen. The fortune of the day went against him, and he fled from the field of battle with a cowardice equal to the rashness with which he had ventured on it. And now begins the romance connected with his name. "Wishing to spread a report that he had perished," writes Tacitus, "he burnt the country-house in which he had taken refuge, and was then supposed to have put an end to his own life. I shall relate at the proper opportunity," he goes on to say, "by what contrivances and in what hiding places he prolonged his life for the nine following years, and describe at the same time the fidelity of his friends and the conspicuous courage of his wife Epponina." Unhappily this part of the historian's narrative has been lost. Plutarch, however, tells the story, which he heard, it would seem, from the lips of one of Sabinus' sons.

Sabinus, thanks, it may be, to his precipitate flight from the field of battle, might, it seems, have easily made his escape to some place which then was, at least, beyond the reach of the Roman arms. But he found it impossible to take with him his wife, to whom he was tenderly attached, and, on the other hand, he could not make up his mind to leave her. The plan that occurred to him was to disappear so completely as to make everyone believe that he was dead, and then, waiting awhile till the affair had more or less been forgotten, to escape with his wife. For the present she as well as the rest of the world was to be deceived. He made his way to one of his country-houses, and dismissed the slaves that belonged to the establishment, after telling them that he meant to commit suicide. This done, he set fire to the house. What he really did was to retire to some subterranean storehouses, the secret of which was known to none but himself and two freedmen. One of these freedmen he sent to his wife charged with a message of farewell. The man was to tell her that her husband had taken poison. Her grief he calculated would give additional credit to the tale of his death.

The plan threatened to succeed only too well. Epponina, on hearing these dismal tidings, abandoned herself to grief. Throwing herself on the ground, she remained for three days and nights without taking any food. Sabinus, informed of what was going on, became fearful for her life, and, as a last resource, sent the freedman again with a message that he was not really dead but in hiding. At the same time he begged her to continue her mourning. Epponina, accordingly, continued to act the part of the disconsolate widow, while she found opportunities of visiting her husband, unknown to all but the two faithful freedmen.

After the expiration of seven months, when Vespasian was firmly seated on the throne, she conceived the bold design of taking her husband to Rome and petitioning for his pardon. Her friends encouraged her to hope that this might be obtained. She made him assume a disguise, probably that of a slave, and contrived that he should escape recognition. The journey however proved to be fruitless. The Emperor could not be approached. Epponina and Sabinus returned to their place of concealment. He of course never emerged from it; but she lived a double life, spending part of her time with her husband, and part in society, paying even occasional visits to Rome.

For several years this went on, the secret never being discovered, even though twice during this period Epponina became a mother. Just before the end of Vespasian's reign husband and wife were arrested—we are not told how this happened—and were brought into the Imperial presence. She made an appeal for mercy which brought tears to the eyes of all who were present, even affecting the Emperor himself, "See," she cried pointing to her two children, "these boys, I brought them forth, reared them in the tomb, that there might be more of us to beg for your mercy."

But Vespasian, though, as has been said, not unmoved, refused to pardon her husband. Then, it seems, the infuriated woman broke forth into invectives. "Better," she said, "to live in darkness, than to see such a Prince on the throne." It is melancholy to read that she shared the fate of her husband. Both were put to death by the Emperor's order. His temper had been soured, it would seem, by the discovery of plots on the part of trusted and favoured friends. Possibly, he could not forget that Sabinus had assumed the Imperial title, and had claimed descent from the first of the Caesars. The meanness of Vespasian's own origin may have made him sensitive on this point. It is difficult, however, to reconcile what we know of the character of Vespasian with the execution of Epponina.

Plutarch, or rather the character in the dialogue "About Lovers" who tells the story, adds, "Caesar slew her, and paid the penalty for the bloody deed, for before long his whole race utterly perished. In the whole of his reign no darker deed than this, none more odious in the sight of heaven, was committed."