On March 14, a ragtag army had marched out of Rome and headed north in two columns to defend the throne of the new emperor, Otho. The first column comprised five Praetorian Guard cohorts, squadrons of Praetorian Guard cavalry, the sailors-turned-soldiers of Nero’s 1st Legion of the Fleet, and two thousand gladiators from the capital’s gladiatorial schools. Otho himself led the second column, on foot, bareheaded, wearing iron body armor, and accompanied by most of the members of the Senate, who were determined to show solidarity with their new emperor. In this second column marched more Praetorian Guard cohorts and handpicked men of the German Guard plus Evocati veterans brought back to Rome from Egypt by Nero, and a large number of seamen from the fleet at Ostia and Misenum who’d been pressed into service as light infantry. At the same time, warships of the Tyrrhenian Fleet set sail from Misenum to follow the Mediterranean coast to southern France in Otho’s support.
Otho’s tactical plan, conceived for him by others, called for a coordinated land and sea push into the south of France to forestall Vitellius’s troops before they could cross the Alps into Italy. As he left Rome, Otho was unaware that the Cottonian Alps passes had already been secured for Vitellius by the 1st Italica Legion, which Nero had based at Lyons in France after the Vindex Revolt to protect the imperial mint there.
Only one of three Othonian advance parties, made up of men of the Praetorian Guard and City Guard, succeeded in crossing into southern France to link up with the Tyrrhenian Fleet. This force secured Fréjus for Otho, but it was too little, too late. As Otho moved north from Rome, word reached him that an army under Vitellius’s brash young deputy, Brigadier General Aulus Alienus Caecina, until recently commander of the A.U.R.’s 21st Rapax Legion, had crossed the Alps, linking up with the 1st Italica. Caecina entered northwestern Italy with thirty thousand men, ruining Otho’s plan to occupy southern France with his main force. Otho realized that now he would have to fight on home soil.
As Brigadier General Vestricius Spurinna hurried ahead with an Othonian flying column, including Praetorian Guards, to occupy Piacenza on the Po in Caecina’s path, Otho, at the head of his main force with its long baggage train, followed as fast as he could. Reports soon came in that a forty-thousand-man force from Vitellius’s Army of the Lower Rhine under Brigadier General Fabius Valens had entered northern Italy via Switzerland.
After Caecina reached Piacenza and began to assault the city, Otho sent elderly Lieutenant General Annius Gallus with the 1st Legion of the Fleet and a number of auxiliaries to support Spurinna. When, on the march north, Gallus learned that Caecina had been repulsed by Spurinna and had swung east, toward Cremona, he diverted to intercept him. Gallus’s legion arrived at Bedriacum, a village on the road between Cremona and Verona, and made camp. They were soon joined by Spurinna’s troops from Piacenza, and, during the night, more auxiliaries from Otho’s main force.
Caecina’s progress toward Cremona was hampered by skirmishes with Gallus’s patrols. Each time, Caecina’s troops suffered the heavier casualties. Annoyed by this, stung by his failure at Piacenza, and hearing that his colleague and rival Valens was approaching from the north with his army, Caecina decided not to wait for him. Leaving a third of his army in camp, Caecina moved out, planning to ambush Gallus’s troops outside Cremona.
By this stage, Lieutenant General Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, consul for the second time in A.D. 66 and former governor of Britain, famous for his crushing victory over Boudicca with the 14th G.M.V. nine years before, had arrived at Gallus’s Bedriacum headquarters. Gallus had been injured the day before in a fall from his horse, so Paulinus took charge of the infantry. Lieutenant General Marius Celsus, commander of the 15th Legion in Field Marshal Corbulo’s second Armenian campaign, and a consul-elect, took over the cavalry. Tacitus says that no one at that time was considered a better soldier than Paulinus. Now fifty-eight going on fifty-nine, widely renowned as an energetic and practical general, if a little cautious, everyone knew that he hadn’t panicked when faced with overwhelming odds in Britain, so everything pointed to him being a calm yet decisive leader now. As Napoleon Bonaparte was to say, a leader is a dealer in hope, and the famous Paulinus gave Otho’s outnumbered, untested troops the hope of success.
Further boosting the confidence of Otho’s men was the arrival at Bedriacum of the two-thousand-man 13th Gemina advance party from Petovio. When Paulinus asked where his famous 14th was, he was told by General Aquila that cohorts of the G.M.V. were coming, some way behind the 13th Gemina column; but no one knew when they might arrive. Tacitus says that the self-confidence of the men of the “most effective” 14th Gemina, “Conquerors of Britain,” had “induced a tardiness of movement in them”—in other words, they were cockily coming down to the Po in their own good time.
General Paulinus was glad to include the three 13th Gemina cohorts in a force he now led west. From a deserter, he’d learned of Caecina’s ambush plan, and twelve miles from Cremona he and General Celsus were able to turn the tables on Caecina. But then, at the moment of victory, General Paulinus had “Recall” sounded, apparently afraid that fresh troops might suddenly appear for Caecina. It was a prudent course, but it meant Paulinus let slip the opportunity to totally destroy two-thirds of Caecina’s army. This skirmish was another victory for Otho. But not a complete one.
Caecina’s fleeing troops regrouped just as General Valens’s army arrived. Despite Caecina’s heavy losses that day on the Bedriacum road, the now combined army of Vitellius that encamped on the plain near Cremona numbered more than sixty thousand men.
Otho slipped into his army’s camp, bringing the last of his units, among them a new legion levied the previous year in southern France and since then camped south of Rome at the naval base of Misenum, the 1st Adiutrix Legion (1st Assistant or Supporter). It had been raised by the city of Vienne, supposedly in support of the 1st Italica Legion stationed nearby at Lyons, but in reality to prevent the Italica from looting Vienne—which the people of Lyons had urged the Italicans to do because of a long-standing intercity feud.
Otho called a council of war. At the praetorium tent, in the light of flickering, spluttering oil lamps, the emperor’s chief advisers gathered: Generals Paulinus, Celsus, Spurinna, and Aquila; Praetorian Guard Prefects Colonels Licinius Proculus and Plotius Firmius; and the emperor’s brother Salvius Titianus Otho, whom he’d made a consul in January. General Gallus was too unwell to attend. Otho heard General Paulinus counsel patience. All of Vitellius’s troops had now arrived, Paulinus said, while Otho still had the men of four legions on the way—the 7th Galbiana and 11th Claudia from Dalmatia, and from Slovenia the remainder of the 13th Gemina and, most importantly, the 14th Gemina. The very presence of the famous 14th would bolster the confidence of the rest of Otho’s troops, the general said. Besides, he would have reminded the emperor, this ground where they stood was the 14th’s home turf, so its men could be expected to fight even more fiercely here. Wait for the legions, Paulinus urged. He was supported by General Celsus the cavalry commander, and also by General Gallus when his views were sought from his bedside.
But Otho was worried that Vitellius himself was on his way with more troops. Apart from his forces on the Rhine, Vitellius could draw on three legions in Spain, with two of the three in Britain also loyal to him. Otho was conscious of an old Latin saying, “There is danger in delay.” In this case delay could give Vitellius the opportunity to arrive and decide matters with overwhelming numbers. Flattered by his brother and Colonel Proculus, Otho decided to go with his instinct, which was to strike on the heels of the day’s victory and destroy the combined army of Caecina and Valens before Vitellius himself arrived and the reinforced opposition regained the initiative. His experienced generals reluctantly accepted the strategy, but Paulinus pushed for Otho to leave the actual battle in the hands of the commanders who’d been successful so far, and to personally go to the rear, for safety’s sake. The emperor agreed.
As Otho prepared to withdraw to the town of Brixellum, seventeen miles away, taking with him a good part of the Praetorian Guard under Colonel Firmius, the German Guard cohorts, and a large cavalry detachment, the spirits of his remaining troops sank at the sight. Even worse for his cause, Otho’s brother Salvius had been bending the emperor’s ear—as Otho was about to leave the Bedriacum camp he put his inexperienced brother in overall command, to the horror of the generals.
As soon as Otho was out of sight, Colonel Proculus issued orders for the army to move camp and build a new one four miles from Bedriacum. Generals Paulinus and Celsus advised against the move, but Salvius ignored them. After a flaming row with the emperor’s brother, the two generals went on strike. Unwilling to take responsibility for what they saw as impending disaster, Paulinus and Celsus stayed in their tents and refused to take any further part in the operation. The army moved west to the new campsite. Sixteen miles now separated the camps of the two sides.
Days passed without any further offensive action, until finally the exasperated Otho sent a message to his brother, ordering the immediate commencement of an offensive before reinforcements reached Vitellius’s army. Now, as if sent by Providence, word arrived that the eagle of a legion was seen coming down the road from Verona. The troops at Otho’s camp flooded to the ramparts, and began cheering wildly when the senior cohorts of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion came marching up to the camp’s decuman gate. The boost for the spirits for Otho’s troops was enormous. “The 14th Gemina is here!” they said excitedly, clapping each other on the back.
Now Salvius Otho found the confidence to finally accede to the emperor’s wishes. He would go with what he had. The order was given for the army to advance on the enemy at dawn the next day, April 15.
In his thirties, a native of Vicenza like many men of the 14th Gemina, tall, handsome, and flamboyant General Aulus Caecina was supervising bridge works at the Po when scouts came galloping up with the news that Otho’s army was coming down the road. Caecina quickly mounted up and rode back to camp. There, men were scurrying about, arming and forming up in units, while first-rank centurions of the legions threw dice to decide which legion would go where in their order of march. Without consulting Caecina, his rival General Valens now dispatched their cavalry to attack Otho’s oncoming army.
As the cavalry came thundering toward them, Otho’s advance guard, mostly the 1st Legion of the Fleet, halted and stood its ground. Expecting the seamen to run, the Vitellianist cavalry reeled back with frightened horses bleeding from javelin wounds, broke formation, and tried to retreat to their camp. In the path of the fleeing cavalry stood Caecina’s 1st Italica Legion. In unconventional Greek phalanx formation, the Italicans lowered their spears—projecting fifteen feet in front of them, counterbalanced by six feet of spear behind—and refused to let their retreating troopers through. In the face of this “hedgehog,” the cavalrymen had no choice but to turn around. Resuming the attack, they dispersed Otho’s advance guard, chasing the infantry into the stony countryside.
The men of the three senior cohorts of the 14th Gemina would have had a bad, bad feeling in the pit of the stomach. The main body of Otho’s army had been on the march for more than five hours, covering sixteen miles down the Cremona road, with noncombatants, camp followers, and parts of the baggage train intermixed with the cohorts. As the disorganized column neared the Vitellianist camp, groups of inexperienced legionaries who’d become separated from their standards began calling out for their comrades.
In the vanguard, marching with Salvius Otho, the men of the rigid formation of the 14th Gemina cohorts would have smarted at the lack of professionalism of it all. These were mature men with just two years to go of their second enlistments, the youngest of them around fifty-eight years old. Tough, scarred, cynical, they’d been marching with the legion since A.D. 31. They’d fought Germans east of the Rhine, they’d invaded Britain, thrashed Caratacus, and demolished Boudicca’s rebel horde. Otho’s ramshackle army would have been an insult to the proudest, most famous legion in the Roman army.
Now a rumor ran through the ranks of Otho’s column that Vitellius’s troops had mutinied and there wouldn’t be a fight, so that when Vitellianist infantry came into view, some of Otho’s men cheerily hailed them as fellow Romans and friends. There was a surprised, muted reply from the other side before “Charge” was sounded by the Vitellianist generals. Four miles outside their camp, the Vitellianist troops rushed Otho’s outnumbered men, who, quickly overcoming their shock at the far from friendly reaction, ran to spread out and form a line on either side of the road. In Daily Orders that morning the dispositions for the coming battle had been announced. The 14th Gemina was to take the right wing, with the 13th Gemina beside it. Machinelike now, the 14th Gemina cohorts moved into position. To their left, the other units formed an extended battle line.
The ragged Othonian line not only held, it also repulsed the initial onslaught. The battle then began to break up into a series of separate fights, on the road as well as in the vineyards and woodlands bordering it. Here, men stood toe-to-toe, shield-to-shield, with flailing swords. There, groups many ranks deep threw javelins and other missiles at each other. Here, one side had the upper hand; there, the other. In the midst of battle, men recognized old legionary comrades and relatives in the opposing ranks. But no quarter was asked, and none was given.
As more units came up and became engaged, the battle spilled into the farmland of the open plain between the road and the Po River, where two very different legions met. For Otho, the Gallic recruits of the new 1st Adiutrix Legion. They’d never seen battle but were high-spirited and anxious to gain their first victory. For Vitellius, the tough Spaniards of the 21st Rapax Legion, the “Ravenous 21st,” Caecina’s own unit and “a legion of old and distinguished renown,” as Tacitus puts it, whose origins went back to 49 B.C. The ranks of the 21st hadn’t been replenished since two thousand of its recruits had been transferred to the 9th Hispana in Britain in A.D. 60, leaving it four cohorts understrength. Because of its lack of numbers, it had been Vitellius’s only legion not to leave cohorts behind in the Rhine garrisons before the march to Italy.
The five thousand youngsters of the full-strength 1st Adiutrix ran forward to the attack. Perhaps the three thousand hardened legionaries of the 21st Rapax felt sorry for the Adiutrix’s twenty-year-old farmboy conscripts, maybe they underestimated them, or maybe their weight of numbers told. Whatever the reason, the 21st’s first ranks were overwhelmed by the impetus of the 1st Adiutrix’s charge. The young soldiers of the Adiutrix cut their way through the opposing legion’s 1st Cohort to the eagle of the 21st, killed the eagle-bearer, and with a cheer bore away the golden standard in triumph. The commander of the 1st Adiutrix, Brigadier General Orfidius Benignus, called to his men not to celebrate too soon. He urged them to hurry and re-form, as the fight wasn’t yet won. He was right. Infuriated at losing their eagle, the remaining cohorts of the 21st Rapax regrouped, then charged the triumphant youngsters of the opposing legion.
The “Ravenous 21st” lived up to its name. In vicious fighting, it sliced its way through the center of the 1st Adiutrix’s line, all the way to the legion commander. As General Benignus died urging on his men, and as numerous 1st Adiutrix standards were taken around him, his raw recruits lost their enthusiasm and their courage, and ran.
Not far away, on the right wing, Otho’s most experienced legionaries, the men of the 14th Gemina and 13th Gemina, stood side by side. But the outnumbered 13th cohorts gave way to the charge of the recruits of the full-strength 5th Alaudae Legion. As the troops of the 13th Gemina fled, the two thousand men of the vaunted 14th Gemina Martia Victrix beside them found themselves suddenly exposed on one side.
But like Napoleon’s embattled Old Guard at the Battle of Waterloo 1,746 years later, the 14th stood firm, despite superior numbers and an increasingly hopeless situation for their side. Vitellianist co-commander General Valens now gave orders for reserve auxiliary cohorts to attack the weakened right flank of Otho’s struggling army and seal victory. Ironically, it was the men of the eight cohorts of the Batavian light infantry, former marching companions of the 14th Gemina for decades, who had been held in reserve and who now charged into the 14th to resume the argument they had started at Petovio, determined to settle that argument with blood. Still the 14th Gemina stood its ground, fighting off attacks to the front and on the flank.
The battle lasted all afternoon. But with the failure of the 1st Adiutrix and 13th Gemina to hold the Othonian line, Vitellius’s troops broke through. More and more of Otho’s men retreated from the battlefield. Some withdrew in relative order to the temporary safety of their fortified camp sixteen miles back down the road; others fled blindly south, toward Rome. Holding its own till then, the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix had no choice but also to withdraw to the camp, to prevent themselves from being overwhelmed. Leaving their dead where they’d fallen, the three cohorts fell back, maintaining formation and holding off the exhausted Batavians. Now, considering the battle won and with the light fading, Caecina and Valens sounded “Recall.”
As night fell, the road all the way to Bedriacum was so clogged with the corpses of troops and animals and abandoned wagons it was impassable. Otho’s brother, as well as General Paulinus, General Celsus, and the Praetorian commander, Colonel Proculus, all escaped south in the darkness. Vitellius later arrested and imprisoned both Proculus and General Paulinus. Tried for treason in the fall, they would be acquitted and set free.
Only General Gallus, confined to his bed at the Bedriacum camp, stayed with the troops. He dragged himself from his tent and tried to rally legionaries as they flooded back into the camp in the dark. Now Brigadier General Aquila of the 13th Gemina blundered into the camp, and into the arms of the bloodied men of the 14th Gemina. Blaming him for his legion’s desertion of them on the battlefield, the angry troops were ready to finish him off until old General Gallus convinced them to let him go.
With the 14th respecting Gallus’s orders, and acting defiant and undefeated, even posting a camp guard detail as usual, panic among the other troops subsided. All in camp submitted to Gallus’s authority, and order returned. Meanwhile, Caecina and Valens advanced their victorious army across country and pitched a new camp a mile away.
At Brixellum, the emperor had been receiving couriered updates of the battle. The first reports weren’t encouraging. Then, in the night, came fugitives from the battle with news that all was lost at Bedriacum. Officers around Otho tried to convince him that he could still count on thousands of troops. Colonel Firmius reminded him the Praetorian Guard was still essentially intact there at Brixellum. On top of that, word had arrived that the advance guard of four thousand men from the 7th Galbiana and 11th Claudia had reached Aquileia, near present-day Venice, and were only days away. Otho still had the loyalty of the navy and all of southern Italy. And Rome and the Senate were behind him. His staff urged him to withdraw, to gather new strength, to fight another day.
But Otho was overwhelmed by depression. Unable to see a future for himself, he began talking about suicide, to end the slaughter and put the empire out of its misery. Vitellius was welcome to the throne, he said. He sent his distraught senior officers away and slept soundly that night, with two daggers under his pillow.
That same night, the remaining seven cohorts of the 14th Gemina and those of the 13th Gemina marched into Bedriacum township together with their baggage trains after the trek from Slovenia, only to receive the staggering news that a battle had been lost on the Cremona road that very day and that their legions had been forced to retreat.
The next morning at Brixellum, Colonel Plotius Firmius, co-prefect of the Praetorian Guard, found Otho dead in his tent, with a single stab wound to the chest. The Praetorian Guard hastily cremated their emperor. A swift cremation had been Otho’s last wish, so his head couldn’t be made a trophy by his enemies, the way that Galba’s had.
That same morning of April 16, without consulting the men of the 14th G.M.V. or the other troops under his command, General Gallus sent envoys to the camp of Generals Valens and Caecina, who agreed to surrender terms for Othonian units at Gallus’s camp and at Bedriacum itself, including all cohorts of the 14th. Gallus then ordered his troops to lay down their weapons, and once that had been done at his camp, he opened the gates.
With folded arms and furious scowls, the disarmed men of the 14th Gemina’s senior cohorts watched as Vitellius’s troops entered their camp, softening when they saw that Vitellius’s legionaries came in not as victors, but as comrades in arms. Tears flowed as men found wounded friends and relatives in the camp. Vitellianists tended wounded on Otho’s side. They even located the body of General Benignus of the 1st Adiutrix and gave him a cremation with full honors. The dead of the 14th weren’t so lucky—a month later, when Vitellius arrived from the Rhine and surveyed the Bedriacum battlefield, the rotting corpses of the opposition dead still lay where they’d fallen.
While the battle was being fought, most senators had waited for news with a Praetorian detachment at Modena. When the first reports came in of the defeat near Bedriacum, these Praetorians refused to believe it. After fiery debate, the senators withdrew a little farther south, to Bologna. There, Coenus, a freedman previously in Nero’s employ, raised false hopes when he arrived from the north with the story that the famous 14th Gemina Legion, fully intact, had linked up with Otho’s guardsmen and cavalry at Brixellum and defeated Vitellius’s army. Such was the reputation of the 14th that the story was instantly believed.
Coenus quickly continued on to Rome. He’d obviously seen the last cohorts of the 14th arrive at Bedriacum overnight as he fled south, and that had spawned his fiction. It turned out that his objective had been personal. Coenus carried an imperial safe conduct issued by Otho’s Palatium. Without such a passport, it wasn’t possible to travel the roads. But if Otho had been defeated and Vitellius was now emperor, all safe conducts issued in Otho’s name, including Coenus’s, were invalid. The ruse caused the safe conducts of Otho to be recognized for a little longer, until the truth of Vitellius’s victory became indisputable. It was long enough for Coenus to reach the capital. But he paid the price; Vitellius later arrested and punished him.
Vitellius was now emperor of Rome. One of his first decrees was for the execution of the centurions of Otho’s legions who had shown the most bravery at the Battle of Bedriacum. Centurions of the 14th topped the list. Tacitus says that this one act alone was enough to make the 14th Gemina and the 13th Gemina the sworn enemies of the new emperor.
Valens and Caecina dispersed the units that had fought for Otho. The 1st Adiutrix was sent to Spain. The 7th Galbiana and 11th Claudia, halted near Venice, were ordered to turn around and go back to their Dalmatian station. The Praetorian cohorts in Italy and southern France were at first disarmed. Those in Italy were then separated and distributed to various pro-Vitellius towns, but within months Vitellius would dismiss all their men from the Roman army, without benefits, and replace them with troops from his legions, who took over the Praetorian standards and their barracks at Rome. The German Guard was abolished and its men ordered home to Germany.
The men of the 13th Gemina, despised by both sides for the weak-kneed performance of their senior cohorts at Bedriacum, were forced to spend five weeks building wooden amphitheaters at Cremona and Bologna, where Caecina and Valens exhibited gladiatorial shows for their emperor when he arrived at the end of May, in celebration of the Bedriacum victory.
The brooding men of the 14th Gemina, their cohorts reunited once more, were initially kept in camp at Bedriacum. But the men of the legion’s cohorts that hadn’t participated in the battle, men such as Standard-Bearer Petronius and Legionaries Flaminius, Cordus, and Vibennius, refused to acknowledge that their legion had been defeated. Indignant, they complained that only men of the senior cohorts had been involved, and even then, none had yielded in battle and none had agreed to surrender, and that the legion should be treated with the respect its reputation deserved. Troubled by the 14th Gemina’s unbroken spirit, says Tacitus, Vitellius issued orders for it to be sent to Turin.
The legion packed up and, grumbling all the way, trooped west to Turin, the Roman town of Taurini Augusta, at the foot of the Alps. Matters became worse at Turin. The people of the city were strongly for Vitellius, and Otho’s former troops weren’t made welcome. A cohort of Otho’s Praetorian Guard also had been sent there; this was before they were demobilized. Putting all his rotten apples in one barrel, Vitellius also ordered the troublemaking Batavian cohorts from his own army to Turin. Tacitus says Vitellius felt the Batavians would keep the 14th Gemina in line, due to their ongoing feud.
It was a recipe for disaster. In the Turin marketplace a Batavian alleged that a local artisan tried to cheat him. A soldier of the 14th Gemina, perhaps Legionary Naevius, a native of Turin, took the artisan’s side. As an argument developed, legionaries and Batavians gathered around, and soon the affair went from words to blows. The resulting brawl was terminated only when the Praetorians stepped in and separated the two groups. Not surprisingly, the Praetorians now took the side of the 14th Gemina, and the legionaries continued to goad the Batavians until orders arrived from Vitellius transferring the Batavians to his own headquarters at Pavia and the 14th Gemina back to their old station, Britain.
As, in columns of two, the men of the 14th Gemina marched out through the vast red-brick gatehouse of Turin’s Palatine Gate at dawn one day in May or June, fires sprang up throughout the city. The residents were left fighting blazes that quickly spread, and part of Turin was destroyed. Tacitus was in no doubt that the 14th was responsible. He says that the damage was eclipsed by the destruction suffered by other cities during the civil war and was soon forgotten by all but the people of Turin.
The 14th Gemina marched west, with very specific orders from Vitellius on the route they were to follow: across the Graian Alps, and avoiding the city of Vienne, whose loyalty Vitellius still suspected, especially after it had gone to great lengths to raise the 1st Adiutrix Legion for Otho. The city had actually raised the legion for Galba, but it had been commissioned too late to serve him and marched for Otho by default. When the city fathers realized that Vitellius distrusted them, Vienne set about raising yet another legion in their province, calling it the 2nd Adiutrix ; the 2nd Augusta Legion was normally recruited in their territory, and the Adiutrix was ostensibly created to support it. Ironically, the 2nd Adiutrix wouldn’t be commissioned in time to march for Vitellius, but before long would play a leading role for another emperor, alongside the 14th Gemina.
Once it crossed the Alps, the 14th Gemina came to a crossroads. To the left lay Vienne. To the right, northern France and Boulogne, their embarkation point for the return to Britain. Some in the ranks wanted to turn left and march to Vienne, which they felt sure would finance them if the 14th led a revolt against Vitellius on the strength of their name and their fame. But wiser heads prevailed. The 14th Gemina turned right.
The Batavian cohorts had joined Vitellius at Pavia, the Roman Ticinum, on the left bank of the Ticino River twenty miles above its junction with the Po. There, while the new emperor enjoyed a banquet, the unarmed troops were entertained by a wrestling match between a soldier from the 5th Alaudae Legion and a Gallic auxiliary. Drinking heavily, spectators became involved in the contest. The brawl became a riot, with auxiliaries on one side and legionaries the other. The Batavians joined in on the side of the Gauls.
The guard cohorts of Vitellius’s legions subdued the riot. In doing so, they killed a thousand auxiliaries. An all-out battle between legionaries and auxiliaries was averted only when the cry went up that the 14th Gemina Legion was approaching in battle order to challenge Vitellius. Such was the power of the name of the legion that panic set in. As “To Arms” was sounded by the trumpets of various units, legionaries and auxiliaries rushed to arm, find their standards, and man the ramparts of the emperor’s camp. The storm finally abated when the approaching troops were identified as the last of Vitellius’s troops coming down from the Rhine, not the 14th Gemina.
The next day, as the fat, treble-chinned Vitellius surveyed the bodies littering the camp, he was full of praise for his legionaries. But he heaped scorn on the auxiliaries, all noncitizens and foreigners. He wanted no more to do with them. The Gallic auxiliaries were now ordered home to France and Belgium. The Batavians were transferred to the Army of the Upper Rhine. Bitterly regretting their decision to support Vitellius, the Batavian units left Pavia and marched for the Rhine.