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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
The Histories


published in Vol. III
of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Tacitus, 1931

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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(Vol. III) Tacitus

Book IV (end)

 p157  80 1 During these same days Mucianus had Vitellius's son put to death,​1 for he maintained that discord would continue if he did not destroy the seeds of war. Nor did he allow Domitian to invite Antonius Primus to become a member of his suite, since he was disturbed by his popularity with the  p159 soldiers as well as by the haughty temper of a man who could not endure even his equals, to say nothing of his superiors. Antonius left Rome to join Vespasian, who received him, not as he had hoped, but yet with no unfriendly feelings. Vespasian was drawn in two directions: in one by the services of Antonius, under whose leader­ship the war had unquestionably been finished,​2 in the other by letters of Mucianus; while at the same time everyone else attacked Antonius, as hostile and swollen with conceit, and brought charges against his former life. And Antonius himself did not fail to arouse hostility by his arrogance and by dwelling too constantly on his own achievements: he charged some with cowardice and taunted Caecina with having been a captive and a voluntary prisoner.​3 The result was that he was gradually regarded as of less weight and importance, although his friendship with Vespasian apparently remained the same.

81 1 During the months while Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria for the regular season of the summer winds and a settled sea,​4 many marvels continued to mark the favour of heaven and a certain partiality of the gods toward him. One of the common people of Alexandria, well known for his loss of sight, threw himself before Vespasian's knees, praying him with groans to cure his blindness, being so directed by the god Serapis, whom this most superstitious of nations worships before all others; and he besought the emperor to deign to moisten his cheeks and eyes with his spittle. Another, whose hand was useless, prompted by the same god, begged Caesar to step and trample on it. Vespasian at first ridiculed these appeals and treated them with  p161 scorn; then, when the men persisted, he began at one moment to fear the discredit of failure, at another to be inspired with hopes of success by the appeals of the suppliants and the flattery of his courtiers: finally, he directed the physicians to give their opinion as to whether such blindness and infirmity could be overcome by human aid. Their reply treated the two cases differently: they said that in the first the power of sight had not been completely eaten away and it would return if the obstacles were removed; in the other, the joints had slipped and become displaced, but they could be restored if a healing pressure were applied to them. Such perhaps was the wish of the gods, and it might be that the emperor had been chosen for this divine service; in any case, if a cure were obtained, the glory would be Caesar's, but in the event of failure, ridicule would fall only on the poor suppliants. So Vespasian, believing that his good fortune was capable of anything and that nothing was any longer incredible, with a smiling countenance, and amid intense excitement on the part of the bystanders, did as he was asked to do. The hand was instantly restored to use, and the day again shone for the blind man. Both facts are told by eye-witnesses even now when falsehood brings no reward.

82 1 These events gave Vespasian a deeper desire to visit the sanctuary of the god to consult him with regard to his imperial fortune: he ordered all to be excluded from the temple. Then after he had entered the temple and was absorbed in contemplation of the god, he saw behind him one of the leading men of Egypt, named Basilides,​5 who he knew was detained by sickness in a place many  p163 days' journey distant from Alexandria. He asked the priests whether Basilides had entered the temple on that day; he questioned the passers-by whether he had been seen in the city; finally, he sent some cavalry and found that at that moment he had been eighty miles away: then he concluded that this was a supernatural vision and drew a prophecy from the name Basilides.

83 1 The origin of this god has not yet been generally treated by our authors: the Egyptian priests tell the following story, that when King Ptolemy,​6 the first of the Macedonians to put the power of Egypt on a firm foundation, was giving the new city of Alexandria walls, temples, and religious rites, there appeared to him in his sleep a vision of a young man of extraordinary beauty and of more than human stature, who warned him to send his most faithful friends to Pontus and bring his statue hither; the vision said that this act would be a happy thing for the kingdom and that the city that received the god would be great and famous: after these words the youth seemed to be carried to heaven in a blaze of fire. Ptolemy, moved by this miraculous omen, disclosed this nocturnal vision to the Egyptian priests, whose business it is to interpret such things. When they proved to know little of Pontus and foreign countries, he questioned Timotheus, an Athenian of the clan of the Eumolpidae,​7 whom he had called from Eleusis to preside over the sacred rites, and asked him what this religion was and what the divinity meant. Timotheus learned by questioning men who had travelled to Pontus that there was a city there called Sinope, and that not far from it there was a temple of Jupiter Dis,8  p165 long famous among the natives: for there sits beside the god a female figure which most call Proserpina. But Ptolemy, although prone to superstitious fears after the nature of kings, when he once more felt secure, being more eager for pleasures than religious rites, began gradually to neglect the matter and to turn his attention to other things, until the same vision, now more terrible and insistent, threatened ruin upon the king himself and his kingdom unless his orders were carried out. Then Ptolemy directed that ambassadors and gifts should be despatched to King Scydrothemis — he ruled over the people of Sinope at that time — and when the embassy was about to sail he instructed them to visit Pythian Apollo. The ambassadors found the sea favourable; and the answer of the oracle was not uncertain: Apollo bade them go on and bring back the image of his father, but leave that of his sister.9

84 1 When the ambassadors reached Sinope, they delivered the gifts, requests, and messages of their king to Scydrothemis. He was all uncertainty, now fearing the god and again being terrified by the threats and opposition of his people; often he was tempted by the gifts and promises of the ambassadors. In the meantime three years passed during which Ptolemy did not lessen his zeal or his appeals; he increased the dignity of his ambassadors, the number of his ships, and the quantity of gold offered. Then a terrifying vision appeared to Scydrothemis, warning him not to hinder longer the purposes of the god: as he still hesitated, various disasters, diseases, and the evident anger of the gods, growing heavier from day to day, beset the king. He called an assembly of his people and made known to them  p167 the god's orders, the visions that had appeared to him and to Ptolemy, and the misfortunes that were multiplying upon them: the people opposed their king; they were jealous of Egypt, afraid for themselves, and so gathered about the temple of the god. At this point the tale becomes stranger, for tradition says that the god himself, voluntarily embarking on the fleet that was lying on the shore, miraculously crossed the wide stretch of sea and reached Alexandria in two days. A temple, befitting the size of the city, was erected in the quarter called Rhacotis; there had previously been on that spot an ancient shrine dedicated to Serapis and Isis. Such is the most popular account of the origin and arrival of the god. Yet I am not unaware that there are some who maintain that the god was brought from Seleucia in Syria in the reign of Ptolemy III;​10 still others claim that the same Ptolemy introduced the god, but that the place from which he came was Memphis, once a famous city and the bulwark of ancient Egypt. Many regard the god himself as identical with Aesculapius, because he cures the sick; some as Osiris, the oldest god among these peoples; still more identify him with Jupiter as the supreme lord of all things; the majority, however, arguing from the attributes of the god that are seen on his statueº or from their own conjectures, hold him to be Father Dis.11

85 1 But before Domitian and Mucianus reached the Alps, they received news of the success among the Treviri. The chief proof of their victory was given by the presence of the enemy's leader, Valentinus, who, never losing courage, continued to show by his looks the same spirit that he had  p169 always maintained. He was given an opportunity to speak, but solely that his questioners might judge of his nature; and he was condemned. While being executed,º someone taunted him with the fact that his native country had been subdued, to which he replied that he found therein consolation for his own death. Mucianus now brought forward a proposal as if he had just thought of it, but which in reality he had long concealed. He urged that since, thanks to the gods' kindness, the enemy's strength has been broken, it would little become Domitian, now that war is almost over, to interfere in the glory of others. If the stability of the empire or the safety of Gaul were imperilled, then Caesar ought to take his place in the battle-line; but the Canninefates and the Batavi he should assign to inferior commanders. "You should," he added, "personally display the power and majesty of the imperial throne from close quarters at Lyons, not mixing yourself up with trifling tasks, but ready to deal with graver ones."

86 1 His artifice was understood, but Domitian's obsequious rôle​12º required that he should let it pass unnoticed: thus they came to Lyons. Men believe that from this city Domitian sent secret messages to Cerialis and tempted his loyalty by asking whether, if he came in person, Cerialis would turn over the command of his army to him. Whether in this plan Domitian was thinking against his father or whether he wished to get control of resources and troops in order to oppose his brother was uncertain; for Cerialis wisely temporized and avoided the request, treating it as a boy's foolish wish. When Domitian realized that  p171 his youth was treated contemptuously by his elders, he abandoned the exercise of all imperial duties, even those of a trifling character and duties which he had exercised before; then, under the cloak of simplicity and moderation, he gave himself up to profound dissimulation, pretending a devotion to literature and a love of poetry to conceal his real character and to withdraw before the rivalry of his brother, on whose milder nature, wholly unlike his own, he put a bad construction.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Cf. II.59.

2 Cf. II.86.

3 Vid. III.13 f.

4 Such as he would have in June and July.

5 That is, "King's son."

6 Ptolemy Soter, 306‑283 B.C.

7 In whose family the more important offices of the mysteries at Eleusis in Attica were hereditary.

Thayer's Note: For full details, see the article Eumolpidae in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

8 Lord of the Lower World. Cf. Clem. Alex. Protrep. IV.48.

9 Jupiter of the Lower World is not here distinguished from Jupiter of the Heavens, whose son Apollo was. Apollo's sister then is Proserpina.

10 Ptolemy Euergetes, 247‑222 B.C.

11 Tacitus seems to have drawn his account from Manetho, who apparently played an important part in the reorganization of the cult of Serapis-Osiris. Cf. Plutarch, De Iside 28.

Thayer's Note: For full details, see Waddell's note on Manetho, Fr. 80.

12 Domitian was now playing the part of a very modest "obsequious" youth.

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Page updated: 8 Oct 12