Battles of Bedriacum

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The Battle of Bedriacum refers to two battles fought during the Year of the four Emperors A.D. 69 near the village of Bedriacum, now Calvatone, Italy, about 22 miles from the town of Cremona in northern Italy. After the death of Nero 8 June A.D. 68, four influential generals successively vied for the imperial throne. The location of the fighting in 69 was the rural countryside between Bedriacum and Cremona. These battles are sometimes called "First Cremona" and "Second Cremona".

First Battle of Bedriacum

After Galba had seized the throne after the death of Nero, he ruled for 8 months. The imperial legate Aulus Vitellius, governor of the province of Germania Inferior, Lower Germany, claimed the throne by acclamation 1 January A.D. 69 and marched on Rome with his troops. But Marcus Salvius Otho in Rome, with the support and aid of the Praetorian Guard, had Galba and Galba's own appointed successor Piso murdered on 15 January of 69, and claimed the throne for himself. Vitellius' forces were divided into two armies, one commanded by Aulus Caecina Alienus and the other by Fabius Valens. The Vitellian forces included legions XXI Rapax, V Alaudae and powerful vexillationes from all the other legions stationed on the Rhine, together with a strong force of Batavian auxiliaries, a force of around 70,000 in total. The forces commanded by Caecina crossed the Alps by the Great St. Bernard Pass to reach northern Italy. They attacked Placentia but were repulsed by the Othonian garrison and fell back on Cremona to await the arrival of Valens' army.

Otho left Rome on 14 March, and marched north to meet the challenge, leaving his brother Titianus in charge of Rome. He made his base at Brixellum. His forces included legions I Adiutrix, XIII Gemina, a forward detachment of XIIII Gemina, the Praetorian Guard and a force of gladiators. His general staff included generals such as Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, who, as governor of Britain, had defeated Boudica eight years before, but Otho decided to call his brother Titianus from Rome to act as his commander in chief.

Before Titianus arrived, one engagement had already been fought. Caecina tried to set up an ambush at a village called Locus Castorum, about half way between Bedriacum and Cremona on the Via Postumia. However the Othonians were informed of this, and their army marched for Locus Castorum, led by Suetonius Paulinus. The Othonians had the better of the fighting which followed, and Caecina's troops retreated to Cremona. Here they were joined by Valens' army, which had followed a longer route through Gaul.

Titanius had now joined the Othonian armies and took command. A decision was made to march on Cremona to give battle, against the advice of Paulinus and other generals, who wished to wait until other legions, known to be on the way, had arrived. Otho himself remained at Brixellum to await the outcome. On 14 April the two armies met on the Via Postumia, nearer Cremona than Bedriacum, with the Othonian troops already tired after a long march. Some of the heaviest fighting was where Otho's 1st Adiutrix legion, recently raised from the marines at Ravenna, clashed with Vitellius' veteran Rapax. The Adiutrix acquitted itself well, capturing the eagle of the 21st, though its commanding officer was killed as the 21st strove to recover it. Elsewhere on the battlefield, however, Otho's 13th legion was defeated by Vitellius' Alaudae, and the Adiutrix eventually gave way when a force of Batavian auxiliaries took them in the flank. According to Dio Cassius about 40,000 men were killed in the fighting. The Othonian troops fled back to their camp in Bedriacum, and the next day surrendered to the Vitellian forces and took the oath of allegiance to Vitellius.

When news of the defeat came to Brixellum, many of Otho's troops urged him to fight on, pointing out that more troops were on the way. Otho however decided to commit suicide rather than cause more deaths. He had been emperor for less than three months. Vitellius continued his march on Rome, where he made a triumphal entry and was recognized as emperor by the Senate.

Second Battle of Bedriacum

Meanwhile, the legions stationed in the Middle Eastern provinces of Judaea and Syria had acclaimed Vespasian as emperor on 1 July. Vespasian had been given a special command in Iudaea by Nero in 67 with the task of putting down the Great Jewish Revolt. He gained the support of the governor of Syria, Gaius Licinius Mucianus, and a strong force drawn from the Judaean and Syrian legions marched on Rome under the command of Mucianus.

Before the eastern legions could reach Rome, the Danubian legions of the provinces of Raetia and Moesia also acclaimed Vespasian as Emperor in August. Three of these legions, III Gallica, VIII Augusta and VII Claudia had been on their way to support Otho when they heard of his defeat at the first battle of Bedriacum. They had been made to swear allegiance to Vitellius, but according to Suetonius and Tacitus when they heard of Vespasian's bid for power they switched their support to him. They persuaded the other two legions, VII Galbiana and XIII Gemina to join them, which the XIII Gemina did all the more readily as they were one of the legions which had been defeated at First Bedriacum, and had been made to build amphitheaters for Valens and Caecina as punishment. Led by the commanding officer of the seventh Galbiana, Marcus Antonius Primus, they marched on Rome, and having a shorter distance to march reached Italy before Mucianus' troops.

When Vitellius heard of Antonius' approach, he dispatched Caecina with a powerful army composed of XXI Rapax, V Alaudae, I Italica and XXII Primigenia together with detachments from seven other legions and a force of auxiliaries. The first of Antonius' legions had arrived at Verona, but though urged to attack them before the remainder of the army arrived, Caecina declined to do so. Moreover, he considered a retreat dangerous. Caecina had been plotting with Lucilius Bassus, commander of the fleet at Ravenna, to switch their support to Vespasian. However, his troops afterward refused to follow his lead, and put him in chains. Valens, who had been delayed by illness, had by now set out from Rome.

Caecina's army, now without their general, advanced on Cremona. Antonius was now based at Bedriacum, and advanced towards Cremona with a force of cavalry. They encountered the vanguard of the Vitellian army between Bedriacum and Cremona on 24 October and a battle followed, with Antonius sending back to Bedriacum for the legions. Antonius' troops had the better of the fighting, and the Vitellian troops retreated to their camp outside Cremona.

Antonius' forces advanced along the Via Postumia towards Cremona. They were opposed by a powerful Vitellian army, who had been reinforced by other legions including legion IIII Macedonica, but were still without a commander as Valens had not yet arrived. But night had fallen and the battle continued through the hours of darkness. The seventh Galbiana, Antonius' own legion, suffered heavy casualties and lost its eagle for a time, though one of its centurions later sacrificed his own life to win it back. Eventually Antonius' forces began to gain the upper hand, and the turning point came when dawn broke. Antonius' third Gallica had served in Syria for many years and while there had adopted a local custom. As the sun rose they turned to the east to salute it, and this was misinterpreted by the Vitellian forces who thought that they were greeting reinforcements from the east, and they lost heart. The Vitellian forces were driven back into their camp, which was taken by Antonius' forces. Antonius then attacked Cremona itself, which surrendered. Cremona was burned by the victorious troops.

Antonius continued to Rome, where Vitellius was taken prisoner and shortly afterwards killed. The way was cleared for Vespasian to ascend the throne near the end of this bloody year of crisis, in December 69.


The Encyclopedia Of Military History: From 3500 B.C. To The Present. (2nd Revised Edition 1986), R. Ernest Dupuy, and Trevor N. Dupuy. pp. 127–128

P.A.L. Greenhalgh, The Year of the Four Emperors (Weidenfeld and Nicolson,1975)

Michael Grant, The twelve Caesars (Weidenfeld and Nicolson,1975)