From the Archives - Cerialis Losses His Flagship, and His Dignity
Born about A.D. 30,
Quintus Petilius Cerialis Caesius Rufus was a Roman soldier of mixed
attainments. We first hear of him as
commander of the legio VIIII Hispana,
stationed in Britain. With his legion, he took part in the suppression
of the famous revolt of the Iceni under Queen Boudica in 60-61, during which he
failed to relieve the besieged city of Camulodunum
(Colchester), which was sacked with great
brutality by the Britons.
During the “Year of the Four Emperors,” A.D. 69, Cerialis, married to the elder sister of Vespasian, one of
the candidates for the purple, was taken as a hostage by Aulus Vitellius, who
temporarily seized Rome
in the Spring of that year. Cerialis
managed to escape, and later command some of Vespasian’s cavalry during the
campaign that led to the capture of Rome
The following year Cerialis was sent to the Rhineland in command of the XIII Gemina, on a delicate mission, to help suppress the Batavian
Rebellion, during which some of the Roman troops in the region had actually
gone over to the rebels.
To get about quickly, Cerialis used a fleet of galleys on
the Rhine, including one fitted out as a headquarters,
“praetorian ship” in Latin. But one
night he lost his flagship, as told by the historian Publius Cornelius
Tacitus in Book V of his The Histories.
gone to Novesium [Neuss] and Bonna [Bonn], to inspect the camps which were then in course of erection for the winter quarters of the legions,
and was making his way back with the fleet, his escort being in
disorder, and his sentries negligent.
observed by the Germans, and they planned a surprise. They chose a dark and cloudy night, and moving
rapidly down the stream, entered the entrenchments without opposition.
The carnage was at first
helped on by a cunning device. They cut the ropes of the tents, and
slaughtered the soldiers as they lay buried beneath their own dwellings. Another force put the fleet into confusion, threw their grappling
irons on the vessels, and dragged them away by the sterns. They
sought at first to elude notice by silence, but when the
slaughter was begun, by way of increasing the panic they raised
on all sides a deafening shout.
The Romans, awakened by sounds, looked for their arms and rushed through the streets
of the camp, some few with their proper accoutrements, but most
with their garments wrapped round their shoulders, and with
drawn swords in their hands.
who was half asleep, and all but naked, was saved by the enemy's
mistake. They carried off the command ship, which was distinguished
by a flag, believing that the general was on board. Cerialis indeed had passed the
night elsewhere, in the company, as many believed, of an Ubian
woman, Claudia Sacrata.
the sentinels sought to excuse their own scandalous neglect by
the disgraceful conduct of the general, alleging that they had
been ordered to be silent, that they might not disturb his rest,
and that, from omitting the watchwords and the usual challenges, they
had themselves fallen asleep. The enemy
rowed back in broad daylight with the captured vessels. The
praetorian ship they towed up the river Lupia [Lippe] as a
present to Veleda [a Bructerian prophetess who had played a role in rallying
the Gallo-Germanic tribes of the Rhineland to
support the Batavian rebellion against Rome
Surprisingly, despite this rather shoddy performance,
Cerialis wasn’t sacked, probably because of his marriage tie to the Emperor. In 71,
Vespasian appointed Cerialis governor of Britain, in which post he proved
both active and successful, conquering the Brigantes before he returned to Rome in 74, to serve as
consul. We last hear of him in 83, when
he served as consul with his nephew, the Emperor Domitian.