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Profile - Aulus Marius Celsus, Survivor

Aulus Marius Celsus (fl. c. A.D. 20-c. 75), was one of the more interesting minor actors on the Roman stage during the year of the Four Emperors (A.D. 69). Although his origins are obscure, he was probably a distant kinsman of the great Marius (157-86 BC), as the gens Marius was quite small and most Marians seem to have come from around Arpinum -- modern Arpino -- in Southern Latium, also the ancestral home of the great orator, and wannabe warrior Cicero

Aulus was probably born some time between A.D. 20 and 25, the son of Quintus Marius Celsus, who served a praetor peregrinus (foreigners' magistrate) in 31, as by 63 he was commanding a legion, the XV Apollinaris. He probably had been in this post from 61 or 62, when the legion was transferred from it’s original home station, in Pannonia (western Hungary), to the East, to serve under Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo (c. A.D. 7-67) during a ultimately victorious campaign against the Parthians (58-63) that secured Roman control of the Kingdom of Armenia. At the end of the war, the legion was stationed at Alexandria-by-Egypt, possibly with Marius still in command. In 66, however, with onset of the Great Jewish War (66-70), the Emperor Nero (r., 54-68) seems to have made a clean sweep of eastern commands, replacing Corbulo with Titus Flavius Vespasianus (A.D. 9-79), later the Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79). If Marius was still in command of XV Apollinaris, he would have been replaced at that time, as the legion went on campaign in Judea under Vespasian’s son, also T. Flavius Vespasianus (39-81).

Whatever Marius was doing between A.D. 63 and 66, he seems to have gained the confidence of Nero, no mean feat. Whereas Nero ordered Corbulo to kill himself, apparently after having become peripherally involved in a conspiracy against the Emperor (think Rommel and Hitler), he designated Marius for a consulship in 69. In early 68, however, Nero’s misrule led to a series of revolts, and Servius Sulpicius Galba (A.D. 3-69), governor of one of the Spanish provinces, marched on Rome. The Senate deposed Nero, who shortly committed suicide. Galba was elevated to the imperium in June of 68, by which time Marius was firmly in his camp, having even had his claim to the consulship confirmed for the coming year.   

By early 69, however, Galba ran into some trouble; having no son, he had adopted a member of the old nobility. This greatly annoyed Marcus Salvius Otho (32-69), who had been one of Galba’s earliest supporters, and expected to be the one adopted. So in January, Otho suborned the loyalty of the Praetorians. Learning of this, Galba dispatched Marius to calm the troops. It was to no avail, for they ignored Marius and murdered Galba in the Forum on the 15th, proclaiming Otho Emperor. Their blood being up, the Praetorians then decided to knock off some of Galba’s principal supporters, and Marius figured on their list. Otho thought that Marius was worth saving, however, and resourcefully threw him in prison for a time. He then pardoned Marius, confirmed his prospective consulship, and even began including him among his close advisors. 

Now even before these events had unfolded, on January 1, 69, the legions in Germany had proclaimed their own emperor, Aulus Vitellius (A.D. 15- 69), and begun a march on Rome. Otho concentrated an army, and gave Marius an important command. Together with the other Othonian generals, Marius advanced to the Po, and inflicted a defeat on the Vitellian advanced guard in the vicinity of Placentia (Piacenza) and Cremona. But shortly afterwards, the bulk of the Vitellian troops came up. Marius and his colleagues advised Otho to avoid battle and fall back to concentrate greater forces, but the Emperor overruled them, placing his brother Titianus in command. At the First Battle of Bedriacum (April 14), the Othonians suffered a crushing defeat. Otho committed suicide, and Vitellius was shortly confirmed as Emperor by the Senate. 

Vitellius was surprisingly lenient toward his enemies, pardoning all of them, including Titianus, and even allowed Marius to assume his consulship in July. This was a matter of statecraft, rather than innate generosity, for Vitellius appears to have recognized that a noble gesture might help cement his tenuous claim to the imperium. And sure enough, word soon came that the Egyptian garrison, the eastern legions, and the troops on the Danube, had decided to back Vespasian (who had been a supporter of Galba) for the imperium, and some of them were already on the march for Rome.

Commanded by Marcus Antonius Primus (c. A.D. 30/35->81), in October of 69, Vespasian’s troops from the Danube reached the Po Valley. Vitellius concentrated a strong force to meet them, but in the Second Battle of Bedriacum (October  24), this army was completely defeated. After plundering nearby Cremona, Vespasian’s victorious troops shortly marched on Rome, where Vitellius was first made a prisoner, and later killed.

And Marius? Well, Vespasian thought him sufficiently capable as to name him governor and commander of Lower Germany (the Rhenish Netherlands), Vitellius’ former province, and a critical post given that the local Batavian tribesmen were in revolt. Marius commanded in Lower Germany for about two years, 71 to 73, and inflicted a major defeat on the Batavians, which is commemorated at Castra Vetera (Xanten) by a monument erected by the VI Victrix. Probably on the strength of this victory, in 73 Marius was transferred to Syria, which he governed until 75, when he seems to have died in office, as he is not heard of thereafter.

Marius appears to have been an able administrator and a good commander, and certainly was quite a survivor, given that he had the confidence of five successive emperors – Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian – who succeeded each other in rather quick order between mid-68 and the end of 69.

 BookNote: There are several good – if rather monotonously titled – books on what has come to be known as “The Year of the Four Emperors” (although “The Eighteen Months of the Five Emperors“ would be more accurate, among them Gwyn Morgan’s 69 A.D.: The Year of Four Emperors , Kenneth Wellesley’s Year of the Four Emperors , and Peter Greenhalgh’s Year of the Four Emperors .

 


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