War and the Muses - Vestalis Liberates Aegyssus
For some decades during the late-First Century before the Christian Era, Marcus Julius Cottius, son of Caesar’s ally Donnus, was king of the Ligurian tribes occupying what are now known as the Cottian Alps, roughly in the center of what is now the Franco-Italian border, with his capital at what is now Susa, in Piedmont. A Roman citizen, Cottius had numerous sons, one of whom succeeded him, while another rose to some distinction in the Imperial Army. Cottius’ son Julius Vestalis (his praenomen having been lost) probably began his military service around 10 BC. As a Roman citizen of equestrian rank, he would have been expected to serve as a junior officer in the auxilia, but in fact seems to have entered the legions as a common soldier or perhaps secured an imperial appointment as a centurion. By A.D. 10 Vestalis had risen to Primpilus, senior centurion, of the Legio IV Scythica, stationed in Moesia, on the Danube, where there’s an inscription bearing his name and rank. Vestalis was shortly promoted, becoming “Prefect of the Danubian Shore”, commanding troops and riverine forces patrolling the lower Danube, defending eastern Moesia (now Bulgaria and Romania south of the Danube) from the Iazyges, Dacians, and other peoples north of the river.
Now in that year, the Getae, a Thracian tribe also living north of the Danube, raided into Moesia, taking several towns in the river’s delta region, notably Aegyssus (modern Tulcea). Acting under the command of Publius Vitellius, the governor of Moesia, Vestalis promptly took the field and played an important role in the liberation of the region, driving the barbarians back across the Danube with great slaughter and earning impressive rewards from the Emperor.
Oddly, aside from the one inscription, the only reason we know anything about Vestalis or about this campaign is because back in A.D. 8, the poet Ovid had been exiled by the Emperor Augustus to Tomis (now Constanta, Romania), an old Greek colony on the Black Sea. Ovid was ostensibly exiled for immorality, having written the racy The Art of Love, which was believed by some to have turned Emperor’s daughter Julia into a nymphomaniac. More probably Ovid may have been connected to a political plot hatched by Julia and some of her lovers. The poet spent most of his exile trying desperately to get a pardon, and wrote petitions and poems lauding the greatness of the Emperor and his family, as well as letters to all and sundry who might possibly put in a good word for him. One of these was addressed to Vestalis, and is preserved in the fourth book of Ovid’s Letters from Pontus. Actually written in verse, the letter is here rendered in prose.
Vestalis, since you’ve been posted to the Black Sea, to deliver justice in these places below the pole, you observe, in person, what country I’m stuck in, and you will witness I’m not in the habit of complaining idly.
Through you, young offspring of Celtic kings, the truth of my words will not be ignored. You yourself can see the sea truly solid with ice, you yourself see wine stand frozen by the frost: you yourself see the fierce Iazygian ox-herd lead his loaded wagon over the Danube’s floes. And you observe poison carried by barbed steel, so the weapon can be a dual cause of death. Would that this place had only to be administered, not also known to you yourself through warfare!
Reaching for the highest rank, in the thick of danger, that well-deserved honour recently fell to you. Even though the title’s full of reward for you, your courage is still greater than your role. The Danube won’t deny it whose waters were once dyed dark red with Getic blood, at your hands. Aegyssus won’t deny it, recaptured at your coming, gaining no advantage from the nature of its site. Since it’s uncertain whether that city, touching the clouds on its high ridge, was better defended by arms or position. The fierce enemy had taken it from its Thracian king and, victorious, held its treasure captive, till Vitellius, carried downriver, disembarked his troops, and advanced his standards against the Getae.
Then the impulse came to you, bravest scion of noble Donnus, to attack the hostile force. No delay: conspicuous from afar in shining armour, ensuring that your brave deeds can’t go unnoticed, with swift strides you charge their position, its steel, and stones, heavier than winter hail. A storm of missiles flung from above don’t stop you, nor those arrow-tips steeped in snake’s venom. Shafts with painted feathers cling to your helm, and scarcely any part of your shield’s unscarred. Unhappily, your body can’t escape every blow: but the pain is less than your sharp desire for glory. Such, they say, was Ajax at Troy, when he endured Hector’s brands, in defending the Greek ships. When you came nearer, fighting hand to hand, when battle could be joined with cruel swords, it’s difficult to tell of all your warlike actions there, how many you killed, whom, and how they fell.
You trod in victory over the piles of dead your sword had made, the Getae heaped wherever your feet stood. The lower ranks followed their leader’s example, fought, took many wounds, and delivered many. But your courage exceeded all others, as Pegasus, once flew faster than the swiftest horse. Aegyssus was taken, and your deeds, Vestalis, are born witness to, for ever, in my song.
Ovid’s exaggerated description of the harshness of the local climate, and probably of Vestalis’ battlefield prowess as well, both intended to gain sympathy and support in his campaign to return to Rome, didn’t work. The poet died in Tomis around A.D. 17, at about 58.
As for Vestalis, aside from Ovid’s letter, we hear no more about him.