Marcus Vettius Bolanus (c. 33 – 76)

Marcus Vettius Bolanus (c. 33 – 76) was a distinguished Roman senator and military figure. Bolanus served in Anatolia under Corbulo in 62.  He held the position of suffect consul for the term spanning September to December in 66 AD, alongside his colleague, Marcus Arruntius Aquila. He was succeeded as governor by Quintus Petillius Cerialis.

Marcus Vettius Bolanus’ Early Career

Not much is known of his career before the governorship, but he is mentioned by Tacitus under the year 62 as a legionary legate in the East, sent to Armenia by Corbulo.

When Corbulo had heard all this from messengers he could trust, he sent two legions under Verulanus Severus and Vettius Bolanus to the support of Tigranes

Cornelius Tacitus – The Annals, Book 15, 3

This is also mentioned by Publius Papinius Statius.

Corbulo headed that Strict campaign, but that fine soldier Bolanus, your father Admired, became the comrade and partner to his labours

Publius Papinius Statius, Silvae

He might have been the most senior legionary legate, at least in terms of age. Clearly, he was a “novus homo” (a term used in Ancient Rome to describe a man who was the first in his family to serve in the Roman Senate). Therefore, he was likely around 41, the typical age, when he became consul in 66.

Marcus Vettius Bolanus – Appointment of Governor of Britannia (69 to 71AD)

He became governor of Britain in 69 in the midst of the Year of four emperors, appointed by the short-lived emperor Vitellius. He replaced Marcus Trebellius Maximus, a man probably in his 70s, had been undermined and forced to flee by a mutiny led by Marcus Roscius Coelius, commander of Legio XX Valeria Victrix.

Trebellius Maximus did not receive the same honour.¹ He had fled Britain to escape the resentment of his army ; Vettius Bolanus, one of the suite of Vitellius, was sent out in his place.

Cornelius Tacitus: The Histories, Book Two: LXV

Sent from the court of Vitellius to govern Britain, he was joined by Legio XIV Gemina, which had been withdrawn from Britain in 67 and was still loyal to Vitellius’s defeated opponent, Otho.

When he arrived he must have had trouble from the legions that were still there, particularly from the Twentieth

Marcus Vettius Bolanus as Governor of Britannia (69 to 71AD)

Bolanus is peremptorily dismissed as he ‘governed more mildly than suited so turbulent a province. ‘ (Tacitus, The Life and Death of Julius Agricola);

He then hesitated from sending reserves to support Vitellius against Vespasian who retained him in service.

Vitellius, nevertheless, sent for reinforcements from Germany, Britain, and the Spanish provinces […]  The provinces and their governors showed the same want of enthusiasm.  […] while Vettius Bolanus never had Britain under complete control

Cornelius Tacitus: The Histories, Book Two: XCVII

He conducted various small but successful sorties into the north of Britain, and was reputed to have sent an expedition by sea to the coast of Caledonia.

Nor did Vettius Bolanus, during the continuance of the civil wars, trouble Britain with discipline. There was the same inaction with respect to the enemy, and similar unruliness in the camp, only Bolanus, an upright man, whom no misdeeds made odious, had secured affection in default of the power of control.

The Life and Death of Julius Agricola, Book 16

Marcus Vettius Bolanus & the Venutius Uprising

During his tenure as governor of Britain, Cartimandua the queen of the Brigantes tribe of northern England, deposed her consort Venutius in favour of her armour-bearer Vellocatus. Venutius in revenge fomented the Brigantian revolution and the elderly queen had to be rescued by a force of Batavian horse and foot soldiers sent by Bolanus. A more forceful governor was needed. All this mmust evidently be placed in 69.

Then she [Cartimandua] asked the Romans for protection, and in fact some companies of our foot and horse, after meeting with indifferent success in a number of engagements, finally succeeded in rescuing the queen from danger. The throne was left to Venutius; the war to us.

Cornelius Tacitus: The Histories, Book Three: XLV

Statius does state clearly that Bolanus built towers and forts over a wide area, that he surrounded walls with a ditch, and that he dedicated a breastplate ‘seized from a British king’.

Rejoice, what glory might exalt Caledonia’s plains! […]

The forts and watchtowers (there, you can see) he scattered far

And wide, and lined these walls with a ditch; these gifts he

Dedicated to the war-gods (you’ll read the inscriptions); this

Breastplate he wore himself in battle, that he captured from

A British king.’

Publius Papinius Statius, Silvae

It’s plausible that Bolanus stationed troops in parts of Brigantia, and he might have even extended his reach further, possibly chasing Venutius. Venutius could have been the “British king” referenced in the poem. Alternatively, the poem might be referring to a king from a tribe allied with Venutius, situated in Scotland.

By the end of 69, Vespasian had established himself as emperor and set about restoring control. The XIVth Gemina was withdrawn again in 70 to help put down unrest on the lower Rhine, and Roscius Coelius was replaced as commander of XX Valeria Victrix by Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Bolanus remained as governor until 71. The poet Statius speaks of him establishing forts and capturing trophies from a British king, which suggests that he was able to reconquer some of the territory lost in the revolt.

How reliable is evidence from Papinius Statius?

We should not overlook evidence that hasn’t always been fully appreciated. The poet, Papinius Statius, who wrote during the late Flavian era, mentions in his “Silvae” (V.2, 140-149) a commendation directed at one Vettius Crispinus. This commendation references the achievements of Crispinus’s father, Marcus Vettius Bolanus, detailing Bolanus’s significant deeds as the governor of Britain. It recounts his ventures into Caledonia, modern-day Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde, where he established roads, forts, watchtowers, and even disarmed a British king.

It’s highly improbable that Statius would have fabricated such details within a time when many could still recall the actual events. This suggests that Vettius Bolanus, even though not acknowledged by Tacitus, had played a pivotal role in bringing stability and asserting Roman influence in northern Britain. It’s possible that Vettius Bolanus’s contributions were overshadowed because Tacitus was keen to celebrate the achievements of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola.

Marcus Vettius Bolanus & his Return to Rome

Shortly after his return to Italy, Bolanus received the honour of patrician rank from Vespasian, likely during the censorship of 73–74. Subsequently, he was appointed as the proconsul of Asia, which is evidenced by Statius and coin evidence.

He governed mighty Asia’s thousand cities, in his year, with moderate rule.

Publius Papinius Statius, Silvae