Welcome to Rome Across Europe! The Roman Empire was a thing of beauty and strength, but it was also quite deadly.
If you were a person of power, riches or influence, then you constantly had to watch yourself. You probably had others watching over you, like bodyguards, as well.
Having said that, we take a look at a person who rose to power to become Emperor of Rome and died on this day in AD 69. Today we investigate the life of Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Augustus, aka Vitellius!
Aulus Vitellius was born in September of 14 AD. There is some conflict as to the exact date.
He was the son of Lucius Vitellius Veteris, a 3-time Consul, Censor and former Rector Provinciae of Syria, and a noble woman Sextilia. Vitellius had a lone sibling, a brother, Lucius Vitellius the Younger.
Historian Suetonius, in De Vita Caesarum, recorded a pair of different accounts of the origins of the Gens Vitellia. The original account made them descendants of the past rulers of Latium, while the other described their origins as lowly.
Suetonius makes the sensible remark that both accounts might have been made by either flatterers or enemies of Vitellius. What is worth noting is that both statements were in circulation before Vitellius became Emperor.
Although accused of high treason, not uncommon in the Empire in those days, Lucius was still awarded a public funeral and a statue at Rosha. Vitellius spent most of his youth on the Isle of Capri with the self-imposed exile Emperor Tiberius.
At many public events, Vitellius often persuaded Nero to sing and play the lute. This was something Nero rarely declined.
Vitellius rose rapidly through various public offices eventually becoming Minister of Public Works and Governor-General of Africa. He would marry twice.
Before the year AD 40, he married a woman named Petronia, daughter of Publius Petronius or Gaius Petronius Pontius Nigrinus, by whom he had a son Aulus Vitellius Petronianus. Vitellius’s son would be the universal heir of his mother and grandfather, and was poisoned in AD 69 in order to inherit his fortune.
Suetonius also recorded that when Vitellius was born his horoscope so horrified his parents that his father tried to prevent Aulus from becoming a Consul. He would be Consul in AD 48, and assumed Proconsul of Africa in either AD 60 or 61, in which capacity he is said to have acquitted himself with credit.
Throughout his public career, Vitellius was noted for 2 vices, gluttony and gambling. Both would play a vital role in his future.
Vitellius was a man of some learning and knowledge of government but little military skill or experience. At the end of AD 68, Emperor Galba, to the general astonishment, selected Vitellius to command the Army of Germania Inferior.
The Emperor felt Vitellius’s vices would keep him from being a threat to his own power.
It was in this position that Vitellius made himself popular with his subalterns and with the soldiers by outrageous prodigality and excessive good nature, which soon proved fatal to order and discipline.
Suetonius wrote, “…. a glutton was the sort of rival whom he [meaning Galba] feared least, and that, he expected Vitellius to cram his belly with the fruits of the province.”
The armed forces of Lower Germany, however, had a different view of the new Governor-General. They welcomed him with open arms.
The soldiers had little affection for Galba, even refusing to recognize him as the new Emperor, and Galba had little love for them. Lower Germany had not participated in Galba’s overthrow of Nero, thereby not benefitting from the financial gain that followed.
Galba no longer felt any loyalty to those who had put him on the throne. He would meet his death, however, at the hands of the Praetoriani.
Caecina and Fabius Valens refused to renew their vows of allegiance to Emperor Galba on 1 January 69, and subsequently hailed Vitellius Emperor at Cologne. More accurately, Vitellius was proclaimed Emperor of the Armies of Germania Inferior and Superior.
According to Suetonius, many in the Army of Germania Inferior took an oath to support Vitellius, preferring him over Otho because he had “granted every favor asked of him”.
Upon ascending to the throne, Otho too felt there was little need to fear Vitellius. The thought process was that the Governor-General’s quarrel had been with Galba, and he was dead.
According to Suetonius, Vitellius, however, felt otherwise. When Vitellius heard of Galba’s death, he divided the Army into 2 separate divisions. One division went to Gallia and the other went to meet Otho north of Rome.
According to Tacitus, “For most Romans the choice between Otho and Vitellius seemed to be simply one of two evils. It was the armies that decided, and the armies of Germany … were too much for Otho’s Praetorians and Army of Italy.”
Despite appeals from Otho, the pair of armies met at the First Battle of Bedriacum on 16 April 69 AD. It was on this day that Otho committed suicide.
Although not present at the battle, Vitellius was immediately declared the new Emperor and word was rushed to him in Gallia.
When learning of this news, a joyous Vitellius set out for Rome. His voyage was seen by many as an endless decadent feast, not merely by him, but so, too, by his Army.
The new Emperor and his entourage entered Rome in brash triumph against the end of June. However, things remained peaceful.
Prior to his assumption to the governorship of Germania, Vitellius has accumulated enormous debt. Gambling does come with some consequences.
His position as Emperor provided him an opportunity to rid himself of this massive debt. Suetonius said, “All the money-lenders, tax collectors and dealers who had ever dunned him at Rome, or demanded prompt payment for goods and services on the road, it is doubtful whether he showed mercy in a single instance.”
Many in Rome considered the new Emperor to be cruel. Suetonius said he would kill or torture at “the slightest pretext.”
Historian Cassius Dio wrote in his Roman History, “Vitellius, addicted as he was to luxury and licentiousness, no longer cared for anything else either human or divine … Now, when he was in a position of so great authority, his wantonness only increased, and he was squandering money most of the day and night alike.”
There were few executions and arrests. Vitellius even kept many of Otho’s officials in his administration, even granting amnesty to Otho’s brother Salvius Titianus, who had been a leading figure in the previous government.
As word of his diminished popularity among many in the Army reached him, Vitellius became more generous in both public and private, hoping to maintain the loyalty of the troops. Suetonius wrote, “As things began to look bad for him, he began to show mercy.”
He also expanded the offices of the Imperial Administration beyond the imperial pool of Freedmen allowing those of the Eques to take up positions in the Imperial Civil Service.
Vitellius also banned astrologers from Rome and Italy in 1 October 69. Some astrologers responded to his decree by anonymously publishing a decree of their own: “Decreed by all astrologers in blessing on our State Vitellius will be no more on the appointed date.” In response, Vitellius executed any astrologers he came across.
All appeared as it should be as couriers arrived reporting the allegiance of the eastern armies. The Legions having fought for Otho at Cremona also seemed to be accepting the new rule.
Vitellius rewarded his German Legions by disbanding the Praetorian Guard as well as the urban cohorts of the city of Rome and offering the positions to them. This was generally seen as an undignified affair, but then Vitellius was only on the throne due to the Germans.
He knew that just as they had the power to make him Emperor, they could turn on him, too. Hence he had little choice but to try and please them.
But such pampering of allies was not what truly made Vitellius unpopular. It was his extravagance and his triumphalism.
He was only able to consume this much by frequent bouts of self-induced vomiting. He was a very tall man, with a ‘vast belly’. One of his thighs was permanently damaged from being run over by Caligula’s chariot, when he had been in a chariot race with that Emperor.
Many who had earlier supported Vitellius began to swear allegiance to Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian), Governor of Judea. When an attempted treaty failed, Vitellius had hoped to save himself from a sure death, the armies of the two met at the Second Battle of Bedriacum.
Had the initial signs of his taking power indicated he might enjoy a peaceful, unpopular reign, things changed very quickly. Around the middle of July news already arrived that the armed forces of the eastern provinces had now rejected him.
On 1 July they set up a rival Emperor in Palestine, Vespasian, a battle-hardened General who enjoyed widespread sympathies among the Army.
Vespasian’s plan was to hold Egypt while his colleague Mucianus, Governor of Syria, led an invasion force to Italy. But things moved faster than either Vitellius or Vespasian had anticipated.
In fact, he was never acknowledged as Emperor by the entire Roman world, though at Rome the Senate accepted him and decreed to him the usual Imperial honors. He advanced into Italy at the head of a licentious and rough soldiery, and Rome became the scene of riot and massacre, gladiatorial shows and extravagant feasting. To reward his victorious Legionaries, Vitellius disbanded the existing Praetorian Guard and installed his own men instead.
Antonius Primus, commander of the Legio VI Victrix in Pannonia, and Cornelius Fuscus, Imperial Procurator in Illyricum, declared their allegiance to Vespasian and led the Danube Legions on an assault Italy. Their force comprised only 5 Legions (about 30,000 men) and was only half of what Vitellius had in Italy.
The Second Battle of Cremona began on 24 October AD 69 and ended the next day in utter defeat for the side of Vitellius. For 4 days the victorious troops of Primus and Fuscus looted and burned the city of Cremona.
Vitellius’s men were soundly defeated, and the soon-to-be dethroned Emperor tried to escape Rome in disguise.
On the entrance of Vespasian’s troops into Rome, Vitellius was dragged out of a hiding-place in a door-keeper’s lodge, driven to the fatal Scalae Gemoniae, and there struck down. “Yet I was once your Emperor,” were the last words of Vitellius.
His body was then thrown into the Tiber. Cassius Dio’s account is that Vitellius was beheaded and his head paraded around Rome, and his wife attended to his burial. His brother and son were also killed.
This all went down on 20 December 69 AD. Immediately, Vespasian was named the new Roman Emperor.
Vitellius was 56-years old and had ruled for only 8 months upon his untimely demise, yet he lives on in popular culture.
Vitellius is shown in the painting Decadence of the Romans by Thomas Couture. He is also a character in Kate Quinn’s novel Daughters of Rome (2011), set in AD 68–79.
He is also a prominent character in Simon Scarrow‘s Eagle series, where he is introduced as a rival to Vespasian and an adversary to the main characters, Macro and Cato, during the invasion of Britannia.
Vitellius is a character in M.C. Scott’s novel Rome, The Art of War (2013). Although Emperor in the novel, his brother Lucius is portrayed as being the more powerful and skilled in intrigue and ruthlessness.
He is also introduced in chapter XX of Henry Venmore-Rowland’s novel The Last Caesar (2012), as the newly-appointed Governor of Lower Germania at the beginning of AD 69.
In a year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors, Vitellius was the 3rd to quickly be hailed and then fall just as fast. Looking back, sometimes it seems that rushing to power, no matter how much support you feel you have, is not the correct action to take.
We hope you enjoyed today’s look at Emperor Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Augustus. Come back soon to see what we have in store.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Wasson, Donald L. Vitellius.
Barton, Tamsyn. Ancient Astrology.
Quinn, Kate. Daughters of Rome. Headline Review, 2011.
Venmore-Rowland, Henry. The Last Caesar. Bantam Press, 2012.