It is often difficult to separate fact from fiction in assessing the life and reign of Vitellius. Maligned in the ancient sources as gluttonous and cruel, he was also a victim of a hostile biographical tradition established in the regime of the Flavians who had overthrown him. Nevertheless, his decision to march against Rome in 69 was pivotal, since his subsequent defeat signalled the end of military anarchy and the beginning of an extended period of political stability under Vespasian and his successors.
Early Life and Career
Aulus Vitellius was born in September, 15 AD, the son of Lucius Vitellius and his wife Sestilia.[] One of the most successful public figures of the Julio-Claudian period, Lucius Vitellius was a three-time consul and a fellow censor with the emperor Claudius. Aulus seems to have moved with equal ease in aristocratic circles, successively winning the attention of the emperors Gaius, Claudius, and Nero through flattery and political skill.[]
Among his attested public offices, Vitellius was a curator of public works, a senatorial post concerned with the maintenance and repair of public buildings in Rome, and he was also proconsul of North Africa, where he served as a deputy to his brother, perhaps about 55 A. D. In addition, he held at least two priesthoods, the first as a member of the Arval Brethren, in whose rituals he participated from 57 A.D., and the second, as one of the quindecemviri sacris faciundis, a sacred college famous for its feasts.[]
With respect to marriage and family, Vitellius first wed a certain Petroniana, the daughter of a consul, sometime in the early to mid thirties A.D. The union produced a son, Petronianus, allegedly blind in one eye and emancipated from his father’s control as a result of being named his mother’s heir. Tradition records that Vitellius killed the boy shortly after emancipation amid charges of parricide; the marriage soon ended in divorce. A second marriage, to Galeria Fundana, daughter of an ex-praetor, was more stable than the first. It produced another son, who was eventually killed by the Flavians after the overthrow of Vitellius, as well as a daughter. Galeria is praised by Tacitus for her good qualities, and in the end it was she who saw to Vitellius’ burial.[]
Rise to Power and Emperorship
Without doubt, the most fortuitous moment in Vitellius’ political career was his appointment as governor of Lower Germany by the emperor Galba late in 68. The decision seemed to have caught everybody by surprise, including Vitellius himself, who, according to Suetonius, was in straitened circumstances at the time.[] The choice may have been made to reduce the possibility of rebellion by the Rhine armies, disaffected by Galba’s refusal to reward them for their part in suppressing the earlier uprising of Julius Vindex. Ironically, it was Vitellius’ lack of military achievement and his reputation for gambling and gluttony that may have also figured in his selection. Galba perhaps calculated that a man with little military experience who could now plunder a province to satisfy his own stomach would never become disloyal.[] If so, it was a critical misjudgement by the emperor.
The rebellion began on January 1, 69, when the legions of Upper Germany refused to renew their oath of allegiance to Galba. On January 2, Vitellius’ own men, having heard of the previous day’s events, saluted him as emperor at the instigation of the legionary legate Fabius Valens and his colleagues. Soon, in addition to the seven legions that Vitellius now had at his command in both Germanies, the forces in Gaul, Britain, and Raetia also came over to his side.[] Perhaps aware of his military inexperience, Vitellius did not immediately march on Rome himself. Instead, the advance was led by Valens and another legionary general, Aulus Caecina Alienus, with each man commanding a separate column. Vitellius would remain behind to mobilize a reserve force and follow later.
Caecina was already one hundred fifty miles on his way when news reached him that Galba had been overthrown and Otho had taken his place as emperor. Undeterred, he passed rapidly down the eastern borders of Gaul; Valens followed a more westerly route, quelling a mutiny along the way. By March both armies had successfully crossed the Alps and joined at Cremona, just north of the Po. Here they launced their Batavian auxiliaries against Otho’s troops and routed them in the First Battle of Bedriacum. Otho killed himself on April 16, and three days later the soldiers in Rome swore their allegience to Vitellius. The senate too hailed him as emperor.
When Vitellius learned of these developments, he set out to Rome from Gaul. By all accounts the journey was a drunken feast marked by the lack of discipline of both the troops and the imperial entourage. Along the way he stopped at Lugdunum to present his six-year-old son Germanicus to the legions as his eventual successor. Later, at Cremona, Vitellius witnessed the corpse-filled battlefield of Otho’s recent defeat with joy, unmoved by so many citizens denied a proper burial.[]
The emperor entered Rome in late June-early July.[] Conscious of making a break with the Julio-Claudian past, Vitellius was reluctant to assume the traditional titles of the princeps, even though he enthusiastically made offerings to Nero and declared himself consul for life. To his credit, Vitellius did seem to show a measure of moderation in the transition to the principate. He assumed his powers gradually and was generally lenient to Otho’s supporters, even pardoning Otho’s brother Salvius Titianus, who had played a key role in the earlier regime. In addition, he participated in Senate meetings and continued the practice of providing entertainments for the Roman masses. An important practical change involved the awarding of posts customarily held by freedmen to equites, an indication of the growth of the imperial bureaucracy and its attractiveness to men of ambition.[]
In other matters, he replaced the existing praetorian guard and urban cohorts with sixteen praetorian cohorts and four urban units, all comprised of soldiers from the German armies. According to Tacitus, the decision prompted a mad scramble, with the men, and not their officers, choosing the branch of service that they preferred. [] The situation was clearly unsatisfactory but not surprising, given that Vitellius was a creation of his own troops. To secure his position further, he sent back to their old postings the legions that had fought for Otho, or he reassigned them to distant provinces. Yet discontent remained: the troops who had been defeated or betrayed at Bedriacum remained bitter, and detachments of three Moesian legions called upon by Otho were returned to their bases, having agitated against Vitellius at Aquileia.
The Vitellian era at Rome was short-lived. By mid-July news had arrived that the legions of Egypt under Tiberius Julius Alexander had sworn allegiance to a rival emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, the governor of Judaea and a successful and popular general. Vespasian was to hold Egypt while his colleague Mucianus, governor of Syria, was to invade Italy. Before the plan could be enacted, however, the Danube legions, former supporters of Otho, joined Vespasian’s cause. Under the leadership of Antonius Primus, commander of the Sixth legion in Pannonia, and Cornelius Fuscus, imperial procurator in Illyricum, the legions made a rapid descent on Italy.
Although his forces were only half of what Vitellius commanded in Italy, Primus struck first before the emperor could muster additional reinforcements from Germany. To make matters worse for the Vitellians, Valens was ill, and Caecina, now consul, had begun collaborating with the Flavians. His troops refused to follow his lead, however, and arrested him at Hostilia near Cremona. They then joined the rest of the Vitellian forces trying to hold the Po River. With Vitellius still in Rome and his forces virtually leaderless, the two sides met in October in the Second Battle of Bedriacum. The emperor’s troops were soundly defeated and Cremona was brutally sacked by the victors. In addition, Valens, whose health had recovered, was captured while raising an army for Vitellius in Gaul and Germany; he was eventually executed.
Meanwhile, Primus continued towards Rome. Vitellius made a weak attempt to thwart the advance at the Apennine passes, but his forces switched to the Flavian side without a fight at Narnia in mid-December. At Rome, matters were no better. Vespasian’s elder brother, Titus Flavius Sabinus, the city prefect, was successful in an effort to convince Vitellius to abdicate but was frustrated by the mob in Rome and the emperor’s soldiers. Forced to flee to the Capitol, Sabinus was set upon by Vitellius’ German troops and soon killed, with the venerable Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus set ablaze in the process.[] Within two days, the Flavian army fought its way into Rome. In a pathetic final move, Vitellius disguised himself in dirty clothing and hid in the imperial doorkeeper’s quarters, leaning a couch and a mattress against the door for protection. Dragged from his hiding place by the Flavian forces, he was hauled off half-naked to the Forum, where he was tortured, killed, and tossed into the Tiber. The principate could now pass to Vespasian.
Vitellius has not escaped the hostility of his biographers. While he may well have been gluttonous, his depiction as indolent, cruel, and extravagant is based almost entirely on the propaganda of his enemies. On the other hand, whatever moderating tendencies he did show were overshadowed by his clear lack of military expertise, a deficiency that forced him to rely in critical situations on largely inneffective lieutenants. As a result he was no match for his Flavian successors, and his humiliating demise was perfectly in keeping with the overall failure of his reign.
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[] Suetonius offers September 7 and 24 as possible dates for Vitellius’ birth. For an argument in favor of the earlier date, see Suetonius: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, ed. with notes by Charles L. Murison (Bristol, 1992), 141.
[] The spontaneous nature of these actions as depicted by Suetonius is highly questionable. The revolt was likely well planned in advance. See Charles L. Murison, “Some Vitellian Dates. An Exercise in Methodology,” TAPA 109 (1979): 188-194.
[] On Vitellius at Lugdunum, see Tac. Hist. 2.59.2-3; at Cremona, see Hist. 2.70. See also Murison, Careers and Controversies, 142-149; F. P. Moog, “The Smell of Victory: Vitellius at Bedriacum: (Tac. Hist. 2.70),” CPh 87 (1992): 14-29.
[] Responsibility for the temple burning is a vexed issue. Tacitus (Hist. 3.71.4) offers the most careful and thoughtful account. See also T. P. Wiseman, “Flavians on the Capitol,” AJAH 3 (1978): 163-178; K. Wellesley, “What Happened on the Capitol in December AD 69?” AJAH 6 (1981): 166-190; R. T. Scott, “A Note on the City and the Camp in Tacitus, Histories 3.71″ AJAH 9 (1984): 109-111.