Otho and Vitellius – the gambling and the gluttonous Roman emperors

Posted in Ancient History, War on Thursday, 1 September 2011

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This edited article about Roman Emperors originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 800 published on 14 May 1977.

Emperor Marcus Otho, picture, image, illustration

Emperor Otho

As General Marcus Otho looked into the lifeless eyes of his old friend Servius Galba, whose severed head had been brought to him spiked on a private soldier’s spear, it must have seemed to him that his troubles were nearly over. At least he could now be called the Emperor of Rome.

That was a title Otho wanted more than anything else in the world – not, strangely, for the power it would bring, but for the money. For Otho was nearly bankrupt.

The reason was that he had spent most of the past 20 years literally buying his way up the social ladder of Rome. He had thrown colossal banquets, given magnificent presents to important people. When it seemed more and more evident that he was a likely candidate for the Emperor’s throne, he spent even larger sums, gambling on getting the job and clearing off his debts at the Roman taxpayer’s expense.

Then the new Emperor Galba, who had been Otho’s long-standing colleague in governing the Roman province of Spain, had dropped a bombshell. Instead of naming Otho as the heir and successor, as Otho had confidently expected, he named instead an inexperienced nobleman, Lucius Piso.

Otho was flabbergasted. He had risked everything on following Galba, who was 73 and highly unpopular, to the Emperor’s throne. “I might as well fall to an enemy in battle as to my creditors in the Forum,” he had once remarked with disarming candour. Now it looked as if he were really going to fall . . .

Bitterly resentful at what Galba had done. Otho used his last remaining cash to bribe some of the officers under his command to raise the standard of revolt. He felt confident that once they had let it be known that a revolution had started against Galba, many soldiers would join in, and he was right.

Galba still didn’t know what was happening and had as yet no reason to suspect his friend when Otho appeared at the Emperor’s side, as he usually did, while a sacrifice to the gods was made. During the ritual a messenger arrived and whispered to Otho: “The surveyors have arrived.” This was a secret signal that enough troops were on his side, and Otho excused himself to the Emperor, saying that some men had come to see him about a house he was buying.

Otho went off in a closed sedan chair, “like those used by women,” carried by two bearers. When the bearers began to get tired the general got out and ran. He had almost got to his camp when he had to bend down and tie his shoe-lace. It was then that some of the thousands of soldiers, who had been recruited to back him as Emperor, rushed out and, lifting him on their shoulders, proclaimed him as ruler of Rome.

Otho’s first order was to send a band of soldiers to murder Galba and Piso. They found the aged Emperor, looking rather bewildered, in the Forum, and killed him there. Then a private soldier came along, recognised the corpse, decapitated it and took the head in triumph to Otho.

But although the new Emperor had plenty of army support, and had no difficulty in persuading the Senate in a brief speech that he had been “compelled to accept the Imperial power.” Otho already had a deadly rival for his throne. This was another Roman general, Aulus Vitellius, a brutal man who limped as a result of a chariot crash.

Veteran Roman troops who had seen service against Boadicea in Britain, against the fierce Parthian tribes in the East, and against the savage tribes across the Rhine and the Danube now made their allegiance. By and large the troops in Germany and Gaul were loyal to Vitellius, while Otho could count on the support of the legionaries in Italy itself and those stationed in the Danube region.

Otho, for all his treachery and selfishness, was an able general and a shrewd tactician. He at once took steps to repel the invasion of Vitellius into Italy which he knew must come.

Otho left Rome on March 14 – much to the dismay of the priests who said that omens were unfavourable. But he was a soldier and he knew that time was short.

Meanwhile, Vitellius had begun his march from Germany. The decisive battle was not far off. Otho held a council of war with his generals, Celsus, Gallus and Suetonius, the general who had saved Britain for the Roman Empire against Boadicea’s revolt.

The three generals argued for a defensive strategy, pointing out that the longer they delayed the stronger would their forces become as troops were still on the way from the Danube. But Otho doubted whether his own troops would have the patience to play a waiting game. There was little love lost between the legions of Gaul and Germany on the one hand and those of Italy and the Danube on the other. He decided to attack.

His plan was to outflank the Vitellians by advancing around the town of Cremona which they held, taking them by surprise. Cremona is about 40 miles south-east of the modern city of Milan.

Suetonius and Celsus led the march along the road towards Cremona. It was hot, and the heavily-laden soldiers were tired. Perhaps Suetonius was reluctant to order them to turn off the road and march north behind Cremona: perhaps Otho’s generals were not prepared to carry out their orders. Whatever the reason, the advancing troops came much too near the Vitellian-held town and without warning they found themselves engaged with the main Vitellian force. What should have been a surprise attack had become a surprise for the attackers – and it also rapidly became a heavy defeat.

On April 16, the day after the battle, Otho heard the news of the defeat and at once nobly commanded his soldiers to surrender to avoid further bloodshed. He had made his move and he knew he had lost.

All those around Otho declared that he was one of that rare breed of ancient general who hated unnecessary killing and the wastage of human life. That night he went sadly to bed and the next morning, when he awoke, he took the dagger he kept under his pillow and plunged it into his side. In that high-principled suicide lay his hope that the Roman Empire would be saved from further violence.

That, however, was not to be so. After his victory, Vitellius marched South to Rome with his army. On the way he made little attempt to prevent his troops from looting and plundering the countryside and when he reached Rome the legionaries ran amok.

Vitellius entered the city in a style that had been decreed only for a general celebrating a “triumph,” over a foreign army – a triumph which had to be decreed by the Senate. But the new Emperor had little time for law and order. Many of his decisions were to be made as a result of what stage hands and gladiators told him.

Like many an Emperor before him, Vitellius quickly surrendered himself to his principal vices – cruelty and gluttony. It was said that he was only ever aroused by the sight of food and spent a huge fortune on banquets. Vitellius began to eat his way through his reign and, as he became more and more portly and more and more fleshy, it seemed he would never stop.

By the eighth month of his reign the soldiers had grown weary of this greedy Emperor. Unable to make himself popular, Vitellius had continued to be thought of as the general from Germany. That made the soldiers in the East think that their commander, Vespasian, would make a better job of ruling Rome.

Vespasian was in the Bible land of Judea when, apparently spontaneously, his men proclaimed him Emperor. A Roman writer tells us: “One day, as Vespasian came out of his bedroom, a few soldiers standing nearby saluted him as Emperor; then others ran up, heaping on him all sorts of titles.”

He now invaded Egypt, which cut off Rome’s vital grain supplies. But before he could get to Rome the Roman soldiers on the Danube allied themselves jubilantly to his cause, and they headed for the capital.

There they found the anxious Vitellius, hiding in the caretaker’s quarters in his palace, with a money belt bulging with gold strapped around his waist. They tied his hands behind his back, put a noose around his neck, and dragged him, half lying, half stumbling along the Sacred Way to the Forum. There the jeering mob flung filth at him – a prelude to a long and terrible torture before the soldiers finally killed him and threw his body into the River Tiber.

Thus, in the space of little more than a year, Rome had had three Emperors.

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