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Vitellius, Aulus

the son of L. Vitellius, who was three times consul and censor, was born probably on the 24th of September, A. D. 15. Aulus was consul during the first six months of A. D. 48, and his brother Lucius during the six following months. He was proconsul of Africa for a year, and during another year legatus of the same province under his brother, in which capacities he is said to have behaved with integrity. He had some knowledge of letters and some eloquence. His vices made him a favourite of Tiberius, Caius Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, who loaded him with favours. People were much surprised when Galba chose such a man to command the legions in Lower Germany, for he had no military talent. His great talent was eating and drinking. When he left Rome for his command, his affairs were so embarrassed that he had to put his wife Galeria Fundana and his children in lodgings, and to let his house. Some of his creditors wished to prevent him from leaving Rome; and he only got rid of their importunity by dishonest proceedings against some, and giving security to others. When he became emperor he compelled his creditors to give up their securities, and told them that they ought to be content with having their lives spared. (Sueton. Vitellius, 100.3, &c.; Dio Cass. lxv.)

The way in which Vitellius was elevated to the supreme power on the third of January A. D. 69, has been told in the life of OTHO. After Otho's death his soldiers submitted to Caecina, and took the oath of fidelity to Vitellius. Flavius Sabinus, who was praefect of Rome, made the soldiers who were there take the oath to Vitellius, and the senate as a matter of course decreed to him all the honours which previous emperors had enjoyed. Vitellius had not advanced far from Cologne, where he was proclaimed emperor, when he received intelligence of the victory of his generals and of the death of Otho. All the empire submitted to Vitellius, and even Mucianus, the governor of Syria, and Vespasian, who was conducting the war against the Jews, made their legions take the oath of fidelity to the new emperor.

Vitellius, on his road to Rome, passed by Lyon, where he gave to his young son the title of Germanicus with the insignia of imperial dignity. (Tac. Hist. 2.59.) The generals of the victorious and of the vanquished armies met Vitellius at Lyon. Salvius Titianus, the brother of Otho, was pardoned for fighting on his brother's side. Marius Celsus was allowed to retain the consulship, the functions of which he was to commence in the July following. Suetonius Paulinus and Proculus, after being kept for some time in a state of anxiety, were at last pardoned, upon the scandalous pretence, on their part, that they had voluntarily lost the battle of Bedriacum. But Vitellius offended the army by putting to death the bravest of the centurions of Otho. He published an edict by which astrologers (mathematici) were ordered to leave Italy before the first of the following October. Vitellius continued his journey by way of Vienna (Vienne in Dauphiné), without paying any attention to the discipline of the troops which accompanied him. On crossing the Alps he found North Italy full of soldiers, those of his own armies and those of Otho, who were quarrelling one with another. To prevent further disorder, Vitellius dispersed the legions of Otho in different places. He sent hack to Germany eighteen Batavian cohorts, which were very turbulent; and he also sent back to their country many Gallic auxiliaries. On arriving at Cremona, about the 25th of May, he went to s e the battle field of Bedriacum, which was covered with putrefying bodies; and when some of his attendants expressed their disgust at the stench, he said, " that a dead enemy smelt sweetest, and still sweeter when he was a citizen." (Sueton. Vitellius, 10.) He went to see the modest tomb of Otho; and he sent to Cologne the dagger with which Otho had killed himself, to be dedicated to Mars.

Vitellius was followed to Rome by sixty thousand soldiers and an immense body of camp attendants. His progress was marked by licentiousness and disorder. (Tac. Hist. 2.87.) He seems to have entered Rome in July. The ceremonial of his entrance is described by Tacitus (Tac. Hist. 2.89). He found his mother in the Capitol, and conferred on her there the title of Augusta; and he assumed the title of Pontifex Maximus on the 18th of July, the inauspicious day on which the Roman armies were once slaughtered at the Cremera and the Allia. P. Sabinus and Julius Priscus were made Praefecti Praetorio, and the number of praetorian cohorts was increased. Caecina and Valens had great influence, but they could not agree. The chief favourites of Vitellius were a freedman named Asiaticus, and actors and buffoons. The vilest of the populace were pleased to see honour paid to the memory of Nero by this worthy successor, but the better sort were disgusted. He did not disturb any person in the enjoyment of what had been given by Nero, Galba, and Otho; nor did he confiscate any person's property. Though some of Otho's adherents were put to death, he let the next of kin take their property; and he restored to the relations of those who had been put to death in former reigns such part of the property of the deceased as was in possession of the fiscus. But though he showed moderation in this part of his conduct, he showed none in his expences. He was a glutton and an epicure, and his chief amusement was the table, on which he spent enormous sums of money. It is said that he was not greedy of money simply for money's sake, but his extravagant way of living caused a prodigious expenditure. There was a report of his compelling his mother Sextilia to die of starvation, because of a prediction that he would reign a long time if he survived her ; but there are good reasons for not believing this story. (Sueton. Vespas. 100.14; Tac. Hist. 3.67.) She seems to have been a woman of good character and of good sense. Galeria Fundana, the second wife of Vitellius, conducted herself with prudence and moderation during her husband's short reign, as Tacitus says. What Dio Cassius (65.4) says of her, is not contradictory of the statement of Tacitus, even if Dion's story be true.

Vespasian, who had been appointed to the command in the Jewish war by Nero in A. D. 66, had conquered all the country in two campaigns, except the city of Jerusalem, and had acquired a great reputation. But no one had yet thought of him as a candidate for the imperial dignity, on account of the meanness of his origin. On the accession of Galba, Vespasian sent his son Titus to pay his respects to the new emperor; but Titus, hearing of Galba's death, and of the contest between Otho and Vitellius, went no farther than Corinth, whence he returned to his father. Between Licinius Mucianus, the governor of Syria, and Vespasianus, there was some jealousy; but the death of Nero and the troubles of the times brought them together for their mutual safety, and they laboured at securing the affection of their soldiers, who soon began to think of giving a new master to the empire. After the death of Otho the two generals made their troops take the oath of fidelity to Vitellius. But Mucianus now urged Vespasian to assume the imperial power, a measure which he was slow to adopt, being old and cautious. At last, during an interview with Mucianus, he consented, perhaps as much from a conviction that it was necessary for his personal security, and the good of the empire, as from ambitious views. Mucianus went back to Antioch, and Vespasian to Caesarea, his usual place of residence. The first decisive step in favour of Vespasian was taken by Tiberius Alexander, the governor of Fgypt, who caused his soldiers in Alexandria to take the oath of fidelity to Vespasian on the first of July A. D. 69. Thus within the space of a year and a few days, the Roman empire had witnessed the death of Nero, the accession and death of Galba and Otho, the accession of Vitellius, and the proclamation of Vespasian. The new emperor was speedily recognised by all the East ; and the legions of Illyricum under Antonius Primus entered North Italy and declared for Vespasian. This movement in favour of Vespasian began with the third legion, which was stationed in Maesia, and had formerly been in Syria. Vitellius heard of the revolt of this legion before he heard of the revolt of Vespasian, and he endeavoured to stop the report of it from circulating in Rome. He summoned troops from various quarters, but showed no great vigour in his preparations, being unwilling to let it be thought that he was afraid of the revolt. Primus reached Aquileia with some of the infantry and part of the cavalry, where he was well received, and also at Padua and other places. He also made preparations to besiege Verona; and he was joined by many of the old Praetorian soldiers, whom Vitellius had disbanded.

Roused by this intelligence Vitellius despatched Caecina with a powerful force to North Italy. But Caecina was not faithful to the emperor; he had already formed treacherous designs and communicated with Sabinus the brother of Vespasian, who still remained praefect of Rome. Caecina ordered part of his troops to assemble at Cremona and part at Hostilia on the Po; and he went to Ravenna to see Lucilius Bassus, commander of the fleet, who shortly afterwards delivered it up to the party of Vespasian. Caecina now moved the troops at Hostilia towards Verona, and posted them in an advantageous position. But instead of attacking the enemy with his superior force, he waited till two other legions from Maesia joined Primus, and he then urged his soldiers to submit, and he induced part of them to take the oath to Vespasian. His men however put him in chains and went to Cremona to join the troops which were there. The history of this campaign is told under PRIMUS, M. ANTONIUS.

Primus left Verona and encamped at Bedriacum about the 26th of October, where he defeated the Vitellians in two battles, and afterwards took and pillaged the city of Cremona. Valens left Rome a few days after Caecina, and he was in Etruria when he heard of the victories of Primus. Upon this he attempted to escape by sea to Gaul, but he was thrown upon the Stoechades islands on the coast, where he was seized by order of Valerius Paulinus, governor (procurator) of Gallia Narbonensis, and shortly afterwards put to death. (Tac. Hist. 3.43, 62.) When Vitellius heard of the treachery of Caecina, he deprived him of the consulship, and put Alfenus Varus in the place of P. Sabinus, the Praefectus Praetorio. Cornelius Fuscus with some troops of Vespasian had invested Rimini and occupied all the country to the Apennines, before Vitellius was roused from his torpor. At last he sent a strong force to guard the passes of the Apennines ; the station of this force was at Mevania (Bevagna) in the country of the Umbri. He remained at Rome, employed in distributing magistracies for the next ten years and in giving every thing away in the hopes of retaining popular favour (Tac. Hist. 3.56). His presence being loudly called for by the soldiers, he went to the camp of Mevania, where he only displayed his stupidity and his incompetence. He was recalled from Mevania by the news of the revolt of the fleet at Misenum ; and the army at Mevania having retreated to Narnia, part of this force was left there, and the other part was sent under the command of L. Vitellius, the emperor's brother, to put down the insurrection in Campania, and the revolt of the fleet at Misenum. Primus took advantage of the retreat of the troops to cross the snows of the Apennines, for it was now the month of December, and encamped at Carsulae, between Mevania and Narnia, where he was joined by Q. Petilius Cercalis, who was connected with Vespasian by marriage, and had made his escape from Rome in the dress of a rustic. Domitian, the son of Vespasian, was in Rome watched by Vitellius; and Flavius Sabinus, Vespasian's brother, was still Praefectus urbi.

Primus now took Interamna (Terni) and was joined by many of the officers of Vitellius, who had now nothing left but the city of Rome. Proposals had already been made to Vitellius both from Primus and Mucianus to resign; and it is said that in a conference between Flavius Sabinus and Vitellius, the terms of the emperor's resignation were settled. On the 18th of December, after hearing that his troops at Interamna had surrendered, he left the palace in the dress of mourning with his infant son, and declared before the people with tears that he renounced the empire. But receiving some encouragement from the people he returned to the palace. The news of his intended resignation had brought a number of senators, equites, and others about Sabinus; and nothing seemed left except for Sabinus to compel Vitellius to resign. But the force of Sabinus, which was not strong, was repelled in the streets by some soldiers of Vitellius, and Sabinus and his party retired to the Capitol. On the following day Sabinus sent to summon Vitellius to resign, and to complain (Tac. Hist. 3.70) of the attack of his soldiers. Vitellius answered that he could not control his soldiers, who immediately, without any leader, attacked the Capitol, which by some accident was fired during the contest and burnt. Domitian, who was with Sabinus in the Capitol, escaped, and also the son of Sabinus, but the father and the consul Quintius Atticus were taken prisoners. Vitellius had influence enough to save Atticus from the fury of the soldiers, but Sabinus was torn in pieces. (Hist. 3.74.)

In the mean time L. Vitellius took Tarracina and defeated the partizans of Vespasian, but this advantage was not followed up by an advance upon Rome. The troops of Primus were close upon the city on the evening of the day on which Sabinus was killed; and Petilius Cerealis who reached the suburbs before Primus received a check. Vitellius now attempted to arm the slaves and the populace ; but lie still hoped to come to terms and sent messengers to Primus and Cerealis. But it was now too late; the partizans of Vespasian entered the city, and various fights took place, in which many persons were killed; Rome was filled with tumult and bloodshed. Vitellius having gorged himself at his last meal left the palace for the house of his wife on the Aventine, with the intention of stealing away to his brother Lucius at Tarracina ; but with his usual unsteadiness of purpose he returned to the palace, which he found nearly deserted, and even the meanest of the slaves slank away from him. Terrified at the solitude he hid himself in an obscure part of the palace, from which he was dragged by Julius Placidus, a tribunus cohortis. He was led through the streets with every circumstance of ignominy and dragged to the Gemoniae Scalae, where the body of Sabinus had been exposed. There he was killed with repeated blows. He uttered one expression to the tribune who was insulting him, which was not unworthy of his former dignity : he told him that he had once been his emperor. His head was carried about Rome, and his body was dragged into the Tiber; but it was afterwards interred by his wife Galeria Fundana. He was in his fifty seventh year according to Tacitus, in his fifty-fifth according to Dion. He reigned a year all but ten or twelve days, reckoning from the time of his proclamation, and a little more than eight months from the death of Otho. His brother Lucius was put to death ; and his infant son in the following year by order of Mucianus. Vespasian provided the daughter of Vitellius with an honourable marriage. The period between the death of Nero and the accession of Vespasian was a period of anarchy, in which the several successors of Nero play only a subordinate part; and the events of this period can only be treated properly in an historical work, not in biographical articles.

Further Information

Tacit. Hist. ii. iii.; Suetonius, Vitellius ; Dio Cass. lxv.; Tillemont, Histoire des Emperours, i.


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    • Tacitus, Historiae, 2.89
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 3.56
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 3.70
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 2.59
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 2.87
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 3.43
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    • Tacitus, Historiae, 3.67
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