Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars

Galba Otho Vitellius

Book VII: Galba, Otho, Vitellius

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2010 All Rights Reserved

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Book Seven: Galba

Galba - Coin

Book Seven: I The End of the Caesars

The line of Caesars ended with Nero: there were many significant portents of this and two in particular.

When Livia was returning to her Veii estate, just after her marriage to Augustus (in 38BC), an eagle flew down and dropped a white hen into her lap, with a sprig of laurel still in its mouth, exactly as it had been snatched up. Livia chose to rear the bird, and plant the laurel-sprig, and the pullet produced such a mass of offspring, the sprig such a dense grove of laurel, that the villa is still known as ‘The Hen House’, and the grove provided the Caesars with the laurel wreaths for their triumphs. It became their custom also to plant the fresh laurel-branches used there, and it seems that shortly before each Caesar died the laurel he planted withered. But in Nero’s final year (68AD) the whole grove shrivelled, roots and all, and the entire flock of hens was lost. Also, not long afterwards, lightning struck the Temple of the Caesars, breaking the heads from all the statues, and dashing the sceptre from the hands of that of Augustus.

Book Seven: II Galba’s Lineage

Nero was followed by Galba, who was in no way related to the race of Caesars, though he was decidedly of the nobility, born of an ancient and powerful family, since he always had inscribed on his statues that he was the great-grandson of Quintus Catulus Capitolinus. As Emperor, he displayed a family-tree in the Palace, showing his father’s descent from Jupiter, and his mother’s from Pasiphae, the wife of Minos.

Book Seven: III His Ancestors

It would be a lengthy business to detail all his famous ancestors and the honours won by his race, but I will touch on his immediate family. It is unclear how the Sulpicii first acquired the surname Galba, or its source. Some say that after the protracted siege of a Spanish town, the particular member of the family concerned set it ablaze using torches dipped in galbanum (Syrian gum-resin); others that he used galbeum, a kind of poultice spread on a woollen strip, during a persistent illness; or that he was grossly fat, for which the Gallic word is galba; or on the contrary that he had as slender a waist as the galbae (gall-wasps), insects that breed in oak trees.

The family became distinguished in the consulship (144BC) of Servius Sulpicius Galba, the most eloquent orator of his time. They say he initiated the war with Viriathus, because of his treacherous massacre of thirty thousand Lusitanians while governing Spain. His grandson, one of Caesar’s lieutenants in Gaul, angered because Caesar thwarted him in a bid for the consulship (of 59BC), joined the conspiracy of Brutus and Cassius, and as a result was condemned to death under the Pedian law.

Galba’s grandfather and father were scions of this Servius. The grandfather, also Servius, was more noted as scholar than statesman, never rising above the rank of praetor but publishing a voluminous and not inconsiderable history. The father, Gaius, achieved the consulship (in AD22) and though he was short of stature, a hunchback, and only a moderately skilful orator, he was an industrious pleader of law-cases. He married Mummia Achaica, grand-daughter of Catulus, and great-granddaughter of that Lucius Mummius who sacked Corinth. Later he married Livia Ocellina, a wealthy and beautiful woman, whose interest was stirred because of his rank and then confirmed by his openness, when in reply to her frequent advances he stripped to the waist in private and revealed his deformity, to ensure she was under no illusions.

He had two sons by Achaica: Gaius, and Servius the future emperor. The elder brother Gaius left Rome after squandering most of his inheritance, and committed suicide when Tiberius refused to allow him a province.

Book Seven: IV Birth and Destiny

Servius Galba, the future emperor was born on the 24th of December, 3BC, in the consulship of Marcus Valerius Messala and Gnaeus Lentulus, at a hillside mansion near Terracina, on the left of the road to Fundi (Fondi). He was formally adopted by his stepmother Livia Ocellina, and took the name Livius and the surname Ocella, also changing his forename to Lucius, until he became Emperor.

It is common knowledge that when calling on Augustus to pay his respects, with other boys of his age, the Emperor pinched his cheek, and said in Greek: ‘You too will have a taste of power, my child.’ And when Tiberius heard the prophecy that Galba would be emperor in old age, he commented: ‘Well let him be, it’s no concern of mine.’

Again when Galba’s grandfather was sacrificing to avert lightning, an eagle plucked the victim’s intestines from his hand and carried them to an oak-tree loaded with acorns: it was taken as a prediction that high honour would accrue to the family, at some later time, at which he joked: ‘Likely so, that will be when a mule foals.’ So nothing inspired Galba more, at the start of his rebellion, than the foaling of a mule, since he recalled his grandfather’s comment during the sacrifice, and thought the event highly propitious though his companions were horrified and thought it an adverse sign.

When he came of age, he dreamt that Fortune visited him, to complain she was tired of standing at the door, and that he must admit her quickly, before she fell prey to the next to arrive. When he woke, on opening the hall door, he found a two-foot high statue of the goddess near the threshold. He carried it in his arms to Tusculum, his summer retreat, and consecrated it in a room of the house, honouring it thereafter with a monthly sacrifice and a yearly vigil.

Even as a young man he maintained the national custom, ancient but neglected at the time, and surviving only in his household, of gathering all his freedmen and slaves together twice a day, to greet him in the morning, and wish him goodnight in the evening one by one.

Book Seven: V Marriage and Other Relationships

Galba applied himself to the law among other liberal studies. He also married, but after losing his wife Lepida, and despite also losing the two sons he had by her, remained a widower. Even Agrippina the Younger failed to interest him in a second marriage, despite her advances to him immediately after her husband Gnaeus Domitius’ death (in 40AD), and before the death of his wife Lepida; advances which were so shameless that Lepida’s mother reprimanded Agrippina, forcefully, in front of a bevy of married women, and even went so far as to slap her.

Galba showed the greatest of respect to Livia Augusta, whose favour brought him great influence during her lifetime, and almost became wealthy as a result of her will, by which he was to inherit the largest bequest of half a million. However he failed even to receive the five thousand in gold to which Tiberius, as her executor, reduced the sum, since it had been designated in figures instead of words (and could therefore be interpreted as sesterces and not gold pieces).

Book Seven: VI His Career during Caligula’s Reign

Galba achieved office before the usual age and as praetor (in 20AD), controlling the games at the Floralia, he was the first to introduce a display of tightrope-walking elephants. He next governed Aquitania, for almost a year, and not long afterwards held the consulship for six months (in 33AD). It so happened that his predecessor in the consulship was Gnaeus Domitius, Nero’s father, and his successor Salvius Otho, father of the emperor-to-be Otho, a foreshadowing of what later occurred, his reign as emperor being preceded and followed by the sons of these two.

Caligula appointed Galba governor of Upper Germany (39AD) in place of Gaetulicus, and the day after taking up his post Galba posted a written order to the legions not to applaud at a religious festival taking place just then, but to keep their hands hidden in their cloaks. The following verse immediately circulated in the camp:

‘Soldiers, act as soldiers should; it’s Galba not Gaetulicus!’

He was just as severe in refusing requests for leave. Veterans as well as new recruits were toughened by the gruelling demands he made on them, as he swiftly checked the barbarian raids, which had even threatened Gaul. When Caligula arrived on campaign, Galba and his army made so good an impression that none of the assembled troops from the various provinces received a higher commendation or greater reward. Galba distinguished himself in particular, by running for twenty miles at the wheels of the emperor’s chariot while directing the manoeuvres, shield in hand.

Book Seven: VII His Career during Claudius’s Reign

When Caligula was assassinated (in 41AD), Galba chose neutrality though many urged him to seize the opportunity for power. Claudius expressed his gratitude by including him among his intimate friends, and Galba was shown such consideration that the expedition to Britain was delayed to allow him to recover from a sudden but minor indisposition.

Later he was proconsul in Africa for two years (44/45AD), being singled out, and so avoiding the usual lottery, to restore order in the province, which was riven by internecine rivalry and an indigenous revolt. He re-established peace, by the exercise of ruthless discipline, and the display of justice even in the most trifling matters. For example, when supplies were short during a foray and a soldier was charged with selling a peck of wheat from his ration for four gold pieces, Galba ordered that when the man’s stores were exhausted no one should share with him, and he was left to starve. And, at a court of enquiry into the ownership of a transport animal, the unreliable witnesses and a lack of hard evidence making the truth hard to establish, he ordered the creature to be led blindfold to its usual drinking place, ruling that whichever man it returned to freely after it had drunk, was the owner.

Book Seven: VIII Appointment to Office under Nero

For his service in Africa, and his previous achievements in Germany, Galba was awarded the triumphal regalia and a triple priesthood, being elected to the Board of Fifteen, the Brotherhood of Titus, and the Priests of Augustus. He chose to live almost exclusively in retirement until the middle years of Nero’s reign, never driving anywhere without a second carriage carrying his emergency fund of ten thousand gold pieces, even when he was not on business.

Then, while living at Fundi (Fondi) he was offered the governorship of Nearer Spain (Hispania Tarraconensis). Soon after his arrival in the province, he was sacrificing in a temple when the hair of the acolyte carrying the incense-box suddenly turned completely white, and some quickly interpreted this as an omen of regime change, with the old succeeding the young, that is to say Galba succeeding Nero. And not long afterwards lightning struck a lake-shore in Cantabria and twelve axes, the common emblems of supreme power, were found there.

Book Seven: IX Governorship of his Spanish Province

He governed the province for eight years, changing his approach radically with time.

He was energetic initially, showing vigour, and dealing harshly with offenders; for example, a moneylender’s hands were severed for dishonesty, and nailed to the counter, and a murderer who poisoned his ward in order to inherit his property was crucified. In the latter case the man begged for justice as a Roman citizen, Galba’s response being to grant him the honour and consolation of being transferred to a taller cross painted white to lighten his punishment.

Later he became lazy and inactive, in order to avoid giving Nero grounds for jealousy, and because, as he said, no one could be brought to book for doing nothing.

He was holding assizes at New Carthage (Cartagena, in AD68) when he received news of the Gallic rebellion, in the form of an urgent request for aid from the governor of Aquitania. Then letters arrived from Vindex urging him to take on the mantle of leader and liberator of mankind. Having already intercepted despatches, sent by Nero to his agents, ordering his assassination, Galba hardly hesitated before agreeing, driven by fear as well as hope.

He was heartened too, not only by favourable omens and auspices, but also by a prophecy made by a young girl of the nobility, the very same prophecy that had been uttered by a girl in a trance two hundred years before, a record of which was found in the inner shrine of his temple by the priest of Jupiter at Clunia, directed to it by a dream. The oracular verses foretold that one day the lord and master of the world would emerge from Spain.

Book Seven: X Leader of the Rebellion in Spain

So, Galba mounted the tribunal, ostensibly to free various slaves, though its front had been adorned with as many images as could be found of Nero’s victims. He had by his side a young nobleman who had been summoned for the purpose from exile in the Balearic Islands (part of the province), as he deplored the state of the empire. Hailed as emperor, he declared that he was now the sole representative of the Senate and people of Rome. Then, closing the assizes, he began to raise legions and auxiliaries from the local populace to add to his existing legion, his two divisions of cavalry, and his three cohorts.

He established a kind of Senate, comprising the oldest and most experienced noblemen, to whom matters of state could be referred when necessary. He also selected certain young knights to guard his sleeping quarters, in place of his regulars, these ranking as volunteers, though without losing their right to wear the Equestrians’ gold ring. He also issued a proclamation throughout the province inviting men individually and collectively to join his revolt, and aid the common cause in whatever way they could.

At about this time, during the fortification of the town, which he had declared his headquarters, a ring of ancient design was found, its gemstone engraved with Victory lifting a trophy. And immediately afterwards an Alexandrian vessel without helmsman, crew or passengers, but carrying a cargo of weapons, came ashore upriver at Dertosa (Tortosa), leaving not a shred of doubt in anyone’s mind that this was a just and holy war entered into with the gods’ approval.

Then suddenly and unexpectedly the whole plan almost went awry. As Galba was approaching camp, one of his two cavalry divisions, repenting its change of loyalty, attempted to desert, and was only prevented from doing so with difficulty. Then he was nearly murdered on his way to the baths, as he navigated a narrow passageway, by slaves given to him by one of Nero’s freedmen with just such treachery in mind. They might have succeeded if they had not been overheard urging one another not to lose the opportunity, and when questioned under torture as to the opportunity referred to, confessed.

Book Seven: XI The March to Rome

To these sudden dangers was added news of Vindex’s death, which caused Galba the greatest alarm, and being now apparently bereft of support, almost precipitated his suicide. But when word from the City arrived that Nero was dead and that the people had sworn allegiance to him, he set aside the title of governor and assumed that of Caesar.

He then began his march to Rome in a general’s cloak, with a dagger, hanging from his neck, at his chest, and did not resume the toga until his main rivals had been eliminated, namely the commander of the Praetorian Guard in Rome, Nymphidius Sabinus, and the commanders in Germany and Africa, Fonteius Capito and Clodius Macer.

Book Seven: XII His Cruelty and Greed

Galba’s reputation for both cruelty and greed had preceded him.

It was said that he had punished the towns in Spain and Gaul that hesitated to side with him, levying additional taxes and in some cases razing their walls, and executing officers and imperial agents, along with their wives and children.

Furthermore, he was claimed to have melted down a gold crown reputed to weigh fifteen pounds, offered to him by the people of Tarraco (Tarragona), which belonged to their ancient Temple of Jupiter, and then demanded the three ounces of gold by which its actual weight fell short.

His reputation was then confirmed or even worsened immediately on his arrival in Rome. He sent a band of marines whom Nero had recruited as sailors back to their work at the oars, and when they refused, and stubbornly demanded their eagle and standards, he not only had his cavalry disperse them but had every tenth man killed.

He also disbanded the cohort of German bodyguards who had served previous emperors, and had passed many a critical test of loyalty, repatriating them without bounty, on the grounds that they favoured Gnaeus Dolabella, their camp being close to his estate.

The following anecdotes, true or false, were also related in mockery of him; that he groaned aloud when an especially lavish dinner was set before him; that he rewarded his chief steward for his effort and care in drawing up his expense accounts with a bowlful of beans; and that he expressed his delight at Canus’ flute-playing, by giving him just five silver pieces from his own purse.

Book Seven: XIII His Lack of Popularity

His accession therefore was not exactly welcomed, which became more than apparent at the next theatrical performance, an Atellan farce, when the actors reached the well-known line:

‘Here comes Onesimus from the farm…’

and the whole audience immediately joined in to complete the verse in chorus, singing it over and over again.

Book Seven: XIV The Influence of his ‘Tutors’

His prestige and popularity were thus greater while winning power than wielding it, though he showed evidence of being a more than capable ruler, loved less, unfortunately, for his good qualities than he was hated for his bad ones.

He fell totally under the control of three individuals, nicknamed his ‘tutors’ because they lived in the Palace and never left his side. These were Titus Vinius, one of his former lieutenants in Spain, a man of unqualified greed; Cornelius Laco, who was intolerably proud, and lazy, and had been promoted from judge’s assistant to Guards commander; and thirdly his own freedman Icelus, who had barely been awarded the gold ring and the surname Marcianus before he too began to aspire to that highest office of the Equestrian Order.

Galba abandoned himself so trustfully to these rogues with their various vices, and became their tool to such an extent, that his actions were extreme, one moment more constrained and stingy, another more reckless and extravagant than those of a leader of his advanced years, chosen by the people, had any right to be. He condemned various Senators and knights to death, without benefit of trial, on the least suspicion. He seldom conferred Roman citizenship, and the privileges granted to fathers of three children only occasionally, and only for a limited term. When the panels of jurors recommended a sixth division be added to their numbers, Galba not only refused but even cancelled the privilege Claudius had granted them of being excused court duty in winter and early spring.

Book Seven: XV Restrictions and Favouritism

It was believed he was planning to limit the official appointments open to Senators and knights to two year terms, and to offer them only to those who had no wish for them and would decline them. He revoked all Nero’s grants and gifts, allowing the recipients to keep only a tithe of what they had already received, and used a group of fifty knights to enforce repayment of the remainder. He even ruled that if athletes and actors involved had sold any of the gifts they had received, had spent the money and could not repay, then the gift’s purchaser must make the sum good.

Yet he allowed his friends and freedmen to give away or sell anything they wished to their favourites, including the right to tax others or exempt them from taxes, and the right to inflict punishment on the innocent, or grant immunity to the guilty. And when the people demanded that Halotus and Tigellinus, the most evil of Nero’s creatures, be punished, he not only protected them but honoured Halotus with an important post, and issued an edict rebuking the people for their hostility towards Tigellinus.

Book Seven: XVI Mutiny in Upper Germany

The result was that he incurred almost universal hatred, being especially loathed by the military, since he not only ignored the promise made by their officers, that they would receive a larger bounty than usual if they swore allegiance to Galba prior to his reaching Rome, but also stated more than once that it was his custom to levy troops not buy them. His attitude caused bitterness among soldiers throughout the empire. Furthermore he caused fear and indignation among the Praetorian Guard by dismissing men, from time to time, who were suspected of championing Nymphidius.

The loudest mutterings were among the troops in Upper Germany who had been refused their bounty for their actions against Vindex and the Gauls. They were the first to mutiny in consequence, refusing to swear allegiance, on New Year’s Day, unless the oath was simply of loyalty to the Senate, and agreeing to send a deputation to the Praetorian Guard, charged with declaring that this Emperor, made in Spain, was not for them, and the Guard should choose a candidate acceptable to the military.

Book Seven: XVII Naming a Successor

When Galba was told of this, he concluded that he was vulnerable, not so much because of his age, but because of his lack of an heir. He therefore called Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus from the crowd at his morning audience, a young nobleman of good character, who was a long-standing favourite of his, and designated as heir to his name and estate in his will, and titling him his ‘son’ took him off to the Praetorian Camp where he formally adopted him in front of the assembled Guards (January 10th, 69AD). However he made no mention of the bounty, so giving Otho every opportunity to achieve his overthrow, five days later.

Book Seven: XVIII Omens of His Demise

A swift series of omens, starting from the very beginning of his reign, prophesied Galba’s downfall precisely as it occurred.

On his journey to Rome, sacrifices were offered in every town along the way, and at one point an ox, maddened by the axe-stroke, broke free of its ropes, and charged towards his chariot, rearing up and drenching him with blood. Then as Galba dismounted, a guard, pushed towards him by the pressure of the crowd, nearly wounded him with his lance. Again, there were earth-tremors as he entered the City, and later the Palace, accompanied by a sound like bellowing bulls.

Even clearer were the signs that followed. He had selected a necklace of pearls and gemstones from the treasury to decorate the statue of Fortune at Tusculum, which on a whim he consecrated to Capitoline Venus instead, considering this a more worthy action. The following night Fortune appeared to him in dream, complained of the loss of the intended gift, and threatened to take back what she herself had given. The terrified Galba, arriving hastily at Tusculum to offer a dawn sacrifice in expiation, found that, though he had sent his staff forward to prepare the ceremony properly, there were warm ashes on the altar, nothing more, and beside it an old man clad in black instead of a youth in white, and carrying incense in a glass dish and wine in an earthen cup, instead of in suitable vessels.

His sacrifice on New Year’s Day also caused remarks to be made, since the garland fell from his head, and the sacred chickens flew off, as he took the auspices. Again when he was about to address the troops on the day of Piso’s adoption, his attendants forgot to set up a camp chair on the tribunal, as intended, and his curule chair in the Senate was found to be facing the wrong way.

Book Seven: XIX His Death

He was even warned of the danger of imminent assassination, the day before his death, by a soothsayer, as he offered the morning sacrifice.

Shortly afterwards he learnt that Otho had secured the Guards camp, and when his staff advised him to carry the day by his presence and prestige, by going there immediately, he opted instead to stay put, but gather a strong bodyguard of legionaries from their billets around the City. He did however don a linen corselet, though saying that frankly it would serve little against so many weapons.

False reports, put about by the conspirators to lure him into appearing in public, deceived a few of his close supporters, who rashly told him the rebellion was over, the plotters overthrown, and that the rest of the troops were on their way to congratulate him and carry out his orders. So he went to meet them, with such confidence, that when a soldier boasted of killing Otho, he snapped out: ‘On whose authority?’ before hastening on to the Forum.

The cavalrymen who had been ordered to find and kill him, who were spurring through the streets scattering the crowds of civilians, now caught sight of him in the distance and halted an instant before galloping towards him and cutting him down, while his staff ran for their lives.

Book Seven: XX The Aftermath

In the heat of the moment, they say that Galba called out: ‘What are you about, lads? I am yours as you are mine,’ and even assured them of the promised bounty. But the common account is that recognising their intent, he bared his neck, and told them to execute their duty and strike.

It may seem strange that no one tried to aid their emperor, and that the legionaries summoned ignored the call except for a company of Germans whom he had treated sympathetically when they were recently weak with illness. They rushed to his assistance, but in their ignorance of the City took a circuitous route and arrived too late.

He was killed beside the Curtian Pool, and his corpse lay there until a private returning from collecting the grain ration, set down his load and decapitated it. Since the head was bald, he wrapped it in his cloak, but ended up hooking the mouth with his thumb and carrying the head to Otho. It was handed to a crowd of servants and camp-followers, who thrust it on the end of a lance, and paraded it round the camp, jeering and chanting: ‘Galba, Cupid, show your vigour!’ The point of their mockery being that when congratulated a few days before on his youthful looks and strength, Galba had quoted Homer in reply:

‘Still my vigour’s unimpaired.’

A freedman of Patrobius Neronianus bought the head from them for a hundred gold pieces, so that he could hurl it to the ground at the place where his patron had been executed on Galba’s orders. Ultimately Galba’s steward Argivus reunited it with the trunk, and the ashes were interred in a tomb in Galba’s private gardens beside the Aurelian Way.

Book Seven: XXI His Personal Appearance

Galba was of average height, quite bald, and with blue eyes and a hooked nose. His feet and hands were so twisted by gout that he could never endure shoes for long, or hold a parchment scroll let alone unroll it. His body was ruptured on the right side too, such that it required a truss for support.

Book Seven: XXII His Personal Habits

He was said to be a hearty eater and in winter would breakfast before dawn, while at dinner he ate so well that he would have the scraps from his meal, that were heaped before him, passed to the servants who waited on him, for them to share.

His sexual inclination was for men, whom he preferred strong and mature. They say that in Spain where Icelus, a long-standing favourite with him, brought him news of Nero’s death, he not only welcomed him frankly with the most intimate of kisses, but begged him to prepare for sexual indulgence, and promptly took him aside.

Book Seven: XXIII Reaction to his Death

Galba died at the age of seventy, early in the seventh month of his reign. The Senate voted him a statue as soon as they were allowed to do so, to be erected in the Forum at the spot where he was killed, which portrayed him standing on a column which was decorated with ships’ beaks, but Vespasian annulled this decree, convinced that Galba had sent agents from Spain to Judaea, with orders to assassinate him.

Book Seven: Otho

Otho - Coin

(Translator’s Note: Suetonius’ chapter numbers are in brackets after mine)

Book Seven: XXIV (I) Otho’s Ancestry

Otho’s ancestors came from the old nobility of Ferentium (Ferento), descended from princes of Etruria. His grandfather, Marcus Salvius Otho, the son of a Roman knight, and a woman of humble birth who may not even have been freeborn, owed his appointment as Senator to Livia Augusta, in whose house he was brought up, though he himself never rose beyond the rank of praetor.

Otho’s father, Lucius, was descended from a distinguished family on his mother’s side, with many powerful connections, and was such a favourite of Tiberius, and so similar to him in appearance, that many believed him to be the emperor’s son.

Lucius acted with great severity in carrying out various roles in Rome, as proconsul in Africa, and in a number of special military appointments. In Illyricum he went so far as to execute a number of soldiers who during Camillus’ rebellion had killed the officers who had persuaded them to defect and had acted as ringleaders of the revolt against Claudius. Lucius had them executed in his presence in front of his headquarters, even though Claudius had promoted them for their loyalty. He thereby lost favour at Court even though his personal reputation was enhanced.

However he quickly regained ground, through his detection of a conspiracy to kill the emperor, instigated by a Roman knight, and betrayed by the man’s slaves. As a result, the Senate granted him exceptional honour by setting up a statue of him in the Palace, while Claudius enrolled him among the patricians and praised him most highly, saying ‘I could not hope for greater loyalty even in my own children.’

His wife, Albia Terentia, a woman as I have said who came from an illustrious family, bore him two sons, the elder Lucius Titianus and the younger Marcus Otho, the future emperor, named after his grandfather. There was also a daughter, who was betrothed to Germanicus’s son Drusus, when she was barely of marriageable age.

Book Seven: XXV (II) Friend to Nero

Otho was born on the 28th of April 32AD, in the consulship of Furius Camillus Arruntius and Domitius Ahenobarbus, Nero’s father. In early youth he was so profligate and insolent that he earned many a beating from his own father. They say he used to roam the City at night seizing on anyone who was drunk or crippled and tossing them in a blanket.

After his father died, he feigned love for an influential freedwoman at Court, though she was old and decrepit, in order to win her favour, and then used her to insinuate himself among the emperor’s friends, easily achieving the role of Nero’s chief favourite, not only because they were of a similar disposition, but also some say because of a sexual relationship. Otho’s influence was such that after offering a huge bribe to guarantee a pardon from the Senate for an ex-consul expelled after being found guilty of extortion, he had no hesitation in reintroducing the man to the House, to thank the Senators in anticipation for his reinstatement.

Book Seven: XXVI (III) Governor of Lusitania

He was aware of all Nero’s secrets and schemes, throwing a most elaborate banquet, to avert suspicion, on the day Nero planned to murder his mother.

Again he undertook a form of marriage with Poppaea Sabina, till then Nero’s mistress, whom Nero had separated from her husband and handed over to Otho for protection, for not content with simply enjoying her Otho became so enamoured of her that he could not bear the thought of having even Nero as a rival. Anyway it is said that he not only refused to admit the messengers Nero sent to retrieve her, but even denied the emperor himself access, leaving him to threaten and plead outside the door, demanding the return of the woman he had entrusted to him. So Nero annulled the marriage, and effectively banished Otho, by appointing him as governor of Lusitania (in 58AD), not daring to act more severely for fear of exposing himself to public mockery. Nevertheless the following verse was soon in circulation:

‘Why is Otho exiled: his province mere pretence?

Adultery with his wife, it seems, was his sole offence.’

Holding the rank of quaestor, Otho continued to govern the province for ten years, with exceptional moderation and self-control.

Book Seven: XXVII (IV) Hopes of Accession

Yet he seized the first opportunity for revenge, by supporting Galba’s cause, while the issues of the day filled him with hopes of achieving power on his own account. More so, because of a prophecy that he would survive Nero, made by the astrologer Seleucus, who appeared unexpectedly and unprompted to deliver a further promise that Otho would soon become emperor too.

Otho was therefore careful to pursue every opportunity for flattering others and showing them attention. When he entertained Galba at dinner, he gave each man of the bodyguard a gold piece, and so ensured that every soldier was obligated to him in some way. When he was asked by a friend to arbitrate in a legal dispute over land, he bought the whole property and then presented it to the man as a gift.

In consequence, there were few who did not think and freely declare that he alone was the right man to claim the succession.

Book Seven: XXVIII (V) Preparation for a Coup

Otho had hoped to be adopted by Galba as his successor, and anticipated the announcement daily. But Piso was chosen, dashing Otho’s hopes, and causing him to resort to force, prompted not only by feelings of resentment but also by his mounting debts. He declared that frankly he would have to declare himself bankrupt, unless he became emperor, and that it would matter little then whether he fell in battle at the hands of the enemy, or in the Forum at those of his creditors.

He had extracted ten thousand gold pieces from one of Galba’s slaves in exchange for obtaining a stewardship for the man, a few days before, and this was the entire capital available for his attempt.

Initially he confided in five of his bodyguard, then a further ten, the first five each choosing two allies, and gave all of them a hundred gold pieces each, with a promise of fifty more. These fifteen recruited others, a limited number since Otho was confident of widespread support as soon as he initiated his coup.

Book Seven: XXIX (VI) Seizing Power

His first thought, immediately Piso’s adoption was declared, was to take over the Guards camp, and attack Galba at dinner in the Palace. However his fear of further harming the reputation of the cohort on duty, the cohort which had been present both when Caligula was assassinated and when Nero was left to his fate, led him reluctantly to drop the idea. Five days delay was then incurred due to adverse omens and the warnings of Seleucus.

When the moment was finally ripe, Otho called on Galba in the morning as usual, receiving the customary embrace, having ordered his confederates to wait for him in the Forum, by the gilded pillar next to the Temple of Saturn. Otho then joined the emperor in offering sacrifice, and was listening to the priests’ interpretation of the omens when a freedman told him the surveyors had arrived, the signal agreed on. Saying that he was off to view a house which was for sale, he quickly left the Palace by a side entrance and headed for the meeting-place, though an alternative version of his excuse is that he pretended to be ill with fever, and asked for that reason to be given if he were missed from the gathering.

Once at the rendezvous, he climbed hastily into a closed sedan-chair, such as women employ, and was carried swiftly to the camp. The bearers’ strength flagging, he leapt out again, and set off running, stopping only when his shoe came loose, at which point his friends hoisted him on their shoulders and acclaimed him Emperor. Everyone they met joined the throng, as readily as if they were sworn accomplices and a part of the conspiracy, and that is how Otho arrived at his headquarters, amidst cheering and the brandishing of swords.

He at once sent men to kill Galba and Piso, and his only promise to the gathering of soldiers, made with a view to winning their loyalty, was that he would assume whatever powers, and only those powers, which they would consent to grant him.

Book Seven: XXX (VII) Exercising Command

It was dusk when he made his entrance to the Senate House, and delivered a brief account of events, claiming to have been carried off through the streets and compelled to take command, which, he stated, he would exercise, in accord with the public will. He then went to the Palace. He showed no dissent when, among all the other cries of adulation, flattery and acclaim, the crowd hailed him as Nero. In fact, some say, he used that surname from the first, in issuing written orders and in his letters to provincial governors. He certainly allowed the reinstatement of busts and statues of Nero, and reappointed Nero’s procurators and freedmen to their posts; his first decree being a grant of half a million gold pieces to allow the completion of the Golden House.

Before the next dawn, he is said to have been troubled by a nightmare, in which Galba deposed and ousted him. He gave out load groans, and was found lying on the ground beside his bed, by the servants who ran to his aid. He tried to propitiate Galba’s shade, performing every manner of expiatory rite; but while he was taking the auspices next morning, a storm arose, and he fell heavily, which caused him to mutter from time to time: ‘What is a soldier doing trying to play the virtuoso’s part?’

Book Seven: XXXI (VIII) Civil War against Vitellius

Meanwhile the army in Germany had sworn allegiance to Vitellius. When the news reached Otho he persuaded the Senate to send a deputation, advising the soldiers to maintain peace and order, since an emperor had already been chosen. However he also sent envoys with letters and personal messages, offering to share power with Vitellius, and marry his daughter.

With civil war clearly inevitable, on the approach of Vitellius’s advance guard, who had marched on Rome led by their generals, Otho was suddenly granted proof of the Praetorian Guard’s loyalty to him, by events which almost ended in a massacre of Senators. The marines had been detailed to transport a load of arms aboard ship, but as the weapons were being removed from the Praetorian armoury, some among the guardsmen suspected treachery on the part of the Senate, and began to protest noisily. This ended in a leaderless rush towards the Palace, where they demanded that the Senators be put to death. Having driven off or killed the officers who tried to stop them, they then burst into the banquet hall, covered in blood, demanding to know where the Emperor was, and refusing to disperse until they had seen him.

Otho began his campaign vigorously, and indeed too hastily, without due respect to the omens, and before the sacred shields had been returned to the Temple of Mars after the annual procession, traditionally an unlucky time. It was on the very day also (24th March) when the followers of Cybele, Mother of the Gods, began their ritual lament. The auspices too were distinctly unfavourable since Otho, when making an offering to Father Dis, found healthy entrails, the reverse of what was hoped for from such a sacrifice.

His departure from Rome was then delayed by the flooding of the Tiber, and at the twentieth milestone he found the road blocked by collapsed buildings.

Book Seven: XXXII (IX) Military Defeat

Though no one doubted that the sensible strategy was to prolong the war, since the rebel troops were constrained by lack of supplies and room for manoeuvre, Otho resolved to decide the issue as soon as possible, affected either by continuing anxiety over the outcome, and hopes that the conflict could be ended before Vitellius’s arrival, or by his troops’ enthusiasm, since they were clamouring for a fight. However he stayed behind the front, and remained at Brixellum (Brescello).

His army won three engagements, but of a minor nature, firstly in the Alps, then near Placentia, and finally at a place called Castor’s, and were ultimately defeated in a decisive and treacherous encounter at Betriacum (on the 14th April). There was the promise of a truce, but when Otho’s troops went forward in the belief that peace terms were to be discussed, and as they were greeting the enemy, a battle was unexpectedly forced on them.

After this defeat, Otho resolved to commit suicide, more from feelings of shame, which many have thought justified, and a reluctance to continue the struggle with such high cost to life and property, than from any diffidence or fear of failure shown by his soldiers. He held a substantial force of fresh troops in reserve for a second offensive, with others en route from Dalmatia, Pannonia and Moesia. Even without such aid, the men who had met defeat were not so disheartened as to shirk danger, nor did they lack the desire to avenge their disgrace.

Book Seven: XXXIII (X) Preparations for Suicide

My father, Suetonius Laetus, served in that war, as an officer of the Equestrian Order with the Thirteenth Legion. He often said, later, that Otho hated civil war and, even as a private citizen, shuddered when the fate of Brutus and Cassius was mentioned at a banquet; that he would not have opposed Galba if he had not felt certain the matter could be settled bloodlessly; and that the behaviour of a private soldier led him not to cling to life at any cost. This man arrived, bringing news of the army’s defeat, but was not believed, and being condemned as liar, coward and deserter, he fell on his sword at the Emperor’s feet. My father said that Otho cried out at the sight that he would no longer risk the lives of such brave men, who deserved better.

Embracing his brother, nephew and friends, after advising them separately to seek safety as best they might, he dismissed them with a kiss. Then he found a secluded place and wrote two letters, one to his sister, of consolation, and a second to Nero’s widow, Statilia Messalina, whom he had intended to marry, asking her to attend to his funeral, and preserve his memory. He then burned all his private correspondence lest it fall into Vitellius’s hands, in order to avoid causing any risk or harm to others. He also distributed whatever money he had to hand among his servants.

Book Seven: XXXIV (XI) His Death

Now resolved to die, and having prepared for suicide, Otho heard a disturbance outside, and learnt that soldiers who tried to leave the camp were being seized, and detained as deserters. He forbade anyone to be forcibly restrained, saying, and I quote: ‘Let us have one more night of life.’ And he left his bedroom door open till late, granting privilege of access to all who wished to speak to him. After quenching his thirst with a draught of cold water, and placing a dagger, selected for its sharpness from a pair which he had to hand, under his pillow, he closed the door and slept soundly.

On waking at dawn (on the 16th of April, AD69), he promptly dealt himself a single knife-blow in the left side of his chest, and first concealing and then showing the wound to those who rushed in at the sound of his groaning, he breathed his last. His orders that his ashes should be interred promptly were duly carried out. Otho was thirty-six years old when he died, on the ninety-second day of his reign.

Book Seven: XXXV (XII) Appearance, Habits, Reaction to his Death

Neither his bodily form nor appearance suggested great courage. He is said to have been of medium height, bandy-legged and splay-footed, though as fastidious as a woman in personal matters. He had his body-hair plucked, and wore a toupee to cover his scanty locks, so well-made and so close-fitting that its presence was not apparent. They say also that he shaved every morning and since boyhood had smeared his face with moist bread to discourage a beard, and that he would celebrate the rites of Isis publicly, wearing the linen garment prescribed by her cult.

In my opinion, it was the contrast between these affectations and the manner of his death that excited wonder. Many of the soldiers present kissed the hands and feet of the corpse, and weeping bitterly called him the bravest of men and the best of emperors, before committing suicide themselves beside his pyre. Many who were not there killed each other in a transport of grief when they heard news of his death.

So the majority of those who hated him most bitterly while he was alive, loaded him with praise as soon as he was dead, and it was commonly believed that he had killed Galba, not so much for the sake of power, but in order to restore liberty and the Republic.

Book Seven: Vitellius

Vitellius - Coin

(Translator’s Note: Suetonius’ chapter numbers are in brackets after mine)

Book Seven: XXXVI (I) The Vitelli

Widely varying accounts of the Vitelli are given, some writers claiming the family’s origins to be ancient and noble, others recent and undistinguished, even humble. I would have judged these claims to originate from the supporters and detractors of the Emperor respectively, were it not that conflicting opinions regarding the family’s status were already held at a much earlier date.

There is a work by Quintus Elogius, addressed to a certain Quintus Vitellius, who was one of Augustus’s quaestors, which states that the Vitelli were descended from Faunus, King of the Aborigines, and Vitellia who was worshipped widely as a goddess, and that they ruled all Latium; that the surviving members of the family moved from Sabine territory to Rome, and were enrolled among the patricians; that their name was given to the Vitellian Way running from the Janiculum to the sea, and also to a colony which they had once asked permission to defend against the Aequiculi, with troops raised among the family; that later, at the time of the Samnite War, when a force was sent into Apulia, some of the Vitelli settled at Nuceria (c307BC); and that eventually their descendants returned to Rome and took up their place in the Senatorial Order.

On the other hand, several authors have written that the family was founded by a freedman, and Cassius Severus is not alone in claiming the man was a shoemaker and his son an informer, who made a considerable fortune from confiscated estates and fathered, by a commoner the daughter of Antiochus a baker, a boy who became a Roman knight.

However, this difference in the versions must be left unresolved.

Book Seven: XXXVII (II) Immediate Ancestors

At all events, Publius Vitellius of Nuceria, whether of ancient nobility or humble origin, was indeed a knight and one of Augustus’s stewards. He produced four sons who each achieved high rank, named Aulus, Quintus, Publius and Lucius.

Aulus was given to extravagance and especially noted for the magnificence of his banquets. He died during the year of his consulship (32AD), having been appointed along with Domitius Ahenobarbus, Nero’s father.

Quintus was expelled from the Senate (in 17AD), at the time when, at Tiberius’s suggestion, there was a purge of undesirable Senators.

Publius was on Germanicus’s staff, and was one of those who successfully prosecuted (20AD) Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, Germanicus’s enemy who had conspired to murder him. Publius held the praestorship, and was arrested as one of Sejanus’s accomplices (35AD), and handed over to the custody of his own brother. He cut his wrists with a penknife, but though ready to die, gave way to his friends’ entreaties, and allowed his wounds to be bandaged. He recuperated but then died a natural death during his subsequent confinement.

Lucius became consul (in 34AD), and was then made Governor of Syria, where his expert diplomacy resulted in a conference with Artabanus, King of Parthia, who even made obeisance to the legionary standards. He later held two further consulships (43 and 47AD) under Claudius, and also the censorship (47AD), having been in charge of the Empire while Claudius was campaigning in Britain (in 43AD). Lucius was both honest and active, though involved in a notorious relationship with a freedwoman whom he doted on, going so far as to mix her spittle with honey and rubbing his throat with the lotion, for medicinal purposes, not occasionally in private but every day and in public.

He had a great gift for flattery, and on his return from Syria was the first, to adore Caligula as a god, veiling his head whenever he had audience with the Emperor, averting his gaze, and then prostrating himself. Likewise he seized every opportunity of gaining Claudius’s favour, cultivating his wives and freedmen, to whom Claudius was a slave. He begged Messalina to grant him the highest of favours by allowing him to remove her slippers, carrying the right one about with him after doing so, lodged between tunic and toga, and occasionally bestowing on it a kiss. He also honoured Narcissus and Pallas, the freedmen, by placing their images among his household gods. When Claudius re-celebrated the Secular Games (in 47AD), it was Lucius who congratulated the Emperor, with the famous jest: ‘May you do this often.’

Book Seven: XXXVIII (III) Birth, Childhood, Youth

Lucius died of a stroke, on the second day after the seizure (51AD), leaving two sons by Sestilia, an excellent lady of good family, both sons having achieved the consulship in the same year (48AD); the younger Lucius succeeding the elder Aulus for the last six months. On his death, the Senate honoured their father with a public funeral, and a statue on the Rostra inscribed: ‘Steadfast in his duty to the Emperor.’

Lucius’s son Aulus, the future emperor, was born on the 24th of September 15AD, or according to some authorities on the 7th, during the consulship of Drusus Caesar and Norbanus Flaccus. His parents were so appalled by his horoscope, as revealed by the astrologers, that his father, while he lived, tried to prevent his son winning a province, and when he was sent to command the legions, and subsequently hailed as emperor, his mother lamented and gave him up for lost.

His boyhood and early youth were spent on Capreae (Capri) among Tiberius’s creatures, he himself being marked by the nickname of ‘Spintria’ (sex-token) throughout his life, and suspected of having secured his father’s first promotion to office by surrendering his own chastity.

Book Seven: XXXIX (IV) A Favourite of Three Emperors

As he grew older, though contaminated by every kind of vice, Vitellius gained and kept a prominent place at court, winning Caligula’s friendship by his devotion to chariot-racing and Claudius’s by his love of dice. With Nero he was even closer, not merely because of those passions, but because of one particular incident when he was presiding at the Neronia (in 65AD), the Games held in honour of the Emperor. Nero wanted to compete with the lyre-players, but was reluctant to do so without being invited to participate, despite the clamour for him, and so left the theatre. Vitellius, feigning to be an envoy from the disappointed crowd, provided Nero with the opportunity to concede to their entreaties.

Book Seven: XL (V) High Office

Honoured, as these emperors’ favourite, with high office in the priesthood, as well as political power, he governed Africa (under Nero, in 60/61AD) as proconsul, and was then Curator of Public Works (in 63AD), employing a contrasting approach, and with a contrasting effect on his reputation. In his province he acted with outstanding integrity over two successive years, since he served as deputy also to his brother who succeeded him (61/62AD) yet during his administration of the City he was said to have stolen various temple offerings and ornaments, and substituted brass and tin for the gold and silver in others.

Book Seven: XLI (VI) His Marriages

He took to wife Petronia, the daughter of an ex-consul, and had a son, Petronianus, by her, who was blind in one eye. In her will this son was named heir, subject to Vitellius renouncing his parental rights, to which he consented. However the general belief is that Vitellius murdered him shortly afterwards, though claiming that Petronianus had intended parricide but, overcome by conscience, had committed suicide, drinking the very poison he had intended to administer.

Vitellius later married Galeria Fundana, daughter of an ex-praetor, and had by her a son Vitellius Germanicus who stammered so badly that he was tongue-tied and all but mute, as well as a daughter, Vitellia.

Book Seven: XLII (VII) Posting to Lower Germany

Contrary to all expectations, Galba appointed Vitellius to Lower Germany (in 68AD). Some think it was brought about by Titus Vinius, whose influence was powerful at that time, and whose friendship Vitellius had previously won through their mutual support for the ‘Blues’ in the Circus. But it is clear to everyone that Galba chose him as an act of contempt rather than favour, commenting that gluttons were among those least to be feared, and Vitellius’s endless appetite would now be able to sate itself on a province.

It is well-known that Vitellius was short of money for his initial travelling expenses; that his funds were so low he hired a garret for his wife and children before leaving Rome, and hired out his house for rest of the year; and that he pawned a valuable pearl earring of his mother’s to pay for his journey. He shook off the throng of creditors who waylaid him and would have detained him, including representatives of Sinuessa and Formiae, towns whose public revenues he had embezzled, by threatening them with false accusations. He actually brought an action for damages against a freedman over-zealous in his demands, whom he accused of assaulting him, and he refused to settle until he had wrung five hundred gold pieces in damages from the man.

The soldiers in Germany, disaffected towards Galba, and on the verge of mutiny, received Vitellius with open arms, as a gift from the gods. Here was a man whose father had been three times consul, who was in the prime of life, and of an easy-going and generous disposition. His recent behaviour on the journey had reinforced this good opinion, since he embraced even the ordinary soldiers he met as comrades, and was more than affable to the travellers and mule-drivers at post-houses and inns, asking if they had breakfasted yet and belching companionably to show he had done so himself.

Book Seven: XLIII (VIII) Support from the Army

From the moment he reached the camp, he set about granting every request made, and on his own initiative cancelled the penalties exacted on men who had been disgraced; the charges against those who awaited trial in the customary mourning garb; and the sentences against those convicted of crimes. So that, before a month had passed, a throng of soldiers, heedless of the late hour, though it was already evening, crowded into his bedroom and carried him off on a tour of the largest villages, casually dressed as he was, while hailing him as emperor. He did the rounds clutching a sword from the shrine of Mars that had once been Caesar’s, which had been thrust into his hand at the outset. Before he was returned to headquarters, a stove in the dining hall set the place alight, but his only reaction to the general alarm and concern at the blaze, which seemed an ill omen, were these words addressed to the soldiers: ‘Cheer up! It shines on us!’

The army in Upper Germany, which had already transferred allegiance from Galba to the Senate, now gave Vitellius their support. He willingly accepted the surname of Germanicus which they all insisted on, but deferred acceptance of the title Augustus, and refused to countenance that of Caesar.

Book Seven: XLIV (IX) Omens of Weakness

At the news of Galba’s assassination, Vitellius made his dispositions, dividing his forces in Germany, retaining one army under his own command. He sent the other against Otho, and it was at once greeted with a favourable omen, an eagle swooping towards it on the right, wheeling over the standards, and then soaring slowly away, in the direction of the soldiers’ advance. Yet when Vitellius began his own march, various equestrian statues erected in his honour collapsed due to a weakness in the construction of the legs, while the laurel wreath he had donned with great ceremony fell into a stream. Later as he was presiding over a court session at Vienna (Vienne) a Gallic cockerel perched on his shoulder, and then on the crown of his head.

These omens were confirmed as events unfolded, since he was unable himself to hold the heights to which his generals raised him.

Book Seven: XLV (X) Victory at Betriacum

While still in Gaul, he had news of the victory at Betriacum, and of Otho’s suicide. He immediately disbanded the Praetorian Guard, by edict, for setting a dangerous example (by their disloyalty to Galba) and ordered them to be disarmed by their officers. Furthermore, a hundred and twenty of them, who had petitioned Otho, asking to be rewarded for assassinating Galba, were to be hunted down and punished for their crime.

All this was fine and admirable, and might have raised hopes of his being an outstanding emperor, if the rest of his actions had not been more in keeping with his innate character and former habits than with imperial majesty.

For example, at the start of his advance, he rode through the hearts of cities like a general celebrating a triumph; navigated the rivers in elaborate vessels wreathed in garlands; and banqueted in lavish style, indiscipline rife among his household and the troops, whose excesses and depredations he treated lightly. Not content with dining at public expense, they freed what slaves they pleased, dealing out blows and lashes to owners who complained, repaying them with wounds and sometimes death.

When he reached the plains, and the scene of his generals’ victory, where various officers shuddered at the sight and stench of the decomposing corpses, he had the brazenness to rouse them with the comment that the smell of a dead foe was sweet, but that of a fellow Roman still sweeter. Nevertheless he freely knocked back a good draught of neat wine, to better endure the stink, and issued some generally.

Equally tasteless and arrogant was his declaration, after gazing on Otho’s simple headstone, that the man deserved no better a memorial, sending the dagger with which Otho committed suicide to the Temple of Mars, at Colonia Agrippinensium (Cologne), as if it were a victory token. He also held an all-night celebration on the slopes of the Apennines.

Book Seven: XLVI (XI) His Accession

He entered Rome to the sound of trumpets, surrounded by standards and banners, wearing a general’s cape, sword at his side, his officers in their military cloaks also, and the men with naked blades.

With increasing disregard for the law, human or divine, he then assumed the office of High Priest on the anniversary of the Allia (18th July), arranged the elections for the next ten years, and made himself consul for life.

To make his ideal of government absolutely clear to all he made funerary offerings on the Campus Martius to the shade of Nero, attended by a crowd of official priests, and when at the subsequent banquet a flute-player’s performance was well-received, he urged him publicly ‘to give them something from the Book of the Master too’, and was the first to leap to his feet and applaud when the flautist rendered one of these songs of Nero’s.

Book Seven: XLVII (XII) His Favourites

His reign began in this manner, and he went on to govern the Empire entirely according to the whims and dictates of the lowest types, actors and charioteers, and his freedman Asiaticus in particular. In his youth he had been Vitellius’s lover, to their mutual pleasure, but later wearied of his role and fled. Vitellius discovered him selling drink at Puteoli (Pozzuoli), and had him clapped in irons, but freed him once more and made him one of his favourites. Then, annoyed by the man’s insolent behaviour and his indulgence in petty theft, sold him to an itinerant trainer of gladiators, yet suddenly reclaimed him at the point where he was reserved for the climax of a gladiatorial show.

When Vitellius received the province of Lower Germany he freed Asiaticus, and on his first day as Emperor presented him with the gold ring of knighthood at a banquet, even though that morning he had rejected the clamour for the man to receive the honour, deprecating the idea strongly as representing a stain on the Order.

Book Seven: XLVIII (XIII) His Gluttony

Vitellius’s worst vices were cruelty and gluttony. He banqueted three or four times a day, starting early and finishing with a drinking bout, and did all his feasts full justice with the use of frequent emetics. He invited himself to different men’s houses for each of these meals, every day, the cost per host being at least four thousand gold pieces. The most notorious of these sessions was the dinner given by his brother, Lucius, to celebrate the imperial entry into Rome, at which they say two thousand dishes of the finest fish and seven thousand birds were served. Yet even this fare was eclipsed by one enormous dish, called by Vitellius ‘The Shield of Minerva, Defence of the City’ which he dedicated to the goddess. It contained pike livers, pheasant and peacock brains, flamingo tongues and lamprey milt, extracts of creatures brought by his trading vessels and triremes from the ends of the Empire, Parthia to the Spanish Strait.

Possessing a boundless appetite, and indifferent to decency or the time of day, Vitellius could never restrain himself from stealing the altar cakes and meats, at a sacrifice, out of the very flames themselves, and devouring them on the spot; or while travelling from wolfing down smoking-hot food at the wayside cook-shops, or even picking at the previous day’s half-eaten scraps.

Book Seven: XLIX (XIV) His Cruelty

He was prone to torturing or killing anyone for any reason, including noblemen who had been friends or fellow-students of his, lured to court with various offers falling not far short indeed of a share in ruling the Empire. His treacheries were legion. One man, ill of a fever, who asked for a glass of cold water, received it, with the addition of a little poison, from Vitellius’s own hand.

Hardly any of the money-lenders, dealers and tax-collectors, who had ever demanded payment of debts at Rome or of customs-duty on his travels, were spared. When one of these paid a courtesy visit to the Palace one morning, he was bundled off to his death, but the party was immediately recalled. Vitellius quickly quelled any praise of his magnanimity, by stating that he merely wished to witness the execution, and then had the man killed in his presence.

On another occasion two sons who tried to intercede on their father’s behalf were put to death alongside him. When a knight being led away called out: ‘You are my heir!’ he was forced to exhibit the will. When Vitellius found that one of the man’s freedmen was down as co-heir, he ordered the freedman executed with the knight. He even had commoners put to death for speaking ill of the Blue faction in public, believing their comments rebellious and directed towards him.

He was particularly hostile to astrologers and lampoonists, putting them to death without trial, on arrest. He had been especially enraged because a placard appeared, following his edict that the astrologers must quit the City and all Italy before the 1st of October, which read: ‘Duly approved, by order of the Astrologers, before the appointed date let Vitellius Germanicus cease utterly to exist.’

And at the time of Sestilia’s death, he was thought to have denied her food when she was ill, because a prophetess of the Chatti, whom he consulted as if she were the oracle itself, foretold a long and secure reign if he survived his mother. Others claim that she was so weary of the present, and fearful of the future, that she begged her son for a supply of poison which he readily granted.

Book Seven: L (XV) The Flavian Revolt

By the eighth month of his reign (November 69AD) the legions in Moesia and Pannonia had repudiated Vitellius, and sworn allegiance to Vespasian despite his absence, following those of Syria and Judaea who had done so in Vespasian’s presence. To retain the goodwill of the remaining troops, Vitellius lavished money on them, publicly and privately, without restraint. He recruited men in Rome, promising volunteers their discharge, after his victory, with the bonuses and privileges usually given to veterans on completion of service.

With his enemies pressing hard on land and sea, he had sent the generals and troops who had fought at Betriacum against them, and had sent his brother to command the fleet, manned by raw recruits and gladiators. After he had been defeated or betrayed on all fronts, he bargained with Flavius Sabinus, Vespasian’s brother, for his life and a million gold pieces.

Later, from the Palace steps, he told the assembled soldiers that he proposed to abdicate power, it having been granted him against his will, but at their roar of protest postponed the decision. At dawn the following day, dressed in mourning, he made his way to the Rostra, and tearfully read a declaration of abdication to the crowd. When the citizens and troops again called out, begging him not to lose heart, and competing in shouts of loyalty and vows of support, he found fresh courage. In a sudden and unexpected assault, he drove Sabinus and the other Flavians into the Capitol, set the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus ablaze then feasted in the mansion Tiberius had owned, as he watched fire and conflict destroy his enemies.

He soon repented of his actions, and laying the blame on others summoned an assembly, and took an oath, compelling all there to do the same, that he would strive above all for peace. Then drawing the dagger at his side, he offered it to the consul, magistrates and Senators, in turn (as a gesture of abdication), and when all refused set off intending to place it in the Temple of Concord, but at cries that he himself represented Concord, he returned, saying that he would retain the dagger and adopt the surname Concordia.

Book Seven: LI (XVI) Refuge in the Palace

He persuaded the Senate to send envoys, accompanied by the Vestal Virgins, to sue for peace or at least gain time for consultations. The next day as he awaited a response, news came that the enemy were approaching. He was swiftly carried to his father’s house on the Aventine, by sedan chair, accompanied only by his pastry-cook and chef, intending to flee from there to Campania. Presently however, a faint and doubtful rumour that an armistice had been arranged tempted him back to the Palace. Finding it deserted, he donned a money-belt filled with gold pieces, as his companions began to drift away, and took refuge in the porter’s lodge, tethering a dog outside, and piling a couch and mattress against the door.

Book Seven: LII (XVII) His Death

The vanguard of Vespasian’s army had now forced its way into the Palace, unopposed, and the soldiers were ransacking the rooms, in their usual manner. They hauled Vitellius, unrecognised, from his hiding place, asked his name and where the Emperor might be. He gave some lying answer, but was soon identified, so he begged for safe custody, even if that meant imprisonment, claiming he had important information for Vespasian regarding his security.

However his arms were bound behind him and a noose flung over his head, and he was dragged along the Sacred Way to the Forum, amid a hail of mockery and abuse, half-naked, with his clothes in tatters. His head was held back by the hair, like a common criminal and, with a sword-point under his chin so that he was forced to look up and reveal his face, he was pelted with filth and dung, denounced as arsonist and glutton, and taunted with his bodily defects by the crowd. For, Vitellius was exceptionally tall, and his face was usually flushed from some drinking bout. He had a huge belly, too, and one thigh crippled by a blow from a four-horse chariot which struck him when he was in attendance on Caligula who was driving.

At last, after being tormented by a host of cuts from the soldiers’ swords, he was killed on the Gemonian Stairs, and his body dragged with a hook to the Tiber.

Book Seven: LIII (XVIII) The Omen Fulfilled

Vitellius died at the age of fifty-four, along with his brother and son, fulfilling the interpretation of the omen, previously mentioned, which occurred at Vienna (Vienne), that he was destined to fall to some man from Gaul, since he was killed by Antonius Primus, Vespasian’s general, who was born at Tolosa (Toulouse) and whose nickname in childhood had been Becco, as well, which means a rooster’s beak.

End of Book VII