Lucius Vitellius was born as the son of Publius Vitellius, a knight from Luceria in southern Italy, who served as steward under the emperor Augustus. His son became a close friend of Antonia Minor, the daughter of Mark Antony and widow of Augustus' adoptive son Drusus. This friendship gave him access to the imperial court. Drusus' brother Tiberius, emperor from 14 to 37, seems to have promoted his career. When Tiberius moved his residence from Rome to Capri, Vitellius also bought a villa on this island. Having the emperor's support, he became consul in the first months of 34. His consulship was marked by the appearance of the legendary Egyptian bird phoenix.
There was a minimum age for the consulship, and he must have been at least 32, but since his first son was born in 15 CE, we may assume that Lucius was born in c.5 BCE, and was, therefore, about 40 years old when he became consul. This is not strange, because his father had not been a senator but a mere knight.
Next year, Vitellius was governor of Syria, one of the most important provinces of the Roman empire. Its four legions (III Gallica, VI Ferrata, X Fretensis and XII Fulminata) guarded the frontier zone against invasions from the Parthian empire.
In the first months of 36 CE, the emperor Tiberius sent a Parthian prince named Tiridates, who had been living as an exile in the Roman empire, to Parthia to replace king Artabanus II. Vitellius was to support the Roman-backed ruler, and seems to have done so brilliantly, not in the least because he could count on an important ally.
In the preceding year, 35, Artabanus had installed his son Arsaces as king of Armenia. At the beginning of his governorship, Vitellius had invited the brother of the king of neighboring Iberia, Mithridates, to seize the Armenian throne. The result had been a full-scale war between Armenia and Iberia, in which nomads from Central Eurasia played a role as well. When Artabanus of Parthia had tried to intervene, Vitellius had ordered his legions to prepare for battle (late 35?). This was too much for the Parthian king, who backed off and accepted Mithridates of Iberia, the new pro-Roman king of Armenia. This had been a great loss of face and many Parthians had started to ignore their oath of loyalty to Artabanus. So, it was the Parthians themselves who sided with Tiridates, the Parthian prince from Rome, who arrived in the spring of 36. Vitellius escorted him across the Euphrates, where Tiridates was welcomed by several Parthian noblemen.
Vitellius may have wanted to play a bigger role in Tiridates' accession, but was forced to go to nearby Cilicia, where a wandering tribe refused to obey Roman tax gatherers. Vitellius isolated the rebels in two hill forts, where thirst forced them into surrender.
Meanwhile, prince Tiridates had continued to Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the capitals of the Persian empire, where a member of the Sûrên-clan crowned him king. However, the new ruler hesitated too long and gave his rival, Artabanus II, who had found hospitality with king Izates of Adiabene, a second chance: using Scythian mercenaries, he marched on Seleucia, and Tiridates was forced to return to Vitellius.
The year 36 saw another incident which deserves mentioning. In Judaea, a Samaritan claimed to be Moses reincarnate and gathered an armed following. The prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, intervened immediately, dispersed the crowd, and had the ringleaders executed. The Samaritans considered his violence excessive and appealed to the Syrian governor. Vitellius heard their complaints, sent Pilate back to Italy and appointed Marcellus. Pilate's co-ruler in Judaea, the high priest Joseph Joseph Caiaphas, was replaced by his brother-in-law Jonathan.
Next year, Aretas, the king of the Nabataean principality Petra, attacked the Jewish king of Galilee, Herod Antipas. Vitellius mobilized two legions and went to Galilee; then, he went to Jerusalem to oversee the celebrations of Sukkoth (September 12) and to replace the high priest Jonathan with his brother Theophilus. At that moment, a letter arrived with the news that Tiberius had died and was succeeded by Caligula. Vitellius administered the oath of allegiance, and recalled his troops, because he was not allowed to fight a war gainst the Arabs until the new emperor had sent him instructions.
It may have been in late 37 or early 38 that Vitellius held a conference with king Artabanus, who did obeisance to the standards of the Syrian legions. Although Rome's own candidate had not become king, Armenia had become a satelite-state and the Parthian king acknowledged Rome's superiority. It was one of the greatest triumphs of Rome's eastern policy.
In 39, Vitellius was back in Italy, where he introduced several new sorts of figs. In Rome, he was highly regarded. When Caligula insisted that he was a god, Vitellius was the first one to give him divine honors.
In 41, Caligula was murdered and succeeded by Claudius, the son of Vitellius' patron Antonia. It is possible that Vitellius played a role during Claudius' coup, because he was rewarded with a second consulship, which he occupied with the emperor himself (43). When Claudius left Rome to conquer Britain, Vitellius was left in charge of the government. In 47, he was again consul -an extraordinary honor- and became, with Claudius, censor in the years 47-48.
In October 48, Claudius was forced to execute his wife Messalina. Vitellius remained uninvolved. Later, he invented arguments why the old rule that an uncle and his niece should not marry, did not apply to Claudius and Agrippina. The new empress returned the favor: when Vitellius was involved in a lawsuit against the senator Junius Lupus, who had accused him of high treason, she made sure that Claudius exiled the accuser (51).
Vitellius died unexpectedly from a paralytic stroke and received a statue on the speaker's platform on the Roman Forum, with the inscription 'Of unwavering loyalty to the emperor'.
This was a good characterization of his career. Unfortunately, the emperor Caligula had not been worthy of unwavering loyalty, and later generations thought the same of Claudius. Therefore, they found it difficult to explain how the brilliant governor of Syria could become a puppet of bad emperors. For example, the historian Tacitus thinks:
The man, I am aware, had a bad name at Rome, and many a foul story was told of him. But in the government of provinces he acted with the virtue of ancient times. He returned and then, through fear of Caligula and intimacy with Claudius, degenerated into a servility so base that he is regarded by an after-generation as the type of the most degrading adulation. The beginning of his career was forgotten in its end, and an old age of infamy effaced the virtues of youth.note
If the historian had had a higher opinion of Claudius, he would have had a higher opinion of his loyal supporter as well.
Lucius Vitellius was married to Sextilia and had two sons, Lucius and Aulus, who were both consul in 48. Aulus Vitellius was emperor in 69.