Aulus Vitellius

Aulus Vitellius (15-69): Roman senator and general, emperor in the year 69.

Unfinished portrait of Vitellius
Unfinished portrait of Vitellius

We have three important, but extremely hostile sources for the life and reign of the Roman emperor Aulus Vitellius. The historian Tacitus and the biographer Suetonius lived about fifty years after his reign, and describe him as a gluton who was absolutely unfit to rule. A century later, Cassius Dio, the greatest historian of this trio, offered a similar account. The hostility in their accounts can easily be explained: Vitellius became emperor lost his throne after a civil war, and the new emperor, Vespasian, lived long enough to see his propaganda become included in the works written by historians. Future generations, therefore, only possessed biased accounts of the events in the "long but single" year of civil war, 69.

Aulus Vitellius was born on September 7, 15, as the oldest son of Sextilia and Lucius Vitellius, still a young man who was a protégé of the emperor Tiberius. The young man spent his boyhood at Capri, where his father possessed a house near the residence of the emperor. In his Life of Tiberius, Suetonius tells that the emperor was a wicked man who used babies to "play between his legs while he was in bath" and liked to see young children in his gardens "dressed like Pans and Nymphs" (i.e., almost undressed). One of these boys was, according to Suetonius, the young Aulus Vitellius, and accordingly, people suspected that that the sacrifice of the boy's chastity had been his father's means of advancement.

There is no reason to believe this story. In the first place, Suetonius is quoting sources hostile to Tiberius, who had a very strained relation with the Senate; his retirement from Rome was the cause of many unfounded rumors. That Lucius Vitellius easily advanced through the ranks of the cursus honorum, is simply not true: he was about 40 years old when he reached the consulate (34), which was comparatively late.

Nonetheless, his son seems to have received the nickname Spintria, "sexual artist", at some stage of his career, not necessarily after a real performance. The accusation remained. When he was emperor and bestowed a knighthood on his freedman Asiaticus, it was immediately said that they had been lovers.

After his consulate, Lucius Vitellius became governor of Syria, where he conducted a brilliant military campaign in Armenia and conducted no less brilliant negotiations with the Parthian empire. It is not known whether he had his family with him: this was not common, but there is evidence for the reign of Tiberius that it was permitted (Pontius Pilate). So, it is possible that the young Aulus Vitellius visited cities like Antioch and Jerusalem in the years 35-38, perhaps as one of his father's assistents. After all, he was by now twenty years old, when a senator's son was expected to serve as an officer in a legion. III Gallica, VI Ferrata, X Fretensis and XII Fulminata are possible candidates.

Lucius Vitellius was by now one of the most important courtiers in Rome, and it comes as no surprise that his son had an easy career. He was consul in the first six months of 48 at the age of 33, the minimum age. This was an exceptional honor, and we may therefore be confident that Aulus Vitellius occupied the other offices at the minimum age as well. He was, therefore, quaestor at the age of 25 (in 40), and praetor in 45. It was not, however, only his father's protection that made Aulus rise: he held a prominent place at court, having won the friendship of the emperor Caligula by his devotion to chariot-driving. (Once, Caligula caused an accident with his chariot and wounded Vitellius, who remained crippled on one thigh.) When this emperor was killed in 41, Vitellius was able to gain the friendship of his successor Claudius as well, since they shared a passion for gambling. At least, this is what Suetonius wants us to believe, and it is tempting to assume that he is merely repeating gossip.

The same hostile attitude can be found in the invectives in Suetonius' story on Vitellius first marriage, perhaps in the late thirties, after his (presumed) return from Syria.

His wife was Petronia, daughter of an ex-consul, and by her he had a son Petronianus, who was blind on one eye. Since this son was named as his mother's heir on condition of being freed from his father's authority, he manumitted him, but shortly afterwards killed him, according to the general belief, charging him besides with attempted parricide, and alleging that he had, from consciousness of his guilt, drunk the poison which he had mixed for his father.note

The boy can only have been twelve years old, so we can discard this story as gossip. At the end of the reign of Claudius, Vitellius was made priest. He may have succeeded his father in the priestly college, because he died at about the same time. This was, for some time, his last career move, and it may be that he was not among the favorites of Claudius' successor Nero.

In the mid-fifties, he remarried to Galeria Fundana, the daughter of a senator. Vitellius may have been in love, because the marriage was beneath his rank: as a former consul and son of a former consul, he belonged to the highest nobility, and Galeria's father was of praetorian rank.

In 60/61, he was governor of Africa (Tunesia), the only province that was ruled by the Senate and was garrisoned by a legion. It was an honorable office, but most observers must have noted that there had been an exceptionally long interval between Vitellius' consulship and governorship. Even Suetonius admits that "he showed an exeptional integrity". His younger brother Lucius succeeded him, and Vitellius stayed as his deputy (61/62).

On his return, he was one of the accusers of Antistius Sossianus, who had written satirical poems on Nero. This must have been sufficient to regain the emperor's favor: in 63, he was curator of the public works. In 65, he really endeared himself to Nero.

When Nero was presiding at the contests of the Neroniana [a cultural festival] and wished to compete among the lyre-players, but did not venture to do so (although there was a general demand for him) and accordingly left the theater, Vitellius called him back, alleging that he came as an envoy from the insistent people, and thus gave Nero a chance to yield to their entreaties.note

So, in 65, he was again one of the most important courtiers in Rome, a former consul and governor. He was 50 years old and had every reason to be very content.