Aulus Vitellius (2)

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

Unfinished portrait of Vitellius
Unfinished portrait of Vitellius

To understand Vitellius' rise to power, we must first discuss the crisis in the Roman empire in 68-69. During the reign of Nero, the provinces had been peaceful and prosperous, but the emperor started to behave like a despot and the senators, who were as governors responsible for the provinces, suffered heavily. One of them was Gaius Julius Vindex, an Aquitanian prince who had entered the Senate and was now governor of Gallia Lugdunensis. In the winter of 67/68, he decided to put an end to the oppression. Being a senator, he tried to do this constitutionally, so he first searched for a worthy successor to the throne. In April 68 he found his man: the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba.


Now, he started an insurrection, but it ended in disaster. The commander of the Roman legions in the province Germania Superior, Lucius Verginius Rufus, fearing a native rising in Gaul, ordered his men to march from the Rhine to Besançon, where the rebel had his headquarters. Vindex was unable to explain his motives, and having lost the propaganda battle, he lost the real battle and his life.

This happened in the early summer of 69. Meanwhile, Galba had started his march on Rome, but when he heard of the defeat of Vindex, he returned to the west. However, Nero had panicked and lost all support. The Senate convened, declared him enemy of the state, recognized Galba, and sent cavalry to Nero's villa. The former emperor committed suicide (8 June).

Everyone agreed that Galba certainly possessed the makings of a ruler, but soon the Romans discovered that he should never have ruled. He made mistake after mistake. For example, he cashiered the mounted imperial bodyguard; most of the men were Batavians and returned to their home country (in the Low Countries), looking for a way to avenge themselves. The governor of Germania Superior (the country along the Upper Rhine) who had defeated Vindex, Lucius Verginius Rufus, was recalled and replaced by Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus. The legionaries of the Rhine army understood what this meant: they were distrusted. They had suppressed Vindex' insurrection, but their valiant behavior was interpreted as an attempt to obstruct the accession of Galba.

The soldiers were unquiet, and the feeling that Galba despised the Rhine army spread to the army of Germania Inferior, which was guarded by four legions. During the summer, the governor of this province, Fonteius Capito, was assassinated by Cornelius Aquinus, who may have been commander of the Fifth Legion Alaudae, and Fabius Valens, the commander of I Germanica. Some said that the fact that Galba despised his soldiers, had forced Capito to revolt, and that the two commanders had acted to defend Galba. Others, however, said that Capito was killed because he had refused to revolt. This is more plausible, because we know that Fabius Valens later incited Vitellius to revolt. However this may be, Galba appointed Aulus Vitellius as successor.

At this point, the ancient tradition becomes very confused. One quote from Suetonius can illustrate this.

Galba surprised everyone by sending Vitellius to Germania Inferior. [...] But since Galba openly declared that no men were less to be feared than those who thought of nothing but eating, and that Vitellius' bottomless gullet might be filled from the resources of the province, it is clear to anyone that he was chosen rather through contempt than favor.note

The ancient authors had to cope with a problem: Vespasian had defeated Vitellius and slandered his reputation. He was, therefore, seen as a lazy, gluttonous, incapable usurper. How to explain that this monster ever became governor of a province with four legions? The solution was to say that Galba had chosen him precisely because he was a glutton, "rather through contempt than favor".

Of course this is nonsense. Vitellius was a former consul and had, as we have seen, already been governor of a province with an army, where he "had shown an exceptional integrity". He was simply a capable man who could be trusted. Cassius Dio tells about an incident during the reign of Nero, which seems to confirm that he was a loyal man, and that Galba had a right to trust him.

Vitellius held himself as of so little account that he scoffed at the astrologers and used their prediction as evidence against them, saying: "Certainly they know nothing when they declare that even I shall become emperor."note

Our sources unanimously state that Vitellius had made debts and was almost unable to solve them before he left the city. This is strange: a former consul and governor of Africa usually was a very, very rich man. However, it is possible that during the confused last years of Nero something happened that made him lose his fortune. A possible explanation is the great fire of Rome in 64, which caused the destruction of many houses. Or he may have financed Nero's last projects, and lost the money. Whatever the cause, it seems that Vitellius was in dire straits.

When Vitellius arrived in his province in the last days of November, he discovered that the Rhineland was on the brink of revolt. He must have met Hordeonius Flaccus in Germania Superior, who told him that his legions were angry; he certainly met his own legionary commanders, such as Fabius Valens, who told the same; he met representatives of the Batavians, who wanted to avenge themselves on Galba. One of the leaders of the Batavians, Julius Civilis, was especially violent in his ideas about Galba, because the new emperor had executed his brother Claudius Paulus.

The only way to cope with mutinous soldiers was to give them everything they demanded. In a similar situation, Julius Caesar had pensioned off legionaries (47 BCE), and prince Germanicus had given money to rebellious troops (14 CE). Vitellius did the same, but as Tacitus remarks, "whatever he did was interpreted as a hint of something greater".note later generations thought that Vitellius already had plans to become emperor. In fact there is no proof for this accusation, and Tacitus describes Vitellius' ambitions as "an idle longing rather than a real hope". However, he was ready to seize a chance when it was offered.

Fabius Valens and Aulus Caecina Alienus, the commander of the Fourth legion Macedonica at Mainz, argued that Vitellius should assume the purple, and on 1 January 69, the soldiers in Germania Inferior revolted. On New year's day, they had to take the usual oath of loyalty to the emperor, but the legions of Cornelius Aquinus and Fabius Valens, V Alaudae and I Germanica, stoned Galba's portraits, and the legions XV Primigenia and XVI Gallica followed suit. The same happened in Mainz in Germania Superior.

After dark on 1 January, the city of Cologne was entered by a standard-bearer from the Fourth legion. He brought word to Vitellius, who was dining at the time, that the Fourth and Twenty-second legions had thrown down the portraits of Galba and sworn allegiance to the Senate and People of Rome. It was felt that this oath meant nothing; they should strike while the iron was hot and offer the troops an emperor.

Cologne, praetorium
Cologne, praetorium

Vitellius sent information to his legions and their commanders [in Germania Inferior] that the army of Germania Superior had risen against Galba, and put it to them that they must either fight the rebels or else, if they preferred agreement and peace, they must nominate an emperor. He added that the prompt choice of a ruler would be safer than a prolonged search for one.

The nearest camp was that of the First legion [at Bonn], and the quickest legionary commander off the mark was Fabius Valens. On the following day, entering the city of Cologne at the head of the cavalry component of his legion and of its auxiliaries, he greeted Vitellius as emperor. His example was followed with remarkable eagerness by the legions of Germania Inferior, while the army of Germania Superior dropped its lip-service to "the Senate and People of Rome" and on 3 January went over to Vitellius.note

It is clear from this story that the officers of the legions had made up their own minds, and that Vitellius was not unwilling to be the emperor they wanted. He acted immediately and efficiently. For example, he released the Batavian leader Julius Civilis, who had been arrested on a charge of high treason, but might be useful: after all, there were eight Batavian auxiliary units in Gaul, which might be tempted to side with Vitellius and would be a valuable addition to the six legions that had sworn loyalty to the new emperor.

He proclaimed that he would liberate the empire from the usurpation of Galba and struck coins showing "liberty restored". The governor of the rich province of Gallica Belgica, Decimus Valerius Asiaticus, was promised the hand of Vitellius' daughter Vitellia, and went over to his side immediately. The Twenty-first legion Rapax, the province of Raetia, the province of Gallia Lugdunensis with the First legion Italica sided with Vitellius too; and so did Britain, where II Augusta, VIIII Hispana, and XX Valeria Victrix were based. Gallic communities like the Treviri and Lingones also joined him. Within two weeks, Vitellius was master of all provinces north of the Alps, and possessed ten legions. Africa, remembering Vitellius' excellent governorship ten years before, sided with him as well. This was sufficient for an invasion of Italy.

The new emperor had to chose his titles. He declined the titles caesar and Augustus, but accepted Imperator and Germanicus. This is remarkable, because the last two titles were usually only accepted after a military victory. It is tempting to assume that Vitellius had won some minor skirmish against that our hostile sources do not mention, but it must be admitted that this is speculation.

Before the end of January, Vitellius sent two armies to Italy. The first one was commanded by Aulus Caecina Alienus. It consisted of XXI Rapax, large parts of IIII Macedonica and XXII Primigenia, and auxiliaries: some 30,000 men, who had to secure the road from the Upper Rhine to Avenches in Switzerland, across the Col du Grand Saint Bernard and down to Aosta and the plains of the Upper Po. He arrived in Italy in March, which was a brilliant exploit, more impressive than, for example, the famous crossing of the Alps by Hannibal. After all, the Carthaginian general had crossed a lower pass in the late autumn, whereas Caecina crossed a high pass during the winter.


Vitellius' second army was commanded by the man who had persuaded him to become emperor, Fabius Valens. He took the Fifth legion Alaudae with him, plus auxiliaries and large parts of XV Primigenia, I Germanica, and XVI Gallica. This army took the road from Cologne to Trier, Metz, and Toul, where the Vitellians received good news: at Rome, Galba had panicked after he had heard the news of Vitellius' insurrection, had lost the support of the imperial guard, and was murdered near the Lacus Curtius on the Forum. He had been succeeded by Marcus Salvius Otho, who inherited the war against Vitellius.

The army of Fabius Valens continued to Langres, Dyon, and Lyon, where they united with the First legion Italica and eight Batavian auxiliary units and must have received the news that the three Spanish provinces had gone over to the Vitellian side. This was not surprising, because Galba was from Hispania Tarraconensis and had been murdered by Vitellius' enemy Otho. Some of the Batavians, Rome's best soldiers, were sent to Caenina.

If we are to believe Tacitus, Vitellius had other things to do. But the historian is merely repeating Vespasian propaganda.

Vitellius dozed away his time. Quick to take advantage of the privileges of an emperor, he gave himself up to idle pleasures and sumptuous banquets. Even at the midday he was the worse for drink and over-eating.note

The historical truth may be that Vitellius was moving slower than his forces, trying to keep an eye on the Rhine border - which was dangerously undergarrisoned - and being involved in the administration of his empire. For example, we know that recruiting was stepped up in the four Gallic provinces, in order to bring the units along the Rhine up to strength again. (It may also be noted that a few months later, when Vespasian revolted, he also left the fighting to one of his generals and remained behind. Why does Tacitus not say that Vespasian "dozed away his time"?)

Meanwhile, Otho had started to gather an army: the First legion Adiutrix and XIII Gemina, the imperial guard, and 2,000 hastily conscripted gladiators, were already present, and reinforcements were on their way (VII Galbiana, XI Claudia, XIV Gemina). However, this force was smaller than the army of Caenina. Otho's only hope was to destroy the army of Caenina before it could unite with the army Valens.

At first, this strategy was successful. Caenina had reached Piacenza; his Batavians had been able to cross the Po on horseback and the Vitellians had started to besiege this town. But the soldiers of Otho defeated their enemies several time, although they were not yet strong enough to join a decisive battle. So, the two sides were matched, and the real issue was whether Otho would be able to gather his units before Caenina and Valens would unite their forces.

Coin of Vitellius: Victoria
Coin of Vitellius: Victoria

As it turned out, Valens arrived first. Piacenza fell to the united Vitellian forces, Cremona was captured, and they built a large camp just east of the town. On 14 April the two armies joined battle. Vitellius' Fifth legion Alaudae, I Italica and XXI Rapax defeated Otho's XIII Gemina, I Adiutrix, and the imperial guard; and later, the Batavians defeated the gladiators. Vitellius, who was in Lyons, was hailed "imperator" by his soldiers, the title given to victorious commanders.

The Vitellian victory was not complete, yet. After all, Otho could still rely on VII Galbiana, XI Claudia, and XIV Gemina, and the loyalty of the cities of Italy. However, the defeated emperor committed suicide (16 April; more). Three days later, the Senate recognized Vitellius as sole ruler of the Roman empire.