Aulus Vitellius (3)

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


Vitellius was at Dyon when he learned of the victory of his colonels Valens and Caenina, Otho's suicide and the recognition by the Senate. He sailed to Lyon, the capital of Roman Gaul; on April 30, he accepted the tribunician power, the most important sign of imperial power. He had waited until he had received permission from the Senate, an act that must have done something to make him popular with this high college. At the same time, he appointed his son, also called Vitellius, as his successor and gave him the surname he had accepted four months earlier, Germanicus. Cassius Dio states the child was six years old, but since his sister had reached the marriageable age, it is likely that he was considerably older.

Now that he was sole ruler of the empire, he celebrated it with a parade, a speech of praise to the soldiers that were with him, and an order to his armies in northern Italy to send back units to the Rhine, which was, as we have already noted, dangerously undergarrisoned. Otho's legions were sent back to the Danube. Several centurios were executed, an act that Vitellius would come to regret.

His administrative measures were prudent, as we can read in the Roman History of Cassius Dio.

Any gifts that Nero, Galba, and Otho had bestowed upon any persons he held to be valid and deprived no one of any such possession. He did not collect any sums still owing of former levies, and he confiscated nones' property. He put to death but very few of those who had sided with Otho, and did not withhold the property of these even from their relatives. Upon the kinsmen of those previously executed he bestowed all their funds that were still to be found in the public treasury. He did not even find fault with the wills of such as had fought against him and had fallen in the battles. Furthermore he forbade the senators and the knights to fight as gladiators or to perform in any spectacle in the orchestra. For these measures he was commended. He was a constant attendant at the theatres, and by this won the attachment of the populace. He ate with the most influential men on free and easy terms, and this gained their favour to an even greater degree. His old companions he never failed to remember and honoured them greatly, not disdaining to appear to recognize any of them. In this he was unlike some others; for many who have unexpectedly attained to great power feel hatred for those who are acquainted with their former humble state.note

He also sent despatches to Rome, ordering the exile of the astrologers. He already abhorred from their unRoman practices and this type of measure, which is known from other emperors as well, was usually well-received by the Senate. Cassius Dio knows more about it:

Vitellius issued an edict banishing the astrologers and commanding them to leave the whole of Italy by a certain specified day. They answered him by putting up at night another notice, in which they commanded him in turn to depart this life before the end of the very day on which he actually died. So accurate was their foreknowledge of what should come to pass.note

This was all very statesmanlike, but Tacitus, still echoing Vespasian propaganda, offers a different story.

If only he had been less addicted to high living. For rich fare he displayed a revolting and insatiable appetite. Delicacies were carted all the way from Rome and Italy to tickle his palate, and the routes which lead from the Tuscan and Adriatic Seas were loud with the sound of traffic. Leading members of the various cities found the provision of sumptuous banquets a heavy drain on their pockets, and the very cities were reduced to beggary.note

Vitellius now crossed the Alps, visited Turin, and sent the eight Batavian auxilary units back home. He also appointed Valens and Caecina as consuls. Some forty days after the battle of Cremona, Vitellius reached the battlefield (May 24). Again, we read a story full of Tacitean innuendo.

Mutilated corpses, severed limbs and the decaying carcasses of men and horses lay everywhere. The ground was bloodstained and the flattened trees and crops bore witness to the frightful devestation. [...] Valens and Caenina were in attendance, pointing out the various localities connected with the battle: this was the starting point of the legions' forward thrust; from that point the cavalry had fallen upon the foe; and in a third place the auxiliary forced had surrounded their victims. [...] There were indeed some few observers who were deeply affected by the diverse influences by an inscrutable destiny. They were moved to tears and pity. But not Vitellius. His gaze was unaverted, and he felt no horror at the multitude of fellow Romans lying there unburied. Blatantly exulting [...] he proceeded to offer a sacrifice to the gods of the place.note

Cassius Dio's portrait is even more hostile: he adds that Vitellius "not even then ordered them to be buried".note

Five days later, Vitellius added his third Imperator-title to his throne names, something that could only happen after a military victory. Unfortunately, no battle is recorded, but we may assume that one of the army units that Vitellius had sent back to the Rhine and Danube, defeated a band of Germanic warriors.

Tacitus describes Vitellius' habits during the second stage of his march on Rome. Again, it is a murder of character.

With every mile travelled towards Rome, the emperor's progress became more riotious. It was joined by actors and gangs of eunuchs and all the other idiosyncracies of Nero's court. For Vitellius was personal devotee of Nero. He had been in the habit of attending the emperor's song recitals, not - like the better sort - under compulsion, but as a slave and hireling of pleasure and gluttony.note

On one of the last days of June or the first days of July, Vitellius learned that the legions in the east had recognized him as emperor. It was duly commemorated with a new series of coins. By now, he was really the sole ruler of the Mediterranean empire. He had already shown great clemency towards the defeated armies -he had only punished 120 soldiers who had boasted that they had killed Galba- and people thought that Vitellius would be a great emperor.

On July 17, 69, Vitellius arrived at Rome. He greeted his mother, who remarked that she had "given birth to a Vitellius, not to a Germanicus". The line is quoted as if Sextilia made him a reproach for boastfulness, but it was probably meant as a compliment: he had created his own identity. She received the title Augusta, and died a few days later. Of course, our hostile sources mention that Vitellius was suspected of poisoning her.

Vitellius must have spent the night in the Golden house, the palace where Nero, Galba and Otho had lived and Vespasian and Titus were to live. It is recorded that Vitellius' wife Galeria remarked that several rooms were not fully decorated; later authors interpreted this as a sign of decadence, but in fact, the palace was not yet finished.

Next day, he accepted the titles of Augustus and Father of the Fatherland, and assumed the high priesthood. From now on, he was Aulus Vitellius Germanicus, three times imperator, Augustus, high priest, with tribunical powers, Father of the Fatherland.

He had been moderated in the punishment of the enemies, had shown great respect for the Senate -waiting for official recognition before accepting tribunicial powers, waiting until he had reached Rome before accepting other titles- and introduced a constitutional novelty that probably pleased the senators: he called himself consul perpetuus, "forever consul". Although Roman law did not permit any magistracy to be occupied forever, the acceptance of this title with its republican connotations (instead of caesar) showed that Vitellius wanted to reign as if he were a magistrate, not a despot.

Of course, our sources pay hardly attention to these measures. They simply repeat the Vespasian version of the history if Vitellius' reign.

Now, when he was in a position of so great authority, his wantonness only increased, and he was squandering money most of the day and night alike. He was insatiate in gorging himself, and was constantly vomiting up what he ate, being nourished by the mere passage of the food. Yet this practice was all that enabled him to hold out; for his fellow-banqueters fared very badly. For he was always inviting many of the foremost men to his table and he was frequently entertained at their houses. It was in this connexion that one of them, Vibius Crispus, uttered a very witty remark. Having been compelled for some days by sickness to absent himself from the convivial board, he said: "If I had not fallen ill, I surely should have perished." The entire period of his reign was nothing but a series of carousals and revels. All the most costly viands were brought from as far as the Ocean (not to say farther) and drawn from both land and sea, and were prepared I so costly a fashion that even now certain cakes and other dishes are named Vitellian, after him. And yet why should one name over all the details, when it is admitted by all alike that during the period of his reign he expended 900,000,000 sesterces on dinners? There soon was a famine in all costly articles of food, yet it was absolutely imperative that they should be provided. For example, he once caused a dish to be made that cost a million sesterces, into which he put a mixture of tongues and brains and livers of certain fishes and birds. As it was impossible to make so large a vessel of pottery, it was made of silver and remained in except for some time, being regard somewhat in the light of a votive offering, until Hadrian finally set eyes on it and melted it down.note

So far the gossip of our ancient sources. The truth was that Vitellius often visited the meetings of the Senate, provided entertainment for the urban proletariat, and started to appoint knights in civil offices that had hitherto been held by freedmen. This was a sound measure that should have been taken earlier: from now on, civil service was a respectable occupation. He also reorganized the imperial guard, which had killed Galba. Another important measure was the lavish distribution of citizen rights to provincials. It shows that Vitellius recognized that the provinces were just as civilized as Italy proper.

It was a good start for a new reign, although several people noticed that he accepted his imperial titles on July 18, the Roman equivalent of Friday the thirteenth. Everybody must ignored these pessimists, but within a few days, their ideas suddenly received more credit.