The Life of Emperor Otho

Following the death of Emperor Galba, Marcus Salvius Otho became the second Emperor to rule Rome during 69 AD. 

Born on April, 23, 32 AD, Marcus Salvius Otho first appears in the historical record as one of the most reckless companions of Emperor Nero. Otho’s friendship with Nero ended in 58 AD after Otho introduced his wife, Pappae Sabina, to Nero. Nero began an affair with Pappae that ended with an enraged Nero kicking her to death while pregnant with his child.

Otho’s Rise to Power

Around the same time, Otho was appointed Governor of Lusitania, which was comprised of parts of modern Portugal. Otho remained Governor of Lusitania for ten years, ruling his province with a moderation that was considered unusual for the time. In 68 AD, Otho’s predecessor, Emperor Galba, rose in revolt against Emperor Nero. Otho joined Galba not long afterward, most likely as a result of his treatment by Nero. Galba had no children and Otho began working to ensure that Galba selected him as his heir. Otho entered a secret agreement with Titus Vinius, one of Galba’s closest supporters. Otho agreed to marry Vinius’s daughter in exchange for Vinius’s support. However, the plan was abandoned in January, 69 AD when Galba adopted Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus as his son and heir.

In the wake of this unexpected development, Otho decided to strike a bold blow. He used the last of his funds to purchase the services of 23 members of the Praetorian Guard. On January 15, five days after the adoption of Piso, Otho paid his respects to Galba, and then excused himself on the grounds of urgent personal business.

With a large compliment of troops, Otho returned to the Roman Forum. At the foot of the Capotiline Hill, Otho encountered Galba, who had been alarmed by vague rumours of treachery and was making his way toward the barracks of the Praetorian Guard. Upon sighting Otho’s troops, Galba was abandoned by his bodyguards. Galba and Piso were quickly killed by Otho’s followers. Following the deaths of Galba and Piso, Otho returned to the Praetorian camp, where he was invested with the name Augustus, tribunal authority, Imperium and the other honours now traditionally associated with the office of emperor. In large part, Otho owed his success to the resentment felt by the Legions over Galba’s decision not to pay them the bonus that had become expected of a new Emperor

The Year of the Four Emperors

According to the primary sources, Otho accepted, or at least appeared to accept the addition of the cognomen Nero to his name by the citizens of Rome. Otho also had Nero’s statues set up again and reinstated his Imperial freedmen and household officers. At the same time, Otho allayed the fears of the Roman aristocracy by promising to govern equitably, granting clemency to Marius Celsus, who had been a loyal follower of Galba.

Further development of Otho’s policies was checked when he learned the extent of the uprising in Germany.Several Legions had declared their loyalty to Aulus Vitellius, the commander of the Legions along the Lower Rhine. Vitellius was already advancing on Italy and after an initial attempt to come to an understanding, Otho began preparing for war. Little in the way of assistance could be expected. The more remote provinces had already submitted to Otho and only the Legions from Dalmatia, Pannonia and Moesia had answered his call for assistance.

On March 14, Otho headed north, along with his army, with the intention of preventing Vitellius’s Legions from entering Italy. Otho established a line of defence of the banks of the River Po. Not long after, Otho’s advance guard defeated Legions under the command of Aulus Caecina Alienus, forcing him withdraw to Cremona. Vitellius’s senior commanders were determined to force Otho into a final decisive battle. Their plans were aided by factional in-fighting in Otho’s camp. Otho’s more experienced officers urged him to wait for the arrival of the Legions from Dalmatia. However, Otho’s brother and Titianus Proculus, the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, along with Otho himself, overruled common sense. Otho ordered an immediate advance.

After leaving a large reserve force at Bedriacum, under Otho’s personal command, the rest of Otho’s army, advanced along the Via Postumia toward Cremona. On the outskirts of the city, Otho’s Legions encountered Legions loyal to Vitellius. Otho’s advance guard fought valiantly but was forced to withdraw back to Bedriacum.

The Death of Emperor Otho

The news of the battle had an unexpected effect in Bedriacum, where Otho had remained with a large reserve force. The Legions from Dalmatia had reached Aquileia and the morale of Otho’s troops was unbroken. Nevertheless, Otho felt obliged to accept the verdict of the battle. He gave a final speech to his Legions saying, “It is far more just to perish one for all, than all for one.” Otho then retired to his tent, resting for several hours, before stabbing himself in the heart with a dagger. He died as his attendants entered the tent.

Otho’s ashes were placed in a modest monument. Even though he had only reigned for three months, Otho’s grace and wisdom won him the respect of many in Rome. A simple tomb was erected in Bedriacum, in Otho’s honour, with the inscription “Diis Monibus Othonis.”


Suetonius. Life of Otho Jun,12/10

Cassius Dio.Book 63 Jun. 12/10

Tacitus. Histories 1.1290. Jun. 12/10

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