The Life of Emperor Vitellius

Following the death of Emperor Otho in April, 69 AD, Aulus Vitellius became the third Emperor to rule Rome in 69 AD. 

Aulus Vitellius was born to Lucius Vitellius Veteris and his wife Sextilleia on September 24, 15 AD. Vitellius also had an older brother, Lucius Vitellius the Younger. The origins of Vitellius’s family are unclear. The ancient writer Suetonius recorded two different accounts of the Gens Vitellius. The first was that Vitellius’s family was descended from past rulers of Latium, while the other portrayed them as being from humble origins. Both accounts could have been written by supporters or enemies of Vitellius, and either could have been true, however, both stories were already widely known in 69 AD. Suetonius also claimed that Vitellius’s parents were so horrified by his horoscope that his father later tried to prevent him from becoming Consul.

Vitellius’s Rise to Power

In 48 AD, Vitellius became Consul. Sometime around 60 or 61, Vitellius became Proconsul and the Governor of Africa, where he is thought to have been popular. At the end of 68 AD, Vitellius was selected by Emperor Galba to command the Legions of Germania Inferior. While in Germania, Vitellius proved to be popular with his troops as a result of his excessive good nature. However, Vitellius’s desire to be a popular general would prove to be a detriment to order and discipline in the army.

Vitellius owed his ascension to the office of Emperor to Aulus Caecina Alienus and Fabius Valens, who quickly orchestrated a military coup. On January 1, 69 AD, they refused to renew their vows of loyalty to Galba. Shortly afterward, Vitellius was declared Emperor the armies in Germania Inferior and Germania Superior, in Colonge. Not long afterward, the Legions in Gaul, Brittania and Raetia, also declared their loyalty to Vitellius. In the meantime Vitellius began planning an invasion of Italy. However, during this time, there was a sudden shift in power following the assassination of Galba by followers of Marcus Salvius Otho, who was quickly declared Emperor by the Senate. However, Otho’s rule was brief, lasting from January to April, 69 AD. Otho committed suicide after losing the Battle of Bedriacum to Legions loyal to Vitellius.

Following the victory at Bedriacum, Vitellius continued to advance into Italy at the head of an army that more closely resembled a mob than an organized fighting force. Curiously, Vitellius was never formally acknowledged as the Emperor of Rome, even though he was accepted by the Senate and given the traditional symbols of office during his reign. During his brief rule, Rome was plagued by riots and became the scene of extravagant feasts and gladiator competitions. Vitellius also disbanded the Praetorian Guard and installed his own Legions as a reward for their loyalty.

Suetonius’s father served under Emperor Otho at Bedriacum. As a result, Suetonius described Vitellius as being unambitious. He also noted that Vitellius initially intended to rule wisely, but that Caecina and Valens drove Vitellius to cruelty and excess. As a result of this, Vitellius’s good intentions are often cast in shadow. The primary sources describe Vitellius as being a lazy, self-indulgent, obese glutton. According to Suetonius, Vitellius ate a banquet four times a day. Vitellius also sent the Romany Navy to the far corners of the Empire to procure rare and exotic foods. He is also reported to have had his mother starved to death in order to fulfill a prophecy that predicted a long reign for Vitellius if his mother died first.

Despite his brief reign, Vitellius made two important contributions to Roman government that would long outlast him. He ended the practice of officers in the Roman Legions selling leaves of absence and exemptions from duty to the men under their command. He also expanded the offices in the Imperial Administration, allowing members of the Equestrian class to take up positions in the Imperial Civil Service.

The Death of Emperor Vitellius

In July, 69 AD, Vitellius received intelligence indicating that the Legions in the eastern provinces had proclaimed their loyalty to Titus Flavius Vespasianus, more commonly known as Emperor Vespasian. Not long afterward, the Legions in Dalmatia and Illyricum also swore loyalty to Vespasian and Vitellius was forced to give up the title of Emperor.

The exact circumstances of Vitellius’s death are uncertain. Vitellius waited for Vespasian’s Legions at Mevenia. The terms of resignation were arranged by Marcus Antonius Primus, the Commander of the Legions in Panonia and one of Vespasian’s primary supporters. However, the Praetorian Guard refused to honour the terms of the agreement and forced Vitellius to return to the palace while he was on the way to the Temple of Concord where he was to surrender the Imperial regalia. After Vespasian’s Legions entered the city, Vitellius was dragged out of his hiding place, which Tacitus claimed was a door keeper’s lodge. From there Vitellius was driven to the Gemonian Steps and killed. Suetonius claimed that Vitellius was drowned in the River Tiber, while Cassius Dio wrote that Vitellius was decapitated and his head paraded through the city.

The death of Emperor Vitellius and the ascension of Emperor Vespasian brought an end to the year of chaos that began with the death of Emperor Nero, and would become known as the Year of the Four Emperors.


SuetoniusLife of Vitellius. Jun.14/10

Dio, Cassius. The History of Rome. Jun. 14/10

Donahue, John F. Vitellius, Di Imperatoribis Romanus. Jun. 14/10

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