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Roman Emperor - Vitellius

Updated on November 1, 2009

Aulus Vitellius, Roman emperor in A.D. 69, was born on September 24, A.D. 15, the son of Lucius Vitellius

Though he was reasonably well educated, his vices had commended him to Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.He served as consul (48) and as proconsul of Africa (60).

Though he had no military talent, Galba appointed him commander of the army in Lower Germany, which was already meditating rebellion when he reached it in late November 68. On Jan. 2, 69, he was acclaimed emperor at Cologne, and the Upper German army, which had already refused the oath to Galba, joined him next day. His armies moved rapidly on Italy under Caecina and Valens, the legionary legates who had chiefly engineered the revolt; and on April 16 Otho, who had murdered and succeeded Galba, committed suicide after the defeat of his army near Cremona.

Vitellius followed slowly southward, entering Rome in July. Meanwhile Vespasian had early that month been proclaimed emperor by the eastern legions, who were soon followed by those on the Danube.

Caecina, appointed to command Vitellius' troops in north Italy, turned traitor, and his army was crushed by the invading forces under Antonius Primus in late October. As Antonius moved on Rome, a further Vitellian force capitulated at Narnia, and the fleet at Misenum deserted.

Vitellius considered abdication, but his praetorian guard forbade this, and events reached a tragic climax, during which the Capitol was burned. Vespasian's advance forces discovered him hiding in the palace, dragged him through the Forum, and threw him into the Tiber River.

Ancient writers depict Vitellius as cruel, indolent, and wildly extravagant, but they are based almost wholly on Flavian propaganda, put out before he even reached Rome and could show clearly what his rule would be like. He had a reputation for fabulous gluttony, but here, too, he may have been blamed personally for the inevitable demands of a court moving from Cologne to Rome. Over constitutional forms he shows signs of exceptional moderation; about his capacity for government practically nothing is known.

Photo by Jastrow. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

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