Avl Vitelliy

Avl Vitelliy

Roman Emperor in April - Dec. '69
Country: Italy

Biography of Aulus Vitellius

Aulus Vitellius was a Roman emperor from April to December 69 AD. There are conflicting accounts about his background, but it is believed that he came from an ancient equestrian family. His grandfather served as the overseer of Augustus' estates, while his father, Lucius Vitellius, reached high positions in the Roman government and gained notoriety for his excessive flattery. Vitellius spent his childhood and early youth on Capri, among the favorites of Emperor Tiberius, and earned the shameful nickname "Spintria" throughout his life. It was believed that his father's influence and his own physical beauty played a role in his rise to power.

Throughout the years, Vitellius held important positions at the imperial court. He was close to Gaius Caligula because of their shared love for horse racing, as well as to Claudius because of their shared love for gambling. However, his closest relationship was with Nero, partly for the same reasons and partly due to a specific act of service. When Vitellius realized that Nero wanted to compete in the chariot races but was hesitant to do so, he intervened and persuaded him to participate, which earned him Nero's favor. By gaining the favor of these three rulers, Vitellius received honorary positions and held high priestly offices. He served as consul in 47 AD under Claudius and was appointed proconsul in Africa and superintendent of public works under Nero in 61 AD.

Vitellius was married to Petronia, the daughter of a consul, but they divorced, and she took their son with her. He later married Galeria Fundana, with whom he had a son and a daughter. In late 68 AD, Galba appointed Vitellius to govern Lower Germany. At that time, Vitellius realized that those who only thought about food were the least to be feared, and he believed that the wealth of the province would satisfy his insatiable appetite. He was so financially burdened that he had to rent out his house and live in a small attic, even pawning a pearl from his mother's earring for travel expenses. Creditors pursued him to the border of Italy, and he barely escaped them.

However, in Germany, he was welcomed with open arms by the local legions due to his status as the son of a three-time consul and his charismatic and generous nature. During his journey, Vitellius even embraced and kissed ordinary soldiers, showing extreme kindness to fellow travelers and wagon drivers. In the mornings, he inquired about their breakfast and burped, indicating that he had already eaten. When he arrived at the winter camps of the Lower German legions in December, Vitellius carefully assessed the situation and reinstated many former officials, softened punishments, and eased fines. He impartially distributed military positions, which his predecessors had often sold or assigned for corrupt reasons.

In January 69 AD, the Upper German legions, long dissatisfied with Galba, refused to swear allegiance to him and instead proclaimed Vitellius as emperor. That same night, a messenger reached Vitellius in the town of Agrippina and informed him of the event. He was surrounded by many guests at the time, and the news quickly spread throughout the army. The next morning, Fabius Valens, the commander of one of the legions, arrived with a large detachment to greet Vitellius and proclaimed him emperor. Initially, Vitellius firmly rejected this honor, fearing the immense power that came with the title. However, according to accounts, he appeared before the soldiers right after his lunch, bloated from food and wine, and agreed to take on the title Germanicus but declined the title Caesar once again.

Soon after, news arrived that Galba had been killed in Rome, and Otho succeeded him. The provinces and armies had to choose between the two proclaimed emperors. Regions in Britain and Recia pledged their support to Vitellius out of fear, and Gaul recognized him, compelled by its governor Cluvius Rufus. Following this, Vitellius, now in command of immense forces and wealth, entrusted the war to his legates, Fabius Valens and Caecina, while he indulged in luxury and feasts.

In April, Otho was defeated in the Battle of Bedriacum and committed suicide. Vitellius then marched towards Rome. He pardoned all Otho's supporters and even maintained certain positions for the commanders. While he did not persecute anyone himself, he did not prevent his army from enriching themselves according to their desires. Vitellius' soldiers pillaged and looted freely, even in the countryside, leaving a trail of destruction. This behavior only decreased Vitellius' popularity as people got to know him better and felt more contempt towards him.

Vitellius' main vice was his insatiable passion for food. Roads leading from both seas trembled under the weight of wagons carrying food that could satisfy his immense appetite. Lavish banquets were held in cities, depleting the resources of municipalities and leaving officials bankrupt. The army moving towards Rome became weakened by indulgence and pleasure-seeking, forgetting their military discipline. Following Vitellius, 160,000 undisciplined and insolent soldiers marched, along with a greater number of camp followers and enslaved servants, who stood out for their debauchery even among slaves. His entourage consisted of numerous officials and acquaintances of the emperor. Jesters, actors, and cart drivers gathered around him, and he received them with joy, which puzzled many. This vast force not only plundered colonies and municipalities but even the estates of farmers. They trampled on ripening fields as if they were in enemy territory.

Vitellius celebrated his arrival in Rome even more extravagantly. Banquets were organized three or four times a day, and he indulged in excessive feasting on each occasion. His appetite was insatiable, as he would eat to the point of vomiting during each meal. In one day, he would go from one friend's house to another, expecting each host to provide him with a feast costing no less than 400,000 sesterces. The most famous feast was held in honor of his brother's arrival, where it was said that 2,000 select fish and 7,000 birds were served. However, Vitellius outdid even this feast by creating a dish so extravagant that it cost a million sesterces in silver alone. The dish included a mixture of fish liver, pheasant and peacock brains, flamingo tongues, and numerous other delicacies that he had imported from various regions. He had ships and sailors sent as far as Parthia and the Strait of Gibraltar to procure these delicacies. There was no limit to his gluttony, regardless of time or decorum. He even ate pieces of meat and bread in front of altars during sacrifices and on the road. He ruled solely based on his whims and the desires of the most unworthy actors and charioteers, especially the freedman Asiaticus. However, his preferences were fickle, and he would shift his loyalty from one person to another.

There was no order in his affairs, and arbitrariness and bribery ruled everything. He ordered the execution of all those who had sought rewards after the death of Galba. He also relentlessly pursued those who had lent him money or demanded repayment of debts, often resorting to violence. None of his former creditors were spared. He even ordered the immediate execution of one of them, who had been particularly persistent in pursuing repayment, when they coincidentally met on the street.

In the eighth month of his reign, Vitellius faced uprisings in Moesia and Pannonia, followed by Judaea and Syria, where some regions pledged allegiance to Vespasian, under whose command the legions in Judaea were stationed. In order to maintain the loyalty of the remaining people, Vitellius no longer desired his own or state resources. He announced a military recruitment in Rome, promising volunteers not only their discharge after victory but also rewards similar to those received by veterans who had completed their full term of service.

Enemies approached Rome by land and sea, and Vitellius sent his brother with a fleet, recruits, and a detachment of gladiators to confront them at sea. On land, he sent his generals and troops who had won the Battle of Bedriacum. However, the soldiers marched reluctantly, and many soon switched sides to support the Flavians. Valens was captured, and Vitellius' situation began to deteriorate. The Spanish legions turned against him, followed by Gaul and then Britain. Eventually, compelled by his soldiers, Vitellius finally arrived at the army camp in Umbria. However, lacking military knowledge and unable to anticipate or plan anything, he could not organize or gather the necessary information about the enemy. He sought advice from those around him, panicked and trembled upon receiving any news, and then resorted to drinking. Eventually, he grew tired of camp life and returned to Rome. This visit brought him nothing but disgrace. The war was drawing closer to Rome, and on December 18, 69 AD, Vitellius learned that the legion he had left in Narnia had betrayed him and surrendered to the enemy. Filled with fear, he decided to abdicate and dressed in black, surrounded himself with weeping family members, clients, and slaves, and descended to the forum. He announced that, in the interest of peace and the state, he was relinquishing power and begged for mercy for himself and his innocent children. He then started to present his child to the surrounding crowd, addressing each person individually or as a group. His sobbing choked him. From there, he proceeded to the Temple of Concord with the intention of renouncing the symbols of supreme authority. However, the crowd and soldiers, shocked by this unprecedented sight, blocked his way, imploring him not to rush with his decision. After some hesitation, Vitellius returned to the palace, where he regained some spirit, even though it was already evident that his position was hopeless.

Three days later, the Flavians entered Rome, and the streets of the city became the scene of fierce battles. The soldiers who remained loyal to Vitellius barricaded themselves in the Praetorian camp, where they fought with valor until the last man fell. Vitellius himself was captured in the palace, where he tried to hide in a shameful place after being abandoned by everyone. With his hands tied behind his back and his clothes torn, he was paraded through the city, subjected to insults and abuse. Pushed from all sides by the tips of swords and spears, Vitellius was forced to hold his head high, enduring blows and spitting in his face, witnessing his statues being toppled from their pedestals. He said to the tribune who mocked him, "I was once your emperor," which were the only dignified words he had to utter. After speaking them, he immediately fell to the ground, covered in countless wounds, and the mob continued to ridicule the dead body as ignobly as they had fawned over the living emperor.