Coin showing the head of Vitellius

From The Twelve Caesars by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
Translated by Robert Graves (1965)

VITELLIUS'S family may have been an old and noble one; or it may have been of undistinguished and even mean extraction. Both views are held, and either might reasonably be discounted as due to the prejudice excited by his reign, were it not that these origins had been hotly argued about many years previously.

Writing to Quintus Vitellius, one of Augustus's quaestors, Quintus Elogius described the family as follows:

You Vitellians are descended from Faunus, an aboriginal king of Italy, and Vitellia, who was widely worshipped as a goddess. At one time, you ruled over the whole of Latium, but later the surviving members of the family moved from Sabine territory to Rome, where they became patricians. For centuries after, Vitellians were to be found along the Vitellian Way, which runs from the Janiculum to the sea; and the people of one settlement in that region asked the Senate's per-mission to defend themselves against the Aequicolians, under their own officers. Another group of Vitellians, serving in the Roman army during the Samnite War, were despatched to Apulia and established themselves at Nuceria; but eventually their descendants went back to resume senatorial privileges at Rome.

The popular story, on the other hand, was that the family had been founded by a freedman, one Cassius Servius, described as a shoe-maker, whose son made a comfortable living first as an informer and then as a dealer in confiscated property, before marrying a common prostitute, the daughter of a baker named Antiochus, and fathering on her a Roman knight. The truth probably lies somewhere between these anecdotal extremes.

2. At all events, whether his ancestry should have inspired pride or shame, this Publius Vitellius of Nuceria was certainly a knight, and steward to Augustus. He passed on his name to four worthy sons: Aulus, Quintus, Publius, and Lucius. Aulus, an epicure and a famous host, died during his consulship, as partner to Nero's father Domitius. Quintus, the second brother, was degraded in a purge of subversive senators proposed by Tiberius. Publius, the third, was an aide-de-camp to Germanicus, whose murderer, Gnaeus Piso, he arrested and brought to justice. He attained the praetorship, but was himself arrested in the aftermath of Sejanus's conspiracy. When handed over to the custody of his own brother, Aulus, he cut his wrists with a pen-knife; yet allowed them to be bandaged up, not through any fear of death, but because his friends begged him to stay with them. Later, he fell ill and died in prison. Lucius, the youngest son, became first Consul, and then Governor-general of Syria where, with masterly diplomacy, he induced King Artabanus of Parthia to attend a parley and even do obeisance to the Roman Eagles. Afterwards, Lucius shared two regular consulships with the Emperor Claudius, held the office of Censor, and took full charge of the Empire while Claudius was away on the British expedition. Lucius's integrity and industry were outstanding; the only blot on his fame being a scandalous infatuation for a certain freedwoman, whose spittle he would mix with honey and use every day, quite openly, as a lotion for his neck and throat. A skilful flatterer, he instituted the practice of worshipping Gaius Caligula as a god; and on his return from Syria, never dared enter the imperial presence without uncovering his head, averting his gaze, and finally prostrating himself. Since Claudius, Caligula's successor, was ruled by his wives and freedmen, Lucius, who lost no chance of advancement, begged Messalina to grant him the tremendous privilege of removing her shoes; whereupon he would nurse the right shoe inside his gown, and occasionally take it out to kiss it. He placed golden images of Claudius's secretaries Narcissus and Pallas among his household-gods; and the 'May you do this very often!' joke in congratulation of Claudius at the Secular Games — held once every century — is attributed to him.

3. Lucius died of paralysis on the day after he had been accused of high treason; but lived to see his two sons by Sestilia — a noble-hearted woman of distinguished family — achieve the consulship in the same year; the younger following the elder in the July appointment. The Senate awarded him a public funeral and a statue on the Rostra inscribed: 'Steadfast in loyalty to the Emperor'.

Lucius's son Aulus Vitellius, the Emperor-to-be, was born on 24 September 14 A.D., or perhaps on 7 September, while Drusus Caesar and Norbanus Flaccus were Consuls. The boy's horoscope read so appallingly that Lucius did everything in his power to prevent him from winning a provincial governorship; and when he was pro-claimed Emperor in Germany, his mother gave him up for lost. Vitellius had spent his boyhood and adolescence on Capri, among Tiberius's profligates. There he won the nickname 'Spintria', which clung to him throughout his life; by surrendering his chastity to Tiberius, the story goes, he secured his father's first advancement to public office.

4. Vitellius who, as he grew up, was notorious for every sort of vice, became a fixture at Court. Caligula admired his skill in chariot-driving; Claudius, his skill at dice; Nero not only appreciated these talents, but was indebted to him for one particular service. At the festival celebrated in his own honour, Nero was always anxious to compete in the lute-playing contest, but never dared do so without express invitation; so he used to leave his seat, while the whole theatre clamoured for him enthusiastically, and disappear until Vitellius, as President of the Games, came in pursuit and, on behalf of the audience, persuaded him to reconsider his decision.

5. Since he was the favourite of three emperors, Vitellius won the usual magistracies and several fat priesthoods, and later served as Governor-general of Africa and as Minister of Public Works. His reputation and energies, however, varied with the employment given him. Though exceptionally honest during the two-year administration of Africa, where he temporarily acted for his brother, Vitellius's behaviour at Rome was by no means so commendable: he used to pilfer offerings and ornaments from the temples, or replace gold and silver with brass and tin.

6. He married Petronia, a consul's daughter who, in her will, made their one-eyed son, Petronianus, her heir, though stipulating that Vitellius must renounce paternal rights. To this he consented; but his subsequent story — that Petronianus, having shown parricidal leanings, had been overcome by feelings of guilt and drunk the poison with which he had intended to orphan himself — won little credence; most people believed simply that Vitellius had done away with the boy. Next, he married Galeria Fundana, whose father was a praetor; she bore him one daughter, and a son who had so bad a stammer that he could hardly force out a word.

7. Galba's appointment of Vitellius to the governorship of Lower Germany was an unpopular one; the accepted view to-day is that Titus Vinius arranged it. This Vinius, a man of great influence, was well-disposed towards Vitellius because they were fellow-supporters of the 'Blues' in the Circus. Yet since Galba had openly stated that a glutton was the sort of rival whom he feared least, and that he expected Vitellius to cram his belly with the fruits of the province, the appointment must have been made in contempt, not approval. Vitellius was so short of funds at the time, and in such low water generally — this is common knowledge — that he rented an attic for his wife and children at Rome, let his own house for the remainder of the year and, to finance the journey, actually pawned a pearl torn from an ear-ring in his mother's ear. The only means by which he could shake off the huge crowd of creditors who were continuously waylaying him — these included the people of Sinuessa and Formiae whose public funds he had embezzled — was to scare them with false accusations. Thus he pressed an action for assault against a freedman who had dunned him once too often, claiming to have been struck and kicked, and demanding damages in the amount of 500 gold pieces.

The army's dislike of Galba having now reached a stage little short of mutiny, they welcomed Vitellius with open arms, as a gift from the gods. After all, here was the son of a man who had held three consulships; in the prime of life, too, and of an easy, generous disposition. Vitellius's conduct on the march further enhanced their good opinion of him. He would greet even private soldiers with an embrace, and at wayside inns behaved most affably towards the muleteers and such like whom he met in the morning, inquiring whether they had yet breakfasted, and then belching loudly to prove that he had done so himself.

8. At his headquarters in Germany he granted every favour asked of him, and cancelled all punishments whatsoever, whether the man concerned were in disgrace, awaiting trial, or undergoing sentence. Consequently, before a month had passed, a group of soldiers suddenly crowded into his bedroom, saluted him as Emperor and, late though the hour was, carried him around the larger villages without even giving him time to dress. In the first flush of congratulation someone presented Vitellius with a drawn sword, taken from a temple of Mars, which had once been Julius Caesar's, and this he carried in his hand. During his absence a stove set fire to the dining-room at Headquarters; but when this unlucky portent caused general concern he told the troops: 'Courage, my men! Light is given us.' That was the only speech he made them. The army in Upper Germany had previously pledged its loyalty to the Senate, rather than to Galba, and now came out in his favour. Vitellius then assumed the surname Germanicus, which everyone eagerly pressed on him, but hesitated to accept the title Augustus, and emphatically rejected the surname Caesar.

9. As soon as news reached Germany of Galba's murder, Vitellius put his affairs in order: splitting the army into two divisions, one of which stayed with him. He sent the other against Otho, and it was at once granted a lucky augury: an eagle, swooping down from the right hand, hovered over the standards, and flew slowly ahead of the advancing columns. However, when he marched off with the second division, several equestrian statues raised in his honour collapsed because the horses' legs were weakly made; also, the laurel wreath which he had so ceremoniously bound on his head fell into a stream, and a few days later while he was presiding over a court at Vienne, a rooster perched first on his shoulder, then on his hand. These presages were confirmed by future events, for he proved unable to support the weight of power won for him by his generals.

10. The news of the victory at Betriacum, and of Otho's suicide, reached Vitellius before he had left Gaul. At once he disbanded all Guards battalions in Rome by a comprehensive decree, accusing them of a disgraceful lapse in discipline: they must surrender their arms to the commanding officers. He gave further orders for the arrest and punishment of 120 Guards known to have demanded a bounty from Otho in respect of services rendered at Galba's assassination. These irreproachably correct acts raised the hope that Vitellius would make an admirable Emperor, but the rest of his behaviour was in keeping, rather, with the character he had shown in the past, and fell far short of the Imperial. At the outset of his march, for instance, he had himself carried through the main streets of the cities on his route, wearing triumphal dress; crossed rivers in elaborately decorated barges wreathed in garlands; and always kept a lavish supply of delicacies within reach of his hand. He let discipline go by the board, and would joke about the excesses committed by his men; not content with being wined and dined everywhere at public expense, they amused themselves by freeing slaves at random and then whipping, wounding, and even murdering whoever tried to restrain them. When he reached one of the recent battlefields, where the stench of unburied corpses caused some consternation, Vitellius cheered his companions with the brazen remark: 'Only one thing smells sweeter to me than a dead enemy, and that is a dead fellow-citizen.' Nevertheless, he took a good swig of neat wine to counteract this perfume and generously passed the flagon around. Equally offensive was his remark when he came across Otho's simple headstone: 'Well, he deserved this type of mausoleum.' Having sent the dagger with which Otho had killed himself to the Temple of Mars at Cologne, he staged an all-night debauch on the slopes of the Apennines.

11. At last, amid fanfares of trumpets, Vitellius entered Rome in full uniform and surrounded by standards and banners — a display permitted only when the Senate had decreed a triumph or ovation for the defeat of a foreign army. His staff also wore military cloaks, and his soldiers carried drawn swords. Paying less and less attention to all laws, human or divine, Vitellius next assumed the office of Chief Pontiff, and chose to do so on the anniversary of the Allia defeat, a day of evil omen. On the same occasion he announced his appointments for the ten years ahead, and elected himself life-Consul. Then he dispelled any doubt as to which of the Caesars was to be his model by sacrificing to Nero's ghost and, at the subsequent banquet, while a popular flautist was performing, called for something from Nero's Dominicus as an encore. When the flautist obliged with one of these compositions, Vitellius jumped up delightedly and led the applause.

12. This was how his reign began. Later, he based many important political decisions on what the lowest performers in the theatre or arena told him, and relied particularly on the advice of his freedman Asiaticus. Asiaticus had been Vitellius's slave and catamite, but soon grew tired of this role and ran away. After a while he was discovered selling cheap drinks at Puteoli, and put in chains until Vitellius ordered his release and made him his favourite. However, Asiaticus behaved so insolently, and so thievishly as well, that Vitellius sold him to an itinerant trainer of gladiators; but impulsively bought him back when he was just about to take part in the final match of a gladiatorial contest. When sent to govern Lower Germany, Vitellius freed Asiaticus, and on his first day as Emperor presented him with the gold ring of knighthood; which surprised everyone, because that very morning he had rejected a popular demand for this award, with the statement that Asiaticus's appointment would disgrace the Order.

13. Vitellius's ruling vices were gluttony and cruelty. He banqueted three and often four times a day, namely morning, noon, afternoon, and evening — the last meal being mainly a drinking bout — and survived the ordeal well enough by taking frequent emetics. What made things worse was that he used to invite himself out to private banquets at all hours; and these never cost his various hosts less than 4,000 gold pieces each. The most notorious feast of the series was given him by his brother on his entry into Rome; 2,000 magnificent fish and 7,000 game birds are said to have been served. Yet even this hardly compares in luxuriousness with a single tremendously large dish which Vitellius dedicated to the Goddess Minerva and named 'Shield of Minerva the Protectress'. The recipe called for pike-livers, pheasant-brains, peacock-brains, flamingo-tongues, and lamprey-milt; and the ingredients, collected in every corner of the Empire from the Parthian frontier to the Straits of Gibraltar, were brought to Rome by naval triremes. Vitellius paid no attention to place or time in satisfying his remarkable appetite. While a sacrifice was in progress, he thought nothing of snatching lumps of meat or cake off the altar, almost out of the sacred fire, and bolting them down; and on his travels would devour cuts of meat fetched smoking hot from wayside cookshops, and even yesterday's half-eaten scraps.

14. His cruelty was such that he would kill or torture anyone at all on the slightest pretext — not excluding noblemen who had been his fellow-students or friends, and whom he lured to Court by promises of the highest advancement. One of them, with fever on him, asked for a glass of cold water; Vitellius brought it with his own hands, but added poison. As for all the money-lenders, tax-collectors and dealers who had ever dunned him at Rome, or demanded prompt payment for goods or services on the road, it is doubtful whether he showed mercy in a single instance. When one of these men paid a courtesy call at the Palace, Vitellius sent him off to be executed, but a moment later countermanded the order. The courtiers praised this clemency, but Vitellius explained that he merely wished to give himself a treat by having the man killed before his eyes. Two sons came to plead for their father's life; he had all three of them despatched. A knight who was being marched away to his death called out: 'You are my heir!' Vitellius granted a stay of execution until the will had been produced; then, finding himself named as joint-heir with the knight's freedman, ordered master and man to die together. He executed some of the commons for disparaging the 'Blues', on the suspicion that such criticism was directed against him. He particularly disliked lampoonists and astrologers, and made away at once with any who came up before him. This resentment dated from when an edict of his, forbidding any astrologers to remain in Italy after 1 October, had been capped with a counter-edict:

Decreed by all astrologers
In blessing on our State:
Vitellius will be no more
On the appointed date.

According to some accounts, a Chattian prophetess, whom Vitellius credited with oracular powers, had promised him a long and secure reign if he outlived his mother; so when she fell sick, he had her starved to death. Another version of the story is that his mother, grown weary of the present and apprehensive of the future, begged him for a supply of poison; a request which he was not slow to grant.

15. In the eighth month of Vitellius's reign the Moesian and Pannonian legions repudiated him and swore allegiance to Vespasian; those in Syria and Judaea followed suit and could take their oaths to him in person. To keep the goodwill of his remaining troops, Vitellius embarked on a course of limitless public and private generosity. He opened a recruiting campaign and promised volunteers immediate discharge after victory, with the full rights and privileges of regular service. When Vespasian's forces converged on Rome, he sent against them the troops who had fought at Betriacum, under their original officers, and put his brother in command of a fleet manned by recruits and gladiators. Realizing, however, that he was being beaten or betrayed on every side, he approached Flavius Sabinus, Vespasian's brother, and asked: 'What is my abdication worth?' Sabinus offered him his life and a fee of a million gold pieces. Later, from the Palace steps, Vitellius announced his decision to the assembled soldiers, explaining that the imperial power had, after all, been forced upon him. When an uproar of protest greeted this speech, he at once retracted it; but next day went in mourning to the Rostra and tearfully read it out again from a scroll. Once more the soldiers and the City crowds shouted 'Stand fast!' and outdid one another in their expressions of loyalty. Suddenly taking heart, Vitellius drove the unsuspecting Sabinus and his Flavian relatives into the Capitol, set fire to the Temple of Jupiter Greatest and Best, and burned them alive. He watched the play of the flames and his victims' struggles while banqueting in the mansion which had belonged to the Emperor Tiberius; but was soon overcome by remorse and blamed someone else for the murder. He next called an assembly and forced all present to bear witness that peace was now his sole objective. Then, drawing his dagger of state, he tried in turn to make the Consul, the praetors, the quaestors, and the remaining senators accept it. When all refused, he went to lay it up in the Temple of Concord. However, they called him back by shouting: 'No, my lord, you yourself are Concord!' So back he came, saying: 'Very well, I will keep the dagger and adopt the divine name you have graciously awarded me.'

16. Vitellius also made the Senate send envoys, accompanied by the Vestal Virgins, to arrange an armistice with Vespasian, or at least to gain time for deliberation. But on the following day, while he was waiting to hear the outcome of these pourparlers, a scout arrived with news that enemy detachments were close at hand. Stowing himself furtively into a sedan-chair, and accompanied by his pastry-cook and chef, he hurried to his father's house on the Aventine. He had planned an escape from there into Campania. But a faint rumour of peace tempted him back to the Palace, which he found deserted, and when his two companions drifted away, he strapped on a money-belt full of gold pieces and hid in the janitor's quarters, tethering a dog outside and jamming a bed against the door.

17. Vespasian's advance guard had entered Rome without opposition, and at once began looting the Palace, as was to be expected. They hauled Vitellius from his hiding-place and, not recognizing him, asked who he was and whether he knew the Emperor's where-abouts. Vitellius gave some lying answer, but was soon identified; so he begged to be placed in safe custody, even if that meant prison, because he must see Vespasian on a matter of life and death. Instead, his hands were tied behind him, a noose was fastened round his neck, and amid cheers and abuse the soldiers dragged him, half-naked, with his clothes in tatters, along the Sacred Way to the Forum. They pulled his head back by the hair, as is done with criminals, and stuck a sword-point under the chin, which exposed his face to public contempt. Dung and filth were hurled at him, also such epithets as 'Greedy-guts' and 'Fire-raiser'; and his forlorn appearance occasioned loud laughter. Indeed, Vitellius looked queer enough even at his best, being unusually tall, with an alcoholic flush, a huge paunch and a limp, the result of a chariot-crash — Caligula had been driving at the time. The soldiers put him through the torture of the little cuts before finally killing him near the Stairs of Mourning. Then they dragged his body to the Tiber with a hook and threw it in.

18. Vitellius died at the age of fifty-six; nor did his brother and son outlive him. The omen of the rooster at Vienne (noted above) had been interpreted as meaning that a Gaul would kill him — gallus is both a 'cock' and a 'Gaul'. This proved correct: the officer who despatched him was one Antonius Primus, a native of Toulouse, and his boyhood nickname had been Becco ('rooster's beak').