Vitellius the 9th Caesar (written by Suetonius).

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I have been writing lots of poems about love, but if Vitellius was around, he would have paid no attention whatsoever. His main aim was to kill.

Submitted: June 03, 2018

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Submitted: June 03, 2018



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 Divus Augustus' qauestors, Quintus Elogius, descibed the family as follows: 'You Vitelli 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, Vitellii were to be found along the Vitellian Way, which runs  from the Janiculum to the sea, and the people of a settlement there of the same name demanded permission to defend themselves against the Aequiculi under their own officers. Another group of Vitellii, serving in the Roman army during the Samnite war, were dispatched to Apulia and established themselves at Nuceria, but eventually their descendants went back to resume senatorial privileges at Rome.
On the other hand many people claim that the family had been founded by a freedman; Cassius Severus and a few others add that he was a cut-rate shoemaker, whose son made a comfortable living as professional litigant and a dealer in confiscated property, before marrying a lowclass woman, the daughter of a baker named Antiochus, and fathering on her a Roman eques. We may leave undecided the question of which account is correct.

At all events, whether his ancestry should have inspired pride or shame, Publius Vitellius of Nuceria was certainly an eques and a procurator under Augustus. He passed on his name to four distinguished 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 was degraded in a purge of subversive senators proposed by Tiberius. Publius 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' conspiracy. When handed over to the custody of his own brother, Aulus, he cut his wrists with a penknife, yet he 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 became consul and then  governor of Syria, where with masterly diplomacy he included King Artabanus of Parthia to attend a parley and even to worship the legionary standards. 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' integrity and industry were outstanding; the only blot on his fame was a scandalous infatuation for a certain freedwoman, whose spittle he would mix with honey and use every day, quite openly, as a salve for his neck and throat. A skilful flatterer, he instituted the practice of worshipping Gaius as a god: on his return from Syria, he never dared enter the imperial presence without covering his head, turning around, and finally prostrating himself. Since Claudius, Gaius'  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; thereafter he nursed the right shoe inside  his toga, occasionally taking it out to kiss it. He placed golden images of Narcissus and Pallas among his household gods. He is also the one who said to Claudius, ''May you do this very often!''  when he was congratulating him at the celebration of the Saecular Games.
Lucius died of paralysis on the day after he had been accused of 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'.
Luciu' son Aulus Vitellius, the future emperor, was born on 24 September, 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 revent him from winning a provincial governorship, and when he was proclaimed emperor in Germany his mother gave him up for lost. Vitellius had spent his boyhood and adolescence on Capreae among Tiberius' 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.
Vitellius, as he grew up, was notorious for every sort of vice and became a fixture at court: Gaius admired his skill in chariot driving, Claudius his skill at dice. Nero not only appreciated these talents, but was also indebted to him for one particular service. At the Neronia, Nero was anxious tgo compete in the lyre-playing contest, but did not dare do so even though the whole theatre clamoured for him enthusiastically; so he left his seat and disappeared until Vitellius, as president of the games, came in pursuit and on behalf of the audience persuaded him to reconsider his decision.
Since he was the favorite of three emperors, Vitellius won the usual magistracies and several very distinguished priesthoods, and later served as governor of Africa and minister of public works. His reputation and energies, however, varied with the employment given him. He was exceptionally honest during his two-year administration of Africa, where he acted as legate for his brother, who succeeded him. But Vitellius' behaviour at Rome was by no means so commendable: he used to pilfer offerings and ornaments from the temples and replace gold and silver with brass and pewter.
He married Petronia, a consul's daughter, who in her will made their one-eyed son Petronianus her heir, with the proviso that Vitellius renounce paternal rights. To this he consented, but then shortly thereafter, as most people think, killed the boy; Vitellius' story was that Petronianus, when accused of planning parricide, had been overcome by feelings of guilt and had himself drunk the poison which he had intended to use against his father. 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.
Galba's appointment of Vitellius to the governorship of Lower Germany was entirely unexpected; the accepted view today is that Titus Vinius arranged it. This Vinius, a man of very great influence at the time, 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 m ade 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 financed his journey by pawning a pearl taken from his mother's earring. 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 revenues he had embezzled--was to scare them with false accusations. Thus he pressed an action for assault against a freedman who had damned him once too often, claiming to have been struck and kicked, and demanding damages in the amount of 50,000 sesterces.
The army 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' conduct further enhanced their initial good opinion of him. He would greet even private soldiers with an embrace, and at wayside inns he behaved most affably towards the muleteers and suchlike whom he met in the morning, enquiring whether they had yet breakfasted, and then belching loudly to prove that he had done so himself.
At his camp in Germany he granted every favour asked of him and cancelled all punishments whatsoever, whether the men 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 shrine 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, which had previously pledged its loyalty to the Senate rather than to Galba, now came out in his favour. Vitellius then assumed the cognomen Germanicus, which everyone eagerly pressed on him, but he hesitated to accept that of Augustus, and emphatically rejected that of Caesar.
As soon as news reached Germany of Galba's murder, Vitellius put his affairs in order and split 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 Vienna, 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 legates.
The news of the victory at Betriacum and of Otho's suicide reached Vitellius before he had left Gaul. At once he disbanded all praetorian cohorts in Rome by a comprehensive decree, accusing them of a disgraceful lapse in discipline: they must surrender their arms to the tribunes. He gave further orders for the arrest and punishment of 120 praetorians known to have demanded a bounty from Otho in respect of services rendered at Galba's assassination. These irreproachable correct acts raised the hope that Vitellius would make an admirable emperor, but the rest of his behaviour was instead in keeping 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; he crossed rivers in elaborately decorated barges wreathed in garlands; and he always kept a lavish supply of delicacies within reach of his hand. He let discipling 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 those things 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 Colonia Agrippinensis, he staged an all-night religious festival on the slopes of the Apennines.
At last, amid fanfares of trumpets, Vitellius entered Rome wearing a commander's cloak and a sword, surrounded by by standards and banners; his staff 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 pontifex maximus--and chose to do so on the anniversary of the Allia defeat. On the same occasion he announced his appointments for the ten years ahead, and elected himself consul for life. Then he dispelled any doubt as to what model he would follow in managing the commonwealth by making commemorative offerings to Nero in the middle of the Campus Martius, amid a crowd of public priests. At the subsequent banquet, while a popular lyre player was performing, Vitellius admonished him that he should also play 'something of the Master's'; when the player started in on one of Nero's solos, Vitellius jumped up delightedly and led the applause.
This was how his reign began. Later, he based many important political decisions on what the lowest performers in the theatre and circus told him, and relied particularly on the advice of his freedman Asiaticus. Asiaticus had been Vitellius' slave and sexual partner, but he soon grew tired of this role and ran away. After a while he was discovered selling cheap drinks at Puteoli, and was put in chains until Vitellius ordered his release and again 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 he 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 he presented him with the gold ring of equestrian status; this surprised everyone, because that very morning he had rejected a popular demand for this award with the statement that Asiaticus' appointment would disgrace the order.
Vitellius' 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 vomiting frequently. 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 les than 400,000 sesterces each. The most notorious feast of the series was given him by his brother Lucius 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 and named  'The 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 Spanish  straits, 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 he would devour cuts of meat fetched smoking hot from wayside cookshops, and even yesterday's half-eaten scraps.
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 lure 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 moneylenders, creditors an d taxcollectors who had ever dunned him at Rome or demanded prompt payment for goods or sevices on the road, it is doubtful whether he showed mercy i 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 coirtiers praised theis 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 dispatched. An eques 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 man's freedman, ordered the two of them to die together. He even executed some of the common people 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 the Kalends of 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 prophetess of the Chatti, whom Vitellius credited with oracular powers, had promised him a long and secure reing 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.
In the eighth month of Vitellius' reign the Moesian and Pannonian legions repudiated him and swore allegiance to Vespasian; those in Syria and Judea followed suit and took their oaths 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 in Rome and promised volunteers immediate discharge after victory, with the full rights and privileges of regular service. When the forces supporting Vespasian 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 100 million sesterces. 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 put things off; but next day he went in mourning to the Rostra and tearfully read it out again from a scroll. Once more the soldiers and the crowds shouted 'Stand fast!' and outdid one another in their expressions of loyalty. Suddenly taking heart, Vitellius drove the unsuspecting Sabinus and Flavius supporters into the Capitol, set fire to the temple of Jupiter Optimus, and burned them alive; he watched the play of the flames and his victims struggles while banqueting in the mansion which had belonged to Tiberius. He was soon overcome by remorse and, blaming someone else for the murder, he called an assembly and forced all present to bear witness that peace was now his sole objective. Then, drawing his dagger, he tried in turn to make the consul, the other magistrates 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, 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.'
Vitellius also made the Senate send envoys, accompanied by the Vestral Virgins, to arrange an armistice or at least to gain time for deliberation. But on the following day, while he was waiting for a response, a scout arrived with news that enemy detachments were close at hand. Stowing himself furtively into a sedan chair and accompanied only by his pastrycook and chef, he hurried to his father's house on the Aventine, having 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 slipped away he strapped on a money belt full of gold pieces and hid in the doorkeeper's quarters, tethering a dog outside and jamming a mattress against the door.
The advance guard had entered Rome without opposition and at once began searching about, as was to be expected. They hauled Vitellius from his hiding placeand, not recognizing him, asked who he was and whether he knew the emperor's whereabouts. Vitellius gave some lying answer, but was soon identified; so he begged to be placed in safe custody, even if that meant prison, on the ground that he had certain information crucial to vespasian's safety. Instead, his hands were tied behind him, a noose was fastened around 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. The pulled his head back by his hair, as is done with criminals, and stuck a sword point under his 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--Gaius had been driving at the time. The soldiers put him through the torture of the little cuts before finally killing him near the Gemonian Stairs. Then they dragged his body to the Tiber with a hook and threw it in.
Vitellius died at the age of fifty-six; nor did his brother and son outlive him. The oomen of the rooster at Vienna, noted above, had been interpreted as meaning that a Gaul would kill him. This proved correct: the general who dispatch him was Antonius Primus, a native of Tolosa, and his boyhood nickname had been Becco, which means 'rooster's beak'.

The End. 

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