Roman Emperors Dir Vitellius

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Vitellius (69 A.D.)

David J. Coffta

Coin with the image of the Emperor Vitellius

The victory of Vitellius' generals over Otho at the First Battle of Bedriacum established his control at Rome; in the space of three months his men had both declared him emperor (January 69) and brought it to pass {April 69). Mindful of the part which the praetorian guard had previously played in the transfer of power (e.g.,the death of Galba ), Vitellius disbanded that group and replaced it with men of his own. A further precaution, the execution of many of Otho's centurions, made provincial commanders suspicious about their own safety, and some began to contemplate rebellion rather than await any further measures from Vitellius.

The armies of the eastern provinces declared Vespasian, governor of Judaea, their new emperor almost as soon as Vitellius had settled in Rome (July 69), and the troops stationed along the Danube (who had originally supported Otho in his struggle against Vitellius) now sided with Vespasian as well. Vespasian conservatively sent Gaius Licinius Mucianus, governor of Syria, toward Rome while he himself headed for Alexandria to secure control of the grain supply to the city. Among the Danube legions, however, and apparently without direct orders from Vespasian, the commander Marcus Antonius Primus took it upon himself to invade Italy in the late autumn of 69 with his own men and any who would join him. The generals who had served Vitellius in his rise to power did not help him now: Valens was ill and Caecina turned traitor. Primus defeated the Vitellians at the Second Battle of Bedriacum (October 69) and marched to Rome, too late to save Vespasian's brother, Flavius Sabinus, whom a Vitellian faction killed on the Capitoline. Their action spelled the end for Vitellius himself, who had perhaps been in negotiation with Mucianus for terms of personal surrender. Primus' arrival at Rome initiated street-fights which did not end even with the death of Vitellius, discovered in hiding. Vespasian's younger son, Domitian, who had been at Rome even during the reign of Vitellius, assured a position of authority in anticipation of his father's arrival, but the city remained largely at the mercy of Primus and the Danubian troops.

Mucianus arrived at Rome, put an end to the disorder, and maintained his interim position until replaced by Vespasian himself, who arrived at Rome in the summer of 70. Vitellius' was the last of the short reigns during the "Year of the Four Emperors," for Vespasian's accession marked the start of a tenure which was to last for a decade. He also had sons, Titus and Domitian, who could be legitimate heirs after the fashion of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. That same year, 70 A.D., the report from the provinces was not that yet another new man had been declared emperor, but that the current emperor's older son, Titus, had largely suppressed the First Jewish Revolt. The next year both he and his father held a triumph which, together with Vespasian's other reforms, restored to Rome a sense of stability which had for over a year been shaken by civil upheavals not seen since the end of the Republic.


Sources for this Entry:

Cary, M., A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine, London ,1962, 601-605.

Grant, M., History of Rome, New York, 1978, 286-289.

Momigliano, A. "Vitellius."OCD,2 952.

Ancient Sources:

Tacitus, Histories; Suetonius, Vitellius; Plutarch, Vitellius.

Recent Bibliography:

Bowman, Alan K., Edward Champlin, Andrew Lintott.The Cambridge Ancient History X; The Augustan Empire.2 Cambridge, 1996.

Murison, C.L. Galla, Otho, and Vitellius: Careers and Controversies. New York, 1993.

Sherk, R.K. The Roman Empire: Augustus to Hadrian. Cambridge, 1988.

Shotter, D. Suetonius: The Lives of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius with Translation and Commentary. Warminster, 1993.

Sutherland, C.H.V. Roman Imperial Coinage. vol. 1 London, 1984.

Copyright (C), David J. Coffta. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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