Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 11:21PM
Jeff Bell

Today in History: Aulus Vitellius is recognized as the Emperor of Rome by the german legions (not the senate). He would later be recognized as the Emperor of Rome by the senate a few months later. He was 1 of 4 emperors that year.

When I started looking into Vitellius I discovered that he was the 3rd Emperor of Rome in the year 69 AD. 69 AD has been referred to as the Year of Four Emperors. The 4 Emperors were Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. Let's look at Vitellius' beginnings

Aulus Vitellius was born in September, 15 AD to Lucius Vitellius and his wife Sestilia. Lucius Vitellius served in several powerful positions of office. Like his father, Aulus Vitellius held public office as a curator of public works, proconsul of North Africa, two priests hoods - one as pontifex maximus or high priest-, and also  as governor of Lower Germany late in 68 AD. This last position was a bit of a surprise to everyone as he had very little experience in the areas that would help him control this region, but some feel his reputation for gambling and gluttony may have figured in his selection. Some figured that if he was in a position of power to sate his hunger for both food and money and would remain loyal to Galba for appointing him to this position. Galba would later regret this decision.

Starting with Nero's suicide in 68, civil war broke out in the Roman Empire. Nero was led to suicide when the Praetorian Guard prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus, incited his men to transfer their loyalty from Nero to Galba in June of 68. Nero was left powerless and the Senate declared him an enemy of the state and He fled the city and committed suicide. Galba was declared as emperor and welcomed into the city at the head of a single legion, VII Galbiana. It was at this time that Galba started cleaning house in Germany, replacing those he felt were disloyal with his own people. This was when Vitellius was put into his position as governor.

Almost immediately, Galba started to destroy his popularity on his march to Rome by either taxing the towns he passed or by destroying then when they didn't pay. He overturned a lot of Nero's reforms and he refused to pay the  Praetorian Guard as reward for safely delivering him to Rome. The Rhine legions refused to swear allegiance to him, which set Galba to panic. Otho, seeing an opportunity, bribed the Praetorian Guard to side with him. When Galba heard about the coup, he went to the public in an attempt to stabilize the situation. Unfortunately he was not able to round up any support . Shortly afterwards, the Praetorian Guard killed him in the Forum.

Otho was appointed as Emperor by the Senate that same day. Otho had his problems but they were nothing compared to Galba, so he was welcomed by many. Unfortunately for Otho, Vitellius was marching on Italy from Germany. The army that backed Vitellius was made up of grizzled vets from the Germanic wars which intimidated Otho to send a proposal of peace. He proposed that that he marry Vitellius' daughter.

With the armies already en route to Italy, it was too late to dissuade  Vitellius. Otho was outmatched on several small battles and was ultimately defeated in the Battle of Bedriacum. Rather than keep the civil war going, Otho committed suicide, ending his 3 month reign as Emperor. 

Vitellius was then appointed as Emperor by the Senate and he set out for Rome. Vitellius was content to feast and enjoy parades that caused the treasury to close due to bankruptcy. Vitellius accrued a lot of debt and, when debt collects tried to collect, he ordered the torture and execution of anyone who tried to collect. 

Meanwhile, the legions stationed in the African province of Egypt and the Middle East provinces of Iudaea (Judea/Palestine) and Syria had chose Vespasian, not Vitellius, as emperor. The Danubian legions of the provinces of Raetia and Moesia also chose Vespasian as Emperor in August, and led by Marcus Antonius Primus invaded Italy. In October, the forces led by Primus won a crushing victory over Vitellius' army at the Second Battle of Bedriacum.

Facing defeat and surround by enemies, Vitellius made a last attempt to win the city to his side. He distributed bribes and promises of power to those who might be able to help. He tried to force several allied tribes, such as the Batavians, into helping him but he had been refused. The Danube army was closing in on Rome and realizing the immediate threat, Vitellius made a last attempt to gain time and sent emissaries to try to negotiate peace. The next day, messengers arrived with news that the enemy had reached the gates of the city. Vitellius went into hiding preparing to flee, but decided on a last visit to the palace. it was at the palace that he was caught by Vespasian's men and killed. The Senate official appointed Vespasian as emperor on the following day. This was on December 21, 69.

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