By Jean Marie Carey

Even measured by a tumultuous and cruel time, Vitellius, born 24 September 15, was a terrible emperor despised by the Roman army, civilians, and Senate. Reigning for eight months of the “Year of Four Emperors” in 69, succeeding Galba and Otho, Vitellius was the first to add the honorific cognomen Germanicus to his name instead of Caesar.

Vitellius executed Roman creditors demanding repayment for their financing of the Legion. With financial affairs in a state of calamity, Vitellius took to killing citizens who had named him as their heir, often together with any co-heirs. Moreover, he engaged in the pursuit of every possible rival, inviting them to the palace with promises of power, only to order their assassination. His claim to the throne was soon challenged by legions stationed in the eastern provinces, who proclaimed their commander Vespasian emperor instead. War ensued, leading to a crushing defeat for Vitellius at the Second Battle of Bedriacum in northern Italy. Once he realised his support was wavering, Vitellius prepared to abdicate in favor of Vespasian but was executed in Rome by Vespasian’s soldiers on 22 December 69.

The Senate acknowledged Vespasian as emperor on the following day, beginning a phase of relative stability.

Reference: Don Nardo. “Vitellius.“ The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of ancient Rome, Greenhaven Press, 2002, p. 68. (Gale Online World History in Context.)

Gold Aureus of Vitellius. Reverse: Libertas standing, holding pileus in right hand and long rod in left; LIBERTAS RESTITVTA. c. 69. Wriston Art Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin Ottilia Buerger Coin Collection, Nr. 91146.

Emperor Vitellius, c. 50. Rock crystal; found in Caesarea. Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives, Nr. 08-05-06/62.

Antonio Tempesta, Emperor Galba on Horseback, The First Twelve Roman Caesars, c. 1596. The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol. 35, Antonio Tempesta: Italian Masters of the Sixteenth Century, Nr. 602 (146).

Tintoretto, c. 1550, Head of Emperor Vitellius. University of California, San Diego.  

Unknown sculptor, Emperor Vitellius, c. 1650. Onyx, porphyry. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. MV 6185.

Further Reading: David Colin Arthur Shotter. Lives of Galba, Otho & Vitellius. Warminster, Eng.: Aris & Phillips, 1993. 

Nancy H. Ramage. Roman art: Romulus to Constantine. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson, 2015. 

Charles L. Murison. Galba, Otho and Vitellius: Careers and Controversies. Hildesheim: Olms Verlag, 1993.

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