69 A.D: The Year of Four Emperors

By Gwyn Morgan | Go to book overview

4
The Opening of the Vitellian Offensive
(January and February)

While Otho horrified people by murdering Galba, Vitellius outraged their sensibilities by omitting to proclaim his respect for the constitutional proprieties. Whereas Otho called a senate meeting to secure legitimacy for his coup within a matter of hours, Vitellius and his supporters dispensed with appearances. So far as we can tell, there was no dispatch to the senate. There was no justification for his being hailed emperor by the armies on the Rhine. There was certainly no claim to be saving the state or ridding the world of a tyrant. And on his earliest coinage there was scarcely a reference to the senate and people of Rome. Some issues bore conventional legends like “Liberty restored” (LIBERTAS RESTITVTA) or the “rebirth of Rome” (ROMA RENASCENS). But these were outnumbered by those advertising the “agreement of the armies” (CONSENSVS EXERCITVVM), the “loyalty of the armies” (FIDES EXERCITVVM), or—whether an example of wishful thinking or an attempt to reassure Vitellius' own legions—the “praetorians' readiness to make common cause” with the rebels (CONCORDIA PRAETORIANORVM).1

This indifference to decorum is better attributed to inadvertence than to policy. Whether we call it an unconventional, even self-destructive streak, or an ongoing failure to grasp the importance of observing the usages of polite society, odd behavior shows up in every generation of Vitellius' family. As Suetonius tells us, eulogists had equipped them with a pedigree stretching back into mythological times. Yet the first Vitellii in the historical record are supposed to have been two patrician brothers who led an unsuccessful conspiracy to restore Tarquin the Proud to his throne in Rome, even though their sister Vitellia was married to the virtuous Lucius Brutus who had driven out the tyrant (Plutarch is our source for this snippet). In fact, of course, there was no link between this trio and Vitellius' family, but there might as well have been. Though they were five centuries apart, the same kind of behavior resurfaced from the start. So the emperor's grandfather Publius Vitellius, a knight from Luceria (or Nuceria) in Apulia in southern Italy, was put in charge of Augustus' purse for a time. But if Dio is to be believed, he had a brother

-74-

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