Otho Prepares for War
(January and February)
When Otho assassinated Galba on 15 January, he may have had no idea how serious the situation in Germany had become. Galba, from 9 January on, tried to restrict the information he was receiving to his immediate entourage, and—despite Plutarch—Otho cannot have been invited to their meetings. In public, before the guard and in the senate, Galba talked only of a mutiny by two legions. Since mutinies had been brought under control fairly easily in the past, Otho had no more reason than anybody else outside the charmed circle to imagine that this outbreak would be different, especially once he began planning to remove the man everybody thought the source of the troops' grievances. No doubt he heard the rumors circulating through the city, but he could discount them. Hence Suetonius can tell a story about his own father: Suetonius Laetus served as a military tribune in the war against Vitellius, and he asserted repeatedly that during the campaign “Otho had stated that he would not have made away with Galba, had he not been confident that he could carry through the business without a war.”
Still, there is another way of taking Suetonius Laetus' story. It is possible that Vinius was leaking the information from Germany to Otho as fast as it came in. This would not contradict Tacitus' statement that the messages became common knowledge only after Galba's death. But even if we assume that Otho knew of Vitellius' activities, it would not follow that his seizure of power was “an act of consummate and suicidal folly.”1 Vitellius was notoriously a glutton and a sluggard, and the correspondence between the two men suggests that Otho started from the assumption that Vitellius would back down when presented with a fait accompli, perhaps pleading as a face-saving measure that his quarrel had been only with Galba. What apparently occurred neither to Otho nor to anybody else for that matter is that gluttons and sluggards do not start revolts, and can hardly be expected to halt them once they get under way. Otho, that is, assessed his rival correctly, but failed to allow for— and without more information could not have allowed for—the influence of Caecina and Valens.