69 A.D: The Year of Four Emperors

By Gwyn Morgan | Go to book overview

7
The Reign of Vitellius
(April to September 69)

Otho's suicide ought to be treated—so some might think—as the last event in his reign. It was his final act as emperor and, since he ended his life before he heard the news of the surrender at Bedriacum, it also marked the high point of that reign, setting up the paradox over which both contemporaries and posterity would puzzle, that “nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” Tacitus certainly reports it in this manner, but not only in this manner. He has already set a passage immediately after his obituary for Galba, in which he describes the reactions of Rome's inhabitants—senators, knights, and common people—to the prospect of choosing between Otho and Vitellius. Nobody, he asserts, could see themselves going to the temples to pray for the safety of either man. They were the vilest of mortals, seemingly picked by the fates to destroy the empire. In fact, “the one thing you could expect to learn from a war between them was that the victor would be the worse.” This makes Otho's suicide as much a beginning as an end, and Tacitus builds it up programmatically, to overshadow the reign of his successor, a man who, in Tacitus' opinion, ought never to have become emperor.

As Tacitus tells the story, Otho must have committed suicide at dawn on 16 April, after he heard the news of the defeat of his troops at Bedriacum, but before he learnt or could learn that the survivors were going to surrender.1 In one sense this detail is not as significant as it may appear. The soldiers who straggled in from the battle, after all, cannot have held out much hope. And Otho could not expect Vitellius to spare his life, even if clemency was extended—as it was—to each and every one of his generals. The senators who could claim to have been following orders, like Suetonius Paulinus, Marius Celsus, Annius Gallus, and Flavius Sabinus, were not the only ones to benefit. So too did close associates like the two prefects of the praetorian guard, Licinius Proculus and Plotius Firmus, and even Otho's brother Salvius Titianus. Yet aside from Plotius Firmus, who was already with the emperor, none of these men made their way to Brixellum after the battle. Three of them, Celsus, Gallus, and Titianus, found it necessary (or convenient) to oversee the

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