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Aulus Vitellius

(15—69 ad)


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(ad 15–69),

Roman emperor in 69, son of Lucius Vitellius, was friendly with Gaius 1, Claudius, and Nero. Consul in 48, he became proconsul of Africa (see pro consule; africa, roman), then served as legate to his brother in the same post. Galba appointed him governor of Lower Germany in November 68. Vitellius won over the disaffected soldiers in the province by display of generosity. On 2 January 69 Vitellius was proclaimed emperor by his troops, and quickly won the support of the legions of Upper Germany, which had refused allegiance to Galba on 1 January. His main supporters were the legionary legates Fabius Valens and Caecina Alienus, and soon most of the western provinces and Africa were on his side. Galba had been replaced by Otho, who killed himself on 16 April after his army had been defeated at Bedriacum by the Vitellian forces. After an undisciplined march Vitellius entered Rome in July; he made offerings to Nero, and had himself created consul in perpetuity. Hostile sources emphasize Vitellius' gluttony, indolence, and incompetence, though he displayed restraint in dealing with Otho's supporters. He replaced the existing praetorian guard with sixteen cohorts recruited from his German legions. But he did nothing to placate troops who had been defeated or betrayed at Bedriacum, and detachments of the three Moesian legions summoned by Otho returned to their bases.

At the beginning of July Vespasian was proclaimed emperor, and soon all the troops in the east supported him. The legions in Pannonia, Dalmatia, and Moesia rapidly deserted Vitellius, and under the leadership of Antonius Primus, invaded Italy. Vitellius failed to block the Alpine passes, leaving the defence of Italy to Valens, who was ill, and Caecina, who occupied Cremona and Hostilia with an army including four legions; he had aimed to defend the line of the river Po, but collaborated with the Flavians. Caecina's army refused to follow his lead and arrested him. Junior officers led the army back to Cremona, between which and Bedriacum in a hard‐fought battle (October 69) the Vitellian forces were defeated. As the Flavians advanced on Rome, there were steady desertions from Vitellius' cause, though his praetorians remained loyal. Vespasian's brother, Flavius Sabinus, city prefect, persuaded Vitellius to abdicate, but the agreement was frustrated by the mob in Rome, and some of the emperor's soldiers, who forced Sabinus and his supporters to take refuge on the Capitol, where the temple of Jupiter was burnt down. The Flavian army now attacked the city and overcame Vitellian resistance in fierce street fighting. Vitellius was dragged through the streets, humiliated, tortured, and killed.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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