When the people in Rome heard of the fate of Otho, they naturally transferred their allegiance forthwith. And so Otho, whom they had previously been lauding and for whose victory they had been praying, was now abused as an enemy, whereas Vitellius, upon whom they had been invoking curses, was lauded and proclaimed emperor. So true is it that there is nothing constant in human affairs; but alike those who are most prosperous and those who are in the humblest station make an unstable choice and receive praise or blame, honor or dishonor, according as their fortunes shift.
News of Otho's death was brought to him Vitellius while he was in Gaul. There he was joined by his wife and son; and he placed the boy on a tribunal and grave him the titles of Germanicus and imperator, though he was only six years old.
Vitellius witnessed gladiatorial combats at Lugdunum and again at Cremona, as if the crowds of men who had perished in the battles and were even then lying unburied where they had been cast did not suffice. He beheld the slain with his own eyes, for have traversed all the ground where they lay and gloated over the spectacle as if it were still the moment of his victory; and not even then did he order them to be buried.
Vitellius, upon reaching Rome and arranging affairs to suit him, issued an edict banishing the astrologers and commanding them to leave the whole of Italy by a certain specified day. They answered him by putting up at night another notice, in which they commanded him in turn to depart this life before the end of the very day on which he actually died. So accurate was their foreknowledge of what should come to pass.
Vitellius, addicted as he was to luxury and licentiousness, no longer cared for anything else either human or divine. He had indeed always been inclined to idle about in taverns and gaming-houses, and devote himself to dancers and charioteers; and he used to spend incalculable sums on such pursuits, with the result that he had many creditors. Now, when he was in a position of so great authority, his wantonness only increased, and he was squandering money most of the day and night alike. He was insatiate in gorging himself, and was constantly vomiting up what he ate, being nourished by the mere passage of the food. Yet this practice was all that enabled him to hold out; for his fellow-banqueters fared very badly. For he was always inviting many of the foremost men to his table and he was frequently entertained at their houses. It was in this connexion that one of them, Vibius Crispus, uttered a very witty remark. Having been compelled for some days by sickness to absent himself from the convivial board, he said: "If I had not fallen ill, I surely should have perished." The entire period of his reign was nothing but a series of carousals and revels. All the most costly viands were brought from as far as the Ocean (not to say farther) and drawn from both land and sea, and were prepared I so costly a fashion that even now certain cakes and other dishes are named Vitellian, after him. And yet why should one name over all the details, when it is admitted by all alike that during the period of his reign he expended 900,000,000 sesterces on dinners? There soon was a famine in all costly articles of food, yet it was absolutely imperative that they should be provided. For example, he once caused a dish to be made that cost a million sesterces, into which he put a mixture of tongues and brains and livers of certain fishes and birds. As it was impossible to make so large a vessel of pottery, it was made of silver and remained in except for some time, being regard somewhat in the light of a votive offering, until Hadrian finally set eyes on it and melted it down.
Now that I have once touched on this subject, I will also add that not even Nero's Golden House could satisfy Vitellius. For though he admired and lauded the name and the life and all the practices of Nero, yet he found fault with him for living in such a wretched house, so scantily and meanly equipped. At any rate, when he fell ill one time, he looked about for a room to live in; so little did anything even of Nero's satisfy him. And his wife Galeria ridiculed the small amount of decoration found in the royal apartments. This pair, then, as they were spending other people's money, never stopped to count the cost of anything; but those who invited them to meals found themselves in great embarrassment, excepting a few to whom he gave something in return. Yet the same persons would not entertain him for the entire day, but one set of men furnished breakfast, another luncheon, another dinner, and still another certain kinds of dessert, "consolations for a jaded appetite." For all who were able to do so were eager to entertain him, so that in the course of a few days they spent four million sesterces for dinner. His birthday celebrations lasted over two days and many wild beasts and men, too, were slain.
Though he lived this kind of life, he was not entirely without good deeds. For example, he retained the coinage minted under Nero, Galba and Otho, evincing no displeasure at their likenesses; and any gifts that they had bestowed upon any persons he held to be valid and deprived no one of any such possession. He did not collect any sums still owing of former levies, and he confiscated nones' property. He put to death but very few of those who had sided with Otho, and did not withhold the property of these even from their relatives. Upon the kinsmen of those previously executed he bestowed all their funds that were still to be found in the public treasury. He did not even find fault with the wills of such as had fought against him and had fallen in the battles. Furthermore he forbade the senators and the knights to fight as gladiators or to perform in any spectacle in the orchestra. For these measures he was commended.
The character of Vitellius being such as I have described, the soldiers did not show any restraint either, but numerous instances of their wantonness and licentiousness were occurring everywhere alike.
Vitellius ascended the Capitol and embraced his mother. She was a good, honest soul, and when she first heard that her son had been given the name Germanicus, she said: "The child I bore was Vitellius, not Germanicus."
Vitellius, however, furnished many with material for amusement. They could not restrain their laughter when they beheld wearing a solemn face in the official religious processions a man whom they knew to have played the strumpet, or saw mounted on a royal steed and clad in a purple mantle him who used, as they knew full well, to wear the Blue costume and curry the race-horses, or when they beheld ascending the Capitol with so great a crowd of soldiers him whom previously no one could catch a glimpse of even in the Forum because of the throng of his creditors, or was receiving the adoration of all a man whom, a while before, nobody would readily have consented even to greet with a kiss. Indeed, those who had lent him anything had laid hold of him when he was setting out for Germany and would scarcely release him after he had given security. Now, however, so far from laughing at him, they water mourning and hiding themselves; but he sought them out, telling them he spared their lives in payment of the debt he owed, and he demanded back his notes.
He was a constant attendant at the theatres, and by this won the attachment of the populace. He ate with the most influential men on free and easy terms, and this gained their favor to an even greater degree. His old companions he never failed to remember and honored them greatly, not disdaining to appear to recognize any of them. In this he was unlike some others; for many who have unexpectedly attained to great power feel hatred for those who are acquainted with their former humble state.
Vitellius, when Priscus opposed him in the senate and also denounced the soldiers, called the tribunes to his side as if he needed their assistance. Yet he neither did Priscus any harm himself nor did he allow the tribunes to molest him, but merely said: "Be not disturbed, Fathers, nor indignant, that we two out of our number have had a little dispute with each other." This act seemed to have been due a kindly disposition. The fact, however, that he wished to imitate Nero and offered sacrifices to that emperor's Manes, and that he spent so great sums on dinners, though it caused joy to some, made sensible people grieve, since they were fully aware that not all the money in the whole world would be sufficient for him.
While he was behaving in this way, evil omens occurred. A comet was seen, and the moon, contrary to precedent, appeared to suffer two eclipses, being obscured on the fourth and on the seventh day. Also people saw two suns at once, one in the west weak and pale, and one in the east brilliant and powerful. On the Capitol many huge footprints were seen, presumably of some spirits that had descended from it. The soldiers who had slept there on the night in question said that the temple of Jupiter had opened of itself with great clangor and that some of the guards had been so terrified that they fainted.
At the same time that this happened Vespasian, who was engaged in warfare with the Jews, learned of the rebellion of Vitellius and of Otho and was deliberating what he should do.
Vespasian was never inclined to be rash, and he hesitated very much about involving himself in such troublous affairs.
For not only was the popular feeling strong in his favor since his reputation won in Britain, his fame derived from the war then in hand, his good nature, and his prudence, all led men to desire to have him at their head but Mucianus was also urging him strongly to this course, hoping that while Vespasian should have the name of emperor, he himself as a result of the other's good nature might enjoy an equal share of power. The soldiers, on perceiving all this, surrounded Vespasian's tent and hailed him as emperor. Portents and dreams had also come to him, pointing to his sovereignty long beforehand; these will be related in the story of his life. For the time being he sent Mucianus to Italy against Vitellius, while he himself, after looking at affairs in Syria and entrusting to others the conduct of the war against the Jews, proceeded to Egypt, where he collected money, of which naturally he was greatly in need, and grain, which he desired to send in as large quantities as possible to Rome. The soldiers in Moesia, hearing how matters stood with him, would not wait for Mucianus, they had learned that he was on the way, but chose as their general Antonius Primus, who had been sentenced to exile in Nero's reign but had been restored by Galba and was commander of the legion in Pannonia. Thus this man held supreme authority, although he had not been chosen either by the emperor or by the senate. So great was the soldiers' anger at Vitellius and their eagerness for plunder; for they were doing this for no other purpose than to pillage Italy. And their intention was realized.
Vitellius, when he heard about it, remained where he was and even then went on with his luxurious living, among other things arranging gladiatorial combats. In the course of these it was proposed that Sporus should be brought on to the stage in the rôle of a maiden being ravished, but he would not endure the shame and committed suicide beforehand. The conduct of the war was entrusted to Alienus and others. Alienus reached Cremona and occupied the town, but seeing that his own soldiers were out of training as a result of their luxurious life in Rome and impaired by a lack of drilling, whereas the others were well exercised in body and stout of heart, he felt afraid. Later, when friendly proposals came to him from Primus, he called the soldiers together, and by pointing out the weakness of Vitellius and the strength of Vespasian, as well as the character of the two men, he persuaded them to change sides. So at the time they removed the images of Vitellius from their standards and took oath that they would be ruled by Vespasian. But after the meeting had broken up and they had retired to their tents, they changed their minds and suddenly, rushing together in great haste and excitement, they again saluted Vitellius as emperor and imprisoned Alienus for having betrayed them, showing no reverence even for his consular office. Such things are, in fact, characteristic of civil wars.
The great confusion which under these conditions prevailed in the camp of Vitellius was increased that night by an eclipse of the moon. It was not so much its being obscured (though even such phenomena cause fear to men who are excited) as the fact that it appeared both blood-colored and black and gave out still other terrifying colors. Not even for this, however, would the men change their mind or yield; but when they came to blows with each other, they fought most eagerly, although, as I said, the Vitellians were leaderless; for Alienus had been imprisoned at Cremona.
On the following day, when Primus through messengers tried to induce them to come to terms, the soldiers of Vitellius sent back a message to him urging him in turn to espouse the cause of Vitellius; but when they came to blows with his soldiers they fought most eagerly. The battle was not the result of any definite plan. Some few horsemen, as often happens when two forces are encamped opposite each other, suddenly attacked some of the enemy's foragers, and then reinforcements came to both parties from their respective armies, just as these happened to become aware of the situation, first to one side, then to the other, now of one kind of fighting force, now of another, both infantry and cavalry; and the conflict was marked by the usual vicissitudes until all had hastened to the front. Then they got into some kind of regular formation, as if a signal had been given, and carried on the struggle with some order, even though leaderless; for Alienus had been imprisoned at Cremona.
From this point on the battle between them was a well-matched and evenly-balanced struggle, not only during the day but at night as well. For the coming of night did not separate them, so thoroughly angry and determined were they, albeit they recognized one another and talked back and forth. Hence neither hunger nor fatigue nor darkness nor wounds nor deaths, nor the remains of the men that had died on this field before, nor the memory of the disaster, nor the number of those that had perished to no purpose, mitigated their fierceness. Such was the madness that possessed both sides alike, and so eager were they, incited by the very memories of the spot, which made the one party resolved to conquer this time, too, and the other not to be conquered again. So they fought as if against foreigners and not kinsmen, and as if all on both sides alike were bound either to perish at once or thereafter be slaves. Therefore, not even when night came on, as I stated, would they yield; but, though tired out and for that reason often resting and engaging in conversation together, they nevertheless continued to struggle. As often as the moon shone out (it was constantly being concealed by numerous clouds of all shapes that kept passing in front of it), one might have seen them sometimes fighting, sometimes standing and leaning on their spears or even sitting down. Now they would all shout together on one side the name of Vespasian and on the other side that of Vitellius, and they would challenge each other in turn, indulging in abuse or in praise of the one leader or the other. Again one soldier would have a private would have a private conversation with an opponent: "Comrade, fellow-citizen, what are we doing? Why are we fighting? Come over to my side." "No, indeed! You come to my side." But what is there surprising about this, considering that when the women of the city in the course of the night brought food and drink to give to the soldiers of Vitellius, the latter, after eating and drinking themselves, passed the supplies on to their antagonists? One of them would call out the name of his adversary (for they practically all knew one another and were well acquainted) and would say: "Comrade, take and eat this; I give you, not a sword, but bread. Take and drink this; I hold out to you, not a shield, but a cup. Thus, whether you kill me or I you, we shall quit life more comfortably, and the hand that slays will not be feeble and nerveless, whether it be yrs that smites me or mine that smites you. For these are the meats of consecration that Vitellius and Vespasian give us while we are yet alive, in order that they may offer us as a sacrifice to the dead slain long since." That would be the style of their conversation, after which they would rest a while, eat a bit, and then renew the battle. Soon they would stop again, and then once more join in conflict. It went on this way the while night through till dawn broke.
At that time two men of the Vespasian party wrought a notable achievement. Their side was being severely damaged by an engine, and these two, seizing shields from among the spoils of the Vitellian faction, mingled with the opposing ranks, and made their way to the engine just as if they belonged to that side. Thus they managed to cut the ropes of the engine, so that not another missile could be discharged from it. As the sun was rising the soldiers of the third legion, called the Gallic, that wintered in Syria and was now by chance on the side of Vespasian, suddenly greeted it according to their custom; but the followers of Vitellius, suspecting that Mucianus had arrived, underwent a revulsion of feeling, and becoming panic-stricken at the shout, took to flight. Thus it is that the smallest things can produce great alarm in men who are already exhausted. They retired within the wall, from which they stretched forth their hands and made supplications. As no one listened to them, they released the consul, and, having arrayed him in his robe of office with the fasces, they sent him as an intercessor. Thus they obtained a truce, for Alienus, because of his rank and his sad plight, easily persuaded Primus to accept their proffer of capitulation.
When, however, the gates were opened and all the soldiers were granted leave, they suddenly came rushing in from all directions and began plundering and setting fire to everything. This catastrophe proved to be one of the greatest on record; for the city was distinguished for the size and beauty of its buildings, and vast sums of money belonging not only to the citizens but also to strangers had been accumulated there. Most of the damage was done by the Vitellians, since they knew exactly which were the houses of the richest men and where the passages were which gave upon the side-streets. They showed no scruples about destroying the persons in whose behalf they had fought, but dealt blows and committed murder just as if it were they who had been wronged and now had conquered. Thus, counting those that fell in the battle, fifty thousand perished altogether.
Vitellius on learning of his defeat was alarmed for a time. Omens, for one thing, had contributed to make him uneasy; for, on the occasion of his offering a certain sacrifice and afterwards addressing the soldiers, a lot of vulture had swooped down, scattered the offerings, and nearly knocked him from the platform. Yet it was chiefly the news of the defeat that troubled him. He promptly sent his brother to Tarracina, a strong city, and occupied it; but when the generals of Vespasian moved against Rome, he became alarmed and lost his head. He was unable to keep at any one activity or keep his mind on any one subject, but in his bewilderment was driven this way and that like a ship in a storm. One moment he was inclined to cling to the sovereignty and was making every preparation for war; the next moment he was ready to abdicate voluntarily and was making all his preparations for retiring to private life. At times he would wear the purple military cloak and carry a sword at his belt; and a he would put on dark clothing. His public addressed both in the palace and in the Forum were now of one tenor, now of another, as he urged the people to offer battle or conclude peace. At times he was ready even to surrender himself for the public welfare, as he put it, and again he would clasp his child in his arms, kiss him and hold him out to the people as if to arouse their pity. Similarly he would dismiss the Praetorians only to send for them again, and would leave the palace and retire to his brother's house and then return. The result of this procedure was that he chilled the enthusiasm of almost everybody else; for when they saw him rushing hither and thither in such a frenzy, they ceased to carry out their orders with their usual diligence and began to consider their own interests as well as his. They sneered at him a great deal, especially when in the assemblies he would proffer his sword to the consuls and to the other senators, as if by this act he had divested himself of the imperial office. Naturally none of the persons mentioned dared to take it and the bystanders jeered.
In view of all this, added to the fact the Primus was now drawing near, the consuls, Gaius Quintus Atticus and Gnaeus Caecilius Simplex, together with Sabinus (a relative of Vespasian) and the other foremost men, consulted together and then set out for the palace, accompanied by the soldiers who were of the same mind, with the purpose of either persuading or compelling Vitellius to abdicate the throne. But encountering his German guards and getting the worst of it, they fled up to the Capitol. Arrived there, they sent for Domitian, the son of Vespasian, and his relatives, and put themselves in a state of defence. The next day, when their adversaries assailed them, they managed for a time to repulse them; but when the environs of the Capitol were set on fire, they were driven back by the flames. And thus the soldiers of Vitellius made their way up, slaughtered many of them, and after plundering all the votive offerings burned down the great temple and other buildings. Sabinus and Atticus were arrested by them and sent to Vitellius. Domitian and the younger Sabinus, however, had made their escape from the Capitol in the first confusion and by concealing themselves in some houses had remained undiscovered.
The troops of Vespasian that were led by Quintus Petilius Cerialis (one of the foremost senators and a relative of Vespasian by marriage) and by Antonius Primus (for Mucianus had not yet overtaken them) were by this time close at hand, and Vitellius had fallen into the greatest terror. The oncoming leaders learned, by means of messengers, all that was being done in the City and formed their plans accordingly. (These messengers placed the letters which had been given them in coffins along with the corpses, or in baskets of fruit, or in the reed traps of bird catchers.) Accordingly, when they now saw the blaze rising from the Capitol like a beacon, they made haste. The first of the two to approach the City was Cerialis with his cavalry, and he was defeated at the very gates, where he and his horsemen were cut ff, since the place was narrow. Yet he contrived to prevent his opponents from doing him any injury. For Vitellius, hoping that he could make terms on the strength of his victory, restrained his troops; and having convened the senate, he sent to Cerialis envoys chosen from that body along with the Vestal Virgins.
But when no one listened to them and they came very near losing their lives besides, the envoys came to Primus, who was also approaching at last; from him they secured an audience, but accomplished nothing. For his soldiers advanced angrily against him and they also overcame easily the guard at the bridge over the Tiber; for when the guards took their stand on the bridge and disputed their passage, the horsemen forded the stream and fell upon them from the rear. After this various bodies of men made assault at various points and committed every conceivable cruelty. In fact, they indulged in all the deeds for which they were censuring Vitellius and his followers and which they pretended had caused the war between them; and they slew great numbers. Many of the attacking force also were pelted with tiles from the roofs or in the narrow passages were crowded back by the multitude of their adversaries and cut down. Thus as many as fifty thousand persons perished during those days.
The city was accordingly being pillaged, and the inhabitants were fighting or fleeing or even themselves plundering and murdering, in order that they might be taken for the invaders and thus preserve their lives. Then Vitellius in his fear put on a ragged and filthy tunic and concealed himself in a dark room where dogs were kept, intending to escape during the night to Tarracina and there join his brother. But the soldiers sought and found him; for naturally he could not go entirely unrecognized very long after having been emperor. They seized him, covered as he was with rubbish and blood (for he had been bitten by the dogs), and tearing off his tunic they bound his hands behind his back and put a rope round his neck. And thus they led down from the palace the Caesar who had revelled there; along the Sacred Way they dragged the emperor who had often paraded past in his chair of state, and they conducted the Augustus to the Forum, where he had often addressed the people. Some buffeted him, some plucked at his beard; all mocked him, all insulted him, making comments especially upon his riotous living, since he had a protuberant belly. When, in shame at this treatment, he lowered his gaze, the soldiers would prick him under the chin with their daggers, in order to make him look up even against his will. A German who witnessed this could not endure it, but taking pity on him cried: "I will help you in the only way that I can." Thereupon he wounded Vitellius and slew himself. How, Vitellius did not die of the wound, but was dragged to the prison, as were also his statues, while many jests and many opprobrious remarks were made about them. Finally, grieved to the heart at what he had suffered and what he had been hearing, he cried: "And yet I was once our emperor." At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city.
His wife later saw to his burial. He had lived fifty-four years and eighty-nine days, and had reigned for a year lacking ten days. His brother had set out from Tarracina to come to his assistance, but learning on the way of his death and also encountering the men who had been sent against him, he he made terms with them on the condition that his life should be spared; however, he was slain not long afterward. The son of Vitellius, too, perished soon after his father, in spite of the fact that Vitellius had put to death no relative either of Otho or of Vespasian. After all these various events had taken place Mucianus at length arrived and administered affairs in conjunction with Domitian. Among other things, he presented Domitian to the soldiers and made him deliver a speech, boy as he was. And each of the soldiers received a hundred sesterces.