The short annd dissolute reign of Aulus Vitellius.


Aulus Vitellius: born 24 September AD 15. Consul AD 48, then governor of Africa. Governor of Lower Germany AD 68 - 69. Became emperor 14 April AD 69. Married [1] Petronia (one son); [2] Galeria Fundana (one son, one daughter). Assassinated on 24 December AD 69.


Vitellius, son of a former consul, had some learning but little military experience. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Vitellius reached Rome in mid-July AD 69, and was officially recognized as emperor, though he refused the title of Caesar. He celebrated with bouts of entertaining, drinking, and betting on the races, and was so out of touch with public sensitivities that as pontifex maximus he made a pronouncement about worship on a day which was regarded as unlucky.

During July, forces in the east swore their allegiance to Titus Flavius Vespasianus, commander in Judaea. The Danube legions did the same, and while Vespasian remained where he was, they marched into Italy, defeated the imperial army, and made a dash for Rome, which capitulated. Vitellius was hunted down and tortured to death. The date was 24 December AD 69. Within one year three successive emperors of Rome had died violently, and now a fourth was acclaimed.


Pen portrait of Vitellius

“He used to have three, or four, heavy meals a day: at least a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and a convivial drinks’ party, for each of which he had himself invited to a different house, at a cost to his host of never less than 400,000 sesterces a time. He was easily able to consume the lot by indulging in frequent bouts of self-induced vomiting. . . . He was enormously tall, with a face usually purple with drink, a vast belly, and one thigh permanently damaged by a blow from a chariot, sustained while he was acting as Caligula’s co-driver in a race.” (Suetonius, Vitellius 8, 17)

Believe it or not:

When he reached the Milvian Bridge, two miles north of the city, on his way into Rome, Vitellius mounted a splendid charger and prepared to enter the city fully armed and wearing the uniform of a general. He was persuaded that this might make his progress seem like that of a conqueror, and so he dismounted and borrowed a toga, in which he marched the rest of the way at the head of his ranks of soldiery.

Two of the four arches of the original Milvian Bridge, built in 109 BC, are still in use today.