Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

An Imperial Glutton



It was a curious chance that set Vitellius, ninth of the twelve Caesars, on the Imperial throne. His father, indeed, had been a man of no small distinction. He had done considerable services to the State both at home and abroad. When he held the government of the province of Syria, an office which carried with it the charge of the relations between the Empire and the Parthian King, he had induced that jealous monarch to do homage to the Roman Standards. He had been Consul three times, had been the colleague of the Emperor in the Censorship, and had been his vice-gerent during the British expedition. Less creditable to him was the extraordinary genius for flattery which he developed. When he came back from Syria he found Caligula on the throne. It was one of that mad prince's caprices to fancy himself a god; Vitellius fooled him to the top of his bent. He did not venture to approach so radiant a being except with a veil over his face, and in a prostrate attitude.

Claudius' weakness was a foolish fondness for a profligate wife and for worthless freedmen. Vitellius promptly accommodated himself to it. He begged as a special favour from the Emperor that he might be allowed to unfasten the Empress's shoes; and he was wont to carry one of her slippers between his gown and his tunic and might be seen frequently kissing it. He must have been between sixty and seventy when he acted this degrading part, for he had the satisfaction about this time of seeing his two sons raised to the consulship in the same year.

The Emperor's freedmen he complimented by putting their busts, executed in gold, among his household gods. He surpassed himself, when, congratulating Claudius on the occasion of the Secular Games, (exhibited once only in a hundred years), he wished him "many happy returns of the day." And yet he had good qualities. Suetonius describes him as a man of energy who never injured others, and Tacitus declares that though many things were said, and not untruly said against him, he showed the high qualities belonging to better times.

Aulus, the elder of his two sons, had no such good qualities. He showed something of his father's talent for flattery. He ingratiated himself with Caligula by assisting in his favorite pursuit of chariot driving; played dice with Claudius; and delighted Nero, who, anxious publicly to exhibit his skill on the harp, was still ashamed to do it, by conveying to him what he represented as the unanimous wish of the people for the performance. Such services had of course to be rewarded. Offices, sacred and secular, were heaped upon him; he was sent to govern Africa, a duty which he performed, strange to say, with singular integrity, though in Rome he had been accused of pilfering ornaments from the temples, and exchanging the gold and silver for baser metals.

Then came the honour which was to prove the occasion of his elevation and of his downfall. He was appointed to the command of the army of Lower Germany. The choice—it was made by Galba—astonished everyone. It was the most important command in the Empire, for nowhere had the frontier to be so diligently guarded, and Vitellius, who had never seen any military service, was confessedly incompetent.

Some found the reason of this strange promotion in the influence of Vinius. Vinius and Vitellius had been associated as partisans of the "Blues," one of the factions of the Circus, amply sufficient reason, it was thought, in the eyes of a notoriously unprincipled favourite. Others declared that the choice was Galba's own, and was due to his jealousy of any ability in his subordinates. "There is no reason to be afraid of men who think of nothing but eating," he is reported to have said. "As for Vitellius even his boundless appetite will be satisfied with what he finds in a province, and no one will suppose that I chose him for any other reason but my contempt."

The new general was so miserably poor—his means having been wasted by extravagant living—that he was without money for his travelling expenses. He had to let his town mansion, putting his wife and children into hired lodgings, while he pledged a costly pearl ear-ring which his mother was accustomed to wear. Even then he had the greatest difficulty in escaping a swarm of importunate creditors, the most troublesome among them being the inhabitants of two Italian towns, the revenues of which he had embezzled. He contrived to get away by threatening them with an action for defamation of character. One unfortunate man who demanded his due somewhat energetically he accused of personal violence, and actually recovered from him a handsome sum of money.

The army received him with open arms. It had been greatly irritated by the treatment it had received from the Emperor. Verginius, its commander, a very able soldier, and popular with his troops, was kept in attendance at court, not because Galba liked him, but because he suspected him. The army had indeed offered him the Empire, and felt that it was regarded with dislike. Accordingly, it was ready for change. The men were strongly prepossessed in favour of Vitellius. He was the son of a distinguished father; he had a commanding presence; he was open-handed and good-natured. His absolute want of courage and ability was still unknown. His arrival was preceded by golden reports of his affability. He was said to greet even common soldiers with a kiss, and to mix with grooms and casual travellers on terms of even vulgar familiarity. Once established in head-quarters his easy and indulgent temper showed itself. No one had to proffer a petition in vain; soldiers degraded for misconduct were restored to their rank; condemned criminals were pardoned. Scarcely a month had passed before the legions saluted him Emperor. He accepted this dignity, and was carried round the camp, holding in his hand a sword that had belonged to the great Julius. Some one had taken it down from the wall of the Temple of Mars, and presented it to him. He made no oration to the soldiers, but the few words that he said indicated some readiness and presence of mind. A room in the head-quarters had caught fire, and there was general consternation, not without a feeling that the incident was an evil omen for the future. "Cheer up, my men!" cried the Prince, "there is a light on the path."

The story of his march to Rome need not be told here. The victory was won for him by his lieutenants. He made—indeed he was called upon to make—no effort. After the victory at Bedriacum he disbanded the whole Praetorian Guard for having fought for his rival. Among Otho's papers he found a hundred and twenty memorials from persons who declared that they had had a share in the death of Galba. He ordered all these claimants to be put to death. Suetonius loudly praises the act as giving the highest hopes of what a ruler he might have been. After all it must have been dictated only by an instinct of self-preservation. No ruler feels that the murder of a predecessor is a thing to be rewarded, however much he may himself have profited by the act.

It was not long before the man's temper began to show itself in its true light. He indulged in the most extravagant luxury as he marched southwards. Nothing was too costly for his travelling equipment, nothing too recherché  for his banquets. His easy temper, too, was not inconsistent with much brutality. He visited the field of battle at Bedriacum, when the ground was still covered with the unburied corpses of the slain. His suite complained of the intolerable stench. "To me," said Vitellius, "there is nothing sweeter than the smell of a dead enemy, especially if he is a countryman." He was not unwilling however to refresh himself and his companions with copious draughts of unmixed wine. He jeered at the modest stone which covered the remains of Otho, and ordered the dagger with which his rival had slain himself to be hung up in the temple of Mars in the Colonia Agrippinensis.

The man's recklessness and folly, when he felt himself firmly seated on the throne, exceeded all bounds. He rode into Rome clad in his military cloak and with his sword at his side, to the sound of martial music, while his escort followed fully armed. It was the immemorial custom that a soldier returning from service must put on the garb of peace before he could pass the Gates, unless indeed the honour of a triumph had been conferred upon him. All Rome was shocked when he published an edict on a day marked as unlucky in the public calendar as having been that on which the disasters of Cremera and Allia had happened. The respectable classes were not less horrified when he caused a solemn funeral service to be performed in the Field of Mars to the memory of Nero. This was the model he seemed to propose to himself for imitation. As to the business of government, he allowed it to be conducted by the actors and jockeys with whom he delighted to surround himself. It was on the pleasures of the table that he spent his whole energy. A Roman was commonly content with two meals a day; Vitellius had always three, and sometimes four. He prepared himself for these by the constant use of emetics. His courtiers were commonly directed to supply these entertainments. It was understood that a meal must never cost less than £4000. But the most sumptuous entertainment of his reign, which happily did not extend beyond six months, was that given to him by his brother on his arrival in Rome. At this, two thousand choice fishes and seven thousand choice birds are said to have been served. His own most conspicuous achievement in this line was the manufacture of an enormous dish—so vast in size he called it the shield of "Minerva the city-keeper." This was filled with the livers of a rare kind of fish, (Possibly the "corasse," but not certainly known) the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingoes—Apicius was credited with the discovery that the tongues of flamingoes had a special delicacy of flavour—and the small intestines of another fish, equally rare with the first, and, equally difficult to identify. These dainties had been collected by specially commissioned persons from the eastern borders of the Empire to the Pillars of Hercules. But Vitellius' appetite did not restrict itself to these costly viands. It was enormous, and its demands were incessant. Even at a sacrifice he could not keep his hands off the flesh and the salted meal; and he could relish even the coarse food that could be bought in the common cook-shops.

From the torpor into which his perpetual excesses plunged him, he seems never to have roused himself except to commit some fresh act of cruelty. He would make much of old friends, sharing with them, it might be said, everything but the imperial power itself, and then suddenly turn upon them, and put them to death. To one who was suffering from fever he paid what seemed to be a friendly visit, and mixed poison in the cup of cold water he handed to the sick man. His old creditors were made to suffer for the annoyance which they had given him. Scarcely one was allowed to escape.

On one occasion he was supposed to have pardoned the offender, for after ordering him to execution, he recalled him. "What a clement prince!" exclaimed the courtiers. But the "clement prince" had done it only to "feast his eyes," as he put it, with the sight of the poor wretch's death. One wealthy man cried out as he was being carried off by the executioner, "Sire, you are my heir." Vitellius called for the man's will, and finding he shared the inheritance with a freedman, ordered the testator and his co-legatee to be put to death. His victims were taken even from the lowest classes; it was enough if a man was heard to wish bad luck to the "Blues." That was thought to be treason to the Emperor. The one memorable event of his reign is related in the next chapter. It only remains to tell the story of his end. When the troops of Vespasian's lieutenants had found their way into the city, the wretched man was paralysed by fear. His first idea was to make his way to his private house, hide himself there or elsewhere for the day, and fly on the morrow to Tarracona, where his brother still had some troops. Then, to follow the words of Tacitus, "with characteristic weakness, and following the instincts of fear, which dreading everything, shrinks most from what is immediately before it, he retraced his steps to the desolate and forsaken palace, whence even the meanest slaves had fled or where they avoided his presence. The solitude and silence of the place scared him; he tried the closed doors, he shuddered in the empty chambers, till, wearied out with his miserable wanderings, he concealed himself in some wretched hiding-place, from which he was dragged by the tribune Julius Placidus. His hands were bound behind his back; and he was led along with tattered robes, a revolting spectacle, amid the execrations of many, the tears of none. The degradation of his end had extinguished all pity.

One of the German soldiers met the party, he aimed a deadly blow at Vitellius, perhaps in anger, perhaps wishing to put him out of his misery. Possibly the blow was meant for the Tribune. Anyhow it cut off that officer's ear, and the soldier was immediately despatched. The fallen Emperor, compelled by threatening swords, first to raise his face and offer it to insulting blows, then to behold his own statues falling round him, and more than once to look at the hustings and the spot where Galba was slain, was then driven along till they reached the Gemoniæ, the place where the corpse of Flavius Sabinus had lain. One speech only was heard from him showing a spirit not utterly degraded, when to the insults of a Tribune he answered, "Yet I was your Emperor." Then he fell under a shower of blows, the mob reviling him when he was dead as heartlessly as they had flattered him when he was alive.