Aulus Vitellius (/vɪˈtɛliəs/; Latin: [ˈau̯lʊs wɪˈtɛlːijʊs]; 24 September 15  20 December AD 69) was Roman emperor for eight months, from 19 April to 20 December AD 69. Vitellius was proclaimed emperor following the quick succession of the previous emperors Galba and Otho, in a year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors. Vitellius was the first to add the honorific cognomen Germanicus to his name instead of Caesar upon his accession. Like his direct predecessor, Otho, Vitellius attempted to rally public support to his cause by honoring and imitating Nero who remained widely popular in the empire.

Denarius depicting Vitellius. The inscription reads a vitellivs german imp tr p.
Roman emperor
Reign19 April  20 December 69
Born24 September 15[2]
Rome, Italy, Roman Empire
Died20 December 69(69-12-20) (aged 54)[3]
Rome, Italy, Roman Empire
Galeria Fundana
  • Aulus Vitellius Petronianus
  • Aulus Vitellius Germanicus
  • Vitellia
Aulus Vitellius
Regnal name
Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Imperator Augustus
FatherLucius Vitellius
Vitellius' denarius, minted in AD 69 during the Year of the Four Emperors. Obverse: A. VITTELIVS GERMANICVS IMP. Reverse: victory seated left holding patera and palm branch.

His claim to the throne was soon challenged by legions stationed in the eastern provinces, who proclaimed their commander Vespasian emperor instead. War ensued, leading to a crushing defeat for Vitellius at the Second Battle of Bedriacum in northern Italy. Once he realised his support was wavering, Vitellius prepared to abdicate in favor of Vespasian. He was not allowed to do so by his supporters, resulting in a brutal battle for Rome between Vitellius' forces and the armies of Vespasian. He was executed in Rome by Vespasian's soldiers on 20 December 69.


He was the son of Lucius Vitellius and his wife Sextilia, and had one brother, who was also named Lucius Vitellius. Suetonius recorded two different accounts of the origins of the gens Vitellia, one making them descendants of past rulers of Latium, the other describing their origins as lowly. Suetonius makes the sensible remark that both accounts might have been made by either flatterers or enemies of Vitellius—except that both were in circulation before Vitellius became emperor.[4] Since his father was a member of the equestrian class and achieved the senatorial rank only later in his lifetime, Vitellius became the first emperor not to be born in the senatorial family. Suetonius also recorded that when Vitellius was born his horoscope so horrified his parents that his father tried to prevent Aulus from becoming a consul.[5]

In his youth he was one of the noble companions of Tiberius' retirement on Capri and there befriended Caligula, whose favour he won, according to Suetonius, by sharing in his passion for chariot racing and games of dice.[6]

He married firstly before the year 40 a woman named Petronia with whom he had a son, Aulus Vitellius Petronianus, the universal heir of his mother and grandfather, whom Vitellius had killed in 69 in order to inherit his fortune.

He married secondly, around the year 50, a woman named Galeria Fundana, perhaps the granddaughter of Gaius Galerius, Prefect of Egypt in 23.[citation needed] They had two children, a son called Aulus Vitellius Germanicus or Novis, the Younger, and a daughter, Vitellia, who married Decimus Valerius Asiaticus.[7]

Public service

Political and military career

He was consul in 48, and proconsular governor of Africa in either 60 or 61, in which capacity he is said to have acquitted himself with credit. At the end of 68, Galba, to the general astonishment, selected him to command the army of Germania Inferior, and here Vitellius made himself popular with his subalterns and with the soldiers by outrageous prodigality and excessive good nature, which soon proved fatal to order and discipline.[1]

Bid for power

He owed his elevation to the throne to Caecina and Fabius Valens, commanders of two legions on the Rhine. Through these two men a military revolution was speedily accomplished; they refused to renew their vows of allegiance to Emperor Galba on 1 January 69. Vitellius was proclaimed emperor at Cologne on the following day, and then again on the day after.[8] More accurately, he was proclaimed emperor of the armies of Germania Inferior and Superior.[1] The armies of Gaul, Britannia and Raetia sided with them shortly afterwards. By the time that they marched on Rome, however, it was Otho, and not Galba, whom they had to confront.

In fact, he was never acknowledged as emperor by the entire Roman world, though at Rome the Senate accepted him and decreed to him the usual Imperial honours on April 19.[9] He advanced into Italy at the head of a licentious and rough soldiery, and Rome became the scene of riot and massacre, gladiatorial shows and extravagant feasting.[1] To reward his victorious legionaries, Vitellius expanded the existing Praetorian Guard and installed his own men from his Rhine army.[10]



Vitellius on a coin. Laureate head right. Caption: A. VITELLIVS GERMAN. IMP. AVG. P. M., TR.

Suetonius, whose father had fought for Otho at Bedriacum, gives an unfavourable account of Vitellius' brief administration: he describes him as unambitious and notes that Vitellius showed indications of a desire to govern wisely, but that Valens and Caecina encouraged him in a course of vicious excesses which threw his better qualities into the background.[1] He is even reported to have starved his own mother to death—to fulfill a prophecy that he would rule longer if his mother died first; alternatively there is a report that his mother asked for poison to commit suicide—a request he granted.[11] Suetonius additionally remarks that Vitellius' besetting sins were luxury and cruelty.[12] Other writers, namely Tacitus and Cassius Dio, disagree with some of Suetonius' assertions, even though their own accounts of Vitellius are scarcely positive ones.

Despite his short reign he made two important contributions to Roman government which outlasted him. Tacitus describes them both in his Histories:

  • Vitellius ended the practice of centurions selling furloughs and exemptions of duty to their men, a change Tacitus describes as being adopted by 'all good emperors'.
  • He also expanded the offices of the Imperial administration beyond the imperial pool of freedmen, allowing those of the Equites to take up positions in the Imperial civil service.

Vitellius also banned astrologers from Rome and Italy on 1 October 69. Some astrologers responded to his decree by anonymously publishing a decree of their own: "Decreed by all astrologers in blessing on our State Vitellius will be no more on the appointed date." In response, Vitellius executed any astrologers he came across.[13]

Furthermore, Vitellius continued Otho's policies in regard to Nero's memory, in that he honored the dead emperor and sacrificed to his spirit. He also had Nero's songs performed in public, and attempted to imitate Nero, who remained extremely popular among the lower classes of the Roman Empire.[14]


Suetonius is particularly responsible for giving Vitellius the reputation of being an obese glutton, using emetics so as to be able to indulge in banquets four times a day, and often having himself invited over to a different noble's house for each one. One of the most famous of these feasts was offered Vitellius by his brother Lucius,

at which, it is said, there were served up no less than two thousand choice fishes, and seven thousand birds. Yet even this supper he himself outdid, at a feast which he gave upon the first use of a dish which had been made for him, and which, for its extraordinary size, he called "The Shield of Minerva". In this dish there were tossed up together the livers of pike, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, with the tongues of flamingos, and the entrails of lampreys, which had been brought in ships of war as far as from Parthia and the Spanish Straits.[15]

A noted gourmet of that time, Marcus Gavius Apicius, named after the emperor a less exotic dish of peas or broad beans mashed with sweet and sour ingredients.[16]


In July 69, Vitellius learned that the armies of the eastern provinces had proclaimed a rival emperor: their commander, Titus Flavius Vespasianus. As soon as it was known that the armies of the East, Dalmatia, and Illyricum had declared for Vespasianus, Vitellius sent several legions under Caecina to prevent the Eastern armies from entering Italy, but Caecina, dissatisfied with Vitellius's poor administration, attempted without success to defect to Vespasian. This undermined the morale of the Vitellian legions, and they were decisively defeated at the Second Battle of Bedriacum. Fabius Valens was then sent by Vitellius to rally supporting armies in Gaul, but forces loyal to Vespasian captured and executed him soon after. Vitellius, now deserted by many of his adherents, prepared to abdicate the title of emperor.[1]

Abdication and death

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome, Georges Rochegrosse (1883)

Tacitus' Histories state that Vitellius awaited Vespasian's army at Mevania. The terms of abdication had actually been agreed upon with Marcus Antonius Primus, the commander of the sixth legion serving in Pannonia and one of Vespasian's chief supporters. However, as he was on his way to deposit the insignia of empire in the Temple of Concord, the Praetorian Guard refused to allow him to carry out the agreement, and forced him to return to the palace.[1]

On the entrance of Vespasian's troops into Rome, Vitellius' supporters (mostly civilians) organized heavy resistance, resulting in a brutal battle. Entrenched on the city's buildings, they threw stones, javelins, and tiles on Vespasian's soldiers who consequently suffered heavy casualties in the urban fighting. Cassius Dio claims that 50,000 people died in the battle for Rome.[17] Large parts of the city were destroyed, including the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.[18] Vitellius was eventually dragged out of a hiding-place (according to Tacitus a door-keeper's lodge), driven to the fatal Gemonian stairs, and there struck down by Vespasian's supporters. "Yet I was once your emperor," were his last words. His body was thrown into the Tiber according to Suetonius; Cassius Dio's account is that Vitellius was beheaded and his head paraded around Rome, and his wife attended to his burial. His brother and son were also killed.

Suetonius, in writing of Vitellius' execution, offers his physical description: "...He was in fact abnormally tall, with a face usually flushed from hard drinking, a huge belly, and one thigh crippled from being struck once by a four-horse chariot, when he was in attendance on Gaius as he was driving..."[19]

Years before there was a prediction that he would fall into the power of a man from Gaul; the man who slew him was Antonius Primus of Tolosa and whose nickname was Becco which means "rooster's beak" (Gallus means both "a cock" and "a Gaul").[20]

Portrayals in visual art

Busts from the time of Vitellius, particularly the one in the Capitoline Museums,[21] represent him as broad-faced with several double chins, and it is this type which informs paintings of the emperor from the Renaissance on. There were once other ancient busts claimed to be of Vitellius which later scholarship has proved to be of someone else. The features of the Grimani Vitellius particularly, according to Mary Beard, were once used by painters to suggest that the character who bears them is destined to come to a bleak end.[22] Another such bust figures in Michiel Sweerts' Baroque genre piece of a young art student drawing a copy.[23]

The Grimani portrait bust also served as the model for one by Giovanni Battista and Nicola Bonanome (ca.1565), one of a series of The Twelve Caesars that were once fashionable in large households.[24] The series was also a popular subject for paintings, of which there have been examples by Titian,[25] Peter Paul Rubens,[26] Otto van Veen,[27] and many others.

The Romans in their Decadence by Thomas Couture

Several 19th-century French artists pictured the violent end of Vitellius. That by Georges Rochegrosse (1883) depicts him being dragged by the populace down the steep Gemonian stairs, stretching from high on the canvas to its foot [see above]. There he appears bound and surrounded by a gesticulating mob with hooting ragamuffins at their head. The stairs are covered with the rubbish with which the deposed emperor has been pelted and, as Suetonius describes the scene, a long blade is held at his throat so that he cannot look down.[28] Others paintings show the moment of his execution, of which there are examples by fr:Charles-Gustave Housez,[29] Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry (1847),[30] Jules-Eugène Lenepveu (1847),[31] and an engraving by Edouard Vimont (1876-1930).[32]

Much as the appearance of Vitellius prefigured approaching doom in earlier centuries, Thomas Couture pictures him in shadow to the left of centre in the painting The Romans in their Decadence (1847). This was shown prophetically at the Paris Salon in the year before the French Revolution of 1848 toppled the July Monarchy.

Literary portrayals

The earliest fictional appearance of a Vitellius was of the Roman Consul in Syria, Lucius Vitellius (the father of Aulus), who intervened in Judaean affairs in the time of Pontius Pilate.[33] It is he who figures in Gustave Flaubert's novella Hérodias (1877) and in Hérodiade, the 1881 opera based on it by Jules Massenet.[34] The same character also makes an appearance in the 1930 novel by Iwan Naschiwin (1874-1940), A Certain Jesus: the Gospel According to Thomas : an Historical Novel of the First Century.[35]

The son of Lucius, Aulus Vitellius, played a minor part in Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis, set at the end of Nero's reign. Although he survived as a character in the 1900 Broadway production,[36] and in the Italian films based on it of 1913 and 1924, he disappeared from later adaptations. But some later novels deal with incidents in the military career of this Vitellius. In Simon Scarrow's Eagles of the Empire series, he is introduced as a rival to Vespasian during the Roman invasion of Britain. And in later chapters of Henry Venmore-Rowland's novel The Last Caesar (2012) he figures as the newly appointed Governor of Lower Germania and something of a glutton.[37]

Naturally Vitellius is a character in the rash of recent novels dealing with the Year of the Four Emperors. He is in the background in Kate Quinn's novel Daughters of Rome (2011),[38] and shares a section of Steven Saylor's Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome (2010).[39] His fall features in M C Scott's Rome, The Art of War (2013),[40] and he also appears in James Mace's two-part series, The Year of the Four Emperors.[41]


  1. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Vitellius, Aulus" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 147.
  2. Suetonius 3: "was born on the eighth day before the Kalends of October [24 September], or according to some, on the seventh day before the Ides of September [7 September]". 24 September is generally the most accepted date.[1]
  3. Tacitus (III) records the defection of his troops on December 18 and the taking of the capitol the following day. Cassius Dio (64.22) indicates that he died a day later, although his calculations indicate that he died on the 22nd, not 20.
  4. Suetonius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: The Life of Vitellius. Chapter 1.
  5. Suetonius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: The Life of Vitellius. Chapter 3, part 2.
  6. Suetonius, Vitellius, 3.2; 4.1.
  7. G. Morgan, 69 AD: The Year of Four Emperors, Oxford University Press, 2005, p.149
  8. Tacitus, Histories 1.56–57. "In the course of the night of the 1st of January [...] the 4th and 18th legions had thrown down the images of Galba... [Fabius Valens] in the course of the following day entered the Colonia Agrippinensis with the cavalry of the legion and of the auxiliaries, and together with them saluted Vitellius as emperor. All the legions belonging to the same province followed his example with prodigious zeal, and the army of Upper Germany abandoned the specious names of the Senate and people of Rome, and on the 3rd of January declared for Vitellius."
  9. CIL 2051: XIII K. Mai(as)
  10. "Praetorian Guard". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19 February 2019.
  11. Suetonius, "Vitellius" Chapter 14]
  12. Suetonius "Vitellius" Chapters 13–14]
  13. Tamsyn Barton, Ancient Astrology, p. 47-48.
  14. Varner (2017), p. 238.
  15. Suetonius, "Vitellius", chapter 13
  16. Ken Albala, Beans: A History, Berg 2007, p.44
  17. Kelly (2007), pp. 169, 171.
  18. Varner (2017), p. 250.
  19. Suetonius, "Vitellius" Chapter 17]
  20. Suetonius "Vitellius" Chapter 18
  21. Wikimedia Commons
  22. Sandra Alvarez, "Emperor Spotting" with Mary Beard", Ancient History Magazine, 2 November, 2017
  23. "Boy Drawing before the Bust of a Roman Emperor", Minneapolis Institute of Arts
  24. Prado Museum
  25. Now destroyed but known from the engraving by Aegidius Sadeler
  26. Rubens at Home
  27. Mutual Art
  28. Suetonius, "Vitellius", chapter17]
  29. Art Renewal Centre
  30. Wikimedia Commons
  31. Wikimedia Commons
  32. Flickr
  33. "Lucius Vitellius", Livius,org
  34. Opera Scotland
  35. Google Books
  36. Broadway World
  37. Venmore-Rowland, Henry (2012). The Last Caesar. Bantam Press (an imprint of Transworld Publishers).
  38. Quinn, Kate (2011). Daughters of Rome. Headline Review.
  39. Google Books
  40. "Foreword" to the novel
  41. Fantastic Fiction

Primary sources

Secondary sources

Political offices
Preceded by
Gnaeus Hosidius Geta,
and Gaius Volasenna Severus

as Suffect consuls
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Lucius Vipstanus Publicola Messalla
Succeeded by
Quintus Veranius Nepos, and
Gaius Pompeius Longus Gallus

as Suffect consuls
Preceded by
Roman emperor
Succeeded by