The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

X. He heard of the victory at Bedriacum [707], and the death of Otho,
whilst he was yet in Gaul, and without the least hesitation, by a single
proclamation, disbanded all the pretorian cohorts, as having, by their
repeated treasons, set a dangerous example to the rest of the army;
commanding them to deliver up their arms to his tribunes. A hundred and
twenty of them, under whose hands he had found petitions presented to
Otho, for rewards of their service in the murder of Galba, he besides
ordered to be sought out and punished. So far his conduct deserved
approbation, and was such as to afford hope of his becoming an excellent
prince, had he not managed his other affairs in a way more corresponding
with his own disposition, and his former manner of life, than to the
imperial dignity. For, having begun his march, he rode through every
city in his route in a triumphal procession; and sailed down the rivers
in ships, fitted out with the greatest elegance, and decorated with
various kinds of crowns, amidst the most extravagant entertainments.
Such was the want of discipline, and the licentiousness both in his
family and army, that, not satisfied with the provision every where made
for them at the public expense, they committed every kind of robbery and
insult upon the inhabitants, setting slaves at liberty as they pleased;
and if any dared to make resistance, they dealt blows and abuse,
frequently wounds, and sometimes slaughter amongst them. When he reached
the plains on which the battles (434) were fought [708], some of those
around him being offended at the smell of the carcases which lay rotting
upon the ground, he had the audacity to encourage them by a most
detestable remark, “That a dead enemy smelt not amiss, especially if he
were a fellow-citizen.” To qualify, however, the offensiveness of the
stench, he quaffed in public a goblet of wine, and with equal vanity and
insolence distributed a large quantity of it among his troops. On his
observing a stone with an inscription upon it to the memory of Otho, he
said, “It was a mausoleum good enough for such a prince.” He also sent
the poniard, with which Otho killed himself, to the colony of Agrippina
[709], to be dedicated to Mars. Upon the Appenine hills he celebrated a
Bacchanalian feast.

XI. At last he entered the City with trumpets sounding, in his general’s
cloak, and girded with his sword, amidst a display of standards and
banners; his attendants being all in the military habit, and the arms of
the soldiers unsheathed. Acting more and more in open violation of all
laws, both divine and human, he assumed the office of Pontifex Maximus,
upon the day of the defeat at the Allia [710]; ordered the magistrates to
be elected for ten years of office; and made himself consul for life. To
put it out of all doubt what model he intended to follow in his
government of the empire, he made his offerings to the shade of Nero in
the midst of the Campus Martius, and with a full assembly of the public
priests attending him. And at a solemn entertainment, he desired a
harper who pleased the company much, to sing something in praise of
Domitius; and upon his beginning some songs of Nero’s, he started up in
presence of the whole assembly, and could not refrain from applauding
him, by clapping his hands.

XII. After such a commencement of his career, he conducted (435) his
affairs, during the greater part of his reign, entirely by the advice and
direction of the vilest amongst the players and charioteers, and
especially his freedman Asiaticus. This fellow had, when young, been
engaged with him in a course of mutual and unnatural pollution, but,
being at last quite tired of the occupation, ran away. His master, some
time after, caught him at Puteoli, selling a liquor called Posca [711],
and put him in chains, but soon released him, and retained him in his
former capacity. Growing weary, however, of his rough and stubborn
temper, he sold him to a strolling fencing-master; after which, when the
fellow was to have been brought up to play his part at the conclusion of
an entertainment of gladiators, he suddenly carried him off, and at
length, upon his being advanced to the government of a province, gave him
his freedom. The first day of his reign, he presented him with the gold
rings at supper, though in the morning, when all about him requested that
favour in his behalf, he expressed the utmost abhorrence of putting so
great a stain upon the equestrian order.

XIII. He was chiefly addicted to the vices of luxury and cruelty. He
always made three meals a day, sometimes four: breakfast, dinner, and
supper, and a drunken revel after all. This load of victuals he could
well enough bear, from a custom to which he had enured himself, of
frequently vomiting. For these several meals he would make different
appointments at the houses of his friends on the same day. None ever
entertained him at less expense than four hundred thousand sesterces
[712]. The most famous was a set entertainment given him by his brother,
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 char-fish, 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 (436) from the Carpathian Sea, and the
Spanish Straits. He was not only a man of an insatiable appetite, but
would gratify it likewise at unseasonable times, and with any garbage
that came in his way; so that, at a sacrifice, he would snatch from the
fire flesh and cakes, and eat them upon the spot. When he travelled, he
did the same at the inns upon the road, whether the meat was fresh
dressed and hot, or what had been left the day before, and was half-
eaten.

XIV. He delighted in the infliction of punishments, and even those which
were capital, without any distinction of persons or occasions. Several
noblemen, his school-fellows and companions, invited by him to court, he
treated with such flattering caresses, as seemed to indicate an affection
short only of admitting them to share the honours of the imperial
dignity; yet he put them all to death by some base means or other. To
one he gave poison with his own hand, in a cup of cold water which he
called for in a fever. He scarcely spared one of all the usurers,
notaries, and publicans, who had ever demanded a debt of him at Rome, or
any toll or custom upon the road. One of these, while in the very act of
saluting him, he ordered for execution, but immediately sent for him
back; upon which all about him applauding his clemency, he commanded him
to be slain in his own presence, saying, “I have a mind to feed my eyes.”
Two sons who interceded for their father, he ordered to be executed with
him. A Roman knight, upon his being dragged away for execution, and
crying out to him, “You are my heir,” he desired to produce his will: and
finding that he had made his freedman joint heir with him, he commanded
that both he and the freedman should have their throats cut. He put to
death some of the common people for cursing aloud the blue party in the
Circensian games; supposing it to be done in contempt of himself, and the
expectation of a revolution in the government. There were no persons he
was more severe against than jugglers and astrologers; end as soon as any
one of them was informed against, he put him to death without the
formality of a trial. He was enraged against them, because, after his
proclamation by which he commanded all astrologers to quit home, and
Italy also, before the calends [the first] of October, a bill was
immediately posted about the city, with the following words:–“TAKE
NOTICE: [713] The Chaldaeans also decree that Vitellius Germanicus shall
be no more, by the day of the said calends.” He was even suspected of
being accessary to his mother’s death, by forbidding sustenance to be
given her when she was unwell; a German witch [714], whom he held to be
oracular, having told him, “That he would long reign in security if he
survived his mother.” But others say, that being quite weary of the
state of affairs, and apprehensive of the future, she obtained without
difficulty a dose of poison from her son.

XV. In the eighth month of his reign, the troops both in Moesia and
Pannonia revolted from him; as did likewise, of the armies beyond sea,
those in Judaea and Syria, some of which swore allegiance to Vespasian as
emperor in his own presence, and others in his absence. In order,
therefore, to secure the favour and affection of the people, Vitellius
lavished on all around whatever he had it in his power to bestow, both
publicly and privately, in the most extravagant manner. He also levied
soldiers in the city, and promised all who enlisted as volunteers, not
only their discharge after the victory was gained, but all the rewards
due to veterans who had served their full time in the wars. The enemy
now pressing forward both by sea and land, on one hand he opposed against
them his brother with a fleet, the new levies, and a body of gladiators,
and in another quarter the troops and generals who were engaged at
Bedriacum. But being beaten or betrayed in every direction, he agreed
with Flavius Sabinus, Vespasian’s brother, to abdicate, on condition of
having his life spared, and a hundred millions of sesterces granted him;
and he immediately, upon the palace-steps, publicly declared to a large
body of soldiers there assembled, “that he resigned the government, which
he had accepted reluctantly;” but they all remonstrating against it, he
deferred the conclusion of the treaty. Next day, early in the morning,
he came down to the Forum in a very mean habit, and with many tears
repeated the (438) declaration from a writing which he held in his hand;
but the soldiers and people again interposing, and encouraging him not to
give way, but to rely on their zealous support, he recovered his courage,
and forced Sabinus, with the rest of the Flavian party, who now thought
themselves secure, to retreat into the Capitol, where he destroyed them
all by setting fire to the temple of Jupiter, whilst he beheld the
contest and the fire from Tiberius’s house [715], where he was feasting.
Not long after, repenting of what he had done, and throwing the blame of
it upon others, he called a meeting, and swore “that nothing was dearer
to him than the public peace;” which oath he also obliged the rest to
take. Then drawing a dagger from his side, he presented it first to the
consul, and, upon his refusing it, to the magistrates, and then to every
one of the senators; but none of them being willing to accept it, he went
away, as if he meant to lay it up in the temple of Concord; but some
crying out to him, “You are Concord,” he came back again, and said that
he would not only keep his weapon, but for the future use the cognomen of
Concord.

XVI. He advised the senate to send deputies, accompanied by the Vestal
Virgins, to desire peace, or, at least, time for consultation. The day
after, while he was waiting for an answer, he received intelligence by a
scout, that the enemy was advancing. Immediately, therefore, throwing
himself into a small litter, borne by hand, with only two attendants, a
baker and a cook, he privately withdrew to his father’s house, on the
Aventine hill, intending to escape thence into Campania. But a
groundless report being circulated, that the enemy was willing to come to
terms, he suffered himself to be carried back to the palace. Finding,
however, nobody there, and those who were with him stealing away, he
girded round his waist a belt full of gold pieces, and then ran into the
porter’s lodge, tying the dog before the door, and piling up against it
the bed and bedding.

XVII. By this time the forerunners of the enemy’s army had broken into
the palace, and meeting with nobody, searched, as was natural, every
corner. Being dragged by them out of his cell, and asked “who he was?”
(for they did not recognize him), “and if he knew where Vitellius was?”
he deceived them by a falsehood. But at last being discovered, he begged
hard to be detained in custody, even were it in a prison; pretending to
have something to say which concerned Vespasian’s security.
Nevertheless, he was dragged half-naked into the Forum, with his hands
tied behind him, a rope about his neck, and his clothes torn, amidst the
most contemptuous abuse, both by word and deed, along the Via Sacra; his
head being held back by the hair, in the manner of condemned criminals,
and the point of a sword put under his chin, that he might hold up his
face to public view; some of the mob, meanwhile, pelting him with dung
and mud, whilst others called him “an incendiary and glutton.” They also
upbraided him with the defects of his person, for he was monstrously
tall, and had a face usually very red with hard-drinking, a large belly,
and one thigh weak, occasioned by a chariot running against him, as he
was attending upon Caius [716], while he was driving. At length, upon
the Scalae Gemoniae, he was tormented and put to death in lingering
tortures, and then dragged by a hook into the Tiber.

XVIII. He perished with his brother and son [717], in the fifty-seventh
year of his age [718], and verified the prediction of those who, from the
omen which happened to him at Vienne, as before related [719], foretold
that he would be made prisoner by some man of Gaul. For he was seized by
Antoninus Primus, a general of the adverse party, who was born at
Toulouse, and, when a boy, had the cognomen of Becco [720], which
signifies a cock’s beak.

* * * * * *

(440) After the extinction of the race of the Caesars, the possession of
the imperial power became extremely precarious; and great influence in
the army was the means which now invariably led to the throne. The
soldiers having arrogated to themselves the right of nomination, they
either unanimously elected one and the same person, or different parties
supporting the interests of their respective favourites, there arose
between them a contention, which was usually determined by an appeal to
arms, and followed by the assassination of the unsuccessful competitor.
Vitellius, by being a parasite of all the emperors from Tiberius to Nero
inclusively, had risen to a high military rank, by which, with a spirit
of enterprise, and large promises to the soldiery, it was not difficult
to snatch the reins of government, while they were yet fluctuating in the
hands of Otho. His ambition prompted to the attempt, and his boldness
was crowned with success. In the service of the four preceding emperors,
Vitellius had imbibed the principal vices of them all: but what chiefly
distinguished him was extreme voraciousness, which, though he usually
pampered it with enormous luxury, could yet be gratified by the vilest
and most offensive garbage. The pusillanimity discovered by this emperor
at his death, forms a striking contrast to the heroic behaviour of Otho.
(441)

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