69 AD is known in Roman History as “The Year of Four Emperors.” The second of those four Emperors was Otho. Otho ruled in Rome from January 15, 69, through April 16, 69. He obtained the imperial purple by bribing the Praetorian Guard to depose and murder the short-lived Emperor Galba. His unstable rule was immediately challenged by sveral legions in Germany that declared for then-Governor Vitellius. After losing a major but not decisive battle, Otho ended his reign by his own hand on April 16, committing suicide in the hopes of ending Rome’s civil war.
Historians and other figures whose writings have survived had an almost universally poor opinion of Otho’s life. Prior to his treachery to become Emperor, Otho had been an associate and confidant of Nero, who was as unpopular with the Senatorial class and historians as he was popular with much of the Roman populace. Otho had a reputation of being vain and lacking virtue. It is for that reason that Otho’s decision to take his own life to spare Rome from further civil war while he still had a capable Army enthusiastic about fighting for him seems incongruous. The surviving accounts of Otho’s rule had difficulty reconciling Otho’s near-37-year life with his final actions.
In this post, I will survey the life and brief reign of Emperor Otho and examine the various accounts and opinions of his decision to forfeit his imperial regalia and his life in the hope that it would spare his country from continued bloodshed.
- Around the Web With Our Sources
- Otho’s Early Life
- Otho as Governor of Lusitania
- Otho Joins Galba’s Revolt
- Otho Works to be Chosen as Galba’s Successor
- Galba Chooses Lucius Piso as Successor and Otho Conspires
- Otho Seizes the Throne
- Accounts of Otho’s Rule
- Five Views on Otho’s Defeat and Suicide
- Suetonius on Otho’s Defeat and Death
- Tacitus on Otho’s Defeat and Death
- Plutarch on Otho’s Defeat and Death
- Cassius Dio on Otho’s Defeat and Death
- Martial’s Epigram
- Mr. John Donahue’s Assessment
- My Final Thoughts
Around the Web With Our Sources
In the spirit of an Around the Web post, I will rely on a variety of sources for our discussion of Otho’s life and death. I will primarily rely on the accounts of four ancient historians: Suetonius, Tacitus, Plutarch, and Cassius Dio. Each historian comes with his own baked-in perspective on Roman affairs and on the life of Otho. This is all well and good for us, since the ultimate purpose of this article is to compare their views of Otho’s death in light of their views on Otho’s life as a whole. In addition to the historians’ accounts, I will include a poem from the renowned Roman poet, Martial, toward the end of the article.
I will not rely much on secondary sources in this article. However, I will include several links to secondary sources for readers who might be interested in a general overview of Otho’s life and death.
Below, I will list the sources with links and summaries.
Do note that untangling the perspectives, biases, and sensibilities of the Roman historians, and adjudicating their reliability on one subject or another is well beyond the scope of this article. Because this article is ultimately about the opinions of the historians about Otho, I will generally let their views speak for themselves without trying to evaluate the accuracy of their different accounts.
Chapter in Otho in The Lives of Caesars.
Suetonius was a Roman Historian who lived from 69 AD to 122 AD. He is known for his short biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 Roman Emperors in The Lives of Caesars. With respect to Otho, Suetonius provides the most detailed account of Otho’s early life and has, along with Plutarch, the most interest in gossip and anecdotes.
Suetonius is the only historian to have had a personal connection to Otho. His father, Suetonius Laetus, fought for Otho during the civil war, including in the decisive battle. While Suetonius’s account of Otho’s character is, on the whole, not favorable, he includes stories he learned from his father in explaining Otho’s decision to take his own life in order to spare Rome from further bloodshed.
Regarding my use of Suetonius translations, please note that I will be using the first translation – the 1914 Loeb Library version – in all references to Suetonius except in cases where I expressly state that I am quoting from the alternative translation by Thomson and Forester. The 1914 translation reads much better in English, but there are a few interesting lines in the Thomson and Forester version that I decided to include.
The Histories Book 1 & Book 2.
Tacitus was a prolific and quite opinionated historian and Senator who lived from 56 to 120. Tacitus’s most valuable contribution to Otho’s story comes in The Histories, wherein he provides what is by far the most detailed account of the Roman civil wars of 69. In this post, however, we will only cover the actual events of the civil wars in broad strokes in order to set the stage for Otho’s final defeat and decision to take his own life.
It is in Histories where Tacitus offers his accounts of Otho’s life prior to 69. Therein, Tacitus details the circumstances leading to Otho’s falling out with Nero and banishment to Lusitania.
Plutarch was a Greek philosopher and historian who lived from 46 to 119. He is well known for his Parallel Lives series of biographies and his collection of essays and speeches. In The Life of Galba, Plutarch offers his account of Otho’s rise and fall in the court of Nero.
In The Life of Otho, Plutarch discusses the events of Otho’s reign as Augustus, starting with his deposing of Galba.
Roman History Epitome of Book LXIII.
Cassius Dio was a Greco-Roman historian who lived from 155 to 235. Unlike the prior three historians, Cassius Dio did not know anyone who was directly involved in the events of 69. Cassius Dio only covers the events of Otho’s life beginning with his supporting Galba in 68 and culminating with his suicide in 69.
Like Tacitus before him, he was a member of the Roman Senate and achieved the highest non-imperial honor when Emperor Severus Alexander appointed him consul.
Martial was a Roman Poet who was born in 38-41 and lived until 103 AD. He composed an epigram on the subject of the glory that Otho attained through his manner of death. I will discuss the Bohn translation in my article, but I included the Loeb translation above for additional reading.
Online Encyclopedia Entries
Encyclopedia Britannica (Modern).
Although we will not rely on these encyclopedia entries in the content, they are all good and broad resources on Otho’s life.
De Imporatoribus Romanus Article by Mr. John Donahue.
1848 article by William Smith in “A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology”.
The first of these two articles was authored by Mr. John Donahue, a professor at William and Mary, in 1999. I will note Mr. Donahue’s opinions on a couple of matters regarding Otho.
The 1848 article relies largely on Tacitus’s histories in describing the life and death of Otho. Unsurprisingly, this well written profile is largely a summary of the events of Otho’s rise to the imperial purple and fall in 69.
Otho’s Early Life
Otho was born on April 28, 32 AD. His father was Lucius Otho, who Suetonius notes gained a strong reputation for his conduct in several high offices. Suetonius noted that Lucius Otho was allied to, and served in high positions under, Emperors Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. He was promoted to the rank of patrician by Emperor Claudius. According to Suetonius, Claudius remarked of Otho’s father: “A man of greater loyalty than I can even pray for in my own children.” Otho’s mother was Albia Terentia, whom Suetonius describes as “a very noble woman.” Tacitus, however, noted in Histories that Otho’s mother’s side “was of less distinction, but yet respectable.”
Suetonius recounted that Otho’s ancestors “were originally of the town Ferentum, of an ancient and honorable family, and, indeed, one of the most considerable in Eturia.” Mr. Donahue noted in DIR that Otho’s name was of Etruscan origin and suggested that the name was maintained in Otho’s family out of “a desire to maintain part of the Etruscan tradition that formed the family’s background.”
There should be little surprise that Plutarch described Otho as “a man of illustrious family, and seeped from childhood in luxury and pleasure beyond most Romans of his time.”
Suetonius’s impression of the young Otho was less than favorable. We learn that Otho “was from his earliest youth so riotous and wild, that he was often severely scourged by his father.”
According to Tacitus, however, those scourgings may have been rare: “Otho’s [life] had been a neglected boyhood and a riotous youth…”
The Young Otho’s Peculiar Hobby
The young Otho also had an interesting hobby, according to Suetonius (Thompson and Forester translation):
He was said to run about in the night-time, and seize upon any one who was met, who was either drunk or too feeble to make resistance, and toss him in a blanket.Suetonius (Thompson & Forester)
What did “Suetonius” mean by “blanket”? According to the 1914 Loeb Classical Library edition of the text: Instead of the modern blanket a sagum, or military cloak, was used, whence the operation was called sagatio. You will find a more detailed description of the sagum courtesy of the 1875 Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
In an earlier post on site, I discussed a more benign peculiar hobby of another soon-to-be Roman Emperor, Hadrian.
We will never know for sure if Otho spent his youthful days tossing drunkards in blankets. As we will detail later, Suetonius was born in 69 AD, the very year that Otho became Emperor and subsequently died by his own hand. It is not as if Suetonius had first-person accounts of Otho’s youthful behavior.
But let us assume for the purpose of the following exercise that the story is true. Imagine what it would have been like to have been one of Otho’s drunkard blanket snagged victims only to see him become the most prominent figure in the Roman world?
Ah yes. I met the Emperor once. I was lying drunk in that alley way over there. He picked me up and threw me right into a sagum.
That is a good story. Let us just assume Suetonius’s sources were correct.
A Brief Overview of Nero
Nero ruled as Emperor of Rome from 54 to 68. He was the last of the five Julio-Claudian Emperors, a line that began with Rome’s de facto first Emperor, Caesar Augustus. Nero assumed the imperial purple as a boy of 14 years of age and spent the first half of his reign under the thumb of his mother. During that time, we are usually told, the affairs of state were handled by capable advisors, including, prominently, the stoic philosopher Seneca.
The ancient sources generally agree that Nero’s reign went a bit sideways after he murdered his mother in 59. Nero divorced and executed one wife, may have murdered his subsequent wife, and married at least two boys. He presided over the Great Fire of Rome. Seneca, for his part, was forced to commit suicide after being accused of participating in a plot to depose Nero.
Eventually, Nero would commit suicide in June 68, under pressure from a revolt being led by Galba, the Governor of Hispania. Although Nero’s historical legacy is not the best, he was reportedly quite popular with many of the common people of Rome and a good number of the soldiers, leading to decades of pseudo-Neros claiming to be the former Emperor popping up around the Empire. Cassius Dio made one reference to a pseudo-Nero appearing during the brief reign of Otho, stating only that “he paid the penalty.”
But where does Otho fit into this story?
The Friendship of Otho and Nero
Otho began his journey to political power after the death of his father. Suetonius tells us that Otho “pretended love for an influential freedwoman of the court, although she was old and almost decrepit, that he might more effectually win her favor.” By winning this unnamed woman’s favor, Otho ingratiated himself into Nero’s court, and soon found a very powerful young man who possessed similar sensibilities.
Suetonius wrote of Otho’s success: “Having wormed his way into Nero’s good graces, he easily held first place among the emperor’s friends…” For his part, Suetonius suggested that Nero’s affinity for Otho was on account of “the similarity of their characters…” But he made sure to note that unnamed others suggested that Otho also won Nero’s favor “through immoral relations.” “Immoral relations” was translated in the Thomson and Forester version of the text as “the reciprocal practice of mutual pollution.”
Tacitus generally agreed with the first half of Suetonius’s theory, writing that Otho “made himself agreeable to Nero by emulating his profligacy.”
Plutarch agreed, but with additional detail and an anecdote. He wrote that Nero enjoyed Otho’s “extravagance.” How extravagant was Otho? So extravagant that Nero “was amused at being reproached by Otho for meanness and parsimony.”
Imagine finding Nero, who spent from the Roman treasury quite liberally, too cheap.
Plutarch offered the following story highlighting Otho’s decadence:
It is said that once Nero scented himself with a very costly perfume, and sprinkled a little of it over Otho. On the next day Otho entertained Nero, when suddenly a number of gold and silver pipes squired out the same perfume over them as abundantly as if it were water.Plutarch
Let it be said that it is a good thing the Romans did not have elevators.
Otho’s Influence in Nero’s Court
Prior to Otho’s fall from grace, we are told that he achieved some degree of influence in Nero’s court – most likely owing to his having the favor of the young Emperor.
Suetonius recounted the following story of Otho putting his influence to use:
His influence was such, that when he had bargained for a huge sum of money to procure the pardon of an ex-consul who had been condemned for extortion, he had no hesitation in bringing him into the senate to give thanks, before he had fully secured his restoration.Suetonius
Suetonius stated that Otho “was privy to all the emperor’s plans and secrets.” So close were Nero and Otho that on the day that Nero chose for murdering his own mother, he arranged for an elaborate banquet with himself, Otho, and his mother in order to avoid giving rise to suspicion.
According to Tacitus in Book XIV of Annals, part of Nero’s motivation for murdering his mother in 59 was so that he could divorce his wife, Octavia, and marry his mistress, Poppaea Sabina. Plutarch appears to have a similar view, stating unequivocally that Nero put his mother to death for Sabina’s sake. There is some doubt as to the extent that Nero’s affections for Poppaea played in his decision to murder his mother, but we need not dwell on those here. There is no dispute, in the main, that Nero’s affections for Poppaea Sabina played the decisive role in his falling out with Otho.
Nero Uses Otho to Seduce Poppaea Sabina
Nero was in love with Poppea Sabina, who was reportedly quite beautiful. There were at least two problems for Nero, however. Firstly, Nero was married to Claudia Octavia. Secondly, Poppaea Sabina was married to Rufrius Crispinus, the former head of the Praetorian Guard.
Nero compelled Poppaea to divorce Crispinus. All of the extant accounts agree that Nero arranged for Poppaea to be seen with Otho for public purposes.
Suetonius wrote that Nero arranged for Otho and Poppaea to pretend to be married:
Poppaea Sabina, who up to that time had been Nero’s mistress, was separated from her husband and turned over for the time being to Otho, who pretended marriage with her.Suetonius
Tacitus suggested in Annals that Poppaea and Otho were legally married. For whatever it is worth, Suetonius himself states that Nero later “annulled” their marriage, again suggesting that Otho and Poppaea were actually married.
Plutarch also stated that Otho and Poppaea were married:
Otho seduced Poppaea for Nero, and prevailed upon her by holding out hopes of an intrigue with Nero to divorce her husband and marry him.Plutarch
In Tacitus’s account, Otho seems to have married Poppaea of his own accord rather than having been arranged to do so by Nero:
She was attracted by the youth and fashionable elegance of Otho, and by the fact too that he was reputed to have Nero’s most ardent friendship. Without any delay the intrigue was followed by marriage.Tacitus
A Love Triangle Between Nero, Otho, and Poppaea Sabina Forms
The historians all agrees that Otho and Poppaea Sabina fell in love, complicating Nero’s grand design.
Suetonius wrote that Otho became devoted to Poppaea, “so devoted that he could not endure the thought of having Nero even as a rival.” Otho’s devotion led to one climactic face-off with the Emperor:
At all events it is believed that he would not admit those whom Nero sent to fetch her, but that on one occasion he even shut out the emperor himself, who stood before the door, vainly mingling threats and entreaties and demanding return of his trust.Suetonius
After she became his wife, he did not like to share her favors, but showed great jealousy, at which it is said Poppaea was not offended, for she used sometimes to exclude Nero even when Otho was absent, either because she feared to surfeit him with her society, or according to some writers, because she did not wish to marry the emperor, though she was willing enough to have him as her lover.Plutarch
Tacitus offered the most interesting description of the relationship in Annals:
Otho now began to praise his wife’s beauty and accomplishments to the emperor, either from a lover’s thoughtlessness or to inflame Nero’s passion, in the hope of adding to his own influence by the further tie which would arise out of possession of the same woman.Tacitus
Tacitus suggested that Poppaea tried to thread the proverbial needle, but was ultimately devoted to Otho:
Poppaea won her way by artful blandishments, pretending that she could not resist her passion and that she was captivated by Nero’s person. Soon, as the emperor’s love grew ardent, she would change and be supercilious, and, if she were detained more than one or two nights, would say again and again that she was a married woman and could not give up her husband as attached she was to Otho by a manner of life. Which no one equaledTacitus
Tacitus reported that Poppaea compared Otho favorably to Nero, of whom she had a much lower opinion:
His ideas and style were grand; at his house everything worthy of the highest fortune was ever before her eyes. Nero, on the contrary, with his slave girl mistress, tied down by his attachment to Acte, had derived nothing from his slavish associations but what was low and degrading.Tacitus
“Acte” refers to Claudia Acte – the said slave girl mistress.
Nero Banishes Otho
Tacitus states that Nero first began giving Otho the silent treatment. The accounts are uniform in suggesting that while Nero was losing the battle for Poppaea’s affections, he had but one trump card to deploy.
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the Emperor of the Roman Empire. He made full use of the power ostensibly vested in him by the Senate, but really by the loyalty of the Roman Army, to resolve the love triangle by giving his former friend Otho a promotion and far-away assignment. Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch are all in accord that Nero appointed Otho as the Governor of Lusitania, a Roman province consisting modern Portugal and part of Spain.
It may seem odd that Nero, who had just murdered his own mother, would only exile Otho instead of ridding the world of Otho entirely. Both Suetonius and Plutarch offered accounts for why Nero did away with Otho by way of promotion rather than execution.
Suetonius stated that Nero’s entire objective in making Otho governor of Lusitania was to remove him from Rome. According to Suetonius, Nero contented himself with his benign solution because he feared “that by inflicting a severer punishment, he would make the whole farce public…”
According to Suetonius, however, Nero did not entirely succeed in keeping the farce out of the public domain. He reports that the following couplet was published in Rome and abroad:
Why, do you ask, in feigned honour does Otho in banishment languish with his own wedded wife he had begun an intrigue.
The irony drips off the page.
Plutarch stated outright that “it is strange that Nero, who put to death his own wife and sister for Poppaea’s sake, should have spared Otho.”
Plutarch credits Otho’s survival and “promotion” to Seneca, who had not yet lost his influence (and life) in Nero’s court. The historian states that Otho was friends with the renowned stoic philosopher and administrator. Seneca “persuaded Nero to appoint Otho to the command of Further Lusitania.”
This account is a bit different from Suetonius’s. Where Suetonius has Otho surviving only due to Nero’s own fear of embarrassment, Plutarch credits Otho’s survival to Seneca’s friendly intercession. Whatever the truth may be, however, Otho set off for Lusitania.
Otho as Governor of Lusitania
Taking the accounts of Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch at face value, none offered much reason to believe that the vain and extravagant Otho would be up to the task of governing a Roman province in a sound manner. It may be surprising then that Suetonius and Tacitus reported that Otho was an excellent Governor who comported himself with virtue during his tenure.
Suetonius wrote of the ten years that Otho served as Governor of Lusitania:
With the rank of questor Otho governed the province for ten years with remarkable moderation and integrity.Suetonius
Tacitus reported in Annals:
There [Otho] lived up to the time of the civil wars, not in the fashion of his disgraceful past, but uprightly and virtuously, a pleasure-loving man when idle, and self-restrained when in power.Tacitus
In Histories, Tacitus credited Otho with having ruled Lusitania “with mildness.”
Otho Joins Galba’s Revolt
In 68, Gaius Julius Vindex, Governor of the province of Gallia Ludnunensis, located in modern France, began a revolt against Nero. Rather than seek the throne himself, Vindex nominated the Roman Governor of Hispania Tarraconesis, located in modern Spain, to be the emperor in the event that the result was successful. Vindex ultimately took his own life after his troops were defeated in battle by forces loyal to Nero, but his nominee to lead the revolt, the 72-year-old Servius Sulpicus Galba, began his march from Spain to Rome.
Otho, who governed a neighboring province, saw his opportunity, according to Suetonius:
When at last an opportunity for revenge was given him, Otho was the first to espouse Galba’s cause, at the same time conceiving on his own account high hopes of imperial power, because of the state of the time, but still more because of a declaration of the astrologer Seleucus.Suetonius
According to Tacitus and Plutarch, the astrologer in question was named Ptolemaeus.
One part of the astrologer’s philosophy was proven to be true when Nero, rather than continue his fight to maintain power, committed suicide. Galba, accompanied by his troops from Spain and supporters including Otho, marched into Rome uncontested. There, Servius Galba Caesar Augustus began his rule as Roman Emperor.
The Prophecy that Otho Would Be Emperor
Otho, now very much predisposed to trust the wisdom of Ptolemaeus, or Seleucis, received a second prophecy – reported by all three of Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch.
According to Tacitus in Histories:
Gaining credit by the result [of Otho’s outliving Nero], and arguing from his own conjectures and from the common talk of those who compared Galba’s age with Otho’s youth, he had persuaded the latter that he would be called to the throne.Tacitus
Tacitus’s reference to “common talk” makes sense. Despite the fact that the reasons for Otho’s falling out with Nero were well-known, and likely did not reflect well on him in the eyes of many, there were things recommending Otho as a potential successor to Galba. He was well-born, charismatic, and had reportedly risen to the occasion when he was banished to Lusitania to serve as Governor. Otho had also been an early supporter of Galba’s revolt. His past association with Nero was not a universally negative factor in light of the fact that Nero remained popular with much of the Roman population.
Otho, Tacitus tells us, took the prophecy seriously, and began working to put himself in position to eventually succeed Galba as master of the Roman world.
Otho Works to be Chosen as Galba’s Successor
Our four historians are all in accord that Otho spent Galba’s reign trying to put himself in position to be adopted by Galba as heir. Whereas Otho was able to win Nero over through their mutual interest in spending absurd amounts of money on luxuries, Galba was a disciplined and reportedly severe man nearing 70. Otho would have to undertake a different course than he had with the prior emperor.
As we know, Otho’s efforts would be unsuccessful. Galba would select another as his successor, and that decision would cause Otho to reify Ptolemaeus’s prophecy through more forceful means. Below, I will examine the universally unfavorable accounts of Otho’s attempts to curry favor under Galba, each in turn.
Suetonius wrote of Otho’s conduct:
Otho let slip no opportunity for flattery or attention to anyone. Whenever he entertained a prince at dinner, he gave a gold piece to each man of the cohort on guard and put all the soldiers under obligation in one form or another. Chosen arbiter by a man who was at law with his neighbor about a part of his estate, he bought the whole property and presented it to him. As a result there was hardly anyone who did not both and think and openly declare that he alone was worthy to succeed the empire.Suetonius
Alas for Otho, one of the few who did not view him as Galba’s proper successor was Galba himself.
In Histories, Tacitus addressed Otho’s attempts to win favor with the soldiers, while also suggesting that Otho did not need Ptolemeaeus’s prophecy to inspire his course of action:
Otho had long been courting the affections of the soldierly, either in the hope of succeeding to the throne, or in preparation for some desperate act. On the march, on parade, and in their quarters, he would address all the oldest soldiers by name, and in allusion to the progresses of Nero would call them his messmates.Tacitus
Otho did more than interact with soldiers in a personal, down-to-Earth way:
Some [soldiers] he would recognize, he would inquire after others, and would help them with his money and interest.Tacitus
Unlike Suetonius, Tacitus portrays Otho as working to undercut the soldier’s faith in Galba prior to his hatching his conspiracy:
He would often intersperse his conversation with complaints and insinuations against Galba and anything else that might excite the vulgar mind.Tacitus
Whenever Galba dined with Otho, [he gave] one hundred sesterces to each soldier of the cohort on duty, under pretext of treating them.Tacitus
Tacitus also reported one identical account to Suetonius:
[After] finding there was a dispute between Cocceius Proculus, a soldier of the bodyguard, and one of his neighbors, about some part of their boundaries, [Otho] purchased with his own money the neighbor’s entire estate, and made a present of it to the soldier.Tacitus
Plutarch’s account begins with Otho’s efforts to win Galba’s favor during the revolt against Nero. In The Life of Galba, Plutarch notes that Otho was the first Governor to join Galba’s revolt, and that “he displayed a rare capacity for business” in raising funds for the army. Otho even sold all of his gold and silver plate to fund Galba’s march.
Otho spent a great deal of time with Galba during the long march from Spain to Rome, and all the while he nominally subordinated himself to Vinius, a General who had Galba’s favor.
Plutarch also reports that Otho cultivated relationships with the soldierly, although in a less unfavorable manner than did Suetonius and Tacitus.
He assisted all petitioners to obtain their demands without taking bribes from them, and showed himself easy of access and affable to all. He took special interest in the common soldiers, and obtained promotion for many of them, sometimes by applying directly to the emperor, at others by means of Vinius, or of the freedmen, Icelus and Asiaticus, who were the most powerful personages of the court.Plutarch
Plutarch reports the same account that Tacitus did about Otho’s treating soldiers:
Whenever Otho entertained Galba, he always presented each soldier of the guard in attendance on the emperor with a gold piece, and thus corrupted the army and won their affections for himself while he appeared to be doing honour to Galba.Plutarch
Cassius Dio’s Account
Cassius Dio does not go into the same level of detail as did the other three historians. However, Cassius Dio opined that Galba had “always honoured” Otho and treated him well, highlighting what he felt was Otho’s evil conduct in conspiring against Galba.
With that being said, however, Cassius Dio emphasizes the soldiers’ lack of satisfaction with Galba in explaining why Otho’s conspiracy was eventually successful.
Galba Chooses Lucius Piso as Successor and Otho Conspires
That the septuagenarian Galba, who had no sons, needed a successor, was not a well-kept secret.
Galba was propelled to urgency at the news that the hardened frontier legions of Germania Inferior and Germania Superior declined to renew their oaths of loyalty to Galba, and instead proclaimed the Vitellius, the Galba-appointed Governor of Germania Inferior, emperor. Numerous other legions also declared for Vitellius, turning the frontier revolt into an existential threat to Galba’s rule.
The reasons for the challenges to Galba are manifold, and largely beyond the scope of the instant article. I will note for reference, however, that Galba’s recalcitrance about rewarding the soldiers upon his rise to the throne did him no favors outside of Italy, just as they did not help his cause in Rome itself.
Galba Selects Piso
Plutarch reports that Vinius, whom Otho had befriended during Galba’s march from Spain to Rome, recommended to Galba that he choose Otho as successor. Possibly unbeknownst to Galba, Vinius and Otho had entered into a pact that would have Otho marry Vinius’s daughter were he to be adopted by Galba. Not only was Vinius on Otho’s side, but Tacitus reported that Cornelius Laco and Icelus, the two other most influential persons in Galba’s administration, were also for Otho,
Plutarch, who has a more favorable opinion of Galba than the other historians, believed that it was “probable that he would never have chosen Otho even to be heir to his own estate, for he knew well of his licentiousness and extravagance and his debts, which amounted to fifty millions.” With that being said, Plutarch reported that the soldiers eagerly hoped that Otho would be chosen as heir.
Tacitus speculated similarly about Galba’s reluctance to heed the counsel of his most trusted advisers on the matter of succession:
Galba indeed was aware of the friendship between Vinius and Otho … I believe that he had also at heart some care for the commonwealth, in vain, he would think, rescued from Nero, if it was to be left with Otho.Tacitus
Otho’s plans fell by the wayside when Galba adopted a young man by the name of Lucius Piso as heir.
Piso was 31 years of age. Like Otho, he came from a noble family. Little in particular seems to have recommended Piso for the position of heir apparent in terms of his accomplishments, although the historians who discussed him in some detail had a positive view of his character and virtues.
Cassius Dio described Piso as “a youth of good family, promising and intelligent.”
Plutarch suggested that Piso’s selection and elevation was very unexpected, but he had a positive view of Piso’s character:
A young man remarkable for his virtues, especially the modesty and austerity of his life.Plutarch
Plutarch reported that the selection of Piso was followed immediately by “evil omens” in the form of bad weather, and that the soldiers were nonplussed by the selection. Tacitus agreed, writing the same account of thunderstorms and gloomy weather the day after Piso’s selection.
Ill-omens aside, Plutarch states that Piso “was admired by all who saw him,”:
As far as they could judge from his voice and manner he was not bewildered by his good fortune, although he was not insensible of it…Plutarch
Tacitus’s account is broadly similar to Plutarch’s:
It is said of Piso that he betrayed no discomposure or excessive joy, either to the gaze to which he was immediately subjected, or afterwards when all eyes were turned upon him. His language to the Emperor, his father, was reverential; his language about himself was modest. He showed no change in look or manner; he seemed like one who had the power rather than the wish to rule.Tacitus
Brief Analysis of Accounts on Piso
I included the descriptions of Lucius Piso to highlight that the three historians who took the time to describe him at all portrayed him as very much the opposite of Otho. While Otho was extravagant, Piso was modest.
Otho schemed to put himself in position to be Emperor, but it was unclear whether Piso had any interest in the position at all. With that being said, none of the historians expressly praised Galba for his choice. While none would have likely recommended Otho, it seems likely that even granting Piso’s good qualities, he was not the right man for ominous times.
Otho Prepares to Take Action
Piso was adopted by Galba on January 9, 69. Within the week, both he and Galba would be no more.
Suetonius noted that there were multiple factors that prompted Otho to take action:
He resorted to force, spurred on not merely by feelings of resentment, but also by the greatness of his debts. For he flatly declared that he could not keep on his feet unless he became emperor, and it made no difference whether he fell at the hands of the enemy in battle or at those of his creditors in the Forum.Suetonius
Tacitus agreed with Suetonius regarding Otho’s myriad motivations. In Tacitus’s account, he put a speech in Otho’s mouth outlining his grievances with Galba and his explanation for moving quickly:
I must not look for another Lusitania, another honourable exile. Rulers always suspect and hate the man who has been named for the succession. This has injured me with the aged Emperor, and will injure me yet more with a young man whose temper, naturally savage, has been rendered ferocious by prolonged exile. How easy to put Otho to death! I must therefore do and dare now while Galba’s authority is still unsettled, and before that of Piso is consolidated. Periods of transition suit such great attempts, and delay is useless where action is more hurtful than temerity. Death, which nature ordains for all alike, yet admits the distinction of being either forgotten, or remembered with honour by posterity; and, if the same lot awaits the innocent and the guilty, the main of spirit will at least deserve his fate.Tacitus’s speech for Otho in Histories
Tacitus’s speech for Otho can be succinctly summarized: Who dares wins.
Otho Seizes the Throne
The four historians all offer broadly similar accounts of Otho’s successful coup, although some details differ. Below, I will summarize each of the historian’s accounts of the day on which Otho executed his plan, for they evince some aspects of each historian’s view of Otho. Those who want the fullest account of Otho’s plot should study Tacitus’s text.
Suetonius wrote that Otho had planned to take action immediately upon Piso’s adoption but held off on account of not causing further damage to the reputation of the cohort which was on guard in the Praetorian Camp at the time.
On the morning of January 15, 69, Otho met Galba and attended to the emperor as Galba offered a sacrifice. Otho listened as a soothsayer made his predictions, but Suetonius says nothing of what the soothsayer predicted.
A freedman informed Otho that “the architects had come,” which was the signal for Otho to proceed to the Praetorian Camp while leaving Galba and others on the scene with the impression that he was going to inspect a house. Suetonius offers an alternative story – that Otho pretended to have a fever in order to take his leave, but none of the other historians reference this version of the story.
Otho was taken into a closed sedan, “such as women use” Suetonius made a point of adding. One of the bearers of the sedan flagged en route to the camp, leaving Otho to get out of the sedan and run to the appointed place. Suetonius, intent on ensuring that no detail is missed, noted that Otho’s shoe came untied while he was running. Rather than allow him to stop to tie his shoe, the soldiers picked him up and carried him into camp.
Otho was greeted enthusiastically with acclamations and drawn swords. Although only a small number of soldiers had been in on the plot, Suetonius wrote that “everyone whom he met fell in, just as though he were an accomplice and participator in the plot.” Firmly ensconced in the camp, Otho ordered his soldiers to find and kill Galba and Piso.
Otho Solidifies Rule
Having consolidated his rule and killed Galba and Piso, Suetonius stated that Otho entered the Senate late in the day. Otho falsely told the Senate that the soldiers had carried him off and forced him to become Emperor, and that he would do so only “in accordance with the general will.”
The Senate praised Otho, and wisely so in light of the fact that Otho had the full support of the Army in Rome. The citizens, Suetonius tells us, hailed Otho as the new Nero. Otho ventured no objections and went so far as to restore Nero’s statutes and re-appoint Neronian freedman and officials to their former posts.
Tacitus’s account, like Suetonius’s has Otho accompanying Galba to perform sacrifices on the morning of January 15 – specifying the Temple of Apollo as the location. Tacitus reports that the soothsayer warned Galba that treachery close at home threatened him. Otho, who heard the soothsayer, took this as a good omen.
In Tacitus’s account, Otho is told by his freedman, Onomastus, that the architect and contractors were waiting for him. This was Otho’s sign to move to the Camp. Tacitus specified that the signal to Otho was that the soldiers in the Camp had finished assembling and that all preparations were complete.
Otho took leave of Galba’s party, falsely explaining that he was going to examine farm buildings that he was considering purchasing.
Otho was greeted near the Temple of Saturn by 23 soldiers of the Praetorian Guard. Those soldiers greeted Otho as Emperor. Here, Tacitus reports that Otho began to have doubts, noting the small number of soldiers present. The soldiers, however, had no doubts, putting Otho in a chair, drawing their swords, and rushing him to camp.
Tacitus reports that about 20 or so soldiers joined Otho’s party en route to the Praetorian Camp, “some because they were in the plot, many from mere surprise; some shouted and brandished their swords, others proceeded in silence…”
Otho Enters the Praetorian Camp
Tacitus offered an interesting description of Otho’s entry into the Praetorian Camp. Below, I reprint it in its entirety:
Julius Martialis was the tribune on guard in the camp. Appalled by the enormity and suddenness of the crime, or perhaps fearing that the troops were very extensively corrupted and that it would be destruction to oppose them, he made many suspect him of complicity. The rest of the tributes and centurions preferred immediate safety to danger and duty. Such was the temper of men’s minds, that, when there were few to venture on so atrocious a treason, many wished it done, and were ready to acquiesce.Tacitus
Like Suetonius, Tacitus’s very eloquent passage suggests that the number of soldiers who were part of Otho’s conspiracy as an initial matter was very small. But the conspirators had the initiative, and the rest of the Praetorians went along, some perhaps because they preferred Otho to Galba, and others because, as Tacitus suggests, they preferred safety to danger. Otho and his co-conspirators seized the moment, and with that, Otho would seize the throne.
The Murder of Galba and Consolidation of Otho’s Rule
Tacitus offers a very detailed account, with numerous speeches, of January 15 from Galba’s perspective. I will only discuss it in brief here, but you may read the entire account in Book 1 of Tacitus’s Histories.
Galba was informed while he was performing his sacrifice that Otho had been taken into the Praetorian Camp, although the details were vague. Galba and his advisers were debating whether Galba should remain in the palace or venture out to confront the conspirators. While debate continued, a soldier by the name of Julius Atticus greeted Galba with a bloody sword and falsely claimed to have murdered Otho. Perhaps to make a point of Galba’s temperament, Tacitus reported Galba’s response with commentary:
‘Comrade,’ replied Galba, ‘who gave the order?’ So singularly resolute was his spirit in curbing the license of the soldierly; threats did not dismay him, nor flatteries seduce.Tacitus
Meanwhile, the soldiers in the Praetorian Camp swore an oath of loyalty to Otho, as was the custom for soldiers and their Emperor.
Excerpts From the Speech Tacitus Gives Otho
Tacitus wrote a lengthy speech for Otho, which he has Otho giving the Praetorian Guard after having their oaths of loyalty. I will present excerpts.
Otho addressed why it was urgent for the Guard to not leave the situation unsettled:
Comrades, I cannot say in what character I have presented myself to you; I refuse to call myself a subject, now that you have named me Prince, or Prince while another reigns. Your title also will be equally uncertain, so long as it shall be a question, whether it is the Emperor of the Roman people, or a public enemy, whom you have in your camp.Tacitus’s speech for Otho
To highlight the stakes, Otho keyed in on Galba’s reputation for severity, listing the names of notable figures who Galba murdered and had executed over his long career, and suggesting that the Guard would be next were they to not ensure Otho’s success. Perhaps most relevant to the men of the Guard, Otho noted Nymphidius, who had been Praetorian Prefect until Galba executed him upon entering Rome.
Otho also keyed in on corruption in Galba’s reign, noting the license exercised by Galba’s freedmen and Vinius.
Regarding Piso, Otho dismissed the possibility that Piso’s ascension would benefit the troops:
Galba fetches out of exile a man in whose ill-humor and avarice he considers that he has found the best resemblance to himself. You witnessed, comrades, how by a remarkable storm even the gods discountenanced that ill-starred adoption; and the feeling of the Senate, of the people of Rome, is the same.Tacitus’s speech for Otho
Tacitus reports that the soldiers, to his own regret, responded favorably:
The soldiers immediately seized the arms without regard to rule or military order, no distinction being observed between Praetorians and legionaries, both of whom again indiscriminately assumed the shields and helmets of the auxiliary troops. No tribute or centurion encouraged them, every man acted on his own impulse and guidance, and the vilest found their chief incitement in the dejection of the good.Tacitus
The Murder of Galba
Tacitus describes a confusing situation for both Otho and Galba. Galba and his guard were in the Forum, and he was beginning to grasp how dire their position was. Otho, Tacitus writes, was told in the camp that Galba’s supporters were arming a mob in the Forum. This news spurred Otho to action, and he ordered his troops to make haste in finding and killing Otho. Tacitus describes a scene that he found most disturbing:
Then did Roman soldiers rush forward … not as though they were hastening to murder their aged and defenceless Emperor. In all the terror of their arms, and at the full speed of their horses, they burst into the Forum, thrusting aside the crowd and trampling on the Senate. Neither the sight of the Capitol, nor the sanctity of the overhanging temples, nor the thought of rulers past or future, could deter them from committing a crime, which anyone succeeding to a power must avenge.Tacitus
The troops found and descended upon Galba, who was knocked from his litter. Tacitus reports that there were several accounts of Galba’s end. In one version, he pleaded with the soldiers to know what wrong he had done. In another, he begged for a few days to gather money to pay their donative, which he had not paid them upon seizing the throne a year earlier. Tacitus noted that the most common account was the most noble one:
He voluntarily offered his neck to the murderers, and bade them haste and strike, if it seemed to be for the good of the Commonwealth.Tacitus
Aftermath of the Murder of Galba
Tacitus reports that Otho joyed to learn of the deaths of Galba and Piso, although he took the news that Vinius had been murdered with some sadness. Otho had Galba’s infamous influential freedmen executed. Tacitus notes, however, that Otho saw to it that Galba’s friend and appointed consul for the new year, Marius Celsus, was spared. Celsus would go on to serve as a General under Otho, and later Vespasian.
Plutarch’s account was broadly similar to Tacitus’s, although a bit shorter, and lacking the speeches that Tacitus gave the dramatic personae and some of the more granular detail. Plutarch’s account diverges slightly in describing the circumstances of Galba’s murder and the aftermath.
The Early Events of January 15
Plutarch wrote that in the short time between Piso’s appointment and Otho’s becoming Emperor, Otho and his supporters paid bribes to secure the cooperation of key supporters. They were aided by the military’s dissatisfaction with Galba.
Plutarch’s account of Otho accompanying Galba for his morning sacrifice on January 15 is nearly identical to that of Tacitus’s. However, in Plutarch’s version, Otho is terrified when the soothsayer warns Galba that there was a danger to him in his midst. Plutarch described Otho at this moment:
He was very much alarmed, and turned all manner of colours through fear…Plutarch
Plutarch reports that Otho’s freedman, Onomastus, signaled to him that the preparations for the plot were complete by informing him that the architects had arrived at the old house – the same account as that provided by Suetonius and Tacitus.
Plutarch’s account is nearly the same as Tacitus’s regarding Otho’s journey to the Praetorian Camp. Plutarch wrote that Otho was concerned when he was greeted by only a small number of soldiers and he was only prevented from abandoning the plot when those soldiers did not allow him to do so. Many soldiers joined Otho’s group en route to the Camp, hailing him as Caesar. The Camp tribune, Martialis, allowed Otho’s party through just as he did in Tacitus’s account, despite not being part of the conspiracy. The troops in the Camp initially followed Otho out of fear, but after having the situation explained to them, they joined the conspiracy “of their own free will.”
The Murder of Galba
Plutarch’s account includes the same confusion among Galba’s supporters as Tacitus’s. Here, Galba was greeted by Julius Atticus, claiming to have murdered Otho in order to lure Galba out into the open. Galba, just as he did in Tacitus’s version, sternly asks Atticus who had given him the order.
Plutarch reports that Galba was being carried on a litter to make a public sacrifice to Jupiter in gratitude for having survived Otho’s plot. However, Otho was of course very much alive, and soldiers who supported him descended on Galba’s party on horseback. Galba was immediately abandoned by nearly all of his supporters and by bystanders. According to Plutarch, only one of Galba’s guard behaved honorably and defended his Emperor:
There was a centurion named Sempronius Desnus, who had never received any especial favor from Galba, but who, prompted merely by his own honour and fidelity, stood firm in front of his litter.Plutarch
Desnus attempted to order Otho’s troops to stand down, and having failed, laid down his life for Galba, fighting to defend the Emperor until he was struck down.
Plutarch reports that Galba’s last words were the best of the suggestions offered by Tacitus:
He, offering his throat to them, said ‘Strike, if this be best for Rome.’Plutarch
Plutarch’s account differs from Tacitus in the aftermath of Galba’s murder. According to Plutarch, Otho’s men brought him Galba’s head. Otho was unimpressed, and ordered his men to bring him Piso’s head, which they did in short order.
Plutarch includes the same account of Otho’s sparing Marius Celsus, Galba’s friend and appointed Consul, as did Tacitus.
After consolidating power, Otho went to the Senate. Plutarch describes the Senate’s enthusiastic embrace of Otho dryly:
The Senate was at once called together. Just as though they had become different men, or worshiped different gods, the senators took the oath of fealty to Otho, which Otho himself had just broken: and they addressed him as Caesar and Augustus, while the headless corpses, dressed in their consular robes, were still lying in the Forum.Plutarch
Cassius Dio’s Account
Cassius Dio provides a far shorter account of the events of January 15 than did Tacitus and Plutarch, but its differences do not alter the essential contours of the story.
One notable difference in Cassius Dio’s account is that he never specifies that Otho was prompted to go to the Praetorian Camp by code. Instead, Cassius Dio notes that Otho heard the ominous prophecy about treachery in Galba’s midst, and then immediately went to the Praetorian Camp, “as if on some other errand.” Once at the camp, Cassius Dio states that Otho was admitted by his co-conspirators, and then quickly won over the rest of the soldiers.
Cassius Dio reported that Galba had planned to send emissaries to the Camp upon learning about Otho’s entry, when a “soldier,” who the other accounts specified was named Julius Atticus, entered and claimed to have killed Otho. Galba, just as unimpressed as he was in Tacitus’s and Plutarch’s versions of the story, demanded to know who had ordered him to kill Otho.
Galba went to the Forum to perform a sacrifice, and there was met by Othonian soldiers on horseback, just as he was in Plutarch’s version. Plutarch reported Galba’s last words as being: “Why, what harm have I done?”
Cassius Dio, like Plutarch, singled out Galba’s centurion, Sempronius Densus, for high praise. Noting that Desnus gave his life in the defense of Galba, Cassius Dio wrote:
This is why I have recorded his name, for he is most worthy of being mentioned.Cassius Dio on Sempronius Desnus
Cassius Dio on Otho’s Entry Into the Senate
After noting that Piso and other key allies of Galba were also killed, Cassius Dio described Otho’s entry into the Senate. According to the historians, the Senators, “though terror-stricken, affected to be glad.”
Cassius Dio reported that Otho was voted all the typical privileges of sovereignty for an Emperor. Otho portrayed himself as having been called upon to serve as Emperor:
He claimed, it is true, that he had acted under compulsion, that he had been taken into the camp against his will, and had there actually risked his life by opposing the soldiers.Cassius Dio
Despite Otho’s good cheer and pretensions to modesty, Cassius Dio observed that it did not escape notice that Otho added Nero’s name to his own.
Accounts of Otho’s Rule
One decade earlier, Marcus Salvius Otho had been banished from Rome by Nero for his relationship with Poppea Sabina. Within the decade, he was no longer Marcus Salvinus Otho. Now, Marcus Otho Caesar Augustus had attained the same position that Nero had held – Emperor of Rome.
Otho would have been sole master of the Roman world but for one problem – that of the numerous legions from Britain to Germany that had declared for Vitellius. Vitellius’s soldiers were undeterred by the news that Galba had been deposed and pressed on toward Rome to install their own claimant on the throne. Thus, Otho worked on consolidating his rule at home and made desperate attempts to bribe Vitellius to give up his claim, all the while preparing for the confrontation that would, as we know, end in his defeat.
Although the military history of the brief war between Otho and Vitellius, told in most detail by Tacitus, is fascinating, our focus remains on the various accounts of the character of Otho. For that reason, I will generally skip over the details of the military maneuvering in the accounts and focus on the views of the historians on Otho’s brief rule, before examining their views of his demise. In this section, I will examine the views of our four historians in turn, on Otho’s ascension to his defeat at the decisive Battler of Bedriacum.
Otho was immediately confronted with the threat of Vitellius. Although he initially hoped to induce Vitellius into dropping his bid for Rome and forming an alliance, Otho quickly gave up on the idea as Vitellius’s armies continued their advance.
In a story that we will see again in Tacitus’s and Plutarch’s accounts, a cohort of soldiers came to believe that a shipment of their arms had been stolen, and they suspected treachery. The soldiers rioted, with a mob storming the palace and demanding the death of Senators and other officials whom they suspected of disloyalty to Otho. They were only assuaged when Otho appeared and calmed the situation.
Seutonius reported that Otho prepared for War with vigor once he concluded that it was unavoidable, and he ignored numerous bad omens in advancing his cause.
In Seutonius’s view, Otho would have been well-advised to bide his time in light of the fact that Vitellius’s armies “were hard pressed by hunger and by the narrowness of their quarters…” Instead, Otho acted rashly, according to Suetonius, and “decided to fight a decisive battle as soon as possible, either because he could not endure the continued worry and hoped that the war could be ended before the arrival of Vitellius, or from inability to resist the impetuosity of his soldiers, who clamored for the fight.” Suetonius noted, consistent with all other accounts, that Otho himself did not take part in battles, but went as far as his camp in Brixellum (modern Brescello, Italy).
Suetonius reported that Otho’s Army won three small engagements against Vitellius’s group, but they lost their one large, pitched battle at Bedriacum on April 14, 69. This defeat prompted Otho to take his own life rather than to continue the War.
Tacitus’s account of Otho’s reign is by far the most detailed of the historian’s. However, as I noted, I will focus primarily on Tacitus’s account of Otho’s conduct, and his opinion of such, rather than the particular details of the civil war.
Otho Comports Himself With Dignity
Tacitus reported that Otho surprised everyone by “not sinking down into luxury and sloth.” Instead, “he deferred his pleasures, concealed his profligacy, and molded his whole life to suit the dignity of the empire.”
In one of Otho’s first and most significant acts, he summoned Marius Celsus, Galba’s friend and confidant and consul-elect for the year, whom he had saved during the events of January 15. Celsus pled guilty to being faithfully adherent to Galba and made no apologies for his conduct. Tacitus wrote that Otho declined to pardon Celsus, finding that he had done nothing needing pardon. Instead, Otho “admitted him into his intimate friendship, and soon afterwards appointed him to be one of his generals.” Tacitus remarked that “Celsus maintained also to Otho a fidelity as irreproachable as it was unfortunate.”
According to Tacitus, Otho’s treatment of Celsus won universal acclaim from the Senate and people and even the soldiers who had wanted to murder Celsus shortly before agreed with the decision.
Otho’s Unseemly Correspondence With Vitellius
Tacitus provided a colorful description of the correspondence between Otho and Vitellius when both sought to compel the other to retreat.
Meanwhile frequent letters, disfigured by unmanly flatteries, were addressed by Otho to Vitellius, with offers of wealth and favour and any retreat he might select for a life of prodigal indulgence. Vitellius made similar overtures.Tacitus
Once both sides came to terms with the fact that other would not concede, the ton of the letters changed:
Then they seemed to quarrel, charging each other with debaucheries and the grossest crimes, and both spoke truth.Tacitus
Although beyond the scope of this article, I will note that the accounts of Vitellius are perhaps more unfavorable than the accounts of Otho.
Various other articles of correspondence and envoys were exchanged between the Othonians and the Vitellians, but none made the impending war any less inevitable.
It is worth noting, however, that Otho ensured the safety of Vitellius’s family in Rome, specifically his mother and children. In turn, Vitellius spared the life of Otho’s brother and other relatives when he arrived in Rome months later.
Otho’s Handling of Domestic Affairs
Despite the specter of civil war growing closer, Tacitus wrote that “Otho continued to discharge his imperial duties as though it were a time of profound piece.” Tacitus’s opinion of Otho’s actions was decidedly mixed, noting that “sometimes he consulted the dignity of the Commonwealth, but often in in hasty acts, dictated by the expediency of the moment, he disregarded its honour.”
Otho directed the restoration of statues of his former wife, Poppaea, and considered celebrating the memory of Nero. Tacitus wrote that the populace still associated Otho with Nero: “There were days on which the people and the soldiers greeted him with shots of Nero Otho, as if they were heaping on him new distinction and honour.” For his part, “Otho … wavered in suspense, afraid to forbid or ashamed to acknowledge the title.”
The Soldiers Riot in Rome
Tacitus provided a more detailed account of the soldiers’ riot in Rome than did Suetonius. According to Tacitus, Otho had ordered new troops to be brought to Rome, and one of the tribunes of the Prateorian Guard was entrusted with preparing their weapons. He opted to begin preparing the weapons at nightfall, which aroused the suspicion of many soldiers in camp. Many soldiers believed that a conspiracy against Otho was afoot, and alcohol did not help.
The riotous soldiers stormed the imperial palace and Senate with weapons brandished, fearing a widespread conspiracy against Otho. Otho was at a banquet at the time, and he first sought to assuage the soldiers by sending prefects to negotiate. This tactic was unsuccessful – the soldiers demanded that they see Otho. Otho finally appeared, and convinced the soldiers to return to their barracks.
Otho’s Speech to the Soldiers
Otho’s prefects criticized the soldiers but paid each soldier a bonus of 5,000 sesterces. Otho ventured into the camp and gave a speech, which Tacitus wrote a version of for his text.
I come to pray you put some restraint on your valour, some check on your affection for me.Tacitus’s speech for Otho
It was your excessive affection for me that roused you to act with more zeal than discretion. For even honourable motives of action, unless directed by judgment, are followed by disastrous results.Tacitus’s speech for Otho
Otho reminded the soldiers that they were to respect command authority and follow orders. He noted that their actions, well-intentioned as they may have been, could have played right into the hands of the Vitellians.
Keep you your arms and your courage, leave it to me to plan, and guide your valour. A few were in fault, two will be punished. Let all the rest blot out the remembrance of that night in infamy.Tacitus’s speech for Otho
Tacitus wrote that Otho’s attempts to assuage the soldiery were successful, and that the soldiers appreciated Otho’s decision to exercise moderation in punishing them. However, “tranquility was not restored to the capital…” Although the soldiers would not again riot, they “had dispersed themselves in disguise about private houses, and exercised a malignant surveillance over all whom exalted rank, or distinction of any kind, exposed to injurious reports.”
Otho’s Final Acts in Rome
Tacitus noted that Otho handled certain individuals who were believed to have doubtful loyalties by ordering them to accompany him on his military campaign as part of his personal retinue. This included Lucius Vitellius, his rival’s brother, who would survive the campaign. Tacitus found some fault with Otho’s military appointments, observing that Otho had a tendency to prefer “the unscrupulous and the cunning” before “the modest and the good.”
On March 14, Otho undertook his final acts in Rome before departing. He restored to individuals who had been exiled by Nero and recalled their property, although Tacitus noted that “the property had been hastily realized long before.” Otho delivered a speech, believed not to be his own writing, charging the soldiers supporting Vitellius with ignorance rather than crimes. Of Vitellius himself, Otho said nothing.
Otho left Rome in the care of his brother, Salvinus Titanus, and left the capital for what would be the final time.
The war began well for Otho, with his side winning numerous small battles – owing in large part to the leadership of Suetonius Paullinus (no relation to the historian) and Marius Celsus. Vitellius’s army remained split in two. Despite this, Otho heeded the dissatisfaction of his troops with their Generals by summoning his brother Titianus from Rome to assume nominal command of the conduct of the war.
These victories came not without strife, however. After one victory by Celsus and Paullinus wherein the soldiery believed that they had missed an opportunity to completely destroy the army of Aulus Caecina, the head of half of Vitellius’s forces, the soldiers accused their experienced generals of treachery and sent their accusations to Otho. To be sure, Tacitus himself noted legitimate criticisms of Paullinus for delay. However, he also recited Paullinus’s explanation for his conduct of the battle and found it to be in accord with Paullinus’s track record in command.
Otho’s Fateful Decision and Fall
Otho was them left with a dilemma – should he seek a decisive engagement or delay and protract the war. Tacitus noted that Suetonius Paullinus advised delay, both to wear down Vitellius’s army and to give Otho’s reinforcements coming from the east time to arrive. Marius Celsus concurred with this judgment.
Otho, however, “was inclined to risk a decisive battle” before the whole of his army had arrived. He was encouraged by his brother, Titianus, and Proculus, his inexperienced Praetorian Prefect. Otho sided with his brother and Prefect, who argued that the omens pointed toward a decisive battle. Paullinus and Celsus acquiesced. Titianus and Proculus prevailed on Otho to retire to Brixillum instead of joining the battle in person – a decision Tacitus did not approve of.
Tacitus noted two disastrous consequences attached to Otho’s decision to not join the battle in person. Firstly, Otho left with a number of important troops, including a strong detachment of Praetorian cohorts and cavalry. Secondly, Tacitus wrote that the spirit of the soldiers who were to take part in the battle was broken, for they were personally loyal to Otho and questioned the loyalty of Otho’s generals.
Tacitus attributed the Othonian army’s ensuing defeat at Bedriacum in large part to a combination of Otho’s decision to not stay with his men and his trusting his inexperienced and vainglorious Praetorian prefect with overall command instead of his more experienced generals.
Plutarch’s account is broadly similar in its details to Tacitus’s. For that reason, I will note where Plutarch recites the same facts and highlight points where his assessment differs from that of Tacitus’s.
Otho’s First Acts
Like Tacitus, Plutarch reported that Otho’s reign began well in the aftermath of the scandalous events of his coup against Galba. Otho’s first act, according to Plutarch, was “to forget the charge” against Marius Celsus and invite him into his service. Like Tacitus, Plutarch notes specifically that Otho did not “pardon” Celsus, but rather stated that Celsus had done nothing needing pardon. He wrote: “Both Otho and Celsus were thought to have done themselves equal honor, and were applauded by the soldiers.” Plutarch then had Otho delivering “a mild and gracious speech” to the members of the Senate, followed by more acts which were found to be in accord with those sentiments. As a result, “many of the leading men in Rome, who had at first shuddered at Otho’s accession, regarding him as some avenging demon who had suddenly been placed on the throne, began to look more hopefully upon a reign which they themselves had profited.”
Otho and Nero’s Name
Plutarch reported that Otho initially allowed common people to address him in public as “Nero.” Furthermore, he restored several of Nero’s statutes. Unlike Tacitus, however, Plutarch wrote that Otho put a stop to these practices when he found that it offended “the first and most powerful citizens” of Rome.
Although the Praetorian Guard was loyal to Otho, or perhaps because the Guard was loyal, many of its members were concerned “with the moderate manner in which Otho began his reign, and they wanted him to be on his guard, and cut off all disaffected persons, either out of a genuine anxiety for his safety, or merely as a pretext for causing disturbances and civil wars.”
Plutarch’s story of how the riot began and was resolved is nearly identical to Tacitus’s – albeit a bit shorter. He made specific note of the fact that when the riotous soldiers arrived at the palace while Otho was entertaining members of the Senate and their wives, Otho became aware that the Senators in attendance were wary of him and suspected that he may have arranged the whole event. Otho thus responded by sending the prefects of the Guard to pacify the soldiers while he directed the Senators and their wives to leave the banquet through a back door. Only after the prefects failed did Otho address the rioters, which was sufficient for causing their return to their barracks.
The next day, Otho ensured that each soldier received 12,500 drachmas before he entered the Praetorian Camp to address them. Unlike Tacitus, Plutarch did not write a speech for Otho, but he reported that Otho delivered marks in the same tone as Tacitus suggested, and punished only a small number of soldiers while praising the rest for their loyalty but imploring them to temper their enthusiasm and follow orders.
Final Notes on Otho’s Time in Rome
Plutarch did not write much more about Otho’s time in Rome. He noted that Otho sent at least one figure whom the Praetorians suspected had divided loyalties away from Rome, likely for his own safety. Plutarch, like Tacitus, made a special note of the fact that Otho commanded Vitellius’s brother, Lucius, to join his traveling party. He added that Otho “took especial care of the mother and wife of Vitellius, that they might not have any fear for their own safety.”
According to Plutarch, Otho left Rome in the care of Flavius Sabinus, a Neronian official who had lost his post under Galba. Sabinus was the nephew of Vespasian, who at that time was the Governor of Roman Syria and who had declared his support for Otho. By the year’s end, Vespasian himself would be Emperor, but that story is beyond the scope of this article.
Discipline Issues in Otho’s Army
Otho ventured to his miliary camp in Brixellum. Plutarch painted an unflattering portrait of military discipline in Otho’s armies. He noted that Otho had left his forces under the command of Celsus, Suetonius Paullinus, and other experienced generals. However, Plutarch stated that these generals struggled to conduct the campaign. Firstly, the soldiers were only loyal to Otho and insisted that only he had the right to command them. Plutarch, after noting that the Vitellian troops were not entirely disciplined, criticized the Othonian troops for also being “weak from their life of unwarlike leisure…”
Despite the problems in Otho’s army, Plutarch noted that Otho won several small victories early in the war. However, one such victory nearly led to the collapse of Otho’s army. In one battle, Plutarch reported that Celsus’s cavalry routed the troops of Lucius Caecina, one of Vitellius’s two leading generals, and that Caecina’s entire army may have been destroyed had the Othonian infantry arrived from camp in time,. However, Paullinus was late in arriving with the infantry, and the soldiers charged him with treason. Plutarch wrote that,while Otho did not believe the accusations of treason, he was afraid of appearing to disbelieve his soldiers. For that reason, he compromised by sending for his brother, Titanius, and the Praetorian Prefect, Julius Proculus, and giving them command over the army. Otho allowed Celsus and Paullinus to keep their titles, but he stripped them of their command authority.
Otho Seeks a Decisive Battle
Plutarch’s account of the advice that Otho received regarding whether to seek a decisive battle is nearly identical to that of Tacitus’s. Otho ultimately rejected the advice of his experienced generals to delay and accepted the counsel of his Titanius and Proculus to engage Vitellius’s unified army as soon as possible.
Plutarch explained that it was not known with certainty why Otho made this decision, but that several reasons had been suggested. He noted that Otho may have been concerned that the Praetorian Guardsmen in his rank had little experience with actual warfare, and he wanted to return to Rome rather than engage in a protracted campaign. Plutarch suggested that Otho’s own inexperience with warfare and nervousness about the outcome may have prompted him to seek to resolve the war expeditiously, one way or another, rather than draw it out. Plutarch included an interesting alternative theory. By his account, Otho’s secretary later related that there were efforts to cause the armies of Vitellius and Otho to come together and elect an emperor from among their officers, or, in the alternative, to bid the Senate to choose an emperor. Plutarch suggested that these rumors may have prompted Otho to act expeditiously.
Tacitus on Plutarch’s Last Theory
Tacitus made reference to Plutarch’s story that there were efforts to end the civil war by having the two armies join together to elect an Emperor. According to Tacitus, some suggested that Paullinus recommended delay in order to give these plans more time to develop.
Tacitus, however, seemed to largely dismiss the theory for several reasons. He found it unlikely that Paullinus, “wise as he was, could have hoped in an age thoroughly deprived to find such moderation in the common heard…” Furthermore, Tacitus believed that the character of Vitellius’s German legions and that of Otho’s troops were too different for them to come to an agreement. Finally, Tacitus suggested that most of the generals, burdened by their own moral defects, “could have endured any Emperor who was not himself stained by vice, as well as bound by obligation to themselves.”
However, it is worth noting that earlier in Tacitus’s account, he suggested that Vitellius was viewed with less disfavor by some at the time than was Otho, contrasting that with the view of both figures after their respective defeats and deaths. Tacitus had little good to say about Vitellius, writing that “his sensuality and gluttony was his own enemy,” but he also observed that Otho was seen as being cruel, reckless, and more dangerous to Rome.
Otho’s Mistake and Defeat
Plutarch was highly critical of Otho’s decision to retire to Brixellum rather than to march with his troops to the final battle. Like Tacitus, he noted both that the troops were personally loyal to Otho and would have fought harder and been more disciplined with Otho present, and that some of the most important troops retired along with Otho in his personal guard. Of the latter, Plutarch wrote that Otho “made his army like a spear which has lost its steel point.”
Due to a variety of additional factors, including Otho’s having entrusted overall command of his army to Procolus instead of his experienced generals, and his army’s apparent belief that Vitellius’s troops were ready to make piece right before the battle, Otho’s armies were defeated at Bedriacum on April 14, prompting Otho’s final decision.
Cassius Dio’s Account
Cassius Dio provided a relatively short account of Otho’s reign. He noted from the outset that the omens for Otho were unfavorable, which is a theme in all four accounts.
Otho in Rome
Cassius Dio’s views of Otho’s conduct as Emperor in Rome are more negative than the first three accounts, which is notable in that those accounts were not universally positive. He noted that Otho had attempted to win favor by remitting sentences against members of the Senate, frequenting theaters, and granting citizenship to foreigners. However, Cassius Dio explained that this was not enough to win the loyalty of Rome’s upper classes, because “there were several circumstances, such as his restoration of images of those under accusation, his life and habits … and his keeping in his service … Nero’s favourites, that alarmed everybody.” Worst of all, Otho “had shown that the imperial office was for sale and put the City in the power of the boldest spies…” Cassius Dio also deplored the precedent that Otho had set: “He … had convinced the soldiers of the fact that they could both kill and create a Caesar.”
Cassius Dio mentioned the riot of the Praetorian Guard only briefly, not differing in any meaningful aspect from the accounts of Tacitus and Plutarch. However, Cassius Dio was the most overtly critical of Otho’s decision to pay the soldiers a bonus and suggested that Otho did so because they had acted out of their loyalty to him.
The War and Aftermath
Cassius Dio briefly recounted Otho’s unsuccessful efforts to stave off civil war, writing that he had specifically attempted to entice Vitellius into sharing the office of Emperor with him.
We have very few details of the campaign in Cassius Dio’s account. He indirectly referenced Otho’s decision to camp in Brixellum with more than a bit of derision:
Otho withdrew from battle, declaring that he could not witness a battle between kindred – just as if he had become emperor in some legitimate fashion and had not murdered the consuls and the Caesar and the emperor in Rome itself.Cassius Dio
According to Cassius Dio, more than 40,000 men died in the Battle of Bedriacum.
Five Views on Otho’s Defeat and Suicide
Having gone through the events of Otho’s life and reign, we now reach the main purpose of this article. All four historians agreed on the essential facts of Otho’s defeat and suicide. Otho’s forces were defeated at Bedriacum on April 14. Otho gained a full grasp of the situation on the 15th and resolved to take his own life on the morning of the 16th. The accounts do not differ on the essential reason that Otho offered for his decision. However, the accounts all grappled with the disconnect between Otho’s apparently noble death and the manner in which he lived his life, not least the manner in which he seized the throne in the first place only three months prior. While the historians differed in how negatively they viewed Otho, with Cassius Dio having the bleakest view, none of the historians painted a particularly flattering portrait of Otho’s life outside of his Governorship of Lusitania.
Below, I will examine the views of the four historians, the poet Martial, and the contemporary historian Mr. John Donahue, each in turn.
Suetonius on Otho’s Defeat and Death
In Suetonius’s view, Otho still had the forces with which to continue the civil war after his defeat at Bedriacum:
Even then he had a fresh and strong force which he had held in reserve for a second attempt, while others were on their way from Dalmatia, Pannonia, and Moesia. Even the defeated troops were not so crushed as to not undergo any danger, and even without support undertake to avenge their disgrace.Suetonius
Notwithstanding the fact that Otho could have continued the war, however, he took a different course. Suetonius gave his view of Otho’s decision:
After the defeat, Otho at once resolved to take his own life, rather from a feeling of shame, as many have thought with good reason, and an unwillingness to persist in a struggle for imperial power at the expense of such danger to life and property, than from any despair of success or distrust of his troops…Suetonius
Suetonius’s Father’s Account
Unlike the other historians, Suetonius had a personal connection to Otho’s campaign. Although he himself could have hardly participated or known Otho, having been born in 69, Suetonius’s father served as a turbine in the Thirteenth legion, serving under Otho. Suetonius reported what his father had told him about Otho:
He used often to declare afterwards that Otho, even when he was a private citizen, so loathed civil strife, that at the mere mention of the fate of Brutus and Cassius at a banquet he shuddered; that he would not have engaged with Galba, if he had not felt confident that the affair could be settled peacefully; further, that he was led to hold his life cheap at that time by the example of a common soldier.Suetonius on his father’s recollections
Suetonius’s father recounted that the man who brought news of the defeat at Otho’s camp was disbelieved by the troops with Otho. Those troops accused him of having fled. That soldier “fell on his sword at the emperor’s feet.” This event left an impression on Otho, according to Suetonius’s father:
My father used to say that at this sight Otho cried out that he would no longer endanger the lives of such brave men, who had deserved so well.Suetonius on his father’s recollections
Otho’s Final Acts
Otho saw his brother and friends for one last time and implored each individually to care for his own safety. He then retired to his tent and wrote notes to his sister and Nero’s widow, the latter he had intended to marry. Otho then burned all of his correspondence in order that the people he exchanged letters with would not be in danger. He distributed all of the money he had on his person to his servants.
Otho was roused when he heard a disturbance in the camp and found that soldiers were attempting to detain people who were trying to leave. Otho emerged to order his soldiers to cease any acts of violence. He then left the door to his tent open and received everyone who wished to speak to him. Eventually, Otho placed two daggers under his pillow and went to sleep. When he awoke in the morning, he stabbed himself in the chest, and expired as his attendants rushed in.
Suetonius’s Assessment of Otho
Suetonius opined that “neither Otho’s person nor his bearing suggested such great courage.” He launched into a detailed description of Otho’s appearance and vanity:
He is said to have been of moderate height, splay-footed and bandy-legged, but almost feminine in the care of his person. He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head, that no one suspected it. Moreover, they say that he used to shave every day and smear his face with moist bread, beginning the practice with the appearance of the first dawn, so as never to have a beard…Suetonius
Suetonius observed that it was the contrast between Otho’s appearance and life and his end that made him a fascinating figure:
I am inclined to think that it was because of these habits that a death so little in harmony with his life excited the greater marvel.Suetonius
Suetonius wrote that the soldiers in Otho’s camp wept bitterly at their Emperor’s deaths, and many of them, inspired, took their own lives and died with their Emperor. He added that some soldiers in the field also killed themselves in grief upon hearing the news.
Suetonius reported that Otho’s final act earned him the respect of many who had hated him in life, so much that some even revised history:
In short the greater part of those who had hated him most bitterly while he lived lauded him to the skies when he was dead; and it was commonly declared that he had put an end to Galba, not so much for the sake of ruling, as of restoring the republic and liberty.Suetonius
Tacitus on Otho’s Defeat and Death
Tacitus reported that Otho waited for news from Bedriacum. “First came gloomy tidings, and then fugitives from the field, making known that all was lost.”
The soldiers by Otho’s side were enthusiastic about prosecuting the war. Before Otho could weigh in, they emphasized that they still had fresh forces, reinforcements were on the way, and that they themselves would fight until the bitter end. Tacitus opined that Otho’s men were serious in their enthusiasm to continue fighting.
Plotius Firmus, Praetorian Prefect, “was the most zealous of all.” He begged Otho to not desert an army that was so loyal to him, and that his soldiers deserved the opportunity to fight on for him. Tacitus noted that the Praetorian Guard was particularly loyal to Otho, but that the other legions that were coming to his aid were firmly resolved to support his cause.
Tacitus was less definitive about Otho’s prospects for victory than was Suetonius but agreed as far as stating that no one “can doubt that the war might have been renewed with its terrible disasters, and its uncertainties both for victors and for vanquished.”
As Tacitus was wont to do, he gave Otho a speech, wherein Otho disappointed his soldiers, and explained why he was prepared to abandon the civil war and acknowledge Vitellius as the victor:
I hold that to expose such a spirit, such a courage as yours, to any further risk is to put too high a value on my life. The more hope you hold out to me, should I choose to live, the more glorious will be my death. Fortune and I now know each other; you need not reckon for how long, for it is peculiarly difficult to be moderate with that prosperity which you think you will not long enjoy.Tacitus’s speech for Otho
Otho then addressed the beginning of the war and the future of Rome after his death:
The civil war began with Vitellius; he was the first cause of our contending in arms for the throne; the example of not contending more than once shall belong to me. By this let posterity judge of Otho. Vitellius is welcome to his brother, his wife, his children. I need neither revenge nor consolation.Tacitus’s speech for Otho
Otho then opined on his legacy to the men who held him in high esteem:
Others may have held the throne for a longer time, but no one can have left it with such fortitude. Shall I suffer so large a portion of the youth of Rome and so many noble armies to be again laid low and to be lost to the State? Let this thought go with me, that you were willing to die for me.Tacitus’s speech for Otho
Otho then encouraged his soldiers to live on:
But live, and let us no longer delay, lest I interfere with your safety, you with my firmness. To say too much about one’s end is a mark of cowardice. Take as the strongest proof of my determination the fact that I complain of no one. To accuse either gods or men is only for him who wishes to live.Tacitus’s speech for Otho
Otho’s Final Acts
Tacitus wrote that after Otho finished thinking, he encouraged all of his men to leave the camp and to do nothing to anger the victorious Vitellius. He gave orders that anyone who wished to leave should be provided with boats and carriages.
In order to protect his troops and confidants, Otho destroyed all memorials and letters that were critical of Vitellius. He also distributed his money to those who were present.
Tacitus reported Otho’s attempts to console his nephew. His nephew was worried about his own fate, but Otho rebuked him. Otho reminded his nephew that he had ensured the safety of Vitellius’s family, and predicted that Vitellius would return the favor. He noted to his nephew that he had won imperial nobility for the family, and concluded with these words:
Enter then on life with a brave heart, and never entirely forget, or remember to vividly, that Otho was your uncle.Tacitus’s account of Otho’s words
Vitellis would indeed ensure the safety of Otho’s family, and that nephew would rise to the rank of consul in 80, before reportedly being executed by Emperor Domitian for remembering Otho too vividly.
After Otho retired to his tent, he was disturbed by some of his soldiers threatening the lives of anyone who tried to depart the camp. Similarly to Suetonius’s account, Tacitus has Otho emerge from his tent to rebuke the soldiers, and then kept his door open to receive anyone who wished to talk to him before leaving.
Otho placed two daggers under his pillow, slept through the night, and then stabbed himself when he woke up in the morning. He expired as his attendants rushed into the tent. Tacitus, like Suetonius, reported that some of the Praetorian Guardsman killed themselves near Otho’s funeral pile. Tacitus opined that they were “not moved by remorse or fear, but by the desire to emulate his glory, and by love of their Prince.” This spread to Otho’s troops in other areas.
Tacitus noted that Otho’s tomb, unpretentious as it was, was “likely to stand.”
Tacitus wrote beautifully about the apparent tension between Otho’s life and death:
By two daring acts, one most atrocious, the other singularly noble, he earned in the eyes of posterity an equal share of infamy and glory.Tacitus
He had earlier in his Histories opined that Otho earned the “highest renown” for his death.
Tacitus concluded by recounting a folk tale about a mysterious event around Otho’s death:
The natives in these parts relate that on the day when the battle was being fought at Bedriacum, a bird of unfamiliar appearance settled in a much frequented grove near Regium Lepidum, and was not frightened or driven away by the concourse of people, only the multitude of birds that flocked round it, until Otho killed himself; then it vanished.Tacitus
Tacitus’s overall view of Otho’s character during his life was negative, but his view of Otho’s final act – describing it as “singularly noble” – was positive. Like Suetonius, Tacitus saw no need to declare the best or worst of Otho to be the whole of Otho. That both existed within Otho was perhaps what made Otho an interesting figure.
Plutarch on Otho’s Defeat and Death
Plutarch painted a bleaker portrait of Otho’s military situation than did Suetonius and Tacitus, writing that several of Otho’s commanders in Bedriacum had all but conceded that it was necessary to sue for peace.
However, Plutarch’s account of Otho’s own camp was similar to the first two. Otho first received reports of the defeat at Bedriacum, and then saw the wounded soldiers and stragglers. None of Otho’s troops in his camp deserted him or showed any inclination to do anything but fight on. In fact, Plutarch wrote that Otho’s men “repaired to his quarters, and called him their emperor.” When Otho stepped outside his tent, his soldiers begged him to not desert them and to use them as he wished to continue to prosecute the war.
While all besought him thus, one of the common soldiers drew his sword, and crying, ‘Caesar, this is what we are all prepared to do for you,’ stabbed himself.Plutarch
Otho’s Resolve and Speech
Plutarch, like Tacitus, gave Otho a speech wherein he explained his decision to acknowledge Vitellius as the victor and take his own life:
My comrades, your noble conduct and your loyal devotion make this a happier day to me than that on which you elected, me your emperor. Yet do not deprive me of the still greater happiness of dying for so many and such noble friends. If I am worthy to be an emperor of Rome, I ought not to grudge my life to my country.Plutarch’s speech for Otho
In Plutarch’s account, Otho acknowledged that the military situation was not hopeless, but explained why he would not continue the war:
I am aware that our enemy’s victory is not decisive or crushing. News has reached me that the Mœsian legions have already reached the Adriatic, and are not many days’ march distant. Asia, Syria, Egypt, and the army engaged with the Jews are all on our side, while we have in our power both the senate, and the wives and children of our enemy. But we are not defending Italy from Hannibal, or Pyrrhus, or the Cimbri, but Romans are fighting against Romans, and our native land will suffer equally whichever side is victorious, for she must lose what the conqueror gains.Plutarch’s speech for Otho
In this account, Otho makes the most explicit reference to the fact that Vitellius’s troops were Romans too, and that the inevitable result of continuing the war was the death and suffering of more Roman citizens.
Believe me, I pray you, that it is more to my honour to die than to reign: for I cannot imagine that if victorious I could do anything which would benefit the Romans so much as I can by giving my life to obtain peace and concord, and to save Italy from seeing another day such as this.Plutarch’s speech for Otho
Otho’s Final Acts
Otho’s soldiers were not satisfied with Otho’s decision to concede defeat, but their attempts to hold him back were unsuccessful. Before retiring to his tent, Otho ordered his friends and senators who were present with him to leave the camp. He sent additional orders to be conveyed to his friends and senators who were not present with him that they too should flee and not resist Vitellius. Finally, Otho sent orders to be conveyed to magistrates who were supporting his cause that they were to allow Vitellius’s armies to pass freely.
Plutarch also notes that Otho called for his nephew and implored him to not be afraid because he had protected Vitellius’s family as if they were his own, and that he was confident that Vitellius would return the favor. Plutarch noted that Otho had planned to adopt his nephew as heir but decided not to do so unless he prevailed in the civil war.
Plutarch reported, just as did Suetonius and Tacitus, that Otho was disturbed by commotion from some of the soldiers attempting to prevent the senators from leaving the camp.
Otho, who feared for their lives, now came out a second time, no longer in a mild and supplicatory manner, but, frowning savagely, he cast so terrible a look upon the most turbulent of the rioters that they shrank away terrified and abashed.Plutarch
Otho’s Last Night and Death
Otho placed one dagger under his pillow. He then called his servants into his tent and distributed all of the money he had on hand among them. Otho then slept through the night.
Plutarch adds an additional detail about Otho’s actions on his final morning. When Otho woke up, he summoned a freedman and asked whether the senators had been able to leave the camp. The freedman informed him that the senators had left the camp safely. Satisfied, Otho then ordered the freedman to show himself to the soldiers in order that no one would mistakenly believe that he played a role in what Otho would do next.
After allowing his freedman to leave, Otho fell upon his sword. He died as people rushed into his tent in response to his groan.
Plutarch reports that Otho’s soldiers were distraught and lamented their not having prevented Otho from killing himself. None of Otho’s personal guard left the camp, but instead ensured that Otho’s body would be cremated so that it would not fall into the hands of Vitellius’s army.
Plutarch described the decision of some soldiers to die with Otho:
Some, who had received no especial favors from Otho, and had nothing to fear from his successor, slew themselves after they had applied the torch to his funeral pile. It seems, indeed, that no king or despot ever was possessed with so frantic a desire to rule, as these men had to be ruled by Otho and to serve him; for their love for him did not cease with his life, but remained implanted in their breasts, causing them to regard Vitellius with the bitterest hatred.Plutarch
Plutarch noted that many years later, he saw Otho’s modest grave marker. The small monument was engraved with the words: “In memory of Marcus Otho.”
Plutarch provided a brief assessment of Otho’s life and death:
Otho died in his thirty-seventh year, after a reign of three months. Many good men, though they blamed his life, yet could not refrain from admiring his death; for though his life had been no better than that of Nero, his end was a far nobler one.Plutarch
Unlike Tacitus, Plutarch made no direct reference to Otho’s murder of Galba in his assessment. He noted simply and succinctly that no matter how one may criticize the way Otho lived his life, his decision to end his life was admirable.
Plutarch provides the most favorable account of Otho’s actions on his final day. His statement that Otho had previously lived no better than Nero is perhaps harsh, given Otho’s sober governorship in Lusitania and his conduct as Emperor after the bloody coup he instigated to become Emperor.
Cassius Dio on Otho’s Defeat and Death
Cassius Dio reported that news first reached Otho’s camp of the disaster at Berdiacum when a horseman who had been in the battle arrived. Many of Otho’s men disbelieved the report. In response, the soldier made his resolve clear:
‘Would that this news were false, Caesar; for most gladly would I have died hadst though been victor. As it is, I shall perish in any case, that no one may think that I fled hither to secure my own safety; but as for thee, consider what must be done, since the enemy will be here before long.’ With these words, he slew himself.Cassius Dio
With the messenger’s suicide, everyone in Otho’s camp accepted the account of the defeat at Bedriacum. Cassius Dio reports, like the three earlier historians, that Otho’s troops resolved to fight on:
Not only were the troops which were already there numerous, but others in considerable numbers had arrived from Pannonia; and — what is most important in such situations — they loved Otho and were quite devoted to him, not in words only, but in their hearts as well.Cassius Dio
The troops, perhaps noticing Otho’s indecision, implored him to continue to command them. Cassius Dio writes that Otho did not make a final decision until he observed more soldiers from the defeat at Bedriacum filtering into the camp.
Cassius Dio, like Tacitus and Plutarch, wrote a speech for Otho.
Enough, quite enough, has already happened. I hate civil war, even though I conquer; and I love all Romans, even though they do not side with me. Let Vitellius be the victor, since this has pleased the gods; and let the lives of his soldiers also be spared, since this pleases me. Surely it is far better and far more just that one should perish for all than many for one, and that I should refuse on account of one man alone to embroil the Roman people in civil war and cause so great a multitude of human beings to perish.Cassius Dio’s speech for Otho
Otho asked his men to not force him to become a man who would only be remembered for causing needless death:
I certainly should prefer to be a Micius, a Decius, a Curtius, a Regulus, rather than a Marius, a Cinna, or a Sulla – not to mention other names. Therefore, do not force me to become one of these men that I have, nor grudge me the privilege of imitating one of those that I commend.Cassius Dio’s speech for Otho
Otho then bid his soldiers to submit to Vitellius, and to remember him for his final act:
As for you, be off to the victor and pay court to him; as for me, I shall free myself, that all men may learn from the event that you chose for our emperor one who would not give you up to save himself, but rather himself to save you.Cassius Dio’s speech for Otho
Otho Spends the Rest of the Day Arguing With His Soldiers
Cassius Dio’s account diverges from the others on the aftermath of Otho’s remarks. According to him, Otho’s soldiers admired Otho for his decision but were fearful of what would befall them. The solders, despairing, implored Otho to reconsider, “calling him father and terming him dearer than children and parents.” The soldiers told Otho that their lives depended on his, and that they were prepared to give their lives in the defense of his cause.
The soldiers spent the rest of the day trying to convince Otho to live. Otho, for his part, continued to beg the soldiers to let him die. The soldiers refused. Otho finally ended the debate by referencing the soldier who had killed himself to prove that he had not fled at Bedriacum:
Surely I cannot show myself inferior to this soldier, who you have seen kill himself for the single reason that he had borne news of defeat to his emperor. I shall certainly follow in his footsteps, that I may never see or hear any such thing again. And as for you, if you really love me, let me die as I desire, and do not compel me to live against my will, but be off to the victor and curry favor with him.Cassius Dio’s speech for Otho
Otho’s Final Night
Cassius Dio’s account of Otho’s final night is almost the same as the prior accounts. Otho wrote messages to be delivered to friends and family. He burned all correspondence that expressed any hostility toward Vitellius. Finally, Otho called his servants one by one, bid them farewell, and gave distributed all the money that he had on hand.
Cassius Dio recounted that there was a disturbance among the soldiers but offered no details beyond Otho having to go out to quiet them. Once quiet had been restored, Otho committed suicide with a dagger. “The grief-stricken soldiers took up his body and buried it, and some slew themselves upon his grave.”
After Otho’s death, Cassius Dio reported that there were riots among his men. But they would calm down and set out to meet Vitellius and, as Otho had wished, accept Vitellius as Emperor.
Cassius Dio’s Assessment
Cassius Dio wrote of Otho’s life and death:
This was the end that befell Otho, after he had lived thirty-seven years, lacking eleven days, and had reigned ninety days; and his death threw into the shadow the impiousness and wickedness of his life. Thus after living most disgracefully of all men, he died most nobly; and though he had seized the empire by a most villainous deed, his taking leave of it was most honourable.Cassius Dio
Cassius Dio had the most decidedly negative account of Otho’s life and character. Moreover, Cassius Dio’s portrait of how Otho came to his decision was somewhat less generous than the first three historians. In his account, Otho took longer to decide, and had more difficulty convincing the soldierly to let him proceed.
Yet, despite all of Cassius Dio’s criticisms of Otho, he could not help but admire Otho’s end, crediting him with a noble decision, and finding that the circumstances of Otho’s death, in dramatic contrast to those of his life, were “most honorable.”
The poet Martial articulated the most positive view of Otho’s death in a poem. Below, I reprint the Bohn translation of the poem:
While Bellona yet hesitated as to the result of the civil war, and the gentle Otho had still a chance of gaining the day, he looked with horror on a contest which would cost great bloodshed, and with resolute hand plunged the sword into his breast. Grant that Cato, in life, was even greater than Caesar; was he greater in death than Otho?
Martial concludes with high praise. Many Romans revered Cato the Younger, who fought to preserve the republic and, once it was clear that his side had been defeated by the forces of Julius Caesar, opted to take his own life. More notable was the decision in that Caesar had resolved the spare Cato, as he would spare Cicero. But Cato’s sense of honor would not allow it.
In his epigram, Martial suggested that Otho’s death was superior to that of Cato. Why did he suggest this? Perhaps it is because Cato had been thoroughly defeated. His death changed nothing about events in Rome, it was merely the result of his personal conviction to not submit to Caesar.
Otho, meanwhile, still had a chance to prevail in the civil war – at least in Martial’s calculation. That is, not only did Otho still have a chance to live, but he also had the possibility of solidifying his rule over the Roman Empire. Martial estimated that Otho’s decision to give that up for the lives of his men and the Roman people was the most noble decision of all.
Mr. John Donahue’s Assessment
Mr. John Donahue, a professor at William and Mary, wrote a brief assessment of Otho’s life in 1999. I thought that it would be worth including a modern opinion, and Mr. Donahue’s is an interesting one.
Mr. Donahue described Otho as something of an “enigma.” On one hand, Otho was a “profligate Neronian wastrel.” On the other, he was a “conscientious military commander willing to give his life for the good of the state.” The ancient historians, Mr. Donahue noted, were “at a loss to explain the paradox.”
Mr. Donahue submitted for consideration that perhaps Otho simply saw it safer to “appear as profligate in Nero’s court.” In my view, and I think in Mr. Donahue’s as well, this would require dismissing the portrayal of Otho’s time in Nero’s court by the ancient sources, specifically because they all depicted Otho as actively seeking status in Nero’s court to advance his position. That is, he was not born into the court.
Mr. Donahue described Otho as an “organized and efficient military commander” as well as apparently capable administrator. He added, with perhaps a bit of understatement, that Otho “appealed more to the soldier than to the civilian.”
However, Mr. Donahue noted that Otho’s violent deposition of Galba raised doubts about his character that no subsequent deed could fully erase. Ultimately, “his unsuccessful offensive against Vitellius” was a “vivid reminder of the turbulence that plagued the Roman world between the reigns of Nero and Vespasian.”
My Final Thoughts
In my article on the death of the last Eastern Roman Emperor, Constantine XI, in 1453, I wrote the following:
The pre-Christian Romans fretted over their final words and revered honorable deaths. Christian Rome and Greece revered history’s martyrs. Constantine’s final days and death, in a sense, honored the traditions of Republican and Christian Rome – and in this sense, served as an equally fitting and tragic end to the Roman Empire.Nicholas A. Ferrell (article)
Otho’s death fit squarely into the earlier tradition. Constantine XI fought to defend Constantinople and Christendom until the end, falling with his men as a common soldier. Otho, in a different tradition, opted to kill himself in order to remove the cause of the civil war between armies fighting for his rule and those fighting for Vitellius’s.
What to make of Otho’s final decision?
Why Did Otho Commit Suicide Instead of Fighting On?
All of the ancient historians agree that Otho’s decision was prompted by his desire to end the civil war. As universally negative as the accounts of Otho’s character were, the historians were largely in accord that Otho was genuine in attributing his decision to take his own life to his desire to end the civil war.
Of course, one may wonder why Otho persisted in fighting the civil war in the first place. For example, he could have submitted to Vitellius earlier if his sole or even primary concern was averting the deaths of his countrymen. As disagreeable as Vitellius’s character was, Otho’s reputation was not much better, and possibly worse.
The cynical take on Otho’s decision would be that he either panicked or was convinced that the military situation was hopeless. It is certain that had Otho been captured, he would have been killed. Thus, had Otho determined that the war was lost in a military sense, his death was assured in the near future.
However, the historians generally agree, with the possible exception of Plutarch, that the war was not lost, and that Otho still had the loyalty of his men and incoming reinforcements to carry on. Furthermore, while Plutarch was the most skeptical about Otho’s military prospects, he portrayed Otho as believing that his reinforcements from the East would have allowed him to fight on. With that being said, the cynical view may be supported by the fact that Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch all noted Otho’s inexperience in warfare and suggested that he had panicked in seeking a decisive battle. When we combine those observations with the fact that Otho did not have the counsel of his most experienced generals after Bedriacum, one could reasonably argue that his ability to judge the overall military situation was lacking.
The middle-ground take is that Otho was motivated by a desire for honor. Otho had thrown caution to the wind in deposing Galba, and it should be noted that his coup was not guaranteed to succeed. Otho had, by a couple of accounts, been motivated by the fact that he would be crushed by his debts if he did not become Emperor. He was unlikely to be unaware of his poor reputation among the Roman elite, and he perhaps saw a noble death that would spare much of that elite from possible or even likely deaths as a way to ensure his historical reputation and the reputation of his family going forward.
The most charitable reading of Otho’s decision, in my view, is that he genuinely cared about his soldiers. One consistent theme in Otho’s rise to power was his efforts to cultivate relationships with the soldiers – going all the way back to his time in Nero’s court. Although none of the historians went into detail, Otho had command responsibility as Governor of Lusitania for ten years.
It is clear from all the historian accounts that many soldiers who fought under Otho genuinely loved him and were uniquely loyal to him in a way that soldiers who served under Galba and Vitellius certainly were not. While Otho built relationships with the soldiers to help his own advancement, it is certainly possible that he also cared for them.
Furthermore, while Otho did make many efforts to pay bribes to the soldiers over the years, the historians noted that many of the soldiers who chose to die with Otho had received no special favors from him.
In viewing Otho in the best light, it is possible that the realization that thousands of men under his command at Bedriacum had died hit home for him in a way that the prior smaller engagements had not. Otho recognized the intense loyalty of his army, and the knowledge that they were willing to fight until the very end was enough for him. By ending the war, he knew that the lives of his men would be spared, and whatever indignities they would face from Vitellius would be light.
In the alternative, it may be as Suetonius suggested, that there was something about Romans fighting Romans that particularly disturbed Otho. In light of Otho’s decision to engage in the civil war in the first place, however, I find it more likely that the primary motivation for Otho – assuming the best of him – was to protect the men who were willing to die on his behalf.
There is, in the end, no definitive way to cleanly untangle the contradictions in the life and character of Otho.
Some Truth to Negative Accounts
He was, by all accounts, morally base. While the Roman historians all have their biases, it is likely that there is more than a bit of truth to the criticisms of Otho’s spending and his conduct of his personal life, even if some of the accounts were innuendos spread by his enemies. The comparisons to Nero in some of the accounts are overwrought in my view. With the lone admittedly significant case of Otho’s conspiracy against Galba, none of the accounts suggested that he was prone to the same viciousness or erratic behavior. While Otho lived extravagantly as a private citizen, he conducted himself far more soberly when he bore great responsibility.
A Talented Administrator
Otho appears to have been significantly more talented than his original benefactor, Nero. The historians who criticized him greatly praised his sober administration of Lusitania, where he served as Governor for nearly a decade. The accounts suggest that Otho was a competent ruler during his brief reign as Augustus. While he made poor military decisions in whom he entrusted command responsibility , Otho had to address the fact that the soldiers did not trust his more capable commanders.
Relationship with the Soldiers
Furthermore, the intense, almost fanatical, loyalty that Otho’s soldiers had to him personally, is part of his legacy. Otho’s coup against Galba was successful in large part because of perceptions – far from entirely unfounded – that Galba mistreated the soldiers. Vitellius was entirely a creation of his soldiers who were also dissatisfied with Galba but was unable to command the respect or loyalty that Otho earned from the army. Nero was popular with much of the army, but the histories do not suggest the soldiers were loyal to him to the same degree that Otho’s men were prepared to die for him. Despite his faults, or perhaps in part because of them, Otho appealed greatly to many of the professional soldiers of Rome.
Many of the soldiers who were prepared to die for Otho would, within a short time, shift their allegiance to Vespasian once the legions in the east proclaimed him Emperor. They would, in the end, avenge the death of Otho with the murder of Vitellius in Rome that December.
Otho engaged in a civil war to solidify his rule over Rome. His troops were defeated after he pressed for a decisive battle. Despite apparently believing that he could fight on, and perhaps win, Otho resolved to take his own life. He claimed that his decision was inspired by his desire to spare Rome from further civil war. Due to the subsequent revolt by soldiers loyal to Vespasian, which many Othonian veterans would join, Otho’s stated desire would not be realized for another eight months.
In truth, Otho’s decision was likely informed by a variety of factors, some more noble than others. But I think that it is likely that his concern for the men who were willing to die for him played a role in his decision to prevent them from doing so after thousands had perished at Bedriacum.
An Enigmatic Life
In the end, Otho, who reigned for only three months, is little more than a footnote in Roman history. But it cannot be said that Otho is not an interesting and complicated footnote.