Year of the Four Emperors: Vitellius & Vespasian

When news of Otho’s suicide spread, the Senate recognized Vitellius as the new emperor of Rome. With this acceptance, Vitellius made his way to the city. Like so many new rulers, he faced problems and opposition from the very beginning of his reign.


The city raised their eyebrows when Vitellius chose the anniversary of the Battle of the Allia (in 390 BC) to accept his office. The Romans viewed this as a day of poor support according to superstitions.

The following events would prove the superstition true. Vitellius began to celebrate with feasts, banquets, and parades that sent the imperial treasury plummeting towards bankruptcy. Debts started to mount and those who had lent out money started to demand repayment of funds. Vitellius responded by ordering the torture and execution of anyone who made any demands. The financial state of the Empire was chaotic, but that didn’t stop Vitellius from killing citizens who threatened his claim to his throne. He sought after any possible opponent , inviting them to the palace with promises of power and then assassinating them instead.

In the meantime, the legions stationed in the African province of what it now known as Egypt, Syria, and provinces in the Middle East, were pushing to have Vespasian take over as emperor. In 67, Nero had given Vespasian a special command in Judaea and asked him to stop the Great Jewish Revolt. As a result, he gained support from the governor of Syria, Gaius Licinius Mucianus. The forces that gathered out of the Judaean and Syrian legions were powerful and together, they marched to Rome under the command of Mucianus. Vespasian made a trip to Alexandria, where he had been named the emperor on July 1. Because of this, he was able to gain control of influential grain supplies from Egypt.

Before the eastern legions reached Rome, Vespasian was acknowledged as Emperor in August by the Danubian legions of the provinces of Raetia and Moesia. Italy started to experience invasions and in October, forces led by Marcus Antonius Primus crushed Vitellius’ army at the Second Battle of Bedriacum. With enemies surrounding him, Vitellius tried one last time to win back the city with bribes and promises of power. He attempted to levy by force several allied tribes, such as the Batavians, but was not successful.

The Danube army continued to get rather close to Rome and Vitellius soon realized that his life was heading into dangerous territory. He felt that his last chance was to negotiate a truce and establish talks of peace. He sent emissaries that were accompanied by Vestal Virgins to stall for time. However, messengers alert the emperor that the enemy had already reached the gates of the city. Vitellius went into hiding and was prepared to flee the city, but decided to visit the palace one last time. This was a fatal mistake, as he was caught by Vespasian’s men and killed. During the seizing of the capital, the invaders burned down the temple of Jupiter.


On the following day, the Senate acknowledged Vespasian as the new emperor. The date was December 21, 69, and Rome had officially seen four different emperors before the end of the year. After the death of Vitellius, Vespasian did not encounter any direct threats to his power. During his time as emperor, he founded the Flavian dynasty, which proved stable. He died of natural causes in 79 while still emperor of Rome.