Aulus Vitellius Germanicus (15 - 69 A.D.) was a Roman politician and general, he reigned as Roman Emperor for a few short months in the year 69 (known as the Year of the Four Emperors). His rise to power was sudden and surprised many, his fall was no less dramatic and savage.
Born into a family of comparatively lowly means, Vitellius first came to prominence as a companion of Tiberius during the latter’s retirement on Capri. There he met the future Emperor Caligula, whom he befriended over a shared interest in chariot racing and games of dice.
Surviving Roman accounts of both his life and rule are largely negative; describing him as slothful, indolent and unfit to lead the empire. Despite this, Vitellius was clearly an adroit politician and remained in the good graces of successive Emperors. He first entered high office as Consul in 48 AD and served as proconsular governor of Africa in 60 AD. During the unsteady reign of Nero, he remained an acolyte of the young Emperor up to Nero’s suicide in 68 AD. In the ensuing chaos following Nero’s death, the empire began to fracture, with different factions emerging. Towards the end of 68 AD, the newly appointed Emperor Galba named Vitellius as head of the army in Germania Inferior, a hugely powerful position, placing this previously inexperienced military leader at the head of battle-hardened legions. His generous nature towards senior officers and lax approach to military discipline resulted in a breakdown in order, but it ingratiated Vitellius with his men. Within months he had himself proclaimed emperor and began to march on Rome. By this time Galba had been murdered and replaced by his one-time political ally Otho.
The forces of the two opposing emperors met at Bedriacum, with over 40,000 casualties, Vitellius was victorious and Otho committed suicide shortly afterwards. After long months on campaign and already weak on discipline, by now Vitellius’ army was rough and dissolute, when they arrived in Rome there were riots and massacres. According to Roman sources, the new emperor held extravagant banquets and gladiatorial shows. Seemingly protected by his army, Vitellius gave in to his excesses, feasting four times a day and holding debauched parties. He installed his own men within the Praetorian Guard for protection, all seemed well. But in the east, a new threat was emerging.
The seasoned commander of the armies of the Eastern provinces, Vespasian, already an ambitious man, had himself declared emperor. When in the summer of 69 A.D. Vitellius learned of the powerful Eastern legions declaration for Vespasian, he sent a force to meet them, only to have its commander attempt to defect to Vespasian. Another of his supporters was sent to Gaul to raise a separate force, only to be captured and executed. By now Vitellius knew his short reign would come to an end, to spare his life he attempted to abdicate, but was prevented by his own Praetorian Guard. As Vespasian’s troops arrived in Rome there was total chaos, a huge battle ensued with the deaths of over 50,000 troops and civilians, large areas of the city were destroyed. Vitellius was eventually found by Vespasian’s troops, dragged from his hiding place and hauled to the Gemonian stairs, where he was brutally killed by the mob. His head was paraded around the city. His reign lasted just eight months.
This bust bears witness to the savagery of these final days and hours. The marine inclusions show that it was deposited in water, it is possible that in the chaos of the revolution it was hacked off and thrown into a nearby river. Whatever the truth of its deposition, due to his short reign and its dramatic end, sculpture depicting Vitellius is exceedingly rare, oversized busts such as the present example are especially so.