1902 Encyclopedia > Marcus Salvius Otho

Marcus Salvius Otho
(Marcus Salvius Otho Caesar Augustus)
Roman emperor
(32 - 69 AD)

MARCUS SALVIUS OTHO, Roman emperor from January 15 to April 15, 69 A.D., was born April 28, 32 A.D. He belonged to an ancient and noble Etruscan family, settled at Ferentinum in Etruria. His grandfather had been a senator and held the praetorship; his father had added to the family honours the dignity of a consul-ship. Otho himself first appears in history as one of the most reckless and extravagant of the young nobles who surrounded Nero and shared his revels. But his friend-ship with that emperor was brought to an abrupt close in 58 A.D., when Otho was only twenty-six years old, by his refusal to divorce his beautiful wife Poppaea Sabina at the bidding of Nero, who was enslaved by her charms. The emperor, impatient as usual of anything that hindered the gratification of his passions, at once removed Otho from the scene by appointing him governor of the remote pro-vince of Lusitania. In this honourable exile Otho remained for ten years, and, contrary to all expectation, his administration was marked by a moderation unusual at the time. When in 68 his neighbour Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, rose in revolt against Nero, Otho at once joined him and accompanied him to Rome. Resentment at the treatment he had received from Nero may very well have impelled him to this course, but to this motive was added before long that of personal ambi-tion. Galba was far advanced in years, and Otho, encouraged by the predictions of astrologers, aspired to succeed him, and, as a preliminary step, to be adopted as his heir by the emperor himself. With this object in view he set himself to win the affections of the soldiery and the populace in Rome, who, disgusted by Galba's old-fashioned parsimony and severity, were easily brought to look favourably upon a claimant for the imperial purple whose open-handed generosity and easy manners promised a return of the golden years of Nero. But in January 69 his hopes in this direction were dissipated by Galba's formal adoption of L. Calpurnius Piso as the fittest man to succeed him. Nothing now remained for Otho but to strike a bold blow for the prize which seemed to be slipping from his grasp. Desperate as was the state of his finances, thanks to his previous extravagance, he found money enough to purchase the services of some three-and-twenty soldiers of the praetorian guard, with whom he arranged his plan of operations. On the morning of January 15, five days only after the adoption of Piso, Otho attended as usual to pay his respects to the emperor, and then hastily excusing himself on the score of private business hurried from the Palatine to meet his slender band of accomplices in the forum. By them he was escorted to the praetorian camp, where, after a few moments of surprise and indeci-sion, he was saluted imperator by the assembled troops. At the head of an imposing force he returned to the forum, and at the foot of the Capitol encountered Galba himself, who, alarmed by vague rumours of treachery, was making his way through a dense crowd of wondering citizens towards the barracks of the guard. The cohort on duty at the Palatine, which had accompanied the emperor, instantly deserted him; Galba himself was brutally murdered by the fierce praetorians, and his fate was shared by his adopted heir Piso, and by his chief confidants and advisers. The brief struggle over, Otho returned in triumph to the camp. Towards sunset on the same day ho proceeded to the senate-house, and there was duly invested by the senators with the name of Augustus, the tribunician power, and the other dignities belonging to the principate. Otho had owed his success largely, not only to the resentment felt by the praetorian guards at Galba's well-meant attempts to curtail their privileges in the interests of discipline, but also to the attachment felt in Rome for the memory of Nero; and his first acts as emperor showed that he was not unmindful of the fact. He accepted, or appeared to accept, the cognomen of Nero conferred upon him by the shouts of the populace, whom his comparative youth and the effeminacy of his appear-ance reminded of their lost favourite. Nero's statues were again set up, his freedmen and household officers reinstalled in their places, and the intended completion of the Golden House announced. At the same time the fears of the more sober and respectable citizens were allayed by Otho's liberal professions of his intention to govern equitably, and by his judicious clemency towards Marius Celsus, consul-designate, a devoted adherent of Galba. These favourable symptoms were eagerly seized upon as promising better things than could have been hoped for from one who was only known as yet in Rome as a passionate and reckless profligate and spendthrift.

But any further development of Otho's policy was speedily checked by the news which reached Bome shortly after his accession, that the army in Germany had declared for Vitellius, the com-mander of the legions on the lower Rhine, and were already advancing upon Italy under the conmand of Vitellius's two lieutenants, Fabius Valens and Alienus Chechia. After in vain attempting to conciliate Vitellius by the offer of a share in the empire, Otho, with unexpected vigour, prepared for war. His resources were not contemptible. From the remoter provinces, indeed, which had acquiesced in his accession little help was to be expected ; but the legions of Dalmatia, Pannonia, and Mcesia were eager in his cause, the praetorian cohorts were in themselves a formidable force, and an efficient fleet gave him the mastery of the Italian seas. Nor was he himself wanting in promptitude. The fleet was at once despatched to secure Liguria, and on March li Otho, undismayed by omens and prodigies, started northwards at the head of his troops, in the hopes of preventing the entry of the Vitellian troops into Italy. But for this he was too late. Both Valens and Caecina had already crossed the Alps, —the former by the Cottian, the latter by the Pennine passes,—and all that could bo done was to throw troops into Placentia and hold the line of the Po. The campaign opened favourably for Otho. His advanced guard successfully defended Placentia against Ctecina, and com-pelled that general to fall back on Cremona. But the arrival of Valens altered the aspect of affairs. The Vitellian commanders now resolved to bring on a decisive battle, and their designs were assisted by the divided and irresolute counsels which prevailed in Otho's camp. The more experienced officers urged the importance of avoiding a battle, until at least the legions from Dalmatia had arrived. But the inconsiderate rashness of the emperor's brother Titianus and of Proculus, prefect of the praetorian guards, added to Otho's feverish impatience of prolonged suspense, overruled all opposition, and an immediate advance was decided upon, Otho himself remaining behind with a considerable reserve force at Brixellum, on the southern bank of the Po. At the time when this decision was taken the Othonian forces had already crossed the Po and were encamped at Bedriacum, a small village on the Via Postumia, and on the route by which the legions from Dalmatia would naturally arrive. Leaving a strong detachment to hold the camp at Bedriacum, the Othonian forces advanced along the Via Postumia in the direction of Cremona. At a short distance from that city they unexpectedly encountered the Vitellian troops, and a battle at once ensued. The Othonians, though taken at a dis-advantage, fought desperately, but were finally defeated at all points and forced to fall back in disorder upon their camp at Bedriacum. Thither on the next day the victorious Yitellians followed them, but only to come to terms at once with theif disheartened enemy, and. to be welcomed into the camp as friends. More unexpected still was the effect produced by the news of the battle at Brixellum. Otho was still in command of a formidable force—the Dalmatian legions had already reached Aquileia ; and the spirit of his soldiers and their officers was still unbroken. But he was resolved to accept the verdict of the battle which his own impatience had hastened. He had made a bold throw for success and had failed. He was weary of the suspense and anxieties of a protracted struggle, and he may even have been sincere in his pro-fessed unwillingness to cause further bloodshed. In a dignified speech he bade farewell to those about him, and then retiring to rest slept soundly for some hours. Early in the morning he stabbed himself to the heart with a dagger which he had concealed under his pillow, and died as his attendants entered the tent. His funeral was celebrated at once, as he had wished, and not a few eff his soldiers followed their master's example by killing themselves at his pyre. A plain tomb was erected in his honour at Brixellum, with the simple inscription " Diis Manibus Marci Othonis." At the time of his death (April 15, 69) he was only in his thirty-eighth year, and had reigned just three months. In all his life nothing became him so well as his manner of leaving it; but the fortitude he then showed, even if it was not merely the courage of despair, cannot blind us to the fact that he was little better than a reckless and vicious spendthrift, who was not the less dangerous because his fiercer passions were concealed beneath an affectation of effeminate
dandyism. (H. P. P.)

The above article was written by: H. F. Pelham, M.A., Fellow and Tutor of Exeter College, Oxford.

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