Otho (Latin: Marcus Salvius Otho Caesar Augustus; 28 April 32 – 16 April
69) was Roman Emperor for three months, from 15 January to 16 April 69.
He was the second emperor of the Year of the Four Emperors.
Birth and lineage:
Otho belonged to an ancient and noble Etruscan family, descended from the
princes of Etruria and settled at Ferentinum (currently Ferento, near Viterbo)
The future Emperor appears first as one of the most reckless and extravagant
of the young nobles who surrounded Nero. This friendship was brought
to an end in 58 AD because of his wife, the noblewoman Poppaea Sabina.
Otho introduced his beautiful wife to the Emperor upon Poppaea's insistence,
who then began an affair that would eventually lead to her premature death.
After securely establishing this position as his mistress, she divorced
Otho and had the Emperor send him away as governor to the remote province
of Lusitania (which is now parts of both modern Portugal and Extremadura,
Otho remained in Lusitania for the next ten years, administering the province
with a moderation unusual at the time. When in 68 AD his neighbor
the future Emperor Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, rose
in revolt against Nero, Otho accompanied him to Rome. Resentment
at the treatment he had received from Nero may have impelled him to this
course, but to this motive was added before long that of personal ambition.
Galba was childless and far advanced in years, and Otho, encouraged by
the predictions of astrologers, aspired to succeed him. He came to
a secret agreement with Galba's favourite, Titus Vinius, agreeing to marry
Vinius' daughter in exchange for his support. However, in January
69 AD, his hopes were dashed by Galba's formal adoption of Lucius Calpurnius
Piso Licinianus, whom Galba had previously named a recipient in his will.
Overthrow of Emperor Galba:
After this, Otho decided to strike a bold blow. Desperate as was
the state of his finances, thanks to his previous extravagance, he found
the money needed to purchase the services of some twenty-three soldiers
of the Praetorian Guard. On the morning of 15 January, only five
days after Galba adopted Piso, Otho attended as usual to pay his respects
to Galba, and then hastily excused himself on account of private business
and hurried from the Palatine Hill to meet his accomplices. He was
then escorted to the Praetorian camp, where, after a few moments of surprise
and indecision, he was saluted as Imperator.
With an imposing force he returned to the Roman Forum, and at the foot
of the Capitoline Hill encountered Galba, who, alarmed by rather vague
rumors of treachery, was making his way through a dense crowd of wandering
citizens towards the barracks of the guard. The cohort that was on
duty at the Palatine, which had accompanied the Emperor, instantly deserted
him. Galba, his newly adopted son Piso and others were brutally murdered
by the Praetorians. The brief struggle over, Otho returned in triumph
to the camp, and on the same day 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 own success to the resentment felt by the Praetorian
guards and the rest of the army at Galba's refusal to pay the promised
gold to the ones who supported his accession to the throne. The population
of the city was also unhappy with Galba and cherished the memory of Nero.
Otho's first acts as Emperor showed that he was not unmindful of these
Decline and fall:
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 appearance reminded of their lost favourite. Nero's statues
were again set up, his freedmen and household officers reinstalled (including
the young castrated boy Sporus whom Nero had taken in marriage and Otho
would also live intimately with), and the intended completion of the Golden
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. Otho soon realized that it was much
easier to overthrow an Emperor than rule as one: according to Suetonius
Otho once remarked that "Playing the Long Pipes is hardly my trade" (i.e.
undertaking something beyond one's ability to do so).
War with Vitellius:
Any further development of Otho's policy was checked once Otho had read
through Galba's private correspondence and realized the extent of the revolution
in Germany, where several legions had declared for Vitellius, the commander
of the legions on the lower Rhine River, and were already advancing upon
Italy. After a vain attempt to conciliate Vitellius by the offer
of a share in the Empire, Otho, with unexpected vigor, prepared for war.
From the much more remote provinces, which had acquiesced in his accession,
little help was to be expected; but the legions of Dalmatia, Pannonia and
Moesia 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
The fleet was at once dispatched to secure Liguria, and on 14 March Otho,
undismayed by omens and prophecies, started northwards at the head of his
troops in the hopes of preventing the entry of Vitellius' troops into Italy.
But for this he was too late, and all that could be done was to throw troops
into Placentia and hold the line of the Po. Otho's advanced guard
successfully defended Placentia against Aulus Caecina Alienus, and compelled
that general to fall back on Cremona. But the arrival of Fabius Valens
altered the aspect of affairs.
Vitellius' commanders now resolved to bring on a decisive battle, the Battle
of Bedriacum, 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 rashness of the Emperor's brother Titianus
and of Proculus, prefect of the Praetorian Guards, added to Otho's feverish
impatience, overruled all opposition, and an immediate advance was decided
Otho himself remained behind with a considerable reserve force at Brixellum,
on the southern bank of the Po. When this decision was taken, Otho's
army had already crossed the Po and were encamped at Bedriacum (or Betriacum),
a small village on the Via Postumia, and on the route by which the legions
from Dalmatia would naturally arrive.
Aureus of Otho.:
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. The Othonians, though taken at a disadvantage, fought desperately,
but were finally forced to fall back in disorder upon their camp at Bedriacum.
There on the next day the victorious Vitellians followed them, but only
to come to terms at once with their disheartened enemy, and to be welcomed
into the camp as friends.
More unexpected still was the effect produced at Brixellum by the news
of the battle. 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 unbroken. But he was resolved to accept the
verdict of the battle that his own impatience had hastened. In a
dignified speech he bade farewell to those about him, declaring: "It is
far more just to perish one for all, than many for one", and then retiring
to rest soundly for some hours. Early in the morning he stabbed himself
in the heart with a dagger, which he had concealed under his pillow, and
died as his attendants entered the tent.
Otho's ashes were placed within a modest monument. He had reigned
only three months. His funeral was celebrated at once, as he had
wished. A plain tomb was erected in his honour at Brixellum, with
the simple inscription Diis Manibus Marci Othonis.
Reasons for suicide:
It has been thought that Otho's suicide was committed in order to steer
his country from the path to civil war. Just as he had come to power,
many Romans learned to respect Otho in his death. Few could believe
that a renowned former companion of Nero had chosen such an honourable
end. Tacitus wrote that some of the soldiers committed suicide beside
his funeral pyre "because they loved their emperor and wished to share
Writing during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (AD 81–96), the Roman
poet Martial expressed his admiration for Otho's choice to spare the Empire
from civil war through sacrificing himself:
"Although the goddess of civil warfare was still in doubt,
And soft Otho had perhaps still a chance of winning,
He renounced fighting that would have cost much blood,
And with sure hand pierced right through his breast.
By all means let Cato in his life be greater than Julius Caesar himself;
In his death was he greater than Otho?"
Suetonius, in The Lives of the Caesars, comments on Otho's appearance and
"He is said to have been of moderate
height, splay-footed and bandy-legged, but almost feminine in his 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 down, so as never to have
Juvenal, in a passage in the Satire II dealing with homosexuality, specifically
mentions Otho as being vain, looking at himself in the mirror prior to
going into battle, and "plaster[ing] his face with dough" in order to look
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