Otho's Suicide (46-56)
The Histories Book Two by Cornelius Tacitus

46. Otho's mood as he waited for news of the battle was one of calm resolve. He had made up his mind what to do. First came an ugly rumour, then fugitives from the battle-field revealed the full extent of the disaster. So eager were Otho's men that they did not wait for the emperor to make any announcement. They told him to be of good cheer, pointing out that his new armies were still intact and that they themselves were prepared to do or die. Nor was this flattery. Some strange, consuming madness and infatuation prompted them to join the fight and restore the fallen fortunes of their side. Distant observers hailed Otho with outstretched hands. The nearest bystanders threw themselves at his feet. First and foremost among them was Plotius Firmus. As praetorian prefect, he appealed to the emperor again and again not to abandon a devoted army and soldiers who had done yeoman service. It was nobler, he said, to endure adversity than evade it. Brave and active men were true to their hopes even in the teeth of misfortune, and only weaklings and cowards hurried headlong to despair through fear. During this speech, whenever Otho's looks relaxed or hardened, they cheered and groaned. Nor did encouragement come merely from Otho's personal troops, the praetorians. Forward elements from Moesia informed him that the advancing armies were just as determined, and that some legions had entered Aquileia. No one therefore doubts that there might well have been a resumption of desperate and costly fighting, hazardous to victors and vanquished alike.

47. Otho's reply showed that he had turned his back on all such thoughts.

'This spirit,' he said, 'this courage of yours, must not be exposed to further danger. That, I consider, would be too high a price to pay for my life. You hold out great hopes, in the event of my deciding to live on: they merely serve to make death finer. We have sized each other up, fortune and I. Nor must you calculate my reign in terms of time. It is harder for a man to observe moderation in success when he thinks he will not enjoy it for long. Civil war began with Vitellius, and with him lies the responsibility for our embarking on an armed struggle for supremacy. I too can set an example by preventing its repetition. Let this be the act by which posterity judges Otho. Vitellius shall live to have the society of his brother, wife and children: I require neither vengeance nor consolation. It may well be that others have held the principate longer, but I shall make sure that no one quits it more courageously. It is not for me to allow all these young Romans, all these fine armies, to be trampled underfoot a second time, to their country's loss. Let your devotion accompany me, just as if you had in fact died for my sake — but live on after me. I must not impede your chances of survival, nor you my resolution. To waste further words on death smacks of cowardice. Here is your best proof that my decision is irrevocable: I complain of no one. Denouncing gods or men is a task for one who is in love with life.'

48. After this speech, he summoned his staff in order of age and rank, and addressed some kind words to them. They were to be off with all speed and avoid irritating the victor by hanging back. The young ones felt bound to obey because they looked up to him, the old because he appealed to them to act as he wished. His look was calm, his words intrepid, and when his courtiers wept, he restrained their untimely emotion. He allocated ships and vehicles for their departure. Any petitions or letters that showed outspoken support of himself or criticism of Vitellius he destroyed. He distributed money sparingly, quite unlike a man facing death. Then he dealt with a young lad called Salvius Cocceianus, his brother's son. The boy was afraid, and broken-hearted. Otho went out of his way to comfort him, praising his family affection but reproving his fear. Did he really imagine that Vitellius was such an ogre that he would refuse to make this slight return for the immunity granted to his whole family? He, Otho, was doing his best to earn the victor's mercy by committing suicide quickly. For it was not in a moment of final desperation, but amid the clamour of his troops for battle that he had chosen to absolve his country from the ultimate catastrophe. He had won enough of a name for himself, enough distinction for his descendants. After all the Julians, Claudians and Servians (1) he had been the first to win the imperial dignity for a new family. So the young lad must face life with head erect. That Otho had been his uncle was a fact that he must never forget — nor remember too well.

49. After this, he dismissed everyone from his presence and rested for a while. He was already turning over in his mind the terms of his last will and testament when he was distracted by a sudden disturbance. He was told that the troops were desperate and beyond control. They kept threatening to murder the departing courtiers, reserving the most scandalous display of violence for Verginius, who was held prisoner within the walls of his house. Otho reprimanded the ring-leaders, and returning to his quarters insisted upon saving a word with each of his of officials as they left, until such time as they had all got away unmolested. Towards evening, he quenched his thirst with a draught of cold water. Then two daggers were brought to him. He tried both, and placed one beneath his pillow. Then having made quite sure that his suite had gone, he went to bed, passing a quiet night and by all accounts enjoying some sleep. At dawn (16th April) he fell upon his dagger. Hearing the dying man's groan, his freedmen and slaves entered his room with the praetorian prefect Plotius Firmus. They found a single wound, in the chest.

The funeral was performed without delay. This had been his urgent request, for he feared that his head might be cut off and exposed to insult. As the body was borne by the praetorian cohorts amid tributes and tears, they kissed his wound and hands. Some of he troops committed suicide beside the funeral pyre, not because hey were beholden to him or feared his successor but because they loved their emperor and wished to share his glory. Afterwards, at Bedriacum, Placentia and other camps, high and low made away with themselves in the same way. Otho received a tomb of modest structure, destined to endure. Such then was his end, in his thirty-seventh year.

50. He came from the town of Ferentis. His father had attained the rank of consul, his grandfather that of praetor. On his mother's side his birth was less distinguished, but not lowly. His childhood and youth were such as I have described . Two actions of his, one appalling, one heroic, have earned him in history an equal mend of fame and infamy.

Though I feel that a wilful search for old wives' tales and the use of fiction to divert the reader is quite inappropriate in a serious work of this type, I hesitate all the same to be sceptical about events widely believed and handed down. According to local accounts, on the day that the Battle of Bedriacum was fought a bird of a species never before seen perched in a busy spot at Regium Lepidum. Thereafter, neither the staring crowds nor the flocks of birds that circled around succeeded in scaring it or driving it away, until the moment of Otho's suicide. Then, so the story runs, it vanished from sight, and a calculation of dates and times showed that the appearance and disappearance of the portent coincided with Otho's last days.

51. At his funeral the grief and misery of the troops led to renewed trouble, and this time there was no one to check it. They betook themselves to Verginius and demanded with menaces that he should assume the principate or else go and act as their spokesman in negotiations with Caecina and Valens. Verginius slipped away by the back of the house and so foiled the men just as they broke in at the front.

The cohorts stationed at Brixellum got Rubrius Gallus to convey their appeal for grace to the victor. It was immediately granted. Flavius Sabinus arranged the hand-over of the forces under his command.

52. Hostilities had now ceased everywhere, but a large number of senators found themselves in an exceedingly dangerous position. Quitting Rome in Otho's company, they had been left behind at Mutina. It was here that news of the defeat reached them. But the troops thought that the rumour was false and refused to credit it. Believing that the senators were opposed to Otho, they spied on their conversation and put a forced and distorted construction on their looks and demeanour. Finally, by means of insults and abuse, they tried to pick a quarrel which would have a fatal ending. Apart from this, another peril loomed over the senators. Now that the Vitellian side was all-powerful, they might be thought to have been dilatory in welcoming the victory. They had thus a double reason for fear and anxiety when they met to consider their course of action. No one was ready to take the initiative on his own, and all felt they would be safer if the blame were shared among many. The worries of the unhappy senators were aggravated by an offer of arms and money from the town-council of Mutina, which addressed them by the formal title of 'Conscript Fathers'. The compliment was ill-timed.

53. There was one notorious dispute. Licinius Caecina denounced Eprius Marcellus for making an evasive speech. Not that the rest revealed their real sentiments; but as men remembered Marcellus' activity as prosecutor all too well, his very name aroused violent feelings and offered a handle for attack. This was inducement enough for Caecina, who, as a newly fledged senator of unknown family, wanted to make his mark by engaging in controversy with a prominent personality. The two antagonists were parted by the good sense of the moderate senators.

Indeed, the whole group now moved back to Bononia, intending to hold a second meeting there. It was also hoped that more information would become available in the interval. At Bononia, pickets were posted on the various approaches to question each traveller as he arrived. One of Otho's freedmen was asked the reason for his departure from Brixellum and replied that he was the bearer of his master's last wishes. When he left Otho, it seemed, the emperor was still alive, but concerned only with making provision for his heirs, since life had no more attractions for him. This account evoked admiration and an understandable reluctance to probe further. Mentally, all the senators now made their peace with Vitellius.

54. His brother Lucius was present when they met to deliberate and was already courting their flattery when Nero's freedman Coenus suddenly appeared and caused general consternation by telling an appalling lie. He asserted that the Fourteenth Legion had turned up and after making junction with the forces from Brixellum had defeated the victorious Vitellians and reversed the balance of advantage between the two sides. This fabrication was designed to enable the travel-warrants franked by Otho (2), which were now being disregarded, to regain their validity upon the receipt of better news. True enough, Coenus succeeded in getting to Rome at full speed — only to be punished a few days later on Vitellius' (3) instructions. But the senators found themselves in a still more ugly situation because the Othonian troops thought the news was true. What intensified the senators' alarm was the thought that the departure from Mutina and abandonment of Otho's cause looked like official acts. Henceforward, they held no more meetings, and each senator did what he thought best on his own account. Finally, a dispatch from Fabius Valens set their fears at rest. Indeed, the nobility of Otho's death helped to spread the news of it like wildfire.

55. At Rome, however, all was quiet. The festival of Ceres was being celebrated with the usual shows. (4) When reliable informants brought word to the theatre that Otho was dead and that the city prefect Flavius Sabinus had made the garrison of Rome take the oath to Vitellius, the audience applauded the mention of the new emperor. Adorned with laurel and flowers, the people made the round of the temples carrying busts of Galba, and piled up their garlands in a great funeral mound near the Basin of Curtius at the spot stained with the blood of the dying Galba. In the senate all the prerogatives accumulated during the long reigns of previous emperors were decreed forthwith. They were supplemented by congratulations and thanks to the armies of Germany, and a deputation was sent off to convey a dutiful expression of delight. A letter which Fabius Valens had written to the consuls was read in the senate. This was framed in moderate language, but the members preferred the restraint shown by Caecina in not writing at all. (5)

56. Italy, on the other hand, suffered more severely and dreadfully than it had during the fighting. Scattered throughout the various towns, the Vitellian troops embarked on a career of spoliation, violence and licentiousness. Greedy or venal to the point of utter lack of scruple, they spared nothing, whether sacred or profane. There were also civilians who disguised themselves as soldiers to make away with their enemies The soldiers did their bit, too. Those who were familiar with the local geography selected prosperous farms and rich landowners as targets for plunder, or, in case of resistance, death. Their generals lay under an obligation to them, and were in no position to stop these proceedings. Caecina was the less avaricious of the two, but more given to popularity hunting. Valens had a bad name for love of money and rapacity, and for this reason was prepared to connive at the offences of others as well as his own. Long since impoverished, Italy found it hard to put up with such hordes of infantry and cavalry, and with violence, financial loss and acts of lawlessness.