All hail Otho – Rome’s three-month emperor

January 15 69 AD was a big day for Marcus Salvius Otho – he became the second emperor during the Year of the Four Emperors in the Roman Empire after the nominated emperor, Galba, was overthrown.

Emperor Otho was born on 28 April 32 AD – his father was Etruscan and had been granted patrician status by Emperor Claudius after he served as a senator.

Inconveniently, Otho had married Emperor Nero’s mistress Poppaea Sabina – Nero demanded that he divorce her so that he could marry her himself. Otho never forgave him.

Emperor Nero, Emperors’ Gallery, Borghese Museum, Rome (Image A. Meredith)

Otho was then sent as governor to Lusitania in 58 and 59 AD – and proved himself highly effective in the role, despite being known for his love of luxury and generally having a good time, not unknown among Roman emperors, including Nero himself.

When it came to men, Poppaea Sabina obviously had a type…

However, Otho later got his revenge on Nero when he became an ally of Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, which we now know as northern Spain.

Bust of Emperor Otho (Image CCL)
Emperor Otho

Galba set in motion the Year of the Four Emperors by rebelling against Emperor Nero. On June 9 68 AD, Nero committed suicide – he had ruled for 13 years and after the turmoil of his reign the Senate declared him an enemy of the people. Nero fled Rome and committed suicide at the age of 30.

In Ancient Rome there was a notion of virtu – honour, courage, manliness – and it was considered honourable to take one’s own life or fall on one’s sword rather than live with dishonour. It is reported, however, that Nero was so afraid of killing himself that he asked a servant to commit suicide first.

Servius Sulpicius Galba (Image CCL)

Galba was declared emperor following Nero’s death and Otho seized his chance and accompanied him to Rome in October that year, following a battle against Nero’s troops. The Roman legions in Germany had rebelled against Galba’s nomination for the role of emperor and the next few months resulted in dissension. Some of the German legions demanded another successor be chosen.

Galba was eventually murdered on January 15 69 AD – always the convenient solution to an unpopular leader in Ancient Rome – and Otho became emperor.

By then he had also fallen out with Galba, who had declared that Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus would be his successor. Otho assumed power after a period of extreme turbulence in the Roman Empire.

At first he achieved a period of agreement and tolerated the reinstatement of the myth of Nero, when the late emperor’s statues were re-erected – Otho was even thought to have enjoyed a close intimate relationship with the castrato boy Nero had married.

However, Otho discovered that the German legions still supported Vitellius as emperor – he was the commander of the legions on the lower Rhineland.

Emperor Vitellius, Louvre (Image Wikipedia)

Vitellius actually became the third emperor in the Year of the Four Emperors after Otho’s attempt to appease him by offering him a share of power failed and war broke out.

Otho eventually died after his troops were forced to retreat in a battle with Vittellius’s troops. It is said he retired to his tent to rest and stabbed himself in the heart – another example of virtu. Before he had retired, he had addressed his troops, saying, “It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one”.

He died on 16 April 69 AD – the Roman emperor who ruled for the shortest time, but who became a fitting example of virtu.

Emperor Otho in classical pose, marble sculpture, Louvre

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