Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


The new emperor began his reign by courting the friendship of the soldiers, which Galba had unwisely neglected. He made a speech to the senate which was remarkable for its mildness, gave his unexpired consulship to Virginius Rufus, and turned no consul out of office who had been appointed either by Nero or Galba. The oldest of them he promoted to the priesthood, and to all the senators who had been banished by Nero and recalled by Galba he restored what remained of their fortunes. So the Roman people began to flatter themselves that they were at last to have a government that would bring them peace and happiness.

Nothing gratified them more, or increased their affection for Otho so much as his punishing Tigellinus, the infamous wretch who had been the most brutal of Nero's ministers. Tigellinus was at his country-seat on the sea-shore when a messenger arrived to summon him to appear before the emperor. He always had a vessel in readiness, knowing that he might want to make his escape at any moment; but it did not avail him, for no amount of bribery could induce the messengers to let him off. However, he was determined not to give himself up to the fury of the people he had cruelly wronged, so, retiring to a private room under pretext of making some preparations, he cut his throat with a razor.

Otho had not been on the throne many days before he was called upon to oppose Vitellius, who, it will be remembered, had been proclaimed emperor by the legions in Germany before the death of Galba. Just at that time there were reports of wonderful miracles, though the author of them could not be found out. It was said that a number of people saw the reins fall from the hands of the statue of Victory mounted on a chariot in the Capitol, as though she no longer had power to hold them. A statue of Julius Cæsar that stood on an island in the river turned from west to east, they said, though there was no earthquake or hurricane to move it. Then the Tiber overflowed its banks. To be sure, it usually did so at that season, but never had it caused so much destruction. This was regarded as a very bad omen.

Vitellius had sent forward Cæcina, one of his best generals, to secure the passes of the Alps, while he remained in camp on the river Rhine. Otho collected a large army and marched against Cæcina. His men had been so long accustomed to a life of ease and luxury that the enemy undervalued their skill. Thus they won two victories; but then Cæcina made greater exertions, and brought men into the field who had had much experience in warfare. With these he completely defeated Otho's army in a hard-fought battle on the river Po, near Mantua.

One reason for this defeat was that Otho was not present at the battle; had he been there his soldiers would have felt encouraged to fight harder. For the safety of his person he had been persuaded to go to Brixellum, where he awaited the result. Vague rumors of the overthrow of his army reached him at first; but when the wounded joined him the bad news was confirmed. Otho's friends encouraged him to try again, and not to give up all for lost, while his soldiers crowded about him, kissed his hands, threw themselves on their knees and begged him with tears in their eyes not to abandon them to the enemy. One private soldier pressed forward with a drawn sword in his hand, and said, "By this, Cæsar, judge our fidelity; there is not a man among us but would strike thus to serve you." As he spoke he stabbed himself to the heart and fell dead.

For a few moments Otho stood perfectly still, looking at his men with little show of emotion of any sort. Then he spoke thus: "This day, my fellow-soldiers, which gives me such proofs of your affection, is preferable even to that on which you saluted me emperor; do not, then, deny me the greater satisfaction of laying down my life to save so many brave men. In this, at least, let me show myself worthy of the empire, and die for it. I am of the opinion that the enemy has not gained a decisive victory. Several nations declare for us, the senate is with us, and the wives and children of our opponents are in our power. But, alas! it is not in defence of Italy against Hannibal or Pyrrhus or the Cimbri that we fight; it is Romans against Romans, and, whether we conquer or fail, our country suffers and we commit a crime; for victory, to whichever it fall, is gained at her expense. I can die with more honor than I can reign, for by dying I shall establish peace in Italy, and save her from such another unhappy day."

No argument or persuasion could induce him to alter his resolution; so, taking leave of his friends and the senators who were present, he dismissed them; then wrote several letters and sent for Cocceius, his brother's son, then a little boy. To him he said, "You have no reason to fear Vitellius, for I have treated his family with the utmost tenderness and consideration. I had meant to adopt you as my son, but delayed it because I did not wish to involve you in my ruin if I failed. Remember, my boy, these my last words: do not entirely forget nor too well remember that you had an emperor for your uncle."

A moment after he heard a great noise outside. It was caused by the soldiers, who, seeing the senators departing, threatened to kill them for deserting Otho. Otho was obliged to assume a stern, angry air before he could quiet them and make them go also, and even then they obeyed very unwillingly.

In the evening, Otho had two swords brought to him, and, after carefully examining their points, sent away one and placed the other under his arm. Then he called his servants, spoke kindly to them, and made each a present of a small sum of money. Having dismissed them, he went to bed and slept soundly. Early in the morning he summoned one of his chamberlains and inquired if the senators were gone. On being assured that everything had been provided that they needed, and that they had all departed some hours previously, he said, "Go you, then, and show yourself to the soldiers, that they may not suppose you have helped me in killing myself and put you to a cruel death for it."

As soon as the man was gone, Otho fixed the hilt of his sword upon the ground and fell upon the point with so much force that he expired with one groan. The servants, who waited outside, burst into loud lamentation, which was echoed throughout the camp. The soldiers would not quit the spot, though the enemy were approaching. They dressed the body in magnificent attire and prepared a funeral pile. Many of them wept aloud and threw themselves on the ground in despair, while not a few slew themselves, after throwing their burning torches upon the pile.

A plain monument was erected over the spot where Otho's remains were interred, on which was this simple inscription: "To the memory of Marcus Otho." He died at the age of thirty-eight, after having reigned only three months. The soldiers then took the oath of allegiance to Vitellius; but he was one of the most despicable, vicious, coarse wretches that ever lived, and was put to death after a reign of eight months, amidst the curses of the multitude.