Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Reign of a Glutton

The death of Nero cut all the reins of order in Rome. Until now, as stated in a preceding tale, some form of hereditary succession had been followed, the emperors being of the family of Cæsar, though not his direct descendants. Now confusion reigned supreme. The army took upon itself the task of nominating the emperor, and within less than two years four emperors came in succession to the royal seat, each the general of one of the armies of Rome.

Galba, who headed the revolt against Nero, and succeeded him on the throne, reigned but seven months, being overthrown by Otho, who conspired against him with the Prætorian guards. The new emperor reigned only three months. The army of Germany proclaimed their general—Vitellius—emperor, marched against Otho, and defeated him. He ended the contest by committing suicide. Vitellius reigned less than a year. The army of the East rebelled against him, proclaimed their general—Vespasian—emperor, and a new civil war broke out, which was closed by the speedy downfall of Vitellius. It is the story of this man, emperor for less than a year, which we have here to describe.

The three men named were alike unfit to reign over Rome. Galba was very old and very incompetent, Otho was a declared profligate, and Vitellius was a glutton of such extraordinary powers that his name has become a synonyme for voracity. He had by his arts and his skill as a courtier made himself a favorite with four emperors of widely differing character,—Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The suicide of Otho had now made him emperor himself, and he gave way without stint to the peculiar vice which has made his name despicable, that of inordinate love of the pleasures of the table.

After the death of Otho, says Tacitus, "Vitellius, sunk in sloth, and growing every day more contemptible, advanced by slow marches towards the city of Rome. In all the villas and municipal towns through which he passed, carousing festivals were sufficient to retard a man abandoned to his pleasures. He was followed by an unwieldy multitude, not less than sixty thousand men in arms, all corrupted by a life of debauchery. The number of retainers and followers of the army was still greater, all disposed to riot and insolence, even beyond the natural bent of the vilest slaves.

"The crowd was still increased by a conflux of senators and Roman knights, who came from Rome to greet the prince on his way; some impelled by fear, others to pay their court, and numbers, not to be thought sullen or disaffected. All went with the current. The populace rushed forth in crowds, accompanied by an infamous band of pimps, players, buffoons, and charioteers, by their utility in vicious pleasures all well known and dear to Vitellius.

"To supply so vast a body with provisions the colonies and municipal cities were exhausted; the fruits of the earth, then ripe and fit for use, were carried off; the husbandman was plundered; and his land, as if it were an enemy's country, was laid waste and ruined."

The followers of Vitellius were many of them Germans and Gauls, so savage of aspect as to create consternation in Rome. "Covered with the skins of savage beasts, and wielding large and massive spears, the spectacle which they exhibited to the Roman citizens was fierce and hideous." They were as savage as they looked, and many conflicts took place both outside and inside of Rome, in which numbers of citizens were slaughtered. In fact, the march of Vitellius to Rome was almost like that of a conqueror through a captive province.

The conduct of Vitellius and his army in Rome was an abhorrent spectacle of sloth and licentiousness. All discipline vanished. The Germans and Gauls entered into the vilest habits of the city, and by their disorderly lives brought on an epidemic disease which swept thousands of them away. Vitellius, lost in sluggishness and gluttony, wasted the funds of the state on his pleasures, and laid severe taxes to raise new funds. "To squander with wild profusion," says Tacitus, "was the only use of money known to Vitellius. He built a set of stables for the charioteers, and kept in the circus a constant spectacle of gladiators and wild beasts; in this manner dissipating with prodigality, as if his treasury over-flowed with riches."

While the Vitellian army was indulging in riot, bloodshed, and vice, and the populace was kept amused by the frightful gladiatorial shows, the emperor spent his days in a sloth and gluttony that stand unrivalled in imperial records. We may quote from Whyte-Melville's romance of "The Gladiators" a sketch of a Vitellian banquet whose characteristic features are taken from exact history:

"A banquet with Vitellius was no light and simple repast. Leagues of sea and miles of forest had been swept to furnish the mere groundwork of the entertainment. Hardy fishermen had spent their nights on the heaving wave, that the giant turbot might flap its snowy flakes on the emperor's table broader than its broad dish of gold. Many a swelling bill, clad in the dark oak coppice, had echoed to ringing shout of hunter and deep-mouthed bay of hound, ere the wild boar yielded his grim life by the morass, and the dark, grisly carcase was drawn off to provide a standing dish that was only meant to gratify the eye. Even the peacock roasted in its feathers was too gross a dainty for epicures who studied the art of gastronomy under Cæsar; and that taste would have been considered rustic in the extreme which could partake of more than the mere fumes and savor of so substantial a dish. A thousand nightingales had been trapped and killed, indeed, for this one supper, but brains and tongues were all they contributed to the banquet; while even the wing of a roasted bare would have been considered far too coarse and common food for the imperial board.

"It would be useless to go into the details of such a banquet as that which was placed before the guests of Cæsar. Wild boar, pasties, goats, every kind of shell-fish, thrushes, beccaficoes, vegetables of all descriptions, and poultry, were removed to make way for the pheasant, the guinea-hen, the capon, venison, ducks, woodcocks, and turtle-doves. Everything that could creep, fly, or swim, and could boast a delicate flavor when cooked, was pressed into the service of the emperor; and when appetite was appeased and could do no more, the strongest condiments and other remedies were used to stimulate fresh hunger and consume a fresh supply of superfluous dainties."

Deep drinking followed, merely to stimulate fresh hunger. The disgusting story is even told that the imperial glutton was in the habit of taking an emetic to empty his stomach, that he might begin a fresh course of gluttony.

Certain artists in the preparation of original dishes employed themselves in devising new and appetizing compounds of food for the table of Vitellius. They were sure of an ample reward if they should succeed in pleasing the imperial palate. Failure, however, was attended by a severe penance. The artist was not permitted to eat any food but his own unsuccessful dish until he had atoned for his failure by a success.

While Vitellius was thus sunk in sloth and gluttony his destiny was on its march. A terrible and disgraceful retribution awaited him. He had never been emperor of all the Roman empire. The army of Syria had declared for Vespasian, its general; and while Vitellius had been wasting his means and ruining his army by permitting it to indulge in every vice and excess, his rival in the East was carefully laying his plans to insure success. He finally seized Alexandria, thus being able at will to starve Rome, by cutting off its food-supply; and sent Antonius Primus, his principal general, with a strong force to Italy.

The progress of Antonius in Italy was rapid. City after city fell into his hands. The fleet at Ravenna declared for Vespasian. The general of Vitellius sought to carry his whole army over to Antonius, but found his men more faithful than himself. The Vitellians were defeated in two battles; Cremona was taken and destroyed; all was at risk; and yet Vitellius remained absorbed in luxury. "Hid in the recess of his garden, he indulged his appetite, forgetting the past, the present, and all solicitude about future events; like those nauseous animals that know no care, and, while they are supplied with food, remain in one spot, torpid and insensible."

At length awakened from his stupor, Vitellius took some steps for defence. He was too late. His men deserted their ranks; the army of Antonius steadily advanced. Filled with terror, the emperor called an assembly of the people and offered to resign. The people in violent uproar refused to accept his resignation. He then proposed to seek a retreat in his brother's house. This the populace also opposed and forced him to return to the palace.

This attempted abdication brought civil war into the city. Sabinus, the brother of Vespasian, raised a force and took possession of the Capitol. He was besieged here, and in the conflict that ensued the Capitol was set on fire and burned to the ground. It was the second time this venerable edifice had been consumed by the flames. Sabinus was taken prisoner, and was murdered by the mob.

News of this revolt and its disastrous end hastened the march of Antonius. Once more, as in the far-off days of the Gaulish invasion, Rome was to be attacked and taken by a hostile army. It was assailed at three points, each of which was obstinately defended. Finally an entrance was made at the Collinian gate, and the battle was transferred to the open streets, in which the Vitellians defended themselves as obstinately as before.

And now was seen an extraordinary spectacle. While two armies—one from the East, one from the North—contended fiercely for the possession of Rome, the populace of that city flocked to behold the fight, as if it was a gladiatorial struggle got up for their diversion, and nothing in which they had any personal interest. Tacitus says,—

"Whenever they saw the advantage inclining to either side, they favored the contestants with shouts and theatrical applause. If the men fled from their ranks, to take shelter in shops or houses, they roared to have them dragged forth and put to death like gladiators for their diversion. While the soldiers were intent on slaughter, these miscreants were employed in plundering. The greatest part of the booty fell to their share. Rome presented a scene truly shocking, a medley of savage slaughter and monstrous vice; in one place war and desolation; in another bathing, riot, and debauchery. The whole city seemed to be inflamed with frantic rage, and at the same time intoxicated with bacchanalian pleasures. In the midst of rage and massacre, pleasure knew no intermission. A dreadful carnage seemed to be a spectacle added to the public games."

It was a spectacle certainly without its like in the history of nations.

The battle ended in the complete overthrow of the army of Vitellius. The camp was taken, and all that defended it were slain. And now took place a scene which recalls that of the last days of Nero. Vitellius, seeing that all was lost, was in an agony of apprehension. He left the palace by a private way to seek shelter in his wife's house on the Aventine. Then irresolution brought him back to the palace, which he found deserted. The slaves had fled. The dead silence that reigned filled him with terror. All was solitude and desolation. He wandered pitiably from room to room, and finally, weary and utterly wretched, sought a humble hiding-place. Here he was discovered and dragged forth.

And now the populace, who had lately refused his deposition, turned upon him with the bitterest insults and contumely. With his hands bound behind him and his garment torn, the obese old glutton was dragged through crowds who treated him with scoffs and words of contempt, not a voice of pity or sympathy being heard. A German soldier struck at him with his sword, and, missing his aim, cut off the ear of a tribune. He was killed on the spot.

As Vitellius was thus dragged onward, his captors, with swords pointed at his throat, forced him to raise his head and expose his bloated face to scorn and derision. They made him look at his statues, which were being tumbled to the ground. They pointed out to him the place where Galba had perished. They pricked his body with their weapons. With endless contumely they brought him to the public charnel, where the body of Sabinus had been thrown among those of the vilest malefactors.

A single expression is recorded as coming from his lips. "And yet," he said, to a tribune who insulted his misery, "I have been your sovereign."

His torment soon ended. The rabble fell on him with swords and clubs and he died under a multitude of wounds. Even after his death those who had worshipped him in the height of his power continued to shower marks of rage and contempt upon his remains. Thus perished one of the most despicable of all the emperors who disgraced Rome, to make room for one whose wisdom and virtue would make still more contemptible the excesses of his gluttonous predecessor.