Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Otho was able to easily win the Praetorian Guard to his side and on the morning of January 15, 69 when Galba went to worship at the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, Otho slipped away, carried in a closed litter, to the Praetorian camp where the troops proclaimed him Emperor of Rome. Bravely or foolishly, Galba chose to go out personally to confront the rebels and he was killed by a soldier of the XV Legion in the Forum. Piso fled to the Temple of Vesta but was dragged out by Otho’s partisans and killed as well. It was a bloody but short business and the nasty spectacle rather put the senate off from the newly proclaimed Emperor Otho but, nonetheless, they confirmed his status and voted him the traditional powers and offices of the Emperor of Rome. As a ruler, he showed great ability but many seemed unwilling to give him a chance, having a negative opinion of him fixed in his mind, whether from the way he seized power, his former friendship with Nero or his reputation for being vain and extravagant as a young man. His rule was not unchallenged and would not last long, yet, it is rather unfair that he is so often overlooked and he showed considerable talent and ability as monarch.
In another effort to avert war, Emperor Otho proposed to marry the daughter of Vitellius but the general refused the match and with his legions marching south, Otho had to look to the defense of Italy. The problem was that the bulk of his army, the Danube legions, could not reach Italy before Vitellius did. So, Emperor Otho sent his advance guard north to try to hold the rebel legions at the Po River while dispatching another force by sea to land in southern France as a diversion. His plan was to delay Vitellius long enough for the Danube legions to arrive and then fight a hopefully victorious battle that would secure his throne. Emperor Otho left Rome on March 14 to take personal command of his forces, establishing himself at Bedriacum, about 20 miles east of Cremona. Rebel troops under Caecina entered Italian soil first and camped outside Cremona. The other rebel division under Valens arrived later and together they outnumbered the forces of Emperor Otho almost 2-to-1. His advisors urged him not to give battle until the Danube legions arrived but the rebel troops began building a bridge across the Po and Emperor Otho could not wait and do nothing while it was completed, allowing Vitellius to march directly on Rome.
The loyal soldiers of Emperor Otho were very moved by how he had fallen on his own sword in order to spare Italy the horrors of civil war and when his funeral fire was lit a number threw themselves upon the flames to die alongside their emperor. It is a shame that he is not better remembered. Although not surprising, given the brevity of his reign, Emperor Otho was the victim of prejudice. He came to the purple in a violent way that was certainly out of order but does anyone truly doubt that Galba’s troops would not have killed Nero had he not done the job himself after being taken? He had brought down an unpopular emperor who had himself come to power by doing the same. Unlike his predecessor, Emperor Otho, during his brief term, ruled with considerable fairness and wisdom. When he knew the end had come, he gave up his own life rather than see others killed in a hopeless battle. In the ranks of the “lesser” Roman emperors, he deserves to be remembered as one of the good ones. His successor, Emperor Vitellius, also did not last long on the throne and made a bad impression from the start. He lasted longer than Otho did but before the year was out was defeated by the Flavian revolt, dragged out of hiding, tortured, executed and thrown in the Tiber. Emperor Otho had certainly exited in a more noble way.