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This Week In History

Otho and The Three-Month Reign – April 16, 69 AD

Marcus Salvius Otho was born to a wealthy family, descending from the princes of Etruria. His noble connections found him in the company of the Roman elite from the beginning, and he is noted as one of the most extravagant nobles in the company of the emperor Nero. He was married to Poppaea Sabina and she insisted Otho introduce her to Nero in 58 AD. He did so, and Nero and Poppaea began an affair which ended the friendship between Nero and Otho. Nero assigned Otho the governorship of the Roman province of Lusitania (modern-day parts of Portugal and Extremadura, Spain), where he administered with moderation, as opposed to his previous nature.

Marcus Salvius Otho

In 68 AD, his governor neighbor in Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba, rebelled against Nero and declared himself emperor. Otho decided to accompany Galba to Rome, as astrologers advised him he would succeed Galba as ruler. He made a secret pact with Galba’s general, Titus Vinius, and agreed to marry his daughter in exchange for his support. Before Galba and Otho reached Rome, Nero committed suicide and Galba was declared emperor upon reaching the capital in October 68.

Galba was without any living heirs, as his two children died during his lifetime. In 69, he adopted Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus, on the advice of his Praetorian Prefect, instead of naming Otho as his heir. Vinius suggested Galba choose Otho, but Galba decided against the idea since he saw too much of Nero in Otho’s character. Otho was disappointed and angry from being passed over and immediately set about contacting the Praetorians. He knew they were unhappy with Galba’s decision to not pay the gold they were promised when he became emperor, because his first order of business was to address the financial problems caused by Nero.

Galba had enough problems as it was, since he was notoriously cruel. He was said to sentence people to death without a trial, levy unfair taxes against those who didn’t immediately support him, rarely grant citizenship requests and disliked public displays that the citizens enjoyed. As such, it was difficult for Galba to confront the rebelling Praetorians who proclaimed Otho as their emperor on January 15, 69. Otho left the Praetorian camp and confronted Galba at the foot of the Capitoline Hill as Galba was making his way through the crowds to the camp. The Praetorians brutally murdered the emperor and Piso and the Senate proclaimed Otho emperor.

Otho knew who put him on the throne and wasn’t about to make the same mistakes as his predecessor. Nero’s statues were reset to assuage the public, he promised to govern equitably and promised to pay the soldiers what they were due. However, what he didn’t realize was the extent of the unrest in Germany and how many forces proclaimed their loyalty to Aulus Vitellius in Cologne. Otho immediately set out to take care of the problems with Vitellius, but his offer to co-rule was declined. With that option off the table, Otho set out with his troops to confront Vitellius and his army.

Otho had strong resources and the soldiers supporting him were considerable, but his army unexpectedly encountered the Vitellians, leading to the Battle of Bedriacum,. The Othonians were forced to retreat, even as his forces from Dalmatia were advancing. The next day, the Vitellians entered the camp at Brixellum and were welcomed as friends, as Otho committed suicide with a dagger through the heart in the morning on April 16, 69, after a reign of only three months.

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