The story of Roman Emperor Marcus Salvius Otho is one of ambition, betrayal, and tragedy. Otho was born in 32 AD in what is now northern Italy, and over the course of his life, he would rise to the highest echelons of power in the Roman Empire, before ultimately meeting a violent and untimely end.
Despite his brief reign, Otho remains an intriguing figure in Roman history. His ambition and determination to seize power are a testament to the ruthless political climate of the time, and his tragic end serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of political ambition.
Read on to discover the life and turbulent times of Emperor Marcus Otho.
Marcus Salvius Otho - Background
Marcus Salvius Otho was born in 32 AD in the town of Ferentium, modern-day Viterbo, eighty kilometres north of Rome. His father was Lucius Salvius Otho, a highly regarded politician who was rumoured to be the son of Emperor Tiberius, due to their physical similarity and extremely close friendship. Nothing is known of Otho’s mother except that she is presumed to have come from a noble family.
Complicated Affairs of the Heart
Otho’s brief dalliance with power is largely thanks to his friendship with Nero. He served the infamous emperor as both a political advisor and a close friend. However, the two fell out over the mutual love of a woman.
Nero loved the intriguingly beautiful Poppaea Sabina, although he was already married to Claudia Octavia, his step-sister. He asked the future Emperor Otho to marry Poppaea Sabina in order to give him time to deal with Octavia. When Nero divorced Octavia, he wanted to marry Poppaea and exiled Otho in 58 or 59 AD via his appointment as the governor of Lusitania, modern-day Portugal and western Spain. It is believed Nero and Poppaea eventually married in 62. Understandably, Marcus Salvius Otho wasn’t happy, and his displeasure with his old friend came to a head a decade later.
From Portugal to Rome
Otho spent almost ten years on the Iberian peninsula and is said to have ruled Lusitania with integrity, ensuring the army were well taken care of and honing his diplomatic skills. In around 67 or 68 AD, opposition to Nero’s rule was increasingly growing. Fourteen years of perceived depravity, cruelty and overspending had taken its toll.
Otho, alongside Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor-general of Hispania Tarraconensis, led a revolt against Nero to overthrow him. Fearing the end was nigh, Nero committed suicide aged just 30, and Galba was proclaimed Emperor of Rome.
Otho had hoped Galba would have declared him his successor, but when Galba’s disastrous seven-month reign was under pressure, he appointed another man, Lucius Piso Licinianus. Otho, wasn’t happy. Supported by the Praetorian Guard, Otho had Galba murdered.
In January 69, Marcus Otho Caesar Augustus took the throne.
Roman Emperor Otho
Three months in the hot seat was not a lot of time for Otho to get anything done. He ensured the people who helped him overthrow Galba were suitably rewarded, and he attempted to shore up his political and military control of the Empire.
Before Galba’s death, a number of legions based in Germania had declared their preference for Otho’s eventual successor, Aulus Vitellius. Vitellius refused Otho’s offer of a share of the emperorship, and subsequently marched on Rome. War was imminent.
Otho had control of the navy and several loyal legions, but the forces of Vitellius were more numerous. Despite his counsellors advising Emperor Otho to further explore the diplomatic route, he was impatient and intent on taking the fight to Vitellius.
The Death of Otho
Otho’s army was comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Bedriacum, close to Cremona in northern Italy.
After being defeated by the forces of Vitellius, Otho is said to have chosen to take his own life rather than face capture and humiliation.
He is reported to have given an emotional speech to his surviving troops, saying: ‘It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one’. When he woke the next morning, he stabbed himself in the heart. He was thirty-six.
For Roman Emperor Otho, facts are relatively easy to come by but the reasons for his suicide are left to conjecture.
It is generally accepted that by coming to such a noble end – unusual for a disciple of Nero – he steered the empire away from a civil war that would have decimated the armed forces and left the empire vulnerable to attack. His death may have kept Rome safe.
His decision is a reminder of the high stakes of political ambition in the ruthless world of ancient Rome.
Whatever his reasons, the people of Rome came to understand his decision and appreciated him more in death than in life.
Tacitus wrote of Emperor Otho,
‘Contrary to everyone’s expectation, Otho made no dull surrender to luxury or ease. He put off his pleasures, concealed his extravagances, and ordered his whole life befitting the imperial position.’