Detail of a statue of Otho at the Louvre[1][2]
Roman emperor
Reign15 January – 16 April 69
BornMarcus Salvius Otho
28 April 32
Ferentium, Italy
Died16 April 69 (aged 36)
SpousePoppaea Sabina (forced by Nero to divorce her)
Regnal name
Imperator Marcus Otho Caesar Augustus[3]
FatherLucius Salvius Otho
MotherAlbia Terentia

Otho (/ˈθ/, OH-tho; born Marcus Salvius Otho; 28 April 32 – 16 April 69) was Roman emperor, ruling for three months from 15 January to 16 April 69. He was the second emperor of the Year of the Four Emperors.

A member of a noble Etruscan family, Otho was initially a friend and courtier of the young emperor Nero until he was effectively banished to the governorship of the remote province of Lusitania in 58 following his wife Poppaea Sabina's affair with Nero. After a period of moderate rule in the province, he allied himself with Galba, the governor of neighbouring Hispania Tarraconensis, during the revolts of 68. He accompanied Galba on his march to Rome, but revolted and murdered Galba at the start of the next year.

Inheriting the problem of the rebellion of Vitellius, commander of the army in Germania Inferior, Otho led a sizeable force which met Vitellius' army at the Battle of Bedriacum. After initial fighting resulted in 40,000 casualties, and a retreat of his forces, Otho committed suicide rather than fight on, and Vitellius was proclaimed emperor.

Early life

Otho was born on 28 April AD 32. His grandfather Marcus had been a senator, and Claudius granted patrician status to Otho's father Lucius Salvius Otho.[4][5]

Suetonius, in The Lives of the Caesars, comments on Otho's appearance and personal hygiene.

He is said to have been of moderate height, splay-footed and bandy-legged, but almost feminine in his care of his person. He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head, that no one suspected it. Moreover, they say that he used to shave every day and smear his face with moist bread, beginning the practice with the appearance of the first down, so as never to have a beard.

Juvenal, in a passage in the Satire II ridiculing male homosexuality, specifically mentions Otho as being vain and effeminate, looking at himself in the mirror before going into battle, and "plaster[ing] his face with dough" in order to look good.[6]

Greenhalgh writes that "he was addicted to luxury and pleasure to a degree remarkable even in a Roman". An aged freedwoman brought him into the company of the emperor Nero. Otho married the emperor's mistress Poppaea Sabina; Nero forced Otho to divorce Poppaea so that he himself could marry her. He exiled Otho to the province of Lusitania[5] in 58 or 59 by appointing him to be its governor.[4]

Otho proved to be capable as governor of Lusitania, yet he never forgave Nero for marrying Poppaea. He allied himself with Galba, governor of neighboring Hispania Tarraconensis, in the latter's rebellion against Nero in 68.[5] Nero committed suicide later that year, and Galba was proclaimed emperor by the Senate. Otho accompanied the new emperor to Rome in October 68. Before they entered the city, Galba's army fought against a legion that Nero had organized.[7]

Reign, decline and fall

Overthrow of Galba

Bust labelled as Otho in the National Archaeological Museum, Florence.

On 1 January 69, the day Galba took the office of consul alongside Titus Vinius, the fourth and eighteenth legions of Germania Superior refused to swear loyalty to the emperor. They toppled the statues of Galba and demanded that a new emperor be chosen. On the following day, the soldiers of Germania inferior also refused to swear their loyalty and proclaimed the governor of the province, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor.[8] Galba tried to ensure his authority as emperor was recognized by adopting the nobleman Piso Licinianus as his successor,[9] an action that gained resentment from Otho.[4] Galba was killed by the praetorians on 15 January, followed shortly by Vinius and Piso. Their heads were placed on poles and Otho was proclaimed emperor.[9]

Nero's statues were again set up, his freedmen and household officers reinstalled, including the young castrated boy Sporus whom Nero had taken in marriage and Otho also would live intimately with.[10][11] The populace acclaimed him as "Nero Otho", although Otho did not appear to like the title.[12]

At the same time, the fears of the more sober and respectable citizens were relieved by Otho's liberal professions of his intention to govern equitably, and by his judicious clemency towards Aulus Marius Celsus, a consul-designate and devoted adherent of Galba. He assumed the consulate of the year alongside his brother Titianus, but only until the 1st of March.[13]

War with Vitellius

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Otho soon realized that it was much easier to overthrow an Emperor than rule as one: according to Suetonius[14] Otho once remarked that "Playing the Long Pipes is hardly my trade" (i.e. undertaking something beyond one's ability to do so). Any further development of Otho's policy was checked once he had read through Galba's private correspondence and realized the extent of the revolution in Germania, where several legions had declared for Vitellius, the commander of the legions on the lower Rhine River, and were already advancing upon Italy. After a vain attempt to conciliate Vitellius by the offer of a share in the Empire, Otho, with unexpected vigor, prepared for war. From the much more remote provinces, which had quietly accepted his accession, little help was to be expected, but the legions of Dalmatia, Pannonia and Moesia were eager in his cause, the Praetorian cohorts were a formidable force and an efficient fleet gave him the mastery of the Italian seas.

The fleet was at once dispatched to secure Liguria, and on 14 March Otho, undismayed by omens and prophecies, started northwards at the head of his troops in the hopes of preventing the entry of Vitellius' troops into Italy. But for this he was too late, and all that could be done was to throw troops into Placentia and hold the line of the Po. Otho's advanced guard successfully defended Placentia against Aulus Caecina Alienus, and compelled that general to fall back on Cremona, but the arrival of Fabius Valens altered the aspect of affairs.

Vitellius' commanders now resolved to bring on a decisive battle, the Battle of Bedriacum, and their designs were assisted by the divided and irresolute counsels which prevailed in Otho's camp. The more experienced officers urged the importance of avoiding a battle until at least the legions from Dalmatia had arrived. However, the rashness of the emperor's brother Titianus and of Proculus, prefect of the Praetorian Guards, added to Otho's feverish impatience, overruled all opposition, and an immediate advance was decided upon.

Otho remained behind with a considerable reserve force at Brixellum on the southern bank of the Po. When this decision was taken, Otho's army had already crossed the Po and were encamped at Bedriacum (or Betriacum), a small village on the Via Postumia, on the route by which the legions from Dalmatia would naturally arrive.

Leaving a strong detachment to hold the camp at Bedriacum, the Othonian forces advanced along the Via Postumia in the direction of Cremona. At a short distance from Cremona they unexpectedly encountered the Vitellian troops. The Othonians, though at a disadvantage, fought desperately, but were eventually forced to fall back in disorder upon their camp at Bedriacum. There on the next day the victorious Vitellians followed them, but only to come to terms at once with their disheartened enemy, and to be welcomed into the camp as friends.


Otho was still in command of a formidable force as the Dalmatian legions had reached Aquileia and the spirit of his soldiers and their officers was unbroken. He was resolved to accept the verdict of the battle that his own impatience had hastened. In a speech, he bade farewell to those about him, declaring: "It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one",[15] and then retiring to rest soundly for some hours. Early in the morning he stabbed himself in the heart with a dagger, which he had concealed under his pillow, and died as his attendants entered the tent.

Otho's ashes were placed within a modest monument. He had reigned three months. His funeral was celebrated at once as he had wished. A plain tomb was erected in his honour at Brixellum, with the inscription Diis Manibus Marci Othonis. His 91-day reign[20] would be the shortest until that of Pertinax, whose reign lasted 87 days in 193 during the Year of the Five Emperors.

Aureus of Otho. Legend: imp m otho caes aug tr p

It has been thought that Otho's suicide was committed in order to steer his country away from the path to civil war and to avoid casualties in his legions. Just as he had come to power, many Romans learned to respect Otho in his death. Few could believe that a renowned former companion of Nero had chosen such an honourable end. Tacitus wrote that some of the soldiers committed suicide beside his funeral pyre "because they loved their emperor and wished to share his glory".[21]

Writing during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (AD 81–96), the Roman poet Martial expressed his admiration for Otho's choice to spare the empire from civil war through sacrificing himself:

Although the goddess of civil warfare was still in doubt,
And soft Otho had perhaps still a chance of winning,
He renounced fighting that would have cost much blood,
And with sure hand pierced right through his breast.
By all means let Cato in his life be greater than Caesar himself;
In his death was he greater than Otho?[22]

Cultural references

In opera

In literature

In film


  1. ^ According to Dio, Augustus died after a rule of "forty-four years lacking thirteen days". If we subtract 13 days to 2 September, we have 20 August. The very same chapter precisely dates Augustus' death on "the nineteenth day of August". Caligula ascended to the throne at "twenty-five years of age, lacking five months and four days". This gives us 27 March; Dio (wrongly) dates Tiberius' death on 26 March. Therefore, Otho died on 16 April, not 17, as the calculation may suggest.


  1. ^ Empereur Othon. Réunion des Musées Nationaux.
  2. ^ L'Empereurs Othon. Louvre
  3. ^ Cooley, p. 490.
  4. ^ a b c Grant 2002, p. 188.
  5. ^ a b c Greenhalgh 1975, pp. 33–35.
  6. ^ "Juvenal | Roman poet". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2 December 2019.
  7. ^ Donahue 1999.
  8. ^ Tacitus, Histories 1.27–57.
  9. ^ a b Greenhalgh 1975, pp. 30, 37, 45, 47–54.
  10. ^ Smith 1849, pp. 897, 2012.
  11. ^ Champlin 2005, pp. 147–148.
  12. ^ Tacitus, Histories 1.78.
  13. ^ Tacitus, Histories 1.71ff, 77.
  14. ^ Chapter 7
  15. ^ "Cassius Dio – Epitome of Book 63". penelope.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
  16. ^ Josephus, The Jewish War IV, 9: "Three months and two days". 92 days including the end date, just as he did for Claudius' and Nero's dates.
  17. ^ Clement of Alexandria, Stromata: "Otho, five [three] months, one day". [91 days]
  18. ^ Suetonius, Otho 11: "On the ninety-fifth day of his reign". Suetonius probably assumed Otho died on 19 April, the day in which Vitellius was formally installed as emperor.
  19. ^ Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus III.27. "Otho, 3 months 5 days" [95 days].
  20. ^ Cassius Dio 63.15: "He had lived thirty-seven years, lacking eleven days, and had reigned ninety days". This seems to give 15 April as Otho's date of death. However, "thirty-seven years lacking eleven days" actually gives 16 April.[n. 1] This can be explained by placing Otho's ascension on 16 January. Other historians give similar dates.[16][17][18][19]
  21. ^ Tacitus, Cornelius. "Otho's Suicide : The Histories [of Ancient Rome] by Tacitus". www.ourcivilisation.com. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
  22. ^ Martial, Epigrams VI.32, translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey
  23. ^ "L'incoronazione di Poppea". IMDB. Retrieved 29 September 2021.
  24. ^ "L'incoronazione di Poppea, 07 June 2008". Glyndebourne. Retrieved 29 September 2021.
  25. ^ Mandel, Mark. "MONTEVERDI: L'Incoronazione di Poppea". Opera News. Archived from the original on 29 September 2021. Retrieved 29 September 2021.
  26. ^ ""Emperor" – Polish movie about ancient Rome". Imperium Romanum. 22 February 2019. Retrieved 29 September 2021.


Primary sources

Secondary material

Political offices Preceded byGalba Roman emperor 69 Succeeded byVitellius Preceded byGalbaTitus Vinius Roman consul 69 (suffect) With: L. Salvius Otho Titianus Succeeded byL. Verginius RufusL. Pompeius Vopiscusas suffect consuls