1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Otho, Marcus Salvius
OTHO, MARCUS SALVIUS (32–69), Roman emperor from the 15th of January to the 15th of April A.D. 69, was born on the 28th of April A.D. 32. He belonged to an ancient and noble Etruscan family settled at Ferentinum in Etruria. He appears first as one of the most reckless and extravagant of the young nobles who surrounded Nero. But his friendship with Nero was brought to an abrupt close in 58, when Otho refused to divorce his beautiful wife Poppea Sabina at the bidding of Nero, who at once appointed him governor of the remote province of Lusitania. Here Otho remained ten years, and his administration was marked by a moderation unusual at the time. When in 68 his neighbour Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, rose in revolt against Nero, Otho accompanied him to Rome. Resentment at the treatment he had received from Nero may have impelled him to this course, but to this motive was added before long that of personal ambition. Galba was far advanced in years, and Otho, encouraged by the predictions of astrologers, aspired to succeed him. But in January 69 his hopes were dissipated by Galba's formal adoption of L. Calpurnius Piso as the fittest man to succeed him. Nothing remained for Otho but to strike a bold blow. Desperate as was the state of his finances, thanks to his previous extravagance, he found money to purchase the services of some three-and-twenty soldiers of the praetorian guard. On the morning of January 15, five days only after the adoption of Piso, Otho attended as usual to pay his respects to the emperor, and then hastily excusing himself on the score of private business hurried from the Palatine to meet his accomplices. By them he was escorted to the praetorian camp, where, after a few moments of surprise and indecision, he was saluted imperator. With an imposing force he returned to the Forum, and at the foot of the Capitol encountered Galba, who, alarmed by vague rumours of treachery, was making his way through a dense crowd of wondering citizens towards the barracks of the guard. The cohort on duty at the Palatine, which had accompanied the emperor, instantly deserted him; Galba, Piso and others were brutally murdered by the praetorian. The brief struggle over, Otho returned in triumph to the camp, and on the same day was duly invested by the senators with the name of Augustus, the tribunician power and the other dignities belonging to the principate. Otho had owed his success, not only to the resentment felt by the praetorian guards at Galba's well-meant attempts to curtail their privileges in the interests of discipline, but also largely to the attachment felt in Rome for the memory of Nero; and his first acts as emperor showed that he was not unmindful of the fact. He accepted, or appeared to accept, the cognomen of Nero conferred upon him by the shouts of the populace, whom his comparative youth and the effeminacy of his appearance reminded of their lost favourite. Nero's statues were again set up, his freedmen and household officers reinstalled, and the intended completion of the Golden House announced. At the same time the fears of the more sober and respectable citizens were allayed by Otho's liberal professions of his intention to govern equitably, and by his judicious clemency towards Marius Celsus, consul-designate, a devoted adherent of Galba.
But any further development of Otho's policy was checked by the news which reached Rome shortly after his accession, that the army in Germany had declared for Vitellius, the commander of the legions on the lower Rhine, and was already advancing upon Italy. After in vain attempting to conciliate Vitellius by the offer of a share in the empire, Otho, with unexpected vigour, prepared for war. From the remoter provinces, which had acquiesced in 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 in themselves 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 the 14th of March Otho, undismayed by omens and prodigies, started northwards at the head of his troops in the hopes of preventing the entry of the Vitellian 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 Alienus Caecina, and compelled that general to fall back on Cremona. But the arrival of Fabius Valens altered the aspect of affairs. The Vitellian commanders now resolved to bring on a decisive battle, 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. But 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 himself remaining behind with a considerable reserve force at Brixellum, on the southern bank of the Po. When this decision was taken the Othonian forces had already crossed the Po and were encamped at Bedriacum (or Betriacum), a small village on the Via Postumia, and 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 that city they unexpectedly encountered the Vitellian troops. The Othonians, though taken at a disadvantage, fought desperately, but were finally forced to fall back in disorder upon their camp at Bedriacum. Thither 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. More unexpected still was the effect produced at Brixellum by the news of the battle. Otho was still in command of a formidable force—the Dalmatian legions had already reached Aquileia; and the spirit of his soldiers and their officers was unbroken. But he was resolved to accept the verdict of the battle which his own impatience had hastened. In a dignified speech he bade farewell to those about him, and then retiring to rest slept soundly for some hours. Early in the morning he stabbed himself to the heart with a dagger which he had concealed under his pillow, and died as his attendants entered the tent. His funeral was celebrated at once, as he had wished, and not a few of his soldiers followed their master's example by killing themselves at his pyre. A plain tomb was erected in his honour at Brixellum, with the simple inscription " Diis Manibus Marci Othonis." At the time of his death (the 15th of April 69) he was in his thirty-eighth year, and had reigned just three months. In all his life nothing became him so well as his manner of leaving it; but the fortitude he then showed, even if it was not merely the courage of despair, cannot blind us to the fact that he was little better than a reckless and vicious spendthrift, who was not the less dangerous because his fiercer passions were concealed beneath an affectation of effeminate dandyism. (H. F. P.)
See Tacitus, Histories, i. 12-50, 71-90, ii. 11-51; Lives by Suetonius and Plutarch; Dio Cassius Ixiv.; Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire, ch. 56: H. Schiller, Geschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit (1883); L. Paul, " Kaiser M. Salvius Otho " in Rhein. Mus. Ivii. (1902); W. A. Spooner, On the Characters of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, in Introd. to his edition (1891) of the Histories of Tacitus; B. W. Henderson, Civil War and Rebellion in the Roman Empire, A.D. 69-70 (1908J.