9. Was Roman Emperor Vitellius assassinated just because there hadn’t been enough rain?
While he may not be the most famous of all Roman emperors – in fact, he probably wouldn’t even make a ‘top 20′ – Vitellius is something of a favorite among historians researching ancient Rome. Though he enjoyed significant popularity with his people and, more importantly, with his army, he was ultimately assassinated. Moreover, this fall from grace was as rapid as it was fatal. Could the assassination of Vitellius in AD69 tell us more about imperial Roman politics and why so many of its rulers were killed while in power?
Vitellius was named Emperor in April of AD69. This was a particularly turbulent time in the empire, not least at the very top of the political pyramid. Almost from the start, he had challengers claiming that they should be the ‘Caesar’. Luckily for Vitellius, he had the backing of enough soldiers to ensure that any challenge would be repelled. Within a few months, however, his reputation had deteriorated considerably. That December, just eight months after being crowned to much acclaim, Vitellius was dragged through the streets of Rome. Troops loyal to Vespasian led him to the infamous Gemonian stairs, the site of many an execution. There, he was brutally murdered. With no respect for his status, his body was thrown into the River Tiber.
According to some scholars, the assassination of Vitellius serves as the perfect example of just how vulnerable Roman emperors really were. Far from being all-powerful, they were at the mercy of the whims of the crowd. More pertinently, they were at the mercy of their soldiers – and perhaps even the weather too. Research has found that the summer of 69AD was especially hot and dry across much of the Roman Empire. Could it be that a lack of rain, with the poor harvest that resulted from this, was the reason why the once mighty Vitellius ended up dying the brutal death of a common criminal?