While Otho’s death might not be the most eventful of the Twelve Caesars, it’s by far the most redemptive. The ancients gave his life a terrible write-up. Suetonius describes him as a wild, extravagant, and sexually debauched young man; a favorite of Emperor Nero with whom he was believed to have been more than just friends. Tacitus thought him no different from Nero or Vitellius, and while we haven’t looked at Vitellius yet, suffice to say this was no good thing.
However, both writers showed great respect for the way in Otho he met his end. Tacitus calls his suicide egregio, a word that has given us “egregious”. These days egregious describe something really bad, but in antiquity, it meant the opposite. It might seem strange to us today that suicide could be viewed in lofty, praise-worthy terms. But the world of the Twelve Caesars was a world yet to be colored by Christian moralizers who preached suicide as a sin.
Otho’s reign was short, and not particularly sweet. Declared emperor in January 68, by the middle of April he was dead, age of 38. His death came after he was defeated in battle by the legionary commander of the lower-Rhine and rival claimant to the throne, Aulus Vitellius. What’s remarkable is that Otho’s defeat was by no means crushing; he still had deep numbers of reserves. But to spare the empire more years of detestable civil war, and further Roman blood being spilled, Otho chose to die.
Cassius Dio, a later writer, credits him with saying,
“It is far more just to perish one for all than many for one”,
And he also tells us that this message that went down so well with his soldiers that many killed themselves along with him. There’s bound to be exaggeration, but all sources agree that upon retiring to his quarters he wrote letters to his loved ones, distributed money among his slaves, and left his door open all night, admitting anyone who wanted to see him. As soon as he woke the next morning, he pulled out a dagger from under his pillow and stabbed himself through the heart.
Otho’s suicide earned him the admiration of later Romans. Those who had hated him in life sang his praises in death. So much so, in fact, that a patriotic tradition sprang up around him saying that he hadn’t removed Galba because he wanted to become emperor, but he had done it so that he might restore the Republic.