Vitellius had the worst death of the Twelve Caesars. In terms of execution, location, and people involved, Vitellius’s death borrowed elements from several other emperors’ deaths. That it did is appropriate, if not slightly ironic, especially considering the extent to which Vitellius ingratiated himself with—and therefore owed his eventual position to—several former emperors.
On Capri, he was alleged to have been one of Tiberius’s favorites, known affectionately—and for reasons we really don’t need to go into—as one of his “tight-bums”. He befriended with Caligula through their shared love of chariot racing and with entered Claudius’s intimate circle through their shared love of gambling. Understanding that music was the way to Nero’s heart, he would pre-arrange encores during the emperor’s musical performances, leading Nero to think he was more popular—and better—than he actually was.
Vitellius met his end on December 22 69 AD, when the advance guard of Vespasian, commander of the legions in Judaea and the last of this civil war’s emperors, entered Rome. The emperor went into hiding (in a door keeper’s lodge, according to Tacitus), but was soon dragged out by the rampaging troops. They initially didn’t recognize him, but once they learned the identity of their imperial captive they resolved to put him to death.
The emperor was stripped half-naked, a noose thrown around his neck and his hands bound behind his back and dragged the length of the Via Sacra into the Forum. En route, the plebeians spat at him, threw excrement, and insulted him over his obesity and grotesque appearance. The journey took painfully long; Vitellius limped the whole way as one of his legs was mangled from when Caligula had once struck him with a chariot. After at least 30 minutes, judging from the length of the Via Sacra, he arrived at the Germanian steps.
There he was executed, made to bleed to death from dozens of tiny incisions. His body was pierced with hooks and dragged to the Tiber, the river becoming his ultimate resting place. As mentioned, his death shared characteristics with others. Like Nero, he tried to flee and was given dramatic last words,
“But I was once your emperor!”
As with Tiberius, people wanted his body consigned to the Tiber—though with Vitellius they actually succeeded. As with Caligula and Galba, he was murdered in public—terrible ends for terrible emperors.