Emperor Vitellius was one of four emperors who ruled the Roman Empire during the chaotic year, 69. The true nature of Vitellius, and that of his two predecessors, Emperors Galba and Otho, will likely always remain in relative obscurity, for the most prominent historians who lived during the late 1st century—such as Tacitus and Suetonius—were fans of the fourth and final emperor of the year, Vespasian (r. 69-79). As such, the biased ancient historians unfortunately seemed to be willing to write accounts of Galba, Otho and Vitellius that were propaganda-riddled caricatures in order to make Vespasian’s reign seem all the more grand. At the least, their works were heavily influenced by Vespasian’s propaganda.
As for Emperor Vitellius, he was portrayed negatively by Suetonius (c. 70-130+) as an addict of feasting and gambling. Suetonius filled his pages with several rumors about Vitellius’ supposed gluttony. Some of the emperor’s alleged eating habits are so odd that Suetonius likely based the stories from lampoons or other mocking sources. For instance, the ancient historian would have us believe that Emperor Vitellius was gluttonous enough to steal from street vendors, to eat old discarded food scraps and to even gobble up pieces of sacrificed meat left on a god’s alter. In addition, Suetonius alleged that Vitellius hosted three or four banquets each day, and spent all the hours in-between attending feasts hosted by other citizens of Rome.
Yet, few hosts of the many feasts could ever dream of preparing one extraordinary culinary dish that was reportedly loved by the emperor. It was a huge platter of food that was given the peculiar name, “The Shield of Minerva the Protectress.” The meal’s ingredients were so bizarre that the Roman Navy allegedly had to sail to the corners of the empire to gather everything required for the recipe. According to Suetonius, a person experiencing the flavors of the Shield of Minerva would enjoy on their palate the taste of many exotic morsels, such as the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingos, the liver of a pike and the milt of a lamprey. Emperor Vespasian, like most people reading the recipe now, did not find the dish to be appealing, and the so-called Shield of Minerva the Protectress was likely never prepared again after Vitellius was deposed, tortured, executed and his body disposed of in the Tiber.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Still life with a glass bowl of fruit and vases, from Pompeii, c. 63 and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars (Divus Claudius, 15) by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.