The Vitellii were a family of vague origins that had risen to a position of prominence by the 1st century. Whether the Vitellii were founded by an ancient Latin king or a poor freedman cobbler (both origins were recorded by Suetonius), the family eventually joined the senatorial class and received distinguished government and military appointments. One such high-status member of the Vitellii family, named Lucius, married a noblewoman by the name of Sestilia, and from their union was born Aulus Vitellius, a future emperor of Rome. By the time of Vitellius’ birth in year 12, his family had become considerably wealthy. The family fortune allowed Aulus Vitellius to enjoy chariot races and dicing with wild abandon—these pastimes would get him into the good graces of Caligula (r. 37-41), Claudius (r. 41-54) and Nero (r. 54-68). The wealth of the Vitellii also meant that the family could own slaves. The name of one of these slaves was Asiaticus, and his life would become an extraordinarily wild ride.
Tacitus and Suetonius, two major ancient historians who covered the events of the 1st century in their works, made mention of the slave known as Asiaticus. Unfortunately, of the two scholars, only Suetonius decided to write about Asiaticus’ backstory. Tacitus’ account confirmed the general arc of Asiaticus’ life—recording how his life began and ended. Yet, it was Suetonius who added more depth to the story by listing several bizarre events from the slave’s life. Regrettably, Suetonius also often used gossip and satire as his sources, and he sometimes did not tell the reader when he was citing dubious evidence. Therefore, it is difficult to determine what is truth, what is exaggeration, and what is an outright falsehood in the tale of Asiaticus. So, as always, enjoy the story, but view Suetonius’ historical accuracy with caution.
According to Suetonius, Asiaticus was a slave that saw to the needs of Vitellius. Although the two were supposedly as close as a master and a slave could be, Asiaticus was not content with captivity. He ran away and started a new life in the city of Puteoli, where he set up shop as a drink vendor. Yet, this taste of freedom was very brief. Asiaticus was somehow discovered and consequently brought back in chains to Vitellius. The relationship between master and slave had obviously deteriorated, and Asiaticus refused to be made docile. His obstinacy became so great that Vitellius eventually sold the slave to a gladiator school. Asiaticus was trained to fight and was scheduled for his first bout when Vitellius began to have a change of heart—before Asiaticus could face combat in the arena, Vitellius bought him back from the gladiator school. After this action, the two seemed to build a working relationship or, possibly, even a friendship.
Rome fell into chaos in the year 68 and Asiaticus profited from the hard times. Multiple governors rebelled against Emperor Nero. The pressure was too much for Nero and he eventually committed suicide. Galba became the new emperor by June (68 CE) and he appointed Vitellius to be his governor of Lower Germany in December of that same year. According to Suetonius, Vitellius freed Asiaticus before departing to take up his governorship in Germany.
The year 69 came to be known as The Year of the Four Emperors, and Asiaticus’ former owner would be one of those four contenders. Vitellius rebelled against Galba on January 2, but before he could claim Rome, another man named Otho launched a military coup. Otho became emperor on January 15, but Vitellius still was on the march and did not intend to turn back. The army of Vitellius defeated the new emperor’s forces at Betriacum (on April 14), prompting Otho to commit suicide on April 16. The Roman senate recognized Vitellius as emperor three days later. According to Suetonius, one of the earliest actions taken by Vitellius on his first official day as emperor (April 19) was to raise his former slave, Asiaticus, to the social rank of equestrian, and he gave him a gold ring as a sign of the freedman’s new status. In addition, Asiaticus became one of Vitellius’ chief advisors on government policies. On that cheerful note, Suetonius ended his commentary on the life of Asiaticus.
Although Asiaticus had made a remarkable climb to power (from runaway slave, to gladiator, to an equestrian and chief advisor of an emperor), he unfortunately joined the camp of the third ruler to claim the throne in the Year of Four Emperors. As the title of the year suggests, one more person would launch a bid for the throne in the year 69. The last challenger was Vespasian, commander of Roman forces in Judea since the year 66 or 67. With support of most of Rome’s eastern provinces on his side, Vespasian sent his forces against Vitellius. The troops forced their way into Rome by December 19, and Vitellius was executed on December 20 or 21, in 69 CE.
With the fall of Vitellius, the rest of Asiaticus’ story comes from Tacitus. After the conquest of Rome by Vespasian’s forces, there was a purge of the old regime. The new emperor was conveniently away from Rome so as to escape any blame for the bloodshed. Asiaticus seems to have survived the initial massacre. Yet, his luck did not continue when Mucianus, the governor of Syria, arrived to take command of the pro-Vespasian forces in Rome. When the new leader renewed the purge, Asiaticus was arrested and executed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (a resting gladiator painted by José Moreno Carbonero (1860–1942), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.