Thursday, June 11, 2009

Otho's Sacrifice

In my article "Favorite Fives", I mention the suicide speech of the Roman Emperor Otho as being among my all-time favorites. To better explain this sentiment, which at face value must seem at the very least quite puzzling, I should provide a backstory to the address.

After the death of Nero, the Roman Empire underwent a year-long civil war, during which time four men - Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian - fought for and obtained imperial power. It was a bloody conflict, with Galba being the hand-picked favorite of the Senate, thereby making him both the first to reach the throne and the first to be murdered in the name of it; Otho being popular due to his close proximity to Nero, a man who was as loved by the common people as he was loathed by the aristocracy; and both Vitellius and Vespasian having a shot at ultimate power due to their command over large, powerful armies. Although many hoped that peace would come to the empire after Galba was assassinated in order to bring about Otho's ascension, the new emperor was quickly confronted with an attempted coup by Vitellius, whose armies were ransacking and pillaging villages from Germany to Italy as they made their way to the palace in order to depose Rome's newest ruler.

Battles were fought between the armies of Otho and the soldiers behind Vitellius, and there was every reason to believe that Otho could emerge triumphant. Yet in a decision that shocked the world, Otho decided that blood should not be shed in the name of making him the most powerful man in the world. After delivering the speech which I posted below (first in the original Latin, and then with an English translation), Otho took his own life and begged the entire world to stop its fighting and allow the empire to see the peace which had so long eluded it during the final years of Nero's reign.

In an indirect sense, Otho's wish was granted. His death did not bring about an immediate peace, as the armies of Vespasian confronted those of Vitellius almost immediately after the latter's coronation, with the ferocity of the fighting being among the most intense seen in Roman history. That said, as soon as Vespasian defeated Vitellius (and the world's benefit, since Vitellius had been a horrible ruler), he did usher in an era of peace and good government throughout the Roman Empire. Either way, Otho's willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice - not only of his own life, but of what had doubtless been a dream-come-true - remains among the noblest in recorded history.

Hunc animum, hanc virtutem vestram ultra periculis obicere nimis grande vitae meae pretium puto. quanto plus spei ostenditis, si vivere placeret, tanto pulchrior mors erit. experti in vicem sumus ego ac fortuna. nec tempus conputaveritis: difficilius est temperare felicitati qua te non putes diu usurum. civile bellum a Vitellio coepit, et ut de principatu certaremus armis initium illic fuit: ne plus quam semel certemus penes me exemplum erit; hinc Othonem posteritas aestimet. fruetur Vitellius fratre, coniuge, liberis: mihi non ultione neque solaciis opus est. alii diutius imperium tenuerint, nemo tam fortiter reliquerit. an ego tantum Romanae pubis, tot egregios exercitus sterni rursus et rei publicae eripi patiar? eat hic mecum animus, tamquam perituri pro me fueritis, set este superstites. nec diu moremur, ego incolumitatem vestram, vos constantiam meam. plura de extremis loqui pars ignaviae est. praecipuum destinationis meae documentum habete quod de nemine queror; nam incusare deos vel homines eius est qui vivere velit.

This spirit, this courage of yours, must not be exposed to further danger. That, I consider, would be too high a price to pay for my life. You hold out great hopes, in the event of my deciding to live on: they merely serve to make death finer. We have sized each other up, fortune and I. Nor must you calculate my reign in terms of time. It is harder for a man to observe moderation in success when he thinks he will not enjoy it for long. Civil war began with Vitellius, and with him lies the responsibility for our embarking on an armed struggle for supremacy. I too can set an example by preventing its repetition. Let this be the act by which posterity judges Otho. Vitellius shall live to have the society of his brother, wife and children: I require neither vengeance nor consolation. It may well be that others have held the principate longer, but I shall make sure that no one quits it more courageously. It is not for me to allow all these young Romans, all these fine armies, to be trampled underfoot a second time, to their country's loss. Let your devotion accompany me, just as if you had in fact died for my sake — but live on after me. I must not impede your chances of survival, nor you my resolution. To waste further words on death smacks of cowardice. Here is your best proof that my decision is irrevocable: I complain of no one. Denouncing gods or men is a task for one who is in love with life.

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