Tiberius, Vitellius and the spintriae

di Charles Leslie Murison

The Ancient History Bulletin, 1/4 (1987), pp. 97-99



“Tiberius on Capri” has in recent years entered the imagination of the public at large — thanks to such items of mass entertainment as I, Claudius, Caligula and the peculiarly horrid Anno Domini — as the motif of Roman imperial depravity. In an age when Lord Acton’s famous dictum on power and corruption seems to be confirmed by every revelation about the private lives of the wealthy and the powerful, both in and out of government, and when a large section of the popular press on both sides of the Atlantic devotes considerable resources to the chronicling of the emotional entanglements of such individuals, the idea that the stories about Tiberius on Capri may be even partially untrue probably never occurs to one person in a thousand.

Given contemporary experience and preoccupations, it is not surprising that the present generation of scholars tends to adopt more of a ‘no smoke without fire’ attitude towards this matter than did its immediate predecessors.1 However, although it is Suetonius who provides the greatest detail about Tiberius’ alleged perversions on Capri (Tib. 39-42),2 it is in this same author that we can find material which will enable us to demonstrate the basic improbability of such stories.

In his Life of Vitellius Suetonius tells us: pueritiam primamque adulescentiam Capreis egit inter Tiberiana scorta, et ipse perpetuo spintriae cognomine notatus existimatusque corporis gratia initium et causa incrementorum patri fuisse (Vit. 3.2). There are basically two allegations here, though they are connected: first, that Vitellius spent the time of his “boyhood and early adolescence” on Capri as one of Tiberius’ spintriae, and second, that he was thought, through the bestowal of bodily favours (sc. on Tiberius), to have been the reason for his father’s initial success and progress in his public career.3 I shall consider these two points separately.

Tiberius left Rome, never to return, in A.D. 26 (Ann. 4.57) and in 27 settled on the island of Capri (Ann. 4.67; Suet. Tib. 39-42; Dio 58.1.1 and 5.1). Given his longing for seclusion and his loathing of public attention, it is not surprising that increasingly lurid tales began to circulate about sexual irregularities (cf. above, nn.1, 2). What we should note is that, where such stories have any sort of chronological moorings in our sources, they occur in narratives of 32 (Tacitus) and 33 (Dio): that is, Tiberius was believed to have slipped gradually into a life of unrestrained sensuality.

When was the later Emperor Vitellius born? Such a question is clearly relevant to our enquiry, but a clear answer is not easily forthcoming. At Vit. 3.2, Suetonius tells us that it was on September 24 (or, according to some sources, September 7), A.D. 15 (cf. Dio 65.22.1). However, to this information we must add from Suet. Vit. 18, periit ... anno vitae septimo quinquagesimo (cf. Tac. Hist. 4.86: septimum et quinquagensimum aetatis annum explebat), which implies a different year for his birth. Long ago, Ludwig Holzapfel argued in detail and convincingly4 that (a) the text of Tacitus must be emended, since a man with a birthday in September who died some three months later could not be completing any year of his life: he suggested explerat;5 (b) there are, then, two traditions, which give the year of Vitellius’ birth as A.D. 15 or A.D. 12; (c) although Dessau (PIR 499) accepts A.D. 15, pointing for corroboration to A.D. 48, the year of Vitellius’ consulship,6 further consideration of A.D. 48 reminds us that A. Vitellius’ younger brother Lucius succeeded him as consul in that year:7 Lucius must therefore have been born no later than 15 and Aulus in an earlier year, presumably 12.8 From this, then, we can easily conclude that the allegation which Suetonius makes about A. Vitellius on Capri is mere vituperatio: if he was born in A.D. 12 he would have turned 20 in A.D. 32; indeed, the phrase pueritiam primamque adulescentiam Capreis egit inter Tiberiana scorta is literally meaningless. We may, however, surmise that the later date for his birth represents an attempt to give this story a spurious air of authenticity.

As for the allegation that Vitellius helped both the start and the advancement of his father’s public career by rendering sexual services to Tiberius, again this story may appear superfically plausible, but it will not stand up to close examination. L. Vitellius (cos. ord. 34, 43, 47), father of the later emperor, was by far the most successful of the four sons of a Roman knight, all of whom entered public life and became members of the Senate;9 as a novus homo L. Vitellius will have advanced rather slowly in the imperial service, having to ‘prove’ himself at several levels before becoming eligible for the consulship.10 His career probably started even before Aulus was born, and that career will have been well on its way by A.D. 26, when Tiberius left Rome, so that to say that Aulus could in any way have been responsible for the initium of his father’s career is nonsense; as for its incrementa, the allegation is only marginally less absurd.

What was the source of these allegations about Vitellius? Since he was one of the ephemeral emperors of A.D. 69, there would be little point in blackening his character long after his death. Equally, since it was the revolt of Vespasian which overthrew him, it would seem reasonable to see in Flavian propaganda of 69 (or soon after) the source of the vituperatio.11 If we attempt to be more specific, we are inevitably reduced to what is more or less guesswork.12

In general, we should note that the whole spintriae nexus is highly suspect. It probably arose from prurient imaginings about Tiberius’ seclusion on Capri in combination with an extraordinary series of monetiform tokens, struck (anonymously) between about A.D. 22-37, depicting on the obverse scenes of copulation or fellation and bearing on the reverse a Roman numeral from I to XVI; through these numerals the obscene tokens, known to numismatics as spintriae, are die-linked to another series of tokens, bearing obverse portraits of various members of the imperial family, including Augustus, Livia and Tiberius. In a recent study of these tokens T.V. Buttrey concludes that they are “the very source of Suetonius’ libels.”13 That may go too far, but they could well have given rise to some of the nastier Flavian propaganda of A.D. 69.

One final comment: in the only other passage in which he mentions spintriae (Calig. 16.1), Suetonius says of Gaius: spintrias monstrosarum libidinum aegre ne profundo mergeret exoratus, urbe submovit. We may well ask: what were they doing in the city? Does this not almost prove that we are here dealing with what is, fundamentally, a bizarre fantasy?14



1     Cf. R. Seager, Tiberius (London 1972) 224: “ ... it is said that he showed such imagination in the invention of unprecedented sexual pastimes that eager chroniclers found themselves constrained to devise a whole new terminology”, with no comment on possible truth or falsehood. B. Levick, Tiberius the Politician (London 1976) 167, seems almost playful on the subject, but see the accompanying n. 100 on 276; on the other hand, the “vulgar and hostile tradition” appears to be rejected on 222 (cf. n.93 on 294). In contrast see, for example, F.B. Marsh, The Reign of Tiberius (Oxford 1931) 218; M.P. Charlesworth, CAH X (1934) 638-639; E.T. Salmon, History of the Roman World from 30 B.C. to A.D. 138 (London 1944) 140; A. Garzetti, L’Impero da Tiberio agli Antonini (Bologna 1960) 73-74, 80 (Engl. tr., 1974, 72-73, 79).

2     There is a less detailed account in Tac. Ann. 6.1 (henceforth simply Ann.); cf. with allegations about Tiberius’ sojourn on Rhodes, Ann. 1.4.4; 4.57.1-2, 67.3; also Dio 58.22.1-3.

3     Something like the first allegation is found twice in Dio: at 64.4.2 Vitellius is said to have been παιδικά to Tiberius, and at 65.5.1 people are said to have known him as πεπορνευκότα, though there is no mention of his helping his father’s career.

4     L. Holzapfel, “Römische Kaiserdaten,” Klio 15 (1918) 99-121, esp. 105-118.

5     This would agree with Aur. Vict. Caes. 8.6: annos natus septuaginta et quinque amplius.

6     This is in reference to the Augustan “rules” regarding minimum ages for magistracies. The effect of these seems to have been that a man became eligible for the quaestorship in his twenty-fifth year, the praetorship in his thirtieth, and if he were a patrician, the consulate in his thirty-third year, or, if he were a plebeian, his forty-second; cf. Mommsen, Staatsrecht I3 572-574, esp. 574, n.4; Syme, Roman Revolution 369; J. Morris, LF 86 (1963) 317-318, 323-336.

7     Cf. Suet. Vit. 3.1 (on the Emperior’s father): decessit ... duobus filiis superstitibus, quos ... consules vidit, et quidem eodem ambos totoque anno, cum maiori minor in sex menses successisset.

8     An examination of events in the campaign of the autumn of 69 and their relationship to Vitellius’ birthday celebrations in that year (mentioned at Tac. Hist. 2.95.1 and Dio 65.4.3) indicates that September 7 is far more likely than September 24 for Vitellius’ birthday (Holzapfel [above, n.4] 108-118, developing the arguments of M. Puhl, De Othone et Vitellio Imperatoribus Quaestiones [Diss. Halle 1883] 24-30).

9     For the family background see Suet. Vit. 2.2-3.1; discussed by M. Schuster, RE IX A s.v. ‘Vitellius’ no.5; and by R. Hanslik, RE Suppl. IX s.v. ‘Vitellius’ nos. 7a, 7c, 7e, 7g; see also Dessau, PIR V 497, 500, 502-503, 505.

10     Which he is unlikely to have reached before the age of about forty. In the Augustan-Tiberian period only one novus homo whose age can be calculated (however approximately) reached the consulship while still under forty (Sex. Papinius Allenius, cos. ord. A.D. 36); see the data in J. Morris, LF 86 (1963) 326-327.

11     In this connection we should remember what Dieter Flach, speaking of Tacitus, Hist. 2.101.1, calls “die Geschichtsfälscher der flavischen Zeit, gegen die sich sein Angriff richtet ... .” (Tacitus in der Tradition der antiken Geschichtsschreibung [Göttingen 1973] 93).

12     G.B. Townend, for example, suggests that since similar allegations about Vitellius are found in both Suetonius and Dio, they originated with Cluvius Rufus (Hermes 89 [1961] 241-242; AJP 85 [1964] 370).

13     T.V. Buttrey, “The Spintriae as a Historical Source,” NC 13 (1973) 52-63, esp. 57-58.

14     On Suetonius’ attitude (and possible attraction) to homosexual behaviour, see T.F. Carney, PACA 11 (1968) 11-12, and esp. n.22.