Vitellius was born in AD 15. Vittelius' father, Lucius Vitellius, three times held the office of consul as well as once being the emperor's fellow censor.
Vitellius was a man of some learning and knowledge of government but little military skill or experience. Therefore his appointment by Galba to his command in Lower Germany had taken most people by surprise. When Vitellius reached his troops in November AD 68 they were already considering rebellion against the loathed emperor Galba. In particular the German armies were still angry at Galba for refusing them a reward for their part in suppressing Julius Vindex. On 2 January AD 69, learning that the legions in Upper Germany had refused to swear allegiance to Galba, Vitellius' men in Lower Germany, following the example of their commander Fabius Valens, hailed Vitellius emperor.
The army then set out for Rome, not led by Vitellius himself - for he possessed no knowledge of warfare - but by his generals Caecina and Valens.
The Danubian legions had declared for Otho and hence the weight of superior forces was on the emperor's side. Though on the Danube those legions were useless to him, they had to march into Italy first. For now Otho's side was still the lesser one. Caecina and Valens appreciated that if they would be successfully delayed by Othos's forces they would lose the war.
So they devised a way by which to force a fight. They began the construction of a bridge which would lead them over the Po river into Italy. Otho was hence compelled to fight and his army was comprehensively defeated at Cremona 14 April AD 69.
When learning of this news a joyous Vitellius set out for Rome, his voyage being seen by many as a endless decadent feast, not merely by him, but so, too, by his army.
The new emperor and his entourage entered Rome in brash triumph against the end of June. However, things remained peaceful. There were few executions and arrests. Vitellius even kept many of Otho's officials in his administration, even granting amnesty to Otho's brother Salvius Titianus, who had been a leading figure in the previous government.
But such pampering of allies was not what truly made Vitellius unpopular. It was his extravagance and his triumphalism. Had Otho died a dignified death, then Vitellius comments on the 'the sent of death of a fellow Roman being very sweet' when visiting the battle field of Cremona (which was still littered with bodies at the time), did little to endear him to his subjects.
Vitellius quickly gained a reputation as a glutton. He was said to eat three or four heavy meals a day, usually followed by a drinks party, to which he had himself invited to a different house each time. He was only able to consume this much by frequent bouts of self-induced vomiting. He was a very tall man, with a 'vast belly'. On of his thighs was permanently damaged from being run over by Caligula's chariot, when he had been in a chariot race with that emperor.
Had the initial signs of his taking power indicated he might enjoy a peaceful, though unpopular reign, things changed very quickly. Around the middle of July news already arrived that the armies of the eastern provinces had now rejected him. On 1 July they set up a rival emperor in Palestine, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, a battle-hardened general who enjoyed widespread sympathies among the army.
But Vitellius could not count on his generals. Valens was ill. And Caecina, in a joint effort with the prefect of the fleet at Ravenna, attempted to change his allegiance from Vitellius to Vespasian (Though his troops did not obey him and instead arrested him).
As Primus and Fuscus invaded Italy, their force and that of Vitellius should meet almost at the same spot where the deciding battle for the throne had been fought some six months earlier.
Valens, his health somewhat recovered, attempted to raise forces in Gaul to come to his emperor's aid, but without success.
Learning of this Vitellius tried to abdicate, hoping no doubt to save his own life as well as those of his family. Though in a bizarre move his supporters refused to accept this and forced him to return to the imperial palace.
Only two days after these killings, on 20 December, the army of Primus and Fuscus fought its way into the city. Vitellius was carried to his wife's house on the Aventine, from where he intended to flee to Campania. But at this crucial point he strangely appeared to change his mind, and returned to the palace.With hostile troops about to storm the place everyone had wisely deserted the building. So, all alone, Vitellius tied a money-belt around his waist and disguised himself in dirty clothes and hid in the door-keepers lodge, piling up furniture against the door to prevent anyone entering.