Ancient and modern

Putin is repeating Emperor Vitellius’s mistakes

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

Given Putin’s less than triumphant operation in Chechnya, where the Russian army suffered catastrophic losses, it is hardly surprising that his control of the ‘special operation’ in Ukraine does not seem to be a howling success. His inability to deal with the situation there bears a striking resemblance to that of the short-lived Roman emperor Vitellius.

After the chaos that followed Nero’s suicide in ad 68, the year 69 is known as ‘the year of the four emperors’. Vitellius was the third to try for the throne, before falling to the ultimately successful pro-Vespasian forces. The Roman historian Tacitus was scathing about his military abilities.


Vitellius in fact had some able generals and battle-hardened soldiers behind him, but they were well beaten at the crucial battle of Cremona in north Italy (24 October 69). Like Putin, Vitellius decided to hush up bad news, ‘thus putting off the remedy for the disaster rather than the disaster itself. He still had prospects and military resources, if only he had taken advice; but his pretence that all went well only made matters worse. In his presence there was a strange silence about the battle, while all discussion of it was forbidden in Rome. The result was that more people talked about it who would have told the truth but, in the face of prohibition, spread wildly exaggerated rumours.’ When he finally agreed to allow a centurion to make a personal visit to Cremona and report back what he saw, Vitellius disbelieved him and suggested he had been bribed. The centurion, saying ‘Here’s evidence you can believe’, committed suicide.

Tacitus summed up the situation as follows: ‘Vitellius was ignorant of soldiering, incapable of forethought, knew nothing of the proper order of march or scouting, or how far an action should be advanced or delayed; he was always asking someone else… the more experienced of his centurions would have told him the truth, but Vitellius’s closed circle kept them out. He regarded good advice as unpleasant, and listened to only what was agreeable – and fatal.’

A fitting epitaph for Putin?

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