20 December AD 69: Vitellius is pelted with dung and murdered

The Roman emperor’s corpse is then dumped in the Tiber


The Roman emperor Vitellius was a very fat man. “His besetting sins,” wrote the historian Suetonius, “were luxury and cruelty. He divided his feasts into three, sometimes into four a day: breakfast, luncheon, dinner and a drinking bout; and he was readily able to do justice to all of them through his habit of taking vomiting agents.” On the road he would “snatch bits of meat and cakes amid the altars, almost from the very fire, and devour them on the spot”.

Vitellius became emperor in April AD 69, 10 months after the death of Nero. But after only three months he learned that a rival general, Vespasian, had been proclaimed in the east and was marching on Rome. Vitellius’s loyalists organised dogged resistance, but by mid-December the eastern legions were fighting their way into the capital.

The end of Vitellius’s gourmandising career came on 20 December. He had taken refuge in the palace door-keeper’s house, but Vespasian’s soldiers soon tracked him down. “They bound his arms behind his back, put a noose about his neck, and dragged him with rent garments and half-naked to the Forum,” wrote Suetonius. “All along the Sacred Way he was greeted with mockery and abuse, his head held back by the hair, as is common with criminals... Some pelted him with dung and ordure, others called him incendiary and glutton.” Then they drew their swords, killed him and threw the body into the Tiber. Vitellius’s last words, apparently, were: “Yet I was once your emperor!”

20 December 1192: Richard the Lionheart is captured

The king falls foul of his enemy the duke of Austria

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Even by the standards of a commuter’s journey home, Richard the Lionheart’s voyage back to England from the Third Crusade was a disaster. Although he set off from the Holy Land in early October 1192, bad weather in the western Mediterranean forced him to change ships in Corfu. He then sailed north through the Adriatic, only to be driven ashore by storms somewhere near Venice. That meant a long overland journey through the lands of his bitter rival Leopold, Duke of Austria (whom Richard had treated with contempt during the crusade), accompanied only by a faithful knight, William de l’Etang, and a German-speaking boy. Word of his coming had reached the Austrians, and so the king had sent his other men west to draw them off.

By now he was exhausted. According to the chroniclers, he got as far as the village of Erdburg, now a suburb of Vienna, and collapsed with fever. While Richard rested in a local tavern, the German boy was sent to the market to buy provisions. But the boy’s cocky behaviour aroused suspicion; indeed, legend has it that he was spotted because he had borrowed the king’s fine gloves.

Leopold’s men struck on 20 December. Some versions of the story claim that Richard tried to evade capture by pretending to be a chef, even turning meat over a spit in the kitchen. But it was no good. Arrested and charged with grievously insulting the Austrian duke, Richard was taken to the castle of Dürnstein, perched high above the Danube, west of Vienna. There he remained before being moved to another castle in Germany. He was not released until February 1194, after his countrymen had paid an enormous ransom.

20 December 1387

The Earls of Derby and Gloucester defeat supporters of Richard II at the Battle of Radcot Bridge.

20 December 1409

Pope Alexander V issued a Papal Bull condemning the doctrines of the late John Wycliffe and ordering the seizure of his books and manuscripts.

20 December 1661

The Cavalier Parliament passed the Corporation Act. This strengthened the Anglican grip on local government by requiring members of town corporations to take the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England, take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy and to renounce the covenant. The intention, and effect, was to bar both Catholics and religious dissenters from public office. In 1673 the terms of the act were made more stringent by the passing of the Test Act, which was applied to all holders of civil or military office.

20 December 1833

Birth in Maryland of Samuel J Mudd, the Maryland physician who in 1865 will set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the fugitive assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Mudd will serve nearly four years in prison for conspiracy to murder Lincoln.

20 December 1860

South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Ten more states would follow suit in the next 11 months.


20 December 1942

Japanese aircraft launched their first bombing raid on Calcutta, hitting docks, shipping and airfields in the area.

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