The secret of the Empire has been made public: an Emperor could be created elsewhere than in Rome.
Tacitus, Histories 1.4.2.
Emperor 1: Galba
The fallout from Nero’s suicide was a devastating crisis that raised the spectre of the Republican Civil Wars, whose memory was still very raw even at about one hundred years’ distance. We now enter the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ or the ‘Long Year 69’.
Given that Nero had eliminated most of his male relatives, left no heirs, and made no provisions for a successor, there was great uncertainty as to who would become the next Princeps. Rome’s armies were split as to where their allegiance should lie, so only civil war could settle the issue. There was no realistic possibility of Rome reverting to being a Republic: the price of peace and stability was rule by one man. The only question was, ‘Who?’
After the army of Germania Superior had crushed Vindex in 68, their commander L. Verginius Rufus offered his allegiance to the Senate, while his troops offered him the Principate. His rather smug self-written epitaph tells us that he refused the offer:
Here lies Rufus, who once routed Vindex and freed the Empire not for himself, but for his Fatherland.1
Rufus focused his loyalty on the septuagenarian Servius Sulpicius Galba, the leader of the Spanish rebellion,2 who is said to have intercepted orders from Nero for his own execution and to have thought about suicide. In his youth Galba had been adopted by Livia and went on to outlive his wife and two sons. During his rise to becoming a highly esteemed Senator he had impressed the people in exciting new ways:
As Praetor in charge of the games of the Floralia he gave a new type of show: tightrope-walking elephants.3
Since 61 he had been the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. He was the antithesis of Nero, a hard-boiled, old-school Roman aristocrat, devoted to disciplina and severitas, which led to accusations of cruelty and stinginess. Suetonius also says that
in terms of his sexual preferences he was more attracted to males, particularly ones who were hard bodied and past the prime of their youth (exoleti).4
However, since he maintained the dominant, insertive role, and restricted his relationships to prostitutes and slaves, this caused no scandal at Rome. On the contrary, his prospects were good. The Praefectus Praetorio Nymphidius Sabinus had promised the Praetorian Guard a donative of 30 000sestertii per man in Galba’s name, and when the Senate recognized him as the replacement Emperor, he headed for Rome and assumed the title of Caesar.
Galba aready commanded Legio VI Victrix, and he used money raised by the confiscation and sale of Nero’s property in Spain to assemble his own legion, referred to by Tacitus as Legio VII Galbiana and VII Hispana, and subsequently known as VII Gemina. He was sluggish about getting to Rome, though, and his policies seem bizarrely contradictory. He rewarded the Gallic tribes that had supported Vindex’s revolt, and punished the ones that had helped suppress it. The Rhine legions only swore allegiance to Galba on Verginius Rufus’ say-so, and yet Galba replaced Rufus with the old, lame, incompetent Hordeonius Flaccus, much to the displeasure of his troops.
At Rome, meanwhile, Nymphidius Sabinus was pursuing his own agenda to become either the sole Praefectus Praetorio for life, and hence the power behind the throne, or the actual power on the throne. But to his disappointment, Galba installed a former financial official called Cornelius Laco to succeed him in the post. Laco was totally unsuited for this com mand, and Nymphidius, who had expected a better reward for bringing the Praetorian Guard over to Galba, planned a coup. Sadly for him, his plan backfired when he was killed by the Praetorians. Galba then became tangled up in other people’s promises. First, he refused to pay the Praetorian Guard the donativum that Nymphidius had originally pledged to them on his behalf, and then, when some sailors from the Misenum fleet whom Nero had enrolled, or promised to enrol, in a legion asked Galba to keep his promise, he sent in the cavalry and decimated the survivors.
Galba finally arrived in Rome in October 68, accompanied by Nero’s old drinking buddy and ex-husband of Poppaea Sabina, M. Salvius Otho, the governor of Lusitania, who had joined his cause. Because of his age, Galba didn’t have time on his side, and he proceeded to commit one gaffe after another. His advisory circle comprised three corrupt, inept and mutually hostile men who were commonly known as his ‘pedagogues’: Laco, ‘intolerably arrogant and indolent’;5 Titus Vinius, ex-commander of Legio VI Victrix; and Icelus, his freedman. Galba imposed some stringent economic austerity measures that were certainly necessary but still seem to have caused hardship and resentment among the masses, who by now were starting to miss Nero. The military became unhappy when he disbanded the imperial corps of German bodyguards and refused to pay anydonativum to either the Praetorian Guard or the German legions, on the idealistic but utterly naive principle that
I choose my soldiers. I don’t buy them.6
The money would have been well spent, because on 1 January 69 the troops in Germania Superior refused to renew their oath of allegiance. The next day, at the instigation of the legionary legatus Fabius Valens, the legions of Germania Inferior proclaimed their overall commander, Aulus Vitellius, Emperor. The day after that the legions of Germania Superior followed their lead. These seven powerful legions were swiftly joined by those of Britain, Gaul and Spain. Galba responded by adopting the thirty-year-old Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus as his son and heir. This man was a descendant of Pompey the Great, but he had no experience, and the army really didn’t care who he was. One man who did care, though, was Otho: having been the first provincial governor to join Galba’s cause, he had hoped to succeed him. So he organized a conspiracy among the Praetorian Guard.
At dawn on 15 January 69, Galba went to perform a sacrifice on the Palatine Hill. Otho went down to the Forum, where twenty-three soldiers hailed him as Emperor. This was not exactly the turnout that he had been hoping for, but he was carried to the Praetorian camp, and his rebellion gained impetus. Rumours reached Galba, initially that Otho had been elevated to the purple, and then that he had been murdered. So he went down to the Forum to assert his control. There, though, he was surrounded by a mob, deserted by his men, tipped out of his litter, and publicly assassinated. Piso was dragged out of the temple of Vesta and butchered as well. That evening the Senate granted Otho all the requisite imperial honours. Rome now had two new Emperors: Otho in Rome and Vitellius on the Rhine. The Year of the Four Emperors was well under way.
Historians have been tough on Galba, and none more so than Tacitus:
By universal consent capable of ruling the Empire, if he had not been Emperor.7
Yet the ramifications of his few months in power were enormous. His adoption of Piso – on the premise that ‘the principle of choice will stand in the place of liberty’8 – represented a decisive break from the old hereditary system. But in January 69 ‘choice’ really meant ‘the most successful general’.
Emperor 2: Otho
The official incumbent was a prime example of an Emperor being created elsewhere than at Rome, having been governor of Lusitania in Spain for around a decade. Born on 28 April 32, M. Salvius Otho was from a recently ennobled patrician family, and had built on a misspent youth in which he roamed the streets at night and snared drunkards in a blanket, to become a louche playboy who even accused Nero of stinginess. Plutarch described the ‘softness and effeminacy’ of his body, and Juvenal called him a ‘faggot’ (pathicus) who even outdid Cleopatra in his primping and preening,9 but his tenure in Spain after ‘Poppaea-gate’ was effective and honourable,10 and the legions of the Danube, the East, Egypt and Africa all gave him their backing.
Once installed as Princeps, he seems to have tried to please all of the people all of the time. He brought the Praetorian Guard on board with a donativum, became quite popular with the plebs by reversing Nero’s damnatio memoriae, curried favour with the Senate by following a strict constitutionalist line and seems to have been quite generous in his grants of citizenship in the provinces. Yet despite this, Otho failed to win political confidence at Rome or to overcome military anarchy abroad. The volatility of the situation at Rome was highlighted when Otho decided to replace some of Rome’s garrison with a cohort of Roman citizens from Ostia. He ordered weapons to be taken from the Praetorian camp to Ostia by night, so that the replacement troops would be adequately armed, but the Praetorian Guard thought this was a Senatorial counter-coup against Otho. When they stormed the imperial palace to confirm the emperor’s safety, all they did was scare Otho and his Senatorial dinner guests half to death.
Outside Rome, Otho had to contend with Vitellius, who stood at the head of the mighty Rhineland army, augmented by contingents from Spain, Gaul, Britain and Raetia, with whom he began a Hannibalesque assault over the Alps into Italy in February. Against this army Otho could deploy the four legions of Pannonia and Dalmatia, the three legions of Moesia, plus the Praetorian Guard and a force of gladiators. Although still heavily outnumbered, Otho made a rapid diversionary strike that initially allowed him to hold a position on the River Po, where he hoped to unite all his forces.
On or around 10 April, Otho himself arrived at Bedriacum, near Cremona in northern Italy. By this time the Vitellian forces were building a bridge over the Po, so Otho ordered a large contingent to establish a forward base from where they could interdict the completion of the bridge. However, these troops got themselves strung out along the via Postumia, and, encumbered by their baggage train and with their retreat cut off by the river, they were assaulted and cut to pieces by the Batavian auxiliaries of Vitellius’ commanders Aulus Caecina Alienus and Fabius Valens at the First Battle of Bedriacum on 14 April.
Otho was not present at the battle, having led a large force to Brixellum (modern Brescello) to deal with any Vitellian units that might have already crossed the Po. When the horseman who brought word of the disaster to Otho was received with incredulity, he responded:
‘Would that this news were false, Caesar; for most gladly would I have died hadst thou been victor. As it is, I shall perish in any case, that no one may think that I fled hither to secure my own safety.’ [. . .] With these words, he slew himself.11
Despite the messenger’s dramatic gesture, Otho knew that prolonging the conflict would only precipitate another bloody round of civil war. Enough was enough:
I hate civil war, even though I conquer; and I love all Romans, even though they do not side with me. Let Vitellius be victor.12
On 16 April 69, in an act that was true to Roman ideals, but baffling to his critics in the context of his debauched reputation, Otho committed suicide. As Plutarch put it,
when he was gone, those who applauded his death were no fewer or less illustrious than those who blamed his life.13
Emperor 3: Vitellius
It is hard to establish the truth about the man who succeeded Otho. The sources present Aulus Vitellius as a cruel, corrupt, gluttonous, gambling shoe-fetishist who carried Messalina’s shoe about with him and kissed it, but much of the history was written under the regime that ousted him. We hear of his marriage to Petroniana, who bore him a son, blind in one eye, whom Vitellius killed just prior to their divorce, and of a more settled second marriage to Galeria Fundana, who bore him another son and a daughter. He had ascended the Cursus Honorum and been rather surprisingly appointed governor of Germania Inferior by Galba late in 68.
He was in the vicinity of Lugdunum when news about Otho’s suicide broke. By 19 April, the Senate had recognized him as Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Imperator Augustus, although he was quite circumspect about assuming the Princeps’ traditional titles (he only became ‘Caesar’ in November). He moved southwards through Italy, looting, pillaging and allegedly squandering fortunes on lavish drunken banquets. He inspected the corpsestrewn battlefield of Bedriacum with joy, remaining unmoved that so many citizens were denied a proper burial, and finally reached Rome in late June or early July.
Once installed in the capital, however, Vitellius appears to have acted with restraint: the survivors from Otho’s forces, and the Danubian legions that had arrived too late to fight, were sent back to their old postings or redeployed at a safe distance (even though some leading centurions were put to death); Otho’s brother Salvius Titianus was pardoned; Vitellius took part in meetings of the Senate; Equites were awarded posts customarily held by freedmen; and entertainment was provided for the plebs. To emphasize his loyalty to the troops who had made him what he was, Vitellius replaced Otho’s Praetorian Guard and urban cohorts with sixteen Praetorian cohorts and four urban units drawn from the army of Germany. Unfortunately, the influx of tens of thousands of soldiers intoRome sparked off some violent clashes. Vitellius didn’t have the money to pay his troops the bonus they had been promised, and indiscipline, unsanitary conditions and brawls with civilians ensued, while Vitellius installed himself in the Golden House of Nero and offloaded responsibility for public order to Caecina and Valens.
Unfortunately, mutual animosity between Caecina and Valens didn’t help the situation, and to make matters worse, by mid-July news had filtered through that the legions under the Prefect of Egypt, an Alexandrian Jew called Ti. Julius Alexander, had sworn allegiance to the fourth potential Emperor of the year: Vespasian. Despite having had reasonable success in the vicious war against the Jewish rebels that had broken out in 66, Vespasian and his son Titus had put this on hold since Nero’s death, and had been monitoring the situation in the Empire with a keen eye.
A shrewd, plain-speaking man with a nice line in selfdeprecating down-to-earth humour, Vespasian had been born in an opulent villa that has quite recently been excavated, to parents of Equestrian status at Falacrinum (modern Falacrine) near the Sabine town of Reate in 9, and he had the regional accent to prove it. Suetonius describes him as a strong, wellproportioned man with the expression of someone straining to empty his bowels.14 As Aedile under Caligula, he preformed his duties so badly the Emperor ordered his soldiers to heap the mud left uncleaned on the streets into his toga. With Flavia Domit illa he had a daughter, also called Flavia Domitilla, and two sons, the above- mentioned Titus and Titus Flavius Domitianus, aka Domitian (see Genealogy Table 2). His wife didn’t live to see him become Emperor, but in any case his political career seems to have benefited more from a liaison with Antonia Minor’s freedwoman Antonia Caenis, a recommendation from Claudius’ freedman Narcissus, and the patronage of the family of the Vitellii. Vespasian made a name for himself during Claudius’ invasion of Britain by capturing Vectis (the Isle of Wight), and he received the ornamenta triumphalia for his efforts. Josephus overdoes the praise somewhat:
With his troops he had added Britain, till then almost unknown, to the Empire, and thus provided Claudius, the father of Nero, with a triumph which cost him no personal exertion.15
Vespasian went on to govern Africa in the early 60s, where he was once pelted with turnips in a riot at Hadrumetum (Sousse), and then to tour Greece with Nero in 66, before being selected to take on the Judaean revolt in 67. He was regarded as
an energetic commander, who could be trusted not to abuse his plenary powers [. . .] nothing, it seemed, need be feared from a man of such modest antecedents.16
Conveniently, but coincidentally, his brother Titus Flavius Sabinus, another British veteran, was Praefectus Urbis in Rome.
Vespasian played the whole situation very cannily. He had been keeping open the option to carry on campaigning in Judaea, or to get involved in the power struggles, and now he made his move. The six legions in the Danubian provinces had close links with those of the East, which comprised three in Syria under C. Licinius Mucianus, the three in Judaea, and the two commanded by Ti. Julius Alexander who, ex officio, had control of much of Rome’s grain supply. The ‘official’ declaration of Vespasian as Princeps came on 1 July 69 on Ti. Alexander’s initiative, and Vespasian subsequently dated his reign from this point. The legions of Egypt, Judaea, Syria and the Danube ‘spontaneously’ rallied to him, followed by the other Eastern provinces and several client kings.
Vespasian’s strategy was to secure control of Rome’s grain sup plies at Alexandria, and maybe advance into Africa to complete the stranglehold, while Mucianus set off for Italy through Asia Minor and the Balkans, annihilating a group of invading tribes from over the Danube en route. But events acquired a momentum of their own. M. Antonius Primus, who was legatus of Legio VII Galbiana, currently stationed in Pannonia, and Cornelius Fuscus the procurator of Illyricum, jumped the gun and invaded Italy with the legions of Moesia, Pannonia and Dalmatia before Mucianus had arrived.
Primus was probably outnumbered two to one, but he decided to strike before Vitellius could gather reinforcements from Germany. He was helped by the fact that, of Vitellius’ two main lieutenants, Valens was sick and Caecina had become a Flavian collaborator (‘Flavian’ after Vespasian’s middle name Flavius). However, Caecina’s soldiers stayed loyal to Vitellius, arrested Caecina, and joined up with the other Vitellian forces who were trying to hold the River Po. Vitellius was still at Rome, though, leaving his troops, who were already ill-disciplined, poorly trained and unaccustomed to the local heat, practically leaderless. The rival armies engaged on a night in late October or early November at the Second Battle of Bedriacum. When dawn broke, Primus’ Legio III Gallica, which had served in Syria, turned to salute the rising sun in accordance with local custom. The Vitellian forces thought they were hailing Eastern reinforcements, lost heart and then their camp, and the Flavian forces won the day.
Forty thousand armed men now burst into Cremona, settling old scores and perpetrating four days of sickening war crimes. When a decree was finally issued that citizens of Cremona should not be kept as slaves, the captives became financially worthless, and so they were massacred, unless they were fortunate enough to be ransomed. Valens had started feeling better, but he was captured while raising an army in Gaul and Germany, and executed; Caecina subsequently had a reasonable career under Vespasian.
Primus now pressed on to Rome, while the three legions of Spain, followed by those of Gaul and Britain, went over to the winning side. When Vitellius tried to block the Apennine passes, his troops surrendered without a fight at Narnia (modern Narni in Umbria), but at Rome the people and the praetorians were made of sterner stuff. Vespasian’s brother Sabinus managed to persuade Vitellius to abdicate, but an angry mob would not allow this to happen. On 18 December they drove Sabinus onto the Capitol and took it by storm. The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus was set on fire (though whose fault this was is unclear):
And so the Capitol, with its gates closed, undefended and unpillaged, was utterly destroyed by fire.17
Sabinus was killed in the fighting, but Vespasian’s younger son Domitian was able to get away by disguising himself as a devotee of Isis.
Two days later the armies of the Danube fought their way into the city. Butchery followed. Vitellius tried to evade capture by disguising himself and barricading himself into a doorkeeper’s cell, but he was discovered and dragged off to the Gemonian steps. His mutilated corpse was hurled into the Tiber – a satisfyingly humiliating end for Flavian propagandists and hostile biographers. Yet even so, as Tacitus wrote, ‘with the death of Vitellius the war ended rather than the peace began’.18
Emperor 4: Vespasian
Rome’s fears of becoming a second Cremona were alleviated when Mucianus arrived and neutralized any potential opposition, notably by ‘eliminating’ Vitellius’ son, and stripping Primus of his authority, leaving him to slope off to complain fruitlessly to Vespasian, who was still in Egypt. The Senate acknowledged Vespasian as the fourth Emperor of the Long Year 69, and made him and Titus the Consuls for 70. The nineteen-year-old Domitian was appointed Praetor with the powers of a Consul, but behaved like he was far more powerful than that, taking up residence in the imperial palace, representing the Flavian family in the Senate and seducing any female he could get his hands on. However, for now the real power lay with Mucianus, a man of alluring charm but with an image tainted by public failings and private scandal. Tacitus describes him as a mixture of dissipation and energy, politeness and arrogance, good and evil, and comments that although his public image appeared praiseworthy, there were ‘nasty secrets’ concerning his private life.19 It has been argued that this was Tacitus’ elliptical way of saying ‘he was gay’, but it is more nuanced than that. Suetonius says that Mucianus was ‘of well-known impudicitia’20 (i.e., he had a predilection for the receptive role in sex), and the point of that remark is that he was the receiver in homosexual sex (pathicus, cinaedus and, as here, impudicus are the Latin words used for this) and thus not a ‘real man’; you had to be the active, penetrating partner; passive, penetrated partners were, by definition, women, slaves or the young: ‘in Roman terms a man is fully a vir (“man”) when he penetrates, regardless of the sex of his penetrated partner.’21 For a freeborn adult male to assume a passive role meant instant excoriation, but Vespasian had two genuine sons, and this may have ultimately induced Mucianus, ‘a man who would find it easier to transfer the imperial power to another, than to hold it for himself’,22 to give way to his claims.
Vespasian, meanwhile, finally left Alexandria having added to his ‘divine majesty and authority’ by performing some rather Jesus-esque ‘miracles’ – healing a poor man who was blind, and another who was lame.23 He arrived in Rome in around the early autumn of 70, having somehow managed to keep his nose clean amidst all the violence. Nevertheless, the task awaiting him in rebuilding Rome physically, politically, economically and possibly morally was extremely challenging.
Tacitus put it in a nutshell: ‘At Rome the Senate voted Vespasian everything customary for Emperors.’24 Vespasian’s imperial position was legally defined under the lex de imperio Vespasiani (‘Law Regulating Vespasian’s authority’), which still survives in fragmentary form. This grants him the right to conclude treaties, convene and put proposals to the Senate, and nominate people for office. Whatever the Julio-Claudian emperors had done through auctoritas, he could now do by right:
Vespasian [is authorized] to transact and do whatever things divine, public and private he deems to serve the advantage and the overriding interests of the state.25
It also puts an official stamp of approval on his rise to power.
Whatever was done, executed, decreed or ordered before the enactment of this law by the Imperator Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, or by anyone at his order or command, shall be as fully binding and valid as if they had been done by order of the people or plebs.26
His power was absolute and the Senate had legitimized it. Once upon a time, Suetonius tells us, a stray dog picked up a human hand (manus in Latin) at a crossroads, brought it to where Vespasian was breakfasting and dropped it under the table.27 It had been a good omen: manus in Latin means both ‘hand’ and ‘power’: the question was now, how would he use that power?
1 Quoted by Pliny the Younger, Letters 9.19.1, tr. Kershaw, S.
2 See above, p. 120.
3 Suetonius, Galba 6.1, tr. Kershaw, S. Cf. Suetonius, Nero 11.1.
4 Suetonius, Galba 22, tr. Kershaw, S. For exoleti see p. 79 and n. 22 above. See also Richlin, A., The Garden of Priapus. Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983.
5 Suetonius, Galba 14.2.
6 Tacitus, Histories 1.5, tr. Kershaw, S.
7 Ibid. 1.49.
8 Ibid. 1.16. See Haynes, H., Tacitus on Imperial Rome: The History of Make-Believe, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003, pp. 50 ff.
9 Plutarch, Galba 25.1 (cf. Otho 4.3, 9.3); Juvenal, Satires 2.99 ff.
10 See above, p. 108.
11 Dio 64.11.1, tr. Cary. E., op. cit.
12 Ibid. 64.13.1.
13 Plutarch, Otho 18.2, tr. Perrin, B., Plutarch’s Lives with an English Translation by Bernadotte Perrin, in Eleven Volumes, vol. XI, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1926. Otho’s death receives detailed treatment in all our sources. See: Plutarch, Otho 15–18; Tacitus, Histories 2.46–50; Suetonius, Otho 9.3–12.2; Dio 64.11–15.
14 Suetonius, Vespasian 20.1.
15 Josephus, de Bello Judaico 3.1.2, tr. in Mann, J. C. and Penman, R. G. (eds.), op. cit.
16 Suetonius, Vespasian 4.5, tr. Graves, R., op. cit.
17 Tacitus, Histories 3.71, tr. Kershaw, S.
18 Ibid. 4.1.
19 Ibid 1.10.
20 Suetonius, Vespasian 13.
21 Williams, C. A., op. cit., 184. Cf. Morgan, G., 69 AD: The Year of the Four Emperors, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 174. Vespasian criticized Mucianus privately by saying, ‘Yes, but I am a man.’ Suetonius, Vespasian 13.
22 Tacitus, Histories 1.10, tr. Church, A.J. and Brodribb, W. J., op. cit.
23 Suetonius, Vespasian 7.2. Much has been made of the similarities.
24 Tacitus, Histories 4.3, tr. Kershaw, S.
25 CIL 6.930 = ILS 244, ll. 17 ff., tr. in Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds.), op. cit. p. 12.
26 Ibid., 11.29 ff.
27 Suetonius, Vespasian 5.4.