Nero was dead. The throne was vacant. The rebellious governor of Spain, Servius Sulpicius Galba, began preparing to take it as soon as he heard the news. By October, 68 AD he had reached Rome with an army at his back. By that time, the nervous and defenseless Senate had already ratified Galba’s appointment to the imperial office.
As he ascended the throne, Emperor Galba had every reason to feel triumphant. Nero was dead, and he’d left behind no heir that could challenge Galba for the throne. A man who had never expected to rise any higher than the consulship was now the most powerful man in the known world, but by seizing control of Rome for himself Galba had set a dangerous and irreversible precedent.
Ever since the end of the Republic, Rome had always been ruled by a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty founded by Augustus. Nero had been the last Julio-Claudian, and when he died his dynasty had died with him. Now, for the first time in Roman history, the throne had been claimed and taken by a man unrelated by blood, marriage or adoption to the imperial family.
Nothing gave Galba a better claim to the throne than any other Roman aristocrat. Nothing except the support of his soldiers. This was the truth at the core of a plain, brutal, enduring lesson that both Galba and Rome were about to learn the hard way: what one sword can give, another can take away.
The New Year’s Mutiny
After months of rising tension, Rome’s first civil war since the end of the Republic began on New Year’s Day, 69 AD when the Roman legions stationed along the Rhine frontier refused to take their annual oath of allegiance to the emperor. A day or two later the mutinous soldiers declared their commander, Aulus Vitellius, emperor in Galba’s place. Two weeks after that Galba was dead, murdered in the Roman Forum by his own bodyguards.
With one of the empire’s most powerful armies supporting him and Galba dead before he could even reach him, it may have seemed as though there was nothing left for Vitellius to do but waltz into the empire’s capital and take the empty throne for himself. Back in Rome, however, a determined young nobleman had other ideas.
The Ambitious Exile
Marcus Salvius Otho had once been a close friend of the Emperor Nero before the two of them had had a falling out over Poppaea Sabina, a woman that divorced Otho to marry Nero. At Poppaea’s suggestion, Nero had appointed her ex-husband governor of the distant Roman province of Lusitania (modern-day Portugal) in what was effectively sugar-coated banishment. Unable to return to Rome, Otho remained in Lusitania for ten long years.
When Galba, the governor of neighbouring Spain declared himself emperor, Otho pledged his support and agreed to follow Galba back to Rome. Although Otho might have been partly motivated by homesickness or anger over Nero’s mistreatment, he was also driven by ambition. Galba was already 70 years old, and he had no son to succeed him. As one of Galba’s earliest supporters, Otho hoped that old Galba would adopt him as his heir out of gratitude. After Otho realized this wasn’t going to happen, he began plotting to seize power for himself. He played a leading role in arranging Galba’s murder, and had himself proclaimed emperor by the Senate and the Praetorian Guard within hours of the old emperor’s violent demise.
Otho’s plot had succeeded, but the new emperor had little time to enjoy the ill-gotten spoils of his victory. Generals loyal to Vitellius were already marching towards Italy with the fearsome Rhine legions behind them, determined to take Rome on behalf of their own imperial claimant.
At this point, the emperor made a surprising choice. Though he had little to no military experience of his own, Otho decided not to wait in Rome for the arrival of more loyal soldiers and skilled generals from elsewhere in the empire. If he’d waited for them to reach Italy, these troops could have helped him fight Vitellius’ supporters. Instead, Otho quickly assembled his own army from among whatever soldiers he had on hand. With an ad-hoc collection of legionaries, imperial bodyguards, retired veterans, sailors and even gladiators at his back, Otho immediately marched north to confront his foes.
Two thousand years later, it’s impossible for us to know exactly what motivated Otho to act as he did. Was it courage, impatience, stupidity, or a combination of all three? Whatever the cause, the emperor’s reckless decision would do him no good in the end. At the Battle of Bedriacum on 14 April, Otho found himself outmatched by Vitellius’ experienced subordinates and their hardened frontier troops. Defeated on the battlefield, Otho fled from his enemies. A few days later, he took his own life.
Vitellius: Greed, Gore and Gluttony
In June, 69 AD Rome witnessed the arrival of its third emperor of the year. Apart from his new imperial titles, however, there was very little about Aulus Vitellius that inspired admiration or respect. Like many Roman noblemen, Vitellius would have begun his career in Roman politics as a young man. That career had progressed quietly until December, 68 AD when the newly-instated Emperor Galba sent Vitellius to Gaul to command the Roman armies stationed on the lower Rhine frontier.
Vitellius seemed like a surprising pick for the job since he had no military experience, but in fact this may have been exactly the reason Galba chose him. Perhaps the dangerously unpopular Galba hoped an untested commander would be less able to lead the Rhine legions in rebellion against him. Maybe he hoped a man without any fame or military glory would be so thankful for the prestigious appointment he wouldn’t be tempted to rebel at all. In any case, Galba would soon learn that he’d severely misjudged the integrity of the man he’d personally chosen to hold one of the empire’s most important military commands.
As soon as Vitellius arrived on the frontier to take up his new post, he’d immediately begun to curry favour with the soldiers under his command. It seems likely Vitellius was already planning a bid for the throne at this point and wanted to make sure the soldiers would support him over Galba. If so, he didn’t have to try very hard; Galba had a reputation among the soldiers as a stingy and excessively harsh commander-in-chief, and much of the Roman army already deeply disliked him. When the soldiers’ hostility towards the old emperor had reached its boiling point at the start of the new year, Vitellius had been in the right place at the right time to become their solution to Galba: a rival candidate for the imperial throne.
Such was the man who now ruled Rome. Aulus Vitellius: a lazy, self-serving, binge-eating glutton. As a would-be emperor he had participated in none of the fighting that had won him the throne, instead delegating the task of defeating Otho to his loyal generals while he stayed safely behind in Gaul. As an emperor enthroned, he did little aside from attending banquets, bullying senators he didn’t like, and executing political opponents.
The people of Rome were not impressed by their new ruler. Neither was the rest of the empire. Less than a month after Vitellius took the throne, he was already in danger of losing it. This time it was the legions in the empire’s eastern provinces that had rebelled against Vitellius and declared one of their commanders, Vespasian, emperor in opposition to Vitellius in Rome.
By December, 69 AD Vitellius was in the same dire situation as Otho had been before his suicide: his armies had been defeated in battle and his enemies were closing in. After a desperate attempt to abdicate and flee Rome failed, the terrified emperor frantically tried to find a hiding place in the imperial palace. It would not save him; on 22 December, 69 AD Aulus Vitellius was hunted down and put to death by Vespasian’s soldiers.
With the triumph of Emperor Vespasian twelve months of armed rebellion, betrayal, murder and bloody civil war finally came to an end. Vespasian was both a respected soldier and an intelligent, conscientious ruler. He won the unanimous loyalty of the bitterly-divided Roman army, founded a new imperial dynasty and restored peace and unity to the Roman Empire.
The Year of the Four Emperors was over, but its scars and its lessons would remain. The events of 69 AD had exposed a new generation of Romans to the long-forgotten horrors of the old Republican civil wars. They had also demonstrated the severe risk to the empire’s stability that could result from the extinction of a ruling imperial family.
Most of all, they had been a gruesome reminder of the true source of imperial power: the Roman military. A Roman emperor was a military autocrat, and the loyal obedience of his soldiers was what mattered first, last and always. It wasn’t the first time that Rome had seen this harsh truth exposed, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.