Chronology of the roman emperors - Chapter II: The Year of the Four Emperors

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Introduction

The Roman Empire spanned the long period from the accession of Augustus in 27 BC to (give or take) AD 476. In other words, just over five centuries.

It would therefore simply not be possible to sum up the wealth and longevity of this historical period in just a few words.

Instead, we are delighted to offer you here, in a series of articles, a concise chronology of the succession of emperors, usurpers, and other tyrants who made their mark on life in the Roman Empire over the course of the centuries.

 

 

In the preceding chapter, we saw Nero forced to commit suicide following a conspiracy which originated in Gaul. Between June AD 68 and the winter of AD 69, the post left vacant by the last of the Julio-Claudians passed from hand to hand at an incredible pace.

Introducing the Year of the Four Emperors.

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Chronology of the roman emperors - Chapter II: The Year of the Four Emperors

Galba

Family: Gens Sulpicia

Reign: June AD 68 – January AD 69

Short profile

A self-proclaimed emperor returning from Hispania, where Nero had appointed him governor, aged 73, austere and headstrong, Galba had been an altogether honorable general and efficient administrator throughout his whole career.

The Senate welcomed him with open arms on account of an “Augustinian”, i.e., conciliatory, policy.

All told, he was the antithesis of his flamboyant predecessor, Nero.

In the aftermath of Nero’s budgetary slackness, this assumed and necessary austerity didn’t exactly make him very popular. He was lacking in tact and alienated both the army and the Praetorian Guard in particular by canceling a donativum: a gift of money traditionally bestowed upon an army corps usually just after the accession of a new emperor.

Coin Galba

As, 68-69, Roma, EF(40-45), Copper, RIC:501

And he didn’t fare much better with the citizens either. Nero had done a lot for the little people, whereas Galba displayed the cold disdain of a parvenu aristocrat and made no effort to be popular. The Senate, in accordance with his aristocratic standing, was the only one to remain loyal to him.

But that simply wasn’t enough.

A certain Salvius Otho, a former companion of Nero’s who had subsequently fallen into disgrace following a dark dispute concerning the favors of the fair Poppaea, had been a supporter of Galba’s right from the very beginning. However, he bore a grudge against him for having been left by the wayside when Galba became emperor.

When a certain Vitellius rose up in Germania with the support of a number of garrisons and began marching on Rome accompanied by nearly 70,000 men, Otho exploited the people’s nostalgia for Nero’s time and incited a conspiracy against Galba.

Chronology of the roman emperors - Chapter II: The Year of the Four Emperors

Death :

 The implementation was confusing, fantastic, as degrading as one can imagine – but there was little doubt about the result (...). The Praetorians had released Galba and he fell right into the hands of the soldiers, where he was slain and his body butchered in the truest sense of the word. For a while, his head was carried around on a pole...then it was eventually lost. 

“Histoire de la Rome Antique” by Lucien Jerphagnon (translated from French)

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Chronology of the roman emperors - Chapter II: The Year of the Four Emperors

Otho

Family: Gens Saluia

Reign: January AD 69 – April AD 69

Short profile

Once again, Nero serves as our reference for comparison. If Galba was Nero’s antithesis, then Otho (Salvius Otho) was his spitting image. Aesthetic, flamboyant, and charming, the new emperor was 37 years of age and enjoyed the support of the Praetorian Guard and plebs alike.

The Senate, in contrast, was but moderately delighted.

However, the problem lay elsewhere. Vitellius was still marching on Rome and, far away in the East, a certain Vespasian and his legions were in no hurry to pledge allegiance to the newcomer.

Otho Denarius

Rome, EF(40-45), Silver, RIC:10

Death : As Vitellius had already arrived in the North of Italy, there was no chance of avoiding a confrontation. On April 14, AD 69, Otho’s (meagre) troops came face to face with Vitellius’ forces. The result was a surprise to no one. In a burst of dignity, Otho committed suicide.

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Chronology of the roman emperors - Chapter II: The Year of the Four Emperors

Vitellius

Family: -

Reign: April AD 69 – December AD 69

Short profile :

At the age of 54, Vitellius continued to march on Rome and took it – in a very cavalier fashion with his troops – in July. Little is known of his origins.

Some accounts mention a distant cobbler ancestor, although that was probably just propaganda.

Not very refined, burdened by debts, very greedy, indecisive, and a little apathetic, he seemed very ill-suited to the position.

 The deceased Galba used to say, with no particular courtesy, ‘that it would take the riches of an entire province at least to fill Vitellius’ enormous mouth’. 

“Histoire de la Rome Antique” by Lucien Jerphagnon (translated from French)

 

His short reign was – if I may be so bold – a merry mess. Neronian in his style (he was one of his own greatest supporters), he was not respected by the people, embarrassed the still strait-laced Senate, and – just like Galba – made unfortunate decisions as far as the management of the army and Praetorian Guard was concerned. So much for diplomacy.

Coin Vitellius

Aureus, Rome, graded, NGC, Ch F, 5/5-5/5, Gold, RIC:82

Meanwhile, in Egypt, the general Vespasian claimed the title of emperor for himself. There was a sense that history was at risk of repeating itself. At the same time, there was also a secret hope for the arrival of a “savior” to put an end to the merry panic prevailing in Rome.

Death: Civil unrest erupted, especially due to the military presence in the city. Taken to task during one such battle in the street, Vitellius was promptly and savagely slaughtered.

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Chronology of the roman emperors - Chapter II: The Year of the Four Emperors

Vespasian

Dynasty: Flavian

Reign: December AD 69 – June AD 79

Short profile

While the stand-in Mucianus, governor of Egypt at the time, aided by Domitian, Vespasian’s son, began returning order to the imperial affairs in the capital, the new emperor calmly set off in the direction of Rome.

Following the Julio-Claudian dynasty, of patrician extraction, a new era dawned with a dynasty of far less illustrious origins, demonstrating that it was now the army which made and also brought down the emperors. The hegemony of the aristocracy had come and gone.

Taking his time while his allies restored order in Rome and sent the troops where they needed to be, i.e., the front line, Vespasian arrived in Rome in October 70.

 

 

Not especially well educated, a far cry from Nero’s flamboyance, and a shrewd accounting manager, he reassured the Senate. With a velvet hand, he had a legal text written specifying the absolutism of his powers...taking great care to associate the Senate with it – the Senate that he gradually rendered more and more cosmopolitan.

An effective manager, he promoted merit, appointed effective administrators, and rectified the chaotic financial situation he had inherited from his predecessors.

Coin Vespasian

Denarius, AD 74, Rome, VF(30-35), Silver, RIC:703

He taxed aplenty, imposed, and commanded respect.

 It is reported that he even taxed the collection of urine by wool manufacturers, who used it industrially as a degreaser. Consequently, the craftsman placed a jar chipped on purpose in front of his workshops, where passers-by could relieve themselves for a small fee (...). When one of his advisers revealed his qualms regarding this tactic, Vespasian held the money collected under his nose and asked him whether he could smell anything. 

“Histoire de la Rome Antique” by Lucien Jerphagnon (translated from French)

 

Peace returned and the economy got back on track.

Vespasian introduced a favorable employment policy and embarked on great projects such as the construction of the Colosseum and libraries.

Coin Vespasian

Aureus, 72, Lyon - Lugdunum, VF(30-35), Gold, RIC:1180

 In short, if the coins from his reign sometimes bear the wording Roma resurgens (Rome rises again), the slogan does indeed reflect the reality. 

“Histoire de la Rome Antique” by Lucien Jerphagnon (translated from French)

 

Finally, he introduced with success the system originally conceived by Augustus of the “role” of emperor being passed down within the family.

Death: He died of a sickness in June AD 79.

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And so this bloody year drew to a close.
And so the Flavian dynasty was born.
To be continued...


Translation: Michael Wright

Illustrations :

  • “View of the Colosseum” by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1735) (public domain)
  • “The Fire of Rome” by Hubert Robert (1785) (public domain)
  • Bust of the emperor Galba photographed by Richard Mortel (CC)
  • “Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae: Galba, from The Twelve Caesars”, engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi (circa 1500) (CC)
  • Bust of the emperor Otho photographed by Ed Uthman (CC)
  • Bust of the emperor Vitellius photographed by Jastrow (CC)
  • Bust of the emperor Vespasian photographed by Jebulon (CC)
  • “Triumphal Entry of Vespasian in Rome” by Viviano Codazzi and Domenico Gargiulo (circa 1638) (public domain)

 

Sources:

  • “Histoire de la Rome Antique, les armes et les mots” by Lucien Jerphagnon (available in French only)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_of_the_Four_Emperor
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donativum
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otho
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitellius

 

Selection published on 29/06/2020
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