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Galba, the first of the Four Roman Emperors in AD 69

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, War on Saturday, 15 December 2012

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This edited article about Galba Caesar Augustus originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Galba, picture, image, illustration

Galba Caesar Augustus

Two thousand years ago the average lifespan of a human being was much shorter than it is today. Generally the first really serious illness a man had was enough to kill him. Hence the average man in ancient Rome probably died in his mid-forties, and after that age, he could be counted as an old man lucky to be alive.

At 73 years of age, Servius Galba had certainly had his share of fortune. He was short, fat and bald, and by Roman standards a very old man indeed. It must have been astonishing to the Romans, therefore, when, in the autumn of A.D. 68. Galba rode into Rome and announced that he was now the Emperor.

The great gap in the succession was caused that year by the dagger that the tyrannical Emperor Nero had plunged into his throat. Until then, it had been the habit of the Emperors to keep the title in their family, but Nero had no children and no immediate relatives. And the nature of the succession had begun to change during his terrible four-year reign.

What had happened was that the army had become the most powerful single force in the Empire and it was now no longer possible for the Emperor or the Senate to rule without the consent of the generals. For a long time these military chiefs had been dissatisfied with their dissolute Emperors and now they decided it was time for one of them to rule Rome.

But which one? As soon as the news was out that Nero, fearing the armies were about to over-run him, had committed suicide, three generals began to dispute their right to be crowned.

Galba was military governor of the province of North-East Spain when he heard the news from Rome. He wasn’t much liked in Spain, where his rule had been a bit too harsh and laced with some unnecessary cruelty. When a money-lender was accused of fraud Galba sentenced him to have both his hands cut off and nailed to the counter. A murderer, sentenced to be crucified, begged for justice, claiming that he was a Roman citizen. Galba agreed to recognise his status by telling the executioners: “This citizen must hang higher than the rest – and have his cross whitewashed.”

This was the man who, with the force of a large Roman army to support him, was first to arrive in Rome to claim the Emperor’s throne. The Senate, bowing to the inevitable, proclaimed him Emperor.

It was to prove typical of Galba’s short reign that he made his first mistake even as he arrived just outside Rome and before he was proclaimed. There a large crowd was waiting, among them a band of sailors whom Nero had turned into marines.

These marines had not been given quarters by the dead Emperor, nor had they been properly organised. As Galba approached the city walls their grievances rose to the surface and they crowded around Galba and his entourage, demanding to have their complaints heard and issuing threats and ultimatums. Some of them even rather foolishly waved their swords.

All this was too much for the proper sense of military discipline that had been implanted in Galba for more than half a century of service with the unflinching Roman legions. He ordered the disorderly marines to be dispersed at once by a charge of his mounted escort.

It was a totally unnecessary move – the marines were not a serious threat to anyone and immediately fell back in alarm before Galba’s horsemen. But not satisfied even with that, the general ordered the malcontents to be ridden down. There was much bloodshed that day and the Roman citizens watching it got very angry indeed about it.

In fact, Galba was never really forgiven for that piece of bad judgment. It was his first and biggest error – by it he had failed to realise how important Roman public opinion was in keeping an Emperor on his throne, even an Emperor put up by the army.

And as each day passed, the Roman people were to become more and more displeased with Galba. Their new leader was a man with an enormous appetite which had given him an ugly figure. His hands and feet were so twisted with arthritis that he couldn’t handle parchment scrolls or wear shoes. And he was altogether too stern for the fun-loving Romans.

Nero had left the treasury almost bankrupt and Galba imposed stringent economies to try to get some money. The shows and the gladiatorial fights were stopped and he immediately lost the little popularity he had.

More serious, he refused to offer bribes to the Praetorian Guards – troops stationed in Rome who were responsible for the Emperor’s safety and who traditionally expected to receive generous donations in return for their loyalty. Thus Galba found himself without the support of either the Guards or the people.

All through his three months’ reign discontent had been on the boil. In January A.D. 69 the veteran troops in Germany, who had little loyalty to the empire and even less to Galba, finally brought matters to a head by proclaiming the military governor of Germany, Aulus Vitellius, as Emperor.

Galba tried to make light of the revolt in Germany and thought that everyone would be much happier if he adopted a successor. He chose a young nobleman, Lucius Piso, who had absolutely nothing to recommend him for so high an office.

Instead of making Galba more popular, the choice of his successor simply opened the floodgates of what was to become a bitter civil war.

One of Galba’s advisers was another general who had performed good service for him in Spain and who had hoped to gain high reward. This was Marcus Otho who, we are told, always wore a wig, was bow-legged, “and was almost as vain about his appearance as a woman.”

When Galba named his successor, Otho was bitterly disappointed, and he began to make plots against the Emperor. On the morning of January 15 Otho left the side of the old Emperor as he prayed to the gods and hurried to the Praetorian camp, where a handful of soldiers proclaimed him “Emperor”.

So now Rome had three Emperors – Vitellius in Germany, Galba and Otho in Rome.

Confusion reigned everywhere in Rome in the next few vital hours. Galba’s advisers urged him to hurry to the Praetorian camp and confront Otho; instead, he stayed put, trying to rally to his standard the legionaries who were scattered about the city. Once he put on a linen undergarment, presumably as some sort of protection, because he was heard to remark that it wouldn’t withstand the blows of very many swords.

False news came from everywhere. Messengers rode into the palace to tell the Emperor that peace had been made with Otho. Then other messengers came to say that Otho was dead – killed by loyal troops. Deceived by this last information, Galba hurried off to the Forum. There he was seen by a party of horsemen, dashing through the streets and scattering the mob. Galba thought they were his loyal troops – in fact, they had come to murder him.

The horsemen – all members of the Praetorian Guard, whom Galba had refused to bribe, reined in for a moment and then charged the Emperor. Galba is said to have cried out: “What is all this, friends? I am yours, you are mine!” But another report of his last moments there on the paved way of the Forum says that realising what the soldiers were going to do and seeing that there was no escape, he bared his neck submissively and let them kill him.

No one came to his aid and the Emperor was left lying where he fell. A private soldier came by later and, recognising the body, decapitated it. He took the head, carried inside his cloak, to Otho, who gave it to his camp servants. They stuck it on a spear and carried it jubilantly around the camp, chanting as they went.

Galba’s short and highly troublesome reign was quickly forgotten – his successors even refused to raise a monument in the Forum to his memory. But the immediate problem as his battered corpse was being collected was, who was now Emperor of the glorious Roman Empire?

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