Servius Sulpicius Galba was Roman Emperor from June 8, 68 until his death. He was the first of the four emperors that reigned during 69, known as “the year of the four emperors“.
He had an outstanding political career: he was consul in 33, governor of Germania in 45, and proconsul of Africa in 46.
In 45, he was sent by Caligula to Germania to replace Gaetulicus, of whom the emperor had grown suspicious. Galba achieved his reputation by developing efficient military policies and imposing strict discipline among his men. During his reign in Germania, he repelled barbarian invasions that had taken Gaul. Caligula was so happy with Galba´s achievements that he rewarded generously the troops under his command.
In the turmoil after Caligula´s death, Galba declined taking the throne, even though many urged him to do so. For this reason, he benefited from Claudius´ favor, becoming one of his dearest friends. He served for two years as proconsul in Africa, where, with his severe policies, he managed to pacify the territories, already impoverished by barbarian attacks and internecine fights.
As a compensation for the services rendered in Africa and Germania, he was awarded the ornamenta triumphalia. After this, he retired for an uncertain period of time, but was recalled in 59 or 60 by Nero to govern Hispania.
At this point of his career, Galba had grown tired and indolence and apathy took control. Either he didn´t want to attract the emperor´s attention, or his age and weariness were too heavy of a burden. Tacitus states that all his contemporaries considered him a good candidate to the throne until he was proclaimed emperor.
While at Clunia (named Colonia Clunia Sulpicia after him), during the spring of 68, Galba received word that the emperor had issued letters ordering his assassination. This could be the reason why he joined Vindex´s rebellion when asked for support. Right before the fall of Vindex, Galba had recruited a provincial legion, the VII Galbiana, to endorse the VI Victrix, the only legion present in Hispania until that moment. He also created a kind of Senate, with an advisory nature, and a force of young knights, the evocati, for his own service.
Despite all these arrangements, when Vindex died, and himself on the verge of suicide, Galba heard the news that Nero had committed suicide. Galba took the title of “General of the Senate and People of Rome” and, with the support of the Praetorian Guard, was proclaimed Emperor after the defeat of the other candidates.
During his travel to Rome, he earned a reputation of being greedy and ambitious, due to the unpopular actions he adopted in order to restore the state funds which had been exhausted by Nero´s generosity, and the expenses resulting from the campaigns in Armenia and Judaea. Despite being himself extraordinarily rich, he refused to pay the Praetorian Guard a reward he had promised for supporting him during the rebellion. Handicapped by age and illness, his safety was completely left in the hands of his corrupt confidents. Three of them (the senator Titus Vinius, the praetorian prefect Cornelius Laco, and Icelus, a freedman of Galba) were known as “the three pedagogues“, for the influence they had over the new emperor´s decisions.
His policies, as well as the impunity of his agents, earned him the hatred of the people and the army. Galba believed wrongly that this hostility was due to his lack of a successor, which led him to adopt Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus.
This decision finally triggered Otho´s march to overtake the capital of the Empire and depose Galba. On January 1, 69, two legions from Germania Superior refused to renew the oath of loyalty that engaged them to Galba and toppled his statues and demanded the election of a new emperor, naming Vitellius the next day. This was what finally revealed to Galba the real dimensions of his unpopularity and the disgust the people felt for him.
Galba, 72 years old, was killed in the Forum on January 15. Plutarch recounts that the fallen emperor offered his neck to his killers, exclaiming: “Kill me, if the good of Rome depends on it”.
Expecting a reward and eager to earn Otho´s favor, more than 150 men claimed to have participated in Galba´s death, and a list was compiled with the names. When this document arrived to Vitellius´ hands, he ordered to kill all the men on it.
Omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset (“By general consent he would have been considered capable of governing, if he had not been Emperor.”)