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This Week In History

The Year of Four Emperors – 69 AD

When January 1, 69 arrived, Servius Sulpicius Galba was on the throne of the Roman Empire, following the suicide of Nero in June the previous year. It was a tumultuous time in the empire, with civil war breaking out in several regions. Galba himself rose to the purple through the machinations of the Praetorian Guard prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus, after the failed attempt of Vindex to promote Galba, while he was governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to replace Nero.

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Galba marched into Rome with the Legion VII Galbiana, which would later be renamed VII Genima. Support was tenuous for Galba in the beginning as it was, even though he was confirmed by the Senate. Two of the legions in Gaul refused to support him and instead wanted the governor of their region, Aulus Vitellius Germanicus, proclaimed emperor instead. On top of a fractured support structure, Galba also had character flaws that undermined his popularity. He heavily taxed all of the areas that didn’t immediately support him, refused to pay the donative to the Praetorian Guards that was promised by Sabinus when he promoted him to the troops, and had senators and equites sentenced to death without trial.

All of this unrest forced Galba to realize his precarious position and he adopted Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus as his successor. This was the last straw for Marcus Salvius Otho, previous governor of Lusitania, and early supporter of Galba. The Praetorian Guards, already displeased, promoted Otho to be the next emperor. Galba was already elderly and of ill heath, so when he set out to confront Otho, he had to be carried. Otho’s cavalry met the emperor’s entourage near Lacus Curtius on January 15, in the Roman Forum, where the guards of the emperor’s escort defected to Otho. They dropped Galba’s sedan and he was hacked apart by swords – his body then dragged through the streets, thrown into the Tiber River and his head brought to the Senate house. Piso was killed shortly later and Galba’s head was buried in a tomb by the Via Aurelia.

Otho was recognized by the Senate the same day Galba was beheaded. However, the legions in Gaul still were bent on having Vitellius as emperor and were on their way to Rome to prove it. Vitellius had the support of some of the best legions in the empire, many of whom were Germanic veterans. Otho recognized how serious this threat was and sent envoys to meet with Vitellius to propose to his daughter. Unmoved, Vitellius continued his march through Italy and Otho went to deal with the problem. After a few short victories on the way, Otho’s forces met with Vitellius’s and was defeated in the Battle of Bedriacum. Otho committed suicide on April 16 or 17, just over three months after his coronation.

Understandably, the Senate then recognized Vitellius as the new emperor on April 19, upon word of Otho’s death. But, Vitellius started off on the wrong foot by taking the office of Pontifex Maximus on July 18 – a day of bad superstition in Roman culture, because of the Battle of the Allia in 390 (or 387) BC, when the Gauls sacked Rome. Although the Vitellius and his Gauls didn’t actually “sack” Rome this time, he essentially did so by driving the treasury near bankruptcy. Vitellius threw obscene feasts, banquets and parades until the money lenders started to demand repayments of debts when they saw how spending was out of control. The emperor’s response to this was to torture and execute those who were making the demands, as well as executing anyone who listed Vitellius as an heir so he could take the inheritance. He also actively set out to eliminate all of his rivals, assassinating anyone he saw as a threat to his power. While all of this was going on, the legions in Egypt, Syria and Judaea all proclaimed their leader, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, as emperor.

Vespasian and his forces marched toward Rome from Alexandria, after having the grain supply in Egypt that was critical to the empire. Vespasian’s forces from Syria and Judaea were marching in from their respective areas as well, under the command of Gaius Licinius Mucianus. Also, the Danubian region’s forces declared their support for Vespasian, and began their march under Marcus Antonius Primus. Vitellius was quickly becoming surrounded and made a last-ditch effort to drum up support by trying to bribe his way out of the inevitable disaster, but was met at the palace by troops loyal to Vespasian. Vitellius was tortured and murdered in the Roman Forum on December 20, 69 AD and his body was thrown in the Tiber River. On December 21, the Senate declared Vespasian emperor and the Flavian dynasty began.

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