Fate played a cruel joke with Emperor Galba. He ascended the throne in 68 CE, following Nero’s death. For 73-year-old Galba, a brilliant commander and politician, the imperial purple was the apex of his long and upstanding career. The contemporaries prophesied the new golden age for Rome under Galba. It was not to be. A combination of the emperor’s unpopular decisions and his ignoring of the powerful men alienated both the army and the Senate. Thus, only seven months after assuming the throne, Galba was assassinated by his closest ally, Otho. Galba’s violent demise opened a pandora box — known as the “Year of Four Emperors” — the civil war that almost tore the Roman Empire apart and eventually led to Vespasian’s victory.
Emperor Galba’s Early Life
Servius Sulpicius Galba was born in 3 BCE into a wealthy, senatorial family. According to historian Suetonius, Galba’s ancestors prided themselves on their descent from none other than Jupiter (!), the chief deity of the Roman pantheon. However, on a mortal plane, the gens Sulpicia produced several consuls and many distinguished officials of the Roman Republic. Galba’s father was a Roman senator during the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus, and his grandfather was one of the plotters against Julius Caesar.
While his family was not linked to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, apparently, as a young boy Galba met emperor Augustus who told him: “You too will taste a little of my glory, child.” This prophetic, and most probably apocryphal, story suggested that one day Galba would be emperor. Galba, however, was close to Livia Drusilla, Augustus’ wife and the first Roman empress, who took an interest in a young and ambitious man, helping Galba advance his career. In her will, Livia left Galba a fortune — fifty million sesterces. Emperor Tiberius, however, cheated Galba, first lowering the amount and then not paying even the reduced sum.
The Meteoric Rise
Around 30 BCE, the same year Rome annexed Ptolemaic Egypt, Galba became a praetor. He was 23. A few years later, Galba was made governor of Aquitania — modern-day southwest France. Finally, in 5 BCE, 36-year-old Galba was elevated to consul. Initially, this was the highest elected political office, but after the fall of the Roman Republic, and the establishment of the Empire, the consulate became a symbolic posting. Still, to be a consul was a high honor, further pointing to the Galba’s political talent and good connection with those in power. In 44 CE, Claudius appointed Galba as governor, the proconsul of Africa, one of the wealthiest imperial provinces.
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But Galba was more than a mere politician. He was also a capable military commander. In 39 CE, as governor of Gaul, he suppressed the uprising of Germanic tribes. In 49, under emperor Claudius, Galba participated in the Roman conquest of Britain. Known for his impeccable reputation and leadership, Galba tackled the corruption in the legions and restored discipline. He did not shy away from using ruthless and even cruel methods. Soon after the triumph in Britain, however, Galba suddenly retired. Allegedly, he had rejected the advances of Claudius’ wife, and Nero’s mother, the empress Agrippina the Younger.
Emperor of Rome
Galba came back into the limelight in 60 CE when Nero appointed Galba governor of Hispania. By sending Galba to Spain, emperor Nero, engaged in a bitter struggle with the Roman Senate, tried to remove one of his potential rivals. According to Suetonius, following emperor Caligula’s assassination in 41 CE, Galba was offered the throne, but he wisely refused in favor of Claudius. This story, like many written by Suetonius — the “gossiper of ancient Rome,” may be fictional. However, Galba enjoyed popularity among the senators and the army. Galba, however, hesitated when Julius Vindex, governor of Gaul, rose in rebellion against Nero in 68 CE. Only after learning that Nero ordered his assassination, Galba ordered his legions to march on Rome.
Nero committed suicide after learning that the Praetorian Guard chose Galba’s side. Praetorians were also crucial in eliminating Galba’s opponent, Praetorian prefect Nymphidius Sabinus, who also had designs for the throne. The Senate unanimously declared Galba, the next emperor, but the situation was far from peaceful. While the new emperor and his closest ally — Marcus Salvius Otho — were approaching Rome, Galba’s army was halted by the naval legion hastily recruited by Nero. Instead of fulfilling the demands to keep their benefits and bonuses, Galba ordered his cavalry to charge at the soldiers, resulting in thousands of dead.
Fall from Grace
Soon after taking power, Galba tried to limit the influence of the Praetorian Guard, who, in the decades after their establishment by Augustus, turned into power brokers and kingmakers. Galba shocked the Praetorians by saying he was accustomed to recruiting soldiers and not buying them. He also punished Nero’s troops, who challenged his right to the throne. Angered by their conduct, the new emperor ordered the execution of the rebels.
Deeply distrustful of the army command, Galba replaced Nero’s high-ranking officers with his own. He also initiated the purge of governors and public officials. Unsurprisingly this led to discontent among those who lost power, sparking fires of rebellion. It did not help that frugal Galba, tried to save money by ending all of Nero’s extravagant spectacles. Further, he refused to pay for the lavish games, a custom expected from a new emperor. To fill empty state coffers, Galba raised taxes, an act, which, understandably, the people of Rome didn’t particularly warm to. Lastly, the new emperor established a commission to seize the valuables and properties donated by Nero to the citizens of Rome, among whom there were many influential and powerful people.
One Against All
In only seven months of his brief reign, Galba’s unpopular policies managed to alienate all of his supporters. The last who remained on the emperor’s side was his long-term ally — Otho. When 73-year-old Galba, who was childless, tried to appease people by appointing an heir, Otho expected to be the one. Instead, Galba chose Lucius Calpurnius Piso, an aristocrat with all moral virtues, for the next Roman emperor. This was Galba’s fatal mistake. He betrayed his only ally.
On the first day of 69 CE, the legions on the Rhine refused to swear loyalty to Galba. The events were now moving fast. While the frontier troops prepared to march on Rome, the Praetorians allied with Otho. On January 15, 69 CE, at the Roman Forum, Galba and Piso met their end at the hands of the soldiers. Only one man, Sempronius Densus, a Praetorian, tried to defend the hapless emperor. He, too, was killed. The heads of Galba and his heir were impaled on spears and carried around the city for several days. Yet, this was not the end, just the beginning of the Roman Empire’s troubles.
Emperor’s Galba Bloody Legacy
Galba was the first Roman emperor installed to the throne with the help of the legions. He would not be the last. Galba’s demise plunged Rome into a civil war. In a single year — “Year of the Four Emperors” — four men, four military commanders, starting with Galba, fought for the throne. Galba’s successor, Otho, held the throne for mere three months. He committed suicide after his legions were crushed by the forces of his rival, Vitellius. Vitellius, commander of the Rhine legions, managed to hold his grasp on the throne for a little longer but could not defend the claim against the commander of the army in the eastern provinces, Vespasian.
Vespasian’s victory and execution of Vitellius in December 69 CE brought an end to this brief but chaotic period of Roman history. Once again, the Empire was at peace, ruled by a capable emperor who set the foundation for a powerful dynasty and a new golden age of Rome. Yet, Galba’s takeover of power by military might was a dangerous precedent. The power of legions would continue to grow, as will the influence of their commanders. Eventually, this would culminate in a long and devastating period of turmoil, bloody civil wars, and the reign of soldier-emperors, known as the “Third-century crisis.”