It can be easy to forget that, although Augustus established an imperial system that successfully passed rule through the five members of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, the position of princeps, or first man, was a shaky and dangerous one to occupy. Romans hated kings and had disposed of more than one powerful man who amassed too much power.
It was a combination of the failing Republican system and his shrewd political and military skill that allowed Augustus’s success. In the years that followed him, the precarious nature of that power was reflected in the brutal paranoia of each subsequent emperor, and in the violent civil war that erupted in 69 A.D. after the death of Nero, now known as the Year of the Four Emperors.
Start Of The Year Of The Four Emperors: Nero’s Demise
Although Nero began his almost fourteen years of rule remarkably well, by 68 A.D., he was nearly universally despised. In March of that year, Gaius Julius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugunensis, organized a rebellion. He was joined by Servius Sulpicius Galba, whom Vindex convinced to declare himself emperor. Vindex’s forces eventually fell in the Battle of Vesontio in May and Vindex himself committed suicide. However, support for Galba in the Spanish provinces continued to grow. During this time, Nero seemed to oscillate between an oblivious, careless optimism and manic despair, as more and more high-ranking politicians declared themselves for Galba. Eventually, Nero’s own prefect of the Praetorian Guard joined the rebellion, and Nero fled Rome in terror.
While the emperor cowered in a villa outside the city, the Senate voted him an enemy of Rome. Intent on avoiding the humiliation of capture and execution before the throngs of Rome, he planned his suicide. Nero oversaw the preparation of water and wood, and even the digging of a hole appropriate for his body size, all the while lamenting “what an artist dies in me!” Finally, when he heard the clatter of approaching horses, his secretary helped him drive a knife into his own throat. Nero had no defined heir – the empire was without an emperor. This set an immense power-grab into motion, leading to the Year of the Four Emperors in 69 A.D.
Galba Takes Charge
High-ranking men scrambled to fill the vacuum, eventually electing their first emperor of the Year of the Four Emperors. Already established as leader of a rebellion and a strong threat, Galba quickly received the endorsement of the Senate. Galba began his march to Rome, with his reputation preceding him – one of greed and cruelty. Suetonius asserted that his “reputation was confirmed and even augmented immediately on his arrival in the city. Accordingly, his coming was not so welcome as it might have been.”
Over the course of his seven months in office, he regularly executed distinguished men without trial on petty suspicions. He also seized property of Roman citizens and allowed his followers to wield taxation and condemnation as political favors. When the people called for punishment of his two most corrupt lieutenants, he instead honored them both with promotions. Most dangerously of all, he angered the legions by refusing to honor their pay.
With every segment of society against him, his fate was sealed. The legions of Lower Germania soon declared their general, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor. On the 15th of January, 69 A.D., the Praetorian Guard murdered Galba in the Roman Forum. His body lay in the street until a common soldier saw it, removed the head, and delivered it to Marcus Salvius Otho, the second emperor of the Year of the Four Emperors.
The Tragedy Of Emperor Otho
Otho had accompanied Galba to Rome as a supporter but distanced himself as hatred for Galba grew. Now the Senate declared Otho emperor, but Vitellius had no intention of withdrawing his bid. He continued his march on Rome and refused all offers from Otho to negotiate a peace settlement. With no other option remaining, Otho sent out soldiers to meet the oncoming legions from Germania. His forces won three minor victories but suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Bedriacum. According to Cassius Dio, 40,000 Romans died on the field. Otho was in Brixellum with more legions when tidings of the loss arrived. At first, no one believed the messenger who brought the news, and in fact those present began to accuse him of lies and cowardice, assuming he had run from the battle.
In disgrace and despair, the man threw himself on his own sword at Otho’s feet, and Otho cried out in horror that “he would no longer endanger the lives of such brave men, who had deserved so well.” Even though he still had a good chance of final victory, Otho could not stand to cause more death. He bid farewell to his family, dispersed his money among his servants, and burned his papers to protect any named within them before committing suicide. “Many of the soldiers who were present kissed his hands and feet as he lay dead, weeping bitterly and calling him the bravest of men and an incomparable emperor.” Otho had ruled for just three months of the Year of the Four Emperors.
Vitellius Earns Rome’s Hatred
With Vitellius still bearing down on Rome and their leader dead, the Senate quickly declared him emperor, the third leader during the Year of the Four Emperors. Vitellius was in Gaul, and now he processed toward the capital as a triumphant warlord, indulging in every excess. He feasted and partied in each city he passed and gave his soldiers free rein to intimidate the locals. They made unreasonable demands for whatever food, goods, or shelter they desired, and mercilessly beat those who refused.
Yet even his own men, glutted on this freedom and pleasure, were appalled by Vitellius’s conduct upon reaching Bedriacum. Even hardened veterans shuddered in horror at the thousands of corpses still rotting on the bloody battlefield. Vitellius, however, commented to their disgust that “the odor of a dead enemy was sweet and that of a fellow-citizen sweeter still.”
He entered Rome in an ostentatious triumph, disregarded the ancient laws of the nation, set himself up with supreme power, and gave great honor and reverence to the memory of Nero. Vitellius proved himself another cruel and arbitrary tyrant who particularly delighted in executions. Nonetheless, he still held influence over the military, and so held onto his power for eight months.
Vespasian Challenges For The Purple
The Year of the Four Emperors came to a close with its final emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, known to the modern world as Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian Dynasty. Across the world in Judea, he had been commanding the Roman legions against the Jewish uprising. In July, Vespasian’s men, along with the legions of Syria and Alexandria, declared him emperor and swore their allegiance. The legions of Moesia, Pannonia, and Illyricum soon followed, giving him control of a large force. As Vespasian prepared to sail for Italy, the legions of the Danube also declared in support of him.
Led by the dynamic Antonius Primus, they swept the Roman cities of northern Italy and finally met Vitellius’s forces in October of 69 A.D. at the Second Battle of Bedriacum. The battle was long and hard-fought, continuing on through the night. It was a single misunderstanding that would finally lead to victory for Primus. Primus’s Legion III Gallica had spent many years in Syria, and they picked up a local custom of saluting the sun when it rose. When the Vitellians saw this, they thought the men were saluting new reinforcements. In despair, they broke and ran, and the Flavian forces pursued them and continued on to Rome. They entered the capital in December.
The Year Of The Four Emperors Ends With A New Dynasty
Vitellius’s supporters organized a desperate resistance, hurling tiles from the roofs and trapping the invaders in winding streets. Primus’s men responded with equal ferocity and Cassius Dio claims more than 50,000 died in the streets of Rome. Completely panicked, Vitellius disguised himself with rags and tried to escape the city, but the attackers spotted and recognized him.
They dragged him by a noose along the Sacred Way and to the Forum, where they displayed him, half-naked, to the crowd for mockery and abuse, holding a sword point under his chin so that he had no choice but to look up. Finally, after torturing him for a long time on the Stairs of Wailing, they finished the job and then dragged his body with a hook through the streets and threw it into the Tiber River, all except his head, which they paraded on a stake through the city. The Senate declared Vespasian emperor on the same day, the 22nd of December, 69 A.D., the fourth emperor to hold power that year.
Although his reign began in violence during the Year of the Four Emperors, Vespasian proved to be generally a competent and reasonable ruler. His eldest son Titus, who succeeded his father in 79 A.D., was similarly respected. Yet Titus died of a fever after only two years in office. His younger brother, Domitian, displayed much of the paranoia and excess of earlier emperors. He was eventually assassinated by state officials before naming an heir, eerily reminiscent of Nero’s death. Many Romans feared a repeat of the chaos, terror, and butchery that marked the Year of the Four Emperors. Luckily this was forestalled by the quick ascension of Nerva, first of the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty and some of the best decades for Rome.