The Life of Vitellius by Suetonius

A sub-edited version of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation of Suetonius’s Life of Vitellius by J.C. Rolfe, with notes and comments.

Summary

Aulus Vitellius (15 to 69 AD) was Roman emperor for eight months, from 19 April to 20 December 69. Vitellius was proclaimed emperor following the quick succession of the previous emperors Galba and Otho in the year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors. Like his direct predecessor, Otho, Vitellius attempted to rally public support to his cause by honouring Nero who remained widely popular in the empire.

Vitellius had been a companion of Tiberius’ retirement on Capri and there befriended Caligula. He was elected consul in 48, and served as proconsular governor of Africa in either 60 or 61. In 68, he was chosen to command the army of Germania Inferior. In January 69 he was proclaimed emperor by the armies of Germania Inferior and Superior, beginning a revolt against Galba. In Rome Galba was murdered in the coup of Marcus Otho and Vitellius then marched his army south to face Otho in battle. Vitellius defeated Otho’s army at the Battle of Bedriacum on 14 April 69 and, although he had enough troops in reserve and reinforcements on the way, Otho chose to commit suicide rather than fight on. With Otho out of the way the senate recognised Vitellius as emperor.

However, Vitellius’s claim to the throne was soon challenged by the legions stationed in the eastern provinces, who proclaimed their commander Vespasian emperor instead. Vespasian sent his armies through Greece and the Balkans into northern Italy where a complex series of military engagements followed, climaxing with a crushing defeat for Vitellius at the Second Battle of Bedriacum on 24 October 69.

Vitellius tried to abdicate in favour of Vespasian but was prevented by his political supporters, the praetorian guard and many of the people. This meant that instead of peacefully marching into Rome the armies of Vespasian had to fight their way into the city, with much destruction and loss of life. When Vespasian’s soldiers came upon Vitellius, he was lynched on 20 December 69.

The Life of Vitellius by Suetonius

(1) Different and widely varying accounts are given of the origin of the Vitellii, some saying that the family was ancient and noble, others that it was new and obscure, if not of mean ex traction. I should believe that these came respectively from the flatterers and detractors of the emperor, were it not for a difference of opinion about the standing of the family at a considerably earlier date.

We have a book of Quintus Elogius addressed to Quintus Vitellius, quaestor of the Deified Augustus, in which it is written that:

  • the Vitellii were sprung from Faunus, king of the Aborigines, and Vitellia, who was worshipped as a goddess in many places
  • that they ruled in all Latium
  • that the surviving members of the family moved from the Sabine district to Rome and were enrolled among the patricians
  • that traces of this stock endured long afterwards in the Vitellian Road, running from the Janiculum all the way to the sea, as well as in a colony of the same name, which in ancient days the family had asked the privilege of defending against the Aequicoli with troops raised from their own line
  • that when, afterwards, a force was sent into Apulia at the time of the Samnite war, some of the Vitellii settled at Nuceria,
  • that after a long time their descendants returned to the city and resumed their place in the senatorial order

(2) On the other hand, several have written that the founder of the family was a freedman, while Cassius Severus and others say further that he was a cobbler and that his son, after making a considerable fortune from the sale of confiscated estates and the profession of informer, married a common strumpet, daughter of one Antiochus who kept a bakery, and became the father of a Roman knight. But this difference of opinion may be left unsettled.

In any event, Publius Vitellius of Nuceria, whether of ancient stock or of parents and forefathers in whom he could take no pride, unquestionably a Roman knight and a steward of Augustus’s property, left four sons of high rank with the same name and differing only in their forenames: Aulus, Quintus, Publius and Lucius. Aulus, who was given to luxury and especially notorious for the magnificence of his feasts, died a consul, appointed to the office with Domitius, father of the emperor Nero. Quintus lost his rank at the time when it was decided, at the suggestion of Tiberius, to depose and get rid of undesirable senators.​

Publius, a member of Germanicus’ staff, arraigned Gnaeus Piso, the enemy and murderer of his commander, and secured his condemnation. Arrested among the accomplices of Sejanus, after holding the praetor­ship, and handed over to his own brother to be kept in confinement, he opened his veins with a penknife but allowed himself to be bandaged and restored, not so much from unwillingness to die as because of the entreaties of his friends; and he met a natural death while still in confinement.

Lucius attained the consulate and then was made governor of Syria where, with supreme diplomacy he not only induced Artabanus, king of the Parthians, to hold a conference with him,​ but even to do obeisance to the standards of the legion. Later he held, with the emperor Claudius, two more regular consul­ships and the censor­ship. He also bore the charge of the empire while Claudius was away on his expedition to Britain. He was an honest and active man but gained a bad reputation because of his passion for a freedwoman which went so far that he used her spittle mixed with honey to rub on his throat and jaws as a medicine, not secretly nor seldom, but openly and every day.

Lucius also had a wonder­ful gift for flattery and was the first to begin to worship Gaius Caesar as a god; for on his return from Syria he did not presume to approach the emperor except with veiled head, turning himself about and then prostrating himself.

To neglect no means of gaining the favour of Claudius, who was a slave to his wives and freedmen, Lucius begged of Messalina as the highest possible favour that she would allow him to take off her shoes. And when he had taken off her right slipper he constantly carried it about between his toga and his tunic and sometimes kissed it. He also honoured Claudius’s powerful advisers, Narcissus and Pallas, by cherishing their golden images among his household gods. It was Lucius who made the famous remark, ‘May you often do it,’ when he was congratulating Claudius at the celebration of the Secular games.

(3) Lucius died of a paralytic stroke on the second day after he was seized, leaving two sons (begotten of Sestilia, a most worthy woman and of no mean family) and having lived to see them consuls both in the same year, and for the whole year, since the younger succeeded the elder for six months. On his decease the senate honoured Lucius with a public funeral and with a statue on the rostra with this inscription: ‘Of unwavering loyalty to his emperor.’

The emperor Aulus Vitellius, son of Lucius, was born on the eighth day before the Kalends of October (or, according to some, on the seventh day before the Ides of September) in the consul­ship of Drusus Caesar and Norbanus Flaccus (15 AD).

His parents were so aghast at his horoscope as announced by the astrologer that his father tried his utmost, while he lived, to prevent the assignment of any province to his son; and when he was sent to the legions and hailed as emperor, his mother immediately mourned over him as lost.

Vitellius spent his boyhood and early youth at Capri among the wantons of Tiberius, being branded for all time with the nickname ‘Spintria’ and suspected of having been the cause of his father’s first advancement at the expense of his own chastity.

(4) Stained by every sort of baseness as he advanced in years, Vitellius held a prominent place at court, winning the intimacy of Gaius (Caligula) by his devotion to driving and of Claudius by his passion for dice. But he was still dearer to Nero, not only because of these same qualities, but because of a special service besides. For when he was presiding at the contests of the Neronia​ and Nero wished to compete among the lyre-players but did not venture to do so although there was a general demand for him and accordingly left the theatre, Vitellius called him back, alleging that he came as an envoy from the insistent people and thus gave Nero a chance to yield to their entreaties.

(5) Having in this way through the favour of three emperors been honoured not only with political positions but with distinguished priesthoods as well, Vitellius afterwards governed Africa as proconsul and served as curator of public works, but with varying purpose and reputation.

In his province he showed exceptional integrity for two successive years, for he served as deputy to his brother who succeeded him. But in his city offices he was said to have stolen some of the offerings and ornaments from the temples and changed others, substituting tin and brass for gold and silver.

(6) Vitellius married Petronia, daughter of an ex-consul, and had by her a son Petronianus, who was blind in one eye. Since this son was named as his mother’s heir on condition of being freed from his father’s authority, he manumitted him, but shortly afterwards killed him, according to the general belief, charging him with attempted parricide and alleging that (his son’s) guilty conscience had led him to drink the poison which he had mixed for his intended crime (of murdering Vitellius).

Soon afterwards Vitellius married Galeria Fundana, daughter of an ex-praetor, and from her too he had a son and a daughter, but the former stammered so that he was all but dumb and tongue-tied.

(7) Galba surprised everyone by sending Vitellius to Lower Germany. Some think that it was due to Titus Vinius, who had great influence at the time and whose friendship Vitellius had long since won through their common support of the Blues (one of the teams in the chariot races). But since Galba openly declared that no men were less to be feared than those who thought of nothing but eating, and that Vitellius’s bottomless gullet might be filled from the resources of the province, it was clear to everyone that he was chosen rather through contempt than favour.

It is notorious that when he was about to set off he lacked means for his travelling expenses and that his need of funds was such, that after consigning his wife and children, whom he left in Rome, to a hired garret, he rented out his house for the rest of the year. And that he took a valuable pearl from his mother’s ear and pawned it to defray the expenses of his journey.

He had to resort to false accusation to get rid of the throng of creditors that lay in wait for him and tried to detain him, including the people of Sinuessa and of Formiae whose public revenues he had embezzled. For he brought an action for damages against a freedman who was persistent in demanding what was due to him, alleging that he had been kicked by him, and would not let him off until he had squeezed him to the tune of 50,000 sesterces.

On Vitellius’s arrival in Germany the army, which was disaffected towards the emperor and inclined to mutiny, received him gladly with open arms as if he had come to them as a gift from the gods, since he was the son of a man who had thrice been consul, in the prime of life, and of an easy-going and lavish disposition.

Vitellius took care to boost good opinion of himself by recent acts, for throughout the march he kissed even the common soldiers whom he met and at the posthouses and inns he was unusually affable to the mule drivers and travellers, asking each of them in the morning whether they had breakfasted and even showing by belching that he had done so.

(8) As soon as he had entered the camp, Vitellius granted every request that anyone made and even of his own accord freed those in disgrace from their penalties, defendants of suits from their mourning,​ and the convicted from punishment. Therefore hardly a month had passed, when one evening the soldiers took him from his bedroom, just as he was, in his common house-clothes,​ and hailed him as emperor. Then he was carried about the most populous villages, holding a drawn sword of the Deified Julius, which someone had taken from a shrine of Mars and handed him during the first congratulations.

He did not return to headquarters until the dining-room caught fire from the stove and was ablaze and then, when all were shocked and troubled at what seemed a bad omen, he said: ‘Be of good cheer; to us light is given,’ and this was his only address to the soldiers.

When he presently received the support of the army of the upper province too, which had previously transferred its allegiance for Galba to the senate, he eagerly accepted the surname of Germanicus, which was unanimously offered him, put off accepting the title of Augustus, and forever refused that of Caesar.

(9) Hearing of the murder of Galba [15 January 69] Vitellius settled affairs in Germany and made two divisions of his forces, one to send on against Otho, and the other to lead in person. The former was greeted with a lucky omen at the start, for an eagle suddenly flew towards them from the right and after hovering about the standards, slowly preceded their line of march. But, on the contrary, when he himself began his advance, the equestrian statues which were being set up everywhere in his honour on a sudden all collapsed with broken legs, and the laurel crown which he had put on with due ceremony fell into a running stream. Later, as he was sitting in judgment on the tribunal at Vienna,​ a cock perched on his shoulder and then on his head.​ And the outcome corresponded with these omens for it turned out that he was not by his own efforts able to retain the power which his lieutenants secured for him.

(10) Vitellius heard of the victory at Betriacum and of the death of Otho (16 April 69) while he was still in Gaul, and without delay by a single edict he disbanded all the praetorian cohorts, as having set a pernicious example,​ and bade them hand over their arms to their tribunes. Furthermore, he gave orders that 120 of them should be hunted up and punished, having found petitions which they had written to Otho, asking for a reward for services rendered in connection with Galba’s murder. These acts were altogether admirable and noble, and such as to give hope that he would be a great prince, had it not been that the rest of his conduct was more in harmony with his natural disposition and his former habits of life than with imperial dignity.

For when he had begun his march, Vitellius rode through the middle of the cities like a triumphing general, and on the rivers he sailed in most exquisite craft wreathed with various kinds of garlands, amid lavish entertainments, with no discipline among his household or the soldiers, making a jest of the pillage and wantonness of all his followers. For not content with the banquets which were furnished them everywhere at public expense, they set free whatever slaves they pleased, paying those who protested with blows and stripes, often with wounds, and sometimes with death.

When Vitellius came to the plains where the battle was fought and some shuddered with horror at the mouldering corpses, he had the audacity to encourage them by the abominable saying that the odour of a dead enemy was sweet and that of a fellow-citizen sweeter still. But nevertheless, the better to bear the awful stench, he openly drained a great draught of unmixed wine and distributed some among the troops.

With equal bad taste and arrogance, gazing upon the stone inscribed to the memory of Otho, he declared that he deserved such a Mausoleum, and sent the dagger with which his rival had killed himself to the Colony of Agrippina,​ to be dedicated to Mars. He also held an all-night festival​ on the heights of the Apennines.

(11) Finally, Vitellius entered Rome to the sound of the trumpet, wearing a general’s mantle and a sword at his side, amid standards and banners, with his staff in military cloaks and his troops with drawn swords.

Then showing greater and greater disregard for the laws of gods and men, he assumed the office of high priest on the day of Allia,​ held elections for ten years to come, and made himself consul for life. And to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind what model he chose for the government of the state, he made funerary offerings to Nero in the middle of the Campus Martius, attended by a great throng of the official priests. And when, at the accompanying banquet a flute-player was received with applause, he openly urged him ‘to render something from the Master’s Book​ as well’, and when he began the songs of Nero, Vitellius was the first to applaud him and even jumped for joy.

(12) Beginning in this way, Vitellius regulated the greater part of his rule wholly according to the advice and whims of the commonest of actors and chariot-drivers, and in particular of his freedman Asiaticus. This fellow had immoral relations with Vitellius in his youth but later grew weary of him and ran away. When Vitellius came upon him selling posca​ at Puteoli, he put him in irons, but at once freed him again and made him his favourite. His vexation was renewed by the man’s excessive insolence and thievishness and he sold him to an itinerant keeper of gladiators. When, however, he was once reserved for the end of a gladiatorial show, Vitellius suddenly spirited him away, and finally on getting his province set him free. On the first day of his reign Vitellius presented Asiaticus with the golden ring at a banquet, although in the morning, when there was a general demand that Asiaticus be given that honour, he had deprecated in the strongest terms such a blot on the equestrian order.

(13) But Vitellius’s besetting sins were luxury and cruelty. He divided his feasts into three, sometimes into four a day – breakfast,​ luncheon, dinner, and a drinking bout – and he was readily able to do justice to all of them through his habit of taking emetics. Moreover, he had himself invited to each of these meals by different men on the same day, and the materials for any one of them never cost less than 400,000 sesterces.

Most notorious of all was the dinner given by his brother to celebrate the emperor’s arrival in Rome, at which 2,000 of the choicest fishes and 7,000 birds are said to have been served. He himself eclipsed even this at the dedication of a platter, which, on account of its enormous size, he called the ‘Shield of Minerva, Defender of the City.’ In this he mingled the livers of pike, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingos and the milt of lampreys, brought by his captains and triremes from the whole empire, from Parthia to the Spanish strait.​

Possessing an appetite that was not only boundless but also regardless of time or decency, Vitellius could never refrain, even when he was sacrificing or making a journey, from snatching bits of meat and cakes amid the altars, almost from the very fire, and devouring them on the spot, and in the cookshops along the road, viands smoking hot or even those left over from the day before and partly consumed.

(14) Vitellius delighted in inflicting death and torture on anyone whatsoever and for any cause whatever, putting to death several men of rank, fellow students and comrades of his, whom he had solicited to come to court by every kind of deception, all but offering them a share in the rule. This he did in various treacherous ways, even giving poison to one of them with his own hand in a glass of cold water, for which the man had called when ill of a fever.

Vitellius spared hardly one of the money-lenders, contractors, and tax-gatherers who had ever demanded of him the payment of a debt at Rome or of a toll on a journey. When one of these had been handed over for execution just as he was paying his morning call and at once recalled, as all were praising the emperor’s mercy, Vitellius gave orders to have him killed in his presence, saying that he wished to feast his eyes. In another case he had two sons who attempted to intercede for their father put to death with him.

A Roman knight, who cried as he was being taken off to execution, ‘You are my heir,’ he compelled to show his will and, reading that one of the man’s freedmen was put down as joint-heir with himself, he ordered the death of both the knight and the freedman.

Vitellius even killed some of the common people merely because they had openly spoken ill of the Blue faction, judging that they had ventured to do this from contempt of himself and in anticipation of a change of rulers.

Vitellius was especially hostile to writers of lampoons​ and to astrologers and whenever any of them was accused, he put him to death without trial. He was particularly incensed because after a proclamation of his in which he ordered the astrologers to leave the city and Italy before the Kalends of October, a placard was at once posted, reading: ‘By proclamation of the Chaldeans,​ God bless the State!​ Before the same day and date let Vitellius Germanicus have ceased to live.’

When his mother died, Vitellius was suspected of having forbidden her being given food when she was ill, because a woman of the Chatti, in whom he believed as he would in an oracle, prophesied that he would rule securely and for a long time, but only if he should survive his parent. Others say that, through weariness of present evils and fear of those which threatened, she asked her son for poison and obtained it with no great difficulty.

(15) In the eighth month of his reign the armies of the Moesian provinces and Pannonia revolted against Vitellius, and also the provinces of Judaea and Syria, the former swearing allegiance to Vespasian in his absence and the latter in his presence. Therefore, to retain the devotion and favour of the rest of the people, there was nothing that Vitellius did not lavish publicly and privately, without any limit.

Vitellius held a levy in Rome, promising those who volunteered not only their discharge upon his victory but also the rewards and privileges given to veterans after their regular term of service. Later, when his enemies were pressing him hard by land and sea, he opposed to them in one quarter his brother with a fleet manned by raw recruits and a band of gladiators, and in another the forces and leaders who had fought at Bedriacum. And after he was everywhere either worsted or betrayed, he made a bargain with Flavius Sabinus, the brother of Vespasian, that he should have his own life and a hundred million sesterces.

As the tide turned against him, Vitellius declared from the steps of the palace before his assembled soldiers that he withdrew from the rule which had been given him against his will. But when all cried out against this, he postponed the matter and, after a night had passed, went at daybreak to the rostra in mourning clothes and with many tears made the same declaration, but from a written document.

When the people and soldiers again interrupted him and begged him not to lose heart, vying with one another in promising him all their efforts in his behalf, Vitellius again took courage and by a sudden onslaught drove Sabinus and the rest of the Flavians, who weren’t expecting an attack, into the Capitol. Then he set fire to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus and destroyed them, viewing the battle and the fire from the house of Tiberius, where he was feasting. [Suetonius’s account should be compared with Tacitus’s much longer and more detailed account of the same events in his Histories.]

Not long afterwards he repented of his action and throwing the blame upon others, called an assembly and took oath, compelling the rest to do the same, that there was nothing for which he would strive more earnestly than for the public peace.

Then he took a dagger from his side and offered it first to the consul, and when he refused it, to the magistrates, and then to the senators, one by one.​ When no one would take it, he went off as if to place it in the temple of Concord. But when some cried out that he himself was Concord, he returned and declared that he would not only retain the steel but would also adopt the surname Concordia.

(16) Vitellius also persuaded the senate to send envoys with the Vestal virgins to sue for peace or at least to gain time for conference.

The following day, as he was waiting for a reply, word was brought by a scout that the enemy were drawing near. Then he was at once hurried into a sedan with only two companions, a baker and a cook, and secretly went to his father’s house on the Aventine, intending to flee from there to Campania. Presently, on a slight and dubious rumour that peace had been granted, he allowed himself to be taken back to the palace. Finding everything abandoned there, and that even those who were with him were making off, he put on a girdle filled with gold pieces and took refuge in the lodge of the door-keeper, tying a dog before the door and putting a couch and a mattress against it.

(17) The advance guard of the Flavian army had now forced their way into the city and, since no one opposed them, were ransacking everything in the usual way. They dragged Vitellius from his hiding-place and when they asked him his name (for they did not know him) and if he knew where Vitellius was, he attempted to escape them by a lie. Being soon recognised, he did not cease to beg that he be confined for a time, even in the prison, alleging that he had something to say of importance to the safety of Vespasian. But they bound his arms behind his back, put a noose about his neck, and dragged him with rent garments and half-naked to the Forum. All along the Sacred Way he was greeted with mockery and abuse, his head held back by the hair, as is common with criminals, and even the point of a sword placed under his chin, so that he could not look down but must let his face be seen.

Some pelted him with dung and ordure, others called him incendiary and glutton, and some of the mob even taunted him with his bodily defects. He was in fact abnormally tall, with a face usually flushed from hard drinking, a huge belly and one thigh crippled from being struck by a four-horse chariot when he was in attendance on Gaius (Caligula) as he was driving. At last, on the Stairs of Wailing,​ he was tortured for a long time, then killed and dragged off with a hook to the Tiber.

(18) Vitellius met his death, along with his brother and his son, in the fifty-seventh year of his age, fulfilling the prediction of those who had declared from the omen which befell him at Vienna​ that he was destined to fall into the power of some man of Gaul. For he was slain by Antonius Primus, a leader of the opposing faction, who was born at Tolosa [modern-day Toulouse].

[Suetonius’s Life of Vitellius should be read alongside Tacitus’s account of the same events in his Histories.]


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

The Life of Galba by Suetonius

As an experiment I’m juxtaposing an edited-down version of the Wikipedia article about Galba with an edited-down version of an online English translation of Suetonius’s Life of Galba. Suetonius’s lives are often inaccurate and omit important facts. On the other hand, they contain much detail and comment which is omitted by encyclopedia articles. So I’ve set the two side by side to see how they complement each other. The most obvious learning is discovering just how much of the Wikipedia article is taken almost verbatim from Suetonius.

Servius Sulpicius Galba (3 BC to 69 AD) was the sixth Roman emperor, ruling briefly from the suicide of Nero on 8 June 68 AD to his own assassination on 15 January 69. After his adoption by his stepmother, and before becoming emperor, Galba was known as Livius Ocella Sulpicius Galba. He was the first of the emperors who ruled in the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD).

1. Galba Wikipedia article

Background

Galba was born into a wealthy and distinguished family. His father and brother, both named Gaius, were consul in 5 BC and AD 22 respectively. Galba held at various times the positions of praetor, consul, and governor to the provinces of Aquitania, Upper Germany, and Africa during the first half of the first century AD. He retired from his positions during the latter part of Claudius’ reign (with the advent of Agrippina the Younger as Claudius’s fourth wife), but Nero later granted him the governorship of Hispania.

Taking advantage of the defeat of the uprising against Nero of Gaius Julius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, in early 68, Galba marched with his army on Rome, prompting Nero’s suicide on 9 June 68 whereupon Galba was declared emperor by the senate, with the support of the Praetorian Guard.

Galba’s physical weakness and general apathy led to him being easily led by favorites. Unable to gain popularity with the people or maintain the support of the Praetorian Guard (not least by not paying them the bounty he had promised), Galba was murdered by troops supporting Marcus Otho, governor of the neighbouring province of Lusitania, who had accompanied Galba in the march on Rome but was aggrieved at being passed over for high office.

Galba was distantly related to the empress Livia, who he respected and who, in turn, advanced his career. In her will Livia left him 50 million sesterces. Emperor Tiberius, however, cheated Galba by reducing the amount to 500,000 sesterces and never even paid Galba the reduced amount.

Galba was gay. According to Suetonius ‘he was more inclined to … the hard-bodied and those past their prime.’ Nevertheless, he married a woman named Aemilia Lepida and had two sons. Aemilia and their sons died during the early years of the reign of Claudius and Galba never remarried.

Career

In 39 Galba was appointed general of the Upper German legions. According to one report, Galba curried favour with the emperor Caligula by running alongside his chariot for twenty miles. As commander of the legions of Upper Germany, Galba gained a reputation as a disciplinarian. Suetonius writes that Galba was advised to seize the throne following the assassination of Caligula in 41, but instead loyally served Caligula’s uncle and successor Claudius.

Claudius appointed Galba governor of Africa in 44 or 45. He retired at an unknown point during the reign of Claudius, possibly in 49. He was recalled in 59 or 60 by the emperor Nero to govern Hispania.

Revolt

A rebellion against Nero was orchestrated by Gaius Julius Vindex in Gaul on the anniversary of the death of Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, in 68. Shortly afterwards, Galba, in Spain, disavowed the title ‘General of Caesar’ in favour of ‘General of The Senate and People of Rome’.

Among several contenders for the throne who arose in light of Vindex’s revolt, Galba was supported by the influential imperial official Tigellinus. At midnight on 8 June, another imperial official, Nymphidius Sabinus, falsely announced to the Praetorian Guard that Nero had fled to Egypt, and the Senate proclaimed Galba emperor. Nero, who had fled to a suburban villa, committed assisted suicide with help from his secretary.

Reign

Galba was 72 when he came to the throne. Upon becoming emperor, he was faced by the rebellion of Nymphidius Sabinus, who had his own aspirations for the imperial throne. However, Sabinus was killed by the Praetorians before he could take the throne.

While Galba was arriving at Rome with the Lusitanian governor Marcus Salvius Otho, his army was attacked by a legion that had been organized by Nero. A number of Galba’s troops were killed in the fighting.

Galba surrounded himself with a group of cronies who gave him bad advice. He seized the property of Roman citizens, disbanded the German legions, and didn’t pay the Praetorian Guard and the soldiers who fought for him against Vindex. He condemned to death distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial. He became unpopular.

Mutiny on the frontier and assassination

On 1 January 69, the day Galba and Vinius took the office of consul, the fourth and twenty-second legions of Upper Germany refused to swear loyalty to Galba. They toppled his statues, demanding that a new emperor be chosen. On the following day, the soldiers of Lower Germany also refused to swear their loyalty and proclaimed the governor of the province, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor.

Galba tried to ensure his authority as emperor by adopting a successor, the young handsome nobleman Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus. But it was too little too late. Galba was killed by the Praetorian Guard on 15 January.

Marcus Salvius Otho was angry that he had been passed over for adoption and had organised a conspiracy with a small number of Praetorian Guards to murder the aged emperor and elevate himself. The soldiery in the capital, composed not just of Praetorians but of Galba’s legion from Spain and several detachments of men from the Roman fleet, Illyria, Britain, and Germany, were angered at not having received a donative i.e. reward for supporting him.

They also resented Galba’s purges of their officers and fellow soldiers (this was especially true of the men from the fleet). Many in the Praetorian Guard were shaken by the recent murder of their Prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus – some of the waverers were convinced to come over to Otho’s side out of fear that Galba might yet take revenge on them for their connection to Sabinus.

120 men later petitioned Otho that they had killed Galba. They would all be executed by Vitellius. A company of German soldiers to whom he had once done a kindness rushed to help Galba, however they took a wrong turn and arrived too late. He was killed near the Lacus Curtius.

Of Galba’s cronies: Vinius tried to run away, calling out that Otho had not ordered him killed, but was run through with a spear. Laco was banished to an island where he was later murdered by soldiers sent by Otho. Icelus was publicly executed. Piso was also killed; his head along with Galba’s and Vinius’s were placed on poles and mocked by the soldiers.

Galba’s head was brought by a soldier to Otho’s camp where camp boys mocked it. Vinius’s head was sold to his daughter for 2,500 drachmas. Piso’s head was given to his wife. Galba’s head was bought for 100 gold pieces by a freedman who threw it at Sessorium where his master, Patrobius Neronianus, had been killed by Galba. So much killing.

2. Suetonius’s Life of Galba

Suetonius gives Galba’s life in 23 short ‘chapters’ (compare with the 56 for Nero). I’ve copied and sub-edited the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation by J. C. Rolfe.

Nero was the last who bore the name ‘Caesar’ because of his connection with the family of Augustus; after him it turned from being a family name into a designation of rank.

1. With Nero the line of the Caesars became extinct. [Suetonius is as superstitious as Plutarch or Tacitus and so records a crop of the usual bad omens.]

  • the holy laurel tree from which the emperors had their wreaths made wilted
  • the temple of the Caesars​ was struck by lightning which decapitated all the statues at the same time
  • Augustus’s sceptre was dashed from his hand

2. When he became emperor, Galba displayed a family tree in his hall claiming his ancestry went back on his father’s side to Jupiter and on his mother’s to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos.

3. Nobody knows how the name Galba was introduced into the clan Sulpicii which he belonged to. One theory is that after a long siege of some Spanish town the Sulpicius in question set fire to it with torches smeared with resin (galbanum). Others because this ancestor during a long illness resorted to galbeum, a sort of poultice, that is to say of remedies wrapped in wool. Others think he was very fat man, the Gallic word for which is galba. Others that he was, on the contrary, like the galba, a creature which breeds in oak trees. [Shows you how wild and inaccurate Roman attempts at etymology were.]

His ancestor, Servius Galba, served as consul, was the most eloquent speaker of his time and triggered the war with Viriathus because, while governing Spain, he treacherously massacred 30,000 Lusitanians.

Galba’s great-grandfather was blocked by Julius Caesar in his campaign for the consulship in 49 BC and so joined Brutus’s conspiracy and was one of Caesar’s assassins. From him were descended the grandfather and the father of the emperor Galba. The former published a voluminous and painstaking history.

Galba’s father attained the consulship and, despite being a hunchback, was an effective advocate. He had two wives: Mummia Achaica, great-granddaughter of Lucius Mummius who destroyed Corinth, bore him two sons, Gaius and Servius (our protagonist). Gaius committed suicide because Tiberius would not allow him to take part in the allotment of the provinces in his year (i.e. following immediately his consulship). When Achaica died, Galba’s father married Livia Ocellina, a very rich and beautiful woman, who adopted Servius as her step-son.

4. The future emperor Servius Galba was born in the consulship of Marcus Valerius Messala and Gnaeus Lentulus (3 BC), on the ninth day before the Kalends of January i.e. 24 December, in a country house situated on a hill near Tarracina.

Adopted by his stepmother Livia, he took her name and the surname Ocella, and also changed his forename, using Lucius instead of Servius from that time until he became emperor.

Suetonius has some entertaining anecdotes. It was, he says, well known in his day that when Galba was a boy and called to pay his respects to Augustus with others of his age, the emperor pinched his cheek and said in Greek: ‘You too will taste a little of my power, child.’

And Tiberius too, when he heard that Galba was destined to be emperor, but in his old age, said: ‘Well, let him live then, since that does not concern me.’

When he reached adult years, Galba dreamed that Fortune said that she was tired of waiting outside his door and, unless he let her in, she would be fair game for the next passerby. When he awoke and opened the door into the hall he found a bronze statue of Fortune about two feet high. This he carried lovingly to his summer house a Tusculum, and consecrated it in a room there, worshiping it from that time on with monthly sacrifices and an annual vigil. [Compare and contrast with Nero’s alleged attachment to a small figure of a girl sent him by an unnamed commoner.]

As a young man he persisted in keeping up an old and forgotten custom which survived only in his own household, of having his freedmen and slaves appear before him twice a day in a body, greeting him in the morning and bidding him goodnight at evening, one by one.

5. Galba applied himself to liberal studies, particularly the law.

He took marriage seriously but after his wife Lepida and the two sons he had by her died, he remained a widower. He could not be tempted afterwards by any match, not even with the redoubtable Agrippina [mother of Nero], who no sooner lost [her first husband] Domitius by death than she made such shameless advances to him, while his wife was still alive, that Lepida’s mother gave her a public reprimand, going so far as to slap her.

Galba showed marked respect to Livia Augusta, to whose favour he owed great influence during her lifetime and by whose last will he almost became a rich man; for he had the largest bequest among her legatees, one of 50 million sesterces. But because the sum was designated in figures and not written out in words, Tiberius, who was her heir, reduced the bequest to 500,000, and Galba never received even that amount.

6. Galba began his career of office before the legal age, and in celebrating the games of the Floralia in his praetorship he gave a new kind of exhibition, namely of elephants walking the rope.​ Then he governed the province of Aquitania for nearly a year and soon afterwards held a regular consulship​ for six months. It chanced that in this office he succeeded Lucius​ Domitius, the father of Nero, and was succeeded by Salvius Otho, the father of the emperor Otho, a kind of omen of what happened later, when he became emperor between the reigns of the sons of these two men.

Appointed governor of Upper Germany by Gaius Caesar, the day after he appeared before the legions Galba put a stop to their applause at a festival which chanced to fall at that time, by issuing a written order to keep their hands under their cloaks; and immediately this verse was bandied about the camp:

‘Soldier, learn to play the soldier; ’tis Galba, not Gaetulicus.’

With equal strictness Galba put a stop to the requests for furloughs. He got both the veterans and the new recruits into condition by plenty of hard work, speedily checked the barbarians, who had already made inroads even into Gaul. When Gaius (Caligula) arrived on a tour of inspection, Galba and his army made such a good impression that out of the great body of troops assembled from all the provinces none received greater commendation or richer rewards. Galba particularly distinguished himself while directing the military manoeuvres shield in hand, by running for twenty miles close beside Caligula’s chariot.

7. When the murder of Caligula was announced, although many urged Galba to take advantage of the opportunity, he preferred quiet. Hence he was in high favour with Claudius, became one of his staff of intimate friends, and was treated with such consideration that the departure of the expedition to Britain was put off because Galba was taken with a sudden illness (of no great severity).

Galba governed Africa for two years with the rank of proconsul, being specially chosen​ to restore order in the province, which was disturbed both by internal strife and by a revolt of the barbarians. He was successful owing to his insistence on strict discipline and his observance of justice even in trifling matters. When provisions were very scarce during a foray and a soldier was accused of having sold for a hundred denarii a peck​ of wheat which was left from his rations, Galba gave orders that when the man began to lack food, no one should help him and so he starved to death.

On another occasion, when Galba was holding court and the question of the ownership of a beast of burden was laid before him, as the evidence on both sides was slight and the witnesses unreliable so that it was difficult to get at the truth, Galba ruled that the beast should be led with its head muffled up to the pool where it was usually watered, that it should then be unmuffled, and should belong to which of the men it returned to of its own accord.

8. Galba’s services in Africa at that time, and previously in Germany, were recognised by the triumphal regalia and three priesthoods, for he was chosen a member of the Fifteen,​ of the brotherhood of Titius,​ and of the priests of Augustus.

After that he lived for the most part in retirement until about the middle of Nero’s reign, never going out even for recreation without taking a million sesterces in gold with him in a second carriage. Finally, while he was staying in the town of Fundi, the province of Hispania Tarraconensis was offered to him.

It happened that as he was offering sacrifice in a public temple after his arrival in the province, the hair of a young attendant who was carrying an incense-box suddenly turned white all over his head. Some interpreted this as a sign of a change of rulers and of the succession of an old man to a young one, that is to say, of Galba to Nero. Not long after this, lightning struck a lake of Cantabria and twelve axes were found there, an unmistakable token of supreme power.

9. For eight years Galba governed the province in a variable and inconsistent manner. At first he was vigorous and energetic and even over-severe in punishing offences. For example, he cut off the hands of a money-lender who carried on his business dishonestly and nailed them to his counter. He crucified a man for poisoning his ward, whose property he was to inherit in case of his death and when the man invoked the law and declared that he was a Roman citizen, Galba, pretending to lighten his punishment by some consolation and honour, ordered that a cross much higher than the rest and painted white be set up, and the man transferred to it.

But he gradually changed to sloth and inaction, not to give Nero any cause for jealousy and, as he used to say himself, because no one could be forced to render an account for doing nothing.

As he was holding the assizes at New Carthage, Galba learned of the rebellion of the Gallic provinces through an urgent appeal for help from the governor of Aquitania. Then came letters from Vindex, calling on Galba to make himself the liberator and leader of mankind. So, without much hesitation, Galba accepted the proposal, led by fear as well as by hope. For he had intercepted despatches ordering his own death, which had been secretly sent by Nero to his agents.​

Galba was encouraged too, in addition to most favourable auspices and omens, by the prediction of a young girl of high birth; and also because the priest of Jupiter at Clunia, directed by a dream, had found in the inner shrine of his temple the very same prediction, likewise spoken by an inspired girl 200 years before. The drift of the verses​ was that one day there would come out of Spain the ruler and lord of the world.

10. Accordingly, pretending that he was going to attend to the manumitting of slaves, Galba mounted the tribunal, on the front of which he had set up as many images as he could find of those who had been condemned and put to death by Nero – and having by his side a boy of noble family whom he had summoned for that very purpose from his place of exile hard by in the Balearic Isles – he deplored the state of the times.

Being hailed as emperor by his troops, Galba declared that he was their governor, representing the senate and people of Rome.​ Then, proclaiming a holiday, he enrolled from the people of the province legions and auxiliaries in addition to his former force of one legion, two divisions of cavalry and three cohorts.

But from the oldest and most experienced of the nobles Galba chose a kind of senate who he might refer matters of special importance to whenever it was necessary. He also chose young men of the order of knights, who were to have the title of volunteers​ and guard his bedchamber in place of the regular soldiers, without losing their right to wear the gold ring.​ He also sent proclamations throughout the province, urging all men individually and collectively to join the revolution and aid the common cause in every possible way.

More omens and portents:

  • During the fortification of a town which he had chosen as the seat of war, a ring of ancient workmanship was found, containing a precious stone engraved with a Victory and a trophy.
  • Immediately afterwards a ship from Alexandria loaded with arms arrived at Dertosa without a pilot, without a single sailor or passenger, removing all doubt in anyone’s mind that the war was just and holy and undertaken with the approval of the gods.

Then suddenly and unexpectedly the whole plan almost failed. One of Galba’s two divisions of cavalry,​ repenting of its change of allegiance, attempted to desert Galba as he was approaching his camp and was only with difficulty prevented.

Some slaves too, whom one of Nero’s freedmen had given to Galba with treachery in view, nearly assassinated him as he was going to the bath through a narrow passage-way. They would have succeeded had they not been overheard discussing ‘the opportunity’ and, when interrogated about what ‘the opportunity’ referred to, confessed.

11. To these great perils was added the defeat and death of Vindex by forces loyal to Nero. This made Galba panic and even contemplate taking his own life, believing the cause of insurrection was lost. But when some messengers came from Rome, reporting that Nero was dead and that all the people had sworn allegiance to him, Galba, he laid aside the title of governor and assumed that of Caesar.

He then began his march to Rome in a general’s cloak with a dagger hanging from his neck in front of his breast and he did not resume the toga until he had overthrown his opponents, Nymphidius Sabinus, prefect of the praetorian guard at Rome, and in Germany and Africa the governors Fonteius Capito and Clodius Macer.

12. Galba’s double reputation for cruelty and avarice had gone before him. Men said that he had punished the cities of the Spanish and Gallic provinces which had hesitated about taking sides with him by imposing heavier taxes and even razing the walls of some of them, executing the governors and imperial deputies​ along with their wives and children.

It was further alleged that he had melted down a golden crown of fifteen pounds weight, which the people of Tarraco had taken from their ancient temple of Jupiter and presented to him; he ordered that the three ounces which it fell short by should be exacted from them.

Galba’s reputation for harshness was confirmed immediately on his arrival in Rome. He compelled some marines whom Nero had made regular soldiers to return to their former position as rowers and, when they refused and obstinately demanded an eagle and standards, Galba not only dispersed them by a cavalry charge but had them decimated.

Galba also disbanded a cohort of Germans, whom the previous Caesars had made their bodyguard​ and had found absolutely faithful in many emergencies, and sent them back to their native country without any rewards. He alleged that they were favourably inclined towards Gnaeus Dolabella, near whose gardens they had their camp.

The following tales were told in mockery of him, whether truly or falsely:

  • that when an unusually elegant dinner was set before him, he groaned aloud
  • that when his duly appointed steward presented his expense account, he handed him a dish of beans in return for his industry
  • that when the flute player Canus greatly pleased him, he presented him with five denarii, which he took from his own purse with his own hand i.e. he acquired a reputation for being stingy

13. Accordingly Galba’s arrival in Rome was not so welcome as it might have been. This was apparent at the first performance in the theatre, for when the actors of an Atellan farce began the familiar lines:

‘Here comes Onesimus from his farm’

all the spectators at once finished the song in chorus and repeated it several times with appropriate gestures, as if it mockingly referred to Galba.

14. Thus Galba’s popularity and prestige were greater when he won than while he ruled the empire, although he gave many proofs of being an excellent prince. But he was more hated for his bad acts than loved for his wise ones.

Galba was wholly under the control of three men who were commonly known as his tutors because they lived with him in the palace and never left his side. These were:

  • Titus Vinius, one of his generals in Spain, a man of unbounded covetousness
  • Cornelius Laco, advanced from the position of judge’s assistant to that of prefect of the Guard and intolerably haughty and indolent
  • his own freedman Icelus, who had only just before received the honour of the gold ring​ and the surname of Marcianus, yet already aspired to the highest office open to the equestrian order

Galba was so under the influence of these men with their different agendas that his conduct was inconsistent: sometimes he was exacting and niggardly, other times more extravagant and reckless than became a prince chosen by the people and of his time of life.

Galba condemned to death various distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial. He rarely granted Roman citizenship, and granted the privileges of threefold paternity​ to hardly one or two men, and even to those only for a fixed and limited time.

When the jurors petitioned that a sixth division be added to their number, he not only refused but even deprived them of the privilege, granted by Claudius, of not being summoned for court duty in winter and at the beginning of the year.

15. It was thought too that Galba intended to limit the offices open to senators and knights to a period of two years, and to give them only to such as did not wish them and declined them.​

He had all the grants of Nero revoked, allowing only a tenth part to be retained and he demanded repayment with the help of fifty Roman knights, stipulating that even if the actors and athletes had sold anything that had formerly been given them (by Nero), it should be taken away from the purchases, in case the recipient had spent the money and could not repay it.

On the other hand, there was nothing that he did not allow his friends and freedmen to sell at a price or bestow as a favour, taxes and freedom from taxation, the punishment of the guiltless and impunity for the guilty.

More, when the Roman people called for the punishment of Halotus and Tigellinus, the most abandoned of Nero’s creatures, not content with saving their lives, Galba honoured Halotus with an important stewardship and, in the case of Tigellinus, issued an edict rebuking the people for their cruelty in criticising him.

16. Having thus incurred the hatred of almost all men of every class, Galba was especially detested by the soldiers, for although their officers​ had promised them a larger gift than common when they swore allegiance to Galba in his absence, so far from keeping the promise, Galba declared more than once that it was his habit to levy troops, not to buy them. With this policy he embittered the soldiers all over the empire. He filled the praetorians with fear and indignation by discharging many of them from time to time as under suspicion of being partisans of Nymphidius.

But loudest of all was the grumbling of the army in Upper Germany, because it was defrauded of the reward for its services against the Gauls and Vindex. This is why these troops were the first to venture on mutiny, refusing on the Kalends of January to swear allegiance to anyone save the senate, and at once resolving to send a deputation to the praetorians with the following message: that the emperor created in Spain did not suit them and the Guard must choose one who would be acceptable to all the armies.

17. When this was reported to Galba, thinking that it was not so much his age as his lack of children that was criticised, he picked out Piso Frugi Licinianus from the throng at one of his morning receptions, a young man of noble birth and high character, who had long been one of his special favourites and always named in his will as heir to his property and his name.

Calling him ‘son’, Galba led Piso to the praetorian camp and adopted him before the assembled soldiers. But even then he made no mention of largess (i.e. money for the soldiers), thus making it easier for Marcus Salvius Otho to overthrow him just six days after the adoption.

18. Many prodigies from the start of his reign had foretold Galba’s end exactly as it happened:

  • when animals were being slain to right and left all along his march to Rome in every town,​ an ox, maddened by the stroke of an axe, broke its bonds and charged the emperor’s chariot and deluged him with blood
  • as Galba dismounted, one of his guards, pushed forward by the crowd, almost wounded him with his lance
  • as he entered Rome, and later the Palace, he was met by a shock of earthquake and a sound like the lowing of cattle

There followed even clearer signs: he had set apart from all the treasure a necklace made of pearls and precious stones, for the adornment of his image of Fortune at Tusculum.​ This on a sudden impulse he consecrated to the Capitoline Venus, thinking it worthy of a more august position. The next night Fortune appeared to him in his dreams, complaining of being robbed of the gift intended for her and threatening to take away what she had bestowed. When day came Galba hastened in terror to Tusculum to offer expiatory sacrifices because of the dream, and sent men ahead to make preparations for the ceremony. But on arrival, he found on the altar nothing but warm ashes and beside it an old man dressed in black, holding the incense in a glass dish and the wine in an earthen cup.​

It was also noticed that as Galba was sacrificing on the Kalends of January, the garland fell from his head and that, as he took the auspices, the sacred chickens flew away.

As he was on the point of addressing the soldiers on the day of the adoption,​ his camp chair, through the forgetfulness of his attendants, was not placed on the tribunal, as is customary. In the senate his curule chair was set wrong side foremost.

19. As Galba was offering sacrifice on the morning before he was killed, a soothsayer warned him to look out for danger, since assassins were not far off.

Not long after this Galba learned that Otho had taken possession of the camp of the Praetorian Guard. When advisers recommended that Galba go there as soon as possible — for they said that he could win the day by his presence and prestige — he decided to do no more than hold his present position and strengthen it by assembling a guard of the legionaries, who were camped around Rome.

Galba did put on a linen cuirass, though he admitted it would give little protection against so many swords. But he was lured out by false reports, circulated by the conspirators, to induce him to appear in public. They assured him that the trouble was over, that the rebels had been overthrown, and that the rest were coming in a body to offer their congratulations, ready to submit to all his orders.

So Galba went out to meet them with so much confidence that when one of the soldiers boasted that he had slain Otho, he asked him, ‘On whose authority?’ and then he went on to the Forum. There the cavalry who had been bidden to slay him, spurring their horses through the streets and dispersing the crowd of civilians, caught sight of him from a distance and halted for a moment. Then they rushed upon him again and butchered him, abandoned by his followers.

20. Some say that at the beginning of the disturbance Galba cried out, ‘What mean you, fellow soldiers? I am yours and you are mine,’ and that he even promised them largess. But the more general account is that he offered them his neck without resistance, urging them to do their duty​ and strike, since it was their will.

It might seem surprising that none of those present tried to help their emperor, and that everyone who Galba sent for treated the summons with contempt, except for a company of German troops. These responded because of his recent kindness in showing them great indulgence when they were weakened by illness, and they ran to his help but, not knowing their way round Rome, took a roundabout way and arrived too late.

Galba was killed beside the Lake of Curtius​ and was left lying just as he was, until a common soldier, returning from a distribution of grain, threw down his load and cut off the head. Since there was no hair by which to grasp it, the soldier put it under his robe, but later thrust his thumb into the mouth and so carried it to Otho.

Otho handed the head over to his servants and camp-followers, who stuck it on a lance and paraded it about the camp with jeers, crying out from time to time: ‘Galba, thou Cupid, exult in thy vigour!’ The point of this joke was that the report had gone around a few days earlier that when someone had congratulated him on still looking young and vigorous, Galba had replied:

‘As yet my strength is unimpaired.’

The head was bought from these camp followers by a freedman of Patrobius Neronianus for 100 pieces of gold and thrown in the place where his patron had been executed on Galba’s orders.

At last, however, Galba’s steward, Argivus, consigned it, with the rest of the body, to the tomb in Galba’s private gardens on the Aurelian Road.

21. Galba was of average height, very bald, with blue eyes and a hooked nose. His hands and feet were so distorted by gout that he couldn’t bear to wear a shoe for long, to unroll a book, or even to hold one. The flesh on his right side too had grown out and hung down to such an extent that it could only with difficulty be held in place by a bandage.

22. It’s said that Galba was a heavy eater and in winter time used to take food even before daylight, while at dinner he helped himself so lavishly that he would have the leftovers placed in front of him to finish off before he distributed it among his attendants.

Galba was more inclined in his sexual tastes to men and, of those, vigorous and older ones. They say that when Icelus, one of his old favourites, brought him news in Spain of Nero’s death, he not only received him openly with the fondest kisses, but begged him to ‘prepare himself’ without delay and took him to one side [i.e. buggered him].

23. Galba met his end in the seventy-third year of his age and the seventh month of his reign. The senate, as soon as it was allowed to do so, voted him a statue standing on a column decorated with the beaks of ships, in the part of the Forum where he was killed. But Vespasian [after he came to power in July 69] annulled this decree, believing that Galba had sent assassins from Spain to Judaea to murder him.

[Suetonius’s Life of Galba should be read alongside Tacitus’s account of the same events in his Histories.]


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

Histories by Tacitus

Biography

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, generally referred to simply as Tacitus, was a Roman statesman and historian. He lived from 56 to 120 AD. Like many Roman writers he had an eminent career in politics and public service. He started his career under the emperor Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79) and entered political life as a quaestor in 81 or 82 under Titus (ruled 79 to 81). He became praetor under Domitian (ruled 81 to 96) in 88 and then a quindecimvir, a member of the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular Games.

Tacitus gained acclaim as a lawyer and as an orator, then served in the provinces from about 89 to about 93, either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. He became suffect consul (someone appointed to replace an elected consul who had vacated their office before the completion of their year-long term) in 97, during the short reign of Nerva (ruled 96 to 98).

It was about this point that he embarked on a career as a writer, producing two historical monographs – a biography of his father-in-law Julius Agricola which, because the latter had served as governor of Britain, contains much interesting information about the tribes and geography of ancient Britain; and the Germania, an ethnographic study of the tribes of Germany, both published in 98.

Tacitus returned to public life during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 to 117). In 100 he and his friend, Pliny the Younger, prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption. Priscus was found guilty and sent into exile. Pliny wrote in a letter a few days later that Tacitus had spoken ‘with all the majesty which characterises his usual style of oratory’.

Tacitus spent the next decade or so researching his two major works, the Histories and the Annals but in 112 to 113 was back in public service, recorded as holding the highest civilian governorship, of the Roman province of ‘Asia’ i.e. western Turkey. He probably died in the 120s, though the precise date is not known.

The point of recounting all this is to emphasise that Tacitus understood military and political power from the inside. He was a noted public speaker, lawyer and prosecutor, and held senior administrative posts. This profound understanding of all aspects of the Roman political system explains why Tacitus’s histories feel so authoritative and rich. He is speaking from deep experience of how Roman government worked, along with all the scheming, backstabbing and politicking which accompanied it.

The Histories

Together, the Histories and Annals were designed to give a continuous, year-by-year history of Rome under the rule of the first 12 emperors, from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian i.e. from 14 to 96 AD, taking in the ten emperors in between (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).

Tacitus composed the Annals second but they deal with the earlier period, Augustus to Nero (14 to 68). He composed the Histories first but they deal with the later period, Galba to Domitian (68 to 96).

Both books are missing large sections. The Annals is missing a big chunk in the middle, covering the last two years of Tiberius, the entire reign of Caligula (37 to 41) and the first six years of Claudius (41 to 47). Very frustrating.

But the Histories are even more mutilated. Originally 12 or 14 books in length, all that survive are the first four books and part of the fifth so that, instead of the 30 or so years from 68 to 96, all we have is just the first two years of his intended period, namely a brief summary of 68, all of 69 and some of 70.

The 1964 Penguin Classics paperback translation by British historian Kenneth Wellesley (1911 to 1995) is 260 pages long. That’s a lot of pages for just 2 years, so straightaway you know the Histories are going to cover the period in great detail.

If it’s a shame that we’ve lost most of the Histories and thus Tacitus’s accounts of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, looking on the bright side, what we do have is a detailed account of a pivotal moment, the so-called Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, when, following Nero’s suicide in June 68, four successive military leaders contested the imperial throne.

Nero was the last representative of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which had ruled Rome since 27 BC, but it was not only a dynasty that was overthrown; such was the chaos that it looked to contemporaries as if the unified, centralised structure of the Roman Empire itself might come to an end.

Four emperors died violently:

  • Nero in June 68, suicide (1. 4)
  • Galba in January 69, murdered by soldiers (1.41)
  • Otho in April 69, suicide (2.49)
  • Vitellius in December 69, murdered by soldiers (3.85)

Synopsis

Nero overthrown

In summer 68 reports reached Nero that the governor of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, had rebelled against him. In order to gain support Vindex declared he was rebelling in support of the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba. The commander of the Germania Superior army, Lucius Verginius Rufus, remained loyal to Nero and led his army against Vindex and appears to have beaten him at the battle of Vesontio, where Vindex was killed. But in the meantime, momentum had shifted to Galba. Other army leaders swung behind him and the senate declared for him. Abandoned by the legions in Italy, Nero fled to a villa outside Rome and, hearing hostile troops approaching, committed suicide rather than be dragged back to Rome and executed.

Reign of Servius Sulpicius Galba (8 June 68 to 15 January 69)

So the senate declared for Galba and he undertook the long march from Spain to the capital, where he was acclaimed emperor in June 68. However, Galba was:

  • old – he was 70 when he came to power
  • ruled badly and inconsistently, swayed by a cabal of corrupt advisers
  • didn’t pay the army as generously as it was expecting, especially the all-important Praetorian Guard which, as a result, turned against him (1.4)c

More importantly, on 1 January 69, the same day that Galba took the office of consul alongside Titus Vinius, the legions of Upper Germany refused to swear loyalty to the new emperor. They toppled the statues of Galba and demanded that a new emperor be chosen. The following day, the soldiers of Lower Germany also refused to swear their loyalty and proclaimed the governor of their province, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor.

In a bid to secure his position, on 10 January Galba held a ceremony to adopt the 31-year-old Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus as his successor but it didn’t work. Just 5 days later, on 15 January, Galba was murdered by the Praetorian Guard (1.41). His successor, Piso, fled to the Temple of Vesta, but was dragged out and killed (1.43). Their heads were cut off and paraded round on pikes.

Reign of Marcus Otho (15 January to 16 April 69)

Tacitus’s account describes in detail how his successor, Marcus Otho, based in Rome, organised the conspiracy to assassinate Galba. Otho had been close to the centre of power for over a decade. He had initially been a friend and courtier of the young Nero, but Nero had an affair with and eventually married his wife, Poppaea Sabina, so had had Otho was dispatched to be governor the remote province of Lusitania in 58.

According to Tacitus Otho ruled Lusitania moderately for a decade. In the turmoil of summer 68, Otho allied himself with Galba, who was governor of neighbouring, Hispania Tarraconensis, and he accompanied Galba on his march to Rome, not unreasonably expecting a reward for his support. He was, therefore, aggrieved when Galba overlooked him to adopt Piso.

However, all these personal motives were dwarfed when Otho, now appointed emperor, read Galba’s imperial correspondence and for the first time realised the scale of the revolt of the army in Germany. Vitellius was leading his legions on a march on Rome à la Galba. Otho made an effort to negotiate, offering Vitellius a share in ruling the empire. When this was rejected, he assembled a fleet to control the coast and led his legions north where they undertook savage attacks on the civilians in the region.

Tacitus gives a detailed account of the movements of the legions of the various armies, Vitellius’s under the ambitious Aulus Caecina Alienus, Otho’s under Suetonius Paulinus. Paulinus defeated Caecina at a battle near Cremona but Caecina was then joined by the other Vitellian army led by Fabius Valens for the key battle of the campaign which took place at Bedriacum on 14 April 69.

It was a disaster for Otho’s forces, with the historian Dio Cassius claiming that 40,000 Roman soldiers were killed on both sides. (Tacitus makes the interesting point that in a civil war there’s less point, in fact it’s illegal, to take prisoners and ransom to their families, as you can in war against foreigners. So you might as well just kill them.) The next day Otho’s forces surrendered and swore allegiance to Vitellius (2.45).

Otho had retained substantial forces at his main base at Brixellum, a few miles from the battlefield and they advised him to fight on but Otho, reluctant to be responsible for more Roman lives lost, chose to commit suicide. Otho was mocked during his life for his debauched lifestyle and flamboyant homosexuality. But his suicide struck the true Roman Stoic note and was remembered and praised. Tacitus treats Otho’s death nobly and gives him a stirring speech to his men (2.46 to 49):

It may be that others have held the principate longer, but I shall make sure that no one quits it more courageously.

(A note on the Roman cult of suicide: Tacitus claims that a number of troops committed suicide beside Otho’s funeral pyre, and at the other Othonian camps both high and low committed suicide in order ‘to share his glory.’)

Reign of Aulus Vitellius (19 April to 20 December 69)

With Otho dead, Vitellius continued his march on Rome, where he made a triumphal entry and was recognized as emperor by the Senate. Tacitus then enjoys himself hugely recounting the multiple instances of Vitellius’s disgraceful debauchery, spending fortunes on games and entertainments, listening to whoever flattered him most, letting the troops he’d brought to the capital run rampant and lose all discipline. Among the numerous executions and appointments, Vitellius failed to defuse the long-running rivalry between the two generals who had won his victory at Bedriacum, Caecina and Valens.

Indeed, as Tacitus repeatedly points out, it proved to be easier to claim the throne than to hold onto it. Vitellius’s claim was soon challenged by the legions stationed in the East (Judaea and Egypt) who proclaimed their commander, Titus Flavius Vespasian, emperor instead.

Vespasian had a formidable reputation as a military commander, having played a key role in Claudius’s invasion of Britain in 43, and he was involved in suppressing the Jewish rebellion (which had started in 66) when Nero committed suicide.

Leaving his son (and future emperor) Titus, in charge of the siege of the Jews in Jerusalem, Vespasian recruited the governor of Syria, Mucianus, and Marcus Antonius Primus, a general in Pannonia, to his cause, and sent them to march on Rome, the third such march by Roman legions in 12 months.

Vespasian himself was in Egypt securing its vital grain supply when his troops entered Italy from the north-east under Primus’s leadership. With his determination, personal courage and charisma, Primus emerges as the ‘hero’, as Wellesley puts it, of book 3 of the Histories. After a confused series of clashes and manoeuvres, Primus’s legions defeated Vitellius’s army at the second battle of Bedriacum on 24 October 69. They then stormed and sacked the nearby town of Cremona in scenes of chaos, rapine and then fire. Tacitus is ashamed of the utter destruction wrought by Roman troops on a venerable Roman city (3.33).

Meanwhile the two generals who had led Vitelius to the throne, Caecina and Valens, both abandoned him in different ways. Caecina led the first Vitellian forces north but betrayed them and his emperor by going over to the Vespasians. Valens was slow to leave Rome and when he learned of the defeat of the Vitellians at Bedriacum he abandoned his legions and took ship to Monaco, with a plan to enter Narbonensian Gaul and raise a general rebellion of the Gaulish and German tribes against Vespasian. As Tacitus comments, this would have been catastrophic if it had succeeded (3.41) but it didn’t. Valens’s ship was overtaken by a flotilla of fast Vespasian galleys. With his capture the wind went out of the Vitellian forces:

With the capture of Valens the whole Roman world rallied to the winning side. (3.44)

Tacitus emphasises that Vitellius still had ample forces around Rome and if he had crossed the Apennines to attack the exhausted Flavian troops before reinforcements had arrived, could quite possibly have won. But he hadn’t a clue about military matters and surrounded himself with flattering courtiers who refused admittance to the centurions and commanders who could have given him sound advice (3.56).

Tacitus describes the confused scenes in Rome when Vitellius came down from the palace dressed in black, made an impassioned speech to the people, but was prevented by them, the Praetorian Guard and the German auxiliaries, from abdicating as he wanted to. (3.67-68) If his wish had been carried out much bloodshed and destruction would have been avoided.

If Vitellius had found it as easy to convert his follower as to give way himself, the army of Vespasian would have entered the capital without bloodshed. (3.66)

But Vitellius’s supporters’ obstinacy meant that the Flavian forces had to fight their way into Rome, destroying property and spreading carnage as they went.

The extraordinary story of Sabinus and Domitian

Vespasian had an older brother, Titus Flavius Sabinus, who had had a successful public career. Throughout the year he had remained in Rome as successive rulers rose and fell. Staying with him was his nephew, Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian. Tacitus tell us that Vitellius was well aware of their presence but took no action against them so that his, Vitellius’s, extended family, living in various provinces, would also be unharmed.

But Sabinus wasn’t stupid and had reached out to the anti-Vitellian factions in the nobility and, when news came that Vitellius had abdicated, he mobilised these individuals and cohorts (‘the leading senators, a number of knights and representatives of the urban troops and of the watch’) and they declared for Vespasian as emperor. Then came the news that Vitellius had been forced to remain in power and the position of Sabinus’s little troupe became desperate. Scuffles between the opposing forces turned into fighting and Sabinus led his force up to the Capitoline Hill where they barricaded themselves in, where he was joined by his family and Domitian.

There followed an intense siege of the hill by the pro-Vitellian forces (3.71). Nobody knows whether it was the attackers or defenders who resorted to fire but somehow a fire started and spread to surrounding buildings, above all the venerable Temple to Jupiter the Best and Greatest. This ancient building, full of tributes and testimonials from centuries of Roman history and military achievement, was burned to the ground.

This was the most lamentable and appalling disaster in the whole history of the Roman commonwealth. (3.72)

Eventually the Vitellians stormed the hill, while panic-stricken Flavians fled or hid or disguised themselves. Sabinus was seized along with his lieutenant, Quintius Atticus, put in chains and dragged before the now-powerless emperor who spoke calmly to them but was unable to stop them being dragged off by the impassioned mob, which stabbed and hacked Sabinus to death, cut off his head and threw his body onto the Gemonian Steps. Thus the end of a great Roman patriot, one among thousands of victims of Vitellius’s inability to rein in his own followers.

The fate of his nephew, Vespasian’s son and the future emperor Domitian, is even more colourful. As the besiegers broke in, Domitian hid in the house of the caretaker of the temple. Helped by a freedman he put on ‘a linen mantle’ and pretended to be a priest in order to get through the lines and then hide at the house of one of the family dependants. Once Vespasian was in power, Domitian demolished the caretaker’s house and built a small temple to Jupiter the Preserver. When he himself became emperor, he had a bigger temple erected to Jupiter the Guardian, with a statue depicting himself ‘under the protecting arm of the god’ (3.74).

So Primus’s legions were forced to fight their way into Rome with much bloodshed and destruction and, seizing the forlorn emperor-in-name-only Vitellius, they dragged him to the same Gemonian Steps where Sabinus’s body had been thrown a few days earlier, and there hacked him to death, on 20 December 69.

Throughout book 3 Tacitus describes how the Flavian side, although generally victorious in battle, was guilty of disagreement and delay, especially how Primus waited for the arrival of Mucianus and his Syrian troops. Other leaders heard of Vitellius’s abdication and thought the war was over. Tacitus finds it hard to apportion blame, but the combined effect was delay which was ‘fatal’ and had ‘tragic’ consequences of ‘unrelieved disaster’ i.e. the siege of the Capitol, the burning of the temple, the execution of Sabinus, and the eventual storming of Rome. The advance guard attacked the city walls on the evening of 19 December 68.

Next day the Flavian armies forced entry to the city at various gates amid scenes of rape and massacre. Tacitus vividly describes how the fighting took place in front of the entire population which watched it like spectators applauding a mock battle in the arena (3.83). Next day Domitian came out of hiding and was awarded the title Caesar but real power rested with the head of the conquering army, Antonius Primus. Within a few days the governor of Syria, Municianus arrived, and power shifted to him as official representative of Vespasian. Tacitus shows how the day-to-day business of politics i.e. speechifying, backstabbing, conspiring, senators prosecuting each other, carried on unchanged.

Reign of Vespasian (July 69 to June 79)

Vespasian ruled for ten years, establishing the Flavian dynasty (which lasted 27 years) which consisted of himself, his eldest son Titus (79 to 81) and second son, Domitian (81 to 96), survivor of the escapades on the Capitoline Hill. In fact Vespasian was the first Roman emperor to be succeeded by his biological son; the succession of emperors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty had all been by adoption. Vespasian:

  • reformed Rome’s financial system of Rome
  • brought the campaign against the Jews to a successful conclusion with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 and the mass suicide of Jewish resisters at Masada in 74
  • initiated ambitious construction projects including commissioning the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum

Civilis’ revolt

But Tacitus doesn’t get round to any of this in what we have of his account. Instead, book 4 of his narrative focuses on developments in Germany. Here, months before the Flavian forces had even triumphed in Italy, a Romanised Batavian prince named Gaius Julius Civilis led a rebellion of German and Gaulish tribes which, at one point, threatened the complete independence of Gaul from Rome.

Tacitus describes the complex sequence of events by which Civilis united the tribes and then their attacks on Roman strongholds (notably the long siege of the Roman camp of Vetera), along with the appalling mismanagement on the Roman side, punctuated by mutinies by dissident soldiers (4.12 to 37).

Back in Rome

Tacitus cuts back to Rome to describe the start of the new year (70 AD) and the nominal consulships of Vespasian and his son Titus. However, as both were still absent in the East, it was Vespasian’s 18-year-old Domitian who found himself titled ‘Caesar’ and officiating at the first meetings of the Senate. Tacitus lists the usual senate business of making speeches, arguing about who was guilty of what crimes and betrayals during the reigns of Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, feuds and prosecutions.

Vespasian, still in Egypt supervising Rome’s corn supply, was told bad things about Domitian arrogating too much power to himself, which threatened to turn him against his son, but this is the peg for Titus to make a speech asking clemency for his brother, on the basis that emperor’s needed to keep family close and well as the only true support they had (4.52). Tacitus then describes the reconsecration of the great temple of Jupiter (4.53).

More Civilis’ revolt

The interlude in Rome over, Tacitus returns to Julius Civilis’s rebellion on the Rhine (4.55 to 80). This continues to be very complex, in terms of the continually changing alliance between the tribes and their leaders (Civilis, Classicus, Tutor), the multiple military encounters at different locations, and the fact that one Roman legion is persuaded to defect to the tribals.

Despite setbacks the Romans won a hard-fought battle when the German coalition (the Batavi, Ubii, Lingones, Bructeri and Tencteri) attacked the Roman camp at Augusta Treverorum (Trier). The Roman commander was Quintus Petillius Cerealis who rallied his troops to hold the narrow bridge over the Rhine before counter-attacking and destroying the German camp (4.77). But there were other German and Gaulish forces scattered around the Rhineland, not least in Cologne, so the war was far from over.

Book 4 ends with a few short passages describing Vespasian’s ongoing sojourn in Egypt and some anthropology about the origin of the popular god Serapis, but the war on the Rhine far from resolved.

Book 5

The Jews

The fifth book, of which only the first 26 chapters survive, opens by ignoring the situation in Germany and shifting the scene about 2,000 miles East to Jerusalem. The Jews had risen against Roman rule in 66 AD. Tacitus picks up the story at the start of 70 AD as Vespasian dispatches Titus to Judaea to undertake the siege of Jerusalem. This would fall amid general bloodshed in August of that year although Tacitus’s history breaks off before then.

First though Tacitus treats his readers to an extended history of the Jews, review of their religion and traditions which, as Wellesley puts it, is a ‘fascinating farrago of truth and lies’ (introduction, page 14). But Tacitus gets it right about the Jews’ seven-day week, their monotheism, their fierce attachment to discriminatory customs such as circumcision, eschewing pork, not ‘marrying out’ and so on.

All this leads up to a description of Titus, having pacified the rest of Judaea, arriving before the impressive walled city of Jerusalem which itself contains the citadel within a city of the Temple complex. The city is packed with refugees from the other Jewish cities Roman armies had reduced, and Titus sets about mounting a siege in the approved Roman fashion. (5.13)

Back to Civilis’ revolt

At this point the text leaves Titus to return to the war in Germany. Here there are many more battles and skirmishes between Civilis’s tribes and Romans, including a close escape when Cerealis’s camp is invaded. But the Romans survived and attacked the island in the Rhine estuary where the Batavians lived, devastating it.

As summer turned into autumn Cerealis kept up a flow of secret correspondence with the Germans offering them peace and a return to the status quo ante. The chiefs of the German tribes are coming to realise that they cannot defeat the Romans and have been led into a ruinous unwinnable war by Civilis. The narrative breaks off as Civilis calls Cerealis to a conference at either side of a ruined bridge at Nabalia and begins to justify his actions…

In other words we don’t get to see Titus conclude the siege of Jerusalem or Vespasian set sail for, let alone arrive at, Rome.

The Agricola

In 78 Vespasian appointed as governor of Britain Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who aggressively expanded Roman territory far into Scotland. In the same year the young historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus married Agricola’s daughter. Twenty years later, in an act of filial duty, Tacitus wrote a biography of Agricola which survives in its entirety and contains much invaluable information about the first century British, their tribes and customs. This book, the Agricola, was published around 98 AD. It was the first of his historical works.

Tacitus shares his editorial decisions

A very winning habit of Tacitus’s is to share with the reader the balance of the evidence in front of him and his opinions about it, particularly when it is questionable. He steps out of his narrative, as it were, and we get a strong sense of his personality, brisk, logical, hard-headed:

  • Though I feel that a wilful search for old wives’ tales and the use of fiction to divert the reader is quite inappropriate in a serious work of this type, I hesitate all the same to be sceptical about events widely believed and handed down. (2.50)
  • Historians of this war who wrote during the Flavian dynasty have flatteringly described the motives of these men as ‘concern for peace’ and ‘patriotism’. My own view is that in addition to a natural instability of character and the cheapening of loyalty which was a consequence of their betrayal of Galba, a jealous fear that rivals would outpace them in Vitellius’s affections induced them to ruin Vitellius himself. (2.101)
  • I find that some widely read historians vouch for the truth of the following story…(3.51)

Tacitus tells us (3.25) that for the detail of the fighting he follows the account of Lucius Vipstanus Messalla, a Roman of senatorial status, who was directly involved in the war, being temporary commander of the legion VII Claudia stationed in Moesia which entered the civil war on the Flavian side, and who wrote an account of the war once it was over. This history is now lost but young Tacitus befriended the older man and used it as one of the prime sources for this history.

Sententiae

Sententia is the Roman word for the kind of pithy general statement about human life, the universe etc that we call by the names proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims or apophthegms. The plural form is sententiae. 1) A sententia is a general reflection on life which can arise from the previous narrative, acting as a kind of summary, summarising events or someone’s character in a pithy generalisation. So after describing the differing views among the army and its commanders in the East, he summarises:

Thus there were good men and bad, but for a variety of reasons and with equal enthusiasm all of them wanted war. (2.7)

2) A bit more squarely in the definition is this example where Tacitus describes the feverish rumours in Rome as Vitellius marched against Otho and then explains it by using a generalisation that his elite, crowd-despising, aristocratic audience would heartily endorse:

The cheers and cries of the crowd followed the usual pattern of flattery in being overdone and insincere…The passion for self-abasement operated as it does among domestic slaves, for each individual was prompted by selfishness and the decencies of public life now meant nothing. (1.89)

Hear hear, old chap. In fact the emptiness of public acclamation and the crassly craven behaviour of all mobs is a recurring theme and you can hear in Tacitus’s voice the scorn of a republican lamenting the hollow mob rule which the imperial form of government encouraged:

  • This was merely the accepted tradition whereby any emperor, no matter who he was, was acclaimed with extravagant applause and empty demonstration. (1.32)
  • [The defeated Othonian army turn on their leaders, blaming everyone except themselves.] This, of course, is typical of the mob. (2.44)
  • [On the entry of the despicable Vitellius into Rome] The lower classes are irresponsible and unable to discriminate between counterfeit and true. Adept in offering the usual flattery, they shouted and yelled their approval. (2.90)
  • In moments of fear the voice of wisdom and the gossip of the mob are listened to with equal alacrity. (3.58)

3) Or a sententia can be included in a flow of argument as a kind of proof. An author may cite a sententia summarising a common opinion or experience, with a view to winning the reader over to his point of view or recruiting the reader to his framework, his analysis:

  • Suspicion and hatred must always be the reaction of rulers towards the man talked of as the next in succession. (p.35)
  • Man’s character is such that he will always prefer to believe in mysteries. (1.22)
  • The ordinary man always goes from one emotional extreme to the other. (2.29)
  • Men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness. (4.3)
  • As good men derive their effectiveness from their virtues, so those who are really evil, derive theirs from their vices. (3.77)

This type assert a view of human nature or society which he uses as evidence to bolster his interpretation.

4) Or Tacitus may sometimes be consciously creating new generalisations to express his point of view. This was part of the new, briefer, more pithy style expected of Silver Age authors. (In Latin literature the Golden Age is said to have lasted from 70 BC to 18 AD, especially the long reign of Augustus, 27 BC to 14 AD; while the Silver Age is said to be the period from about 18 to 133 AD.)

Cicero write long, flowing, declamatory prose. Tacitus also writes long sentences, but more packed with information than concern for writerly balance. And they are frequently punctuated by shorter, pithy reflections and summaries. With sententia:

  • No one has ever made good use of power evilly gained. (1.30)
  • As is so often the case with brazen falsehoods, certain individuals asserted that they had been present when the deed was done and had witnessed it. (p.40)
  • Once killing starts it is difficult to draw the line. (1.39)
  • Discipline, however inflexible in peace-time, is relaxed in civil conflicts, where agents are ready to discourage disloyalty on either side, and treachery goes unpunished. (1.51)
  • There are always courtiers who keep an eye open for an emperor’s displeasure. (2.38)
  • Revolution and strife put tremendous power into the hands of evil men, whereas peace and quiet call for good lives [or ‘the practice of virtue]. (4.1)

Tacitus frequently made me smile with his droll comments on human nature. On several occasions emperors tried to smother bad news about defeats in the field, but banning rumour only ’caused it to multiply’. (3.54) That Homo sapiens, eh? Those mobs, those crowds, those foolish fickle humans.

Pithy

Sometimes Tacitus is just wonderfully brief and punchy.

  • A war of boundless havoc seemed imminent. (3.15)
  • Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting. (3.45)
  • [Of Vitellius] Emperor no longer, he was merely the cause of the fighting. (3.70)

Conclusions

1. Instability of the emperor

Tacitus draws the major conclusion from all these events right at the beginning: the revolt of Gaius Julius Vindex and then Galba revealed the secret of the principate which had been concealed throughout the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which was that: it was possible for an emperor to be chosen from outside Rome (1.4). More specifically, it set the pattern for centuries to come, of new emperors being acclaimed by provincial armies then marching on Rome to establish their claim.

For some periods of time ‘dynasties’ endured which ordered the succession through biological or adopted relatives. But throughout 400 year history of the Roman Empire from this year onwards, simmering beneath the appearance of stability, was the threat of the violent rise of a provincial leader to overthrow the central imperial power.

2. Instability of the army

The second conclusion, closely related to the first, is that the troops were motivated not by ideology or loyalty but, above all, by the promise of loot. Time after time in the 280 pages of this narrative, commanders, governors and emperors are threatened by their own men, surrounded, mobbed, shouted at, with the soldiers’ goal almost always being the same: loot. Vitellius was unable to control the praetorian guard or German auxiliaries in Rome, and then Antonius Primus was unable to stop the sack and fire and massacre of the triumphant army as it ransacked every house looking for valuables or women to rape.

As the narrative proceeds Tacitus gives evermore examples of the terrible discipline into which all the legions and cohorts, on all sides, seemed to fall.

The troops clamoured for immediate action and threatening their officers had by now become a habit. (4.34)

3. Permanent war

Stepping back a bit, I might be missing the wood for the trees because I suppose the biggest take home from this long text is that Rome was a military empire engaged in almost constant warfare. All of Rome’s politicians and statesmen were expected to take command of armies engaged in real warfare at the drop of a hat (even Cato in North Africa, even Cicero during his year in Asia). It was a militaristic culture in which the activity of war dominated all aspects of politics and culture to an extent I don’t think we moderns can really understand.

Reading experience and translations

Once you bed down into it, Tacitus’s account is gripping. He is, after all, reporting a very dramatic series of events:

The story upon which I embark is one full of incident, marked by bitter fighting, rent by treason and even in peace, sinister. (1.2)

The course of events allows him to stage melodramatic scenes and give stirring speeches to key characters at decisive moments. But he is a master of narrative. Possibly because the subject matter itself is gripping and fast-moving, but I found the Histories a much more enjoyable read than the more diffuse and sometimes repetitive Annals (all those informers, all those treason trials, all those forced suicides – even Tacitus himself admitted to getting bored with his own narrative).

Take the couple of chapters describing the abortive rising of Sabinus and the other pro-Flavians when they thought Vitellius had abdicated, which leads into the siege of the Capitoline Hill, the fire destroying the Temple of Jupiter, Sabinus arrest and lynching and the daredevil escape of young Domitian. This is a wonderfully dramatic and exciting story and Tacitus tells it clearly and vividly.

Some of the narrative’s power must be down to Wellesley’s translation which enlivens the bare Latin with colloquial English phrases (‘old wives’ tales’, ‘run for the hills’, ‘discipline went to pieces’ 4.1, ‘he was the last man to make trouble’, 4.38, ‘Marcellus looking daggers, Crispus all smiles’ 4.43) which really bring the narrative to life, giving it a more popular, colourful vibe than I suspect a literal translation would.

Also, it appears that at least some of the pithiness which I so enjoy derives from Wellesley. Here’s Anthony Kline’s translation of the first phrase of book 3 chapter 79. I assume Kline gives a literal translation of the Latin which explains why it is rather flat and factual.

Antonius reached Saxa Rubra (nine miles north of Rome) by the Flaminian Way late at night but now too late to bring relief.

And here’s Wellesley’s version:

The night was far advanced before Antonius, marching to the rescue down the Flaminian Way, reached Saxa Rubra. It was too late. (3.79)

You can see that Wellesley has altered it in several ways, two of which stand out. 1) ‘The night was far advanced’ sounds like a boy’s own adventure trope, on a par with ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ It introduces a dash of Victorian adventure story flavour. 2) Where Kline has the flat ‘but now too late to bring relief’ Wellesley makes this phrase into a separate, clipped sentence, creating the taut, laconic style of a thriller. He does this throughout the text, sprinkling tough punchy little sentences which convey an enjoyable sense of narrative threat and suspense:

The explosion was not long in coming. (4.32)

In other words, Wellesley’s translation (as far as I can tell) tends to turn Tacitus into a gripping adventure story and ripping yarn, which is part of what makes his version such a compelling read. Along with Rolfe Humphries’ Englishing of Lucretius and Peter Green’s versions of Ovid, it’s one of the most enjoyable translations I’ve read.


Credit

The Histories of Tacitus, translated by Kenneth Wellesley, was published by Penguin Books in 1964. All quotes are from the 1986 revised paperback edition.

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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 5. The emperors

The Roman Emperors

The last 200 pages of SPQR (pages 330 to 530) cover the first 250 years of the Roman Empire, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 AD to the reign of Caracalla (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) who reigned from 198 to 217. Beard chooses the reign of Caracalla to end her book because he took the revolutionary step of granting the entire free population of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship thus bringing to a kind of completion the process of assimilation and integration of foreign peoples which she has singled out as, from the start, one of the distinguishing features of the Roman state (p.334).

Beard starts by describing in some detail the machinations following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, which led to the creation of the second triumvirate of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus (p.341). These three commanded armies which went after the armies led by the main assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. These two had fled Italy to the East where they amassed armies and were assigned provinces to govern by the Senate. This led in quick succession to:

42: the Battle of Philippi in Greece where Octavian and Antony defeated the Republicans under Brutus and Cassius (p.342). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide i.e. the assassins of Caesar were defeated and killed.

Over the next few years Octavian and Mark Antony remained in uneasy alliance, falling out then patching things up. In one attempt to cement their alliance, Anthony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, in 40.

36: Octavian stripped Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial role of Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest), leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy (p.346).

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will (it was stashed in the temple of the Vestal Virgins) and read it out in the Forum. He claimed it showed that Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

31: Open war finally breaks out between Octavian and Antony. At the Battle of Actium Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who flee to Egypt and commit suicide, leaving Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the invented title of ‘Augustus’ by the Roman Senate (p.340). Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.

Beard makes the simple but powerful point that the Roman polity had been evolving towards power being wielded by one man for some time. Gaius Marius (157 to 86) who was given extraordinary powers to prosecute the Cimbrian and Jugurthine wars was maybe the first precursor. His subordinate and rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78), who twice marched his legions into Rome itself, causing civil disturbance and ordering the massacre of his political enemies (in 88 and 82), is an even more glaring precursor.

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’.

I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, by 31 BC.

The emperors

The emperors are often grouped into dynasties. Thus the first five emperors are referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty because they all belonged to one of two closely related families, the Julii Caesares and Claudii Nerones.

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

  • Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37)
  • Caligula (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)

Year of 4 emperors

  • Galba (June 68 to January 69)
  • Otho (January to April 69)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July to December 69)
  • Vespasian (December 69 to 79) founded the Flavian dynasty

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

  • Vespasian
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)
  • Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

  • Trajan (98 to 117)
  • Hadrian (117 to 138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)
  • Lucius Verus (161 to 169) ruled alongside Aurelius
  • Commodus (177 to 192)

Year of the Five Emperors 193

Commodus was assassinated leading to a period of confusion when the title of emperor was contested by no fewer than five claimants, Publius Helvius Pertinax , Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus, the latter emerging as winner.

  • Septimius Severus (193 to 211)
  • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus known as Caracalla (198 to 217)

Augustus

The pivotal figure is Augustus who arrived in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar, a fresh-faced youth of 18 who had been adopted as Caesar’s legal heir, went on to defeat all his adversaries, emerged as the most powerful men in Rome, and went on to rule for longer (30 BC to 14 AD) than any other Roman before or since, longer than any of the legendary kings, longer than any succeeding emperor.

Beard devotes a long chapter to Augustus (chapter 9, pages 337 to 385) listing his extraordinary achievements yet highlighting the paradox that, although we know more about his official deeds than almost any other figure, yet he remains an opaque and mysterious figure.

More statues of Augustus survive than any other emperor (250). He was very effective indeed at spreading his image and imperium right across the empire, using coins, statues, inscriptions, public games and extensive new architecture and town planning to spread a consistent ideology and image of imperial rule. To him is attributed the famous saying: ‘I found the city made of brick and left it built of marble’.

Augustus oversaw elections with such precision that the democratic process withered. He assigned the Senate new perks and privileges but stripped it of real political power. Rather than an independent source of power in the complex constitution of the republic, the Senate became more and more just one wing of the imperial administration. He was elected consul an unprecedented eleven times, but in one of many unprecedented moves held the power of consul at the same time as holding the full power of a tribune. He took over complete and lasting power of the army by personally appointing all legionary commanders and making himself governor of every single province which had a military presence (p.355). Under the republic ‘triumphs’ had been awarded to victorious generals. Augustus changed the rules so that in future they could only be assigned to emperors or male members of the imperial family.

Augustus added more territory to the Roman empire than any ruler before or after (p.364). He was rich by an order of magnitude more than any previous man in Rome and personally paid for unprecedentedly lavish gladiatorial games and shows. And he patronised three of the greatest Latin poets, Horace, Ovid and above all Vergil, who created everlasting works of literature which, implicitly or explicitly, sing the praises of his rule.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this one man created the template which all subsequent emperors copied for 400 years (p.384). And yet his character and his intentions remain a mystery, even though, towards the end of his life, he wrote a ten page, official autobiography, the Res Gestae (pages 360 to 368). This amounts to a long list of his achievements but manages to shed no light at all on his character. Not for nothing did the signet ring which he used to impress on the hot wax sealing official correspondence carry the image of the sphinx (p.358).

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

After dwelling on the pivotal figure of Augustus at length, Beard’s account then devotes just one chapter to the fourteen or so successors who take us through to the emperor Caracalla (pages 387 to 434).

And Beard has OIne Big Idea about the emperors which, like a lot of her idées fixes, she repeats half a dozen times (on pages 336, 397, 398, 404, 406, 412 and 426). This is that, despite their superficial differences and all the garish stories told about them, the emperors who followed Augustus were all basically the same. By this she means that they performed the same political function working within the same centralised administrative system.

Whatever their idiosyncracies, virtues, vices or backgrounds, whatever the different names we know them by, they were all better or worse reincarnations of Augustus, operating within the model of autocracy he established and dealing with the problems that he left unresolved. (p.385)

She gives us a vivid description of the assassination of the ‘mad’ emperor Caligula in January 41 AD as he walked through a corridor of his palace on the Palatine hill after watching a morning of games held in memory of Augustus. He was murdered by three members of his Praetorian guard, apparently motivated by a personal grudge rather than any grand political conspiracy. Chaos ensued. Other, loyal, members of his bodyguard ran through the palace killing anyone suspected of involvement in the ‘plot’; in the Senate politicians swapped fine speeches about the overthrow of a tyrant and the restoration of ancient liberties. But the reality was that other members of the Praetorian guard had found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace, dragged him out and acclaimed him emperor. All sorts of complicated negotiations followed, with Claudius paying the guards handsomely for their support and negotiating a deal with the Senate to recognise him. But, in the end, under all the gory details – one emperor was replaced by another and, in a sense, nothing had changed.

Beyond making it absolutely clear that the emperors had become a permanent fixture, the killing of Gaius had no significant impact on the long history of imperial rule at all. That was one thing the assassins of 41 AD had in common with the assassins of 44 BC, who killed one autocrat (Julius Caesar) only to end up with another (Augustus). For all the excitement generated by the murder of Gaius, the suspense, the uncertainty of the moment and the flirtation with Republicanism, as brief as it was unrealistic, the end result was another emperor on the throne who was not at all unlike the one he had replaced. (p.397)

And:

The emperors were more similar to one another than they were different, and it took only some superficial adjustments to turn one into another. Assassinations were minor interruptions to the grander narrative of imperial rule. (p.398)

Certainly, the system evolved – the imperial administration staff grew enormously between 14 and 212 AD (pages 408 to 411) – but the fundamental role the emperor played in the imperial system remained the same. The vast majority of the empire’s population wouldn’t have noticed the rule of one emperor from another, apart from the face on the coins and scraps of gossip, if they ever got to hear them.

Whatever the views of Suetonius and other ancient writers, the qualities and character of the individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments. (p.404)

And:

Outside the narrow circle [of the court] and certainly outside the city of Rome…it can hardly have made much difference who was on the throne, or what their personal habits or intrigues were. And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic or mad as they were painted, it made little difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes. Beneath the scandalous tales…there was a remarkably stable structure of rule and…a remarkably stable set of problems and tensions across the period. (p.406)

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject.

Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

If you are looking for a good chronological account of the emperors this is emphatically not the book for you. She has a little section considering the vices and scandalous stories, especially about the early emperors, peddled by later historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus (pages 398 to 403) – but only to dismiss them as tittle-tattle and tell us she aims to delve beneath the gossip to address the deeper structural questions about the way the empire was created and administered, how its evolution changed Romans’ identity and culture, and so on.

And you know what – her book is much the better for it. Once she’s stated she’s going to abandon chronology and proceed by examining themes and issues, she and the reader can both relax. Now she’s  explicitly said she’s not going to give a chronological account I’m not expecting one; instead I can enjoy her rambling, discursive discussions of various issues surrounding imperial rule, which are often genuinely interesting.

Problems with the imperial system

She focuses on three issues: arranging the succession, relations with the Senate, and problems defining the precise status of the emperor (p.414).

1. The succession

The main and obvious problem, which the Romans never really solved, was how to arrange the succession from one emperor to the next (p.420). In practice there was a range of mechanisms:

a) First born son

It’s a surprise to learn that, despite being such a patriarchal society, the Romans didn’t have a strong tradition of primogeniture i.e. that a father is always succeeded by his eldest son (p.415).

b) In the family

Certainly rulers liked to keep the succession within the family, hence the grouping of the emperors into a series of family dynasties. But lacking an insistence on the primacy of the eldest son, the exact relation of a succeeding heir was often fairly remote.

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

A Roman aristocrat could — either during his life or in his will — adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. The adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. The most famous example is Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius who thereafter referred to himself as Gaius Julius Caesar (p.339).

Augustus, Caligula and Nero failed to father biological and legitimate sons. Tiberius’ own son, Drusus predeceased him. Only Claudius was outlived by his son, Britannicus, although he opted to promote his adopted son Nero as his successor to the throne.

Thus adoption became the most common tool that Julio-Claudian emperors use to promote their chosen heir to the front of the succession:

  • Augustus — himself an adopted son of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar — adopted his stepson Tiberius as his son and heir.
  • Tiberius, in turn, adopted his nephew Germanicus, the father of Caligula and brother of Claudius (Germanicus himself dying before he could inherit).
  • Caligula adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus (grandson of the Tiberius) shortly before executing him.
  • Claudius adopted his great-nephew and stepson Nero.
  • It was Nero’s failure to have either a natural or an adopted son of his own which brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end.

d) Acclamation by army

Augustus had concentrated control of the army into his hands alone, but in the long term he failed to prevent the intervention of the army in politics. On a small scale, it was the Praetorian Guard who acclaimed Claudius emperor in 41 AD, but things got worse. After the death of Nero, in 68, four different military leaders laid claim to the throne in one confused 12 month period, each backed up by army units from different provinces (p.417).

e) Dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time

The classic example being Claudius happening to be in the imperial palace in the vital minutes after the murder of Caligula and so acclaimed by the Praetorian Guard, the most heavily armed group in the city, which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Senate, and so achieve the throne (p.416).

Interestingly, Beard reinterprets all the lurid stories about imperial wives poisoning their husbands, not as being motivated by a wish to get rid of them, as such; but to ensure the correct timing; to make sure they died when then chosen successor was on the spot and so best placed to claim the throne (p.416).

2. Relations with the Senate

Augustus gave the Senate more honours and extended its privileges, but sought to reduce its power. In a series of complicated constitutional adjustments he sought to convert the Senate from an independent body into an arm of the imperial administration.

A small number resisted imperial rule so vehemently that they managed to get executed or forced to commit suicide. Some left writings criticising various emperors, though the wise wrote as historians, safely criticising emperors from previous centuries or dynasties.

When they had opportunities to intervene at crisis points, after the assassination of Caligula in 41, after the death of Nero in 68, the Senate failed to act. Easier to moan and complain than to actually step up to the plate and assume power. Their failure in both instances proves how irrevocably the state had come under the rule of one man.

Over time the nature of the Senate (when generally numbered about 600 members) changed, with more and more members coming from provincial families. The values of the Republic receded into tales of the ‘good old days’ that no one alive could ever realistically think of reviving.

3. The emperor’s status

Was he a man or a god or something in between? Augustus was careful to pose as ‘the first among equals’, emphatically denying and censoring any reference to him as king or dictator, at most allowing the word princeps to describe his status.

As to divinity, Caesar was officially recognised as a god 2 years after his death, in 42 BC, so a precedent had been set. Augustus was recognised as a god after his death and so was Claudius after his (p.429).

Beard brings out several key points. Number one is that no-one venerated a living emperor as a god, that would have been considered a gross error. The emperors were only deified after their deaths, when their spirits were considered as having ascended into heaven.

But as the first century AD progressed the emperors were increasingly treated very like gods, especially in the superstitious east, with its confusing medley of divinities. Thus living emperors found themselves included in rituals to the gods and addressed in language which overlapped with divine language (p.431). In one town records survive which show that religious ceremonies were carried out to the gods and on behalf of the emperor. No matter how thin it became, a distinction was always made.

Summary

The two chapters, one about Augustus and one giving an overview of the emperors who followed him, are the best thing in the book, because they showcase Beard’s non-chronological, thematic approach to best advantage. There are dates and events, of course, but they are merely the springboards for Beard’s explorations of themes and issues, which include interesting references to a wide range of contemporary Roman writers’ opinions and gossip about the emperors, alongside thoughtful analysis of the structural problems and issues of imperial rule, listed above. These two chapters are interesting, informative and entertaining.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

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