Vespasian: The Year of the Four Emperors

Just before midnight on 8 June, AD 68, the Emperor Nero rose from a deep sleep to find that the Palace Guard had deserted.

As he went from room to room he could find neither courtier nor slave and when he called for a gladiator to protect him none could be found.

In a panic and with just four personal attendants to accompany him he fled Rome to the villa of a friend some four miles outside the city where he heard the news that the Senate had declared him a public enemy.

It was now every Roman citizen’s duty to kill him or do him harm.

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Nero had been losing his grip on power for some time – he had neglected the legions, raised taxes to punitive levels, offended the political elite with his increasingly outrageous behaviour, created a climate of fear through his arbitrary use of the law, and had lost the trust of the people following the Great Fire.

As Nero contemplated what to do the Senate looked towards the 71 year old military veteran and Governor of Spain, Servius Sulpicius Galba for their new Emperor.

In the meantime, Nero contemplated fleeing and trying to raise the Eastern Provinces, or appealing directly to the people who had once adored him.

He could throw himself upon the mercy of Galba, to whom he had never done any harm.

But it was all fantasy and he knew he faced either an honourable suicide or the humiliation of public execution, he chose the former.

Unable to do the deed himself, his servant Epaphroditos thrust the sword into his neck and chest. His last words were:

“What an artist I die.”

Nero had been childless and his death left no obvious successor so though Galba was the preferred choice of the Roman political elite there were many who considered themselves contenders for the Imperial Purple.

Nero’s death may have been applauded but it was also greeted with some trepidation as people feared that chaos would ensue and that Rome would once more descend into civil war.

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Galba, who had been declared Emperor by the Senate, was on his way to Rome but in the meantime there was a vacuum of power in the city and the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard Nymphidius Sabinus now tried to fill it but his men would not follow him.

The city remained tense.

Upon his arrival in Rome, Galba acted decisively.

He had Sabinus executed and when a number of those Praetorians who had refused to obey the Prefect approached him demanding a reward, Galba had them executed also.

The new Emperor’s appearance shocked the Senate, however.

He had not been seen in Rome for many years and he was no longer the robust man some remembered instead he was pencil-thin, gaunt, and weather-beaten. Indeed, he looked old and tired but he went about his business with vigour.

All those he thought might oppose him he had executed without recourse to the Law Courts. He vowed to raise taxes to pay for Nero’s excesses and refused to reward either the Praetorian Guard or the City’s Garrison for merely doing their duty.

He was an austere and charmless old-school disciplinarian who would be obeyed. He was making few friends.

On 1 January, AD 69, news reached Rome that the Legions on the Rhine had refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Galba and had declared their own Commander, Marcus Aulus Vitellius as Emperor.

Galba knew that given his advanced age people would be making plans to secede him so he tried to pre-empt this by naming his own successor and nominated his right-hand-man Calpurnius Piso to be Emperor after him.

But instead of stabilising the situation this just seemed to inflame matters even more it being argued that Galba was a political appointment and had no right to name his successor.

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Marcus Salvius Otho, who had earlier supported Galba now resented being passed over for the succession and was negotiating with the Praetorian Guard for their support.

Learning of this a furious Galba decided to confront the Praetorian Guard but on his way to their barracks he was intercepted by a unit of Otho’s cavalry but through force of personality alone he was able to persuade Otho’s troops to escort him to his destination.

Too weak and decrepit to walk, Galba had to be carried on a litter but nonetheless demanded that the Praetorian Guard line up before him. Upon doing so he demanded their loyalty and ordered them to disarm.

He was at first greeted with silence but soon they began to whistle and jeer. When he again tried to speak he was heckled and shouted down and they began to laugh at this pathetic specimen of manly prowess.

In desperation Galba showed them his neck and said:

“Strike me here if you think it would be good for Rome.”

They did, and his severed head was taken to Otho who ordered that it be stuck on a pole and paraded around his camp for all the troops to see.

He then declared that he would richly reward the man who had struck the decisive blow and more than a 120 men came forward, so he had a list drawn up.

On 15 January, the Senate, which now had little choice in the matter, declared Marcus Salvius Otho, Emperor.

He ordered the immediate execution of the unfortunate Calpurnius Piso, but even as he was securing his position and accepting the acclamation of the crowd another with pretensions to Imperial Majesty was marching on Rome.

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Marcus Aulus Vitellius had been appointed by Galba to replace him as Commander of the Legions in Lower Germany. A strange choice given that Vitellius was a politician who had little, if any, military experience but then Galba, who was hated by his own troops his parsimony once again causing dissension within the ranks, may have thought that as such he would pose no threat.

As has already been seen he was mistaken for even though Vitellius may have had little to say in the matter those who had previously been under Galba’s command were quick to proclaim him Emperor, and like all Romans of pedigree he was as ambitious as Lucifer.

Otho appeared to have all the attributes to be Emperor – he was 36 years old, physically strong, and proven in battle but he was also notoriously vain.

Conscious of his lack of height he wore built up shoes, and balding he had taken to wearing a wig. He also used makeup to hide his facial blemishes.

Despite his vanity he was by no means cruel and seems to have been genuinely liked by those who knew him. He was however pedantic, lazy and prone to change his mind.

He did not inspire confidence and was to prove a man of straw.

Aware that Vitellius was advancing on Rome he at first tried to persuade him to take a share in the running of the Empire but even before negotiations had properly got under way he’d changed his mind and began preparing for war.

Indeed, he was so impatient for battle that he advanced his forces to confront Vitellius’s army even before they had been fully mustered and as a result at the ensuing Battle of Bedriacum he was soundly beaten but it had by no means been a rout.

His Generals advised him that with his army still intact and with further troops arriving all the time he still held the advantage.

Hostilities, they said, could be resumed on the morrow.

But Otho now lost his nerve and refusing to listen to advice to the contrary he declared that all was lost and retired to his bed.

When he awoke in the morning he took his own life.

Otho was praised in Rome for sacrificing his own life to prevent Rome from sliding into civil war.

It was a convenient myth for self-sacrifice wasn’t on his mind as his willingness to confront Vitellius shows. Rather, he was a man who lacked resolution and not wanting to endure the indignities forced upon his predecessor chose the easy way out.

Nevertheless, he was buried with all the pomp and ceremony that could be expected at the funeral of a former holder of the Imperial Purple.

Marcus Aulus Vitellius, who had not been present at Bedriacum and had only journeyed to Rome once victory had been assured, was declared Emperor by the Senate in Rome on 16 April, but much of the rest of the Empire refused to acknowledge him as such.

A notorious drunkard and glutton of whom it was said ate so much he had to vomit to continue carried his portly frame and booze-addled face as if it was a badge of honour.

He could also be capricious and cruel.

One of the first things he did was to have all those who appeared on Otho’s list as the men who had murdered Galba, tortured and executed.

But while Vitellius sat in Rome eating and drinking to excess and issuing death warrants, the Eastern Provinces of his Empire had declared for Titus Flavius Vepsanianus as Emperor.

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Vespasian, as he was to become known, was a man of low-birth his father having been a debt collector, who’d had to work hard all his life just to gain a modicum of respect.

Like many men of his background whose prospects seemed bleak he chose the army for a career and both sober and hard-working he was to rise rapidly through its ranks.

By AD 41 he was commanding a legion during the Emperor Claudius’s invasion of Britain.

He also gained a foothold on the political ladder when he was appointed Quaestor in charge of street cleaning.

Military success finally earned him a term as Consul in AD 51, but not long after he fell out with Claudius’s new wife Agrippina and was forced to retire.

An attempted return to political life faltered when he dared to fall asleep during one of Nero’s interminable performances.

Forced once again into retirement he could dwell on a distinguished career for one of his background but it had hardly been glorious.

In AD 66, the Roman Province of Judea rose in revolt.

Nero, whose Empire was descending into chaos and who had already disposed of a number of his most able Generals a result of the on-going Treason Trials, was forced to call upon Vespasian to suppress it.

He relished the opportunity, and accompanied by his son, Titus, he travelled east determined to at last make his mark.

He was thorough and ruthless from the outset – villages were razed to the ground, crops destroyed, and the populace massacred or sold into slavery. But it was a tough fight and he soon put to one side any thoughts of a swift and glorious victory.

On 21 June, AD 68, he captured and destroyed the town of Jericho, and was at last able to advance on Jerusalem itself.

Ruthless to his enemies Vespasian nonetheless treated his own troops well and always ensured that they were well-rewarded for their endeavours, and they in turn were devoted to him.

He knew he could rely upon their loyalty.

When the news of events in Rome reached him he was uncertain what to do.

Nero had been deposed and things were changing so rapidly in Rome it was difficult to keep up, and he was a thoughtful and cautious man by nature who rarely acted without giving due consideration to the possible consequences of his actions. But once his troops declared him Emperor on 3 July, he grasped an opportunity that he knew might never come again.

He left his son Titus in command in Judea with orders to capture Jerusalem and departed for Egypt to secure the grain supply that would guarantee him the support of the Roman people.

In the meantime, those Legions he had available to him advanced on Rome led by his General, Marcus Antonius Primus.

Vitellius at first appeared unperturbed at the threat posed by Vespasian. After all his reputation was not such that it sent shivers down the spine, and he thought he could deal with him comfortably but when their two armies clashed On 24 October at the Second Battle of Bedriacum, Vitellius’s forces were routed.

Fleeing back to Rome he desperately sought to open negotiations with the victorious Vespasian but unable to cut a deal he agreed to abdicate the Imperial Crown, resign from the army, retire, and become a private citizen again.

He was on his way to deposit his insignia as Emperor in the Temple of Concorde when he was intercepted by troops of the Praetorian Guard and forced to return to the Imperial Palace. There he fretted and fussed as to his fate.

Tying a money belt around his waist he barricaded himself in his room hoping to delay his capture long enough to be able to speak to Vespasian in person.

But a unit of Praetorian Guard had already been sent to murder him.

He was dragged screaming from his hiding place in a cupboard, taken to the Germonian Steps, stabbed to death and beheaded, his torso then being thrown into the River Tiber.

Vespasian was still in Egypt when the Senate declared him Emperor on 1 July, AD 69.

In the meantime, Rome would be run in his absence by his ally Gaius Lucinius Mucianus, the former Governor of Syria, assisted by, or kept an eye on by Vespasian’s second son, Domitian.

He was not to return to Rome until the summer of AD 470.

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The new Emperor’s first task was to put Rome’s finances in order after the profligate years of Nero’s reign and he ordered Mucianus to restore the old taxes and find new ones where possible. In this Mucianus was thorough removing Greece’s fiscal exemption and even taxing the use of public urinals. It wasn’t a popular move but then Vespasian was still out of the country at the time so didn’t get the blame.

The first few years of Vespasian’s reign were to be dominated by war and rebellion.

Jerusalem did not fall to his son Titus until the end of July, AD 470, despite his father’s express orders to quell the rebellion swiftly so he could enter Rome in triumph.

Even then the rebellion was to continue for nearly another three years until the capture of the last Jewish stronghold at Masada.

Titus, desperate to impress his father was to be as ruthless as any Roman Commander before him.

The Jewish historian and Roman collaborator Josephus reported that some 250,000 were killed in the fighting with many more dying of disease and starvation.

Hundreds of villages were razed to the ground and a well-documented 97,000 Jews were sold into slavery.

The Jewish Temple was also ransacked and destroyed with Vespasian using the proceeds to embark upon a massive building programme in Rome including the construction of the Colosseum.

Vespasian’s relatively low-birth meant that he was never truly accepted as Emperor by many of the political elite, and with no link to the previous dynasty his reign lacked legitimacy.

Aware of this he embarked upon a massive propaganda campaign – statues were erected, busts of the new Emperor were on sale everywhere, scribes, philosophers, and poets were paid to write positively of his reign, and political support was paid for where necessary.

Despite all this his demeanour as a simple soldier and his straight talking manner made him appear coarse and uncultured and many saw him as unfit to wear the Imperial Purple.

It also meant that he never truly got the respect that he could have expected, and his ten years in power were to be beset by plots and conspiracies.

Once his power had been established however, the naturally amiable Vespasian was to prove no tyrant and began to relax, often just brushing criticism aside.

Particularly scornful was his right-hand-man Mucianus who had scant respect for his Emperor and often went public with his criticism.

Despite being advised to do so Vespasian, who was admiring of his administrative abilities, took no action against Mucianus though he would mock his effeminacy and attraction to pretty young men often remarking:

“I, at least, am a man.”

Indeed, he largely refrained from punishing his opponents saying that:

“I do not kill a dog that barks at me.”

On 23 June, AD 479, the 69 year old Vespasian who had been ill for sometime took a turn for the worst.
Aware that he was dying he requested to be lifted from his bed insisting that:

“An Emperor should die on his feet.”

Known for his dry and sarcastic wit his last words were, perhaps in reference to some of his predecessors – Vae puto deus fio!:

“Oh! I think I’m becoming a God.”

By the end of his reign he had established his family upon the Imperial Throne, and the succession of his son Titus was to be a peaceful one.

Rome had a new Dynasty – The Flavians.

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