Chapter Three

The Crisis of 68–69

The sequence of successions from AD 14 to 54 was not as formal and dynastic as can be portrayed; instead, as suggested in the last chapter, they were more like a sequence of coups d’état. Augustus won his position as a result of his victory in the civil war; Tiberius had virtually forced himself into the position of successor to Augustus when the chosen boys Gaius and Lucius Caesar died; in 37 Gaius Caligula became emperor by Macro’s deviousness, by whom his accession was announced to the armies and the Guard long before any senatorial decision could be made, almost as though the two men feared rejection by the Senate; Claudius was the Guard’s candidate, and there always remained a suspicion that, as the main beneficiary of Gaius’ murder, he had something to do with it; Nero became emperor, so rumour had it, because Agrippina murdered her husband and then persuaded the Guard to proclaim her son.

These seizures of power, even if they took place within the extended family descended from Julius Caesar, Augustus, M. Agrippa and Livia’s Claudian first husband, testified to the methods by which the founders of the imperial regime achieved their pre-eminence. From the point of view of a Republican Roman, the rule of Augustus (and Julius) and his whole family was a blight, an abomination and wholly illegitimate. There were men in the Senate all through the century of Augustus’ and his family’s rule who said so, and there were others who continued to say so for yet another generation. They were always in a minority, and a decreasing minority, but the emperors were very liable to strike them down simply for their political opinions and their criticisms, probably because they could not combat these opinions by argument, thereby proving the accuracy of the critics’ words. The majority, both of senators and citizens, did not voice such opinions, but instead got on with contributing to the administration of the Empire.

It was these last, the pragmatists, who were the senatorial supporters of the imperial system, reckoning that any attempt to return to some sort of Republican system for ruling a huge empire was only asking for another civil war, such as that which had brought the original Republic to an end. It is such men who had put up with Tiberius’ morose absences, and then with Gaius’ jokes, Claudius’ disabilities and Nero’s artistic temperament for the past three decades, and had still kept the Empire operating as senators, governors and officials. Yet even these men cannot have been seriously surprised that the death of Nero in 68 brought on a new civil war.

There had been a number of attempts, even during the century of Julio-Claudian rule, to install an emperor who was not of the imperial family. These are worth contemplating, for they will give some notion of what such men felt was needed to make their attempt successful. Most of what we know about them comes from the details of the plots as recorded by the Roman historians. They were generally hatched in Rome, and obviously designed to kill the current emperor as a first step. Most of these are only poorly known and their precise aims are often obscure; the record, after all, was written by those who suppressed the plots, but three are known in some detail.

The one successful plot in the city, that which resulted in the killing of Gaius, was, of course, carried out by Guardsmen and some others, in part at the instigation of some senators. Neither group seems to have planned anything beyond accomplishing the murder. In particular none seems to have considered it necessary to have an alternative imperial candidate ready, no doubt assuming that this was a problem for someone else. The Senate would probably be the responsible authority in most people’s minds, particularly in those of the senators involved in the conspiracy; some senators were certainly involved. The hunt for and discovery of Claudius in the palace was evidently done by other Guardsmen, men who were not the murderers. (How far Claudius himself was involved in the plot is unknown; it is difficult to believe he knew nothing of it.) The senators involved in the plot were so unprepared that at least two of them put themselves forward to the Senate as putative alternative emperors in competition with Claudius and each other. This cannot be said to have been an intelligently-plotted conspiracy, though it does shed light on general attitudes towards the Senate in the matter of the succession.

The plots in Rome necessarily involved Guardsmen because they were the emperor’s last line of defence and his personal protection, and senators because they had the political authority to inaugurate a new emperor. In all probability the killing of Gaius was successful precisely because the plotters included elements of both groups. Guards or senators alone were unlikely to succeed without support. Macro’s coup at Misenum was successful partly because Tiberius died outside Rome, and partly because everyone was relieved that he was gone. The real test of how a plotter went about his business lies in those who worked outside the city where neither the Guard nor the Senate had direct power or presence.

Apart from the attempted putsch by Scribonianus and Vinicius in 42, discussed in the last chapter, two other attempts to replace an emperor are known in enough detail to be worth examining. One is the plot in Rome known as the Conspiracy of Piso in 65. Its full details escape us, though it is known that it was fairly widespread; Nero was beginning to threaten an ever larger number of senators, or so they thought, and this propelled several of them into supporting or participating in the plot. It included at least three senators and some members of the Guard, including one of the Guard Prefects. This was a similar cast of characters as in the plot against Gaius, but this time the plotters had a candidate for the throne ready and willing to take part. This was C. Calpurnius Piso, whose family had always been very conscious of the higher noble status they enjoyed compared with that of the Augustan imperial family; in that sense it resembled the attitude of Scribonianus.

As a plot this was clearly as important as that against Gaius in that the plotters were numerous and diverse. In that they had a candidate ready to be installed, it was a good deal more serious and better prepared. It failed because of delays, loose tongues, internal divisions and the fatal hesitation of Piso himself. Once revealed, it was not very difficult for the emperor to discover what and who was involved and to hand out punishments accordingly.1

This was always likely to be the result of any conspiracy organized within the city of Rome itself, where the government was at its most alert and effective and, by this time, after a century of conspiracies, both the Guard and the Senate were obviously the most likely sources of any plot. The numbers of plots uncovered between 30 BC and the suicide of Nero are not known, but they must run into several dozen. Of these, only one, that against Gaius, succeeded. To organize a plot outside Rome, therefore, was to do so away from the close unwinking gaze of the government and its informers, and it could also be done at a more leisurely pace and with a much greater degree of secrecy and security. Yet, as the two of which we have some detail demonstrate, these plots still required the same array of participants as those that developed in the city. Outside Rome, the military participants were not Guardsmen but the army which was guarding the frontiers or holding down provinces, composed of soldiers who were paid their wages in the emperor’s name and in his coins, and where the Senate had to be represented by men of senatorial standing rather than senators operating in the Senate.

The curious attempt by L. Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus to replace the new Emperor Claudius in 42 has been discussed in the last chapter. Scribonianus believed that the army in his province would obey him, and he also believed that he had senatorial support. It is assumed that he aimed to be emperor himself. The plot therefore had the three necessary elements for success: military and senatorial supporters, secrecy and a candidate. Its failure was due to the narrowness of Scribonianus’ support, which amounted to no more than a few officers and a few senators. That is, the conspiracy had not been prepared with any thoroughness, and as soon as his intentions became known, some of his soldiers killed him. He had apparently relied on the officers, whereas the soldiers had been expected simply to obey orders. This fits well with Scribonianus’ apparent sense of social superiority, and suggests that he did not understand the nature of the Augustan system in which the army was the emperor’s and was not simply a group of soldiers under the command of provincial governors. Later plotters took due note, and among them were surely those who promoted Piso as their figurehead in 65.

One of those involved in another conspiracy but who escaped for the moment was Annius Vinicianus, the son of the Annius Vinicianus who had been involved in Scribonianus’ attempted putsch, and the grandnephew of M. Vinicius who had been involved in Gaius’ death and the debate over his successor. Little is known of this latest escapade by the family beyond its labelling as the coniuratio Viniciana by Suetonius.2 However, Vinicianus was married to Domitia Longina, the daughter of Nero’s great general, Domitius Corbulo, and this connection was one of the factors that brought Corbulo’s downfall and forced suicide. Domitia Longina was later married to Domitian, the son of the Emperor Vespasian; many of Corbulo’s legates in the East, where he had commanded a large army for a decade in complete loyalty, willingly joined in Vespasian’s putsch later. One conspiracy’s suppression led on to the next, and then to another.

The other extra-urban rising against Nero where a reasonable quantity of detail is known was that by Ser. Sulpicius Galba in 68. Galba was another man with long Republican antecedents, an exalted sense of his own birth, importance and worth, command of an army, and the governorship of a major province. His army was actually smaller than Scribonianus’ and even more distant from Rome, but this appears to have worked to his advantage by compelling him to make adequate advance preparations. As governor of Hispania Tarraconensis Galba controlled a large and potentially turbulent province. He had command of a single legion, VI Victrix, plus a number of auxiliary regiments, but he also had support among those he ruled, something which, it seems, Scribonianus did not consider necessary. Galba’s style was as an old-fashioned Republican martinet, which appealed to those who appreciated his strict enforcement of laws and rules. He even found some popularity among his soldiers, who do not usually appreciate a martinet, and this suggests that much of his reputation was propaganda. Further, in spite of having been governor of Tarraconensis for eight years, he was well remembered at Rome, where he had been a prominent senator and official since Tiberius’ reign, and where his early career had been sponsored by Augustus’ wife, Livia. He had been notably successful as governor in Germany and Africa, and had been closely associated with the emperors Tiberius, Gaius and Claudius. He had been appointed to Tarraconensis by Nero as a way of getting him away from Rome, for his antique style scarcely appealed to the essentially frivolous emperor; this might have been seen as a compliment by some, certainly as a comment on Nero’s own style. He had survived all four emperors, even though his name had been floated as a possible emperor when news reached Germany of Gaius’ death; he had refused the suggestion firmly and convincingly enough to block any further moves there and to earn Claudius’ gratitude.

So Galba, when he rose against Nero, knew that he would have at least some support, or at least sympathy, in Rome. He must also have been goaded beyond endurance by Nero’s conduct. He could count on his own legion, officers and men, and on the backing of his provincial subjects, both of which groups he had carefully sounded out. He also carefully consulted with his neighbouring governors. The governor of Aquitania had already contacted him when the unsuccessful revolt led by C. Julius Vindex broke out in Gaul, asking for his help; the governor of Lusitania, M. Salvius Otho, who had a personal grudge against Nero as the previous husband of the murdered Poppaea, joined him with alacrity; the governor of Gallia Narbonensis, T. Vinius Rufinus, joined him; and so did the quaestor of Baetica, A. Caecina Alienus, though the actual governor there was less than enthusiastic. Galba therefore could count on all Spain and much of Gaul, though only his own province had a worthwhile armed force. He immediately began recruiting a second legion, which became the VII Galbiana. It would be raw and probably undermanned, but it would be a useful reinforcement for his other legion, and could remain in Spain as a replacement garrison.

All this argues a lengthy period of reflection, planning and preparation, with plenty of time taken up by negotiation with his allies and discussion with his officers, who clearly did not make the mistake of Scribonianus’ officers in assuming that the men would automatically follow the governor and their officers. It also demonstrates the utility of conducting such a conspiracy away from Rome. Galba’s control of the roads and the official machinery of provincial government must have been one of the main means by which he kept all this secret from Nero’s government in Rome.

The signal for Galba’s revolt came when his own Guard saluted him as ‘General of the Senate and People of Rome’ instead of the customary ‘General of Caesar’, a salutation that was undoubtedly prearranged; soldiers do not do such things spontaneously. He then collected the available men in the region who were of senatorial rank – again his knowledge of the existence of such men, where they were and what their attitude would be argues much research and preparation – and formed them into a mini- or mock-Senate, and then publicized his pretensions in the usual way by issuing his own coins, an imperial prerogative. The slogans they bore included ‘Liberty Restored’ and ‘Gallia and Hispania Agreed’. He had statues made of himself in the usual dignified pose, and sent letters in all directions announcing his rebellion – which is what it was at first – and in effect asking for more support.

This was a considerably more sophisticated and imaginative rising than that of Scribonianus, and it suggests that lessons had been learned from that failure and from events in Rome, including Piso’s failed conspiracy. Galba clearly understood that it was necessary to display considerable political support before attempting to deal with the emperor himself, and his collection of senators, his military display (he took to wearing a military cloak on all occasions), and his busy recruitment of a new legion from the Spanish provincials were all useful propaganda elements. Having thus indicated essential support in the three governmental areas that previous emperors had also identified as vital at such moments – the army, the governors and the Senate – he could stand forth as a credible alternative to Nero. His letters to other political supporters would have asked either for support or for neutrality. A governor or any commander who did nothing in this crisis in effect supported him. Galba’s personal reputation for probity, dignity and frugality also contrasted vividly with that of an emperor who claimed to be an artist, then neglected his work for frivolities and spent money like water on extravagances.3

Galba’s actions, following the revolt of Vindex in Gaul, finally broke the mystique protecting Nero. The soldiers who beat Vindex suggested that their commander Verginius Rufus should make himself emperor in place of Nero; Rufus had won a battle, Nero had never come near an army. Galba’s soldiers supported his bid; the troops in Dalmatia supported the candidacy of Verginius later, but Rufus bluntly and consistently refused his soldiers’ offers. In Africa the governor L. Clodius Macer gathered support from the legion in Africa, recruited more soldiers and was able to count on the same sort of local support that Galba had gathered in Spain; this looks like a deliberate copying of Galba’s methods.

Nero made some of the right moves to defeat the threat from Galba and others. He recruited troops from the fleet into a new legion, and concentrated forces in northern Italy, a move which had he followed through would obviously have kept Galba out of Italy. However, much of the army was concentrated in the Eastern provinces, where Vespasian commanded against the Jewish revolt, and that army was largely officered by men who fiercely resented Nero’s order to their earlier commander Domitius Corbulo to commit suicide. Whether Nero understood this or not, that army was potentially as disloyal as the German, Spanish and African armies and, of course, Nero had no military experience to speak of. He held the loyalty of several good generals, but his will to continue failed when it became clear that the Senate, hitherto quite docile, even servile, before an emperor, turned against him. He even failed to commit suicide and had to be killed by a slave.

Galba’s success in reaching the imperial office was therefore primarily the result of Nero’s failure to resist him, rather than his own accomplishments and attractiveness. The news of the emperor’s death when it reached him was greeted with disbelief at first and then joy and relief when it was confirmed.4 Galba then faced his competitors. Clodius Macer in Africa had been elevated by his own army. At Rome the Commander of the Guard, Nymphidius Sabinus, attempted to rule through his office until it proved impossible. In Germany Verginius Rufus appeared to support Nero, and might seize the moment of Nero’s death to proclaim himself after all; the governor of the Germania Inferior was murdered by two of his own officers when he showed signs of the same ambition.

Galba, however, had been the first in the field, had the requisite distinguished lineage (Verginius Rufus had been a ‘new man’), and by convoking his provincial Senate he had signalled that he would listen to advice and would co-operate with the Senate at Rome. In Rome it was only the Guard’s threatening presence that kept the Senate from declaring for Galba, and when Nymphidius Sabinus heard that Nero had fled, he brought the Guard round to Galba’s side. Thereupon the Senate also announced for Galba, thus cancelling its earlier branding of him as a public enemy.5

The essential difference between the risings of Scribonianus and Clodius Macer on the one hand and that of Galba on the other was therefore Galba’s advance planning. He had clearly thought through the problem beforehand in some detail, and had evidently been doing so for some time. The rebellion of Vindex in Gaul, in the name of liberty from Nero’s increasingly unpleasant, neglectful and repellent behaviour, was seized on as a pretext by Galba, but there was also a larger background. Galba clearly knew of the decay of Nero’s capacities and reputation, no doubt through regular correspondence with his friends in Rome. He had also taken note of the failures of Scribonianus and Piso, and his own conspiracy took elements from each of these, and added in his own capabilities and reputation, so much more convincing than either of these. He used that reputation as a man of ancient dignity and made it a deliberate contrast with the evasive nonsense of Nero. He made sure that the armed force at his disposal was adequate and loyal to him; he guarded his back by his alliances with neighbouring governors, which would have reassured his Spanish provincial subjects that they were not about to be invaded from the south and west. This was a contrast with the rising of Macer in Africa, whose failure was said to be the result of his own unpleasant behaviour in office. Yet perhaps Galba’s brightest idea was the local Senate. After all, it had been only a senatorial rump of about 100 men that had acted for the whole in inaugurating Claudius; Galba could find that number of senators and senators-equivalent in the Spanish region to provide him with the semblance of support from that group in society, and it suggested a new imperial respect for the Senate in Rome.

Galba’s success thus emphasized above all the role of the Senate. He had only one legion at his back (the newly-recruited VII Galbiana would have been pretty useless in battle for some time). The other armies held themselves aloof. The armies in Germania Superior and Germania Inferior adopted neutral stances; that under Verginius Rufus in the Upper Province pledged its loyalty, rather pointedly, to the Senate; the murder of Fonteius Capito in Germania Inferior by his officers was indeed designed to prevent him from claiming the throne, but it scarcely indicated support for any other candidate, not even Nero. The army in the East was locked into the Jewish War and the siege of Jerusalem and could not possibly disengage and intervene. The legions in Syria and Anatolia had to keep a wary eye on Parthia, whose king might be tempted to take advantage of Roman disturbances. Galba would appear to have had suspicions of the Eastern commander, Vespasian, if the story of him sending assassins to the East is really true. (He certainly arranged the death of Clodius Macer in Africa.) In Rome it was the Senate’s accolade to Galba that was decisive. There, it was the failure of the Guard to support Nero that allowed the Senate to do this, but it was the Senate’s decision that conferred legitimacy on the approaching rebel. As Tacitus commented, emperors could be made outside Rome, but it was the Roman Senate’s voice that carried most weight.

It is necessary to emphasize this because it is not infrequently said or implied that the decisive voice in choosing emperors was the army’s. There is no doubt that the army, or rather the army’s senior officers, had influence in the decisions if they could make themselves heard, but in most cases they were only one voice against the many in the Senate. The role of the Guard in the elevation of Gaius, Claudius and Nero was not as decisive as it might seem. In all cases it was the Senate that the Guard had looked to for a decision once the soldiers, or rather their officers, had made their choices. Claudius was clearly no more than a candidate when he was in the barracks of the Guard, and the Senate continued its debate regardless; the proclamation of Gaius was in effect the work of Macro, not the Guard as a whole, and the Senate did not need any persuading for Gaius had clearly been Tiberius’ chosen successor; in the case of Nero, the voice of the Guard was secured first, but not decisively, for the Guard then passed the matter to the Senate for a final decision. It is clear that in the only case where there was uncertainty, in 41, the Senate was able to debate in relative tranquility, and the absence of most senators was not necessarily due to fear of the Guard.

This conclusion is important because of what occurred in the crisis of 68–69. Galba’s rebellion was carefully crafted to exercise pressure first of all on the Senate, and secondly on Nero personally. In constitutional practice, as it had evolved since the time of Augustus, the decisive voice on the succession was that of the Senate, though the soldiers had their weapons. They had not yet used them against the senators in a succession crisis. Guardsmen had been involved in the death of Gaius, so the time might well come when the Senate was directly threatened, but in 68 it was the failure of the Guard to act in support of Nero that left the Senate free to proclaim Galba, and so it was still clearly up to the Senate to make the decisive move. In essence this was the same situation as in 41 and 54.

The decisiveness of the Senate’s role had been confirmed by the accession of Galba, even if he began as a usurping rebel, and this only confirmed what had been clear since the death of Augustus and even before. It had been Tiberius’ action in going to the Senate and there receiving oaths of allegiance from senators, army men and so on that had been the moment when his sole rule had become clear and accepted. Certainly he already possessed the requisite powers, granted by that same Senate and renewed the year before, but without a public acknowledgement of this position, by the Senate openly displaying public acceptance of him, that position would obviously have been in doubt.

Gaius had had to do the same, and had been granted those powers by the Senate; Macro might have largely pre-empted the Senate’s decision, but Gaius met the Senate and there the ‘imperial powers’ were voted to him; only then was his new position fully legal and accepted. If the Senate had refused Gaius the requisite powers, other letters would have gone out countermanding those of Macro. Claudius’ accession had made it even clearer: he had the support of the Guard, but that was not sufficient; the Senate’s investiture was vital. The installation of Nero, who had already been granted certain powers three years earlier, was similar. Now Galba’s rising was successful because, and only because, the Senate said so. Galba had not, in fact, claimed the title of Caesar or emperor until invited to do so by the Senate. In every change of emperor from AD 14 to AD 68, the role of the Senate was the one that was decisive.

As soon as Galba became emperor, formally and legally, in the summer of 68, the problem of the succession to him arose. Galba had no living children and he was 72 years old. The question was therefore immediately urgent, but it was not until January of 69, Galba having been in Rome for three or four months, that he made his choice of successor. Several candidates had been suggested, or had suggested themselves. They included M. Salvius Otho, one of Galba’s first supporters, a candidate at least in his own mind; Cn. Cornelius Dolabella, who was Galba’s grandnephew and a scion of an old family even more distinguished than Galba’s own; and the man he eventually chose, L. Calpurnius Piso Licinianus.

Piso was a curious choice. He was the younger son of a man who had been executed by Claudius; his brother had been the titular head of the conspiracy of 65. He was 30 years old, had been in exile since his childhood (because of his father’s crime), and had no experience of government, little even of Rome itself, and none of the army. In this he was no worse qualified than Gaius or Claudius or Nero, but that was hardly a recommendation to be emperor, though it may have been so in Galba’s eyes. Galba’s choice was apparently dictated by respect for aristocratic descent, the supposed high character that this implied and maybe pity for the family’s misfortunes, though these had actually been largely self-inflicted. Galba surely assumed that he would live long enough to ensure Piso’s political and military education, but it looked far too like a return to a Gaius or Nero figure for comfort and it was a disastrous choice for both men.6 Galba may have been a master conspirator and a well-liked and successful governor, but he was an unpopular emperor and a poor judge of a successor.

There followed a year that was a disaster also for Rome, for its Empire, and for its emperors: the civil wars of 69. Otho had Galba and Piso killed and was proclaimed emperor, but was defeated by L. Vitellius, the governor of Germania Superior, and committed suicide; Vitellius was a throwback to a Neronian type in personality and greed, and was defeated by Vespasian’s army from the East and was killed; Vespasian arrived as the next emperor. Soldiers and civilians died in their thousands, cities were sacked and barbarians invaded the Empire; revolts took place or were encouraged; the prime shrine of the whole Empire, the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome, was burned, and all because a properly constituted and installed emperor had made a bad choice of his successor.7

For Galba’s choice of Piso was certainly the trigger for the whole process, though it is, of course, simplistic to blame the whole crisis on that one decision. The basic dispute in 69 was over who was to be emperor. Galba’s decisions made in Rome had already annoyed or alienated many elements of the army, much of the Guard, many senators and a good proportion of the citizens. He had proved to be as brutal and un-legal in his decisions as Nero or Claudius or Gaius, as unwise in his choice of advisers as Nero and as vindictive as Gaius; all the marks of a man who was out of his depth. The rebellion of Vitellius had, certainly, begun before he announced the choice of Piso as his successor, but it was Otho’s disappointment at that choice that was the direct cause of Galba’s own murder, and later of Otho’s defeat at Vitellius’ hands. Galba, in facing Vitellius, would have had much more support than Otho, for Vitellius as emperor was no more than a joke. Otho could not but be seen as an unfaithful and ungrateful murderer, and only ever had a tenuous and temporary grip on power and no legitimacy for the post of emperor.

The three brief emperors of 68–69 – omitting Vespasian for the moment – provide clear cases of the limitations of military power in installing an emperor. Galba had used very little of such power in his rebellion, and it was the Senate that was finally responsible for his success and his installation as emperor. However, his choice of Piso as his successor was unpopular and misguided. Choosing Otho would have been as bad. His choice was apparently based on the Piso family’s long opposition to the Julio-Claudians and paid no heed to personal ability or the needs of the Empire. Just as Galba himself assumed that his ancestry fitted him to be emperor, so he imagined a similar ancestry in Piso was sufficient. Such an attitude alienated too many men who should have been his supporters. As a result, within five days of his announcement of Piso’s selection, both Galba and Piso were murdered in public in the city. That is, it proved to be very easy for Otho to persuade the Guard (which had been disappointed in the donative it had expected) to carry out the murders. It is a mark of Galba’s collapse into deep unpopularity so quickly that this could take place and that no one protested.8

Otho went through the motions required for accession. He was, like Claudius, with the Guard at the time of the murders and went from their barracks to the Senate. There he was recommended to the popular Assembly to be consul, and motions were passed to give him the imperial powers.9 He already faced competition from the governor and army in Germania Inferior (which had already made restless movements the year before), where L. Vitellius was acclaimed.

Vitellius was an even less suitable candidate for emperor than Otho, but he could not make his candidature good until he could meet the Senate; that is, for some time he was in the same position as Galba on his march from Spain. He only met the Senate after defeating Otho’s forces in northern Italy, and after Otho himself had committed suicide. Like Galba, Vitellius took no actual powers or titles until he was awarded them by the Senate.10 His justification – rather late in the day – was revenge for Galba (his acclamation had been on 1 January; Galba was murdered on the 15th, so this was certainly a late invention). He was thus claiming to condemn Otho as a non-emperor, but insisting that his own new position was legitimate, though he had claimed the throne while Galba was alive and in power and before he had heard of his death. This was a rewriting of history of the type that is not unknown in other totalitarian states.

So both Otho and Vitellius required senatorial approval to make their role technically legal, just as had Galba. Otho had the support of some of the Guard, whose bloodied swords metaphorically stood with him in the Senate; the threat was real, if not actually visible, and the Senate really had no choice but to pass the necessary measures to invest Otho with the tribunician and proconsular powers and give him the titles of Caesar and Augustus, which were now no longer names alone, but this was essentially the same situation as with the accession of Claudius. Vitellius was hailed as emperor by a deputation of senators when they met him in north Italy, but he was only granted the powers and titles of Augustus when in Rome at a regular meeting of the Senate. Again the Senate had no choice, with Rome occupied by Vitellius’ army, but the forms were gone through.

Vitellius lost his meagre early popular acceptance very quickly, and his forces were beaten by those fighting for Vespasian. Vespasian, commander of a large army in Judaea, had been slow and careful in laying out his claims. His procedure had been much closer to that of Galba, who he claimed to have intended to support, than to those of either Otho or Vitellius. Otho had used the Guard, Vitellius his provincial army; neither seriously looked for more extensive support, presumably believing that by occupying Rome and intimidating the Senate they could achieve rule, but Galba and Otho had both quickly seen that this was not enough. Vespasian, more cautious and geographically distant from Italy, canvassed a wider support among the troops and their commanders outside his province, in Egypt, in Syria, in Africa and on the Danube, before he made his move and he gained the explicit support of governors in several provinces. Galba had convened a sort of local Senate; the supporting governors and legionary legates – all technically senators – were Vespasian’s equivalent of Galba’s local Senate. The ordinary soldiers, whose enthusiasm for Vespasian and Titus was clear, were substituted for the Roman people in Assembly. Yet Vespasian might claim the throne, and might date his assumption of power from July 69, but only when Vitellius was dead was he formally awarded, in his absence, the imperial powers. Once again, the precedent was that of Galba, and once again, the Senate was asserting its right to make an emperor.11 Vespasian’s dating of his assumption of rule, however, meant that he was claiming that Galba had been the last legitimate emperor before him, and that neither Otho nor Vitellius were true emperors; in an objective view, this could hardly be gainsaid.

In other words, it had not been enough for Vitellius and Vespasian to win battles and occupy Rome to be emperors, just as it had not been enough for Otho to command the loyalty of the Guard and to get the soldiers to murder Galba. These military forces may have been necessary for each man to make his play for the throne, but it was only the Senate that conferred on them the powers that gave them the right to give imperial orders and to be obeyed. It did not matter that the emperors dated their rule from the days of their proclamation – Vitellius from 1 January, Vespasian from 1 July – for it was only the Senate’s award that legitimized them. Indeed, the successive messages of the three emperors, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, to Vespasian had led him to recognize the legitimate authority of all three before he was persuaded to make his own throw. He was, therefore, no matter what he claimed later, a rebel until the death of Vitellius, and only then did the Senate confer the imperial powers on him.

The Brief Emperors of AD 68–69

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Galba (October 68–January 69).

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Otho (January–April 69).

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Vitellius (April–December 69). (© Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons)

The Flavian Dynasty

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Vespasian (69–79).

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Domitian (81–96).

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Titus (79–81).

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