Roman Empire: Servius Galba (Part 2)

A few days after the first of January a dispatch arrived from Belgica, in which Pompeius Propinquus, [i.e. the emperor’s finance agent in the province of Belgica] the imperial agent, announced that the legions of Upper Germany had broken their oath of allegiance and were clamoring for a new emperor, but that by way of tempering their treason they referred the final choice to the Senate and People of Rome. Galba had already been deliberating and seeking advice as to the adoption of a successor, and this occurrence hastened his plans. During all these months this question formed the current subject of gossip throughout the country; Galba was far spent in years and the general propensity for such a topic knew no check. Few people showed sound judgement or any spirit of patriotism. Many were influenced by foolish hopes and spread self-interested rumours pointing to some friend or patron, thereby also gratifying their hatred for Titus Vinius, whose unpopularity waxed daily with his power. Galba’s affability only served to strengthen the gaping ambition of his newly powerful friends, for his weakness and credulity halved the risk and doubled the reward of treason.

The real power of the throne was divided between the consul, Titus Vinius, and Cornelius Laco, the prefect of the Guards; and an influence as great was enjoyed by Icelus, one of Galba’s freedmen, who had been given the gold ring [A gold signet-ring was the sign of a free-born Roman knight. Its grant to freedmen was an innovation of which Tacitus disapproved] and was now greeted by the name of Marcianus. These three ordinarily disagreed, and followed each his own interest in smaller matters: on the question of the succession they fell into two camps. Vinius was for Marcus Otho. Laco and Icelus were agreed not so much on any one as on any other. Galba was aware of the friendship between Otho and Vinius. Otho was a bachelor and Vinius had an unmarried daughter: so gossip, never reticent, pointed to them as father and son-in-law. Galba, one may suppose, felt some concern for his country, too. Why take the throne from Nero, if it was to be left to Otho? Otho had led a careless boyhood and a dissolute youth, and endeared himself to Nero by aping his vices. Thus it was to Otho, as being already in the secret, that Nero entrusted his favourite mistress, Poppaea Sabina, [Tacitus here follows the story told by Suetonius in his life of Otho. In the “Annals”, xiii. 45, 46, Tacitus gives in detail a more probable version. It is more likely that Poppaea used Otho as a stepping-stone to Nero’s favor than that Otho, as Suetonius quotes, ‘committed adultery with his own wife.’] until he could get rid of Octavia. Later he grew jealous and removed Otho to the province of Lusitania under cover of a governorship. Otho had been popular in his administration of the province, and was one of the first to join Galba’s party. Being a man of action and one of the most distinguished of Galba’s officers in the war, when once he had conceived the hope of succeeding him, he eagerly indulged it. Most of the soldiers were on his side and the Court supported him as Nero’s double.

After receiving the news of the German revolt, although Galba knew nothing for certain of Vitellius’ plans, he was fearful to what lengths the outbreak of the troops might go; so, being unable to trust the troops in the city, he had recourse to what seemed his sole remedy and held an Imperial Election. Besides Vinius and Laco he summoned Marius Celsus, consul-elect and the City-Prefect Ducenius Geminus. [One of the three Commissioners of Public Revenue appointed by Nero in A.D. 62 (“Ann.”, xv. 18)] After prefacing a few words about his own advanced age he ordered Piso Licinianus [Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus was the son of M. Licinius Crassus Frugi, and adopted son of L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi. His mother, Scribonia, was a descendant of Pompey] to be sent for, either on his own initiative, or, as some believed, at the instance of Laco. Laco had met Piso at Rubellius Plautus’ house and they had formed a friendship, but he cunningly pretended that he was supporting a stranger, and Piso’s good repute gave colour to this policy. Piso was a noble on both sides, being the son of Marcus Crassus and Scribonia. There was an old-world austerity in his face and bearing, and just critics spoke of his strict morality: people who took a less favourable view thought him soured. But while those who disliked this side of his character carped at it, it was a recommendation in the eyes of the emperor who intended to adopt him.

Galba is said to have taken Piso’s hand and addressed him as follows: “Were I a private citizen, and were I to adopt you in the presence of the Priests by the usual formality of a curial statute, [Adoption from one family into another needed in old days the sanction of the Comitia Curiata. When that assembly became obsolete, the priests summoned a formal meeting of thirty lictors, and their sanction of an act of adoption was still called “lex curiata”. Galba was now “Pontifex maximus] it would be an honour for me to introduce into my family a descendant of Cnaeus Pompeius and of Marcus Crassus, and for you it would be a distinction to add to your noble ancestry the glories of the Sulpician and Lutatian houses. [Galba belonged to the “Gens Sulpicia”, and was connected through his mother, Mummia, with Q. Lutatius Catulus, who had led the senatorial party in the first half of the last century] As it is, I have been called by the consent of gods and men to be an emperor. Your distinguished qualities and your patriotism have persuaded me to offer to you peacefully and quietly the throne for which our ancestors fought on the field of battle, [i.e. Galba’s great-grandfather had fought for Caesar against Piso’s ancestor, Pompey.] and which I too won by war. In so doing I am following the precedent set by the sainted Augustus, who raised to the rank next himself first his nephew Marcellus, then his son-in-law Agrippa, then his daughter’s sons, [The children of Julia and Agrippa] and finally his stepson Tiberius Nero. However, while Augustus looked for a successor in his own family, I have searched throughout the country. Not that I lack either kinsmen or supporters, but it was by no favor of birth that I myself came to the throne, and, to prove my policy in this matter, consider how I have passed over not only my own relatives but yours. You have an elder brother, [Crassus Scribonianus, cp. chap. 47, and iv. 39] as noble as yourself. He would have been worthy of this position, but you are worthier. You are old enough to have outlived youthful passions. Your life has been such that you have nothing in your past to excuse. So far you have only experienced misfortune.”

“Prosperity probes the heart with a keener touch; misery only calls for patience, but there is corruption in success. Honesty, candor, and affection are the best of human qualities, and doubtless you yourself have enough character to retain them. But the complaisance of others will weaken your character. Flattery and servile compliments will break down its defenses and self-interest too, the bane of all sincerity. What though you and I can talk plainly with each other to-day? Others will address themselves not to us but to our fortunes. To persuade an emperor what he ought to do is a laborious task: any one can flatter him without a spark of sincerity.”

“If the vast bulk of this empire could stand and keep its balance without a guiding hand, the Republic might well have dated its birth from me. As it is, things have long ago come to such a pass that neither I in my old age can give the Roman people any better gift than a good successor, nor you in your prime anything better than a good emperor. Under Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, Rome was the heirloom of a single family. There is a kind of liberty in the free choice we have begun to exercise. Now that the Julian and Claudian houses are extinct, by the plan of adoption the best man will always be discovered. Royal birth is the gift of fortune, and is but valued as such. In adoption we can use a free judgement, and if we wish to choose well, the voice of the country points the way. Think of Nero, swollen with the pride of his long line of royal ancestry. It was not Vindex with a powerless province at his back, nor I with a single legion that freed Rome’s shoulders of that burden: it was his own cruelty and profligacy. And that was before there was any precedent for the conviction of an emperor.”

‘We have been called to the throne by the swords of those who thought us worthy. Our high state will not escape the eye of envy. You may be sure of that. But there is no reason for you to feel alarm because in this world-wide upheaval a couple of legions have not yet settled down. I myself did not succeed to a safe and peaceful throne, and, when once the news of your adoption is spread, I shall cease to be charged with my advanced age, which is now the only fault they find in me. The rascals will always miss Nero: you and I have got to see that good citizens do not miss him too. A longer sermon would ill befit the time and I have fulfilled my purpose, if I have done right in choosing you. The soundest and easiest criterion of right and wrong policy is to consider what you would have approved or condemned in another emperor. For Rome is not like the nations which are ruled by kings, where one house is supreme and the rest are slaves. Your future subjects are men who cannot endure the extremes either of bondage or of freedom.”

Galba spoke these words and more to the same effect in the tone of one creating an emperor: the rest addressed Piso as though he were emperor already. He is said to have betrayed no sign of amazement or elation either before those who were then present, or later when everybody’s eyes centered upon him. His language to his emperor and adoptive father was deeply respectful and he spoke modestly of himself. He made no change in his expression or bearing, showing himself more able than anxious to rule. A discussion then took place whether the adoption should be announced before the people or in the senate, or in the guards’ camp. They decided in favor of the camp, on the ground that it would be a compliment to the troops, whose goodwill was hard to win by flattery or bribes, but was by no means to be despised, if it could be won by good means. Meanwhile the curiosity of the populace, impatient of any important secret, had brought together crowds all-round the Palace, and when once the rumour began to leak out an attempt at suppression only resulted in spreading it.

The tenth of January was a dreary wet day, and an extraordinary storm of thunder and lightning showed the displeasure of Providence. Such phenomena were regarded in old days as a sign for the suspension of public business, but they did not deter Galba from proceeding to the camp. Either he disregarded such things as the result of pure chance or else he felt that the blows of fate may be foretold but not forestalled. He addressed a crowded assembly of the soldiers with true imperial brevity, stating simply that in adopting Piso he was following the example of the sainted Augustus, and the old military custom whereby each man chose another. [ i.e. co-optation, employed in former days to raise a special contingent for emergencies] He was afraid that by suppressing the news of the German rebellion he might only seem to exaggerate the danger, so he voluntarily declared that the Fourth and Twenty-second legions had been led by a few traitors into seditious murmurings but no further, and would soon return to their allegiance.

He made no attempt to enhance his words either by eloquence or largess. However, the tribunes and centurions and those of the soldiers who stood nearest to him gave well-sounding answers. The rest were sorry and silent, for the war seemed to have lost them the largess that had always been usual even in peace. Everybody agrees that they could have been won over had the parsimonious old emperor made the least display of generosity. He was ruined by his strict old-fashioned inflexibility, which seems too rigorous for these degenerate days.

From the camp they proceeded to the senate, and Galba’s speech to its members was no fuller or finer than to the soldiers. Piso spoke graciously, and there was no lack of support in the senate. Many wished him well. Those who did not were the more effusive. The majority were indifferent, but displayed a ready affability, intent on their private speculations without thought of the country’s good. No other public action is reported of Piso during the four days which intervened between his adoption and assassination.


Reports of the German rebellion grew daily more insistent and the public was always ready to believe any news, provided it was bad. Accordingly the senate decided that a commission must be sent to the army in Germany. It was discussed in private whether Piso should go himself to add dignity to the commission, since he could carry the authority of the emperor, while the others represented the senate. It was also proposed to send Laco, the prefect of the Guards, but he objected. The senate had allowed Galba to nominate the commissioners and he showed the most miserable indecision, now nominating members, now excusing them, now making exchanges, yielding always to pressure from people who wanted to go or to stay at home according as they were determined by their hopes or their fears. The next question was one of finance. After investigating all possible sources it seemed most reasonable to recover the revenue from those quarters where the cause of the deficit lay.

Nero had squandered in lavish presents two thousand two hundred million sesterces. [About twenty-three million sterling of our money] Galba gave instructions that these monies should be recovered from the individual recipients, leaving each a tithe of their original gift. However, in each case there was scarcely a tenth part left, for these worthless spendthrifts had run through Nero’s money as freely as they had squandered their own: they had no real property or capital left, nothing but the apparatus of their luxury. Thirty of the knights were entrusted with the duty of recovering the money. This commission, for which there was no precedent, proved vastly unpopular owing to the scope of its authority, and the large number of the victims. Every quarter seemed beset with sales and brokers and lawsuits. And yet lively satisfaction was caused by the discovery that the beneficiaries of Nero’s bounty were as poor as the victims of his greed.

At this time several officers were cashiered, Antonius Taurus and Antonius Naso of the Guards, Aemilius Pacensis of the City Garrison, and Julius Fronto of the Police. [ i.e. of the cohorts which formed the police and fire-brigade of the city] However, this proved no remedy. The others only began to feel alarmed, thinking that Galba’s craft and timidity had sacrificed a few, while his suspicions rested on them all.


Meanwhile Otho had nothing to hope from a peaceful settlement: all his plans demanded a disturbance. Many motives spurred him on: his extravagance would have ruined a prince, and his poverty has perplexed a private person: he was angry with Galba and jealous of Piso. He also alleged fears for his safety, by way of whetting his ambition. ‘I proved a nuisance to Nero,’ he would say, ‘and can scarcely expect the compliment of a second exile to Lusitania. Besides, monarchs always hate and suspect the man who is mentioned as “next to the throne”. This was what did me harm with the old emperor, and it will weigh still more with the youthful Piso, who is naturally savage and has been exasperated by a long period of exile. It would be easy to kill me. I must do and dare while Galba’s authority is on the wane and Piso’s not yet established. These times of change suit big enterprises; inaction is more deadly than daring; there is no call for delay. Death is the natural end for all alike, and the only difference is between fame and oblivion afterwards. Seeing that the same end awaits the innocent and the guilty, a man of spirit should at least deserve his fate.’

Otho’s character was by no means so effeminate as his person. His intimate freedmen and slaves, who were allowed a license unusual in private households, dangled before him the baits for which he was greedy: the luxuries of Nero’s Court, the marriages he could make, the adulteries he could commit, and all the other imperial pleasures. They were his, they pointed out, if he would bestir himself; it was shameful to lie quiet and leave them to others. He was also incited by the astrologers, who declared that their study of the stars pointed to great changes and a year of glory for Otho. Creatures of this class always deceive the ambitious, though those in power distrust them.

Probably we shall go on forever proscribing them and keeping them by us. [Decrees excluding astrologers from Italy had been passed in B.C. 33, A.D. 16, and again in A.D. 52. Vitellius passed another] Poppaea [Nero’s wife] had always had her boudoir full of these astrologers, the worst kind of outfit for a royal ménage. One of them, called Ptolemy, had gone with Otho to Spain [i.e. to Lusitania] and foretold that he would outlive Nero. This came true and Otho believed in him. He now based his vague conjectures on the computations of Galba’s age and Otho’s youth, and persuaded him that he would ascend the throne. But, though the man had no real skill, Otho accepted the prophecy as if it was the finger of fate. Human nature always likes to believe what it cannot understand.

Nor was Ptolemy himself slow to incite his master to crime, to which it is only a short step from such ambitions. But whether his criminal designs were deliberate or suddenly conceived, it is impossible to say. He had long been courting the goodwill of the soldiers either in the hope of being adopted by Galba or to prepare the way for treason. On the road from Spain, while the men were marching or on outpost duty, he would address the veterans by name, reminding them how he and they had served together under Nero, and calling them his comrades. He renewed acquaintance with some, asked after others and helped them with money or influence, frequently letting fall complaints and ambiguous remarks about Galba, using all the arts which work upon uneducated minds. The soldiers grumbled bitterly at the exertions of the march, the shortage of provisions, and the strict discipline. What they were used to was a journey to the Campanian Lakes or Greek seaports on board ship; [They were ‘Guards’ who had escorted Nero on his singing tours through Greece. Perhaps some of them came to meet Galba on his way from Spain. Otherwise they could not have shared the toils of this march] they found it hard to struggle over the Pyrenees and Alps, and march immense distances under arms.

While the soldiers were thus already fired with discontent, Maevius Pudens, one of Tigellinus’ intimates, added fuel to their feelings by luring on all who were naturally unstable or in need of money, or rashly eager for a change. Eventually, whenever Galba dined with him, Otho went the length of presenting a hundred sesterces to each of the soldiers on guard, on the pretext that this was instead of entertaining them. [The public dinner given in older days by patrons to their clients had long ago been commuted for a ‘tip’ (sportula). Pudens, instead of providing dinner for Galba’s guard, sought their favour by giving them about 17”s.” apiece] This system of public largess Otho extended by making presents in confidence to individuals, and such spirit did he show in bribery that when a member of the Body Guard, Cocceius Proculus, brought an action to claim part of his neighbour’s farm, Otho bought the whole property out of his own pocket and gave it to him. He was enabled to do this by the inefficiency of the Prefect Laco, who was no less blind to notorious than to secret scandals.

Otho then put Onomastus, one of his freedmen, in charge of the projected crime, and Onomastus took into his confidence Barbius Proculus, an aide-de-camp, and a subaltern named Veturius, both in the Body Guard. [The English terms do not of course represent the exact position of these soldiers. The former was one of the emperor’s personal body-guard (speculatores), who received the watchword (tessera) and passed it round: the latter was one to whom a centurion had delegated some part of his work] Having assured himself by many interviews that they were both bold and cunning, Otho proceeded to load them with bribes and promises, providing them with funds to enable them to test the feelings of the others. And so a couple of common soldiers took it upon them to transfer the Roman Empire: and they did it. A very few were admitted as accomplices. These, by various devices, worked on the indecision of the others. The non-commissioned officers who had been promoted by Nymphidius felt themselves under suspicion; the private soldiers were indignant and in despair at the constant postponement of Galba’s largess; some few were fired by the recollection of Nero’s regime and longed for the days of license; all in common shared the fear of being drafted out of the Praetorian Guards.

The infection of treason soon spread to the legions and auxiliaries, whose excitement had been aroused as soon as they heard that the armies of Germany were wavering in their allegiance. So, as the disloyal were ready for treason and the loyal shut their eyes, they at first determined to acclaim Otho as he was returning from dinner on the night of the fourteenth. However, they hesitated: the darkness spelt uncertainty, the troops were scattered all over the town, and unanimity could scarcely be expected from drunken men. They were not deterred by any affection for their country’s honour, which they were deliberately preparing to stain with its emperor’s blood, but they were afraid that, as Otho was unknown to the majority, someone else might by mistake be offered to the Pannonian or German legions and proclaimed emperor. Some evidence of the brewing plot leaked out, but it was suppressed by the conspirators. Rumours even reached Galba’s ears, but Laco made light of them, being totally ignorant of soldiers’ characters, hostile to any suggestion, however wise, that was not his own, and extremely obstinate with men who knew more than he did.

On January 15, as Galba was sacrificing in front of the temple of Apollo, the priest Umbricius declared the omens un-favorable: treason was impending, and an enemy within the walls. Otho, who was standing beside Galba, overheard and construed the omen as being from his own point of view a good one, favourable to his plans. In a few moments his freedman, Onomastus, announced that the architect and contractors were waiting to see him. This had been agreed upon as the signal that the troops were assembling and the conspiracy was ripe. On being asked where he was going, Otho pretended that he was buying an old property, but suspected its condition and so had to inspect it first. Thus, leaning on his freedman’s shoulder, he passed through Tiberius’ house into the Velabrum and thence to the Golden Milestone at the foot of the Temple of Saturn. [Plutarch explains this. ‘He passed through Tiberius’ house, as it is called, and walked down to the Forum, where stands the golden pillar to which all the high-roads of Italy lead.’ The Velabrum lies between the Forum, the Tiber, and the Aventine] There thirty-three soldiers of the Body Guard saluted him as emperor. When he showed alarm at the smallness of their number they put him hastily into a litter, and, drawing their swords, hurried him away. About the same number of soldiers joined them on the way, some accomplices, others merely curious. Some marched along shouting and flourishing swords; others kept silent, intending to take their cue from subsequent events.

Julius Martialis was the tribune on duty in the camp. He was so overcome by the magnitude of this unexpected crime and so afraid that the treason was widespread in the camp, and that he might be killed if he offered any opposition, that he led most people to suppose he was in the plot. So, too, the other tribunes and centurions all preferred present safety to a risky loyalty. In fact the general attitude was this: few dared to undertake so foul a crime, many wished to see it done, and everybody was ready to condone it.

REFERENCE: The Histories (Book 1) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus; Translated By W. HAMILTON FYFE (1912); CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick

Roman Empire: Servius Galba-The Fall (Part 3)

Roman Empire; Servius Galba (Part 1)


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