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

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

Meanwhile Galba in total ignorance and intent upon his sacrifices continued to importune the gods of an empire that had already ceased to be his. First there came a rumour that someone or other of the senators was being hurried to the camp, then that it was Otho.

Immediately people who had met Otho came flocking in from all quarters of Rome; some in their terror exaggerated the truth, some minimized it, remembering even then to flatter. After discussion it was decided that the temper of the cohort on guard in the palace should be tested, but not by Galba himself. His authority was held in reserve for more heroic remedies. The troops were summoned. Piso, standing out on the steps of the palace, addressed them as follows: “Fellow soldiers, it is now five days since I was made a Caesar. I knew nothing of the future or whether the name was more to be desired or feared. It now lies with you to decide whether or not my adoption is to prove a calamity for my house and for my country. In saying this, I do not dread disaster on my own account. I have known misfortune, and I am now discovering to the full that prosperity is just as dangerous. But for the sake of my adoptive father, of the senate, and of the whole empire, I deplore the thought that we may have to-day either to die or-what for good men is as wretched-to kill. In the recent revolution our comfort was that Rome was spared the sight of blood, and the transfer was affected without disturbance. We thought that my adoption would be a safeguard against an outbreak of civil war even after Galba’s death.”

“I will make no claims to rank or respectability. To compare myself with Otho, I need not recite my virtues. His vices are all he has to be proud of. They ruined the empire, even when he was only playing the part of an emperor’s friend. Why should he deserve to be emperor? For his swaggering demeanour? For his effeminate costume? Extravagance imposes on some people. They take it for liberality. They are wrong. He will know how to squander money, but not how to give it away. His mind is full of lechery and debauchery and intrigues with women. These are in his eyes the prerogatives of the throne. And the pleasure of his vices would be all his, the blushes of shame would be ours. No man has ever ruled well who won the throne by bad means.

‘The whole Roman world agreed to give Galba the title of Caesar. Galba with your approval gave that title to me. Even if the “country”, the “senate”, the “people”, is empty terms, it is to your interest, my fellow soldiers, to see that it is not the rascals who create an emperor. From time to time one hears of the legionaries being in mutiny against their generals. But your good faith and your good name have stood to this day unimpaired. It was not you who deserted Nero: he deserted you. Are you going to allow less than thirty deserters and renegades to bestow the crown? Why! no one would tolerate their choosing so much as a centurion or a tribune for themselves. Are you going to allow this precedent, and by your acquiescence make their crime your own? You will soon see this lawless spirit spreading to the troops abroad and in time the treason will recoil on us and the war on you. Besides, innocence wins you as much as the murder of your emperor: you will get from us as large a bounty for your loyalty as you would from others for your crime.’

The members of the Body Guard dispersed. The rest of the cohort paid some heed to his speech. Aimlessly, as happens in moments of confusion, they seized their standards, without as yet any fixed plan, and not, as was afterwards believed, to cloak their treachery. Marius Celsus had been dispatched to the picked detachments of the Illyrian army, which were quartered in the Vipsanian arcade, [These troops, having no head-quarters in Rome, were put up in a piazza built by M. Vipsanius Agrippa, and decorated with paintings of Neptune and of the Argonauts. Cp. ii. 93; where troops are quartered in colonnades or temples] while instructions had been given to two senior centurions, [The term primipilaris denotes one who had been the centurion commanding the first maniple (pilani) of the first cohort of a legion. He was an officer of great importance, highly paid, and often admitted to the general’s council. Otho’s expedition to Narbonese Gaul (chap. 87) was commanded by two such ‘senior centurions’] Amullius Serenus and Domitius Sabinus, to summon the German troops from the Hall of Liberty.

They distrusted the legion of marines, who had been alienated by Galba’s butchery of their comrades on his entry into Rome. Three officers of the guards, Cetrius Severus, Subrius Dexter, and Pompeius Longinus, also hurried to the camp in the hope that the mutiny was still in its early stages and might be averted by good advice before it came to a head. The soldiers attacked Subrius and Cetrius with threats and forcibly seizing Longinus disarmed him, because he had not come in virtue of his military rank, but simply as one of Galba’s private friends; and for his loyalty to his master the rebels disliked him all the more. The marines without any hesitation joined the guards. The Illyrian draft drove Celsus away at the point of their javelins. The German detachments wavered for some time. They were still in poor condition physically, and inclined to be passive. Nero had dispatched them as an advance-guard to Alexandria; [Nero was meditating an Ethiopian campaign when the revolt of Vindex broke out] the long voyage back again had damaged their health, and Galba had spared no expense in looking after them.

The whole populace of Rome was now crowding into the palace together with a good sprinkling of slaves. With discordant shouts they demanded the death of Otho and the doom of the conspirators. They might have been in the circus or the theatre, clamouring for entertainment. There was neither sense nor sincerity in their behaviour. They were quite ready on the same day to clamour for the opposite with equal zeal. But it is an established custom to flatter any emperor with unbridled cheering and meaningless enthusiasm.

Meanwhile Galba was torn between two opinions. Titus Vinius maintained that they ought to remain within the palace, employ the slaves to offer resistance and block up all the doors, instead of going out to face the angry troops. ‘This will give time,’ he urged, ‘for the disloyal to repent and the loyal to unite their forces. Crimes demand haste, good counsels profit by delay. Besides, if need be, we shall have the same chance of leaving the palace later: if we leave and repent of it, it will not be in our power to return.’

All the others voted for immediate action before the conspiracy gathered strength and numbers. ‘Otho,’ they argued, ‘will soon lose heart. He crept away by stealth and was introduced in a litter to a parcel of strangers, and now because we dally and waste time he has leisure to rehearse his part of emperor. What is the good of waiting until Otho sets his camp in order and approaches the Capitol, while Galba peeps out of a window? Are this famous general and his gallant friends to shut the doors and not to stir a foot over the threshold, as if they were anxious to endure a siege? Much help may we hope from slaves, when once the unwieldy crowd loses its unity and their first indignation, which counts for so much, begins to cool. No, cowardice is too risky. Or if we must fall, let us meet the danger half-way, and cover Otho with disgrace, ourselves with honour.’

When Vinius resisted this proposal, Laco, prompted by Icelus, assailed him with threats, persisting in his private quarrel to the ruin of his country. Galba without further delay supported those whose plan would look best. However, Piso was first dispatched to the camp. The young man had a great name, his popularity was still fresh, and moreover, he disliked Titus Vinius, or, if he did not, Vinius’ enemies hoped he did: it is so easy to believe in hatred. Scarcely had Piso departed, when there arrived a rumour that Otho had been killed in the camp. At first it was vague and uncertain, but eventually, as so often happens with daring lies, people began to assert that they had been present and seen the deed. Some were glad and some indifferent, so the news gained easy credence. Many, however, thought that the report had been concocted and disseminated by friends of Otho, who now mingled in the crowd and tried to lure Galba out by spreading this agreeable falsehood. At this point not only the populace and the inexperienced mob but many of the knights and senators as well broke out into applause and unbridled enthusiasm.

With their fear they had lost their caution. Breaking open the palace gates they rushed in and presented themselves before Galba, complaining that they had been forestalled in the task of revenge. All the cowards who, as events proved, could show no pluck in action, indulged in excessive heroics and lip-courage. Nobody knew everybody talked. At last, for lack of the truth, Galba yielded to the consensus of error. When he had put on his breastplate he was lifted into a chair, for he was too old and infirm to stand against the crowds that kept flocking in. In the palace he was met by Julius Atticus, of the Body Guard, who displayed a dripping sword and shouted out that he had killed Otho. ‘Comrade,’ said Galba, ‘who bade you?’ Galba neither had a remarkable power of curbing soldiers’ presumption, for he was not afraid of threats nor moved by flattery.

Meanwhile in Otho’s camp there was no longer any doubt of the soldiers’ unanimity. Such was their enthusiasm that they were not content with carrying Otho shoulder-high in procession; they placed him among the standards on the platform, where shortly before a gilt statue of Galba had stood, and made a ring round him with their colours. [Probably the colours of the different maniples as distinct from the standards of the cohorts] Tribunes and centurions were allowed no approach: the common soldiers even called out, ‘Beware of the officers.’ The whole camp resounded with confused shouts of mutual encouragement. It was quite unlike the wavering and spiritless flattery of a civil mob. As new adherents streamed in, directly a soldier caught sight of one of them, he grasped him by the hand, flung his arms round him, kept him at his side, and dictated the oath of allegiance. Some commended their general to his soldiers, and some the soldiers to their general. Otho, for his part, was not slow to greet the crowd with outstretched hand and throw kisses to them. In every way he played the slave to gain a throne. When the whole legion of the marines had sworn allegiance, he gained confidence in his strength, and, considering that those whom he had incited individually needed a few words of general encouragement, he stood out on the rampart and began as follows:–‘In what guise I come forward to address you, Fellow Soldiers, I cannot tell.

Dubbed emperor by you, I dare not call myself a private citizen: yet “emperor” I cannot say with another on the throne. And what am I to call you? That too will remain in doubt until it is decided whether you have here in your camp an enemy or an emperor of Rome. You hear how they clamour at once for my death and your punishment. So clear is it that we must fall or stand together. Doubtless Galba-such is his clemency-has already promised our destruction. Is he not the man who without the least excuse butchered thousands of utterly innocent soldiers? I shudder whenever I recall his ghastly entry into the city, when before the face of Rome he ordered the decimation of the troops whom at their humble petition he had taken under his protection. That is Galba’s only “victory”. These were the auspices under which he made his entry; and what glory has he brought to the throne he occupies, save the murder of Obultronius Sabinus and Cornelius Marcellus in Spain, of Betuus Cilo in Gaul, of Fonteius Capito in Germany, of Clodius Macer in Africa, of Cingonius on his march to Rome, of Turpilianus in the city, and of Nymphidius in the camp? What province is there in the empire that has not been polluted with massacre? He calls it “salutary correction”.

For his “remedies” are what other people call crimes: his cruelty is disguised as “austerity”, his avarice as “economy”, while by “discipline” he means punishing and insulting you. It is but seven months since Nero’s death, and already Icelus alone has embezzled more than all the depredations of Polyclitus and Vatinius and Aegialus [Freedmen who had curried favour with Nero. Polyclitus was sent to inquire to Suetonius Paulinus’ administration of Britain after the revolt of Boadicea in A.D. 61. Vatinius was a deformed cobbler from Beneventum who became a sort of court buffoon, and acquired great wealth and bad influence] put together. Why, Vinius would have been less greedy and lawless had he been emperor himself. As it is, he treats us as his own subjects and despises us as Galba’s. His own fortune alone could provide the largess which they daily cast in your teeth but never pay into your pocket.

‘Nor in Galba’s successor either is there any hope for you. Galba has seen to that. He has recalled from exile the man whose avarice and sour temper he judged most like his own. You witnessed for yourselves, my comrades, the extraordinary storm which signified Heaven’s abhorrence at that ill-starred adoption. The Senate and People of Rome feel the same. They are counting on your courage. You alone can give strength to the right policy: it is powerless without you, however good it is. It is not to war and danger that I call you. All the troops are with us. That single plain-clothes cohort [The cohort on guard seem to have been in mufti, without helmets and shields or their military cloaks, but armed with swords and javelins] is no longer a defense to Galba, but a hindrance. When once they have caught sight of you, when once they come to take their orders from me, the only quarrel between you will be who can do most to put me in their debt. There is no room for delay in plans which cannot be commended until they are put into action.’

Otho then gave orders to open the arsenal. The soldiers immediately seized their arms in such haste that all the ordinary distinctions of the service were neglected: neither Guards nor Legionaries carried their own arms: [The legionaries armed themselves with lances (“hastae”), and the auxiliaries with javelins (“pila”).] in the confusion they took the helmets and shields of the auxiliaries. There were no tribunes or centurions to encourage them: each man followed his own lead, and the rascals found their chief incentive in the consternation of the loyal. As the riot increased, Piso, alarmed by the din of their shouts, which could be heard even in the city, had overtaken Galba, who had meanwhile left the palace and was approaching the Forum. Marius Celsus had also brought back no good news. Some were for returning to the palace, others for seeking the shelter of the Capitol, many for seizing the Rostra.

The majority merely disagreed with other people’s proposals, and, as so often happens in these disasters, the best course always seemed the one for which it was now too late. It is said that Laco, without Galba’s knowledge, proposed the assassination of Titus Vinius, either with the idea that his execution would be a sop to the soldiers, or because he believed him Otho’s accomplice, or, as a last alternative, hatred may have been his motive. However, the time and the place both bred scruples; when killing once begins it is difficult to set a limit: besides, their plans were upset by the arrival of terrified messengers, by the continual desertion of their supporters, and by a general waning of enthusiasm even among those who at first had been the keenest to display their loyalty and courage.

Galba was driven hither and thither by the tide of the surging mob. The temples and public buildings [The word “basilica” refers to the buildings round the Forum, used for legal, financial, and commercial purposes. Most of them had cloisters] were crowded with spectators, who viewed a sorry scene. No shouts came from the crowd: astonishment was on their faces, and their ears open to every sound.

There was neither uproar nor quiet, but the silence of strong emotion and alarm. However, a report reached Otho that the populace was arming. He bade his men fly headlong to forestall the danger. Off went the Roman soldiers as if they were going to drag Vologaesus or Pacorus from the ancestral throne of the Arsacids [The Parthian royal family: Vologaesus was king of Parthia, and his brother Pacorus viceroy of Media Atropatene]-and not to butcher their own emperor, a helpless old man. Armed to the teeth, they broke at a full gallop into the Forum, scattering the populace and trampling senators under foot. Neither the sight of the Capitol nor the sanctity of the temples towering above them, nor the thought of Roman emperors past and to come, could avail to deter them from committing that crime which the next successor always avenges.

Seeing the armed ranks now close at hand, the standard-bearer of the cohort on guard over Galba-tradition says his name was Atilius Vergilio-tore off the medallion of Galba [Attached to the pole of the standard] and flung it to the ground. This signal clearly showed that all the troops were for Otho: the people fled from the deserted Forum and swords were drawn against any who lingered. Near ‘Lake Curtius’ [An enclosed pond in the middle of the Forum, supposed to be the spot where Curtius leapt on horseback into the chasm, or by others the spot where a Sabine chieftain was engulfed in the days of Romulus] Galba was precipitated from his chair by the panic-stricken haste of the bearers and flung to the ground. The accounts of his last words vary according as they are prompted by hatred or admiration. Some say that he whined and asked what harm he had deserved, begging for a few days’ respite to pay the troops their largess. The majority say that he offered his neck to the blow and bade them, ‘Come, strike, if it serves the country’s need.’ Whatever he said mattered little to his assassins. As to the actual murderer there is a difference of opinion. Some say it was Terentius, a reservist, [The word here used usually means a veteran re-enlisted in a special corps after his term had expired. It was also applied at this time in a special sense to a corps of young knights, who, without losing their status, acted as Galba’s special body-guard in the imperial palace. One of these may have been the murderer] others that his name was Laecanius.

The most common account is that a soldier of the Fifteenth legion, by name Camurius, pierced his throat with a sword-thrust. The others foully mangled his arms and legs (his breast was covered) and with bestial savagery continued to stab the headless corpse. Then they made for Titus Vinius. Here, too, there is a doubt whether the fear of imminent death strangled his voice, or whether he called out that they had no mandate from Otho to kill him. He may have invented this in his terror, or it may have been a confession of his complicity in the plot. His whole life and reputation give reason to suppose that he was an accomplice in the crime of which he was the cause. He was brought to the ground in front of the temple of Julius by a blow on the knee, and afterwards a common soldier named Julius Carus ran him through with a sword.

However, Rome found one hero that day. This was Sempronius Densus, a centurion of the Guards, who had been told off by Galba to protect Piso. Drawing his dagger he faced the armed assassins, flinging their treason in their teeth, and by his shouts and gestures turned their attention upon him, thus enabling Piso to escape despite his wounds. Piso, reaching the temple of Vesta, was mercifully sheltered by the verger, who hid him in his lodging. There, no reverence for this sanctuary but merely his concealment postponed his immediate death. Eventually, Otho, who was burning to have him killed, dispatched as special agents, Sulpicius Florus of the British cohorts, a man whom Galba had recently enfranchised, and Statius Murcus of the Body Guard. They dragged Piso forth and butchered him on the threshold of the temple.

REFERENCE: The Histories (Book 1) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus

Translated By W. HAMILTON FYFE (1912)

CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick

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