Roman Empire: Otho-On the Throne (Part 4)


None of his murders pleased Otho so much as this. On Piso’s head, as on no other, they say, he gazed with insatiable eyes. [According to Plutarch, when they brought Otho Galba’s head, he said, ‘That’s nothing: show me Piso’s ]This was possibly the first moment at which he felt relieved of all anxiety, and free to indulge his glee; or perhaps, in the case of Galba and of Vinius, the recollection of his treason to the one and of his former friendship with the other troubled even his unfeeling heart with gloomy thoughts, whereas, Piso being an enemy and a rival, he considered it a pious duty to gloat over his murder. Their heads were fixed on poles and carried along with the standards of the cohorts side by side with the eagle of the legion. [i.e. the legion of marines-Prima Adiutrix] Those who had done the deed and those who had witnessed it vied with each other in displaying their bloody hands, all boasting of their share–some falsely, some truly-as if it were a fine and memorable exploit. Vitellius subsequently discovered more than 120 petitions demanding rewards for distinguished services rendered on that day. He gave orders to search out all the petitioners and put them to death. This was from no respect for Galba: he merely followed the traditional custom by which princes secure their present safety and posthumous vengeance.

The senate and people seemed different men. There was a general rush for the camp, every one shouldering his neighbour and trying to overtake those in front. They heaped insults on Galba, praised the prudence of the troops, and covered Otho’s hand with kisses, their extravagance varying inversely with their sincerity. Otho rebuffed no one, and succeeded by his words and looks in moderating the menace of the soldiers’ greed for vengeance. They loudly demanded the execution of Marius Celsus, the consul-elect, who had remained Galba’s faithful friend to the last. They were as much offended at his efficiency and honesty as if these had been criminal qualities. What they wanted was obviously to find a first excuse for plunder and murder and the destruction of all decent citizens. But Otho had as yet no influence to prevent crimes: he could only order them. So he simulated anger, giving instructions for Celsus’ arrest, and by promising that he should meet with a worse penalty, thus rescued him from immediate death.

The will of the soldiers was now henceforward supreme. The Praetorian Guards chose their own prefects, Plotius Firmus, a man who had risen from the ranks to the post of Chief of Police, [i.e. in command of the “cohortes vigilum”] and joined Otho’s side before Galba’s fall, and Licinius Proculus, an intimate friend of Otho, and therefore suspected of furthering his plans. They made Flavius Sabinus [Vespasian’s elder brother. He continued to hold the office under Vitellius] prefect of the city, therein following Nero’s choice, under whom Sabinus had held that post; besides, most of them had an eye to the fact that he was Vespasian’s brother. An urgent demand arose that the customary fees to centurions for granting furlough should be abolished, for they constituted a sort of annual tax upon the common soldier. The result had been that a quarter of each company could go off on leave or lounge idly about the barracks, so long as they paid the centurion his fee, nor was there any one to control either the amount of this impost or the means by which the soldiers raised the money: highway robbery or menial service was the usual resort whereby they purchased leisure. Then, again, a soldier who had money was savagely burdened with work until he should buy exemption. Thus he soon became impoverished and enervated by idleness, and returned to his company no longer a man of means and energy but penniless and lazy. So the process went on. One after another they became deteriorated by poverty and lax discipline, rushing blindly into quarrels and mutiny, and, as a last resource, into civil war. Otho was afraid of alienating the centurions by his concessions to the rank and file, and promised to pay the annual furlough-fees out of his private purse. This was indubitably a sound reform, which good emperors have since established as a regular custom in the army. The prefect Laco he pretended to banish to an island, but on his arrival he was stabbed by a reservist whom Otho had previously dispatched for that purpose. Marcianus Icelus, as being one of his own freedmen, [As a “libertus Caesaris” he passed into Otho’s hands with the rest of the palace furniture] he sentenced to public execution.

Thus the day was spent in crimes, and worst of all was the joy they caused. The senate was summoned by the urban praetor. [The consuls Galba and Vinius were both dead] The other magistrates all vied in flattery. The senators arrived post-haste. They decreed to Otho the powers of the tribunate, the title of Augustus, and all the imperial prerogatives. Their unanimous object was to blot out all recollection of former insults; but, as these had been hurled equally from all sides, they did not, as far as anyone could see, stick in his memory. Whether he had forgotten them or only postponed punishment, his reign was too short to show. He was then carried through the still reeking Forum among the piles of dead bodies to the Capitol, and thence to the palace. He granted permission to burn and bury the bodies of his victims. Piso’s wife Verania and his brother Scribonianus laid out his body, and this was done for Vinius by his daughter Crispina. They had to search for the heads and buy them back from the murderers, who had preserved them for sale.


Piso was in his thirty-first year. His reputation was better than his fortune. His brothers had been executed, Magnus by Claudius, Crassus by Nero. [Cn. Pompeius Magnus was Claudius’ son-in-law, and executed by him ‘on a vague charge’. M. Licinius Crassus Frugi was accused of treason to Nero by Aquilius Regulus, an informer, whom one of Pliny’s friends calls ‘the vilest of bipeds’. Regulus’ brother was Vipstanus Messala. Cp. iv. 42] He himself after being long in exile was a Caesar for four days. Hastily adopted in preference to his elder brother [Scribonianus. Cp. chap. 15] the only advantage he reaped was to be killed first.

Titus Vinius in his fifty-seven years had displayed strange contrasts of character. His father belonged to a family of praetorian rank; his mother’s father was one of the proscribed. [Under the second triumvirate] A scandal marked his first military service under the general Calvisius Sabinus. [He was governor of Pannonia under Caligula] The general’s wife suffered from a suspicious desire to inspect the arrangements of the camp, which she entered by night disguised in soldier’s uniform. There she brazenly interfered with the guard and the soldiers on duty, and eventually had the effrontery to commit adultery in the general’s own quarters. The man convicted of implication in this scandal was Titus Vinius. He was therefore put in irons by order of Caligula. [Sabinus and his wife were prosecuted, and both committed suicide] However, the fortunes of the time soon changed and he was set at liberty. After mounting the ladder of office without check, he was as an ex-praetor given the command of a legion, and proved successful. But soon again he soiled his reputation, and laid himself under the charge of having been mean enough to steal a gold cup from Claudius’ dinner-table. Claudius gave orders that on the next day Vinius alone of all his guests should be served on earthenware. However, as pro-consul, Vinius’ government of Narbonese Gaul was strict and honest. Subsequently his friendship with Galba brought him into danger. He was bold, cunning, and efficient, with great power for good or for evil, according to his mood. Vinius’ will was annulled because of his great wealth. Piso was poor, so his last wishes were respected.

Galba’s body lay long neglected, and under cover of darkness was subjected to various insults. Eventually his steward Argius, one of his former slaves, gave it a humble burial in his private garden. His head, which the camp-followers and servants had mangled and carried on a pole, was found next day in front of the tomb of Patrobius (one of Nero’s freedmen whom Galba had executed) and buried with the body which had already been cremated. Such was the end of Servius Galba, who for seventy-three years had enjoyed prosperity under five different emperors, happier in their reign than his own. He came of an old and noble family and possessed great wealth. His own character was mediocre, rather free from vices than rich in virtues. Though not indifferent to fame, he did not court it by advertisement. Not greedy of other people’s money, he was careful of his own, and a miser with public funds. His attitude towards friends and freedmen, if they were honest, was one of kindly complaisance; when they were not, he was culpably blind. But his distinguished origin and the peculiar perils of the time disguised his apathy, which passed as prudence. [Under Nero, says Tacitus in his Life of Agricola, ‘the wisest man was he who did least‘] In the flower of his youth he served with distinction in Germany. As pro-consul he governed Africa wisely, and in later years showed the same equity in Nearer Spain. [He had governed the upper province of Germany under Caligula; Africa under Claudius; the Tarragona division of Spain under Nero. In Germany he defeated the Chatti A.D. 41] When he was a commoner he seemed too big for his station, and had he never been emperor, no one would have doubted his ability to reign.

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


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