The Civil War of 68/69
68 - 69 CE
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In the power vacuum created by Nero's suicide, Rome would learn that emperors could be made elsewhere than Rome, and they didn't have to be relatives of Caesar. The citizens of Rome would watch from the sidelines as first Galba, then Otho, and finally Vitellius each took their short turns on center stage before Vespasian returned to reimpose a calm on the imperial maelstrom.

Galba (68-69 CE) Tetradrachm
About this coin:

When Vindex, governor of Gaul, asked Galba, governor of northern Spain, to join his rebellion against Nero, Galba quickly agreed. This isn't too surprising, since Vindex proposed not himself, but Galba, as the new Imperial candidate. Galba came from a noble background, so he had the credentials that Vindex lacked. Vindex was defeated and killed early on by forces loyal to Nero, but Galba continued to gain support.

In Rome, Galba's supporters offered bribes to Nero's guards to betray and abandon him. This started the ball rolling that led to Nero's suicide/murder. With Nero dead, the Senate sent word to Galba that they had selected him as Nero's replacement. But Galba immediately set the pattern that would lead to his own destruction -- he announced that he would not honor the bribes that had been promised for betraying Nero. He also refused to give the usual "gifts" to the military upon his accession, and later upon his adoption of an heir, Lucius Piso.

Galba then made another very bad choice. Worried about the highly popular governor of Northern Germany, Verginius Rufus, he recalled him. He also installed a self-indulgent incompetent named Vitellius in Southern Germany. Though popular, Rufus was also loyal, having twice refused the efforts of the German legions to declare him Emperor. When they approached Vitellius with the same offer that Rufus had refused, though, he quickly accepted, and the rebellion that Galba had tried to prevent was born.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, one of Galba's erstwhile supporters, Otho, had been cozying up to the Praetorian Guard and soldiers. He lavished monetary gifts upon them, in stark contrast with the parsimony of Galba. Nearly simultaneously, Galba learned that Vitellius was marching upon Rome and that the Praetorian Guard had declared in favor of Otho.

Galba headed to the Forum to confront his former ally. This proved to be his final act of folly, for the Praetorians charged his entourage, knocked him to the ground, and hacked him to pieces.

Otho (69) Denarius
About this coin:

One reason Otho had been quick to join Galba's anti-Nero rebellion was that Nero had stolen his wife, Poppaea. Another was that he thought it would be cool to be Emperor. The way he figured, Galba was an old man and wouldn't last long. He'd need to adopt a successor. Otho felt that he was the obvious candidate. This is why, when Galba had adopted Piso, Otho had felt seriously jilted, and had started laying the groundwork for his own usurpation.

After murdering Galba, Otho's supporters demanded that the Senate declare him Emperor. Faced with the sight of several heads on poles (while being urged, presumably, to imagine their own heads next to them) and the report that Vitellius and his troops were on the march toward Rome, the Senate quickly agreed.

At first, Otho tried to negotiate with Vitellius, but Vitellius refused. Otho rallied support in the southern and eastern provinces, but it would take quite some time for their troops to arrive to support him. At first, he attempted to fight a delaying action. Then, fearing defections among his own soldiers, he attempted to take the offensive. This proved a dismal failure, and Otho chose to take his own life even though reinforcements were not far away.

Vitellius (69) Denarius
About this coin:

In his early years, Vitellius had enjoyed the attentions of previous emperors more for his vices than his virtues. As a young man, he had been one of Tiberius's string of male prostitutes. Caligula had enjoyed his skills at chariot racing, and he had been partially crippled when Caligula ran him down. Claudius, on the other hand, liked Vitellius's penchant for games of dice. And all were impressed with his abilities at the dinner table.

This total lack of qualification for office was why Galba had placed him as governor of Lower Germany. Who would choose him to lead a rebellion? But the German legions had their hearts set on mutiny, and with a spineless and treacherous Vitellius in charge, the task was quite easy. It didn't matter much to them that by the time they arrived in Italy they were facing Otho, not Galba. The vanguard of Vitellius's armies was successful and Otho killed himself.

Upon hearing of Otho's suicide and his own elevation by the Senate, Vitellius headed slowly to Rome, enjoying the "hospitality" of the lands he passed through on the way, in his own inimitable style. He then engaged in what is reported to be an orgy of debauchery in Rome itself.

Meanwhile, in Judaea, Vespasian (whom, as you may recall, had been sent by Nero to crush the Jewish uprising) had declared his support for Otho; when they learned of Otho's death, his troops proclaimed him Emperor. The legions that had supported Otho rallied to his cause. Leaving his son Titus in charge in Jerusalem, he headed to Alexandria, Egypt, to cut off the grain shipments to Rome and sent troops on a deliberately slow march to Rome. His hope was that Vitellius would have been thrown out of office before they got there, and no fighting would be required.

But a Danubian commander, Primus, chose to engage Vitellius's armies immediately against Vespasian's wishes. They inflicted a huge defeat on the Vitellians in the same place that the Vitellians had earlier that year defeated Otho's troops. Vitellius tried to abdicate, negotiating a surrender with Vespasian's brother, Sabinus. But Vitellius's supporters didn't allow it, and Sabinus was captured and killed. Vespasian's youngest son, Domitian, barely escaped from Rome.

Finally, the Danubian legions under Primus entered Rome. They tortured and killed Vitellius, dragging him through the streets and dumping his body into the Tiber river. The Senate was getting pretty good at voting in new emperors, and it didn't take them long at all to declare Vespasian the new Emperor of Rome.


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