HistorySpin: The Year of the Four

BlairWalshProject drives a hard bargain, but after a palette of Fernet and a very strange evening in San Francisco, he agreed to let me borrow the HistorySpin keys for a jaunt. What are we learning about today, you ask? We're learning about the Gregorian calendar's year of 68/69 CE: The Year of the Four Emperors.

This story actually begins in 55 CE, when Nero—then a wry 18 year old—assumed the Emperorship after Claudius was fed poisoned mushrooms by his beautiful wife, Messalina. Always known for a dark sort of wit, Nero forever after referred to the dish as "food of the gods." Delicious.

Anyway, in 60 CE—after what scholars refer to as the "quinquennium"—Nero had something of an existential/political crisis and decided to have his mother, Agrippina, killed. Now, I know what you're thinking, that's terrible, right? Well, yes, it is terrible, and it's even more terrible in the way that it went down: while Agrippina was vacationing in the arch of Italy's boot, Nero contrived to have her pleasure cruise more or less collapse around her. But did she die there and then? Hell no! She swam ashore to the applause and tears of those on the beach. Nero, meanwhile, is, like, totally freaking out and has one of his slaves just go ahead and stab her. Apparently, when confronted with the stiletto, Agrippina pointed at her stomach and said something like, "Here! Stab me here! Where that little fuck came out of me!"

Needless to say, Nero's advisors at the time, Burrus and Seneca,[1] had had enough of their charge and wisely retired from public life. In their place, Nero appointed Tigillinus, who was a very bad man. Were you dumb enough to profess your Christianity back then, Tigillinus would—in the words of Juvenal—use you as a street lamp (you'd be crucified and burned)!

In 65 CE, Nero got wind of a conspiracy against his life. The so-called Pisonian Conspiracy (Calpurnius Piso was its leader) planned to kill Nero at a spring festival in Baiae. Without getting into too much detail, Nero had some 100 patrician and equestrian rank men and women put to death. Most went the route of suicide, happily taking a bath, opening their veins, and drinking themselves to sleep.

Less than three years later, in June of 68 CE, Nero was assassinated by his own Imperial guard. He attempted escape from the city (some say while wearing women's clothes), but they caught up to him, where he quoted Homer ("I hear the rumbling of horse hooves") and finally bled out after multiple stabbings ("Like an artist, I die").

Galba, or how to revolt your way to the throne

HistorySpin: The Year of the Four

The background noise to Nero's demise involves a series of revolts in Gaul (modern France) and the Rhine river valley on the part of disgruntled Roman soldiers and their commanders. In the spring of 68 CE, mere months before Nero's death, Galba was governor of the northeastern sector of Spain. His generalissimo there, a certain Vindex, rebelled against Nero's rather severe taxation policy, only to be squashed by Lucius Verginius Rufus, whose elite VII Gemina legion just happened to be in the neighborhood and looking for a fight.

With Romans killing Romans in the north, the head of Nero's Praetorian Guard, Nymphidius Sabinus (great name) convinced his men not only to hunt down Nero—who had lost all political clout in the city—but transfer their loyalties to Galba, who had proven himself a capable, if draconian, provincial governor in Spain. Thus, on 9 June 68 CE, Galba was officially recognized as emperor and made a desultory return to Rome, but not before levying stringent fines on those provincials who didn't recognize his auctoritas.

You've got to hand it to Galba: he stayed in power for about seven months. In that time, however, he refused to pay Nymphidius' Praetorian Guards the money promised to them for supporting Galba in the first place. Moreover, Verginius Rufus' Gemina legionnaires were declared public enemies for obstructing Galba's ascension to the Emperorship (even though at the time they were merely keeping order under Nero). Funny how leadership changes can retroactively write and interpret laws.

On 1 January 69 CE, Rufus' German legions named Aulus Vitellius (we'll come back to Vitellius) their emperor, not least because he had taken over for Rufus as governor/commandant for Germania Inferior. At the same time, Marcus Salvius Otho, feeling slighted that he hadn't been named Galba's successor, bribed an already mercenary Praetorian Guard at Rome into his allegiance and protection. Dismayed at these parallel political blows, on 15 January 69 CE, Galba rushed into the Forum in an attempt to restore some semblance of power and peace. He was immediately mobbed, beaten to death, and beheaded.

Otho, or how to fall backwards into the throne

HistorySpin: The Year of the Four

With Galba's corpse being bandied about the city, what was a power vacuum turned into a super-vacuum. Otho was named Emperor by the Senate, while Vitellius had been named Emperor by his own men. This sort of double timing popped up at various points in Roman history and almost always ended in blood. Much blood.

Otho was by nature a cagey and penurious man. In the interest of peace, he sent emissaries to Vitellius, our ersatz Imperator in the north. Vitellius, however, had already dispatched his elite XXI Rapax legion to forcefully depose Otho. When no accord could be struck, then, Otho marched out from Rome and had his ass handed to him at the "battle" of Bedriacum, near modern Cremona, Italy.

Otho held the Emperorship for little more than three months. After a sound defeat at Bedriacum, he took his own life on 16 April 69 CE. At the close of his chapter on Otho, the biographer Suetonius gives us the following personal information:

He is said to have been of moderate height, splay-footed and bandy-legged, but almost feminine in his personal care. He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head that no one suspected it. Moreover they say that he used to shave every day and smear his face with moist bread, beginning the practice with the appearance of his first facial hair, so as to never have a beard.

Weird guy.

Vitellius, or a throne got by arms must sustain itself by arms

HistorySpin: The Year of the Four

On the day of Otho's suicide, the Senate named Vitellius the lawful Emperor of Rome. Things went downhill quickly. For starters, Vitellius, in his infinite jealousy, began inviting other Roman elites to the Imperial mansion on the pretense of dinner and power negotiations, but in reality had his guests assassinated. This isn't to say that actual banqueting didn't take place. On the contrary, it did! And to such an extent that Vitellius drained Rome's coffers in a matter of months. Soon, creditors came looking, only to be done away with by the very man owing them money.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Vitellius' reign, such as it was, concerns Roman wills and estate culture. You see, back then, to stay in good graces with one's Emperor, part of your estate was always left to the Prince upon your death. This originated as a form of patriotism and internal revenue. Vitellius, though, once he learned that an elite male had bequeathed part of his fortune to the Emperor, had that person immediately killed so as to collect his due. It's not hard to see how this might irk certain individuals.

Vespasian, or how to stop the blood-letting

HistorySpin: The Year of the Four

With Vitellius using Rome and her citizens as his personal checkbook, the summer of 69 CE wore on until 1 July, when Vespasian was named Emperor by his legions at Alexandria, Egypt. At the time, Vespasian was dealing with a pesky little group of people known as "the Jews," in Judaea, who had decided to cast off the shackles of their Roman oppressors and [gasp] fight back. After cobbling together an army from forces in Judaea and Syria, Vespasian sent his lieutenant, Marcus Antonius Primus, ahead to Rome with the announcement that he, Vespasian, would kindly like to take the throne from Vitellius.

In the meantime, Vespasian traveled back to Alexandria, where he took over the grain trafficking, thus cutting Rome off from over half of her bread income. This practice is a notoriously effective way to negotiate with irksome political enemies, and Vespasian's coup on this count is the one of the main reasons he was able to take power so quickly and decisively.

With Vespasian's man (Primus) knocking on the gates, Vitellius waffled and waffled until finally mustering the courage to march out against him. In a wonderful historical irony, Vitellius' army met their match at Bedriacum (military historians have creatively dubbed this battle "Bedriacum 2"), where they were crushed by Primus. As was often the case, the losing general got away with his life and went into hiding.

In a last gasp of desperation, Vitellius tried to bribe his way back into the good graces of powerful men, but the Roman elites were fed up. So fed up, in fact, that they had negotiated with Primus for Vitellius' retirement without his knowing. This was never to be, however, since as Vitellius was being led to the Imperial Palace—now Primus' base of operations while he waited for Vespasian to show up—he was assassinated by an overzealous Praetorian on 20 December 69 CE. Suetonius tells us that his body was thrown into the Tiber River; Cassius Dio says that he was decapitated and his head was carried around the city. They both agree that his sons were murdered.

On 21 December 69 CE, Vespasian ascended to the Emperorship of Rome. He ruled for just under ten years, before his son, Titus, took over for him, and after him, Domitian. Taken together, the three of them account for the Flavian Dynasty of Roman Emperors, who were responsible for building the Coliseum and decimating the Jewish population of the Levant.


[1] Well, not before Seneca wrote a letter to the Roman Senate explaining the reasons why Agrippina had to die. Would that we had that exemplar of political chicanery!