Year of the four emperors
The forced suicide of emperor Nero, in 68 AD, was followed by a brief period of civil war (the first Roman civil war since Antony's death in 31 BC) known as the Year of the four emperors. Between June of 68 and December of 69 AD, Rome witnessed the successive rise and fall of Galba, Otho and Vitellius until the final accession of Vespasian, first ruler of the Flavian dynasty. This period of civil war has become emblematic of the cyclic political disturbances in the history of the Roman Empire. The military and political anarchy created by this civil war had serious implications, such as the outbreak of the Batavian rebellion.
Nero to Galba
The last years of Nero's reign were characterized by a climate of fear and terror. The city and Senate were overwhelmed by the emperor's power and suffered dearly from his paranoia. In April 68, the senator Caius Julius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis and an Aquitanian romanised prince, decided on a rebellion, with the purpose of substituting Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania Tarraconensis for Nero. Galba accepted the proposal and immediately marched on Rome.
The revolt in Gaul proved to be a disaster. The legions stationed in the German border marched to meet Vindex and confront him as a traitor. Led by Lucius Verginius Rufus , the Rhine army defeated Vindex in battle and killed him, subsequently hoping for a reward from the emperor. In June however, the Senate took the initiative to rid itself of Nero, declaring him persona non grata. Galba was recognized as emperor and welcomed into the city.
Galba to Otho
This turn of events gave the German legions not the reward for loyalty they had expected, but rather accusations of having obstructed Galba's path to the throne. Their commander, Rufus, was immediately replaced by the new emperor. Aulus Vitellius was appointed governor of the province of Germania Inferior. The loss of political confidence in Germania's loyalty resulted also in the dismissal of the Imperial Batavian Bodyguards. Whilst the rest of the empire celebrated the death of Nero, in the Rhine rebellion was on the loose.
Galba did not remain popular for long. On his march to Rome, he either destroyed or took enormous fines from towns that did not accept him immediately. In Rome, Galba cancelled all the reforms of Nero, including benefits for many important persons. Like his predecessor, Galba held an irrational fear for conspirators and executed many senators and knights without trial. The army was not happy either. After his safe arrival to Rome, Galba refused to pay the prizes he promised to soldier supporters. Moreover, in the start of the civil year of 69 AD in January 1, the legions of Germania Inferior refused to oath allegiance and obedience to the new emperor. On the following day, the legions acclaimed Vitellius, their governor, as emperor.
Hearing the news of the loss of the Rhine legions, Galba panicked. He adopted a man picked by chance in the morning audiences. By doing this, he offended many people and above all Marcus Salvius Otho, an influential and ambitious man who desired the honour for himself. Otho bribed the Praetorian Guard, already most unhappy with the emperor, to his side. When Galba heard about the coup d'etat he went to the streets in an attempt to normalize the situation. It proved a mistake, because he could get no one to his side. Shortly afterwards, the Praetorian Guard killed him in the Forum.
Otho to Vitellius
Otho was recognised as emperor by the Senate that same day. The new emperor was saluted with relief. Although ambitious and greedy, Otho did not have a record for tyranny or cruelty and was expected to be a fair emperor. Trouble, however, in the form of Vitellius was marching down on Italy from Germany.
Vitellius had behind him the finest elite legions of the empire, composed of veterans of the Germanic wars, such as the I Germanica or the XXI Rapax. These would prove to be his best arguments to gain power. Otho was not keen to begin another civil war and sent emissaries to proposed a peace and inviting Vitellius to be his son-in-law. It was too late to reason; Vitellius' generals had half of his army heading to Italy. After a series of minor victories, Otho was defeated in the Battle of Betriacum . Rather than flee and attempt a counter-attack, Otho decided to put an end to the anarchy and commit suicide. He had been emperor for a little more than three months.
Vitellius to Vespasian
On the news of Otho's suicide, Vitellius was recognised as emperor by the Senate. Granted this recognition, Vitellius set out for Rome. The start of his reign was not auspicious however. The city was left very skeptical when Vitellius chose the anniversary of the Battle of Allia (in 394 BC), a day of bad auspices to the superstitious Roman mind, to accede to the office of Pontifex Maximus.
Events would seemingly prove them right. With the throne tightly secured, Vitellius engaged in a series of feasts, banquets (Suetonius refers to three a day: morning, afternoon and night) and triumphal parades that drove the imperial treasury close to bankruptcy. Debts quickly accrued and money-lenders started to demand for payment. Vitellius showed his violent nature by ordering the torture and execution of those who dared to make such demands. With financial affairs in a state of calamity, Vitellius took the initiative of killing citizens who named him as their heir, often together with the eventual co-heirs. Moreover, he engaged in a pursuit of every possible rival, inviting them to the palace with promises of power only to have them assassinated.
Meanwhile, the legions stationed at the Middle East province of Judaea had acclaimed their own governor Vespasian as emperor. The revolt proved harmless until the Danubian legions of the provinces of Raetia and Moesia changed their pledge of alliance to Vespasian in August. In the following month rebellion was once again afflicting the Empire. The Danubian legions invaded Italy and Vespasian in Asia took the province of Syria. In October, Vitellius' army suffered was utterly defeated and Vespasian attracted Egypt to his side.
Surrounded by enemies, Vitellius made a last attempt to win the city to his side, distributing bribes and promises of power where needed. He tried to levy by force several allied tribes, such as the Batavians, only to be refused. The Danube army was now very near Rome. Realising the immediate threat, Vitellius made a last attempt to gain time and sent emissaries, accompanied by Vestal Virgins, to negotiate a truce and start peace talks. The following day, messengers arrived with news that the enemy was at the gates of the city. Vitellius went into hiding and prepared to flee, but decided on a last visit to the palace. There he was caught by Vespasian's men and killed.
Vespasian did not meet any direct threat to his imperial power after the death of Vitellius. He became the founder of the stable Flavian dynasty that succeeded the Julio-Claudians and died of natural causes as emperor in 79 AD, with the famous words Dear me, I must be turning into a god…
The situation was, however, far from being peaceful: the Batavian rebellion was just beginning.
- April – Galba, governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, and Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis rebel against Nero
- May – The Rhine legions defeat and kill Vindex in Gaul
- June – Nero is declared public enemy by the senate and commits suicide; in the same day, Galba is recognized emperor.
- November – Vitellius nominated governor of Germania Inferior
- January 1 – The Rhine legions refuse to oath loyalty to Galba
- January 2 – Vitellius acclaimed emperor by the Rhine
- January 15 – Galba killed by the Praetorian Guard; in the same day, the senate recognizes Otho as emperor
- April 14 – Vitellius defeats Otho
- April 16 – Otho commits suicide; Vitellius recognized emperor
- July 1 – Vespasian, commander of the Roman army in Judaea, proclaimed emperor
- August – The Danubian legions announce support to Vespasian (in Syria) and invade Itlay in September on his behalf
- October – The Danube army defeats Vitellius and Vespasian occupies Egypt
- December 20 –Vitellius killed by soldiers in the Imperial Palace
- December 21 – Vespasian recognized emperor
Roman Warfare, Adrian Goldsworthy
The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius