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The Year of the Four Emperors

Contributed by David Verne

Each year on January 1st, the legions across the Empire renewed their oath of loyalty to the emperor, but this year not all of them did. The legions guarding the Rhine refused to swear loyalty to Galba and toppled statues of him that had been set up. They decided to name their own emperor and hailed their commander, Vitellius, as imperator. Galba had commanded these legions several years before, and they remembered how he beat them and treated them like mules.

Vitellius was a politician who had no ambition and had never served a military post before, which is why Galba thought that by appointing him commander of the Rhine, it would prevent any uprising in the North. Vitellius was a competent and honest administrator, but was a lax disciplinarian. He went out of his way to learn his soldiers' names and learn about their lives. The soldiers decided that they would preferred Vitellius over Galba. After the commanders of each legion, Caecina and Valens, pledged their loyalty to him, Vitellius accepted and prepared to invade Italy.

The revolt spooked Galba enough that he decided to name an heir to appease the people. He named a nobleman, Piso, as heir and on Janurary 10th, Galba introduced him the the Praetorian Guard. Choosing an heir at this point was seen as a sign of weakness and the Praetorians were even more upset that there wasn't the usual bonus paid that accompanied important events like this. Otho panicked; he was deeply in debt from his bribes to the military, and these were lent to him with the understanding that he would pay them back after becoming heir. He flew into a murderous rage and on January 15th he entered the Praetorian camp and gave a rousing speech.

The officers couldn't control the men, and soon a group of cavalry was on the way to kill Galba, Piso, and his advisers. After hearing mixed reports, including ones that said Otho was dead, Galba decided to find out for himself what was going on. As he, Piso, and his advisers were riding thru the streets, the group of cavalry attacked and killed Galba. He was 70 years old and had ruled for 7 months. Piso and the advisers managed to flee but were later caught and killed.

Otho was quite pleased with himself, but after going through Galba's letters, he realized he had a huge crisis on his hands. The governors of Britain and Gaul had all sworn allegiance to Vitellius and even though it was in the middle of winter, they were marching south for Italy. [1] [2]

My Take by David Verne
Vitellius was almost the complete opposite of Galba. Where Galba was displined, Vitellius was lax, and where Galba was frugal, Vitellius ate four full meals and day and sent men across the empire to bring back delicacies. Anyone, including his soldiers, who wanted a good meal was welcome at his table. This contrast was what caused Vitellius' supporters to grow quickly in numbers. The discipline might have been lax, but the Rhine legions were veterans and were much stronger than anything Otho could muster.

The Civil War Begins

Contributed by David Verne

Both Vitellius and Otho begin sending each other messages, offering promises of mercy and land if the other would back down. Neither did, and Otho began preparing for war, gathering an army of Praetorians, veterans, militia, and gladiators. He also dispatched messages to the Balkan legions to reinforce him as soon as possible. Vitellius' two generals, Caecina and Valens, each take a column south planning to link up in northern Italy, while Vitellius stays behind to guard the dangerously undermanned German frontier. Otho is unable to reach the mountains before Vitellius' army, so he prepares a defense in the Po river valley in northern Italy.

Caecina and Valens were supposed to coordinate their invasion, but there was a fierce rivalry between the two, so Caecina marched harder and reached Italy first. His army was pushed back by Otho, and it almost looked like Otho might win the war. After hearing that their fellow legions had been defeated, Valens' army believed that Valens was dragging his feet on purpose and began a forced march in the early morning leaving Valens behind. He caught up with them later in the day. With the arrival of this army, the two generals were determined to bring a decisive end to the war. Otho's officers advised him to wait for the Balkan legions, but his own impatience along with the advice of his brother convinced him to order an attack. Otho's forces fought hard, but the Rhine legions were more experienced and they won a decisive victory at the Battle of Bedriacum. Otho still commanded a large army, but he saw that he had taken his one shot and he had lost. Not wanting to be the cause of further Roman deaths, he says goodbye to his advisers and after sleeping for a few hours, stabs himself. He was 36 years old and had ruled the Empire for 91 days.

After a drunken victory banquet, Vitellius made his way to Rome. He started his reign by disbanding the Praetorian Guard and reformed it with the best men in his legions. This had the double effect of taking the best soldiers out of his army and creating a large group of experienced angry soldiers. His administration doesn't get much done, because Caecina and Valens continue to fight over everything, and Vitellius continues his banqueting. The majority of the Empire sees Vitellius as a drunken fool and a new challenger soon rises. Vespasian, the general in charge of crushing the Jewish revolt, has been watching all this from a distance, and after some prodding accepts the allegiance of all Eastern provinces and legions. The disbanded Praetorians and the Balkan legions also swear allegiance to Vespasian, while several barbarian noblemen begin preparing to take advantage of the undermanned Rhine frontier. [3] [4]

My Take by David Verne
Otho doesn't hold the record for shortest reign, he holds third place, but he wasn't the worst emperor to rule. Accounts of Vitellius' reign are hard to believe, since the historians were biased against him. Tacitus actually gives a disclaimer at the beginning of his Histories, saying that since he owes his career to Vespasian, he is biased in his favor. What is clear, is that he was deeply unpopular, and outside of his own legions, very little of the military supported him.

The Year of the Four Emperors comes to an End

Contributed by David Verne

In late July, the entire Eastern empire and the Balkan provinces declare their support for Vespasian. Vespasian stays in Alexandria to oversee the logistics and be ready with reinforcements, while the governor of Syria, Mucianus, marches to the Balkans to link up with the legions there. The five Balkan legions, who had sworn their loyalty to Otho and were being punished by Vitellius, are impatient and after one of their officers, Marcus Antonius, agrees with them, they elect him as their general. Without any authorization from Vespasian or Mucianus, Antonius leads the legions to Italy. When Vitellius heard that an enemy army wasn't far away, he sent Caecina to defend Northern Italy, but Caecina had different plans. Caecina has been losing his political battle with Valens and is considering defecting to Vespasian. He meets Antonius' army, but despite having a numerical advantage, begins negotiations with Antonius.

After some time, Caecina convinces his officers to defect to the winning side with him, but when his soldiers learn of his plans, they storm his tent and throw him in chains. The army leaves in the night, retreating to Cremona, the main city in northern Italy, to await reinforcements from Rome. On October 24, opposing cavalry forces encountered each other and began skirmishing. As further units arrived on the scene in late afternoon, Antonius' army didn't want to retreat, and the Vitellian army refused to withdraw since reinforcements would arrive soon. This quickly became a night battle, one of the rarest occurrences in the ancient world. Bitter and indecisive fighting followed, especially since both sides wore the same uniforms. By morning, the battle was still undecided, when the Vitellian army saw one of Antonius' legions turn east and greet reinforcements. There were no reinforcements; the legion that had done this, had adopted a local eastern custom of greeting the sun every morning. This misunderstanding caused the Vitellians to retreat back to Cremona.

Even though Antonius' army was exhausted they launched a ferocious assault on the walls, causing the town to surrender. After the surrender, the officers were unable to control their men, and the victorious army sacked the town, almost completely destroying it. Caecina now defected at this point, and Vitellius' other general Valens had been captured at sea by former members of the Praetorian Guard. After these victories, more governors began supporting Vespasian, and Antonius, hoping for a peaceful settlement, sent a letter asking Vitellius to resign, promising him mercy, money, and a villa in the country. Vitellius, especially after the loss of his two advisers, is more than willing to agree to the terms and finished negotiations with Vespasian's brother, Sabinus, who was living in Rome at the time. Vitellius made a speech announcing his resignation, but this didn't go over well with his supporters, who were very upset that he was abandoning them now. His own Praetorian Guard surrounded him and marched him back to the palace. Sabinus thought that everything had gone according to plan and made his way to the forum with an armed guard, prepared to accept the surrender in Vespasian's name. Instead a skirmish erupts, with Sabinus and his supporters barricading themselves on the Capitoline Hill. They were eventually captured and killed, but at the cost of burning down the Temple of Jupiter. Seeing no other option, Antonius leads his army in an assault on Rome and after breaking through two gates, they find Vitellius and execute him. He was 54 years old and had reigned for 8 months. Mucianus arrives the day after and begins laying the groundwork for Vespasian's administration. The Year of the Four Emperors was now over. [5] [6]

My Take by David Verne
Since Antonius had led his army into Italy without orders, Vespasian was able to denounce the attack on Rome, and the sacking of Cremona. He did spend a lot of time trying to rebuild Cremona, but it never rose to its former glory. Thanks in no small part to Mucianus, Vespasian was greeted warmly by Rome when he arrived in mid-70 AD. It would take more than a year of civil war to destroy the Empire, and Vespasian continued ruling through the principate system, where the Emperor was portrayed as just another man and worked for the good of the Empire.

See Also


  1. Tacitus, Cornelius. The Histories. 
  2. Duncan, Mike (August 30, 2009). What an Artist the World is Losing.
  3. Tacitus, Cornelius. The Histories. 
  4. Duncan, Mike (August 30, 2009). What an Artist the World is Losing.
  5. Tacitus, Cornelius. The Histories. 
  6. Duncan, Mike (August 30, 2009). What an Artist the World is Losing.

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