Rarely in ancient history has a set of events been so widely recorded as the cataclysmic eighteen months that became known very soon after as The Year of the Four Emperors.
|Hardback: publication date 28th March|
Mostly, those of us who base our fiction in ancient times, rely on one relatively contemporaneous literary source: Tacitus, say, or Pliny the Younger, or Caesar. When there are two sources, they frequently contradict each other leaving us trying to guess which, if either, was right, in the knowledge that if multiple sources existed for every event, they, too, would be cast in different lights and require harder work. It’s an interesting exercise, sometimes, to imagine what might be in the missing books of Tacitus, or what Jospephus might have said of the growing cult of Christos if it had been large enough to register on his radar. There are those who say he created it, which goes some way to explain quite why it didn’t otherwise register on his radar, but that’s for a different blog. This blog is concerned with a brief period of time that merits a mention not only in Tactitus and Suetonius, but in the writings of Plutarch, Jospehus and Cassius Dio. The other trappings of history abound: each of the four men who held the throne in 79AD had coins minted with his likeness, each issued edicts, some of which survive, some of which, indeed, survive carved in bronze in giant plaques, which is about as definitive as you can get.
But it’s the writing that is fascinating, and the clear partisan voices that filter through, and that give the fiction writer so much scope for interpretation.
The bare bones are easy. Nero was a brilliant emperor for the first five years of his reign when, in essence, he was a front for Seneca, who ruled through him. Then he grew up, grew older, grew less pliable and he exiled Seneca, murdered his mother and proved the obvious, which is that young men given ultimate power rarely know how to use it wisely.
He wrought havoc with the Senate, killed men for their fortunes and generally bankrupted the fiscal and cultural structures of the state to the point, eventually, where those who survived declared him an ‘enemy of the state’, the punishment for which was to have one’s head forced into a cleft stick before being flogged to death. It isn’t good now when the Maldives threaten raped teenagers with much the same and it was terrifying enough then for Nero to make a run for it and, when he realized that there was actually nowhere to hide, he killed himself.
Thus Rome was without a ruler for the first time since Octavian renamed himself Augustus and kicked off that particularly adept piece of spin that turned him from a second rate policy wonk into a masterful Emperor and God to his people.
Nero was the end of the line, the very last of the Julio-Claudians and even he was only there because his mother married Claudius and persuaded him to adopt Nero as his heir. There’s a whole interesting counter-history in the thought-experiment that has Nero die of some childhood illness so that Britannicus might inherit the throne from his father, but history is littered with what-ifs of young men dying, or not (what if Arthur had not died, leaving Henry to become VIIIth of that name on the throne?) and there’s no getting around the fact that Nero had been a disaster.
There was a revolt of sorts in place that had persuaded Nero to flee in the first place, but it fizzled out for lack of a strong leader and that place was filled fairly quickly by Galba, an octogenarian, childless martinet who loved an elderly male slave - which isn’t a problem except that he had no immediate heir.
|Antiques Museum in the Royal Palace, Stockholm. Bust of Galba from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Wolfgang Sauber|
Still, he was one of the most upright men in the senate and people thought he’d make a really good emperor, the exact opposite to Nero… right up until the moment he arrived in Rome from Spain, where he had been Governor – at which point just about everyone realized they’d leapt from Scylla to Charybdis and that however bad Nero had been, Galba was worse. As with the rest of life, you only realise how relaxed life was when someone starts to impose every single rule and mete out absurd punishment for those who transgress. Imagine if suddenly the government decided to chase down everyone who had taken points for their spouse… not a pretty thought (note to the thought-police, I haven’t, nor has my spouse, but when the taxi drivers in London think the whole thing is farcical, you can imagine the practice is probably fairly widespread).
Anyway, Galba’s sole saving grace was that he was so old, nobody expected him to be around for long enough to do any real damage. So the race became one of positioning oneself to be the obvious heir. Otho was a front-runner: one of Nero’s wild partying-friend, he was nevertheless intelligent, thoughtful and made a point of being exceptionally kind to the Praetorian Guard.
Which goes nowhere at all to explaining why Galba chose a dithering weakling by the name of Piso as his heir.
Still, no matter, because the Guard knew he’d made a mistake and it took them less than a day to rectify it. Within twenty four hours, the men assigned to guard the Emperor with their lives, had killed both the unfortunate Piso and Galba: nobody was taking any chances on the wrong man taking the throne for a second time.
So Otho became emperor.
At least he did in Rome. In the far away Germanies, the Rhine legions, had conceived the idea that if the Praetorian Guard could, in effect, pick their own man, so could they. The ring leaders were Caecina and Valens, two generals. They tried to persuade a man named Rufus to stand for them, and he refused to have anything to do with it, they nominated a rather weak, but malleable man named Vitellius. On the first of January, before Galba’s death, the Rhine legions swore their new-year’s oath to Vitellius, not to Galba.
And so, come the spring, when Galba had given way to Otho, the legions marched on Rome. Otho, rather taken off his guard, eventually marched out to meet them. There’s a reasonable body of evidence to suggest that Otho imagined he’d meet Vitellius face to face, offer him a nice Governorship somewhere that guaranteed riches and they’d shake hands and it would all be over. If he had only had Vitellius to contend with, that might well have happened. But Vitellius was a puppet and the two puppet masters were not inclined to give up their bid for power. They had their legions on hand and Otho’s army was heavily outnumbered, waiting for the Danube legions to come to join his side.
|Otho from Wikimedia commons, no author attrib|
He wasn’t a tactitian, Otho. He gave battle, his men lost and rather than wait for the legions to arrive to help him, he decided enough men had died in his name and, nobly (or, if you prefer, in cowardice), killed himself. There is no doubt that Rome considered this a hugely noble act. Very few people have anything bad to say about Otho; with that one act of selfless sacrifice, he reached as close as they get to sainthood.
So it’s April, and already there have been two emperors and a third is on his way to Rome at the head of four legions. The capital, which hasn’t been invaded in living memory, is about to become one giant marching camp which is either very good if you’re a trader trying to sell things the legions want (leather, armour, horses, sex, food) or very bad if you live in a house that might be commandeered for men whose fathers were German warriors and who only have Roman citizenship because one of the Caesars wanted to buy them off…
|Vitellius: Wikimedia Commons, Source: Jastrow|
Vitellius did a number of interesting things (or rather, his captains did them in his name) but one of the first was to sack the entire Praetorian Guard and install 6,000 of his own men in their place. And he found a list of 120 men who had been involved in the murder of Piso and Galba and he gave orders that they be assassinated. He also – probably – sent centurions out to kill off the generals in the field who might have led armies against him. One of whom was Vespasian, who was in the process of completing the war against the Hebrews after their revolt near the end of Nero’s reign.
And Vespasian survived. And he had the hearts and minds of five legions of fighting men who had just proved themselves on campaign and who looked to the Rhine legions and thought that if they could name their own man, so could the legions of Judaea, Syria and Alexandria.
So on the first of July 79AD, the eastern legions swore their new oath to Vespasian.
|Vespasian Wikimedia commons: Source Shakko|
And Vespasian had Titus, his son, and Mucianus, the commander of the Syrian legions on his side. He wasn’t a puppet, and he was an outstanding military leader, for all that he was the second son of a tax farmer and only a senator because his mother had shamed him into it.
And what happens next is one of those fascinating, murky, complex civil wars where people change sides overtly and covertly, where espionage is as important as battle skills, where men are bought by love, by respect, by gold, by fear and ultimately by the idea that it’s best to be on the winning side.
By the end of the year, war had come to the capital itself and men were dying in the streets of Rome. Legions fought legions, brothers fought brothers and fathers fought sons; men fought their friends and former comrades, their lovers, their officers. Saturnalia of that year was one of the most bizarre events ever to strike at the heart of Roman civic life.
And by the end of it, Vespasian was declared Emperor, on the 21st of December, fourth man to hold the title unopposed.It was an exhilarating year and following the threads through all the narratives to weave a fiction was a completely fascinating experience. I have no doubt that there are other interpretations of how it may have transpired – several of them are in press or in print as we speak – but that’s the value of writing fiction: we create what might have been, in the hope of approaching a truth that makes sense for who we are now.
Goodness, what a year! I love the phrase about Augustus being a policy wonk. Thanks, Manda.
Annus horribis, definitely. An excellent illustration of the horrors of living in interesting times..
I've only read the Suetonius, but it was fascinating, especially when he said his Dad had known Otho, and he had his own memories of the reign of Domitian. It must ave been a huge relief for the average Roman when that year was over!
The people of Rome gathered on their rooftops to watch the fighting and cheer on the supporters as if they were the green and blue factions as the chariot races, which is one of those ghastly insights into human behaviour that leaves me feeling somewhat creeped out... But yes, I'm pretty sure they were glad with what they got and glad it was all over.
Thank you all... for reading and commenting.
Great article, but the whole thing happened ten years earlier.
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