“Once killing starts it is difficult to draw a line.”
So, said Tacitus about the 15th January 69AD. This was the day that Emperor Galba was overthrown by Otho. Thus giving what would be known as the year of the four emperors a very bloody start.
Galba had only been emperor since June the previous year. He’d only actually been in Rome since October 68AD. He was dead a mere three months later.
What in the Gods name had gone wrong?
On paper Galba had every credential necessary to be emperor. As Suetonius drily puts it “It would be a long story to give in detail his illustrious ancestors and the honorary inscriptions of the entire race, but I shall give a brief account of his immediate family”
Galba obtained the favour of Augustus’ wife, Livia whose influence promoted and enriched him. Caligula had made him Governor of Upper Germany, Claudius gave him the governorship of Africa and Nero bequeathed him the same position in Spain. He was illustrious enough to be considered a potential match for Nero’s mother Agrippina after she lost her husband.
At seventy-three years old he was experienced beyond all in governing an empire and had the respect of most. When Nero’s reign faltered and ultimately collapsed, Galba seemed to be the perfect step in.
As Tacitus notes “As long as he remained a subject he seemed too great a man to be one, and by common consent possessed the makings of a ruler." And then adds the kicker finish "Had he never ruled.”
Galba was a great man. He might have been a great emperor at the right time; 68/-69 AD was not that time. Right from his entry into Rome Galba wrong -footed in almost every sphere.
In more stable times his keenness to balance the books, to rebuild the machinery of government, to stamp control on the army and the Praetorian Guard might have borne fruit. Certainly, Vespasian tackled many of the same problems with not a little success.
Galba, however, suffered from the record set by his predecessor. Though Nero had not been popular with the Senate and upper classes, he was wildly so with the people of Rome and the provinces. Setting himself up as the antithesis of the popular, charming, glamorous Nero could only leave Galba noticeably lacking in Imperial qualities.
It also exposed him as a hypocrite for as he blanketed Rome in stern austerity his aids: Vinius, Laco and Icelus were busy enriching themselves. It is likely Galba was unaware of such corruption and theft from his supporters. He should have been.
As Galba selectively punished Nero’s closest lackies and attempted to claim back moneys given them, he declined to reward the Praetorian Guard who had made him emperor. It was certainly a grave error but not necessarily fatal, had it not been for the machinations of Marcus Salvius Otho.
Whereas Galba had chalked up a long, distinguished and incident free career as a public servant, Marcus Salvius Otho had obtained honours by a quite different method. After a wild youth that included that odd Roman adolescent pastime of going about the city at night beating up the populace (a favourite game of both Nero and Caligula, quite why is anyone’s guess) he aspired to a position in Nero’s court.
These youthful hobbies were clearly extravagant and notorious enough that Otho felt he couldn’t rely on a personal recommendation to secure a role at court. Instead he set about seducing an Imperial freedwoman of older years (decrepit as Suetonius not so tactfully puts it). This got him in. And when he was in he soon impressed emperor Nero (immorally according to some, by force of personality and similarity to the emperor by others, possibly a combination of the two by me).
So ‘in’ was Otho that on the infamous day Nero planned to murder his mother, Agrippina, Otho held a banquet for mother and son to deflect suspicion of the grim deed about to be enacted.
This imperial favour was not to last. The two friends comprehensively fell out over a woman: Poppaea Sabina. There was much speculation about the relationship between Otho, Poppaea and Nero. She married Otho, but was this just a favour to the emperor so that he might have easy access to the woman he desired?
Or did Otho genuinely love Poppaea and the emperor stole his wife from him?
Or was there some strange ménage a trois occurring that was wrecked by jealousy?
Whatever the truth, Otho and Poppaea divorced, Nero and Poppaea married and Otho found himself appointed governor of Lusitania (modern day Portugal).
Here Otho surprised all by being a competent Governor. Was this time away from court shenanigans the making of him? Had he finally grown into responsibility?
We shall never know. But what we do know is that Otho was one of the very first governors to side with Galba. His rush to Galba’s side indicates that his old pal Nero was clearly not forgiven for the Poppaea humiliation.
October - December 68AD
Otho travelled with the new emperor, Galba from Spain to Rome. He made a friend of Galba’s aid, Titus Vinius, perhaps using some of the charm that had won him Nero’s friendship. There was talk of cementing this friendship by way of a marriage between Vinius' daughter and Otho. Otho also set about winning the troops round:
“Whenever he entertained the prince at dinner, he gave a gold piece to each man of the cohort on guard, and put all the soldiers under obligation in one form or another. Chosen arbiter by a man who was at law with his neighbour about a part of his estate, he bought the whole property and presented it to him. As a result there was hardly anyone who did not both think and openly declare that he alone was worthy to succeed to the empire.” Plutarch
Was this what he had wanted from the offset, to be Galba’s heir? Galba was 73, he was a widower (with a taste for sturdy, hard young men) and no children. Galba was no long time buddy of Otho’s; two more different men could scarcely be found. Galba was an old school stern patrician with an extensive career in dutiful public service. Otho was forty years his junior and had gained his governorship of a province by way of scandalously handing over his wife to Nero.
Why would Otho believe Galba would make him his heir?
Yet the sources are unanimous that he did. It is reminiscent of the adventurer spirit that had led to the younger Otho shamelessly to court a much older woman to get to Nero.
Otho was happily prepared to court the entire army, praetorian guard, city populace and Titus Vinius to get to Galba.
But of course this came at a price, a very high price. A price that Otho had no means to pay. Unless he had access to the Imperial treasury that is….
Galba had ignored all pressures from his advisers (Vinius heavily promoting Otho) to name an heir. He was far too busy sorting out the mess Nero had left behind. But then something suddenly changed
|Coin of Galba
News reached Rome that on 1st January the German legions had declined to offer the traditional new year oath of loyalty to the emperor Galba. They’d instead offered an oath of loyalty to their own governor Vitellius and declared him emperor.
This forced Galba’s hand. He needed to lay down a secured accession to meet this new threat.
The announcement was due to take place on 10th January.
Otho awaited with eagerness.
10th January 69AD
It was a dark and stormy day…. No really it was. Here’s Tacitus “The 10th January was an unpleasantly rainy day, abnormally disturbed by thunder, lightening and a threatening sky.”
Galba summoned his chosen heir and announced his decision.
This new Caesar was not Otho. It was a man named Piso Licinianus.
"As for Piso, those who were present at the scene and observed his voice and countenance were amazed to see him receive so great a favour without great emotion, though not without appreciation; whereas in the outward aspect of Otho there were many clear signs of the bitterness and anger with which he took the disappointment of his hopes." Plutarch
Which put Otho in an awkward position. A position he needed to somehow escape from.
"He flatly declared that he could not keep on his feet unless he became emperor, and that it made no difference whether he fell at the hands of the enemy in battle or at those of his creditors in the Forum."
And so a plot was formed.
11th January 69AD
Otho set his freedman, Onomastus to the task. Working on the good favours Otho had already built up by personal charisma, Onomastus added further coinage and extravagant promises.
So successful was he with the soldiers that they decided they would carry Otho off immediately to their barracks and declare him emperor. But this was abandoned, according to Tacitus, because of the "difficulty of achieving coordination between men who were the worse for drink."
Which begs the question was Onomastus handing out wine skins as bribes?
12-14th January 69AD
We'll assume a lot of plotting was going on. Perhaps some charming. Maybe a bit less heavy drinking.
15th January 69AD
Dawn – Galba and a handful of notable personages, including Otho, were offering a sacrifice at a temple. The priest Umbricius examined the entrails of the sacrificial victim and declared, with a hint of drama I believe we cam assume, that "treachery hung over the emperor's head".
Umbicius then proceeded to helpfully point to where he felt that treachery might be hanging from. His finger was directed straight at the man standing behind Galba, Otho.
There are no set rules, as far as I'm aware, as to how one ought to behave when accused by a priest in a temple full of people of high treason.
Plutarch says this was how Otho took it:
"He stood there in confusion and with a countenance changing to all sorts of colours through fear."
There has to be some doubt as to Plutarch's version of this tale. If the prophecy was delivered so unambiguously why wasn't Otho arrested at the scene? Why was he allowed to just leave?Leave he did, arm in arm with Onomastus to where he had been promised a force to declare him emperor
Morning - There were twenty three soldiers waiting to salute Emperor Otho. Though horrified by their lack of numbers, Otho did not back down. And anyway on the way to the praetorian barracks Tacitus says they picked up roughly the same number of soldiers. So forty six then.
|Imperial palace overlooking the Forum
Whilst Otho settled into the Praetorian barracks with his forty six men news was fast reaching Galba on the Palatine Hill that something was afoot. News had also reached the general populace that something exciting was happening. They gathered outside the palace yelling death to the conspirators as if at the games.
Inside the palace Galba was caught between two courses; should he stay in the palace, arm the Imperial slaves and let this conspiracy fizzle out?
As the debate raged a messenger came with news: Otho had been murdered at the barracks by the Praetorian Guard.
Outside the palace the plebs cheered at this wonderful news. Galba buckled on his breastplate and was carried out on a chair to meet his loyal public and celebtrate the demise of the traitor.
Afternoon - The thing was Otho wasn't dead. He was very much alive and his agents were the ones
It was a trap.
As Galba, along with heir Piso, were carried through the sea of spectators Otho ordered his (now many more than forty six) men to rush in. As the armed soldiers poured in panic ensued amongst the civilians and they hastened to evacuate the forum.
Galba found his chair bashed hither and thither. His panicked bearers dropped the chair and legged it. Galba fell to the ground. With the swords above him he bared his throat and told them to strike and be done with it. It was to be his last command as emperor.
Piso ran to safety at the nearby House of the Vestals. He was dragged out and hacked to death.
Both their heads were cut off, impaled and carried in procession about the Forum,
|Forum at night
Otho did not long enjoy the position he had so bloodily obtained. On reaching the palace he was given full access to the Imperial correspondence and the news that Vitellius had been made emperor by the German legions and that 70,000 men were marching to Rome to claim this throne.
Had he known that would he ever had enacted the coup of the 15th January? A sensible man would not but Otho I think we can say was an adventurer with a heavy reckless streak. Ultimately that streak was his undoing.