NGC Ancients: The Roman Civil War of A.D. 68-69, Year of Five Emperors

Posted on 6/14/2011

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. The concept of civil war was quite familiar to the ancient Romans as well — with this in mind, NGC Ancients examines the five emperors who battled for control of an empire during the Roman Civil War of A.D. 68–69.

By A.D. 68, it was clear that the government of the emperor Nero was on the verge of collapse. Years of promiscuous, unflattering, and ultimately expensive behavior had steadily eroded support for the emperor both in Rome and, more importantly, in the provinces. This silver denarius, issued in A.D. 64-65, depicts the man with whom Romans were increasingly dissatisfied as the 60s wore on.

During the fateful spring of 68, the political situation rapidly degenerated into open rebellion in Roman provinces in Gaul, North Africa, and Spain. Matters reached a head on June 9, A.D. 68, when Nero was deposed and essentially forced to commit suicide at the hands of an agitated senate. This dramatic event marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had been established by Augustus almost a century before.

The Spanish governor Galba, who had skillfully ridden the initial wave of rebellion (under Vindex, in Gaul) to prominence, was hailed emperor that very same day. Galba was a stern, severe, and financially conservative ruler who found no favor in the Rome of his day. Indeed, frugality would ultimately cost Galba both the emperorship and his life - a steadfast refusal to pay even the smallest bribe equated to a limited life expectancy in Rome. Those stubborn qualities are reflected in the striking portrait that graces this brass sestertius.

Though Galba had secured power, plans to oust him had already been set in motion. Two plots, one abroad and one right under his nose in Rome, developed almost simultaneously. Taken together, the political pressure would prove fatal to Galba’s regime.

By January 1, A.D. 69, seven important German legions had abandoned Galba and allied themselves with Vitellius, an upstart governor of the region, after they were denied compensation for their defeat of the rebel Vindex the year before. Vitellius was a perpetual underachiever who had been appointed governor of Lower Germany in late 68 by Galba precisely because of this quality. However, Vitellius was immensely popular and well-regarded by his men. A leader whose force of personality apparently superseded his lack of intellect, he found himself in command of the rebellious legions. They soon began a march on Rome with the intention of displacing Galba and installing Vitellius in his place.

Meanwhile, a former Lusitanian governor, Otho, was rapidly gaining support in Rome thanks to a series of extravagant bribes distributed amongst the army legions and the praetorian (i.e. emperor’s) guard. This vain young man had once harbored hopes of legitimately succeeding Galba, but when it became apparent that this was not to be, Otho decided to take matters into his own hands. This meant that time abruptly ran out for Galba on January 15, A.D. 69, when he was savagely murdered in the Roman Forum by his own guards, who had been bought off by Otho – the newest Roman emperor.

Otho’s money could only buy him three months in one of the most exalted positions in the history of the Western world. By most accounts, he was an extremely ambitious man who took a disproportionate interest in his own appearance. His fondness for exquisite hairpieces is especially apparent in the portrait on this silver denarius, issued in A.D. 69. However, there would soon be little time for such vanity, as after Galba’s demise political events in the Roman Empire progressed at an increasingly dizzying pace.

Otho had ruined himself financially to gain the support of the praetorian guards and the army, but he was not able to win the support of Vitellius, whose legions were still marching on Rome (despite the sudden regime change) and represented a very serious threat. A series of failed negotiations between the two men ensured that the destructive civil war would continue throughout A.D. 69.

By the spring of 69, it was clear that the German legions of Vitellius, which had advanced into Northern Italy, vastly outnumbered those that Otho had been able to muster on the home front. Fearing this disadvantage would only grow with the passage of time, Otho forced a battle at Bedriacum on April 14, A.D. 69. Unfortunately, this conflict occurred just after the legions of Vitellius had been reinforced, and Otho’s forces were decisively routed. Faced with a grim reality, Otho (who, like Vitellius, was not even present at this empire-changing battle) chose to commit suicide on April 16 or 17.

On April 19, A.D. 69, Vitellius was hailed emperor by the Roman Senate. Ironically, a rebellion that was initially directed against the conservative financial policies of Galba had evolved to oppose the fiscally extravagant Otho. Once stirred to violent action, the legions of Vitellius proved impossible to control – they marched against Otho just as they had Galba, with total disregard for the regime change that had taken place.

The new reign of Vitellius was challenged almost immediately by Vespasian, a Roman general who since A.D. 67 had been waging war in the province of Judaea. Before Vitellius had even reached Rome to assume his office, the eastern armies hailed Vespasian emperor. Forces loyal to Vespasian began advancing on Rome in the summer of A.D. 69, marking the beginning of the end for Vitellius. In late October, the emperor’s legions were defeated, ironically, at Bedriacum – the site of his triumph over Otho just six months before (though, again, Vitellius himself was absent).

Mid-December found Vitellius so overwhelmed by the state of affairs that he brazenly requested one million gold aurei in exchange for his abdication. Privileged overtures such as this enraged an already volatile public, and resulted in the mob-murder of Vitellius on December 20, A.D. 69. This brass sestertius of Vitellius bears an inscription that makes reference to his support amongst the legions of Germany.

The demise of Vitellius cleared the way for Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty; his portrait graces this lovely gold aureus. Vespasian had been hailed emperor by his own armies as early as July 1, A.D. 69, and was formally approved by the Senate on December 21, A.D. 69. This confirmation signaled the conclusion of a five-act tragedy that had occupied the Roman world for the better part of two years.

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