The Four Stooges: The Year of the Four Emperors of Rome

From Nero to Vespasian

68 C.E. – 69 C.E.

The purpose of this article is not to be exhaustive in any way, but to embark on one of the wildest years throughout the ages of Roman history. It was a year that dragged the empire into civil war, assassination and betrayal which nearly destroyed the massive, widespread empire. Although typically historians do not count Emperor Nero as part of the four, since he was already emperor at the time, we shall begin this journey by starting with the tyrant, both loved and hated by the people of Rome.

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (54 C.E. – 68 C.E.)

Nero was known in the annals of history as a lot of things. The fifth emperor of the Roman Empire, tyrant, obsessed musician and poet, the man who crushed the Boudicca Revolt in Britain, started the fire of Rome (64C.E.) and blamed it on the Christians, and a man who did not possess the most favorable view of his mother as he had her executed, and most likely poisoned his stepbrother, Britannicus. Nero was a man driven by lust, grandeur, madness, paranoia, and in the end was betrayed by the very men dedicated to protect him, the Praetorian Guard of Rome, as documented by the Roman historian, Suetonius. Nero had extreme bouts of sadistic, morbid wanes, a great example being that he used captured Christians, as human torches by covering them in pitch and lighting them on fire to illuminate his gardens during feasts and parties.

Nero was of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and so was fifth in line, after Emperor Claudius, to rule the empire of Rome. He loved to travel and perform the arts, often times where he would force people to listen to his poetic rants, sometimes under pain of death if they were to fall asleep (which nearly happened to Vespasian). Nero also was a man of war. He conducted campaigns against Parthia from 55 C.E. until a peace deal was brokered in the year 63 C.E. Nero also crushed the Boudicca rebellion of Britain (60 C.E. – 61 C.E.), the Pisonian Conspiracy of 65 C.E., and was ruler during the majority of the First Jewish Revolt of 66 C.E. – 73 C.E. In the Jewish Revolt, we see Nero’s sense of paranoia come to fruit, (as if executing his mother, and poisoning his stepbrother was not enough evidence). At the failed attempt of Syrian Governor Cestius Gallus to crush the Jewish revolt and take Jerusalem, Nero elected a nobody in the political realm to lead the newly raised Judean Army, and that was Titus Flavius Vespasianus (known as Vespasian). Vespasian, a veteran and master in the art of warfare, lacked incredibly, at the time of his elected command in 67 C.E., in the political arena. Thus, for Nero, he saw Vespasian as a harmless puppet to conduct the affair in the east and crush the Jewish uprising. However, the vice grips would suddenly close on poor Nero’s life as betrayal and treason would occur in his own ranks.

In March of 68 C.E., Gaius Julius Vindex, who was the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against the taxation and policies that Nero had set up. Needless to say Nero was not pleased. Being the type of man who may jump at the sound of a door closing, Nero sought out to crush the rebellion. Thus, Nero made his first attempt to crush the rebellion in his own camp, and he dispatched Lucius Verginius Rufus, who was the governor of Germania Superior. Vindex tried to rally his own forces and build them up to face off against Nero’s general, Rufus, however, Vindex was defeated at the Battle of Vesontio in May of 68 C.E. and seeing defeat, Vindex committed suicide. Following in the wake of this victory, Rufus’ own troops saw him as a potential emperor and decided to declare him as Imperator. Rufus declined but the die had been cast as the thought of Nero’s demise had no doubt been planted into the minds of other powerful men in the empire. With the discontent of the legions in Germany, and the rumblings in Spain, one such man quickly rose to the seat of treason which would not bode well for Nero, and that was the Governor of Spain, Servius Sulpicius Galba. Although Nero had Galba declared a public enemy, his support was unstoppable as he was proclaimed by his own troops as representative of the Senate and the people of Rome, SPQR. Once the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus had abandoned Nero and declared allegiance to Galba, it was now clear that Nero was in grave danger, so the young emperor fled Rome, perhaps intending to rally legions to his side to face Galba in battle.

But, unfortunately Nero did not get far. Nero had sent a general to northern Italy hoping to raise an army and watch Galba’s coalition collapse, but this was not to be. Thus, paranoid that he had lost control, Nero made plans to flee to Egypt. The Praetorian Guard used this as an excuse to desert him, since in their minds, he had deserted Rome. So, like he had declared Galba a public enemy, the Praetorian Guard declared Nero a public enemy. In a coup d’etat they sent soldiers to arrest Nero. However, they would not get the satisfaction. As the Praetorian located and approached the deposed emperor on the outskirts of Rome, Nero took his own life following an argument with his servant to kill him. This would all be done in a grisly manner as Nero would end up ramming his own knife through his neck, thus bringing his tyrannical reign to a swift end.

Servius Sulpicius Galba Augustus (8th of June 68 C.E. – 15th of January 69 C.E.)


After throwing many drunken parties and minting his face upon coins decorated with quotes such as, “Liberty of the Roman People”, Galba suddenly became the sixth emperor of Rome. However, like the following list of people to come after him, his rule was not long at all. His mistake started at the beginning of his reign, for he did not react quick enough to flex his Roman muscle around the empire, as it was important him, once stealing the empire through anarchy and treason, to prove to everyone else that he still had it. However, what came next was undoubtedly a bad move. The first thing Galba did was on January 10th 69 C.E., he presented to the Senate a man named, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinanus. Lucius had no political achievements, an obscure family, and had just spent a couple of years in exile. Regardless, Galba adopted Lucius as heir to the throne.  Having done this, Galba naturally made political enemies out of the people who had just thrust him into power. So, Galba’s right hand man, Otho, who had been by Galba’s side since Spain, acted quickly. Out of shock and jealousy of not being made the heir, Otho rallied the disgruntled Praetorian Guard, whom Galba had failed to pay, and made a mad dash for the throne of the empire. Otho bribed all the praetorian commanders to help him take down Galba. Otho would deliver!

On January 15th 69 C.E. Otho went with Galba to sacrifice at the Temple of Apollo, only to slip away from the imperial entourage and be taken by 23 soldiers to the Praetorian Camp where he was welcomed and greeted warmly. Following this, Otho rallied the guard and killed Galba as he went through the Forum. Suetonius describes this well as they slaughtered Galba and Piso and any associates he had that were loyal to him, but miraculously there was no great slaughter. So was the end of Galba, lets continue. (Score for the Emperors 0/1)

Marcus Salvius Otho Caesar Augustus (15th of January 69 C.E. – 16th of April 69 C.E.)

Right from the beginning of his reign, Otho was a smooth-talking, double tongued man who sought, in an underhand way, to gain popularity and explain his succession to the throne as Romes seventh emperor. Obviously everyone knew he had deposed Galba from his seat of power by having the man killed, but Otho made it his mandate to try to relate with the people, appealing to a strange logic by stating that he had murdered Galba in order to avenge Nero. A little odd since Otho had been Galba’s right-hand man from the beginning. However, in Rome a man’s career was of the utmost importance, and true power came at the helm of as many legions as one could muster. So looking closer, before his rise to power, Otho had been a man confined by Nero to Lusitania as governor from 58 C.E., thus he had no real military reputation, had never been a consul, and had no great following among other provincial commanders and armies.

Otho came from Germania of all places, where the illustrious Aulus Germanicus Vitellius Augustus (a generation of Otho’s senior and consul of more than 20 years previously) fixed his eye on Otho’s throne, and preferred himself, instead of Otho, to sit on it. Vitellius was a man of war and the commander of the legions stationed on the Rhine and allowed his troops, rather in a charmed way, to convince him that he should be emperor. Like any legion, they wanted to profit from Vitellius smashing Otho in battle and removing him from the throne. Otho was young, he was only 36 which was considered by Romans to be an age that consisted of a natural lack of experience in war and politics, especially aligned next to a war-dog like Vitellius. It was simple, Vitellius and his troops refused to declare loyalty to Otho and then crossed the Alps with incredible speed in order to march on Rome. This was done to stop Otho from being reinforced by troops from other provinces, most particularly in the Balkans. So, without haste Otho was smashed at the Battle of Cremona in the Po Valley on April 14th 69 C.E. and committed suicide two days later. (Score of the Emperors 0/2)

Aulus Germanicus Vitellius Augustus (16th of April 69 C.E. – 22nd of December 69 C.E.)

After the war-dog, Vitellius had refused to declare loyalty to Otho, and met him near Cremona, he summarily trounced his enemy in a single day, and threw a party two days later as Romes eighth emperor. Once the road had been opened and Rome stood before Vitellius, naturally the Senate declared loyalty to Vitellius and deemed him emperor, honouring him with the title, Augustus, which he graciously accepted.  However, this was a recipe for disaster, as the man at the time who was engaged in an attempt to crush the Jewish Revolt, was a political enemy of Vitellius and had a legions of soldiers at his disposal. His name was Vespasian. It was obvious what would happen next and on the 5th day of the Ides of July, Vespasian was given the title of, Imperator, by his troops and numerous governors, generals, and legions hailed their allegiance to the man whom Nero had believed to be of no political rivalry or threat…which was why he chose Vespasian in the first place to lead the war in Judea. Lines were drawn, names were hurled at one another, and plans were made as Vitellius observed a host of legions, loyal to Vespasian, advance on Rome. Vitellius reacted swiftly, assembling a massive army to meet his enemies, and ironically, at the second Battle of Cremona on 24th of October 69 C.E. the forces loyal to Vespasian, killed 50,000 of Vitellius’ men. But, this was not the end for Vitellius. The scared and petrified emperor, fled back to Rome and barricaded himself in the city. It was not until the 21st of December that a general named, Primus forced his way into the city, sacked it. In the sacking, Primus captured Vitellius, had a rope placed around his neck, and then proceeded to drag him, half-naked to the Forum, all along the Sacred Way. Then at the Stairs of Wailing in the Forum, Vitellius, with a sword at his throat, was murdered. (Score for the Emperors 0/3)

Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus (1st of July 69 C.E. – 23rd of June 79 C.E.)

Vespasian’s tale is the easiest to tell. He had a lot of strong support, paid off the right people, pretty much kept his word, was a great liar, was known as a charmer, had a hilarious sense of humour, and had the biggest army. After the second Battle of Cremona, Vespasian renewed the war against the rebellious Jews from the comfort of Alexandria in Egypt, and sent his son Titus (who had the same name) to mop up the rest of the mess and destroy Jerusalem along with the three remaining Jewish strongholds, the most popular being Masada by the Dead Sea. Prior to Jerusalem’s fall, Vespasian departed for Rome. In Rome he eventually got word that his son was successful in destroying Jerusalem in the summer of 70 C.E., with the Fretensis 10 Legion eventually conquering Masada by 73 C.E. in a hollow victory. Vespasian had proven to the empire that he could deliver, and for many Romans, he had restored the glory of Rome which had been devastated by the last 12 months. Vespasian, therefore, was able to lived out his days in pomp and splendour with his two sons to follow in the rule of succession. The oldest son, Titus the conqueror of Jerusalem and womanizer, ruled until 81 C.E. and then died mysteriously, most historians believing that his younger brother, Domitian, poisoned him. Once Titus had died, Domitian, the man who really did not like Christians, seized the throne…but that is another story. (Score for the Emperors 1/4)

By, Peter J Fast

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