The Year of the Four Emperors

The Year of the Four Emperors


The Roman emperor Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.  During his rule, he was disdained by his people because of his vanity and inadequacies as leader.  He had one wife executed and he murdered another with a fatal kick.  All this resulted in a great conspiracy against him and he was forced to commit suicide on June 9, AD 68.  What followed was a year of chaos as four different men of high social standing declared themselves emperor, each with his own army of loyal supporters.  They clashed until only one remained, a man who would become the head of a new dynasty.

A bust of Nero

A bust of Nero. Image source .

As soon as the senate declared Nero a public enemy in April of 68, Galba, the governor of Spain, declared himself emperor.  Rather than bringing about peace, this act sent the message that it was possible for an emperor to be declared outside of the capital city of Rome.  This message would inspire Galba’s opposition.

Galba was the first emperor who was not descended from the Julio-Claudian line.  Yet his family was affluent, which was adequate basis for him to rule.  Roman historians note Galba’s strictness and miserliness.  Once in power, he angered many of his troops by withholding pay, a decision which would come back to haunt him.

A coin from the brief reign of Galba

A coin from the brief reign of Galba. Image source .

One of Galba’s supporters was the statesman Vitellius, also from a prominent family, whom Galba elected as governor of Lower Germany.  At his post in Germany, Vitellius held power over soldiers who felt Galba had not properly rewarded them for their loyalty.  It was not difficult for Vitellius to sway the soldiers’ allegiance to himself.

Meanwhile, in Rome, Galba was already in his seventies, and there was discussion about whom he would choose to succeed him.  The governor Otho, a gracious member of Galba’s supporters, had high hopes of being named Galba’s heir.

Otho had been well connected during Nero’s reign.  In fact, he and Nero had once struck a very indecent deal together.  Nero hated his first wife Octavia and loved a woman named Poppaea Sabina.  Until Nero could be rid of his wife Octavia, Otho would be married to Poppaea Sabina and Nero could be with her whenever he wanted.  But Otho enraged the emperor by falling in love with Poppaea himself.  Nero, living up to his outrageous reputation, exiled Otho, had Octavia executed, and married Poppaea.

Emperor Otho

16th c. Italian Painting of Emperor Otho. Image source .

As emperor in the year 69, Galba passed over Otho and selected as his heir Lucius Calpurnius Piso.  Ignoring this, Otho’s supporters declared him emperor anyway.  Unrest grew in Rome and before long, Galba was killed by the Praetorian Guard, whose job was to protect him.  He had ruled for only seven months. 

Complicating things further, by January of 69, Vitellius, the governor of Lower Germany, had organized a coup and declared himself emperor, capitalizing on the precedent set by Galba that the emperor could be declared outside of Rome.  Enjoying his acquired power, Vitellius even stole for himself the sword of Julius Caesar.

A portrait of Vitellius by Peter Paul Reubens

A portrait of Vitellius by Peter Paul Reubens (1577-1640). Image source .

When Otho heard that Vitellius was approaching the capital city, he gathered enforcements from among the gladiators and elsewhere, but Vitellius defeated his army at Bedriacum in northern Italy.  Following his army’s defeat, Otho wrote farewell letters to his loved ones and committed suicide in April of 69.

Ancient historians tell us that Vitellius was gluttonous and indulgent during his brief stint as emperor, and he did not hold the title for long.  By July, armies in Egypt, Judaea, and Syria had declared themselves for Vespasian.  This man had originally been sent to that region by Nero to suppress the Jewish Revolt, but he now revealed himself as a viable candidate for the emperorship.

Then, while all this was going on, a strange thing happened:  a man appeared claiming to be the emperor Nero.  He resembled the dead emperor and gained considerable attention, contributing to the chaos of this time.  Nevertheless, the real contenders over the throne, Vitellius and Vespasian, prepared to battle.

The Emperor Vespasian

Peter Paul Rubens - The Emperor Vespasian. Image source .

Vespasian gathered his troops and approached Rome, defeating some of Vitellius’ forces in northern Italy.  At this point, Vitellius, fearing for his life, sent deputies and even Vestal Virgins to the enemy with entreaties for peace, but with no success.  Vespasian reached Rome and his armies captured Vitellius.  According to ancient historians, soldiers abused and humiliated Vitellius before finally killing him in December of 69.

Once the violence died down, the senate conferred the power of princeps to Vespasian, cementing his position as emperor.  Vespasian was the first emperor of the Flavian dynasty and he headed what is generally considered an age of stability at Rome.

Primary Sources

Tacitus, Histories Books 1-3

Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars , Books 7-10

Secondary Sources

Potter, D. S. Ancient Rome: A New History . New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009

Featured image: From left to right - Galba, Otho, Vespasian, and Vitellius

By Miriam Kamil



Are you certain that Vitellius was killed by his soldiers. I’ve always understood that he was killed in his palace by the soldiers of Vespasian

Miriam Kamil's picture

Miriam Kamil

Miriam Kamil graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Classical Languages and Literature and highest honors.  She is currently getting her M.St. in Greek and Latin at Oxford.

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