The following tract is not intended to
be a definitive account of the year AD69. This year was a
complex and complicated period in the history of the Roman
Empire, and indeed several lengthy books have been written
and published specifically on this subject. What I have set
out to do is to try to give a relatively simple overview of
the convoluted events that brought Vespasian to the ultimate
power in Rome. It therefore follows that in the interests
of brevity and clarity, certain events have of necessity been
omitted or truncated in the telling.
In order to fully understand the events of
AD69, we must first take a look at the last few years of the
reign of Nero. His capricious and profligate rule had become
more and more intolerable to the Senate and ruling classes
of Rome. The Roman masses however adored Nero, who regularly
provided them with spectacularly expensive games. And while
the military remained loyal to Nero, nothing would be done
to change the situation. But the Army was finally getting
Throughout his reign, Nero had shown remarkably
little interest in the Army. He clearly believed that keeping
the Praetorian Guard happy with handsome bribes was sufficient,
and virtually ignored the rest of his military forces. Inevitably
therefore, the rigid discipline imposed by previous emperors
began to deteriorate. Furthermore, huge arrears of pay and
pensions ensured that the bulk of the Army was becoming increasingly
hostile. Not surprisingly then, being unable to see any improvement
under the prevailing circumstances, the military cast around
for an alternative emperor of their own choosing.
Just one among several candidates was Servius
Sulpicius Galba. He was at that time the governor of Hispania
Terraconensis, but he also had support elsewhere. Indeed a
revolt on his behalf was raised by a certain Caius Iulius
Vindex in Gaul, but this was premature and failed. The legions
of Germany refused to join the revolt and proposed their own
candidate, one Lucius Verginius Rufus. However, Rufus was
not interested, and Vindex eventually committed suicide.
In Rome, news of this disaffection disconcerted
Nero. Never the most stable character, he now swayed between
bouts of depression and insouciance. This prevarication eventually
disgusted even the Praetorians, who now revolted. Probably
abetted by the offer of a substantial bribe from their ambitious
prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus. As was to become their regular
habit, the Senate quickly jumped on the bandwagon and officially
deposed Nero. He fled the palace, and was sentenced in absentia
to execution in the 'old fashioned way'. Probably meaning
the traditional military punishment of cudgelling or stoning
to death. Unwilling to face this, the deposed emperor eventually
took his own life. Deserted by all, save a handful of household
Galba now headed for Rome, his supporters disposing
of a few other pretenders elsewhere. On arrival in the city,
he found that the Praetorians had killed yet another pretender.
Their own ambitious prefect, Sabinus. So with the promise
of yet another generous payout to the Praetorians, Galba ensured
that all forces, at least in Rome, were now loyal to him.
However, things were different in some of the provinces, but
that would have to wait.
At the age of 71 years, the new emperor was
immediately faced by immense problems. Finances were chaotic,
the state coffers having been emptied by years of Nero's profligacy.
To try to restore the situation, Galba began by revoking the
vast fortunes previously bestowed by Nero upon his favourites.
But tragically, he allowed his own cronies to line their pockets
instead. This and other measures caused widespread resentment
throughout Rome and elsewhere. The German legions had never
accepted Galba, and now refused to take the oath of allegiance
Because of his advanced age, Galba now tried
to secure the succession for one of his supporters, the young
and untested Marcus Piso. This offended one Marcus Salvius
Otho, who considered himself a far more suitable candidate.
As governor of Lusitania, Otho had been one of the first to
declare his support for Galba. He now in turn made very generous
promises to the Praetorians. And as Galba still hadn't made
his promised payments, they instantly proclaimed Otho emperor.
Then marching to the forum, they lynched Galba, Piso and other
adherents. As expected, the Senate immediately recognised
Otho as the new emperor, followed in due course by most provincial
Otho of course inherited all the problems left
by his predecessor. To compound the problem of the very shaky
finances, Otho himself turned out to be a complete spendthrift.
Nor was he in any way prepared to impose some discipline on
the Praetorians. But his main concern must have been the ever
defiant German legions, who were still looking to impose their
own chosen emperor.
When it had refused to swear allegiance to
Galba, the army in Germany had no obvious candidate in mind.
Now its two divisional commanders, Fabius Valens and Alienus
Caecina, prevailed upon the troops to acclaim their own commander
Aulus Vitellius as emperor. Vitellius, so far a fairly insignificant
person, wasn't too keen on the idea. But Valens and Caecina
saw in him the ideal figurehead of a government where they
wielded the actual power. He was eventually persuaded to accept,
and a plan of campaign was hatched. Valens and Caecina would
take the bulk of the army and march on Rome by different routes.
Vitellius would remain behind and build up a reserve force
to follow later. It was at about this time that they learned
of the death of Galba and the accession of Otho. But there
was no change of plan.
Valens led his troops to Italy through Gaul
and the western passes, where
as Caecina crossed the Alps through Helvetia. The intention
was to reunite both detachments near Cremona. Despite causing
mayhem through indiscipline in Helvetia, Caecina's force arrived
first. Between Placentia and Cremona he encountered an Othonian
army, consisting mainly of Praetorians. Though not a large
force, it still outnumbered Caecina's half of the German army.
The eventual arrival of Valens swung the balance considerably
in the Vitellians favour, though not for long. Otho's army
was soon reinforced by new arrivals from Dalmatia, Pannonia
amd Moesia, which brought the two armies to near parity.
Otho was advised by his commanders, Suetonius
Paullinus and Verginius Rufus, to delay joining battle. They
believed that the intense heat would dissipate the unacclimatised
northern troops. But Otho was too impatient, and the first
battle of Cremona was joined. It was very difficult territory,
consisting of many small vineyards and narrow lanes. Seriously
hampered by these, nobody could gain advantage for some considerable
time. Then a cohort of Batavian auxilliaries took Otho in
the flank, swinging the battle in favour of the Vitellians.
Their retreat cut off by the River Po, the army of Otho had
no option but to surrender. Otho himself committed suicide,
and the two armies came to terms. The victorious Rhine Army
now marched on Rome. The senate as usual proclaimed Vitellius
emperor, and the provincial governors promised their allegiance.
At least for the time being.
On their way to Rome, Valens and Caecina executed
the senior centurions of the Illyrian legions, newly arrived
in Italy in support of Otho. These legions were immediately
sent back to their bases, but this killing was to prove an
expensive mistake. Valens and Caecina arrived in Rome well
before Vitellius himself, where they immediately disbanded
Otho's Praetorians and took other measures to establish the
new emperor on a firm footing.
But Vitellius failed to capitalise on this
firm foundation. A weak man, he now gave himself up to dissipations
recalling the later years of Nero. Lavish spending plunged
the treasury even deeper into bancruptcy, leaving nothing
to pay his troops their promised victory bonus. Consequently,
the soldiers totally gave up on discipline, and are recorded
as living a life of 'ease and good cheer'. Nevertheless, Vitellius
and his cronies believed that they had overawed all the remaining
armies of the empire. They considered the Rhine Army to be
invincible. But such complacency only served as an incentive
to others, appalled by the execution of Otho's Illyrian centurions.
The challenge came from the eastern provinces,
where forces just as strong as the Rhine Army were assembled
for the Jewish War. Tiberius Alexander, Prefect of Egypt,
and Licinius Mucianus, governor of Syria, put forward their
own candidate. The 60 year old Titus Flavius Vespasianus,
one time commander of the Legio II Augusta in Britain. And
now commander of the Roman field forces in Palestine. Merely
of equestrian rank, he was the son of a money dealer from
Reate. He had been enticed to accept the nomination only because
a prophecy once made to him promised 'greater things'. On
July 1st , Alexander's troops proclaimed him emperor, his
own soldiers following suit a few days later. There is some
doubt about Vespasian's enthusiasm for the venture at that
time, certainly about the use of force. He travelled to Alexandria
and embarked on the lengthy and doubtful process of starving
Rome into submission, by cutting off the supply of Egyptian
Meanwhile from Syria, Mucianus began a leisurely march westwards
with some 20,000 men, gathering more as he went. This leisurely
strategy was brought to an abrupt halt by the Danube legions.
Having been too late to support Otho, they now gave their
allegiance to Vespasian. Commanded by a Gaulish officer called
Antonius Primus, they ignored the lethargic Mucianus and pressed
on into Italy. With no more than some 50,000 men under his
command, Primus was outnumbered by the army of Vitellius.
However, this larger force was not properly prepared, and
lacked the superior leadership of the Flavians. The two armies
met at Cremona, and this second battle was a resounding victory
for the Flavians. Carnage followed, with the totally out of
control Flavian troops utterly destroying the town. But as
a result, the previously prevaricating western provincial
governors now declared for Vespasian. Vitellius finally roused
himself enough to sent his loyal Praetorians to guard the
Appenine passes, but demoralisation had taken hold. The rapid
advance of the Flavian forces resulted in mass desertions.
At last arriving on the scene, Mucianus offered Vitellius
a safe conduct in exchange for his abdication. Terms were
agreed through Flavius Sabinus, brother of Vespasian, who
actually commanded the Cohorts of Rome. But this was resisted
by the remaining Praetorians, who drove all the Flavian supporters
including Sabinus and Vespasian's son Domitian to take shelter
on the Capitoline hill. A short siege ended with the lynching
of Sabinus and other Flavian supporters, and the burning of
the Temple of Jupiter. Domitian seems to have escaped.