AD69 - THE YEAR OF THE FOUR EMPERORS.        MARIVS 2007. (Juris Trede)


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 restless.

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 slaves.

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 to him.

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 governors.

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 grain.

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.


On hearing this, the Flavians under Primus marched on Rome. In a running fight they annihilated all Vitellians in the suburbs, and stormed the Praetorian barracks. Vitellius was caught trying to escape, and was promptly lynched in retaliation for the death of Sabinus. The Danubian troops, unrestrained by Primus, brought a new reign of terror to Rome. The senate promptly elevated Vespasian to emperor, appointing Domitian vice-regent pending his father's arrival. The arrival of Mucianus displaced Domitian, and ended the state of near anarchy. He restored order, and despatched the legions back to their frontier stations. Vespasian himself didn't arrive in Rome until the summer of AD70.


The Year of the Four Emperors closely resembled the conditions which brought about the end of the Republic. It began in protest at Nero's misrule, but was otherwise totally devoid of any political principle. The weak and self seeking senate automatically invested each usurper with 'Imperial' power, proving just two things.
Firstly that 'The Seat of Augustus' was no longer the preserve of the old nobility, and secondly that emperors could be made elsewhere than in Rome.
The consequences would prove to be far reaching, though that wasn't foreseen at the time.


The XIIIIth were sent to represent the British legions in support of Otho. They were involved in the first battle of Cremona, and as such were on the losing side. The Legion later claimed that only their advanced guard had been present, so in reality the Legion hadn't actually been beaten! The new emperor, Vitellius, not happy with this 'stroppy' attitude ordered the Legion back to Britain. But prior to that they were placed on garrison duty in northern Italy. In Turin they were based together with Batavian auxiliaries, and obviously old scores had to be settled. At Cremona the Batavians had been instrumental in winning the battle for Vitellius, and that may have rankled. Two separate incidents are recorded. In one, Batavian sneers at winning a wrestling bout against a legionary incensed some of his comrades. In the resulting fracas apparently two cohorts (!) of Batavians were killed. In the second, a legionary went to the aid of his landlord who was being abused by a Batavian. Others joined in, and only the intervention of some Praetorians prevented heavy casualties. This was too much for Vitellius, and the XIIIIth were sent immediately on their way back to Britain. Before leaving, they set fire to large parts of Turin, all but destroying that city. But that still wasn't the end of the XIIIIth's capriciousness. On their way north they attempted to destroy the city of Vienne, but eventually were persuaded to back off.

©RMRS 2010