The Roman Principate: The Four-Emperor Year and the Flavian Dynasty
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco

The Four-Emperor-Year

Galba: Servius Sulpicius Galba was a city keeper in Hispania Citerior and joined the revolt of Iulius Vindex in 68, after hesitating. When Vindex was slain in battle, and Nero committed suicide, Galba was logically chosen as the new Caesar. Most historians are rather mild about him, which is probably due to his age. He was bald, and in his late sixties, and during his rule that only lasted eight months, he lived in an increasing feeling of anxiety and fear. While Nero was dead, the political tempest that the revolt of Vindex had created was far from over, and Galba's authority was too weak to control and subdue all threats.

In some way, his reign was legitimated by the fact that he had in the distant past been adopted by Livia, Tiberius' mother. But ever since, his fortunes had gone backwards, and he'd been forgotten. His rule started promisingly nevertheless. By a few acts of clemency and generosity, he relieved Nero's former enemies and the people from a heavy weight on their shoulders, but it also created somewhat of an overreaction. In this sudden outburst of protests and demands, Galba panicked and passed an increasing amount of power to his friends, Titus Vinius, Laco and Icelus. This, and his maltreatment of the scattered armed forces and their commanders, made the revolts in the Empire even worse.

In response to the mutiny of Vitellius in Germania Inferior, Galba adopted Calpurnius Piso as his successor. This in turn angered the at that time loyal Otho, who conspired against Galba, and had him killed. Although most historians judge him as too weak for the imperial throne, he was at that time, by career and experience, the most qualified man to possess the title of Caesar. It was most likely the actions of his advisors, his own panic and his unrealistic ambitions that caused his downfall.

Otho: Marcus Salvius Otho, whose name suggests an Etruscan heritage, lasted only eight weeks as emperor. Because of the turmoil and chaos, a man such as him was unable to win the confidence of both the army and the Senate. In his youth, he had been a close friend of Nero's, but because of a romantic affair with his fiancée Poppaea Sabina, had been sent away to Lusitania. As mentioned earlier, he'd come to Rome in 68 along with Galba. Despite his generosity and attempts at reconciling various factions and his military capabilities, his rule ultimately failed, because of his personal identification with Nero and the anxiety it caused among the people; the way in which he had risen to power, and his eventual failure to defeat Vitellius' forces in Italia. Anticipating the coming of Vitellius, he killed himself on April 16, a few weeks before he would turn 37.

Vitellius: Aulus Vitellius descended from an aristocratic family that had occupied several important offices during the reigns of Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Having been appointed as governor of Germania Inferior in 68 by Galba, the malcontent legions there, dissatisfied with the fact that Galba refused to reward them for their loyalty, proclaimed Vitellius as their emperor. While Otho was conspiring against Galba, he marched against Rome, mainly relying on his lieutenants Valens and Caecina.

When Vitellius reached Rome, this was orgiastically celebrated. He left most of the original administration of his predecessors intact, and reduced the important position of some freedmen. He also held public festivals and assumed his powers gradually rather than all at once. However, a shadow was cast over his image by his inherent greed and gluttony, characteristics which were enlarged and caricaturised under the regime of the Flavians.

In mid-June 69, a revolt in the East broke out, led by Titus Flavius Vespasianus. The forces loyal to him, mainly malcontent with Vitellius' refusal to reward their loyalty (a familiar story, so it seems), marched quickly against Vitellius, who at that time lacked the advice of Valens, who was ill, and Caecina, who soon defected to the side of the Flavians. His troops led a crushing defeat at the very same battlefield - Bedriacum - where he had been victorious over Otho. When Vespasianus' troops entered the city, eager to avenge the recent death of Vespasianus' brother at Vitellius' hands, they quickly found him in his palace, tortured him and tossed him into the Tiber.

The Flavian Dynasty

Vespasianus: Titus Flavius Vespasianus the Elder scame from a family of wealthy equites, and was especially known as a commander under Claudius in the conquest of Britannia, where he subdued two tribes and conquered the Isle of Wight. He reached the consulate in 51, but for one reason or another retreated from political life a few years later, to re-emerge again as military commander of the troops in the eastern provinces, to quell a revolt in Iudea. He had sworn allegiance to both Galba and Otho, but when Vitellius assumed power, he, after having had private counsel with Mucianus, governor of Syria, decided to rebel against Rome. They were soon joined in this rebellion by the governor of Egypt, Tiberius Alexander, and as described above, it became a success.

Upon assuming power, he assimilated all powers previously held by his predecessors into one set of powers, which made him the most powerful emperor up until now. By means of omina, campaigns to especially defame Vitellius and magnificent construction works, he sought to legitimise his own rule, and openly promoted dynastic ideas. The aforementioned construction works were more than necessary for Rome's revival, and although his financial administration earned him some impopularity, it was more than necessary to make sure that the aeraria would be filled again, after they had been plundered by Nero and - again - Vitellius.

Despite the accusations of avaritia, and his ruthlessness in dealing with consistent opposition, most historians have a rather positive assessment of him, mainly because he spent the money he received in positive ways: for the first time, teachers of Greek and Latin received state salaries, and he also restored some ravaged cities in the provinces, furthering the processes of Romanisation. His greatest work, which was completed under the rule of his son Titus, was the Flavian Amphitheatre, also known as the Colosseum because of its magnitude (or because of a colossal statue of Nero standing nearby).

Vespasianus' sense of humour is legendary. As is visible in sculptures made of him, he had a slightly grim expression around his mouth. When he once asked a famous satirist when he planned on writing a satire about him, the writer replied: "When you are done with your defecation". Also, when his son Titus complained that Vespasianus was taxing the use of public toilets, Vespasianus showed him the money and said "non olet (it doesn't stink)".

The first emperor to pass away peacefully in a long time, Vespasianus died in 79 near the place where he was born, and was succeeded by his son Titus.

Titus: Titus Flavius Vespasianus the Younger was the emperor's eldest son, and logically succeeded him when he died. Earlier, he had acted as army commander in 69 and 70 CE when his father was traveling to Rome with his army (and had, on an earlier occasion, allegedly saved Vespasianus' life), to complete the "war on terror" with the Jews. This came to a dramatic end with the destruction of the Temple, which would be the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora. By this act, Titus' reputation would be forever scathed among Jews - and to a lesser degree - among Christians, although the Jewish historian Iosephus does not portray him all that negatively. Added to that, when he was not an emperor yet, he was relatively unpopular; in his campaigns in the East he had shown disdain and cruelty for captured people, and he had had an affair with the eastern queen Berenice, which he had to break off when he assumed the throne because of the comparisons with Marcus Antonius. Also, because he did a number of dirtier jobs his father didn't want to do himself, he wasn't really popular.

As soon as he became emperor, however, his reputation made a 180° turn, much to the delight of many who feared that he would become a second Nero. He took a few positive social measures, and completed the Flavian Amphitheatre. Although he was generous towards the people, the treasuries were left with a surplus when he died, so he probably inherited the economical capabilities of his father. Of course, his reputation was enhanced by his early death. He suddenly died, according to one version in the same house where his father had died, according to others due to an assassination attempt from his own brother, Domitianus. The latter version, however, is unlikely: Domitianus always honoured his brother's memory, and was a true follower of the Religio Romana. Added to that, he wrote Titus' funeral speech.

After his reign of two years, Titus appeared to be almost universally loved, and he and his father would serve as role models for the later adoptive emperors. He died in 81 CE, at the age of 51.

Domitianus: There are few other emperors who have divided opinions more than Domitianus. Before his rule, he was always in the shade of his brother and his father - he also had little contact with them. In his youth, he developed a preference for being alone and relied on the advice of close friends. What causes the divided opinions is probably his bad relationship with the Roman aristocracy and the Senate: he was openly autocratic, and did not mask his contempt for the Senate. He made himself Censor for life, which was more symbolical than it was anything else, but it angered the Senate all the more.

However, there are accounts to prove that Domitianus was a capable ruler, at least in the field of economy. During the rule of Titus, the Empire had been plagued by natural disasters, among which were the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE and another fire in Rome in 80. He built more than fifty structures (among them, finishing a temple that honoured his father and brother), but was still able to leave the treasury with a surplus at his death, which can be called quite a prestation. His measures weren't always orthodox, however; he didn't feel morally restrained to impose taxes and tributes on "allied" peoples, and is said to have been rather harsh for Jews as well.

Other than economy, he was interested in arts and literature, and allegedly wrote a work on baldness. God only knows why. In the military field, Domitianus had not inherited the talents of the other Flavians; his war against the Chatti in Gallia was only a partial success, as were Agricola's campaigns in Scotland. Added to that, a threat arose in the form of the Dacians, united under Decebalus, a cunning ruler. Domitianus was forced to buy his good behaviour.

Tensions with the Senate eventually led to Domitianus' assassination in 96. Later generations of writers and historians would then leave no opportunity unused to villify Domitianus and his regime. He had been emperor for 15 years, and died at the age of 45.
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