Rome in Chaos: The Year of the 4 Emperors

Succession was a problem throughout Roman history. The city had discarded kings to become great, but with the monarchy went certainty about who was to take the most powerful position in the known world. The Year of the 4 Emperors, 69 AD, was this recurring problem writ large.

Nero mourning the mother he had killed.

Emperor Nero was bad news for the Empire while he was alive, and his death in 68 AD – the first emperor to commit suicide – didn’t improve things.

His hold on power had been weak for some time. He had many enemies and his allies were turning against him. Unless a strong man stepped into the breach, there was bound to be a power vacuum and a bloody struggle to take or inherit his throne.

Emperor Galba

Bust of Ancient Roman Emperor Galba

Photo by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia Commons

The first man to attempt to rise to the top was Servius Sulpicius Galba. A revolt in his favour in Gaul failed, but a second plot, in June 68 AD, succeeded in turning the Praetorian Guard against Nero, who fled to his ignominious death.

Galba took power. He immediately started to make Nero look good by comparison. Summary executions of opponents began and Nero’s few popular reforms were undone. Refusing to reward the Praetorian Guard for their part in his accession was to prove a fatal error.

Legions in Germania refused to swear allegiance to him then promoted the claims of their governor, Vitellius.

Galba tried to hang on. He picked a young senator as his nominated successor, overlooking and alienating more experienced men, one of whom, Marcus Silvius Otho, was unhappy enough to pay the disgruntled Praetorian Guard to back him.

Galba tried to rally support, but there was none and the men who were supposed to guard the Emperor cut him down in the Forum on 15 January 69 AD.

Emperor Otho

Ancient Roman coin showing Emperor Otho

Photo by Louisonze via Wikimedia Commons

For all his early efforts to win popularity, Otho had little chance of succeeding. Vitellius was already on the way to Rome to back his imperial claims with the best troops in the Roman army.

Otho’s compromise proposals were rejected and the Battle of Bedriacum left 40,000 men dead and Vitellius with a path to Rome. Before more could die, Otho decided to add his own body to the piles of corpses and killed himself on 16 April.

He had been Emperor for just over three months.

Emperor Vitellius

Ancient Roman Emperor Vitellius

Would this military strong man prove to be more long-lasting?

Vitellius started badly, choosing the anniversary of the disastrous Battle of Allia as the day of his accession to Pontifex Maximus, the top religious post. He celebrated at such length that he nearly bankrupted the treasury, murdering those sent to collect his debts and then those who’d made wills in favour of the Emperor.

A new candidate wasn’t long in appearing, this time in the Middle East, where Vespasian, the hero of the Great Jewish Revolt, was proclaimed Emperor by his troops. More legions soon backed him and he occupied Egypt, cutting Rome’s grain supplies.

Vitellius was crushingly defeated in a second Battle of Bedriacum and killed on 20 December, paying an unwise final visit to his former palace.

Vespasian was proclaimed Emperor by the Senate the following day. He ruled for 10 years and, perhaps learning from the chaos that preceded his own accession, was the first Emperor to pass power on to his own son.

jewish revolt ad 66

The Triumph of Titus and Vespasian, painting by Giulio Romano, c. 1537

Colin Ricketts studied history at the University of Birmingham, graduating in 1992. He's a qualified librarian, a former journalist and currently a freelance writer and editor.