Year of the Four Emperors Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Roman Empire experienced a period of civil wars and rule by three short-lived emperors that culminated in the establishment of the Flavian Dynasty.

Summary of Event

By 68 c.e., the Roman emperor Nero’s oppressive policies and personal extravagance had caused many prominent Romans to turn against him. In March, Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Central Gaul, rose in rebellion against Nero. Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Nearer Spain, supported Vindex’s revolt; in April, Galba’s troops hailed their leader as general of the senate and people of Rome. In May, Vindex’s rebellion was crushed, but in June, Nero committed suicide and the Roman senate subsequently recognized Galba as emperor. After his accession, he executed some of Nero’s supporters and massacred thousands of troops that Nero had assembled in Rome. Moreover, he introduced certain austere measures to stabilize imperial finances, including a refusal to pay the Praetorian Guard a special bonus promised in Galba’s name by their commander in return for their desertion from Nero to Galba. As a result of these policies, Galba alienated the Praetorian Guard and most of the people of the city of Rome. Nero Galba, Servius Sulpicius Otho, Marcus Salvius Vitellius, Aulus Fabius Valens Vespasian

In early January of 69 c.e., the Roman legions stationed along the Rhine frontier rose in rebellion against Galba and acclaimed as emperor Aulus Vitellius, the governor of Lower Germany. Meanwhile Otho, a former governor of Lusitania (Portugal) and an early supporter of Galba, was disappointed at not being chosen to be his heir and turned against him. On January 15, the Praetorian Guard took an oath of allegiance to Otho. They then moved against Galba and killed him. The senate as well as the legions of the east recognized Marcus Salvius Otho as emperor.

In February, troops loyal to Vitellius invaded Italy. One army, led by Fabius Valens, entered from the northwest and crossed the Cottian Alps. A second army, commanded by Aulus Caecina Alienus, crossed the Pennine Alps farther to the northeast. Otho sought to delay the enemy forces by defending positions along the Po River until the arrival of reinforcements from the Danubian provinces. He also sent a small force into southeastern Gaul to delay Valens’s advance. This force withdrew after an inconclusive engagement, and Vitellius’s forces quickly occupied the plain between the Alps and the Po. Meanwhile, Otho left Rome on March 14 and set out to join his forces in the north.

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After an unsuccessful assault on Placentia (Piacenza), Caecina’s army advanced toward Cremona, a city that was already in Vitellian hands. Caecina’s army was then defeated outside Cremona but joined forces with Valens’s army on April 8. Although Otho’s forces were outnumbered, his generals persuaded him to permit them to attack immediately rather than wait for the arrival of reinforcements. On April 14, the Vitellian forces defeated those of Otho in the first Battle of Cremona. His army immediately took an oath of allegiance to Vitellius. On April 16, Otho committed suicide at his headquarters at Brixellum (Brescello). By April 19, both the senate and troops in Rome had acclaimed Vitellius as emperor.

Vitellius traveled to Rome at a leisurely pace, while his troops pillaged and looted all along the route of his journey. He sent the legions that had supported Otho back to their original provinces and disbanded the nine cohorts of Otho’s Praetorian Guard, replacing them with a new Praetorian Guard of sixteen cohorts recruited from his own troops. He finally arrived in Rome in early July. In describing Vitellius’s brief reign, ancient writers such as Tacitus and Suetonius have emphasized his gluttony and extreme cruelty toward suspected enemies. However, P. A. L. Greenhalgh argued that his alleged cruelty has been exaggerated. Moreover, he asserted that Vitellius demonstrated great respect for the senate and tried to appeal to all classes of Roman society.

Vespasian.

(Library of Congress)

Since 67 c.e., Vespasian, the governor of Judaea, had been conducting a campaign to suppress a major Jewish rebellion. In July of 69, the legions of Egypt, Judaea, and Syria acclaimed him as emperor. He also won the support of governors of other eastern provinces and various eastern native rulers, as well as the legions of the Danubian provinces. In late July, he and his generals drew up plans for the campaign against Vitellius in a war council at Berytus (Beirut). His son Titus continued operations against the Jewish rebels, while Vespasian secured Egypt to cut off Egyptian grain shipments to Rome and starve it into submission. Gaius Licinius Mucianus, the governor of Syria, led the main army against Vitellius’s forces in Italy.

However, the Italian campaign was actually begun by Marcus Antonius Primus, a legionary commander in Pannonia (western Hungary). He was eager to win glory for himself and instead of waiting for Mucianus’s army, he led an advance force into northwestern Italy in late August. Primus quickly gained control of Aquileia and Patavium (Padua), and in late September, he established a major base at Verona. On September 17, Caecina and his Vitellian army set out from Rome; they advanced toward Cremona and established a camp between Hostilia (Ostiglia) and Verona. On October 18, on learning of the defection of the Roman Adriatic fleet to Vespasian, Caecina and his officers also swore allegiance to him. However, Caecina’s troops immediately arrested him, chose new commanders, and advanced toward Cremona to join forces with another army loyal to Vitellius.

Primus, whose army had received considerable reinforcements, decided to attack before the Vitellian armies could link up. On October 24-25, his army defeated the Vitellians in the second Battle of Cremona. After the battle, they captured the fortified camp of the Vitellians. The city of Cremona then surrendered and was sacked by Primus’s troops. Vitellius’s other major general, Valens, abandoned his army on learning of the defeat at Cremona. After an unsuccessful attempt to rally forces in Gaul to continue the war, he was arrested by Vespasian’s troops and executed in December.

After the victory at Cremona, Primus’s forces advanced down the Via Flaminia toward Rome. On December 15, a Vitellian army surrendered to him at Narnia (Narni). Meanwhile Titus Flavius Sabinus, the city prefect of Rome and brother of Vespasian, tried to persuade Vitellius to abdicate. Vitellius did so on December 18, but the people refused to accept his abdication and his troops briefly besieged Sabinus and his followers on Rome’s Capitoline Hill. The next day, Vitellius’s troops captured the Capitoline and Sabinus was subsequently killed by a mob of Vitellius’s supporters. During the siege, a fire that broke out on the Capitoline destroyed the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest, a major symbol of Roman power. On December 20, Primus’s forces entered Rome from the north and captured it after fierce fighting; that same day, Vitellius was arrested and killed. On December 21, the senate formally recognized Vespasian as emperor. Mucianus arrived in Rome soon after and held supreme authority in the capital until Vespasian’s arrival.

Meanwhile, the Batavians, a Germanic tribe, rebelled against Roman rule and were soon joined by some Gallic tribes. By September of 70, this rebellion as well as the Jewish revolt had been crushed, although Jewish rebels at Masada held out until 73 c.e. In late September, Vespasian entered Rome and subsequently announced the restoration of peace throughout the empire.

Significance

In describing the events of 68-69 c.e., Tacitus stated, “A well-hidden secret . . . had been revealed: It was possible, it seemed, for an emperor to be chosen outside Rome.” For the first time since the accession of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, governors in various provinces were proclaimed emperors by their legions. This resulted in a series of bloody civil wars as well as political anarchy in the empire. Vespasian’s accession marked the beginning of the Flavian Dynasty (69-96 c.e.) and a period of relative stability in the Roman Empire, which continued until the late second century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenhalgh, P. A. L. The Year of the Four Emperors. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975. A narrative of the events of 68-69 c.e. based on ancient sources. Maps and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levick, Barbara. Vespasian. New York: Routledge, 1999. An account of the life and achievements of the first Flavian emperor. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1987. A classic work that includes biographies of Nero and the four emperors of 68-69 c.e. Maps and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tacitus, Cornelius. The Histories. Translated by Kenneth Wellesley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1982. A detailed, sometimes partisan account of the events of 68-69 c.e. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wellesley, Kenneth. The Long Year, a.d. 69. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1975. A narrative of the events of 68-69 c.e. based upon literary sources, documents, and ancient inscriptions. Maps and index.
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