The Year of the Four Roman Emperors explained


In the year 68 AD, the Roman Empire was in chaos. The emperor Nero had just died, and three men were fighting for control of the empire: Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. The next year and a half was a period of civil war is known as the Year of the Four Emperors.


In this article, we will explore the events that led to this chaotic period and discuss the four emperors who fought for power.


Nero, the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, had been a controversial figure. He was accused of many crimes, including murdering his own mother and two of his wives. His excessive spending had plunged the empire into financial ruin.


Following the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, Nero had been accused of being more concerned about building a new palace for himself rather than looking after those who had been left homeless by the flames. 


By AD 68, the people of Rome had had enough of Nero and revolted against him. In particular, the revolt of Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, was the last straw that broke the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He also had the support of the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis Servius Sulpicius Galba. It's been rumored that both Nero and Vindex had been targeted for execution by Nero, which prompted their revolt.



The army of the Rhine-based Lucius Verginius Rufus, who were still loyal to Nero, crushed Vindex's revolt. Since Galba was not nearby, this left him alone to march on Rome. News of the armies marching towards Rome reached the city and the emperor knew his time was up.


Nero fled from Rome in disguise, but only made it just beyond the city walls before his escape route was cut off by approaching enemies. As a final resort, Nero asked one of his slaves to kill him.


The death of Nero in AD 68 created a power vacuum in the Roman Empire, as there was no clear heir to the throne. This led to a period of civil war, as three men fought for control of the empire: Galba, Otho, and Vitellius.



With Nero dead, the Roman Empire was without an emperor. The Senate, the group of Roman nobles who had the power to choose the emperor, was divided on who to choose. Eventually, they settled on Galba, an old general who was popular with the people.


Galba was the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis (modern-day Spain). He was an old man with no children, and he had been passed over for promotion by Nero. When news of Nero's death reached Galba, he saw his opportunity to take power. When he arrived in Rome with his troops, they declared him emperor.


Galba had support from some influential men. In Africa, Clodius Macer launched a revolution to support Galba. With the use of only one legion, he cut off Rome's grain supply from Africa, with caused riots in Rome. Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus, the Praetorian Prefect, asked his praetorians to support Galba in return for a large cash payment.


When Galba arrived at Rome, he adopted the title. 'Caesar'. This was the first time 'Caesar' was used to legitimise someone's imperial power, but it would soon become tradition. However, once in power, people soon turned against Galba.


During his journey to Rome, Galba's armies had plundered communities that did not accept his claims as emperor. This generated a lot of animosity and hatred in the provinces. He also refused to pay the Praetorians the money promised by Sabinus, which outraged them.


Soon, the Rhine legions that had suppressed Vindex's rebellion declared loyalty to Galba and selected their new leader, Vitellius.

Downfall of Galba

Marcus Salvius Otho, who was the governor of Lusitania, had supported Galba's claim to the throne and had marched with him to Rome. Otho had a personal vendetta against Nero, since the former emperor had forced Otho to divorce his wife so that she could marry the emperor. However, Otho had been expecting to be named Galba's heir to the throne as a reward for his part in the revolt's success.


Galba, on the other hand, selected Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus, rather than Otho. Angry with this decision, Otho, went to the praetorian guard and bribed them to support him as emperor instead of Galba. Since Galba had failed to pay them the money promised, the praetorians were happy to support Otho.


In January 15, AD 69, the short six-month reign of Galba, who had only been in Rome since October, ended. The praetorians murdered him in the Forum.


The Senate confirmed Otho as Galba's replacement and he began his term immediately, having Piso, Galba's probable heir, murdered. The new emperor was ambitious and greedy, but he did not follow up Galba's death with a comparable degree of bloodshed.


However, his reign would also be brief. Vitellius, who had recently been proclaimed emperor by the Rhine legions, was on his way to Rome.


Otho rapidly gathered his own troops and attempted to negotiate with the advancing Vitellius, proposing to make him his adopted son-in-law. There would be no bargain, however, and the rebel armies entered Italy.


The two armies faced off at Bedriacum, one attempting to gain a footing along the Ro River. Vitellian's legions quickly overwhelmed Otho's center line and gained victory on April 14 AD 69.


Otho, rather than flee and prolong the civil war any longer, took his own life, leaving the Senate with little option but to designate Vitellius as the third emperor in a little over a year.


Vitellius, who had been the governor of Germania Inferior, was declared emperor by the Senate in April AD 69. However, just like the two men before him, Vitellius' reign was short-lived. He quickly proved to be an unpopular ruler.


Vitellius arrived in Rome and gave lavish banquets, triumphs, and athletic events for his own benefit as well as those of his companions. This excessive spending put extra weight on the treasury of Rome, which had already been under pressure from Nero's time in power.


Vitellius also committed actions that were seen as dishonouring Roman custom and sensibilities. For example, the bodies of Romans slain in combat were not given the honors they deserved, and his legions frequently got drunk and caused considerable havoc on their journey to Rome.


However, the Senate was generally pleased with how much autonomy Vitellius gave them, allowing them to control politics with little interference from him. However, there was another person vying for power in the empire.


Vespasian was the governor of Judea (modern-day Israel). He was a successful general who was successfully putting down an ongoing Jewish rebellion in the region. When news of Nero's death reached Vespasian, he saw his opportunity to take power. He marched towards Italy with his troops and to declare himself emperor.


Hearing of Vespasian's approach, Vitellius' supporters defended the city of Rome. Brutal street fighting broke out between the two armies and Vespasian's troops gained the upper hand. Eventually, Vitellius was captured in the imperial palace, dragged out to the streets, and killed. His body was thrown into the Tiber.


With the death of Vitellius, the Year of the Four Emperors came to an end. The Flavian dynasty, founded by Vespasian, would rule Rome for the next 27 years. He proved to be a popular emperor, and he successfully restored order to the Roman Empire. 


The Year of the Four Emperors was a chaotic period in Roman history. Three men fought for control of the empire, and only one emerged victorious. This period showed the importance of having a strong emperor who could maintain order in the empire. Without a strong leader, the empire would descend into chaos. Thankfully, Vespasian was able to restore order and stability to the Roman Empire.

Further reading