Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Year of the four emperors

The suicide of emperor Nero, in 68 AD, was followed by a brief period of civil war known as the Year of the four emperors. Between June of 68 and December of 69 AD, Rome witnessed the rise and fall of Galba, Otho and Vitellius until the final accession of Vespasian. This period of civil war is emblematic of the cyclic political disturbances in the history of the Roman Empire. The military and political anarchy of this civil war had serious implications, like the outbreak of the Batavian rebellion.

Table of contents
1 Nero to Galba
2 Galba to Otho
3 Otho to Vitellius
4 Vitellius to Vespasian
5 Aftermath
6 Chronology
7 References

Nero to Galba

The last years of Nero's reign were characterized by a climate of fear and terror. The city and senate were overwhelmed by the emperor's power and suffered dearly with his paranoia. In April 68, senator Caius Julius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis and an Aquitanian romanized prince, decides for a rebellion, with the purpose of substituting Nero for Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. Galba accepts the proposal and immediately marches to Rome.

The revolt in Gaul proved to be a disaster. The legions stationed in the German border marched to meet Vindex and confront him with the treason. Led by Lucius Verginius Rufus, the Rhine army defeated Vindex in battle and killed him, hoping for a reward from the emperor. But in June, the senate took the opportunity to get rid of Nero and declared him persona non grata. Galba was recognized as emperor and welcomed into the city.

Galba to Otho

This turning of events gave the German legions not the reward for loyalty they expected but accusations of obstructing Galba's way to the throne. Rufus, their commanders, is immediately replaced. Aulus Vitellius is appointed governor of the province of Germania Inferior. The loss of political confidence in Germania's loyalty resulted also in the dismissal of the Imperial Batavian Bodyguards. Whilst the rest of the empire celebrated the death of Nero, in the Rhine rebellion was on the loose.

Galba did not remain popular for a long time. In his march to Rome, he either destroyed or took enormous fines from the towns that did not accepted him immediately. In Rome he canceled all Nero's reforms, including benefits for many important persons. Like the previous emperor, Galba had an irrational fear for conspirators and executed many senators and knights without trial. The army was not happy either. After his safe arrival to Rome, Galba refused to pay the prizes he promised to soldier supporters. Moreover, in the start of the civil year of 69 AD in January 1, the legions of Germania Inferior refused to oath allegiance and obedience to the new emperor. In the following day, the legions acclaim Vitellius, their governor, as emperor.

Hearing the news of the loss of the Rhine legions, Galba panicked. He adopted a man picked by chance in the morning audiences. By doing this, he offended many people and above all Marcus Salvius Otho, an influential and ambicious man who desired the honour for himself. Otho bribed the Pretorian Guard, already most unhappy with the emperor, to his side. When Galba heard about the coup d'etat he went to the streets in an attempt to normalize the situation. It proved a mistake, because he could get no one to his side. Shortly afterwards, the Pretorian Guard killed him in the Forum.

Otho's legions: Legio XIII Gemina and Legio I Adiutrix

Otho to Vitellius

Otho was recognized emperor by the Senate in the same day. The new emperor was saluted with relief. Although ambitious and greedy, Otho did not have a record for tyranny or cruelty and was expected to be a fair emperor. But trouble was marching down to Italy.

Vitellius had behind him the finest elite legions of the empire, composed of veterans of the Germanic wars, such as the I Germanica or the XXI Rapax. These would prove to be his best arguments to gain power. Otho was not keen to begin another civil war and sent emissaries to proposed a peace and inviting Vitellius to be his son-in-law. It was too late to reason, Vitellius' generals had half of his army heading to Italy. After a series of minor victories, Otho was defeated in the Battle of Betriacum. Rather than to flee and attempt a counter-attack, Otho decided to put an end to the anarchy and committed suicide. He had been emperor for a little more than three months.

Vitellius' legions: Legio V Alaudae, Legio I Italica and Legio XXI Rapax

Vitellius to Vespasian

On the news of Othos's suicide, Vitellius was recognized emperor by the senate and headed himself to Rome. The beginnings of his reign were not auspicious. The whole city was left very skeptical when he chose the anniversary of the Battle of Allia (in 394 BC), a day of bad auspices to the superstitious roman mind, to became Pontifex maximus.

The following events would prove them right. With the throne tightly secured, Vitellius engaged in a series of feasts, banquets (Suetonius refers three a day: morning, afternoon and night) and triumphal parades that put the imperial treasure near to bankruptcy. Debts soon appeared and money-lenders started to demand for payment. Vitellius showed his violent nature ordering the torture and execution of the ones who dare to make such demands. With the financial affairs in a state of calamity, Vitellius took the initiative of killing the men who listed him as heir, often along with the eventual co-heirs. Moreover, he engaged in a pursuit of every possible rival, inviting them to the palace with promises of power only to get them assassinated.

Meanwhile, the legions stationed at the Middle East province of Judaea had acclaimed Vespasian, their own governor as emperor. The revolt was harmless until the Danubian legions of the provinces of Raetia and Moesia changed their pledge of alliance to Vespasian in August. In the following month rebellion was once again afflicting the Empire. The Danubian legions invaded Italy and Vespasian in Asia took the province of Syria. In October, Vitellius' army suffered an utterly defeat and Vespasian conquered Egypt to his side.

Surrounded by enemies, Vitellius made a last attempt to win the city to his side, distributing bribes and promises of power were needed. He tried to levy by force several allied tribes, such as the Batavians, only to receive straight nos. The Danube army was now very near Rome. Realizing the immediate threat, Vitellius made a last attempt to gain time and sent emissaries, accompanied by Vestal Virgins, to negotiate a truce and start peace talks. The following day, messengers arrived with news that the enemy was at the gates of the city. Vitellius was in hiding and preparing to flee, but decided for a last visit to the palace. There he was caught by Vespasian's men and killed.

The senate acknowledged Vespasian as emperor in the following day. It was the 21st of December of 69 AD, the year that began with Galba on throne.


After the death of Vitellius, Vespasian did not meet any direct threat to his imperial power. He founded the Flavian dynasty that succeeded the Julio-Claudians and died of natural causes as emperor in 79 AD, with the famous words Dear me, I must be turning into a god…

The situation was, however, far from being peaceful: the Batavian rebellion was just beginning.


68 AD

69 AD


Roman Warfare, Adrian Goldsworthy
The Twelve Caesars,