Nero – and the Year of the Four Emperors

It is often tempting to believe that good times are the results of good government, and that bad government results in bad times.  It is rather more complicated than that. The latter half of the Julio-Claudian dynasty does not exactly represent good government. But for most people, the times were good. The economics, and the reforms put in place by Augustus continued to provide a firm base.  Thus the first half of the First Century AD is a time of economic success, but rotten government.

It could be said that Claudius was the most successful, or perhaps the least incompetent of the Julio-Claudian emperors (that is the direct descendants of Augustus).  But after a reign of fourteen years he was poisoned by his wife in order to make way for his wife’s son by an earlier husband, who became the most notorious emperor of all: Nero (AD 54 – 68).

Seneca, Nero’s tutor and adviser. This is a double herm, in Berlin, with Socrates on the other side.

Yet in his first five years, Nero was a success: they are called “quinquennium Neronis”.  He was seventeen when he came to throne and under his mother’s thumb, so the empire was administered by two powerful advisers,  the philosopher Seneca and the praetorian prefect Burrus.  Seneca was one of Rome’s most distinguished philosophers: the foremost exponent of the Stoic school of philosophy.  Then Nero began to grow up and grow evil.  He got fed up with the overbearing control of his mother, so he had her done away with and his sister at the same time, and he married the glamorous Poppaea.


Nero’s thick, puffy face: he looks dissolute. (Compare with the coin below)

He then devoted himself to a life of luxury.  At the best one could say he supported the arts and he certainly thought himself to be a great artist.  His accomplice in this was Petronius who set himself up as the world’s greatest dandy.  He was known as “the arbiter elegantiae” and he probably wrote a long novel called “the Satiricon” of which one chapter survives devoted to Trimalchio’s feast, a grand banquet given by the freedman Trimalchio who exhibits every possible excess of the nouveau riche; it is a standard work of study for Latin literature combining excellent Latinity with an insider’s view of social climbing gone wrong.  But eventually Nero grew tired of him and he was ordered to commit suicide, which he did most elegantly.  Rather a large number of leading citizens in Rome were ordered to commit suicide by Nero.

Coin of Nero, showing on the right Nero distributing alms to the citizens. Behind Nero is the praefectus annonae, giving him the token to distribute

But in AD 64 disaster came,  and a great fire broke out in Rome and the whole of the centre of Rome and several of the suburbs were destroyed.  Nero was blamed for the fire – Nero fiddled while Rome burned according to later accounts.  Perhaps he is harshly judged for it appears that he led the way in providing relief for those who had suffered.

After the great Fire of Rome, Nero laid out plans to build a ‘Golden House’. Here is a hypothetical reconstruction: note that in the entrance hall in front of the ceremonial lake was a colossal statue of Nero.

But he took advantage of the fire to set out plans to build a huge palace on the Palatine hill, known as the domus aurea.  Rome was centred on the forum, the low lying market place area between two hills, the Capitoline hill on one side which was the ritual centre, and the Palatine hill on the other side which was the posh residential area.  Augustus had a posh house there which was enlarged by his successors, but it remained a large house.  It was Nero who planned a true palace which under later emperors eventually covered the whole hill so all the posh private citizens were pushed out, and the Palatine hill gave its name to the palace.

Two years later in AD 66, Nero went over the top and went on a grand tour of Greece.  It was an artistic tour and everywhere he went Nero showed off his artistic skills.  Competitions were held and – surprise, surprise, Nero was always the victor.  He claimed to have won 1808 first prizes in the course of his tour.  The establishment was appalled.

And in the army, trouble was brewing. In France, the Governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Vindex,  was shocked by what was happening. Interestingly, he was not a Roman, but a Gaul, descended from the rulers of Aquitania, so he had the strict ideas of an outsider as to how an Emperor should behave.  He realised that as a Gaul he could not be emperor himself, so he approached Galba, the distinguished Governor of Spain to become Emperor. However, the commander of the legions in the upper Rhine, Verginius,  was unhappy at this idea. They met, but their legions got out of control and began fighting and at the battle of Vesontio, the army of Upper Germany came out the best, and Vindex, realising that the game was up, committed suicide. However Galba was proclaimed as Emperor by his troops, and the senate at Rome accepted him. Whereupon Nero realising that the game was up,  committed suicide with the famous last words, Qualis artifex pereo  – What an artist perishes!


Galba – capable of being an Emperor? Note the hook nose: this statue in Stockholm is probably fairly realistic (wiki)

Galba hurried to Rome, and at first was widely accepted. He had a distinguished career and he seemed to be just the right person, but then everything seemed to go wrong: he was aged 74, he suffered badly from gout, and he antagonised everyone.   Tacitus summed him up in his most famous, but untranslatable epithet that he was capax imperii nisi imperasset – that he was capable of being an emperor had he not actually been an emperor.  After a series of blunders, he was murdered by the Praetorian guards.

He was succeeded by fellow governor from Spain, Otho.  Otho had been a man about town who had a gorgeous wife called Poppaea, who Nero fancied. Otho therefore did the right thing and divorced her so that Nero could marry her – and  subsequently killed her by kicking her in the stomach while she was pregnant. However  Otho was rewarded for divorcing his wife by being made governor of Hispania Lusitania, the further province of Spain – basically modern Portugal, where he was safely out of the way. However when his fellow governor Galba set off for Rome to become emperor, he accompanied him, and when Galba was assassinated, Otho was proclaimed emperor in his stead.

He lasted barely 2 months.  Trouble came from the troops in Germany, who wanted to get their man onto the throne.  The man they chose was Vitellius, who had been sent out to govern the Germanies by Galba. The legionary commanders proclaimed him as Emperor and they set out for Rome. Otho gathered together some troops to oppose him and at the battle of Bedriacum in northern Italy, the seasoned regular troops of the German regular army, defeated the makeshift forces of Otho, who committed suicide. Vitellius became the new emperor.

Unfortunately, Vitellius was not at the right man to be emperor. He was lazy, extravagant, a glutton delighting in exotic foods, who was neatly skewered by Max Cary, who said that his incessant round of dissipation recalled those of Nero’s later years, save that they lacked Nero’s artistry.

But there was one more formidable army in the Roman world, and that was the army in the east, and they were not at all happy that the armies in Germany had promoted such an unsatisfactory emperor and they felt that their commander, Vespasian, would make a much better Emperor. Vespasian was a tried and tested warrior, having won his spurs in the conquest of Britain, and had further proved his prudence in the administration of Africa. He had fallen into disfavour by falling asleep in one of Nero’s concerts, but was recalled and sent to the East to sort out the Jewish problem for the Jews had revolted due to the tactlessness and incompetence of the local Roman governor.

The Jewish war proved to be a major problem but Vespasian had a son Titus, (who succeeded him as Emperor), who was also a brilliant soldier, so he left him in charge to wage the Jewish war. But Vespasian was cautious about becoming emperor, so he decided to make his attack, not by going directly to Rome, but by going to Egypt to starve out Rome by cutting off the corn supply.

However, his charisma was spreading and the armies in the Balkans decided that he was the right man, and under their commander Primus set off for Italy to make Vespasian emperor. Here they met the army supporting Vitellius,  and at a second battle of Bedriacum, the army from the Balkans supporting Vespasian defeated the Germanic army supporting Vitellius. However, the Vitellian forces retreated to Rome and a bloody battle ensued in Rome itself, until Vitellius, was killed by his troops. Vespasian eventually arrived from Egypt as the indisputable Emperor.

This year of the four emperors was the most notorious year in the history of the empire hitherto, and brought an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty which was ruled by the descendants of Augustus. Fortunately, the right man won out.

On to The Flavians

12th January 2020