#16.6: Assassination of Emperor Galba

Ok still standing in front of the Basilica Julia by the dirt rectangle notice that between the third and fourth large column base there is a little fenced inlet that allows you to enter a short distance into the Forum Square. See the short metal roof on the other side of the inlet fence, that offers protection to a ground level ruin called the Lacus Curtius.

A Roman Emperor was assassinated on the Via Sacra as he passed the Lacus Curtius. Go back in time to the morning of Jan 15, 69 AD, sit on the steps and play a board game to pass the time. You look up from your game as a Roman General hurriedly walks past you and meets a small group of soldiers over by the Milliarium Aureum (Golden Milestone, by the Rostra). He secretly gets into a litter and is carried quickly away.

Later in the day a friend stops by and tells you that a large group of soldiers are hanging around over by the Basilica Aemila...out of sight. Much later you see the Emperor coming down the Via Sacra in a litter surrounded by Guards and followed by his Imperial entourage. When he gets in front of you all hell suddenly breaks loose, for your safety you run just inside the Basilica Julia and then turn around to watch a major event unfold before you. It's Showtime in the Roman Forum! :-)


Emperor Nero has finally ticked everyone off, the People, the Senate, some of his Legions (many remain loyal because he pays them well), his own inner circle and the Praetorian Guard. The Senate declares Nero a 'Public Enemy' and sentenced to be flogged to death. Everyone deserts Nero except for a few loyal Freedman. He flees his empty Palace and Rome in disguise. In a villa 6 km away he kills himself (June 9, 68 AD) with the help of one of his Freedman just before he is about to be captured. His last words are "Qualis artifex pereo" or "What a loss I shall be to the arts". He is 30 years old and has ruled for 14 years. And this ends the direct male line of Emperors descended from Emperor Augustus (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero).

And this 'Imperial job opening' starts a Civil War and what is called 'The Year of the Four Emperors' with all of them trying to become 'King of the (Palatine) Hill'. It's actually 18 months, two of the Emperors will die in the Roman Forum, one will commit suicide and in the end Vespasian will win and later die a natural death.

Emperor 'Servius Sulpicius Galba' (December, 3 BC - January, 69 AD) known as Galba, officially Emperor from June 9, 68 AD until Jan 15, 69 AD. He's from a Patrician Family of nobility and wealth with a distinguished military career. At this time he is the Governor of Eastern Spain. The Senate and the Praetorian Guard have offered him the Throne and with the help of his colleague and friend General Otho (who is the first to join his cause) they march on Rome.

So Galba becomes Emperor at age 69 but he's sick and somewhat infirmed. And later while those in his inner circle are enriching themselves, he reneges on his promise of bonuses to the Praetorian Guard and the soldiers that supported him in seizing the Throne. In the last two weeks of Galba's life the troops in Germania rebel ($$$) and proclaim their Commander 'Aulus Vitellius' Emperor. Emperor Galba proclaims 'Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus' (known as Piso) as his adopted son and heir to the throne.

This really incurred the wrath of his friend and loyal ally the Roman General Otho who supported his rise to power at the risk of his own life. Otho believed it would be him rather than this inexperienced aristocrat.

Piso is 31, from an ancient family, he's well behaved, straight-laced and Galba admires his character. But he has no military experience and the military dislikes his relatives who were involved in palace conspiracies against Nero.

Galba has now made a mortal enemy of Otho but he will not realize it until the last day of his life. Otho plots with the Praetorian Guard to kill Galba and become Emperor.

On Emperor Galba's last morning (January 15, 69 AD), he makes a sacrifice at the Palatine Hill's 'Temple of Apollo' (remains are visible today) where the soothsayer tells him "Danger is lurking and your murderers are not far away". But Otho who is standing right behind Galba tells him that *he* interprets this warning as a favorable omen (Otho the spin-doctor :-) ). Then a Freedman brings Otho a message saying "The architect and his contractors are expecting you". This is the signal that the Praetorian Guards are ready and waiting. Otho slips away from the Palatine Hill and is met by 20 soldiers with a covered litter at the Milliarium Aureum (the gilded Milestone behind the Rostra). From there he is secretly brought to the Praetorian camp.

A short time later Galba learns of Otho's defection and conspiracy and meets with his advisors. A soldier from the Praetorian Guard arrives at the Palace with a bloody sword, he tells the Emperor that he has killed Otho. But this claim is just part of the plot, Otho is alive and his following is growing by the hour.

Galba sends Piso to the Praetorian Camp to find out if Otho is really dead. Galba decides to go to the Rostra and address the people in the Forum (another version has him going to place the Imperial Standards in the Temple of Concord). With Otho dead perhaps he thought with a leaderless conspiracy he could rally the troops and the citizens over to his side (remember Vitellius is still marching on Rome). Galba's litter and his bodyguards leave the Palace on the Palatine Hill and enter the Forum. Suddenly Piso shows up and tells Galba that Otho is alive and marching on him. Galba's advisors and Piso tell him to return to the safety of the Palace but he refuses.

When they reach this spot on the Via Sacra alongside the Forum Square between the Basilica Julia and the Lacus Curtius, all hell breaks loose because suddenly over by the Basilica Aemilia on the opposite side of the Forum Square foot and mounted soldiers swarm out of hiding. The citizens around Emperor Galba's entourage scatter for their own safety but also to reposition themselves to watch the show :-) . The majority of the Emperor's bodyguards also flee and leave him sitting on the ground in his litter. The Standard Bearer of this Cohort rips the medallion with Galba's image off the Standard and throws it on the ground before he flees.

Only a few loyal soldiers remain under the barrage of arrows. They try to move the Emperor's litter to safety but in the onslaught they drop it causing the frail Emperor to tumble out onto the ground. These last remaining soldiers are either killed, wounded or flee to save themselves.

Now there is but one lone Centurion remaining to defend his Emperor. He remains out of loyalty, honor and duty, his name is Sempronius Densus. [Centurions use a 'switch of vine' to keep the soldiers under them in line when they get disorderly or disobey, rather like the riding crop that was carried by officers in the recent past. The humiliation of being struck is greater than the actual pain inflicted to a soldier.] The soldiers approach Sempronius as now the battle is over and it's only him between them and the Emperor lying on the ground. Sempronius starts berating them on their disloyalty and striking out at them with his 'switch of vine'. Finally he draws his sword and holds them off until he is cut under the knees and falls to the ground.

Now the soldiers surround the prostrate Emperor. He then bravely faces death by offering his throat to them with these words "Strike, if it is for the good of Rome". A soldier from the fifteenth Legion drives his sword into Galba's throat. The other soldiers all start stabbing him in a frenzy and he is finally beheaded. It's said that Galba's loyal dog also defended his master and had to be killed by the soldiers to get to the Emperor :=(.

The head is brought to Otho, stuck on a lance and paraded around. Later it's sold to Galba's daughter so she can bury it with the remains of her father. And Piso that lucky fellow who was heir to the throne upon Galba's death... well, he was wounded in the attack but managed to run into the 'Temple of Vesta' complex. It's about 100 m and a very good choice, you see if even the youngest child Vestal stood before him and forbade his death, no Roman would disobey her command. But it didn't happen that way, either there was no time or they just didn't want to get involved. Or perhaps by him violating their sacred House as a *Male* who was probably armed kind-of ticked them off. I assume he just stayed in the atrium which is bad enough and was not foolish enough to enter either the actual 'Temple of Vesta' or the 'House of the Vestal Virgins'.

A soldier named Murcus drags him out into the street and beheads him. It's impossible to know the events actual timeline but if he was killed after Galba, he was the shortest reigning Emperor in history. His '15 seconds of fame' so to speak :-) .

So now we have Emperor 'Marcus Salvius OTHO' and I feel bad for this guy. His wife Poppaea left him for Emperor Nero and friend Galba passes him over as heir to the Empire. Now finally he gets to be the 'top dog' but three months later he is dead at age 36.

Remember Vitellius in Germania, well his troops are marching on Rome. Otho heads out north to meet him. Otho is far from the front lines when their troops engage. A soldier later arrives at his camp and tells the Emperor that the battle was lost. Otho's aides call the soldier a liar and a coward. The soldier to prove he is neither, falls on his sword in front of the Emperor! Otho upon seeing this cries out that he will not subject good soldiers such as this to sacrifice everything for him. He tells his men to stop this 'Roman on Roman' bloodshed and to seek refuge. That night he gets his affairs in order, has a good night's sleep and in the morning stabs himself in the chest with a dagger.

Which brings us to our next contestant... Emperor Vitellius. Remember him, he was tortured to death by year's end on the stairs behind the Arch of Septimius Severus.

The more complete story of these assassinations is in Emperors Galba and Vitellius' Murder In The Roman Forum.

Next: #17.1: Column of Phocas
[Home]   [Disclaimer]                       copyright (c) 2012-2024 by Jeff Bondono (email: Jeff.Bondono@gmail.com)                         [Walter's Tours of Ancient Rome]