Emperors Galba and Vitellius' Murder In The Roman Forum

by Walter Muzzy, July 6, 2005 (original post)

For me what is most interesting about the Roman Forum are the stories, the ruins just pinpoint the locations. And the most interesting Forum stories all revolve around death, pretty hard to find an ancient love story in this area :-) . The '#27: Temple of Antoninus and Faustina' would be the exception though.

Below is a trip report on the locations of two Emperors violent deaths in the Forum.

Emperor Nero has finally ticked everyone off, the People, the Senate, some of his Legions (but most remain loyal because he pays them well), his own inner circle and the Praetorian Guard. The Senate has declared Nero a 'Public Enemy' and he's sentenced to be flogged to death. And a Roman General named Galba is marching on Rome from Spain. 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 Freedmen 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. This ends the direct male line of Emperors descended from Emperor Augustus (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero). And it 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 die a natural dead.

Emperor 'Servius Sulpicius Galba' (December of 3 BC to January of 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, he's also had 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, with the help of his colleague and friend General Otho (who was the first to join his cause) they march on Rome.

So Galba becomes Emperor at 69, he's sick and somewhat infirm. While those in his inner circle are enriching themselves, he reneges on his promise of bonuses to the Praetorian Guards and the soldiers that supported him in his seizing the Throne. In the last two weeks of Galba's life the troops in Germania rebel (no pay bonuses from the cheapskate Galba) and proclaim a Commander named 'Aulus Vitellius' Emperor.

Also 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 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 January 15, 69 AD, the last morning of Galba's life, he makes a sacrifice at the Palatine Hill's 'Temple of Apollo' (remains are visible today) where a soothsayer told him "Danger is lurking and your murders are not far away". Otho, who is standing behind Galba, interprets this warning as a favorable omen to Galba (quite the spin-doctor this Otho :-) ). 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 (a gilded Milestone behind the Rostra in the Forum). 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. With Otho dead perhaps he thought with a leaderless conspiracy he could rally the Roman people over to his side. 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 is told by Piso and his advisors to return to the safety of the Palace but he still goes on.

When they reach a spot on the Via Sacra alongside the Forum Square between the Basilica Julia and the Lacus Curtius, all hell breaks loose. Because suddenly out of the Basilica Aemilia on the opposite side of the Forum Square foot and mounted soldiers swarm out of the Basilica. 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 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. The soldiers approach Sempronius, the battle is over, it's just 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'. [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.] 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, who bravely faces his 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 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 forbid 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 dragged him out and beheaded him right there. 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 :-) .

Emperor 'Marcus Salvius OTHO': I feel bad for this guy. His wife Poppaea leaves him for Emperor Nero. Galba passes him over for heir to the Empire. Finally gets to be the 'top dog' and three months later he is dead at 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...VITELLIUS.


To keep it simple I'm going to use three out of the four picture websites for both Emperors.

As I said Galba was being carried in his litter when he was attacked on the Via Sacra between the Basilica Julia and the Lacus Curtius. This is a simple Forum diagram, you can see the Via Sacra passing between the Basilica Julia and the Lacus Curtius. Also the Basilica Aemilia where the attacking soldiers hid.

(sorry, broken link). This photo is taken from the opposite end of the Forum. From left-to-right: The Forum Square. The Via Sacra. And the Basilica Julia taking up most of the right side of the photo. See that short lone column in the Basilica Julia? In front of that on the Via Sacra is roughly where Galba was attacked and assassinated.

The Lacus Curtius is hard to make out but it is in the Forum Square directly across the Via Sacra from that lone column and to the left of those brick column bases.

The Lacus Curtius looks like this today. The wellhead is under the tin roof and the relief (white square) is a plaster cast of the original. This site has a short stone fence around it in ancient times wings.buffalo.edu/AandL/Maecenas/black/forum_rom/ab661632.html.

Emperor 'Aulus Vitellius' (September of 15 AD - December of 69): at this time he's the Governor of Germania Inferior. He came from a famous family and his father was Consul three times under Emperor Claudius. Vitellius worked himself up to Consul and was the Governor of Africa and then Germania Inferior.

In his youth he was Emperor Tiberius' favorite catamite (he was 21 when Tiberius died) and his nickname was 'Spintria' (sphincter artist :-) ). He had the reputation for being a yes-man and a great hedonist. He was a familiar face around the Palace during the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero and was a friend to all of them. In his private time he enjoyed rough company and low-life bars. But his greatest passion was eating and eating and eating... total gluttony, exotic feasts (peacock brains, flamingo tongues, etc), along with regular vomiting to make room for more food. He was a palace regular when Tiberius was possibly smothered by Caligula, Caligula was killed by his guards, Claudius was poisoned by Nero, Nero was forced to commit suicide plus the Emperors Galba and Otho both died violent deaths in the past year. So ya *might think* he would have second thoughts about the job! His troops declare him Emperor on January 2, 69 AD. Two weeks later his troops defeat Emperor Otho in Italy but Vitellius is still in Germania. The Senators and soldiers in Rome declare him Emperor on April 19.

Well he *finally* gets to Rome in mid-July, he's been partying along the way with wild binge eating and drinking and games. The same Roman crowds that cheered Otho when he left for battle against Vitellius, are now cheering the arrival of their new Emperor Vitellius in the Forum. In twelve months he will again meet this same crowd in the Forum.

He orders very few reprisals against the supporters of Otho and none against Otho's brother, nor did he seize their property. He is moderate in his decrees and tries to get along with the Senate. And if things were different he probably would have come down to us as a decent but extravagant Emperor. He and his wife Galeria are just blowing through the Roman treasury on feasts and games, the treasury has already taken a big hit with Nero's Fire and his Domus Aurea (Golden House). Also Galeria complains that the Domus Aurea just doesn't have enough decorations in the royal apartments..."Don't worry you'll be moving shortly" :-) .

But another General has his eye on the throne. His name is Vespasian and he is very popular and powerful, he has the loyalty of the Legions in Egypt, Syria and the Danube. But he's a bit busy right now with a war against the Jews in Judea and Galilee. Vespasian has the Danube Legions march on Italy and on Oct 24 they battle against Vitellius troops, in basically the same place where he defeated Otho's troops. Vitellius' troops get beaten, they were leaderless with one General very ill and the other deserting. Vitellius retreats back to Rome while some of his military starts deserting him.

The Legions surround Rome and attack on three fronts (two city gates and long the Tiber River). But Vitellius still has loyal troops and Roman citizens defending him and the City for now but that will change shortly.

Vitellius has himself taken from his Palatine Hill Palace to his wife's house on the Aventine Hill. His plan, it's said, was to hide out there until night, escape Rome and go to his brother's house outside the city. One ancient historian says he was confused and indecisive and couldn't follow through with his plan. A modern historian believes he knew all was lost and went to say good bye to his wife. He returns to the Palatine Hill's Palace to find it totally empty, by now everyone has deserted him. And Legions loyal to Vespasian are now within the City Walls and marching towards the Palace.

Well almost everyone left him, he still has his dog :-) . He dresses down to look like a common Roman, fills a hidden girdle-type pouch with gold coins, grabs his dog and flees the Palace. But the City is in anarchy, soldiers and citizens are looting and killing indiscriminately. It's safer to hold up for a while, so he hides in a nearby gatekeepers booth.

He ties the dog to the door and barricades the door with a bed. He is found by a Cohort of the invading Legion and not recognized at first. But his identity is shortly discovered, he pleads with them to be put in protective custody because he has an important message for Vespasian. The soldiers don't buy it. His garments are torn until he is half-naked, his hands tied behind his back and a noose is placed around his neck.

He is led down the Via Sacra into the Forum. The crowds that once cheered at his entrance into the Forum as Emperor five months before are now jeering him. They laugh at him, taunt him, call him vile names and mock at his physical defects (red bloated face from drink, fat overhanging belly from gluttony and his damaged thigh with it's limp). Many throw animal dung and mud on him, others hit him as he passes. His soldier guards beat him, jab him with their swords and incite the crowd to humiliate him. His head is held back by his hair and a sword under his neck so he will witness everything happening to him including his statues being toppled as he enters the Forum.

A German soldier who could not bear to watch this any longer tried to end Vitellius suffering but his sword stroke missed (either wounding Vitellius or a Tribune guarding him). He was immediately killed. A soldier taunts him before the laughing crowd, Vitellius looks at him and says "And yet I was your Emperor". I guess 'was' is the key word here, the soldier beats him even harder in response. He is brought to the 'Scalae Gemoniae' (Gemonian Stairs) or as Pliny called them "The Stairs of Wailing". On these Stairs overlooking the Forum Vitellius is slowly tortured to death and finally beheaded before the cheering crowd. His body is later dragged through the streets by a meathook and thrown into the Tiber River. He was 54 years old and was Emperor slightly less than twelve months and of that only the last five months in Rome itself.


Go to (sorry, broken link). The 'Stairs' are to the left of the CARCER, there were two sets of stairs. One from the Forum to the level of the 'Carcer Tullianum' also called the 'Mamertine Prison' which are shown in the photo. And the other from there leading up to the Arx on the Capitoline Hill, they are shown but with no steps |||||||| like in the bottom section. Also the 'Arcus S. Severi' (Arch of Septimius Severus) won't be built for another 133 years. I'll go into more detail about the Stairs below. The ancient stairs are long gone but there are modern stairs that you can take today which basically follow the same path. In the photo below you can see them to the left of the Arch in the background. wings.buffalo.edu/AandL/Maecenas/black/forum_rom/ab661632.html. In the Forum model you can get an idea of the Stairs although the ones going down into the Forum are not shown. There are two photos labeled 'The Fearful Carcer Mamestinus...': (sorry, broken link)

CARCER OR MAMERTINE PRISON It is doubtful that St. Peter and Paul were ever held in this prison. But it is an fairly important ancient site. The lower level dates back to at least the third Century BC, some say earlier. It was a 'death row' for *very important* Roman citizens and foreign leaders. If a Leader/General was brought back in one of Triumphal Parades that is where he ended up. They would either be strangled there or brought down to the area ( Comitium ) in front of the Curia Julia and publicly executed. If they were killed in the prison, their body was brought up by rope through a hole, and thrown down the stairs that lead to the Forum for public viewing. Sometimes the bodies were left for days, later they would be dragged by meat hooks to the Tiber River and thrown in.

The modern stairs basically follow the same path as an ancient staircase that lead from the Forum to the middle of the Capitoline Hill (the Arx). A lower flight of stairs (Forum to prison) was called the 'Scalae Gemoniae' (Gemonian Stairs) or as Pliny called them "The Stairs of Wailing".

One story about these Stairs is for the dog lovers and very sad. [Pliny] During the reign of Tiberius the dead bodies of Titius Sabinus and his servants were thrown down these stairs after execution. The corpse of one of these men was watched over day and night by his faithful dog. At one point the dog went off and stole some bread. The dog returned and tried to force the bread into his dead master's mouth. Later when their bodies were dragged to the Tiber River and thrown in, the dog jumped in and tried to bring his master's body to shore. The man who condemned these men was later flung down these same stairs on Tiberius' orders. His name was Sejanus and he was a bad apple. He killed his own wife and was the lover of Tiberius' only son's wife. And together they both poisoned him. All part of their plan to become Emperor and Empress.

Next: 'Ides Of March' Julius Caesar's Assassination Walking Tour
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