I don’t write a lot about the Roman Empire, probably because there is so much to dislike about it. Uneven governance, perpetual wars, and a progressive decay of the political system would be some of my reasons. Still we have to remember that the empire lasted 500 years -- longer than the republic – and there were periods of prosperity and calm. The death of the empire had many causes, one being the corruptive influence of the king making army. But we get ahead of ourselves.
One of our best sources for history of the empire is Tacitus, who lived from 58-117 A.D. He was a well-educated patrician who rose to consul in 97 A.D. and was also famous as an orator. Tacitus was an eye witness to many of the events he wrote about -- rare among Roman historians. Volume one of his histories begins with the year of four emperors – a tug of war between four men who wanted to rule the empire. All four achieved their goal but three got their lives cut short in the bargain. The last of the four, Vespasian, was able to stabilize the empire for twenty three years.
The year 69 A.D. was certainly one of great turmoil in the Roman Empire, starting with Nero’s incompetence, which lost him the support of the army. His death on June 9th 68 A.D. resulted from the following sequence of events. In March of that year the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Vindex, rebelled against the taxes levied by Nero. The emperor then ordered the governor of Germania Superior, Lucius Rufus, to put down the revolt. Vindex appealed to Servius Galba, governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to help him. Galba refused and Rufus defeated Vindex in battle. Rufus’ troops proclaimed him emperor but he refused to act against Nero.
Galba’s support had grown under the aid of Sabinus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and his march on Rome precipitated the death of Nero. Since Nero represented the final member of the Judio-Claudian line, a new line would have to come out of a power struggle. Galba was old (72), and although seasoned in Roman politics he had a reputation for cruelty. To make matters worse he attempted to stabilize the finances of Rome, offending many influential parties in the process.
On January 1, 69 A.D. two legions of Germania Superior refused to take an oath to Galba. The next day Germania Inferior revolted and proclaimed their governor, Vitellius the next emperor. Galba adopted his protégé Piso to try and create a line of succession but this caused him to appear weak. M. Sulvius Otho, former governor of Lusitania, upset that Piso was adopted instead of him, negotiated a deal with the Praetorian Guard to have himself named emperor. Galba, on the way to meet Otho, was assassinated with Piso following shortly after. It was January 15, 69 A.D.
Otho was a useless, dissipated man who was short on capacity to lead. He was surprised to read in Galba’s correspondence the depth of the rebellion in Germany and the support Vitellius was receiving there. When Vitellius began a move toward Rome, Otho took his troops north to try and block entrance to Italy but arrived too late. When in haste he decided to attack Vitellius at Bedriacum and was defeated, Otho committed suicide on April 16th 69 A.D.
By July, the legions in the east has declared for Vespasian. Otho’s adherents, looking for a new savior, agreed to support him. Vitellius sought to meet Vespasian in the field but was held back by the Praetorians. After his army was defeated by surrogates of Vespasian, Vitellius was assassinated on December 22, 69 A.D, elevating the fourth man to emperor in a single year.
The map above shows the rivals for control of the empire and their movements during 68-70 A.D.
Vespasian was more shrewd than his adversaries: capitalizing on prophesies that a great military man would come out of Judea by advertising them vigorously, traveling to Egypt to secure the Roman gain supply, and using his son, Domitian, along with a colleague Mucianus to administer Rome until he arrived midway through 70 A.D.
Vespasian built the Coliseum in 70, and reigned successfully for ten years. His sons were not so lucky, however. Titus reigned from 79-81 A.D. during the time of the Vesuvius eruption, and died prematurely of fever. Domitian turned out to be a hated tyrant and was assassinated in 96 A.D.