Today we're pleased to be part of the Douglas Jackson Sword of Rome Tour. Here he talks about the "Year of the Four Emperors:
What is known as the Year of the Four Emperors actually lasted for eighteen months, and it would probably be churlish not to include the late, unlamented Nero, bringing the Emperor count to five. It was a messy, complicated affair and it reflected badly, to a greater or lesser extent, on everyone who helped conduct it. Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius have all been vilified by history, but history, as the old cliche goes, is written by the victors, and Vespasian’s reputation - certainly in that period - only survives intact because of what we would now call political spin.
When I started writing about 1st century Rome, Galba, Otho and Vitellius were just names to me. I had the vaguest notion about what had happened in the Year of the Four Emperors and knew little or nothing about the protagonists. All that changed when I started researching Sword of Rome, the first of my two books about that turbulent, bloody and tumultuous eighteen months in Rome’s history.
I must have had an inkling that my hero, Gaius Valerius Verrens, holder of the corona aurea, the gold crown of valour, only survivor of the last stand in the Temple of Claudius, would have a part to play in 68 and 69AD, because he first meets Aulus Vitellius in Defender of Rome. Vitellius, who at that time was the commander of the Seventh Claudia legion on the Danube frontier, tries to have Valerius killed, but he’s such a gregarious free spirit that the pair become unlikely friends. It wasn’t a planned friendship, it might just as easily have been a passing encounter that meant little or nothing, but whether subconsciously or otherwise, I laid the foundation for two books with that meeting.
The historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio all paint Vitellius as a spendthrift glutton motivated by greed. As Tacitus records: ‘his passion for elaborate banquets was shameful and insatiate’. Repeated again and again it is a compelling picture, but it is Flavian propaganda. Look a little deeper and another Vitellius emerges, one who was popular with the people, and cared about them - as much as any Roman patrician was capable - and who passed laws that, given time, might have made a difference. I came to rather like him.
Likewise, Marcus Salvius Otho, according to history a lecher who traded his wife to Nero for advancement, arrogant and ambitious, usurper of the legitimate Emperor, Galba, and the man responsible for his blood in the forum. Yet even Tacitus admits that Otho ruled well and cleverly. His downfall was to inherit power without strength. While Vitellius could call on seven veteran legions, Otho had only one, the newly constituted First Adiutrix, with others on the way from the Danube frontier. He was undoubtedly an impetuous man, who threw his forces in to battle too quickly. It resulted in his defeat, and his death probably reflects more on his life than any history. He could easily have fought on, but he killed himself in an attempt to prevent further bloodshed. An honourable end perhaps compensated for a dishonourable beginning.
Servius Sulpicius Galba is, I fear, as black, or as foolish, as he’s painted. An immensely rich patrician who believed he had been born to rule and an old man constantly irritated by all around him. He began his short reign by purging his opponents in Hispania and Gaul, then massacred recruits to Nero’s newly constituted marine legion who had gathered at the Milvian Bridge to seek his favour. With a choice of Otho, or Vespasian’s son Titus, as his heir, either of whom would have consolidated his position, he turned to Calpurnius Piso, a young man in his own image, long on bloodline, but short on brains. It was the last straw for Otho, who had put his fortune on the line and felt he’d been cheated out of the successorship.
And what of Vespasian, the man known for his fine governorship of the Empire, with a reputation for strength, justice and fairness? While others were fighting and dying he stayed safe in the East. He left the conduct of his legions on Roman soil to Marcus Antonius Primus, a convicted fraudster who rushed headlong into battles he didn’t need to fight, and who perpetrated the massacre and sack of Cremona, a war crime against Roman citizens that should have seen Vespasian’s name reviled through history. When the fighting was done his troops ravaged Rome, killing and burning, given free rein by the Emperor’s son Domitianus.
As the revered historian Mary Beard pointed out in her recent TV programme on Caligula, when it comes to the Roman emperors, it pays to read between the lines.