10. Competing Emperors

CivilWarMAP GalbaBustCoinCombo OthoBustCoinCombo VitelliusBust_Coin MAntoniusPrimus

Galba had been a favorite of the Augusta Livia and, in company with Vespasian, later aided Gaius Caligula during the Rhine army mutiny of 39. Galba’s greed was said to know no bounds. According to Suetonius, when the people of Tarraco offered him a golden crown said to weigh 15 pounds (6.8 kg), he had it melted down and made them supply the three ounces (85 gm) needed to tip the scales to the advertised weight. In allowing preferred cronies to run their provinces according to their own benefit, Galba contributed to his own downfall.

An early friend and confidant of Nero, Otho caroused with the youthful emperor in Rome’s streets at night. He married the great beauty Poppaea Sabina, and when Nero cuckolded him and removed him from Rome to govern the Spanish province of Lusitania, Otho became a willing conspirator with Galba against Nero.

Vitellius, who always claimed that he was Nero’s chosen successor, had been in close association with power from a young age. He was notorious for every sort of vice: Caligula admired his skill as a charioteer; Claudius, his skill at dice; Nero, for both of the above and his sycophancy in being the courtier who persuaded the “modestly reluctant” emperor to play his lute on public occasions. In turn, he adopted Nero’s greed, Caligula’s cruelty, and none of Claudius’s common sense.

Marcus Antonius Primus, born at Tolosa c.35, had been expelled from the senate on a charge of forging a will. Galba later reinstated him and placed him in command of Legion VII Hispania. Described by Tacitus as “greedy and extravagant, in peace a bad citizen, but brave in action, ready of speech, and in war an ally not to be despised,” Antonius defeated Vitellius in the name of Vespasian. He was poorly treated by Mucianus when the Syrian governor reached Rome before Vespasian, who accused him of war atrocities. However, Vespasian discharged him honorably and Antonius returned to Tolosa. His end is not known, but the four epigrams addressed to him by the poet Martial suggest that he was still living in the reign of Domitian.

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Illustrations © Oliver Frey; Maps © Roger M. Kean