Year of Four Emperors. Praetorians charge the streets of Cremona in aftermath of the main battle.
Emperor Nero’s demise was accompanied by a collapse into civil war. How the candidates dealt with the Praetorian Guard played an extremely important role in a turbulent and destructive year. Galba failed entirely to court the praetorians, providing an opportunity for his rival, Otho, to exploit with ease. With the Guard now behind him, Otho’s bid for power was greatly helped. Otho actively indulged in buying praetorian support and used the Guard in his war against Vitellius, also now trying to secure the principate for himself. Otho’s short reign ended in suicide as Vitellius’ bid gathered pace. Otho’s defeat led to Vitellius disbanding Otho’s praetorians and forming his own hugely inflated Guard. The Othonian praetorians now simply became potential supporters for the fourth and last candidate, Vespasian. When Vespasian’s advance forces secured Rome and defeated Vitellius, the climax was a battle for the Castra Praetoria. Securing the Guard and its headquarters proved to be the final turning point in the battle for Rome in 69.
A century after Octavian had brought the years of civil wars to an end at Actium, the epigonistic tendencies of the Julio-Claudians had brought the fighting back. With Nero’s death, the Julio-Claudians effectively came to an end. Since the Praetorian Guard had been institutionalized as the Julio-Claudians’ bodyguard, the praetorians now found themselves without a dynastic champion who could act as their benefactor and protector. It was a remarkable moment, and the day they had made Claudius emperor in 41 was now more than a quarter of a century ago. Now it was time to be kingmakers once again.
However infamous Nero might seem to posterity, the fact remains that he had enjoyed immense popularity with many of the ordinary Roman people who had exulted in his insulting disdain for old elitist traditions. Galba’s age and authoritarian nature provoked unflattering comparisons with Nero’s youth and reckless love of glamour. This was partly responsible for the emergence of the phenomenon of the Pseudo-Nero. In 69 the first one popped up in Greece. Not entirely surprisingly, the chaos that followed Nero’s death had meant there was a great deal of confusion in some places about whether Nero really was dead and, even if he was dead, what had happened. Nero had only recently been in Greece and it probably seemed implausible that this remarkable character had been extinguished. The strange thing was that in spite of the celebrations after Nero’s death in 68 he had retained a coterie of devoted followers. They decorated his tomb with flowers and even went to the remarkable extent of installing statues of him in the forum, along with Neronian edicts, as if the emperor was still alive. The Parthian king Vologaesus said he was sorry that Nero was dead and asked that honours continued to be paid to his memory.
The first impostor was, according to Tacitus, either a freedman from Italy or a slave from the province of Pontus in Asia Minor. This must mean either that no one knew for certain or perhaps that two impostors became conflated into one. The man apparently looked like Nero and was able to play the cithara and sing. The vast majority of the population would have seen no more of Nero than his coin portraits. Vivid though these are, it is entirely possible that any overweight musical youth with a quiff and stubble could have passed himself off as Nero so long as he had sufficient chutzpah. At any rate it worked and this first Pseudo-Nero began to gravitate towards Syria, armed with a band of gullible ne’er-do-wells, and reached the island of Cythnus. He recruited military deserters and slaves whose masters he killed and, remarkably, his fame grew, fuelled by people who were terrified by the chaotic Roman civil war that had started after Nero’s death. This Pseudo-Nero’s plans only collapsed when the governor of Galatia and Pamphylia, one Calpurnius Asprenas, arrived at Cythnus with a detachment of the imperial fleet. The Pseudo-Nero had been trying to beguile various sea captains in the harbour there but they told Calpurnius what they had seen. On his orders they killed the impostor.
None of these men managed to secure the support of the Praetorian Guard and there is no evidence that they even tried. Nonetheless, it is worth speculating on what might have happened had the Guard decided to resolve their problem of whom to follow by manufacturing their own emperor especially as a Nero, any Nero, could have been passed off as a Julio-Claudian, the dynasty to which they were most loyal. In the event, the praetorians made do with what was available and forgot about the Julio-Claudians. The praetorian prefect Nymphidius Sabinus had been content to transfer his loyalty from Nero to Galba. He was also very well aware that Galba was an old man, in his early seventies, and would struggle to reach Spain from Rome.
Nymphidius Sabinus must also have been aware that under the circumstances, as prefect of the Guard, he was the only person capable of maintaining a semblance of order in Rome until Galba arrived. Nymphidius had cultivated the praetorians’ loyalty by making sure that since the massive handout had been offered by Galba, the praetorians would bear a grudge against Galba and not him if it went unpaid. As well as obliging Tigellinus to give up the prefecture, he also tried to persuade the praetorians to demand that a deputation be sent to Galba to insist that he be made sole prefect for life. Nymphidius sent his friend Gellianus to Spain to try and find out what Galba was up to. Gellianus returned, obviously several weeks later at the very earliest, and told Nymphidius that Galba had appointed his own praetorian prefect, Cornelius Laco, a man dismissed by Tacitus as ‘most idle’. This naturally caused Nymphidius considerable disquiet. Galba had also fallen under the spell of a man called Titus Vinius. Vinius maintained that Tigellinus had saved his daughter during the period of executions under Nero. As a result Tigellinus remained under Galba’s protection until after Galba’s murder, and was only subsequently killed on Otho’s orders.
The real issue is whether Nymphidius’ intentions were to keep order in Rome or whether, now that Galba had appointed his own praetorian prefect, to try and make a bid for supreme power. Plutarch thought that was what Nymphidius was planning now to do. There was even a rumour that Nymphidius was Caligula’s son by a woman named Nymphidia, the daughter of Caligula’s freedman, Callistus. Plutarch argued that this was impossible on the grounds that Nymphidius was already born when the affair started, but that the prefect was only too happy for the story to circulate. Given the dynastic affiliations of the Praetorian Guard, it was worth taking advantage of. Regardless of the truth about his pedigree, or his intentions, Nymphidius rapidly lost control. The praetorians decided briefly to declare him emperor in the Castra Praetoria. Unfortunately, a tribune called Antonius Honoratus made an impassioned speech pointing out that while there had been very sound reasons for abandoning Nero, there were no similarly good reasons to abandon Galba in favour of Nymphidius, the very man who had persuaded them to give up on Nero. The outcome was inevitable. The praetorians declared for Galba. Nymphidius, who was preparing to deliver a speech to the praetorians, was killed. Galba was outraged when he heard and ordered the execution of any conspirators. These included the consul-designate Cingonius Varro for writing the speech that Nymphidius had been about to give.
These killings were seen as arbitrary and despotic and began the process of undermining Galba’s support almost as soon as his reign began. He had compounded his problems by singularly failing to recognize the importance of courting the Praetorian Guard from the outset. Instead, Galba openly declared that he chose his troops rather than buying them. As Tacitus observed, this was an admirable principle to espouse in the interests of the state but would only lead to danger for Galba. This factor added to further complications for the Guard. In addition, Nero’s special German custodes corporis had been disbanded earlier by Galba. He suspected their reliability, regardless of the fact that all the previous emperors had used them and found them completely loyal.
Meanwhile, Rome was in a potentially explosive state as Galba laboriously made his way to the city from Spain. The praetorians had rivals. In June 68 Galba’s VII legion arrived, joining detachments from other legions brought to Rome by Nero in preparation to send against Vindex. Galba had been declared emperor by legions, and not by the Guard, meaning they had lost the initiative and the chance to ingratiate themselves with the new emperor. Naturally, this created an opportunity, and it was seized by Marcus Salvius Otho, from whom Nero had helped himself to Poppaea some six years previously. Otho had expected to be named as Galba’s heir, but in the event that honour went to a young senator called Licinianus Piso on 10 January 69, when Galba publicly adopted him in the Castra Praetoria.
Otho was now in Galba’s faction in Rome. He had ingratiated himself with the soldiers while marching from Spain with Galba. Once in the city Otho exploited every chance that came his way, helped by Laco’s indolence. Using an agent in the form of Mevius Pudens, an associate of Tigellinus, any praetorian susceptible to persuasion or who had money troubles was courted and finally bribed with cash gifts every time they stood guard over a dinner at which Galba was dining with Otho. One praetorian called Cocceius Proculus was engaged in a land dispute with a neighbour, of itself an interesting insight into the lifestyle of a member of the Guard. Otho purchased the neighbour’s estate and gave it to Proculus.
The plot against Galba progressed with members of the Guard drawn in ever deeper. Galba’s failure to invest in praetorian loyalty was now leading inexorably to an inevitable conclusion. It was a remarkable oversight, given that Galba was so old that in childhood he had met Augustus and had been the principal intended beneficiary of Livia’s will. This experience of witnessing the reigns from Augustus to Nero, including a close friendship with Claudius, ought to have taught Galba the importance of keeping the Guard on side. Otho’s scheming expanded along with his ambitions. He delegated administration of the plot to his freedman Onomastus, who brought in a couple of accomplished crooks from the praetorian speculatores, a tesserarius called Barbius Proculus and an optio called Veturius. Otho was suitably impressed and bankrolled a scheme to bring the whole Guard over. Those who had been promoted by Nymphidius were warned that they needed to prove their loyalty to Otho. The general resentment that Galba had failed to pay the promised bounty was whipped up. There was some substance to these grievances. A number had been discharged by Galba on the grounds that they were Nymphidian allies. Anyone not on message now with the plotters was informed that posting to other units, which meant less money and inferior terms of service, would follow once Otho was in power.
Corruption in the Praetorian Guard seems to have been well established by this date. One of the practices was paying centurions in return for time off duty. Praetorians either stole the money they needed for the bribes or took second jobs with the unfortunate effect that the better-off they were, so the more duties were allocated to them to coerce them into paying up. The whole set-up provoked indiscipline and dissent, making it more likely that they would participate in a rebellion. The prospects looked promising, especially as anti-Galba feeling was spreading more widely in the army throughout the Empire, particularly in Germany, but a coup had to be planned. On 11 January 69 one nearly occurred but the realization that the praetorians and other units in Rome were too widely dispersed to coordinate at short notice suspended a scheme to carry Otho to the Castra Praetoria and declare him emperor. Under the circumstances it was remarkable that Galba managed to avoid finding out about Otho’s machinations, but the prefect Laco was so disconnected from what was going on with the troops he was supposed to be leading that nothing got through.
Onomastus and his praetorian cronies were as much a part of determining the agenda as Otho. On 15 January Otho attended a sacrifice at the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine, the very place where Sejanus had fallen, in the company of Galba. Onomastus arrived with a fictitious message that Otho’s architect and builders were waiting for him. This was the prearranged signal that the coup had begun. Otho made his excuses and left with Onomastus. They walked down from the Palatine and into the forum where, close to the Temple of Saturn, twenty-three praetorians acclaimed Otho as emperor. Otho was horrified to be declared emperor by such a tiny fraction of the Praetorian Guard, but he was placed in a chair and carried off, joined by a couple of dozen more soldiers, not all of whom even knew what was going on.