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Gaius Julius Windex’s rebellion as the beginning of the end of Nero’s regime

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Gallic horsemen from the 1st century BCE
Gallic horsemen from the 1st century BCE

In the last years of his reign, Emperor Nero (54-68 CE) has had to face many internal threats against his government. Gaius Calpurnius Pizon initiated a plot to deprive the Emperor of his life, in 65 CE. Despite the fact that the conspiracy was quickly discovered, the repression that it followed increased resentment to the Emperor.

In 66 CE, in the east of the Empire broke out a huge Jewish uprising against Roman power. Fiscal oppression was also a cause of unrest in the western part of the country. These, in turn, led to an episode that triggered an avalanche of events that caused the death of Nero and the internal crisis of the Empire, commonly known as the Year of the Four Emperors. This episode was the uprising of Gaius Julius Vindex.

The rebellion of Vindex seems to be an event commonly known to the lovers of ancient history, however, it is not being given much attention. After all, it was extremely important for the history of the Roman Empire, for it was it that led, although not directly, to the fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It is therefore worth taking a closer look at it, as is the figure of Gaius Julius Vindex himself.

The initiator of the uprising came from the Gallic tribal aristocracy. He came from a royal family which most probably had received Roman citizenship from Julius Caesar. What is more, Windek’s father was also a Roman senator. The rebel’s birthday is generally unknown, but according to some historians he could have been born around 25 CE. In the period before the uprising, Vindex held the office of Imperial Legate as a prophet; in other words, he was simply the governor of a province in Gaul. According to the majority of researchers, this was Gallia Lugdunensis, although this information is not attested to by sources, since the ancient authors, unfortunately, did not specify which province of Gaul he managed. No details are known of how the Gaius Vindex’ governance went. It is not even known when he held office. According to the Cassius Dio’s reports, what is certain is that the governor did not accept the policy of Emperor Nero. Among other things, he pointed out the excessive tax pressure to which the people of Gaul were subject. Nevertheless, there were more reasons for dissatisfaction. According to Vindex, Emperor Nero was simply not fit to be head of state. He accused him of diminishing the importance of the Roman world, murdered the most eminent senators, led to the murder of his mother, and even worse, he performed in the theatre and presented his “skills” there. In addition, Vindex was supposed to attribute such qualities to Neron as: insanity, decent money, ferocity, and also promiscuity.

For a long time, the older literature believed that the uprising had a “national” character, and its main aim, apart from the removal of Emperor Nero, was to completely abolish Roman rule in Gaul. Nowadays, however, such a claim is considered a far-reaching anachronism. There are also hypotheses that Vindex was seeking to overthrow the monarchy and resurrected Republican rule in the Empire. The supporter of this theory was Theodor Mommsen. In considering the latter hypothesis, one very important question must first be answered. Why should Vindex seek a return to the Republican system when its ancestors did not have Roman citizenship at that time?

Most likely, therefore, all the actions taken by Vindex and the propaganda he used indicate that the rebel simply aimed to improve the political and economic situation both in the province of Gaul and in the whole country. This could have happened at a time when the bad emperor would have been replaced by a better one – one that respected unwritten political principles. However, it should be made clear at this point that Gaius Vindex has never claimed imperial power.

Since the winter of 67/68, a rebel has been appealing by letter to the governors of other provinces to declare obedience to Nero and deprive him of power. Such a letter was also sent to Servius Sulpicius Galba. At that time, he was over seventy years old, was a member of the Senate and, most importantly, for eight years he had been governor of Hispania Tarraconensis (Targoonian Spain). It was in him that Vindex was to see the future emperor. At the same time, Galba received another letter from the governor of the province of Aquitaine, asking him to help suppress the uprising in Gaul. However, the governor of the Spanish province initially remained neutral to these requests. The rest of the addressees of Vindex’ letters immediately informed Nero of the planned uprising.

Despite the lack of positive responses, Vindex decided in mid-March 68 to start the uprising. The Gaelic tribes of Aquitaine, Belgian Gaul and Lugdan have taken his side. According to Plutarch, Vindex could count on the support of about one hundred thousand people (however, this number should be considered rather exaggerated). It should be remembered that Vindex didn’t have any roman legion under his command, which is why he was looking so hard for support among the provinces where they were stationed.

In the early days of the uprising, Vindex’ supporters began the siege of one of Gaul’s most important centres, Lugdunum, due to its loyalty towards Emperor Nero. The area on the Rhine itself and the Trier and Batavian tribes spoke out against the uprising too.

Vindex also launched an intensive propaganda campaign in which he created himself as the saviour of the Roman world. The remainder of these actions are coins minted at the initiative of the rebel.

When Nero found out about the rebellion, he was in Naples. Initially, for unexplained reasons, he decided not to take any decisive action. Meanwhile, the situation changed completely when Galba reacted to Vindex’ letter in April 68. The reasons why he decided to make such a move are unknown, but there is information in ancient sources that Galba probably intercepted one of Nero’s letter, in which he ordered his murder. Nevertheless, the governor of the Spanish province joined the rebels and immediately the soldiers appointed him as the emperor. However, Galba did not accept this dignity at the time and ordered to call himself the ‘Legate of the Senate and the people of Rome’.

Image showing Nero in Baiae

The coins minted by Galbe bear witness to the agreement with Vindex. It is best illustrated by the emission of coins, where on the obverse there is an image of the governor of Spain, whereas on the reverse side one can find personifications of Spain and Gaul which are shaking hands.

Neron panicked due to the news of betrayal, because Galba, in contrast to Vindex, had a whole legion at his disposal.

The suppression of the rebellion was undertaken by L. Verginius Rufus, who was a legate of the army of the Upper Rhine military district. However, it is not certain whether he acted on his own or by order of Nero. Three legions from Mogontiacum (today’s Mainz) headed for Gaul, or to be more precise, for Vesontio. At that time, the Vindex was still besieging Lugdunum. When he found out about the arrival of Rufus’ troops, he directed his troops northwards to the enemy, without waiting for Galba’s army. In this context, Cassius Dion describes an extremely interesting story, according to which there was to be a meeting between Virgil Rufus and Vindex in which both commanders decided to fight together against Nero. Unfortunately, at the same time, there was to be a tragic misunderstanding between the legionaries from the Rhine and Vindex’ troops. The former, completely unaware of the agreement, saw Vindex’ incoming troops throw themselves into the attack and thus began the battle. As a result, Vindex’ troops were decimated and he committed suicide.

There is no consensus among historians as to whether this story is true or not. One thing is certain – Gaius Julius Vindex was dead. His actions, however, triggered an avalanche of events which in the near future led to the fall of Nero and rise Servius Sulpicius Galba to imperial purple.

Author: Kacper Derko
  • Krzysztof Królczyk, Bunt Windeksa, [w:] „Studia Flaviana II”, Poznań 2012, s. 19-43.
  • Cassius Dio, Roman history, Warszawa 2005.

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