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Galba – strict or tolerant?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Galba's bust | Photo: Wolfgang Sauber | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Servius Sulpicius Galba was the sixth Roman emperor. His reign lasted only a few months, but due to his earlier deeds, he belongs to the group of distinguished Romans. What kind of man was Galba? In what did he resemble Claudius, and in what contemporary politics?

Galba was born on December 24, 3 BCE in the excellent Sulpicjus family. This family became famous Servius Sulpicius Galba, who in 144 BCE took the office of consul. Another of his famous deeds was to be a bloody crackdown on the Lusitans. This is what Suetonius writes about it: because while governing Spain as propraetor, he treacherously massacred thirty thousand of the Lusitanians. The cruel methods of waging war drew attention to him in the Eternal City. Cato the Censor blamed him for it, but Galba defended himself with the most wonderful speech of his time. The emperor’s great-grandfather, also Servius Sulpicius Galba, took part in the conspiracy of Brutus and Cassius. The ruler’s grandfather was a historian, and his father was a consul.

The complicated fate of the first emperor outside the Julio-Claudian Dynasty explains in The Lives of the Caesars Suetonius. This writer, typical of both him and Roman superstition, devoted much attention to signs and omens. For example, he mentioned that Octavian Augustus, seeing the children greet him, pinched one of them on the cheek and told him that he would be in power. The young man, of course, was Galba.

One of the first signs of austerity, Galba Suetonius already mentions in his biographical information. After Sulpicius lost his wife, Aemilia Lepida, and two sons, he was no longer seduced by any party. It is worth mentioning that one of the women trying to get him was Agrippina, the mother of Nero. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Agrippina was in a dispute with Galby’s mother-in-law. Suetonius writes about Agrippina: Lepida’s mother scolded her roundly before a company of matrons and went so far as to slap her.

Suetonius devoted much space to describing Galba’s severity. He showed it to his new soldiers the day after taking the post of legate in Germania. When he saw the legionaries clapping, he gave a written order that they keep their hands under their cloaks. He also forbade his subordinates to take holidays. As for the work of soldiers, he made no difference between veterans and recruits, everyone had to work just as hard. His discipline in his legion even earned him the recognition of Caligula. He was also held in high esteem by Claudius, who appointed him governor of Africa. There, Galba was given a mission to quell the riots initiated by the barbarians among themselves. He carried out his task, of course, with impressive meticulousness. During one of the trips to an area where it was difficult to get food, he learned that his subordinate had sold his wheat. When the army ran out of food, he forbade anyone to give up his share to the soldier in question. He eventually starved to death. Galba said that he would not tolerate similar behaviour.

After the campaign in Africa, Sulpicius stepped back into the shadows, not taking an active part in the great world of imperial politics. This status did not change until 60 CE when he received Tarraconian Spain. He ruled it for eight years. Suetonius points out that his authority was fickle and capricious. He punished all misdeeds not only severely, but also cruelly. He ordered a dishonest banker to cut off his hands and nail them to the criminal’s table. Another time, he sentenced a Roman citizen to crucifixion. The accused, referring to his Roman citizenship, demanded mitigation of the sentence. Sulpicius, showing a true graveyard irony, ordered the man to be erected across higher than the others, and also painted white. Over time, however, Galba began to seem more and more inactive. Suetonius writes that it was a deliberate act that was not to provoke Nero. This move can certainly not be classified as effective, because the future emperor managed to intercept the letters that indicated that the emperor had ordered him to be murdered.

Galba, given the many signs and omens that heralded his power, and the fact that Vindex had revolted against Nero in Gaul, proclaimed himself legate of the senate and of the Roman people. Although Sulpicius tried to be careful, he still barely survived the attempt carried out by slaves sent from Rome as a gift. He was even more devastated by the news of Windex’s death. But then came better news: Nero is dead. Moreover, many people took an oath of allegiance to Galba. Servius Sulpicius set off to gain the throne of the Empire.

But the aura of austerity was not the only one around him at the time. He also began to be considered a greedy and cruel man. This is what Suetonius writes about it: men said that he had punished the cities of the Spanish and Gallic provinces which had hesitated about taking sides with him by heavier taxes and some even by the razing of their walls, putting to death the governors and imperial deputies​ along with their wives and children. Further, that he had melted down a golden crown of fifteen pounds weight, which the people of Tarraco had taken from their ancient temple of Jupiter and presented to him, with orders that the three ounces which were found lacking be exacted from them. The opinion of Galba was certainly not improved by his actions after his entry into Rome. For having compelled some marines whom Nero had made regular soldiers to return to their former position as rowers, upon their refusing and obstinately demanding an eagle and standards, he not only dispersed them by a cavalry charge, but even decimated​ them. He also disbanded a cohort of Germans, whom the previous Caesars had made their body-guard​ and had found absolutely faithful in many emergencies, and sent them back to their native country without any rewards, alleging that they were more favourably inclined towards Gnaeus Dolabella, near whose gardens they had their camp.

To answer the question posed in the headline, it’s worth taking a look at the other face of Galba. Until now, he appeared to be a strict, sometimes cruel and greedy husband. In a way, he has remained so even after taking the throne, but his selectivity and hypocrisy are key here. Suetonius points out that Sulpicius was good at managing the state, but his transgressions made him more hateful than good deeds of respect. In Lives of the Caesars we read: He was wholly under the control of three men, who were commonly known as his tutors because they lived with him in the palace and never left his side. This is remarkably reminiscent of Claudius, who was accused of being ruled by the Greek liberators, Narcissus and Pallas. Galba’s three closest henchmen were Titus Vinius, Cornelius Lackon, and the liberator Icelandus, whom he nicknamed Martianus. Suetonius writes that the three of them did a lot of wickedness and abuses, and the emperor allowed them to exploit himself without moderation. It is true that Suetonius does not mention the specific offences of these people, but it can be guessed to some extent after the historian indicates their character traits. Vinius was considered a great greed. Lacoon, on the other hand, advanced from the position of judge’s assistant to that of prefectus of the Guard and intolerably haughty and indolent. Iceland, on the other hand, from an ordinary liberator, suddenly became a candidate for the prefect of the Praetorian Guard.

Some Romans also angered Galba by cancelling the donations made by Nero, as well as, more importantly, by ordering the return of most of them. […] stipulating that even if the actors and athletes had sold anything that had formerly been given them, it should be taken away from the purchases, in case the recipient had spent the money and could not repay it. Further Suetonius writes: there was nothing that he did not allow his friends and freedmen to sell at a price or bestow as a favour, taxes and freedom from taxation, the punishment of the guiltless and impunity for the guilty.

However, the angriest Roman people were Sulpicius Galba with the sparing of Halotus and Ofonius Tigellinus, supposedly the most wicked among Nero’s companions, for whom the death penalty was demanded. Meanwhile, the emperor not only decided to save them, but also honoured Halotus with a very important stewardship and in the case of Tigellinus even issued an edict rebuking the people for their cruelty

To paraphrase Domitian, it can be said that a ruler who does not punish criminals incites crimes. Galba punished criminals very severely, but not all of them. Impudent with his power, he gave up treating people equally, allowing his henchmen to do almost everything. Servius Sulpicius Galba was murdered on January 15, 69 CE. Marcus Salvius Othon ascended the throne, becoming the next ruler of the year of the four emperors.

Author: Bartosz Jaklik (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Suetonius, Galba

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