Servius Sulpicius Galba
8 June 68 – 15 January 69 CE
24 December 3 BCE
15 January 69 CE
Galba was born on December 24, 3 BCE as Servius Sulpicius Galba. Galba was a Roman emperor in 69 CE, the so-called “year of the four emperors”, after the hated emperor Nero committed suicide. He aimed at introducing discipline in the army and savings. He died on the orders of Otho.
Origin and career
Through his paternal grandfather, he descended from Servius Sulpicius Galba (praetor in 54 BCE). Galba’s father became a consul in 5 BCE and although he was short, humpbacked and spoke average, he was considered a hard-working advocate in the bar. The mother of the future ruler was Mummia, granddaughter of Catullus and great-granddaughter of Lucius Mummius Achaicus. Galba’s parents had only one more child, an older son called Gaius (he was consul in 22 CE), who left Rome after squandering most of his fortune and committed suicide because Emperor Tiberius would not have allowed him to participate in the allocation of the province in his year. Following his father’s subsequent marriage to Livia Ocellina, Galba was adopted by his stepmother and took her name, becoming Lucius Livia Ocella before assuming imperial power.
He came from a noble family and was a very wealthy man, but both by birth and adoption, he was not related to any of the first six emperors. In his early years, he showed extraordinary predispositions, and Augustus and Tiberius foretold his future fame. Galba was especially fond of Livia, Augustus’ wife. She inherited 50 million sesterces, which, however, he did not receive.
In 20 CE became a praetor in 33 CE and a consul. He gained a good reputation by managing in such provinces as: Aquitaine, Germania Superior (Upper Germania) – 39 CE, Africa Proconsularis and Hispania Tarraconensis, because of military ability, firmness and impartiality. After Caligula’s death, he refused to persuade his friends to attempt the emperor’s office, loyally serving Claudius. He lived in retirement for the first half of Nero’s reign, until 61 CE when the ruler of Rome commissioned him to lead the province of Hispania Tarraconensis, where he “for eight years he governed the province in a variable and inconsistent manner”1.
In the spring of 68 CE, Galba has been informed that Nero plans to eliminate him. He also learned about the uprising of Vindex in Gaul. At first, he was inclined to follow the example of the commander of the Rhine armies, but the defeat and death of the Gallic governor renewed his hesitations. Galba’s fervour was however enlivened by the news that he was supported by the praetorian prefect Nymphidius Sabinus. Until then, he only dared to call himself the legate of the senate and the Roman people, but after Nero’s suicide, he assumed the title of Caesar and marched on Rome. On that day, April 2, 68 CE, he was proclaimed emperor by the army, and he replied with these words: “Since my homeland was in such danger, I cannot deny my experience, but I consider myself not an emperor, but only a senate legate and people!”2.
After Nero’s death, Nymphidius Sabinus attempted to seize power before Galba’s arrival, but could not win the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard and was killed. After arriving in the city in October 68 CE the new emperor had some of Nero’s freedmen executed.
Galba’s approach to Rome had been slow and p13 bloody: the consul-elect, Cingonius Varro, and Petronius Turpilianus, an ex-consul, had been put to death, Cingonius because he had been an accomplice of Nymphidius, Petronius as one of Nero’s generals: they were killed unheard and undefended, so that men believed them innocent.
– Tacitus, Histories, I.6.
The words mentioning the “cutting down of so many thousands of disarmed soldiers in the trunk” refer to the murder of 7,000 rowers just before entering Rome, who wanted him to form a legion, following the instructions of Nero.
The most significant problem Galba faced during his brief reign was the restoration of state finances. The ruler made many unpopular decisions, the most dangerous of which was the refusal to pay the praetorians the money they were promised on his behalf. The emperor despised the idea that soldiers should receive “bribes” for their loyalty. He outraged the mob with his avarice and aversion to glamour. Advanced age suppressed the energy of the ruler, who came completely under the control of pets. Three of them: Titus Vinius (Caesar’s friend since he was consul), Cornelius Laco (commander of the Praetorian Guard) and Galba’s liberator, Icelandus Martianus – could control the ruler. Due to their great influence on the emperor, they were called “the three teachers”. All this caused an increase in social dislike for Galba.
On January 1, 69 CE two legions in Germania Superior refused an oath of loyalty to the ruler and overturned his monuments, demanding the election of a new emperor. The next day, soldiers in Germania Inferior also objected, and they decided to decide for themselves who would sit on the throne and hailed their provincial governor as Caesar, Vitellius. With the outbreak of the revolt, Galba realized how bad the opinion of his rule was and how high the degree of public discontent is. In order to contain the growing storm, he adopted his helper and heir, Lucius Calpurnius Piso. The population saw the choice of a successor as a sign of fear, and the praetorians were indignant because there was no customary donation.
Marcus Salvius Otho, former governor of Lusitania and one of Galba’s earliest followers, was disappointed that it was not him, but Piso assumed the title of heir and made contact with the praetorians, who made him their emperor. On January 15, 69 CE Galba, who immediately went to meet the rebels (he was so weak he had to be kept in a litter), encountered a cavalry squad and was murdered near Lacus Curtius. Piso was killed shortly afterwards. According to Plutarch, in his last moments, Emperor Galba was to turn his neck and say: “do your work, if this is better for the Roman people”3.
In total, the killing of Galba was declared by about 120 people, eager to win Otho’s favour and hoping for a reward. The list of their names was written down and found its way into the hands of Vitellius when he took power after Otto. Everyone in it was killed.
During the late stage of his reign in the province of Galba, he was infirm and apathetic, but this was due to both the passage of time and the desire not to attract Nero’s attention. As Tacitus writes, “he seemed too great to be a citizen so long as he was a citizen and all would have agreed that he was worthy to the imperial office if he had never held it” (maior privato visus dum privatus fuit, et omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset)4.