(c) Jerry Fielden 2000

An Emperor in trouble – Galba’s relationship with the Roman Army

In 68 AD, Nero, abandoned by all, had committed suicide and the Julio-Claudian dynasty was no more. Part of the cause of his downfall was his poor attitude towards the army, both morally and materially,[1] and how the men in the legions and the Praetorian Guard had reacted to it.[2] His successor Galba had a different, more hands-on, relationship with the army but the results were the same: he lost both the Empire and his life.

Servius (Sulpicius) Galba was born in 5 or 3 BC[3] of an illustrious senatorial family. He was adopted by Augustus’ wife Livia and very close to her. Augustus had told him that he would get a taste of his power and Tiberius had not bothered hurting him when he had heard of a prediction that Galba would be emperor one day,[4] which he became eventually, through “fear, folly or ambition”.[5] He was governor of Aquitania, then became consul in 33 AD under Tiberius.

Caligula gave him a command in Germany, where he was quite successful.[6] He was proconsul of Africa for two years under Claudius, in 45-46 AD, earned a triumph for his work in Germany and Africa, then he went into semi-retirement under Nero.

Galba was finally sent by Nero to Hispania Tarraconensis in 60 AD. In 68 AD, he learned of the Vindex revolt in Gaul and that Nero wanted him dead.[7] Galba corresponded with Vindex as well, and the rebel pleaded with Galba to make a grab for power.[8] Nero had then seized all of Galba’s property, which was quite considerable, and Galba reciprocated by seizing Nero’s assets in Spain.[9] It was now open war. Galba managed to get his legion all worked up against Nero by showing them the portraits of all the people that had been executed by the artist-emperor. Galba’s troops then proclaimed him Emperor, but he told them that he was only the legate of the Senate and the People of Rome.[10]

Then Vindex was defeated by Verginius Rufus in an unintended battle,[11] Verginius was offered the Empire several times by his men and refused, and Galba really began to worry.[12] But when the freedman Icelus told him of Nero’s death and of the Senate and people confirming Galba as Emperor, he took the name Caesar and began to regain confidence, especially after the tidings were confirmed by Titus Vinius, the captain of his praetorian guard and a former governor of Southern Gaul.[13]

In the meantime, Nymphidus Sabinus, one of the praetorian prefects, had been plotting for Galba in Rome by promising donatives to the praetorians on the new Emperor’s behalf.[14] However, when Galba had gotten rid of Clodius Macer in Africa and Fonteius Capito in Germany,[15] and had named Cornelius Laco to replace Nymphidius’s ousted colleague Tigellinus,[16] Nymphidius became apprehensive. He decided to attempt to gain the position of Emperor for himself by plotting with some friends, women and senators; he even went as far as to claim he was Caligula’s son — fortunately for Galba, he failed and was killed by the soldiers he had tried to win over.[17]

We will now look at Galba’s personality and how it affected his relationship with the soldiers. He was known as a strict disciplinarian and was reckoned to be a very tough taskmaster who did not hesitate to do hard exercise himself.[18] He was also known to be a just man but could be quite severe and without pity, to the point he let a soldier starve to death for having sold some of his own provisions.[19] He was often cruel, as in the cases where he killed all the soldiers and citizens of Spanish and Gallic towns that didn’t follow him in his bid for the Empire.[20] He was also know to be avaricious, which was not wise in these times where it was a vital policy to be generous with the Army and Praetorian Guard.[21] Indeed, Galba didn’t really stop to think that the main basis of the Roman Principate was the support of the Army.[22] Avarice seems to be the one trait that had really angered the men and eventually caused his downfall.[23] Maybe if he had paid the promised donatives,[24] Otho would have never been able to suborn the Praetorian Guard and Galba might have lived to face Vitellius: indeed, Vitellius’s legions might have not even followed their leader with a Galba donative in hand. When Galba adopted Piso and designated him as successor, it would have been the perfect time to distribute a donative to the soldiers:[25] this was indeed customary in times of great occasions like the accession of an emperor, the birth or adoption of a son, a victory, etc.[26] The reason he gave for this avarice was that he wanted to “choose his soldiers, not buy them”.[27] One can only wonder how Galba made it that far in that day and age when the soldiers expected more than just leadership: material considerations were of the utmost importance to them.

Another one of Galba’s major mistakes was his unbending attitude towards the legion stationed in Rome that Nero had put together from fleet rowers, one of the many legions still in Rome that Nero had assembled for the war against Vindex[28]. This legion had come to meet him on his route near Rome to pledge their allegiance to him and be confirmed in their enrolment, but he told them that they would return to their former status as rowers. When they pleaded with him to reconsider, he refused and even had them decimated and trampled over by his cavalry.[29] He also had many unarmed men killed upon his arrival in Rome.[30]

A strategic error of Galba’s was the appointment of men he deemed innocuous or incompetent to lead the German armies. Two cases come to mind: first that of Hordeonius Flaccus, who was despised by his men for his weakness, and that of the future emperor Aulus Vitellius, who was a lot more competent and popular than Galba had thought.[31] Therefore, Galba’s popularity with the army was rapidly fading away and going to men like Vitellius with his German legions[32] and Otho with the Praetorian Guard.[33] (It is interesting to note that the Praetorians were going to be taking second place to the provincial armies for a number of years after Galba’s accession in many ways, like defense of the Empire and the making of Emperors). [34] Galba might have avoided at least the problem with Otho by adopting him as successor instead of Piso, but Galba’s stodgy personality made him, once again, opt for the wrong person and Piso Lucianus, a man after Galba’s own character, was chosen to follow him in ruling the Empire.[35] Again, the soldiers might have approved if a donative had been distributed and words of praise for them spoken when Galba made his speech to the army – in any event, the occasion was ruined by his “inflexibility”.[36] Another point in this sorry adoption affair is that Otho and his troops had been with Galba from the start and had marched on Rome with him; Otho and his men were definitely expecting a bit more consideration for this help.[37] When the end came, Galba finally did call his attackers “fellow-soldiers” and promised a donative, but by this time, it was too late for him and he had to stick his neck out for the execution.[38]

Galba had also seemed to be completely disconnected from his troops and supporters; he was totally isolated by his three favorites, Icelus, Titus Vinius and Cornelius Laco. These men had taken a large part of power for themselves: the three “pedagogues” were so dominant that Galba’s popularity and prestige sank rapidly because of their actions.[39] This situation is reminiscent of Claudius and his freedmen, but Galba did not have that Julio-Claudian legitimacy and the support of the Praetorians, as Claudius did.

The first of the three, Icelus, had been given the gold ring of the equestrian order by Galba when he told the emperor of Nero’s death; he had then taken the name Marcianus.[40] Icelus was also trying to become a Praetorian Prefect,[41] and was considered to be one of the most powerful men in Galba’s court; he was also a turncoat, enough that Otho had plotted with him and Titus Vinius as well to obtain positions for men he favored.[42] Icelus was also reputed to be one of Galba’s lovers.[43]

Titus Vinius, the captain of Galba’s guard, was one of the first to incite Galba to take power. It also appeared that he was gaining more and more influence over the old man as events were unfolding.[44] He was also known as a thief and as a dissolute person. [45] His exactions on the people in Galba’s name served to further the hatred of the emperor that became more and more prevalent in Rome as the reign went on.[46] Vinius was really only preying on others to make his own fortune[47] and probably didn’t care if Galba’s reputation was hurt by this; as a matter of fact, he wasn’t adverse to helping out Otho’s men by obtaining positions for them too.[48] As well, he was trying to influence Galba to give the succession to Otho, who would then marry Vinius’ daughter upon his accession.[49] Vinius even obtained the consulate for 69 AD from Galba for his efforts.[50] However, having failed in the succession ploy, Vinius earned Otho’s resentment and anger.[51] This was to prove fatal to him, even as he tried to ally himself with Otho’s conspiracy, because he was killed by some soldiers who thought they would obtain a reward from Otho.[52]

The case of Cornelius Laco is interesting. He was a very arrogant man, and seems to have come out of nowhere to be appointed as Praetorian Prefect by Galba,[53] which helped the Nymphidius rebellion get started.[54] Was he a former subordinate of Galba’s in one of the old emperor’s former commands and had he been elevated to other military positions by Galba prior to this appointment?[55] It was quite a jump from being a judge’s assistant to his present lofty position.[56] He seems to have been trusted because when Vitellius’s rebellion had gotten under way, some had wanted to send him instead of Piso to negociate an agreement with the rebel general on Galba’s behalf.[57] And Laco, as well as Vinius, may have been more loyal than thought, because they did give the impression that they want to protect their Emperor near the end, at least part of the way, while Piso went to try and convince the troops to remain faithful.[58] Unfortunately, Piso did not succeed and Laco lost his life too.

In the end those three hated advisers had done more harm than good to Galba and were surely one of the prime causes of his demise.

To conclude, I believe that Galba’s problem was one of age aggravated by his inflexible character, his lack of generosity to his men, and his reliance on three questionable advisers. Indeed, this is seen throughout history: often, a leader becomes more and more inflexible with age, and Galba did not have redeeming qualities or strengths like Augustus’ auctoritas, Vespasian’s sense of humor or Trajan’s courteousness.

One can consider the more recent case of Louis XIV and the revocation of the Édit de Nantes, which was a terrible decision based on purely personal reasons instead of in the interest of the State (and also Madame de Maintenon’s role in this), or one can reflect on any of several aging dictators of modern states such as Mao or Deng in China, or the late Stalin or Brezhnev eras in the USSR as well. Galba was also prone to making such decisions because of his inflexibility and to listen to unscrupulous advisers, thus cutting himself off from his real bases of power and losing his reputation and the goodwill of the Army, Senate and people because of them.

And unfortunately for Galba, he didn’t have the machinery of the State in total control and a good rapport with the army as some of his predecessors did before Nero or as some of these other more modern leaders did, and that certainly was a major cause of his downfall.


Plutarch, Lives, by A.H. Clough, Project Gutenberg Etext #674, October 1996

Suétone (Suetonius), Vies des douze Césars, présenté par Marcel Johandeau, Librairie Générale française, 1961

Tacitus, Complete Works, The Modern Library, Random House, New York, 1942

Campbell, J. Brian, The emperor and the Roman Army, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984

‑‑‑ The Roman Army, 31 BC – AD 337 : A sourcebook, Routledge, London, 1994

Cizek, Eugen, Néron, l’empereur maudit, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1982

Coffta, David J., “Galba (68-69 AD)”, in De Imperatoribus Romanis, An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors, September 1996, http://www.salve.edu/~romanemp/galba.html

‑‑‑, “C. Nymphidius Sabinus (68 A.D.)”, in De Imperatoribus Romanis, An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors, September 1996, http://www.salve.edu/~romanemp/sabinus.html

Greenhalgh, P.A.L., The Year of the Four Emperors, Weinfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975

Syme, Ronald, The Roman Revolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1939

Wellesley, Kenneth, The long year, A.D. 69, Westview Press, Boulder, 1975


[1] Campbell, ERA, p. 173; Suet., Nero XXXII

[2] Cizek, p. 399

[3] Wellesley, p. 219, Note 1

[4] Suet., Galba IV

[5] Syme, p.503

[6] Suet., Galba VI

[7] Suet., Galba, VII-IX

[8] Plut., Galba 6

[9] Plut., Galba 7

[10] Suet., Galba X

[11] Wellesley, p. 5; Plut., Galba 9

[12] Plut., Galba 9

[13] Plut., Galba 10

[14] Coffta, Nymphidius 2; Greenhalgh, p. 11

[15] Tac., Hist 1.7

[16] Coffta, Nymphidius 3

[17] Plut., Galba 12-18; Tac., Hist. 1.5; Greenhalgh, pp. 20-21

[18] Suet., Galba VI

[19] Suet., Galba VII

[20] Suet., Galba XII

[21] Suet., Galba XII

[22] Syme, p. 476

[23] Tac., Hist. 1.5

[24] Suet., Galba XVI

[25] Suet., Galba XVII

[26] Campbell, ERA, pp. 187-188

[27] Tac., Hist. 1.5

[28] Tac., Hist. 1.6

[29] Suet., Galba XII; Tac., Hist 1.6; Plut., Galba 18; Greenhalgh, p. 22

[30] Greenhalgh, p. 22

[31] Tac., Hist. 1.9; Plut., Galba 26

[32] Greenhalgh, p. 16

[33] Plut., Galba 28; Tac., Hist. 1.24-1.25; Suet., Otho V

[34] Campbell, RA, p.186 ch. 308

[35] Tac., Hist. 1.13-1.19

[36] Tac., Hist., 1.18

[37] Coffta, Galba 2 and 4

[38] Suet., Galba XX

[39] Suet., Galba XIV

[40] Plut., Galba 10

[41] Suet., Galba XIV

[42] Plut., Galba 29

[43] Suet., Galba XXII

[44] Plut., Galba 14

[45] Plut., Galba 15

[46] Plut., Galba 21-22

[47] Suet., Galba XIV

[48] Plut., Galba 24

[49] Plut., Galba 25

[50] Plut., Galba 25

[51] Plut., Galba 27

[52] Plut., Galba 31

[53] Greenhalgh, p 25

[54] Plut., Galba 16

[55] Jean-Luc Gauville?

[56] Greenhalgh, p. 25

[57] Tac., Hist. 1.19

[58] Plut., Galba 28


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