Episode 23: Three Gods, Four Emperors
The year 68 was a huge turning point for the Roman Empire. Nero’s death and his replacement by Galba ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which had ruled for roughly a century. The abrupt and violent end of Nero brought with it a natural uncertainty. After all, Roman authority for the past hundred years was vested in descent from the divine Julius Caesar. Augustus claimed that since he was a relative of Caesar that this divinity passed to him, and each of his successors claimed divinity passed through them. It was one thing to overthrow the existing order; it was something entirely different to create a new order in its place, one which the commoners, soldiers and elites would adhere to. Galba could not or would not claim divinity and as such, he had to base his legitimacy on his political savvy. But even as Galba and abandoned claims to divine right, two Gauls and one German claimed to be living gods. If this podcast was about the history of Rome, we would focus solely on the four emperors. But this podcast focuses on France and its predecessors. So while 69 CE was The Year of the Four Emperors for the Roman Empire, for Gallia it was The Year of the Three Gods.
But our gods come later in this story. For now, Galba has the immense task of trying to reshape the Roman political world, as Augustus had done before him. But Galba was no Augustus. Galba was an uninspired disciplinarian, who had served in various high-level bureaucratic functions for most of his career. He was not a conqueror, a brilliant orator or writer, nor even a particularly savvy politician. Furthermore he didn’t have a platform, a political group or an audience that he catered to. As you may recall from a few episodes back, Caesar had been the champion of the Populares and Pompey of the Optimates and each drew support and legitimacy from these political groups. Galba did not have a political party; Galba really didn’t have any ideology that people could identify with. Galba’s only selling point was that he wasn’t Nero, which was great when Nero was in power. But with Nero out of the picture, people started looking at Galba himself, and what they saw was a not particularly competent bureaucrat whose only motivation was his own power.
Galba’s self-serving attitude particularly upset the legions along the Rhine, who he scorned because they had remained loyal to Rome rather than siding with himself when he was a usurper general. If there’s one lesson that every Roman emperor needs to learn it’s: don’t piss off the legions; Galba would become the first example of why doing so is a death sentence.
Galba’s troubles began on the 1st of January, 69. Every first day of the year the legions were expected to renew their oaths of loyalty to the emperor. But this year, the legions of Germania Inferior, refused. These legions, located around what is today the modern Netherlands and Luxembourg, were tired of being punished for doing their duty. Instead of swearing loyalty to Galba they proclaimed governor Aulus Vitellius to be their new emperor. Sidenote, the legions are going to declare their own emperors quite frequently throughout Roman history. When they do, it is rarely spontaneous and Vitellius probably had a hand in it.
So, who was Vitellius, and what was his claim to the purple? Vitellius was born in Rome to an Italian noble family and rubbed shoulders with powerful aristocrats, even becoming a close friend of Emperor Caligula. He served as consul and proconsul and governor of Africa before Galba appointed him as governor of Germania Inferior. As the legions grumbled, Vitellius realized that mutiny would occur, and he decided he would rather have the legions on his side. So, he let them do whatever they wanted, and discipline was mostly ignored, which endeared him to the troops. So when mutiny occurred they naturally turned to this man who wouldn’t issue a single order they didn’t like. Soon the legions of Germania Inferior and Germania Superior hailed Vitellius as their emperor.
But before Vitellius could assemble his armies and march through Gallia and into Italy, events within Rome took a dramatic twist. Galba’s demands for strict discipline from his troops and from Rome itself meant that he was rapidly becoming unpopular in the imperial capital. Galba realized how precarious his position was and nominated a popular young senator to be his heir in an attempt to soothe the masses, essentially saying, “Hey I am 70 years old and likely to die any minute, and this guy who you like will be emperor soon so please don’t overthrow me.” But Galba’s nomination had the exact opposite effect. This move made the old senatorial class angry, since many believed they were overlooked in favor of this young man without accomplishments. One of them, a man by the name of Marcus Salvius Otho, paid the Praetorian guard to assassinate Galba. They did, and Otho assumed the title of Emperor.
When news arrived in Gallia that Otho was the new emperor Vitellius refused to recognize him and continued his march through Gallia to Italy. But strangely, he sent a number of legions ahead and took up residence in Lugdunum. Historians debate why this is. According to ancient Roman chronicler Suetonius, it was because Vitellius was a fat, lazy fool who feasted four times a day and even sent the Roman navy to catch exotic animals for him to eat. This may seem like slander, though given that his still-surviving bust shows he was horrendously obese for people at the time, this isn’t too hard to believe. However, Tacitus provides another reason for his slow march: the arrival of our first god.
In late 68 a Gaul named Mariccus became a leader of the tribe of Boii. He declared himself a living god of the old Celtic deities who had been sent to liberate Gaul from Rome. He raised an army of 8,000 and marched on the territory of the Aedui into early 69 CE. But his men were more a rabble of discontents than a real army and the Aeduan garrisons put down the revolt and delivered Mariccus to Vitellius. Vitellius decided to put Mariccus in a Roman arena and release wild animals to kill him. According to Tacitus the animals refused to harm him, which turned many Gauls toward his cause. But before they could raise arms, Vitellius had Mariccus executed.
Even as Vitellius enjoyed the splendors of Lugdunum, his legions marched south, terrorizing the cities of Gallia to give them supplies. Eventually, Vitellius amassed his legions and joined them. Alongside his legions were Batavi soldiers. The Batavi lived on the other side of the Rhine delta, in what is today the Netherlands. Sometimes they were enemies of Rome, sometimes allies against larger Germanic tribes. Caught between Rome and the much larger tribes they were an intensely warlike people, and played an influential role in Rome’s invasion of Britannia. But during the last days of Nero’s reign and onward, the Batavi-Roman relations soured. The low point came when Rome imprisoned Batavi prince Gaius Julius Civilis, and executed his brother. Despite these bad relations and mutual distrust, Vitellius needed soldiers to fight Otho so he released Civilis on the condition he muster an army to support him.
Vitellius’ armies met Otho’s in northern Italy on the 14th of April. At the Battle of Bedriacum Otho’s forces were crushed and he committed suicide. From there it was a short march to Rome, where Vitellius had the Senate declare him emperor. Vitellius wanted to calm tensions and begin a period of healing, but when he arrived he found the Roman treasury empty and the state owed massive debts which it could not pay. Creditors soon approached the emperor asking for their cash and Vitellius had them executed or tortured. He began a brutal reign in the city, and he was even accused of killing wealthy Romans and seizing their fortunes to feed the imperial coffers. Whether these were true or just propaganda, it is clear that Vitellius was never a popular figure. Like Galba before him his only redeeming quality was that he got rid of the previous emperor. And just like Galba before him, a new usurper general threw down the gauntlet. On the 1st of July Titus Flavius Vespasianus, known to history as Vespasian, was declared emperor by the Egyptian legions. This was echoed by Judaea, Syria and the Danube provinces who declared for him.
As Vespasian marched towards Rome the Danubian troops attacked from the north, dividing Vitellius’ forces. Meanwhile, Vespasian’s agents encouraged Batavi prince Julius Civilis to stage a mock rebellion against Vitellius to further scatter his forces. If there’s a second lesson that Roman leaders really need to learn it’s not to invite Germans to cause trouble; they always, always take it way too far. If this invitation to cause chaos wasn’t enticing enough, it quickly received a divine mandate from the goddess Veleda. German culture held that women could become seeresses with the power to predict the future. The most respected among them were considered living goddesses, and among these Veleda was the goddess of Batavia. When Civilis asked whether or not to launch an assault on the legions in Germania Inferior, Veleda predicted success. So Civilis launched an assault and defeated the legion stationed there.
From our perspective, this shouldn’t be too shocking. First, it was a surprise attack, as Civilis and the Batavi had been allies of the Romans. Second, when Vitellius was governor discipline went out the window as the legionaries’ didn’t maintain routine drills or slept in when they should have had a night watch or patrol. Third, the constantly changing allegiances meant the legions didn’t know who they would be fighting for and against whom. Finally, the Batavi were highly motivated; they hated the Romans, who had killed one of their princes and raised them to fight in far-off wars. Worst of all, according to Tacitus, older Roman soldiers engaged in sexual relations with young German boys, possibly against their will, which the Germans viewed as vile and an assault on their manhood.
The rapid defeat of the Roman legions meant that Gallia was no longer safe from without, and Civilis began to march through Belgica. He executed Romans but treated kindly with the Gauls as he wanted to make himself king of a Celto-Germanic empire. But the Gauls largely remained loyal to Rome, as did many German tribes on the other side of the Rhine, so Civilis was confined to Belgica, though he wasn’t alone, as this time three men from the Gallic Treveri tribe, all named Julius, staged a revolt.
The Treverans, Julius Classicus, Julius Tutor and Julius Sabinus raised their own personal armies in an attempt to break Gallia off from Rome and create a new country, Imperium Galliarum. As their names imply, these three men were part of aristocratic Gallic families that had been Romanized. But since they lived in Belgica they were on the periphery of the Gallic world and were not as assimilated as those in Gallia Lugdenensis. While they had Roman citizenship their families did not become senators like the leading Gauls in the provinces to the south.
Julius Sabinus became the leader of this Gallic independence movement in part because he claimed he was descended from Julius Caesar and therefore was a god. Classicus and Tutor pledged their allegiance to Sabinus and declared him emperor of Gaul. At this point Sabinus had to make a crucial decision. The Treveri only controlled a small portion of Belgica and many of the legions in Germania Inferior were hard-pressed by the Batavi. Sabinus or his advisors, floated the idea of offering clemency to the Roman legions. In exchange, Sabinus would call off Civilis and bring the legions into his own army. But Sabinus did not trust the Romans, only allowing Gauls and friendly Germans into his army. Sabinus ordered his forces to march on the Seutoni, who, like most Gauls, were loyal to Rome. There, Sabinus’ forces were crushed. Seeing his rebellion was hopeless Sabinus burned down the villa he was living in, faking his own death.
By summer’s end, the rebel god had disappeared and Vespasian became emperor, as Vitellius had been executed in Rome by an angry mob. As Vespasian prepared to march into Gallia to restore order the Gallic cities held a council at Reims where they declared their loyalty to Rome.
Classicus and Tutor knew they were defeated and they fled across the Rhine to join Civilis. Civilis was captured and almost certainly executed, though we do not know the fate of the two Gallic rebels.
Before I talk about the broader implications that the Year of the Four Emperors had for Gallia, I’m sure you want to know what happened to the goddess Veleda and the god-in-hiding Julius Sabinus. Fighting between Rome and the Batavi continued until the year 77 when Veleda was captured. Without any other choice, she proclaimed her support for a Roman-backed puppet king of the Germanic tribe. She died shortly thereafter, whether by Roman design or natural causes we’ll never know.
Sabinus had a much stranger fate. After he faked his death he fled back to his wife Epponina and lived in a cellar for 8 years, cared for by his wife and loyal servants. Occasionally Sabinus pretended to be her slave, which allowed them to travel, even going to Rome on one occasion. She even gave birth to two sons. This strange pantomime couldn’t last forever, and in 78 Sabinus and Epponina were arrested and taken to Rome where they were placed in front of Emperor Vespasian himself. Vespasian condemned Sabinus to death, at which point Epponina insulted the emperor as a pitiless tyrant. Outraged, Vespasian put her to death as well, and Plutarch recounts that it was this cruel act that turned the gods away from Vespasian and his heirs and is why their dynasty was so short-lived.
During 69 CE there were four emperors and three gods but by the end only Vespasian remained. He became emperor and sole ruler of Rome, a position he would hold for nearly 10 years before passing it to his son Titus. So, how had this tumultuous year changed Gallia? In the short-term there was a lot of chaos and destruction. From Vindex’s war against the Rhine legions in 68, to Marricus’ failed national revolt, to Vitellius plundering the countryside on his way to Italy, to Civilis’ raids into Belgica and the Treverans’ uprising many were killed and the land ravaged. Yet most of the uprisings were put down quickly, and the Batavi Uprising was restricted to Belgica, so the year wasn’t as devastating as we might think.
However, the fact that any Gauls revolted unearthed deep-seated prejudices held by the Romans. The Romans had always been wary of Gallia, which they still viewed as backward and most Romans did not agree with Claudius’ plan to let Gauls into the Senate. From henceforth, Gallia was increasingly controlled and politically neutered by Rome. First, the number of Gauls allowed in the Senate and the equestrian order decreased until they practically disappeared. Also, the practice of raising Gallic auxiliary armies that served under their own leaders came to an end, as individuals were put into mixed armies and commanded by non-Gauls.
The fall of the Julio-Claudians, who, all except Nero, had a special relationship with Gallia, meant that Gallia no longer had a favored place in Rome. Instead, they were again seen as a potentially rebellious, backward people. While the material wealth of Gallia continued to grow, its political power waned due to the renewal of the Terror Gallicus within Rome.
Ancient History Encyclopedia
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Guerard Albert Leon French Civilization: From Its Origins to the Close of the Middle Ages, 1921.
Woolf, Greg, Becoming Roman, 1998
Seutonius, De Vita Caesarum
Cassius Dio, Roman History
Drinkwater, J.E., Roman Gaul, 1983
Cassius Dio’s Roman History
Plutarch’s biographies of Roman emperors.
Suetonius’ De Vita Caesarum
Tacitus’ Annals and Histories