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Galba (68-69 A.D.)

[Additional entry on this emperor's life is available in DIR Archives]

John Donahue

College of William and Mary

Coin with the image of the Emperor Galba


The evidence for the principate of Galba is unsatisfactory. The sources either concentrate on the personality of the man, thereby failing to offer a balanced account of his policies and a firm chronological base for his actions; or, they focus on the final two weeks of his life at the expense of the earlier part of his reign.[[1]] As a result, a detailed account of his principate is difficult to write. Even so, Galba is noteworthy because he was neither related to nor adopted by his predecessor Nero. Thus, his accession marked the end of the nearly century-long control of the Principate by the Julio-Claudians. Additionally, Galba's declaration as emperor by his troops abroad set a precedent for the further political upheavals of 68-69. Although these events worked to Galba's favor initially, they soon came back to haunt him, ending his tumultuous rule after only seven months.

Early Life and Rise to Power

Born 24 December 3 BC in Tarracina, a town on the Appian Way 65 miles south of Rome, Servius Galba was the son of C. Sulpicius Galba and Mummia Achaica.[[2]] Galba's connection with the noble house of the Servii gave him great prestige and assured his acceptance among the highest levels of Julio-Claudian society. Adopted in his youth by Livia, the mother of the emperor Tiberius, he is said to have owed much of his early advancement to her.[[3]] Upon her death, Livia made Galba her chief legatee, bequeathing him some 50 million sesterces. Tiberius, Livia's heir, reduced the amount, however, and then never paid it. Galba's marriage proved to be a further source of disappointment, as he outlived both his wife Lepida and their two sons. Nothing else is known of Galba's immediate family, other than that he remained a widower for the rest of his life.

Although the details of Galba's early political career are incomplete, the surviving record is one of an ambitious Roman making his way in the Emperor's service. Suetonius records that as praetor Galba put on a new kind of exhibition for the people - elephants walking on a rope.[[4]] Later, he served as governor of the province of Aquitania, followed by a six-month term as consul at the beginning of 33.[[5]] Ironically, as consul he was succeeded by Salvius Otho, whose own son would succeed Galba as emperor. Over the years three more governorships followed - Upper Germany (date unknown), North Africa (45) and Hispania Tarraconensis, the largest of Spain's three provinces (61). He was selected as a proconsul of Africa by the emperor Claudius himself instead of by the usual method of drawing lots. During his two-year tenure in the province he successfully restored internal order and quelled a revolt by the barbarians. As an imperial legate he was a governor in Spain for eight years under Nero, even though he was already in his early sixties when he assumed his duties. The appointment showed that Galba was still considered efficient and loyal.[[6]] In all of these posts Galba generally displayed an enthusiasm for old-fashioned disciplina, a trait consistent with the traditional characterization of the man as a hard-bitten aristocrat of the old Republican type. Such service did not go unnoticed, as he was honored with triumphal insignia and three priesthoods during his career.

On the basis of his ancestry, family tradition and service to the state Galba was the most distinguished Roman alive (with the exception of the houses of the Julii and Claudii) at the time of Nero's demise in 68. The complex chain of events that would lead him to the Principate later that year began in March with the rebellion of Gaius Iulius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis. Vindex had begun to sound out provincial governors about support for a rebellion perhaps in late 67 or early 68. Galba did not respond but, because of his displeasure with Neronian misgovernment, neither did he inform the emperor of these treasonous solicitations. This, of course, left him dangerously exposed; moreover, he was already aware that Nero, anxious to remove anyone of distinguished birth and noble achievements, had ordered his death.[[7]] Given these circumstances, Galba likely felt that he had no choice but to rebel.

In April, 68, while still in Spain, Galba "went public," positioning himself as a vir militaris, a military representative of the senate and people of Rome. For the moment, he refused the title of Emperor, but it is clear that the Principate was his goal. To this end, he organized a concilium of advisors in order to make it known that any decisions were not made by him alone but only after consultation with a group. The arrangement was meant to recall the Augustan Age relationship between the emperor and senate in Rome. Even more revealing of his imperial ambitions were legends like LIBERTAS RESTITUTA (Liberty Restored), ROM RENASC (Rome Reborn) and SALUS GENERIS HUMANI (Salvation of Mankind), preserved on his coinage from the period. Such evidence has brought into question the traditional assessment of Galba as nothing more than an ineffectual representative of a bygone antiquus rigor in favor of a more balanced portrait of a traditional constitutionalist eager to publicize the virtues of an Augustan-style Principate.[[8]]

Events now began to move quickly. In May, 68 Lucius Clodius Macer, legate of the III legio Augusta in Africa, revolted from Nero and cut off the grain supply to Rome. Choosing not to recognize Galba, he called himself propraetor, issued his own coinage, and raised a new legion, the I Macriana liberatrix. Galba later had him executed. At the same time, 68 Lucius Verginius Rufus, legionary commander in Upper Germany, led a combined force of soldiers from Upper and Lower Germany in defeating Vindex at Vesontio in Gallia Lugdunensis. Verginius refused to accept a call to the emperorship by his own troops and by those from the Danube, however, thereby creating at Rome an opportunity for Galba's agents to win over Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus, the corrupt praetorian prefect since 65. Sabinus was able to turn the imperial guard against Nero on the promise that they would be rewarded financially by Galba upon his arrival. That was the end for Nero. Deposed by the senate and abandoned by his supporters, he committed suicide in June. At this point, encouraged to march on Rome by the praetorians and especially by Sabinus, who had his own designs on the throne, Galba hurriedly established broad-based political and financial support and assembled his own legion (subsequently known as the legio VII Gemina).[[9]] As he departed from Spain, he abandoned the title of governor in favor of "Caesar," apparently in an attempt to lay claim to the entire inheritance of the Julio-Claudian house. Even so, he continued to proceed cautiously, and did not actually adopt the name of Caesar (and with it the emperorship) until sometime after he had left Spain.[[10]]

The Principate of Galba

Meanwhile, Rome was anything but serene. An unusual force of soldiers, many of whom had been mustered by Nero to crush the attempt of Vindex, remained idle and restless. In addition, there was the matter concerning Nymphidius Sabinus. Intent on being the power behind the throne, Nymphidius had orchestrated a demand from the praetorians that Galba appoint him sole praetorian prefect for life. The senate capitulated to his pretensions and he began to have designs on the throne himself. In an attempt to rattle Galba, Nymphidius then sent messages of alarm to the emperor telling of unrest in both the city and abroad. When Galba ignored these reports, Nymphidius decided to launch a coup by presenting himself to the praetorians. The plan misfired, and the praetorians killed him when he appeared at their camp. Upon learning of the incident, Galba ordered the executions of Nymphidius' followers.[[11]] To make matters worse, Galba's arrival was preceded by a confrontation with a boisterous band of soldiers who had been formed into a legion by Nero and were now demanding legionary standards and regular quarters. When they persisted, Galba's forces attacked, with the result that many of them were killed.[[12]]

Thus it was amid carnage and fear that Galba arrived at the capital in October, 68, accompanied by Otho, the governor of Lusitania, who had joined the cause. Once Galba was within Rome, miscalculations and missteps seemed to multiply. First, he relied upon the advice of a corrupt circle of advisors, most notably: Titus Vinius, a general from Spain; Cornelius Laco, praetorian prefect; and his own freedman, Icelus. Second, he zealously attempted to recover some of Nero's more excessive expenditures by seizing the property of many citizens, a measure that seems to have gone too far and to have caused real hardship and resentment. Third, he created further ill-will by disbanding the imperial corps of German bodyguards, effectively abolishing a tradition that originated with Marius and had been endorsed by Augustus. Finally, he seriously alienated the military by refusing cash rewards for both the praetorians and for the soldiers in Upper Germany who had fought against Vindex.

This last act proved to be the beginning of the end for Galba. On 1 January 69 the troops in Upper Germany refused to declare allegiance to him and instead followed the men stationed in Lower Germany in proclaiming their commander, Aulus Vitellius, as the new ruler. In response, Galba adopted Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus to show that he was still in charge and that his successor would not be chosen for him. Piso, although an aristocrat, was a man completely without administrative or military experience.[[13]] The choice meant little to the remote armies, the praetorians or the senate, and it especially angered Otho, who had hoped to succeed Galba. Otho quickly organized a conspiracy among the praetorians with the now-familiar promise of a material reward, and on 15 January 69 they declared him emperor and publicly killed Galba; Piso, dragged from hiding in the temple of Vesta, was also butchered.


In sum, Galba had displayed talent and ambition during his lengthy career. He enjoyed distinguished ancestry, moved easily among the Julio-Claudian emperors (with the exception of Nero towards the end of his principate), and had been awarded the highest military and religious honors of ancient Rome. His qualifications for the principate cannot be questioned. Even so, history has been unkind to him. Tacitus characterized Galba as "weak and old," a man "equal to the imperial office, if he had never held it." Modern historians of the Roman world have been no less critical.[[14]] To be sure, Galba's greatest mistake lay in his general handling of the military. His treatment of the army in Upper Germany was heedless, his policy towards the praetorians short sighted. Given the climate in 68-69, Galba was unrealistic in expecting disciplina without paying the promised rewards. He was also guilty of relying on poor advisors, who shielded him from reality and ultimately allowed Otho's conspiracy to succeed. Additionally, the excessive power of his henchmen brought the regime into disfavor and made Galba himself the principal target of the hatred that his aides had incited. Finally, the appointment of Piso, a young man in no way equal to the challenges placed before him, further underscored the emperor's isolation and lack of judgment. In the end, the instability of the post-Julio-Claudian political landscape offered challenges more formidable than a tired, septuagenarian aristocrat could hope to overcome. Ironically, his regime proved no more successful than the Neronian government he was so eager to replace. Another year of bloodshed would be necessary before the Principate could once again stand firm.


The works listed below are main treatments of Galba or have a direct bearing on issues discussed in the entry above.

Benediktson, Dale T. "Structure and Fate in Suetonius' Life of Galba." CJ 92 (1996-97): 167-172.

Bowman, Alan K. et al. The Cambridge Ancient History, X: The Augustan Empire. 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1996).

Brunt, P. A. "The Revolt of Vindex and the Fall of Nero." Latomus 18 (1959): 531-559.

Chilver, G. E. F. A Historical Commentary on Tacitus' Histories I and II. (Oxford, 1979).

Fluss, M. "Sulpicius (Galba)." Real-Encyclopädie IVA2.772-801 (1932).

Greenhalgh, P. A. L. The Year of the Four Emperors. (New York, 1975).

Haley, E. W. "Clunia, Galba and the Events of 68-69." ZPE 91 (1992): 159-164.

Keitel, E. "Plutarch's Tragedy Tyrants: Galba and Otho." Papers of the Leeds International Latin Seminar 8, Roman Comedy, Augustan Poetry, Historiography. edited by Roger Brock and Anthony J. Woodman. (Leeds, 1995): 275-288.

Kleiner, Fred S. "The Arch of Galba at Tarragona and Dynastic Portraiture on Roman Arches." MDAI(M) 30 (1989): 239-252.

________. "Galba and the Sullan Capitolium." AJN 1 (1989): 71-77.

________. "Galba Imperator Augustus P(opuli) R(omani)." RN 32 (1990): 72-84.

Murison, Charles L. Galba, Otho and Vitellius: Careers and Controversies. (Hildesheim, 1993).

________. Suetonius: Galba, Otho, Vitellius. (London, 1992).

Nawotka, Krzysztof. "Imperial Virtues of Galba in the Histories of Tacitus." Philologus 137 (1993): 258-264.

Sutherland, C. H. V. Roman Imperial Coinage, vol 1. (London, 1984).

Syme, R. "Partisans of Galba." Historia 31 (1982): 460-483.

________. Tacitus. (Oxford, 1958).

Townsend, G. B. "Cluvius Rufus in the Histories of Tacitus," AJPhil 85 (1964): 337-377.

Wellesley, Kenneth. The Long Year A. D. 69. 2nd. ed. (London, 1989).

Zimmerman, M. "Die restitutio honorum Galbas." Historia 44 (1995): 56-82.


[[1]] The main ancient sources for Galba's life are: Suet. Galba; Tac. Hist. 1.1-49; Plut. Galba; Dio 63.22-64.7. In addition, there were major works for this period by Cluvius Rufus, Fabius Rusticus and Pliny the Elder, but they have not survived. For an important discussion, see G. B. Townsend, "Cluvius Rufus in the Histories of Tacitus," AJPhil 85 (1964): 337-377.

[[2]] Galba's birthdate is impossible to determine. Suetonius give it as 24 December, 3 B.C. (Galba 4.1), yet in the final chapter of Galba's Life, he presupposes 5 B.C. as the date (Galba 23). Dio (64.6.52), taken with Tacitus' evidence (Hist. 1.27.1), also gives his birthdate as 5 B.C. The evidence given here is preferable, since Suetonius provides the information precisely and is concerned with Galba's actual birthdate, not the length of his life or his reign.

[[3]] Suet. Galba 4. This must be a testamentary adoption, since a woman in classical law was not allowed to adopt during her lifetime. See the commentary of Charles L. Murison, editor, Suetonius: Galba, Otho, Vitellius (London, 1991), 33.

[[4]] Suetonius' claim that Galba was the first to offer an exhibition of rope-walking elephants has been refuted. See J. M. C. Toynbee, Animals in Roman Life and Art (London, 1973), 48-49, 352 nn. 103-110. See also H. H. Scullard, The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (London, 1974), 250-259.

[[5]] This governorship is slightly unconventional, since most nobiles in this period usually governed senatorial provinces as praetorian proconsuls, not important imperial provinces like Aquitania. Galba was perhaps being groomed for a career as a vir militaris. Regarding the consulship, there may have been a delay at some point in Galba's accession to the office. For a more complete discussion on this point, see Charles L. Murison, Galba, Otho and Vitellius: Careers and Controversies (Hildesheim, 1993), 35-36.

[[6]] On Galba's behavior in Spain, see Suet. Galba 9 and Murison, Careers and Controversies, 37-38. Galba's eight-year term, although lengthy, was not unprecedented. The time spent by an imperial legate as a provincial governor was entirely at the discretion of the emperor.

[[7]] On Nero's order for Galba's death, see Suet. Galba 9.2.

[[8]] On Galba's coinage, see C. H. V. Sutherland, Roman Imperial Coinage I.2, (London, 1984), 197-215, 216-257. On Galba as a strict constitutionalist in the Augustan mold, see Murison, Careers and Controversies, 31-44.

[[9]] To obtain the necessary financing Galba confiscated and sold all of Nero's property in Spain (Plut. Galba 5.6) and received a large amount of gold and silver from Otho (Plut. Galba 20.3). He also seems to have demanded contributions from communities in Spain and Gaul. See Tac. Hist. 1.8.1 and 1.53.3.

[[10]] On the chronology of Galba's journey from Spain to Rome, see Murison, Careers and Controversies, 27-30. On events at Rome, see K. Wellesley, The Long Year A.D. 69. 2nd ed. (Bristol, 1989), 15-30.

[[11]] For the most complete account of the Nymphidius affair, see Plut. Galba 2; 8-9; 13-15.

[[12]] Tac. Hist. 1.6.2; Plut. Galba 15; Dio 64.3.1-2. See also Murison, Careers and Controversies, 63-64.

[[13]] Piso Licinianus was the son of M. Licinius Crassus Frugi, consul in 27, and of Scribonia, a direct descendant of Pompey the Great. He was only about eight years old when his parents and eldest brother were executed as part of the senatorial opposition to the later Julio-Claudians. Tacitus records that he was diu exul (Hist. 1.48.1; cf. Hist. 1.21.1; 1.38.1), which would explain his lack of experience.

[[14]] Tac. Hist. 1.6.1; 1.49. R. Syme, "Partisans of Galba," Historia 31 (1982): 460-483. See also K. Nawotka, "Imperial Virtues of Galba in the Histories of Tacitus." Philologus 137 (1993): 258-264.

Copyright (C) 1999, John Donahue. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: John Donahue.

Updated:7 August 1999

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