69: Galba, in the Year of the Four Emperors

2 comments January 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in the year 69, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him emperor of Rome Galba was slain — the first casualty in ancient Rome’s Year of the Four Emperors.

From the standpoint of this blog’s portfolio, Galba’s death admittedly makes for an edge case; in their time, the Romans experimented with every shade and interval for the span from extrajudicial execution to assassination to simple murder. Certainly the sudden homicide which forms our subject today proceeded under no purported legal color.

But dead is dead, and in Rome at that moment, dead was the essential fact. You had to get the incumbent into the ground to don the blood-drenched purple.

That’s exactly how Galba managed it himself: his predecessor was the infamous Nero, dead the previous June in a revolt that had set Galba up as the rival emperor.

Galba was a classic Peter Principle guy, a respected wealthy patrician who had been a prominent public figure for decades. At the end of Nero’s run, Galba was governor of a Spanish province and everyone thought would make a swell emperor … until he actually got the job.

As Suetonius observed, Galba’s “popularity and prestige were greater when he won, than while he ruled the empire.” Tightfisted (or fiscally responsible) and inflexible (or upright), the new emperor proved to have a gift for alienating his subjects.

The skinflint sovereign bullied enemies real and perceived, took an obnoxiously lordly attitude towards inferiors, and even decimated a legion (a practice long since out of date at this point). He set about restoring the ruined state finances by seizing even from parties at second and third hand goods which allegedly traced to Nero’s graft, then re-auctioning them … many of those auctions suspiciously won at a discount by Galba’s hated advisors-slash-controllers, the “Three Pedagogues.” And he “condemned to death divers distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial.” (Suetonius, again)

Very dangerously, Galba also refused to pay the customary donative to those arbiters of imperial succession, the Praetorian Guard.

All this mess brought the distant German legions into rebellion.

However, Galba triggered his downfall directly when he passed over for official heir an early Galba supporter, Otho — who had been dispensing liberal largesse on the understanding that he had the inside track to the throne — in favor of a youth named Piso.

Personally affronted and also in danger of having his now-unpayable debts called in, Otho brought the disaffected Praetorians over to his side and revolted.

The capital was thrown into a tumult. On January 15, Galba’s litter was being borne in the Roman Forum when Otho’s militia appeared,

loudly ordering all private citizens out of their way. The multitude, accordingly, took to their heels, not scattering in flight, but seeking the porticoes and eminences of the forum, as if to get a view of the spectacle. Hostilities began with the overthrow of a statue of Galba by Attilius Vergilio, and then the soldiers hurled javelins at the litter; and since they failed to strike it, they advanced upon it with their swords drawn. No one opposed them or tried to defend the emperor, except one man, and he was the only one, among all the thousands there on whom the sun looked down, who was worthy of the Roman empire. This was Sempronius Densus, a centurion, and though he had received no special favours from Galba, yet in defence of honour and the law he took his stand in front of the litter. And first, lifting up the switch with which centurions punish soldiers deserving of stripes, he cried out to the assailants and ordered them to spare the emperor. Then, as they came to close quarters with him, he drew his sword, and fought them off a long time, until he fell with a wound in the groin.

The litter was upset at the place called Lacus Curtius, and there Galba tumbled out and lay in his corselet, while the soldiers ran up and struck at him. But he merely presented his neck to their swords, saying: “Do your work, if this is better for the Roman people.” (Plutarch)

Piso tried to take refuge with the sacred Vestal Virgins, but was hauled out most impiously and abruptly put to death on the temple’s steps. Otho was said to greet this severed head of his rival heir with particular satisfaction. (Galba’s head was paraded through town on a spear, then given over to the servants of a guy Galba had executed so that they could dishonor it on the execution grounds.)

As for the victorious Otho, you’ll recall those restive German legions … and the fact that this is the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba was the first of those four; Otho, the second. As Cassius Dio tells it, “as he [Otho] was offering his first sacrifice, the omens were seen to be unfavourable, so that he repented of what had been done and exclaimed: ‘What need was there of my playing on the long flutes?’ (This is a colloquial and proverbial expression applying to those who do something for which they are not fitted.)”

Three months later, it was time to pay the flautist. Those German legions arrived, bumped off Otho, and made their own commander into emperor number three. (Otho, not theretofore viewed as particularly noble soul, redeemed himself for posterity by committing suicide for the good of Rome rather than press a ruinous civil war — uttering the Spock-like sentiment, “It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.”)

The History of Rome podcast series covers Galba’s abortive reign here.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

12 comments June 29th, 2009 Headsman

June 29 is the shared feast day (in both the Latin and Greek rites) of the two biggest wheels in first century Christianity, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Tradition holds that both men were martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Emperor Nero after Rome burned: Paul beheaded, Peter crucified upside-down at his own request not to die in the manner of his lord.* Some traditions have both being put to death on the same day; others do not.

Concrete dates** are going to be hard to come by, of course, and the purported historical doings of New Testament Christians are inextricably conjoined to theological ox-goring.

But it is their lives and not their deaths that make them memorable, and to judge by the conquest of the faith they propounded, their feast day honors are richly deserved. Some scholars with no fear for their soul will tell you that Paul in particular can be rated a more consequential historical person than the Nazarene himself, having formulated the doctrine and conducted the ministry needed to turn a dead-end Jewish sect or inchoate reform movement into a surging universal religion that would play to Praetorians.

More from this program — and other resources on early Christianity — at this Frontline page.

While linked on this day, Peter and Paul appear in the Bible as sometime rivals. One might well speculate at the dynamics between them: Peter, after all, got his commission straight from the Savior himself; the upstart Saul of Tarsus, late of the Jewish establishment, arrived fired with the zeal of the converted and went from persecuting Christians to appropriating their doctrine, even calling Peter out publicly.

However they sublimated that awkwardness, their respective offices as Apostle to the Jews (Peter) and Apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) allude to an oft-explored problem whose resolution would prove decisive for the nascent faith: did Christianity require adherence to the strict Mosaic law?

The stakes: would anyone outside of already-existing Jews actually want to convert?

Paul looks like the firebrand, boldly enacting his revolutionary faith-alone revelation (so central to the Protestant Reformation 15 centuries later) on the pacified highways and sea lanes of the Pax Romana; Peter seems the compromiser (or a vacillator), instinctively granting precedence to the Jewish tradition but being carried along by events towards Paul.

Peter is seen in the Bible acceding to Paul’s opposition to making Greeks eat kosher and circumcise, and even persuading the most august Judaizer and leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, Saint James.

Amongst these illustrious names, we may perceive or imagine — “through a glass darkly”, as it were — what must have been a blossoming multitude of contending beliefs and practices.

Paul made Christian doctrine amenable† to the practices that would make it a phenomenal evangelical success (and separate it from the faith of Abraham), but on that same winners-write-history basis one is entitled to wonder whether the authority of Peter and James have been appropriated ex post facto by the Biblical writers of the Pauline party. If so, you wouldn’t say his reputation has suffered for it: the pope still claims to speak as “the unworthy heir of St. Peter” … and in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Whatever the faithful and the merely interested may speculate about their historicity, their names are on the founding charter of Christianity.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day … (St. Paul, 2 Timothy 4:7-8)

A very few of the very many books about Peter and Paul and their times

* See the apocryphal Acts of Peter.

** Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, however, argued that Peter’s death could be assigned to a precise date: October 13, 64. We can pose against this skepticism that Peter ever went to Rome at all, a sometime Protestant hobby-horse supposed to undermine the primacy of the Holy See.

† But not so decisively that he wasn’t soon at loggerheads with the Jerusalem Jewish Christians again.


Update: Just as this post was getting set to publish, the Vatican announced the discovery of what it claims may be the oldest image of St. Paul, a 4th century fresco uncovered in a Roman catacomb.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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