Galba: First Emperor in the Year of the Four Emperors


Known for his cruelty and bodily disfigurement, Galba ruled for only seven months – from June 8, 68 AD to January 15, 69 AD.


Born in Terracina, a town south of Rome on December 24, 3 BC, he was given the name of Servius Sulpicius Galba. Years later, when his father remarried, Galba was adopted by his stepmother, Livia Ocelina, and he became Lucius Livius Ocella Sulpicius Galba

Although wealthy, his family belonged to the lesser nobility. Through his talents, Galba became a favorite of emperors Augustus and Tiberius, who forecasted his future greatness.

They weren’t wrong, for when he was 20 years old Galba became a Praetor (commander of a legion or a high magistrate) and ten years later a consul.

Consular Career

Particulars of his early consular service are sketchy. Yet, it is known that Galba was a skillful and exacting- but fair- martial leader. Eventually he became governor of Aquitania and later military commander of upper Germany and proconsul of Africa.

It was at about this time, 49 AD, that he felt out of favor with Agrippina the Younger – Nero’s mother – who had married Emperor Claudius. Galba turned to his private affairs for the next 11 years.

Now in his 60s, Galba had become cruel and malicious. Some of his ill temper can be attributed to his appearance and illnesses. He had lost most of his hair, suffered from severe arthritis in his hands and feet and had a growth on his left side.

With Agrippina’s death, Galba returned to politics and was appointed by Claudius governor of Hispania Tarraconesis, the biggest Spanish province.

Rise to the Throne and Fall

Nero succeeded Claudius and Galba remained in Spain. In 68 AD the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, led and insurrection against Nero. Knowing that he didn’t have the necessary backing to be emperor, Vindex offered the throne to Galba ,who dilly-dallied.

Without proclaiming himself emperor, Galba eventually allied himself with Vindex. However, the forces of Vindex were defeated later that year and Galba entrenched himself in Hispania.

When everything seemed lost, news arrived in early June that Nero had taken his life and that the Senate, with the backing of the Praetorian Guard, had proclaimed him emperor.

But Galba’s rule started to unravel while he was on his way to be crowned. Galba, who had now retaken his birth name adding Caesar Augustus to it, considered that the payoff to the Praetorian Guard for their support was excessive and had the leader of the guard killed. Then he dismissed most of the officers and replaced them with cronies.

By the time he got to Rome – accompanied by Marcus Salvius Otho, the Governor of Lusitania, who had earlier joined the uprising – Galba had made the Praetorian Guard his enemy. He didn’t fare any better with the legions for he refused to grant them the customary bonus granted to mark a new ruler’s ascension.

While Galba himself was extremely honest his appointees turned out to be dishonest and greedy. The corruption was such that it is believed that just one Galba’s top bureaucrats misappropriated more money in seven months than Nero and his cronies had in 13 years.

By January 1, 69 AD, the two legions based in the province of Germania Superior (Upper Germany) refused to swear alliance to Galba proclaiming their leader, Vitelius, as emperor. Within 24 hours so did the Roman forces in Germania Inferior (Lower Germany).

Trying to show he was still in control, Galba appointed a successor, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus. This enraged Otho who saw himself as deserving of the crown, and he allied himself with the Praetorians to get rid of the emperor.

Galba and Piso were assassinated on January 15, 69 AD by the Praetorian Guard at the forum. Later that day, Otho was offered their heads at the Praetorian Camp. Instability had arrived in the Roman empire.