The Life of Galba


Forum Staff
Oct 2009
Galba, who ruled the Roman Empire from June of 68 to January of 69 CE, was the first emperor without connections to the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. Though the Senate initially saw him as a welcome alternative to Nero, Galba would prove to be a short-lived emperor. His death would herald the beginning of the first Roman civil war in a century, the Year of Four Emperors.

Background and Rise to Power

Servius Sulpicius Galba was a contemporary of Jesus Christ. He was likely born in either 5 or 3 BCE; his birthdate may have been December 24th. His father was a Gaius Sulpicius Galba, coming from a prominent Republican family; his mother was Mummia Achaia. He is known to have married, his bride's name being Lepida, and he sired two sons by her. Tragically, both Galba's wife and their children all died prematurely, the sons apparently in early childhood.

It seems that Galba matched his prestigious ancestry with a degree of financial and administrative talent. As a youth he enjoyed the favor of Augustus' wife, Livia, who reportedly 'adopted' him and left him an enormous sum of money upon her death (which was, unfortunately, confiscated by Tiberius). All of the Julio-Claudian emperors favored Galba to some extent - he gained a reputation for being trustworthy, frugal, and embodying many of the traditional features of Roman manhood.

Suetonius claims that the young Galba first gained attention for staging a circus display that included elephants walking a tightrope. He received his first consulship in 33, and over the course of the 30s and 40s governed Aquitania, Germania superior, and Africa. In the last of these postings - usually dated to 45 CE - Galba directed successful military operations against Berber tribes.

Galba was the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis from 61 to 68 CE, under the last Julio-Claudian, Nero. Few, if any personalities in the Empire were held in higher regard; Galba held various priesthoods and had also been made an honorary triumphator. However, he was unhappy under Nero, who was the most cruel and extravagant emperor to date. Galba in turn had earned the suspicions of the Emperor due to his high birth and good reputation; Suetonius even claims that Nero sentenced Galba to death in absentia shortly before his own demise.

Over the winter of 67-68, Julius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, tried to seduce Galba into joining him in a revolt against Nero. Galba decided to bide his time. By the spring of 68, Vindex's revolt was open and common knowledge in Rome and the provinces, and the governor of Aquitania called on Galba to give him military support in crushing the rebel. It was time for Galba to make a decision - on April 2nd, at Carthago Nova he declared himself a 'representative' of the Senate and the People of Rome. With the support of his military deputy Titus Vinius, and his fellow Spanish governor Salvius Otho, Galba mobilized his province's legion and began recruiting another, apparently with intentions to back the rebellion of Vindex.

The events of 68 were only slightly less chaotic than those of the following year. Another provincial governor, Clodius Macer of Africa, revolted, but like Galba he modestly refused to declare himself emperor. Verginius Rufus, governor of Germania superior, defeated Vindex and was proclaimed emperor, but he also refrained from accepting the title. Meanwhile, Galba's agents in Rome managed to bribe Nymphidius Sabinus and his Praetorians into abandoning Nero. Despite the victory of a Neronian governor over Vindex, Nero's fate was sealed, and he was driven to suicide.

Reign and Death

Galba, with Vinius, Otho, and two legions at his back, marched across southern Gaul and into Italy in the summer of 68. Nymphidius Sabinus was already plotting against the new emperor, demanding to be recognized as prefect for life - he was murdered by the Praetorians before Galba even reached the city. Upon reaching the outskirts of Rome, Galba's forces had to engage in a rather bizarre skirmish, apparently with an assembly of armed men who wished to be recognized as a legion. They seem to have been a force of volunteers or conscripts that Nero had raised for the war against Vindex. They clamored for Galba's recognition as a legion, and when he ignored them, they attacked his men and were repulsed.

The new Emperor was austere, severe, and detested spending money. This may have made him a more stable ruler than Nero had been, but it did nothing to endear him to his followers and soldiers. Galba surrounded himself with an inner circle, that seems to have consisted of corrupt personalities nursing their own ambitions. They included his freedman Icelus, his close friend and now-Praetorian prefect Cornelius Laco, and Otho and Vinius, whom he had brought from Spain.

Galba issued a series of unpopular military reforms - he disbanded his predecessor's German Guard, and he refused to pay donatives to the Praetorians and the Rhine legions. Military discontent in Gaul and Germania reached a peak over the winter of 68-69, and in January the garrison of Germania inferior declared the legionary commander Aulus Vitellius emperor in opposition to Galba.

Historians debate whether Galba was unaware of Vitellius' revolt, or if he was sending a defiant message to the usurper when he adopted Calpurnius Piso Licinianus as his son and successor. Piso was a young patrician with no practical experience; what earned him Galba's favor is unclear. What is clear is that Otho was not impressed with this choice. The former governor of Lusitania had treated Galba as a father-figure and had loyally supported him thus far, and felt he was entitled to become the heir apparent.

Burning with resentment, Otho formed a conspiracy that also implicated Laco and elements of the Praetorians. On the morning of January 15th, 69 CE, Galba and his procession were attacked in the Forum Romanum by a gang of Praetorians. The Emperor was deserted by all of his attendants except for a legionary centurion; both men were killed and decapitated. The assassins did not forget Piso, who sought refuge in the Temple of Vesta. He was unceremoniously dragged out of the Temple and butchered.

Under different circumstances, Galba may have made an above-average emperor. He was an able administrator and seems to have been a courage, honorable man, but unfortunately he was prone to cronyism and allowed his underlings too much influence. His death ushered in the Year of Four Emperors, one of the most bloody and chaotic years in the history of the Roman Empire.


Donahue, John - Galba
Grant, Michael - The Roman Emperors


Ad Honorem
Mar 2010
Good stuff again.

1 question after Nero's death but before the arrival of Galba who ruled Rome???

Secondly the last stand of Sempronius Densus against the rampaging mob is one of the greatest last stands in history and is well worth a story. Hint, hint, nudge, nudge, wink, wink