Born Servius Sulpicius Galba near Rome on 24 December 3 BC, the sixth Roman emperor was known as Livius Ocella Galba before acceding to the throne following the suicide of the notorious emperor Nero.
Although his reign lasted just seven months, there was enough drama packed into it to have lasted ten times that. Here is the astonishing story of the man who came to be known as Servius Galba Caesar Augustus, or Emperor Galba.
Servius Sulpicius Galba - The Early Years
He was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family. His father Gaius Sulpicius Galba was a Roman senator during the reign of Augustus, and his great-grandfather was one of the conspirators against Julius Caesar. He had a brother, also named Gaius, who committed suicide due to what was described as ‘financial embarrassment.’
He was believed to have been a bright and precocious young boy and, while little is known of Galba’s childhood, he did come to the attention of the first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar who singled him out from a group of boys and is sometimes quoted as stating ‘you too will taste a little of my glory, child.’ A prophetic – and possibly apocryphal – comment that perhaps one day Galba would become emperor.
From Praetor to Punisher
Around the year 30 AD, Livius Ocella Galba was made a praetor, a judicial appointment with authority over the production of public games, as well as acting as a magistrate in the law courts.
Galba was then made governor of Aquitania – modern-day southwest France – and after this he was elevated to the position of consul. During the Roman Republic, it was the highest elected political office, but after the Empire was established it was little more than a symbolic role with the Emperor ruling with absolute power.
Further roles followed including commanding the legions in Upper Germany and as proconsul of Africa.
From Semi-Retirement to Caesar
When the tyrant Caligula died in 41 AD, some sources quote that a number of high-ranking senators in Rome suggested Galba take over, but that he refused in favour of Claudius. On the death of Claudius, Servius Sulpicius Galba chose semi-retirement over entering into a fight with Nero for the throne. This may well have been a masterstroke. He was biding his time. Quietly and in the shadows.
The soon-to-be Emperor Galba came out of his self-imposed retirement in 60 AD and was made governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, today encompassing much of northern, eastern and central Spain.
Later, in the AD 121 writings of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus in De vita Caesarum – ‘About the Life of the Caesars’ – Livius Ocella Galba was described as unattractive, short and bald with hooked nose and riddled with arthritis and gout. It was these characteristics that possibly made him less threatening and seen as no real competition for the throne.
Yet Servius Sulpicius Galba was about to become Emperor Galba and he took acts of cruelty, avarice and greed to unimaginable levels.
The Rise and Fall of Emperor Galba
After a chaotic and sometimes bloody rule, and facing a number of rebellions, Emperor Nero committed suicide in 68AD. Knowledge of Nero’s downfall began to spread throughout the empire and Galba believed this was his opportunity to claim the throne.
As soon as Galba heard of Nero’s suicide, he raised an army, assumed the title of Caesar and marched into Rome. The senate confirmed him as Servius Galba Caesar Augustus.
A Deeply Unpopular Leader
To put it mildly, Galba was deeply unpopular. More brutally, he was almost universally hated. His rule, especially over the armies he commanded, was cruel, ruthless and uncompromising. He believed disrespect or disobedience to be a direct threat to his authority and offences were dealt with swiftly and harshly.
It’s fair to say that Nero left an empire in chaos and one of Emperor Galba’s first moves was to alienate the army, many of whom were loyal to Nero. Initially he replaced Nero’s officers with his own and then in a move that caused shockwaves throughout Rome, he executed a number of Nero’s soldiers and refused to pay the ones left alive, suggesting he was in place to rule his troops, not to buy them.
The men Galba led feared him and accounts of the time tell of draconian punishments and gruesome tales of torture and death, even for the smallest and most trivial misdemeanours.
It was said that he spent the majority of his days eating while dishing out particularly cruel and unusual punishment to his enemies, real and imagined.
If alienating the army that was supposed to defend him wasn’t enough, he next started on his own people. It’s believed that without trial, evidence or due process he sentenced hundreds if not thousands of people to death, he demanded tribute money from the cities he conquered and instead of going into the national coffers, he kept it for himself.
He denied the people the gladiatorial games which they loved, deeming them a waste of money and he made mortal enemies, including many of the faithful supporters who had him elected to the throne in the first place.
He also raised taxes in an attempt to rebalance Nero’s extravagance, an act which understandably, the people of Rome didn’t particularly warm to.
His conduct was made all the more gruesome when you consider that Servius Galba Caesar Augustus was over seventy when he took the throne. And, in the ultimate act of betrayal to his long-term ally Otho, Galba adopted a nobleman by the name of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus and named him as his heir.
This was the last straw. Why was Servius Galba Caesar Augustus assassinated? That much is obvious.
The Death and Ignominy of Emperor Galba
Otho – and presumably the rest of Rome – had had enough. The Praetorian Guard murdered Galba and Piso in the Roman Forum on 15 January 69 and they presented Otho with their severed heads on a silver platter.
Galba will be remembered as being a cruel and unjust tyrant. His reign of just over seven months spearheaded an era known as The Year of the Four Emperors, a turbulent time of the rich and complex history of ancient Rome.