Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.06.06

Charles Murison, Galba, Otho and Vitellius: careers and controversies. Spudasmata 52. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1993. ISBN 3-487-09756-7 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Ehrhardt, University of Otago.

It is a pleasure to read intelligent discussion of real problems by a sensible and well informed author. M(urison) has not set out to write the definitive book about the events and personalities of 68 and 69, but to discuss particular problems, especially those of which he became aware while working on his commentary on Suetonius' biographies of Galba, Otho and Vitellius (now published, Bristol Classical Press 1992) and which could not be dealt with in the restricted space which the commentary allowed. Many scholars will be glad to have his discussions available in a separate volume, rather than having to hunt for them in a commentary.

M. treats fully the events, particularly in Gaul, which led to Nero's overthrow and suicide; Galba's movements, aims, supporters, policy, and his choice of heir; the Nero-Otho-Poppaea triangle; the Vitellian invasion of Italy and Otho's counter-measures; and the praetorian riot in Rome before Otho left. Less fully he discusses Otho's death, and Vitellius' movements and his family. He is very skimpy, unfortunately, on Clodius Macer, and does not deal with the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in Syria, Palestine and Egypt, nor with the events of the last years of Nero. M. expresses little interest in Vitellius (preface, p. xii); it would have been interesting to have his views on Vitellius' backers. Rather strangely, there is no description and discussion of the sources (cf. now, for one aspect, L. Braun, 'Galba und Otho bei Plutarch und Sueton', Hermes CXX 90-102).

Turning to technical matters, it is refreshing to read a book with so few misprints; those which exist are trivial, perhaps the most engaging being pontifactum for pontificatum (147 n. 8). Less pleasing is the absence of a bibliography, for which the (incomplete) list of abbreviations in the preliminaries and the list of articles on the 'Bellum Neronis' (pp. 2-3)1 are inadequate substitutes (and some cross-references -- e.g. to Levick, p. 18 n. 64; to Townsend on pp. 50-51, notes 16, 17, 20 -- are not helpful); and it is surprising that, after M. complains in the preface that he could not add an index to his commentary, he then does not supply a subject-index to his book. The untranslated Greek and Latin in the text, and, with German, in the notes, unfortunately will deter some students (and some of their teachers?) who could profit from this book.

There now follow points of detail where comments or corrections are called for, or other interpretations are possible:

p. 17. M. is right to emphasise (against Syme) that Verginius Rufus and the German armies did rebel against Nero: the armies tried to hail Verginius as Caesar, and Verginius, far from emulating Germanicus and proclaiming he preferred death to disloyalty (Tac., Annals I 35), made them swear a new oath of loyalty, to Senate and People.

n. 59. Pliny, Epistulae IX 19, 4-5, gives the brief dialogue between Cluvius Rufus and Verginius, and M., like all other commentators, remarks on Cluvius' statement and admits he cannot now see its significance; it might be more profitable to concentrate (as Pliny did) on Verginius' reply.

p. 20 n. 72. M. deserves credit for seeing the fundamental importance of P.-H. Martin's examination of the numismatic evidence for 68 (Die anonymen Munzen des Jahres 68 n. Chr., Mainz 1974), but does not fully exploit Martin's work and its implications, and later (p. 48, a phantom mint at Carthage) is, unfortunately, drawn back to British orthodoxy, as stated by C.H.V. Sutherland in the second edition of Roman imperial coinage (1984). M's discussion of Galba's own coinage (p. 55) is good but slight. He does not seem to know Sutherland's last discussion of Galba's coinage (NAC XIII 1984, 171-82), which is unsatisfactory in various ways, but contains important new material, particularly for early Galba issues. He cannot be blamed for ignoring E.P. Nicolas' monstrous work, De Neron à Vespasien (Paris 1979), though it contains, in vol. II, the fullest list and illustration of the 'anonymous' coins of 68.

p. 25. Again, credit for noting the strange issues of Corinth where the authorities (like Verginius Rufus) abandoned Nero, and instead of proclaiming a rival emperor asserted loyalty to Senate and People. These coins are more fully discussed by M. Amandry, Le monnayage des duovirs corinthiens (Paris 1988), 75-76.

p. 31. The assertion that, in 68, Galba was 'probably the most distinguished Roman alive ... in military achievement and service to the state' is debatable: at least Suetonius Paulinus, the conqueror of Mauretania and saviour of Britain, should be mentioned. The rest of the characterisation of Galba, in this and the following pages, is excellent.

pp. 36-37. Good remarks on Galba's situation when he received the news of Gaius' murder in 41, and the likely influence of this experience on his actions in 68.

pp. 43-44. M. rightly states that 'virtually the only way in which Galba can speak to us directly today is through his coinage', but the message which that gives is, I think, significantly different from the generally accepted one; this will be sketched in the last part of this review. M. is right too (n. 47) to reject Syme's conviction that no one who mattered ever looked at a coin.

p. 47. Rubellius Plautus' relationship to Augustus was only as close as Nero's (Tac. Ann. XIII 19) by legal construction, namely Augustus' adoption of Tiberius; genetically Plautus, Tiberius' great-grandson, was unrelated to Augustus.

n. 6. P.M. Rogers' useful dissertation, The stigma of politics: imperial conspirators and their descendants in the early Roman empire (Washington 1979) could have been cited here.

p. 48 and n. 11. M. sensibly ignores A. Gara, 'La monetazione di Clodius Macer', RIN LXXII 1970, 63-77.

p. 97, and pp. 134-135. Surely messages from Rome to commanders and legions in the Balkans would not be sent either overland via Aquileia, or via Brundisium and Dyrrhachium, but from Rome to a port on the east coast, such as Ancona, and across the Adriatic to Salona. This would significantly reduce the time needed for news to arrive from Rome, especially since the crossing could, if necessary, be made under oars and therefore not be dependent on wind direction. In general, M. perhaps tends to underestimate the speed with which messages moved: Rome to Clunia in seven days; Mainz, via Trier, to Rome in at most eight days in midwinter; Mainz to Cologne in one winter's day, are all attested for the period, and only the first is considered exceptional (Plut., Galba 7). There were no doubt short cuts available to messengers which were not passable for armies, and presumably water transport was used wherever it could save time. This speeding up of the time-table has consequences particularly for M.'s discussion of the Danubian legions' whereabouts at the time of the battle of Bedriacum (pp. 134-5); they may have been five or six days' march closer than M. supposes.

Now to the basic disagreement: the 'anonymous' coinage of 68, in its types and in the models it copies, is strongly republican, and Martin (Die anonymen Munzen) has shown that the issues (as far as they are genuine) all derive from Galba's mint in Spain in the period between his open rebellion and the arrival of the news of Nero's death. They plainly are the product of a group whose official propaganda proclaimed not a new emperor, but no emperor. Unfortunately, seventy years ago Mattingly muddied the waters by ascribing, without discussion, a group of 'pseudo-Augustan' coins to the 'anonymous' coinage of 68 (BMCRE I, London 1923, cxcvii-cxxviii), and ever since, these have been used as evidence that the propaganda of the rising was not really 'republican' at all. In fact, these 'pseudo-Augustan' coins are a heterogeneous lot of ancient forgeries, originating in the period from Augustus to at least the reign of Domitian,2 though many, certainly, were created in the disturbed conditions of 68 and 69, when an unprecedented flood of new types poured into the western provinces, from Galba, Clodius Macer, Otho and Vitellius (new monetary types tend to encourage forgers, as the recent introduction of new banknotes in Germany and in New Zealand has again demonstrated). If the 'pseudo-Augustan' coins are rejected, then all the evidence, literary, numismatic and epigraphic (McCrum & Woodhead no. 31), agrees that Vindex' rising was at least ostensibly intended not merely to replace Nero with a better emperor, but to end the monarchy, and that Galba, Verginius Rufus, and Clodius Macer all adhered to this cause, or propaganda. This of course is what Mommsen argued for 115 years ago (Hermes XIII 1878, 90-105 = Ges. Schr. I 333-47; see S. Mazzarino, 'La rivolta di Vindice e il problemo del 'separatismo' gallico', Atti del Colloquio sul tema 'La Gallia Romana', Rome 1971, 37-51, for the later history of the discussion), and his arguments, though often rejected, have never been refuted; indeed, the philological arguments cannot be refuted without re-designing the Latin language.

If this is accepted, many of the events of 68 make sense: in 41, the attempt to end the monarchy had failed, because the praetorian guard frustrated it, since it would have been redundant without an emperor. In immediate riposte, Camillus Scribonianus had persuaded his legions to rebel in the name of Senate and People in 42, to remove the guard's creature, but they then rapidly changed their minds. The danger of a repeat of 41 had been seen as so real in 65 that the members of Piso's conspiracy took care to keep the consul, Vestinus Atticus, in ignorance, in case he should 'hijack' their efforts. Finally, on the Ides of March 68 (see M., p. 5 n. 16, though he is unsympathetic to Hainsworth's excellent conjecture), Julius Vindex called on the Gauls, and on all Roman governors, to unite to overthrow Nero and the monarchy.

We know how Otho reacted to a rising in Gaul in 69; the conspirators of 68 would have expected some similar reaction from Nero; they certainly would never have imagined that his defence would ignominiously collapse without his even leaving the capital to face them. But if the emperor went to war, the praetorian guard went with him; then, when the decision came, either as a result of a battle or through negotiations, the guard, as well as the emperor, would be removed if the rebels succeeded, and the Senate in Rome, under no pressure from military force, could once again take up the reins of government. It was Nymphidius Sabinus, as Plutarch emphasises (Galba 2), who check-mated this, and ensured his own and his men's continued employment, by deserting Nero before any campaign began, and then by taking the rebel propaganda literally: under pressure from the praetorians, the Senate did decide how to rule the empire -- by appointing Galba as emperor. But its choice was no freer than it had been in 41. Verginius Rufus accepted the decision, and survived; Clodius Macer did not, and was murdered. But neither they nor Galba himself had intended or foreseen this outcome.

This, of course, is not M.'s view. He has remained in the main stream, and produced a book which will long be used with profit.


  • [1] To the articles by L. Bessone, add 'L'Africa nella guerra civile del 68/69 c.C.'. NAC VIII 1979, 181-204, esp. 184-196.
  • [2] I owe this insight, and much else, to Frank Berger of Hanover; I hope to argue the point more fully elsewhere.