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Overthrowing Nero

In 68, Helios, the freedman who had been left in charge of Rome, journeyed to Greece to persuade Nero to return home (Dio, 63. 19). The exact concerns are not specified, but it must have been a response to an increasingly dangerous situation in Gaul.

The rebellion against Nero started with C. Julius Vindex, a Gallic nobleman and probably a governor of Gallia Lugdunensis. Dio gives a speech of Vindex, almost certainly a fabrication, which works through a litany of complaints about Nero’s behaviour. The complaint is general. There is nothing to suggest a spark or a particular local concern.

Vindex’s began to raise troops, mostly from Gaul. It is unclear why the Gallic nobles and soldiers rallied to his cause. There is nothing that suggests a local concern and there is nothing in what we know of Vindex’s stated political agenda that would suggest a Gallic manifesto. Even if we don’t trust Dio’s speech, Vindex minted coins, and these made use of Roman and Republican images.

vindex den

Silver Coin of Vindex issued in the name of the Senate and People of Rome (Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Vindex was not of a status to threaten Nero and Nero seems to have been relaxed and perhaps even bemused by the revolt. Vindex was writing round for support, which may have alerted Helios, but all the governors knew that to move by themselves was suicidal and some simply forwarded the letters to Rome. Vindex had sought the support of the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba (Plutarch, Life of Galba 4). Galba may not have been enthusiastic. But Vindex appears to have proclaimed Galba his candidate for emperor. Although Galba still hesitated and had only one legion at his disposal, he was a  serious candidate for the imperial position. Titus Vinius, one of his close associates, pointed out that such hesitation was treason anyhow. Once he was named, it was very unlikely that Nero would overlook him. He had little choice.

Galba declared his hand and was quickly supported by the governors of the other Spanish provinces, including Otho, the former husband of Poppaea; thus Nero’s misdeeds returned to haunt him.

An alliance of Galba and Otho gave Vindex some serious political weight, if not the military resources to threaten Nero. But the governors of the provinces had a choice, though perhaps not an attractive one.

They could continue in their loyalty to the increasingly and justifiably paranoid Nero or opt for Galba or potentially for someone else. Galba had a strict reputation but there was no obvious reason to prefer him as a candidate above anyone else.

Nero’s position now disintegrated. At some point, however, the governor of Africa, Claudius Macer, made an independent bid for the throne (Plutarch, Life of Galba 6). he also issued coins with legionary standards on them. We know even less about Macer. His candidature shows that Galba was not universally seen as a viable alternative to Nero, but also that Nero was fatally weakened.

After the removal of the previous governors, Nero  had appointed Verginius Rufus and Fonteius Capito. He might expect them to be loyal. A supposed loyalist, Petronius Turpillianus, was placed in charge of forces in Italy. With the Praetorians and the Rhine legions, Nero was more than a match for any challenge.

Much depended on the Rhine legions. Vindex entered into negotiations with Verginius Rufus, whose troops were apparently urging him to make a bid for the throne . At the conclusion of these negotiations, Verginius’ troops attacked and massacred Vindex’s forces. Vindex killed himself. They once more offered Verginius the imperial position, and once more he refused (Dio, 63. 24–5). The soldiers said that they would return to loyalty to Nero.

What were the calculations of Rufus and the German legions?

  • Bidding to become emperor was dangerous. It likely involved civil war. You needed backing from the military and senatorial support. Did Rufus have that support?
  • Very public refusal might assure emperors of his lack of ambition.
  • Would such lack of ambition be enough to dissuade Nero from sending his soldiers?
  • The benefits of promoting the emperor were great. The soldiers would expect financial reward and perhaps even replacing the praetorians in the Rome.
  • Being on the losing side was not an attractive prospect for the soldiers. Once they had defeated Vindex, then they could not join with Galba. But joining with Vindex also made them secondary to Vindex and his allies.

Interestingly, in 69, when Vitellius’ troops pressed Rome, Otho’s forces supposedly looked to Rufus to lead them and offered him the imperial position (Tacitus, Histories 2. 51). Rufus again refused. He lived into old age.

Galba was ruined. He retired, awaiting the messenger from Rome (Plutarch, Life of Galba 6). A few days later, Icelus, Galba’s freedman, arrived in Spain. Nero had fled, the praetorians and the senate had declared for Galba.

In Rome, Nero’s position had collapsed. Grain prices rose. Nero was short of money and attempted to extract it from Rome’s population. But this was not easy. People simply refused to pay. He tried to raise troops. Recruits failed to appear. When it grew dark, people staged arguments and called out for a ‘protector’ (Vindex). Statues of Nero were vandalised (Suetonius, Nero 4345). His powerlessness was obvious for all to see.

To an extent political power is an illusion, a confidence trick. People obey because everyone does. But if everyone stops obeying, a regime dissolves. This is what happened to Nero.

Turpillianus had been sent with some praetorians against Vindex. He declared for Galba.  The Roman political classes made their calculations. They decided that Nero would lose. The imperial palace emptied of courtiers. Nymphidius Sabinus, prefect of the praetorians, turned against him and the guard left the palace.  Nero fled the city, accompanied by only his closest associates.

The disintegration of his position was complete.  Cavalry sent after Nero found him in a suburb outside Rome. Nero killed himself (Suetonius, Nero 48-50; Dio, 63. 28-29).


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