Cornelius Tacitus

The Histories

Book I:I-XXX - Galba’s reign and Otho’s uprising

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved

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Book I:I Introduction

My work begins when Servius Galba was once more consul, with Titus Vinius as his colleague (69AD). Many authors have written of the previous eight hundred and twenty-two years since the founding of the city, and with equal eloquence and freedom of the Roman Republic: but after the battle of Actium (31BC) when peace demanded all power be conferred on one man, writers of equal ability vanished. At the same time, truth was impaired in a host of ways, initially because the people treated politics as outside their concern, later out of a desire to flatter, or conversely to show their dislike of their rulers. So that, between the subservient and the hostile, the needs of posterity were ignored. For people quickly lose interest in writers who look to win favour, while they readily give a hearing to detraction and envy, flattery being charged with a shameful display of servility, while malice grants a false show of liberty.

As for myself, I received neither kindness nor injury from Galba, Otho, or Vitellius. I cannot deny that my career was initiated by Vespasian, advanced by Titus, and prolonged by Domitian: but those who are faithful to the truth must speak of none simply through affection or hatred. Though, should my life be long, I have reserved for my old age the deified Nerva’s reign and Trajan’s rule, fertile and less dangerous material, the rare blessing of a time when one may think what one wishes and say what one thinks.

Book I:II The state of the Empire

I enter on a period rich in events, made dreadful by violence, discordant with sedition, brutal even in peacetime. Four emperors died by the sword: there were three civil conflicts and even more foreign wars, both often taking place at the same time. There was success in the East, adversity in the West. Illyricum was turbulent, the Gallic provinces wavered, Britain was subdued then steadily relinquished, the Sarmatians and Suevi rose against us, the Dacians won fame by defeats suffered and inflicted, and even the Parthians were almost roused to warfare by the pretensions of one who claimed to be Nero.  Moreover Italy was troubled by fresh disasters, or by those re-experienced after a lapse of ages. Cities on the fertile shores of Campania were overwhelmed and buried, Rome was devastated by fire, her ancient shrines consumed, and the Capitol itself set alight by her citizens. The sacred rites were corrupted, with widespread adultery: the sea bore a host of exiles, the cliffs were foul with corpses.

There was greater savagery still in Rome: birth, wealth, the refusal or the performance of office, led to accusations of guilt, and virtue was the surest way to ruin. The rewards given to informers were as detestable as their crimes, some being granted priesthoods and consulships  as their prize, while others as imperial agents or powerful at court worked everywhere to inspire hatred and terror. Slaves were corrupted to betray their masters, freedmen their patrons; and those who lacked enemies were destroyed by their friends.

Book I:III A redeeming nobility

Nevertheless, the age was not so lacking in virtue that it failed to display examples of nobility. Mothers accompanied their children in fleeing, wives followed husbands into exile: relatives showed courage, sons-in-law steadfastness, slaves a loyalty that even withstood torture. The eminent met the final necessity with fortitude, emulating the glorious deaths of antiquity.

Besides the many disasters that beset humanity, there were strange events in the heavens and on earth, flashes of lightning in warning, and presages of things to come, joyful or sad, ambiguous or clear. Never was it more fully shown, by the dreadful things experienced by the Roman people and by incontestable signs, that it is not our well-being that the gods desire, but our punishment.

Book I:IV After the death of Nero

Before, however, I compose what is planned, I think it worth considering the state of the city, the morale of the armies, the condition of the provinces, all the strengths and weaknesses of the Empire, so as to understand not only the events, and their outcomes which were in the main due to chance, but also their motives and causes.

Though Nero’s death was initially welcomed with cries of joy, it aroused a spectrum of emotions not only in the city among the senators, the citizens and the urban military, but also among the legions and their leaders, an unknown reality of Empire having been revealed, that an Emperor (Galba) could be proclaimed elsewhere than at Rome.

The Senate rejoiced and immediately made full use of their freedom, as was fitting with a new but absent Emperor; the leading knights were almost as elated; decent people attached to the noble houses, the clients and freedmen of those condemned and exiled, were roused to hope; but the elements of the people addicted to the Circus and the theatres, along with the vilest of the slaves, as well as those who had squandered their wealth and depended on Nero’s favour, mourned and fed on every rumour.

Book I:V Sabinus’ mutiny against Galba

The City’s military had long been accustomed to swear allegiance to the Caesars, and had been brought to desert Nero more by skill and pressure than their own inclination. When they realised that the gifts promised in Galba’s name were denied them, and that the opportunities for distinguished merit and reward were not available in peacetime as they were in war, and that the legions had the favour of an Emperor they had made, then being inclined as they were to fresh revolution, they were roused anew by Nymphidius Sabinus’ criminal actions, he being a prefect who was eager to rule as Emperor himself.

True, Nymphidius was destroyed in the attempt, but though the leader of the mutiny was eliminated, many of the soldiers were conscious of guilty involvement, and there was no lack of open criticism of Galba’s decrepitude and avarice. His severity also, which had once been praised and celebrated among the soldiers, now angered them, vexed by the former discipline, since they had been led by Nero, for fourteen years, to love the Imperial vices no less than they had once revered the virtues.

Moreover there was a saying of Galba’s, noble as regards the state but dangerous to himself for everything else was at odds with such an idea, that he chose his soldiers, he did not buy them.

Book I:VI Galba’s entry into Rome

He being weak and old, Titus Vinius and Cornelius Laco, the former the worst of men, the latter the idlest, ruined him, burdened as Galba was by public hatred of Titus’ crimes, and contempt for Cornelius’ lethargy. Galba’s approach to Rome had been slow and blood-stained: the consul-elect, Cingonius Varro, and an ex-consul, Petronius Turpilianus, had been executed, Cingonius as one of Nymphidius’ accomplices, Petronius as one of Nero’s generals, both undefended and without a hearing, therefore believed innocent.

Galba’s entrance into the city, after the massacre of a host of unarmed soldiers, was ill-omened, and the very men who had been their murderers were unnerved. Rome was unusually full of military force. A Spanish legion had arrived, while that which Nero had drawn from the fleet was still in place; and also many detachments from Germany, Britain and Illyricum, chosen by Nero and sent to the Caspian Gates ready to campaign against the Albani, but recalled to quell Vindex’s uprising. Here was a wealth of material for revolution, and while the soldiers favoured none, they were ready to hand for anyone daring enough to employ them.

Book I:VII The Emperor’s unpopularity in the City

Now it so happened that the executions of Clodius Macer and Fonteius Capito were announced at this time. Macer, undoubtedly stirring trouble in Africa, was executed on Galba’s orders by an imperial agent, Trebonius Garutianus. Capito, who was likewise attempting something in Germany, was executed there, by Cornelius Aquinas and Fabius Valens, the commanders of the legions, before they had been so ordered. Some believed that Capito, though smirched and tainted by greed and lust, had no thought of revolution, but that the officers urging him to rebel, unable to persuade him, had deliberately invented a charge of treason against him, while Galba, inclined to indecision, or reluctant to pry into the matter, had approved the manner of their action, simply because it could not be undone. But both executions were badly received, and once hated, Galba’s actions, whether for good or evil, rendered him unpopular.

All was for sale, his freedmen held sway, his slaves grasped at sudden wealth, impatient under so aged a master. The same evils plagued the new court as the old, equally oppressive but without an equal excuse. Galba’s years sparked laughter and scorn amongst those used to Nero’s youth, judging emperors by their looks, as is the way of the vulgar.

Book I:VIII The situation in the provinces

Such were the sentiments in Rome, varied as is natural in so extensive a population. Regarding the provinces, Spain was under Cluvius Rufus, a man eloquent indeed in the arts of peace, but unskilled in warfare. The Gallic provinces remained under an obligation, not merely because of the memory of Vindex’s failure, but also on account of the recent grant of Roman citizenship, and a reduction in their future taxes, but the Gallic tribes bordering our forces in Germany were not so treated, some even losing their land, equally aggrieved in weighing their neighbours’ gains or their own injury. Our soldiers in Germany were also roused in anger, a dangerous situation in so large a force, stirred by pride in their recent uprising but also by fear in having favoured the loser. Slow to abandon Nero, their commander Verginius had not at once declared for Galba. It was believed he was not unwilling to rule in his own right, and that the soldiers offered him imperial power. Even those unable to claim the execution of Fonteius Capito as a direct grievance, were nevertheless indignant. Yet they lacked a leader since Verginius had been removed in a show of apparent friendship, and his being brought to trial and not returned to them they considered an accusation against themselves.

Book I:IX Germany, Britain and Illyricum

The soldiers in Upper Germany despised Hordeonius Flaccus, their general, he being crippled by age and lameness, and devoid of consistency or authority. Even when the men were placid he had no control over them; when they were roused, the weakness of his response only angered them the more. Those in Lower Germany went some time without a commander of consular rank, before Galba sent them Aulus Vitellius, son of the Vitellius who had been censor and three times consul: that seemed to satisfy them. There was no hostility amongst the army in Britain, and no other legions were more blameless, throughout the commotion of the civil wars, either because they were far beyond the sea, or had learned, in the thick of campaigning, to hate the immediate enemy more.

There was calm too in Illyricum. Though the legions Nero had recalled from that province made overtures to Verginius via their legates while based in Italy, the disparate forces, separated by a wide distance which is the best tactic for maintaining military discipline, were united neither in their strength nor failings.

Book I:X The Middle East

The East was as before. Syria with its four legions was held by Licinius Mucianus, a man of note whether in good fortune or adversity. When young and ambitious he cultivated friendships with the famous; later, his wealth consumed, his position insecure, suspecting also that Claudius was angered by him, he chose retirement to Asia, as close to exile then as he was later to the court. He was a mixture of extravagance and industry, kindness and arrogance, qualities tending to evil and to good: excessive in his pleasures when idle; showing great virtues whenever he took the field; his public life deserved praise, his private life damaged his reputation: yet he exercised influence over his subordinates, those close to him, and his colleagues in office, a man who found it easier to dispose of imperial power than hold it.

Meanwhile three legions were involved in the Jewish Wars, led by Flavius Vespasianus (Nero had appointed him as general). Vespasian opposed Galba neither in letter nor spirit: since he sent his son Titus to pay his respects and show allegiance, as we shall relate in the appropriate place. The soundings of fate, the signs and prophecies that destined Vespasian and his sons for power were only credited after his success.

Book I:XI Egypt and North Africa

Egypt had been ruled since the time of the deified Augustus by Roman knights with the troops needed to keep order, instead of by its former Pharaohs: it being considered expedient to maintain direct imperial control of the province, which is difficult of access, productive of grain, but given to discord and disturbance because of superstition and lawlessness, ignorance of civil order and a total lack of local magistrates. Tiberius Alexander was the governor, at this time, himself an Egyptian.

Africa and its legions, after the death of Clodius Macer, were content to serve any Emperor, after their experience of petty tyranny.

Both the Mauritanias, Raetia, Noricum, Thrace, and the other districts ruled by governors, were supportive or hostile according to their contact with the more powerful forces of neighbouring armies, while the un-militarised provinces, and especially Italy herself, were exposed to enslavement by any master, and fated to become the spoils of war.

Such was the state of the Empire when Servius Galba, consul for a second time, with Titus Vinius as his colleague, entered on that year destined to see his demise, and the near-extinction of the state.

Book I:XII The matter of the succession

In early January, a despatch arrived from Pompeius Propinquus, the procurator in Belgic Gaul, saying that the legions of Upper Germany now had scant respect for their oath of allegiance and were demanding a new Emperor, leaving the choice to the Senate and the people of Rome, so that their show of disloyalty might be viewed more lightly. This brought forward a decision on the question of adopting a successor, which Galba had already been debating with his counsellors. Indeed nothing had been more widely discussed in the previous few months, primarily because of the freedom allowed to, and passion for, such talk, but also because of Galba’s obvious age and feebleness.

Few showed judgement or love of the state; most, prompted by foolish hopes, determined on this man or that, in their ambitious murmurings, naming whoever’s friend or client they were; prompted also by hatred of Titus Vinius, who was daily more unpopular as his power grew. Moreover Galba’s affability itself enhanced the cupidity of his friends, their greed swelled by success, since, in dealing with an infirm and trusting man, they had less to fear and more to gain from their iniquity.

Book I:XIII Potential candidates

Imperial power was actually divided between the consul Titus Vinius, and the praetorian prefect Cornelius Laco, though Galba’s freedman Icelus exerted no less influence, he having been granted the gold ring of a knight, and given the equestrian appellation of Marcianus. The trio were disunited and worked for themselves on minor issues, but formed two factions as regards the succession.

Vinius favoured Marcus Otho, while Laco and Icelus agreed not so much on a specific candidate as that it should be anyone other than Otho. Galba was not unaware of the friendship between Otho and Vinius; and rumour, that lets nothing pass in silence, marked them out as father-in-law and son-in-law, since Otho was single and Vinius had an unmarried daughter. I believe Galba cared also for the public good, which if left in the hands of Otho would have been wrested from Nero in vain.

For Otho, having passed a thoughtless childhood and undisciplined youth, found favour with Nero by emulating his extravagance. The Emperor had therefore chosen to place the imperial mistress Poppaea Sabina, with his household, until Nero had rid himself of his wife Octavia. Later, suspicious of his relationship with Poppaea, the Emperor sent him off to Lusitania, ostensibly as governor. He administered the province effectively, but was the first to join Galba’s cause and, far from idle during the civil war, was the most brilliant of his supporters. Now, hopeful of being adopted by Galba, he began to seek that adoption more attentively with every passing day. The majority of the army favoured him, and former courtiers inclined to him because his character resembled Nero’s.

Book I:XIV Licinianus Piso

Now Galba, on receiving news of the sedition in Germany and as yet unsure of Vitellius, was anxious as to where military rebellion might break out, lacking confidence even in the City’s soldiery. He therefore gathered together an imperial committee, considering it his sole remedy, calling for Marius Celsus the consul-elect, and Ducenius Geminus, the city prefect, as well as Vinius and Laco.

He spoke briefly of his own advanced years, then ordered Licinianus Piso to be summoned, either because he was his preference, or as some believed at Laco’s insistence, he having formed a close friendship with Piso under the auspices of Rubellius Plautus. Though Laco cleverly supported him as if he were a stranger to him, while Piso’s fine reputation added weight to the advice.

Piso was the son of Marcus Crassus and Scribonia, therefore of noble ancestry on both sides, with the features and manner of the ancient school, and rightly considered severe, though a harsher judgement called him morose. This aspect of his character, which made him a doubtful choice for those of a nervous disposition, recommended his adoption to Galba.

Book I:XV Galba’s adoption speech

Then, they say, Galba clasped Piso’s hand, and spoke in this manner: ‘Even if I, simply as a private citizen, were adopting you according to curiate law and before the pontifices as customary, it would indeed be an honour for me to admit to my house a scion of Gnaeus Pompey and Marcus Crassus, and for you to add the distinction of the Sulpician and Lutatian houses to your own high rank: while as it is, being summoned to imperial office with the consent of men and gods, I am impelled, by your noble character and your love of country, to offer you the Empire for which our forefathers contended, which I won in war and that is now at peace.

In doing so I follow the example of deified Augustus who raised to the highest place next his own firstly his nephew Marcellus, then Agrippa his son-in-law, then his grandsons, and finally his step-son, Tiberius. Augustus sought a successor from within his own family, I from the entire state, not because I lack relatives or comrades-in-arms, but because I did not accept power for ambition’s sake, witness to which is the fact that I have not only passed over my own relatives, but yours also, in choosing you. For you have an older brother, of the same rank as yourself, worthy of the role if you were not the finer man.

You are already of an age that is free of youth’s passions; your life is such that you need not apologise for the past. So far you have experienced much adversity; yet good fortune tests the spirit more acutely, because misfortune is simply suffered, but success opens us to corruption. You may adhere, as loyally as before, to honour, liberty, and friendship, the greatest blessings of the human spirit, but others will encroach upon them, by their servility. Flattery, adulation, and self-interest, the worst poison to afflict the honest mind, will find their point of entry. Though you and I might speak to each other now with perfect openness, others would rather recognise our great rank than ourselves; since to advise a prince as to what he ought to do is a laborious task, whereas to flatter whatever sort of prince he is already costs little effort.’

Book I:XVI His justification for his course of action

‘If only the vast body of the Empire might stand firmly without a supreme head, it would be right for the republic to be reinstated by me: but necessity has long been such that I can make no better a gift to the Roman people, in my old age, than a fine successor, nor you of your youth more than a fine Emperor. Under Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius, our position was a kind of family inheritance: now we initiate election to the role there will be a kind of freedom, and with the Julian and Claudian houses no more whoever is best must be chosen for adoption. For to be conceived by and born of a noble house is mere chance, and of no greater significance than that, but the judgement shown in adoption is impartial and, if one would choose, consensus points the way.

 Keep Nero’s example before your eyes, swollen as he was with his pride in the long line of Caesars. It was not Vindex, with a harmless province, nor I with my single legion that drove him from power, but his own savagery and extravagance; and before that there was no precedent for condemning an Emperor to death.

We who are raised by war and men’s esteem will be subject to envy however worthy we might be. Nor should you fear a legion or two that are still in turmoil, given that the world has been shaken to its foundations. I did not come to the throne without risk, but on the news of your adoption I shall cease to seem an old man, the sole charge now made against me. The worst of men will always long for Nero, you and I must take care that the good do not wish for him too.

Further advice is not appropriate now, and all advice is needless if I have chosen well. The best and quickest way to distinguish between good and bad is to think what you would desire or oppose under some other Emperor. For there is not with us, as there is among nations ruled by kings, a certain house that rules while all the rest are slaves, rather you will command men who can neither tolerate utter servitude, nor utter freedom.’

Then Galba spoke further in this manner, as if he were still in the process of adopting his successor, while everyone else conversed as if it were already a fact.

Book I:XVII Piso’s reaction

They say Piso showed no sign of concern, nor of joy, either to those around him or later when all eyes were upon him. He answered with the respect due his Emperor and adopted father, speaking of himself with moderation. There was no sign of alteration in his clothing or appearance, he seeming more capable of wielding power than wishing to do so. They then discussed whether his adoption should be announced from the rostra, in the senate, or in the praetorian camp. It was decided to visit the camp, considering this a mark of honour for the military, whose support was not to be scorned if obtained through honest means rather than through bribery and inducement. Meanwhile an expectant crowd had gathered in front of the palace, impatient to learn of this great decision taken in private; while the ill-fated efforts of those who sought to quell the rumour merely propagated it.

Book I:XVIII Announcement at the Praetorian camp

On the tenth of January, a day of heavy rain, the heavens were more than usually troubled by the threat of thunder and lightning. In former times such events would have caused such an announcement to be deferred, but they did not deter Galba from visiting the praetorian camp, dismissing these things either as chance occurrences, or because he thought that we cannot escape what fate reveals by various portents.

Before a dense gathering of soldiers, he declared, with imperial brevity, that he had adopted Piso after the precedent set by the deified Augustus, and the military custom whereby one man levied chose the next. And to prevent greater credence being given to the unrest among the Fourth and Twenty-second legions by trying to hide it, he claimed they had been led astray by a few rebellious leaders, but their errors had not gone beyond outcries and missives and discipline would soon be restored.

He added neither flattery nor promises to his oration, while the tribunes, centurions and nearest soldiers responded in a welcoming manner; but among the rest a gloomy silence reigned, for they felt they had lost a gratuity by wartime service which was owed to them even in peacetime. They could certainly have been won over by the slightest generosity on the part of the stingy old man, but his old-fashioned rigour and boundless severity, qualities we no longer respect, harmed his position.

Book I:XIX Senate action regarding the revolt in Germany

Galba’s speech to the Senate was just as brief and straightforward as that to the soldiers: Piso spoke with grace, and the senators voiced approval: many of them willingly; those who had opposed the adoption effusively; and the non-aligned majority servilely, moved merely by private ambition and not the public good. During the following four days, those between his adoption and his murder, Piso said and did nothing of public note.

Reports of further defections in Germany arrived daily and, since the public were prone to accept every item of bad news, the senate voted to send envoys to the troops there. There was a discussion in private as to whether Piso should go, to give the initiative greater weight, since the other delegates would merely have authority from the senate, while Piso had the status of a Caesar. They decided to send Laco, prefect of the praetorian cohort, also; but he vetoed the idea. The final selection of candidates having been left to Galba, they were chosen with a shameful lack of consistency, being named, excused, or substituted according to their pleas to go or stay, dictated by their hopes or fears.

Book I:XX The state of the finances

The next priority was the state of the finances; and after full consideration justice demanded that wealth be sought where it had been lost. Nero had squandered twenty-two million gold pieces on gifts. It was agreed that the recipients should be summoned, and that they be allowed to keep only a tenth of what they had been given. But there was scarcely a tenth left, since they had wasted their own resources, as well as those of others, the most avaricious and profligate having neither lands nor capital, except what remained to fuel their vices.

Thirty Roman knights were elected to exact the levy, a new and burdensome task both by number and extent: there were auction-signs and crowds of speculators everywhere, and the city was rife with lawsuits. Nevertheless there was great rejoicing that those who had been enriched by Nero would now be as poor as those he had robbed.

At the same time four tribunes were dismissed: Antonius Taurus and Antonius Naso of the praetorian cohorts, Aemilius Pacensis of the city cohort, and Julius Fronto of the police force. This failed to deal with the remainder, but did instil fear, as though all were under suspicion, to be driven from office one by one craftily and by intimidation.

Book I:XXI Otho’s ambitions

Otho, in the meantime, who had nothing to gain from a state of calm, his plans all depending on chaos, was spurred on by many things, an extravagance that would have burdened an emperor, a lack of wealth that even a private citizen could scarcely tolerate, anger towards Galba, and envy of Piso. He conjured up fears that enhanced his greed: that he had wearied Nero, and could not again expect an honourable exile in Lusitania; that tyrants always hated and were suspicious of any man seen as a successor; and that this had already harmed him as regards the aged Galba, and would do him greater harm as regards young Piso, who was harsh by nature and embittered by long exile: an Otho could easily be killed.

Therefore he must be bold and act, while the Emperor’s authority was weak, and his successor’s not yet deployed. The period of transition was ripe for great deeds, and a man must not delay when inaction is more ruinous than sheer risk. Death comes to all alike, but brings oblivion or glory in the eyes of posterity; and though the same end waits for the guilty and the innocent, the man of greater powers should win merit in dying.

Book I:XXII Ptolemy’s prophecies

Otho’s mind was not unmanly as his body was. His intimate freedmen and slaves, who were indulged more than is usual in private houses, kept Nero’s court before his eager eyes, with its luxury, adulterous marriages, and other royal vices, taunting him that they were his, if he dared, but ordained for others if he were passive. The astrologers also, a treacherous crowd as regards the powerful, deceiving the ambitious but in this state of ours forever proscribed yet employed, urged him on, announcing that their observations of the stars presaged altered times and a glorious year for Otho.

Many of these astrologers, the worst of instruments for an imperial consort to use, had shared Poppaea’s secrets, and one of them, Ptolemy, a companion to Otho in Spain, had promised him that he would outlive Nero. Winning credit for this, he then used his own wits, and the murmurings of those who contrasted Galba’s years with Otho’s youth, to persuade him that he would be called on to seize power. Otho treated such prophecies as true predictions of the future, obtained through genuine knowledge, so ready is human nature to believe in the arcane. Nor was Ptolemy deficient in effort, already inciting Otho to rebellion, to which the path from such ambitions is most easy.

Book I:XXIII Otho foments discontent

Yet it is unlikely that thoughts of rebellion came new to Otho: in hopes of the succession or in preparation for some initiative, he had applied himself for some time to winning popularity with the soldiers. On the march, at review, or in camp he addressed the most seasoned troops by name, and reminding them they had been followers of Nero together, called them his messmates; he acknowledged others, asked after some, and helped them with cash or favours, frequently complaining of Galba in ambiguous terms, or otherwise stirring up the troops. Wearisome marches, lack of supplies and harsh discipline were badly received by men who were used to being transported aboard ship to the lakes of Campania and the cities of Achaia, but now struggled over the Alps or the Pyrenees under arms, or along the endless high roads.

Book I:XXIV His use of bribery

With the soldier’s minds already afire, Maevius Pudens, one of Tigellinus’ closest friends, added fuel to the flames. Attracting to him those who were of a rebellious disposition or in need of money, he eventually reached the point, whenever Galba dined with Otho, of handing a gold piece to each of the cohort of guards, as a kind of state gift, while Otho added secret presents to individuals. He was so bold in his corruptions, that when Cocceius Proculus, one of the Imperial bodyguard, quarrelled with his neighbour over land boundaries, Otho bought the whole of the neighbouring farm himself and gave it to Proculus, taking advantage of the laziness of the prefect, who was deceived equally by the visible and the hidden.

Book I:XXV The plot against Galba

Then Otho placed one of his freedmen, Onomastus, at the head of his planned conspiracy, by whom Barbius Proculus, the bodyguard’s officer of the watch, and Veturius his second-in-command, were corrupted, once Onomastus had discovered from various soundings that they were clever and daring, had showered them with bribes and promises, and handed them funds with which to win over more of their men. Hereby, a pair of common soldiers undertook to re-assign the power of the whole Roman people, and did so assign it.

Few were admitted to knowledge of the plot, they increasing the malaise among the rest by various methods; among senior officers by suggesting they were potential suspects because of favours shown them by Nymphidius; among the rank and file by stirring anger and disappointment at the constant deferment of their gratuities. There were some who were fired by the memory of Nero, and a longing for their previous licence: while all had a common fear of a change to their terms of service.

Book I:XXVI The eve of revolt

The infection also corrupted the minds of the legions and auxiliaries, once the questionable loyalty of the army in Germany became well-known. So ready were the disaffected to rebel, with even the loyal prepared to turn a blind eye, that they planned to seize Otho as he returned from a banquet on the fourteenth of January, being deterred only by the uncertainty of a night action, the scattered placements of the military throughout the city, and the difficulty of reaching consensus among drunken men.

They gave no thought to the good of the state, since when sober they were ready to pollute it with the blood of their emperor, but feared that in the darkness some man encountering troops from Germany or Pannonia might be taken for Otho and proclaimed emperor, Otho being unknown to them.

There were a host of indications that a rebellion might erupt, but these were contained by the conspirators. Rumours reached Galba’s ears, but the prefect, Laco, made light of them, being unaware of the soldiers’ sentiments and opposed to any suggestion, however excellent, that he had not proposed himself, and obstinately hostile to those who knew more than he did.

Book I:XXVII Otho proclaimed Emperor by the soldiers

On the fifteenth of January, when the Emperor was sacrificing before the Temple of Apollo, Umbricius, the seer, declared the omens unfavourable, claiming a plot was afoot and enemies were in Galba’s house. On hearing this Otho, who was standing beside Galba, interpreted it in contrast as favourable to himself and the success of his plans. His freedman Onomastus presently announced that his architect and contractors were waiting, signifying by this that the soldiers were already assembled and the conspiracy ripe.

When Otho was asked why he was leaving the temple, he excused himself by saying he was off to buy some properties, needing inspection as they were of uncertain value because of their age. Taking his freedman by the arm he walked through Tiberius’ palace to the Velabrum, and then to the gilded distance-stone close by the Temple of Saturn.

There, he was hailed as emperor by twenty-three of the bodyguard, who quickly installed him in a sedan chair and hurried him away, swords drawn, as he was fearful that there were so few to greet him. A similar number of soldiers joined them as they went, some knowingly, more in amazement, many with shouts and weapons, others in silence ready to follow events.

Book I:XXVIII The tribunes and centurions acquiesce

The tribune Julius Martialis was officer of the day in camp. He, given the startling enormity of the action and questioning the depth of the soldiers’ disloyalty, fearing death if he opposed it, led the majority to assume his complicity. The rest of the tribunes and the centurions also preferred pragmatism to an uncertain show of honesty. And such was their state of mind that the worst of crimes dared by a few was desired by more and accepted by all.

Book I:XXIX Galba learns of the rebellion

Galba meanwhile unaware of all this, intent on performing the sacred rites, was calling on the gods of an empire already another’s when news reached him that a senator, identity unknown, had been carried to the camp, and shortly afterwards that it was Otho. At this point, there arrived from the city those who had encountered the procession, who exaggerated events from fear, and others, not failing even then to flatter, diminishing their importance.

So, after some discussion, the decision was made that someone other than Galba, whose authority as Emperor was to be kept intact in case more serious measures were needed, should test the mood among the troops guarding the palace. Piso, it was, who standing on the palace steps called the soldiers together and spoke in this manner: ‘It is five days, comrades, since I was adopted Caesar, ignorant of the future and whether that title was to be desired or shunned. The fate of our house and of the state is in your hands.

I say this, not because I fear disaster on my own account. I have known adversity, just as I know that success brings no less threat: I grieve for my adopted father’s fate, the Senate and the very Empire itself, if we must be killed today or, in an act that for the good means equal sadness, if we must kill.

After the last rebellion we found solace in the city being unstained by blood, the government transferred without dissent: and my adoption seemed to guarantee that there would be no conflict on Galba’s death.’

Book I:XXX Piso speaks to the palace guards

‘I claim no great character or nobility myself; nor need I speak of my virtues when the comparison is merely with an Otho. His faults, the only thing he glories in, were undermining empire even as he feigned to be the Emperor’s friend. Is it his manner, his appearance, or his unmanly dress that seemingly makes him worthy of power? They deceive themselves who are imposed upon by extravagance posing as liberality: he knows how to squander, not how to give. Debauchery and revelry and swarms of women fill his thoughts: these he considers the right of princes; the pleasure and abandon will be his, the shame and disgrace will stain every man. Power gained by doing wrong no man has ever exercised virtuously.

The consent of all made Galba Caesar, and Galba named me Caesar with your consent. If the state, the Senate, the people are empty names to them, then only you can ensure that those worst of men should not appoint an emperor. For legions to rebel against their leaders has been known: but your loyalty and reputation remain uninjured to the present day. And it was Nero who abandoned you, not you Nero.

Shall less than thirty traitors and deserters, whom no one would even trust to appoint a centurion or a tribune, assign the Imperial power? Will you accept such a precedent, and by inaction make their crime yours? Such licence would spread to the provinces, and the result of their wickedness be ours, the ensuing conflict yours. Those guiltless of desiring their emperor’s death shall be guaranteed no less a reward than the assassins have been promised; for you’ll receive a greater gift for you loyalty, from us, than you might from others by committing treason.’

End of the Histories Book I:I-XXX