Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Sulpicius Galba was a patrician by birth, and one of the richest men of his day. The wicked Nero was emperor of Rome when he became a man, and it was under his reign that Galba was proconsul both in Germany and Africa. Afterwards he was sent by the same emperor to govern Spain, and he filled his office so well that he became very popular. Indeed, he was so just and merciful that the cruel deeds committed by Nero horrified him. When Junius Vindex, general of the Roman forces in Gaul, rose against the tyrant and encouraged his soldiers to put him down, it was not difficult to gain Galba over to his side.

Galba mounted the tribunal to announce what he and Vindex hoped to do, and the crowd that had so long felt the tyranny of Nero gathered about the speaker, ready for any change that would offer relief. Galba was an old man, who inspired respect, and his actions while in Spain led to the belief that he could never be guilty of injustice; so the people saluted him as emperor. This was a surprise to him, for he was not prepared to take so decided and sudden a step as they supposed; he therefore refused the lofty title, saying that he offered himself to the service of his country merely as the lieutenant of the Roman senate and people.

Nero had paid little attention to the movements of Vindex; but when he heard that Galba had joined him he started up, having just seated himself for his morning meal, and, in his excitement, overturned table, dishes, and breakfast. Without a moment's loss of time he assembled the senate and had Galba proclaimed a public enemy, and offered all his property for sale. Galba retaliated by selling everything of Nero's in Spain.

Many of the provinces declared for Galba, but two held out because their governors thought that they had as much right to succeed Nero as Galba had. These were Clodius Macer, of Africa, and Virginius Rufus, of Germany. Clodius had been guilty of so many wicked deeds that he feared to say what he wanted; for if he announced his intention to replace Nero, his enemies might assassinate him. Virginius, who commanded some of the best Roman legions, had often been urged by them to take the title of emperor, but he said, "I will neither take it myself nor will I suffer it to be given to any person but him whom the senate shall name."

So Virginius and Vindex fought a great battle, in which the latter lost twenty thousand of his men and then put an end to his own life. After this victory, Virginius was again urged to declare himself emperor by people who said that if he refused they would go over to Nero again. This so alarmed Galba that he wrote to Virginius, begging him to join with him in restoring the liberty of the Romans and preserving their empire. He then retired to a town in Spain called Colonia.

One evening during the following summer, just after Galba had gone to bed, a messenger arrived from Rome, who had made the journey in an incredibly short time, to inform him that Nero was dead and that the senate and people of Rome had declared him emperor. Two days later, Titus Vinius, with many others, came to confirm the news.

Now Galba began to wonder what Virginius Rufus would do for there was no man living who had a greater name than he had particularly since his victory in Gaul over Vindex. But he had said that the man named by the senate should be emperor, and, in spite of the entreaties of his army, he remained firm.

So Galba started for Rome. He was met near Narbo, a city in Gaul, by some members of the senate, who begged him to make haste to appear among the people, who were anxiously awaiting him. The litter, the decorations, and the attendants of Nero were sent to him also, but he preferred to use his own, which was regarded as a proof that he was above petty vanity.

Vinius, who had been one of the first to announce to Galba that he was emperor, persuaded him to assume a more regal appearance and manner, assuring him that he would make himself more agreeable to the Romans by so doing. Galba allowed himself to be led in this as well as in more important matters by this man, who was so unprincipled and so wicked that he soon ruined himself and made the emperor hateful to his subjects, as we shall see.

Galba determined to reform the extravagance that Nero had encouraged, but in doing so he went to the other extreme, and acted so stingily as to make himself ridiculous. He did this with the advice of Vinius, who was all the time helping himself most liberally from the public treasury.

Having got the old man completely under his control, this creature taxed the people just as heavily as Nero had done, and they blamed Galba for it, though he was really deceived himself, and made a dupe of by his ministers. Of course he was by no means blameless; but he was an aged man, and allowed himself to be led because he suspected no evil. This was weak, but he showed himself strong in keeping the soldiers to their duty,—for they had had great license in the previous reign,—in punishing those persons who, by bearing false witness, had caused the death of the innocent, and in various other ways.

What incensed the people against Galba more than anything else was that when Nero's ministers were ordered to execution, Tigellinus, the most infamous of them all, was spared. The reason for the mercy shown to him was that he had bribed Vinius with costly presents; but there was no man in all Rome whom the people were more anxious to be rid of. They now felt that there was nothing Vinius would refuse for money, and from that moment every act of Galba's was misrepresented. If he was merciful they attributed it to bribery, and if he was severe they thought it was because Vinius had not received his price.

The soldiers hated Galba because he refused to pay them for extra service, as Nero had done, and dissatisfaction in every part of the government grew worse day by day.

At last Galba took alarm, and with the belief that he was despised not only on account of his age, but also because he had no child to succeed him, he resolved to adopt a young man of distinction and name him his successor. Marcus Otho, a very bad person, who had been a friend to Nero in his pleasure-parties, was the person Vinius recommended; but while Galba hesitated a mutiny broke out among the soldiers in Germany, who proclaimed Vitellius, their commander, emperor.

As soon as Galba heard of this he knew that there was no time to lose, for he had unwisely made enemies of his soldiers, and could therefore expect no protection from them. Some of his advisers had named Otho for his heir, others had exerted themselves in favor of Dolabella, so Galba chose neither, but, without consulting any one, sent for Piso Lucinianus, a young nobleman of merit, and took him to the camp, where, in a speech to the soldiers, he introduced him as his successor to the empire.

Otho, who was present, was in a perfect fury, for he knew that he had been proposed for the succession, and the soothsayers had told him that he should be emperor after Nero. His friends, particularly those who had no positions to lose, and perhaps much to gain, advised him to seek his revenge. So he took great pains to win the good will of the soldiers, and thus to lay a plot for the destruction of those who stood in his way to the throne.

Early in the morning of January the fifteenth, Galba offered a sacrifice in the palace. When the diviner took the entrails of the animal in his hands, he said that there were signs of trouble, and that the life of the emperor was in danger. Otho trembled lest he should be discovered, but immediately hastened to the spot where he was to meet the soldiers. Not more than twenty-three awaited him, but when he appeared they saluted him as emperor, and carried him through the Forum towards the camp, flourishing their swords as they went.

As soon as Galba heard what had happened, he wanted to go out to the people, but Vinius prevented him from doing so until one of the guardsmen rushed in with a bloody sword in his hand, and announced that he had just killed Otho. "Who gave you the order?" asked Galba. "My allegiance and my oath," answered the soldier, amidst the applause of the people. Galba then expressed his intention to sacrifice to Jupiter, and was carried in a chair to the Forum for that purpose. No sooner had he arrived than the death of Otho was contradicted. Great excitement prevailed among the crowd gathered there, some urging Galba to advance, others to retreat, while his chair was pushed backwards and forwards, and almost knocked over. Suddenly a party of soldiers came up, and exclaimed, "Down with this private man!" while numbers ran about to get places on the porticos and other eminences, so that they might enjoy whatever spectacle was about to be presented. One of Galba's statues was overthrown as a signal for hostilities, whereupon a shower of javelins was aimed at the royal chair, and the soldiers advanced, sword in hand, to complete the work the javelins had failed in. Only one man in all the crowd of spectators did honor to the Roman empire that day in offering to defend Galba. That was Sempronius Densus, who called out to the soldiers to spare their emperor. But he was soon brought to the ground, and the royal chair was overthrown.

"Strike, if it be for the good of Rome!" cried poor old Galba, presenting his throat to the soldiers. He received several wounds in various parts of his body, and when he was expiring, one of the soldiers cut off his head. It could not be held up in the usual way because of its baldness, so it was stuck on the end of a spear, and twirled about for everybody to look at. When it was presented to Otho, he cried out, "Fellow soldiers, this is nothing unless you bring me Piso's too."

Not long after, Piso, who had taken refuge in the temple of Vesta, was slain, and his head, as well as that of Titus Vinius, was brought to Otho.

Forthwith the senate was assembled, and the very men who, seven short months before, had sworn allegiance to Galba, now swore to be faithful to Otho, and gave him the titles of Cæsar and Augustus.

Galba's body was carried away and secretly buried in the night. There were many in Rome who pitied his sad fate, but none who regretted him as an emperor; for though he was inferior to few of his countrymen in wealth, birth, and reputation, he had allowed himself to be governed by bad men to such an extent as to render himself obnoxious to his subjects.