Europe is going through a difficult time now, but fortunately people with some knowledge of history can put things into perspective. Alas, there are too few. Take for instance the year 69. After the death of Nero in 68 the Roman state was in turmoil. No one knew what to do and various factions were fighting each other. The result was that in a short period four emperors ruled the empire in succession. Indeed the year 69 as known as `Year of the Four Emperors’ Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian ruled during that year, with the latter as the most capable ruling till 79. The others proved to be unpopular and incapable and Galba – who declared himself emperor in June 68 – was murdered on January 15 in 69, by soldiers on instigation of Otho. His unpopularity had risen to such an extent that no one was willing to help him, except for a guard consisting of soldiers normally stationed in Germania Inferior (Germaniciani), but they came too late.
Suetonius is drawing his description of Galba’s death from various sources and gives some vivid and gory details, knowing that his ancient audience enjoyed reading such things. Well, let’s be honest: we still do.
Suetonius, Vita Galbae, 20.
Sunt qui tradant, ad primum tumultum proclamasse eum: Quid agitis, commilitones? ego vester sum, et vos mei! donativum etiam pollicitum. Plures autem prodiderunt, optulisse ultro iugulum et ut hoc agerent ac ferirent, quando ita videretur, hortatum. Illud mirum admodum fuerit, neque praesentium quemquam opem imperatori ferre conatum et omnes qui arcesserentur sprevisse nuntium, excepta Germanicianorum vexillatione. Ii ob recens meritum, quod se aegros et invalidos magnopere fovisset, in auxilium advolaverunt, sed serius, itinere devio per ignorantiam locorum retardati. Iugulatus est ad lacum Curti ac relictus ita uti erat, donec gregarius miles a frumentatione rediens abiecto onere caput ei amputavit; et quoniam capillo arripere non poterat, in gremium abdidit, mox inserto per os pollice ad Othonem detulit. Ille lixis calonibusque donavit, qui hasta suffixum non sine ludibrio circum castra portarunt adclamantes identidem: "Galba Cupido, fruaris aetate tua," maxime irritati ad talem iocorum petulantiam, quod ante paucos dies exierat in vulgus, laudanti cuidam formam suam ut adhuc floridam et vegetam respondisse eum:
Ἔτι μοι μένος ἔμπεδόν ἐστιν.
Ab is Patrobii Neroniani libertus centum aureis redemptum eo loco, ubi iussu Galbae animadversum in patronum suum fuerat, abiecit. Sero tandem dispensator Argivus et hoc et ceterum truncum in privatis eius hortis Aurelia via sepulturae dedit.
sunt qui tradant: there are those who say (sunt qui takes the verb in the subjunctive)
eum (= Galba)
commillitio –onis: fellow soldier
donativum: money, especially given to soldiers
tradant (eum) pollicitum (esse): (that he) promised (polliceor)
prodo (-ere): to tell (prodiderunt (eum)
obfero (ferre) obtuli oblatum: to offer (optulisse = obtulisse)
ut hoc agerent ac ferirent, quando ita videretur, hortatum = hortatum (i.e.to the soldiers) (esse) ut hoc etc.
hoc agerent: hoc age was what a priest said to the butcher about to strike (ferio) a sacrificial animal
quando ita videretur: since this seemed so (the soldiers had resolved)
admodum: very, quite
opem fero: to bring help
conor conatus: to try
arcesso (-ere): to send for
sperno (-ere) sprevi spretum: to despise, reject
nuntium: namely that Galba was in danger
vexillatio, -onis (f.): a body of soldiers under one flag (vexillium)
aegros et invalidos, namely the Germanic soldiers
advolo: to hurry to
magnopere: very much
serius: too late
itinere devio retardati: delayed by the wrong way
iugulo (-are): to strangle
ita uti erat: like he was (uti = ut)
lacum Curti: the pond of Curtius (a pond in Rome)
frumatio –onis (f.): providing of corn (this was given freely for keeping the people satisfied. The economic costs were huge, as it had to be imported.)
onus oneris (n.): load, burden
quoniam capillo arripere non poterat: he could not take the head by the hair as Galba was bald
abdo (-ere): to hide
inserto per os police: having put his thumb in the mouth (of Galba’s head)
lixa: someone doing the daily work at a camp, a sutler, cook, servant
calo –onis (m.): personal servant of a soldier
(caput) hasta suffixum
Galba Cupido, fruaris aetate tua: Love god Galba, enjoy your age! The reason is explained below. It has clearly sexual overtones, as hasta does not only mean `spear’, but also `penis’.
petulantia: sauciness, freakishness, petulance
ante paucos dies: a few days earlier
in vulgus: in public
respondisse eum: (it was said) that he had answered
vegetus: lively, active
Ἔτι μοι μένος ἔμπεδόν ἐστιν (Iliad 5, 254): my strength is still unbroken
Ab is (= iis)..centum aureis redemptum eo loco, ubi... abiecit: a freedman threw (the head) bought from them for a hundred gold coins to that place, where…
animadverto (-ere) in aliquem: to punish with death (animadversum in patronum suum is an impersonal construction with animadversum as a neuter singular. It is impossible to keep this construction in English, hence `where his patron had been punished with death’)
sero: at a late hour
dispensator –oris (m.): steward, treasurer
Translation by J. C. Rolfe (1914)
Some say that at the beginning of the disturbance he cried out, "What mean you, fellow soldiers? I am yours and you are mine," and that he even promised them largess. But the more general account is, that he offered them his neck without resistance, urging them to do their duty and strike, since it was their will. It might seem very surprising that none of those present tried to lend aid to their emperor, and that all who were sent for treated the summons with contempt except a company of German troops. These, because of his recent kindness in showing them great indulgence when they were weakened by illness, flew to his help, but through their unfamiliarity with the city took a roundabout way and arrived too late.
2 He was killed beside the Lake of Curtius and was left lying just as he was, until a common soldier, returning from a distribution of grain, threw down his load and cut off the head. Then, since there was no hair by which to grasp it, he put it under his robe, but later thrust his thumb into the mouth and so carried it to Otho. He handed it over to his servants and camp-followers, who set it on a lance and paraded it about the camp with jeers, crying out from time to time, "Galba, thou Cupid, exult in thy vigour!" The special reason for this saucy jest was, that the report had gone abroad a few days before, that when someone had congratulated him on still looking young and vigorous, he replied:
"As yet my strength is unimpaired."
From these it was bought by a freedman of Patrobius Neronianus for a hundred pieces of gold and thrown aside in the place where his patron had been executed by Galba's order. At last, however, his steward Argivus consigned it to the tomb with the rest of the body in Galba's private gardens on the Aurelian Road.
Galba (3 BC 69 AD) Galba was bald, but used a wig.