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A Brief History of the Second Imperial Civil War

By Jared Epstein

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, also known as Nero, ruled between AD 54 and 68. He was born of a noble family and upon the insistence of Agrippina, the wife of Claudius and his mother (though Nero was not fathered by Claudius), Claudius adopted him as his own around 49. By this action, Nero became the heir to the empire, and in 54 when Claudius died, Nero took the throne with the aid of the Praetorian Prefect and his mother.

At first Nero's reign was peaceful and productive. His rule marked the finest period of coinage in the Roman world as well as a reform of the treasury and increased guard against forgery. As administrative angst's got the better of him, he turned more toward his own pleasures in life and his reign took a turn for the worse.

In 62, just after he had his mother murdered, he divorced, exiled and killed Octavia, his wife, and married Poppaea Sabina. Two years later a great fire spread through Rome, destroying hundreds of houses and killing many people. Nero blamed the small Christian community an had many of them arrested and burnt alive. He spent a vast sum of money, not to repair or rebuild houses lost in the fire, but to build a grand palace for himself on some of the land the fire had cleared.

Orichalcum sestertius of Nero
Lugdunum mint, 65 A.D.
Obverse: NERO CLAVD CAESAR AVG GER P M TR P IMP P P, laureate head right
Reverse: ROMA in ex, S - C in fields, Roma seated left on cuirass, holding Victory, left arm resting on parazonium, foot on Corinthian helmet, shields behind

Nero's Sestertii are considered by many numismatists and collectors to be the finest examples of numismatic art produced by the Roman Empire.

The year 65 marked a new turn in Roman history, a senatorial plot to kill Nero formed and was put to a stop. Nero had nineteen senators killed and thirteen banished as a result. Several plots followed and all were stopped with the same results. It did not take long until the entire senate and the praetorian guard, his bodyguards, felt Nero should no longer be emperor and moved to have him arrested and flogged to death. Unwilling to be taken, he committed suicide in 68.


Orichalcum sestertius of Galba
Rome mint, c. October 68 A.D.
Obverse: SER GALBA IMP CAESAR AVG TRP, laureate and draped bust right
Reverse: LIBERTAS PVBLICA S C, Liberty standing head half-left holding a pilleus liberatis and a staff

The pileus liberatis was a soft felt cap worn by liberated slaves of Troy and Asia Minor. In late Republican Rome, the pileus was symbolically given to slaves upon manumission, granting them not only their personal liberty, but also freedom as citizens with the right to vote (if male). Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., Brutus and his co-conspirators used the pileus to signify the end of Caesar's dictatorship and a return to a Republican system of government. The pileus was adopted as a popular symbol of freedom during the French Revolution and was also depicted on some early U.S. coins.

Servius Sulpicius Galba was in Gaul when the movement to have Nero killed began. He was confronted by one of his friends and fellow generals, Gaius Julius Vindex, for support against Nero and to have the throne upon Nero's death. Wary of his decision, he chose to help Vindex against an offer from another party, one of many, who wanted to take the throne. Marcus Salvius Otho, another general, decided to support and help their cause. Vindex was defeated shortly after and committed suicide and Galba fled to Spain. Two weeks after arriving in Spain he learnt that the revolt had been successful, Nero was dead, and the senate had proclaimed him to be the next emperor.

With the aid of the praetorian guard and his only legion, Galba moved to strike down his newest contender, Clodius Macer, who had intentions of marching on Rome for the throne. After defeating and killing Macer, he returned to Rome and put his own supporters in office. Galba chose a successor, a young Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus, and in doing so alienated his most valuable supporter, Otho. At the same time two legions in Germany, when asked to swear allegiance to Galba, resisted and recommended their own emperor to the throne, Aulus Vitellius.

Galba had upset the praetorian guard when he had reduced the amount they were to have received as bribes for turning against Nero. After the rebellion in Germany, and Galba's selection for his heir, Otho walked into the praetorian camp. He was on good terms with them as he, unlike the stingy Galba, had been generous with their pay. The guard marched on Galba and killed him and his advisor, carrying their heads back to Otho as a prize.

The senate now had two choices, the slayer of the last emperor, Otho, or the newly declared emperor in Germany, Vitellius. Otho was granted the throne and he minted coins with "PAX ORBIS TERRARVM" on them, roughly meaning peace on earth, not expecting that Vitellius would contend the senate's choice. He, however, became aware that civil strife would be unavoidable when part of Vitellius' army, led by Caecina, began its march on Italy. Caecina had originally mobilized to march on Galba, but upon hearing that Otho had killed Galba and been awarded the throne, changed his target to Otho.

Silver denarius of Otho
Rome mint, 9 March -17 April 69 A.D.
Obverse: IMP OTHO CAESAR AVG TR P, bare head right
Reverse: PONT MAX, Vesta seated left holding transverse scepter and patera

Since his reign was only three months, coins of Otho are rare and expensive. This coin is very rare (R3).
 

Otho's army short on reinforcements finally met with Vitellius' outside of Cremona. Otho knew Vitellius was not present among his troops, and even against the advice of several of his generals because of a distinct numerical advantage, Otho decided to attack. Otho, overrun and flanked in Cremona, had some troops still back in Brixellum, and reinforcements had just arrived from his legions formerly on the Danube. He opted not to fight, again acting against the advice of others, and committed suicide.


 

Silver denarii of Vitellius
Rome mint, 19 April-early May 69 A.D.
Obverse: A VITELLIVS GERMANICVS IMP, bare head right
Reverse: CONCORDIA P R, Concordia seated left, holding patera and cornucopia

Vitellius was named emperor by the senate and he named his son, only six years old at the time, heir to the throne. He dismissed the old praetorian guard because its allegiance had once been to Otho, and he formed a new guard from his own legions and chose prefects that were supporters of his generals.

Again, legions in another part of the empire failed to recognized the newly chosen emperor and declared their own. This time it was in the east and they chose Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Vitellius was already trying to gain the people's support; he allowed opinions, whether for or against his views, to be spoken freely in the senate and never took any imperatorial title, not did he mint any such title on his coins. He also took the consulship as well in order to stay better linked with the senate and the people. He was a popular ruler and had a great deal of military support.

Vespasian, however had large support of his own, but in the eastern territories of Judaea and Syria. He was a middle class man, unlike Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, who all shared noble blood, and was a modest governor. After watching the political dissension of the last two years unfold, he made an alliance with a former enemy, the governor of Syria, Gaius Licinius Mucianus, and made active plans to march on Rome. The two governors recruited help from Egypt as well, drawing Tiberius Julius Alexander into their army.

Mucianus and Alexander, in exchange for chief positions under Vitellius, because they could not hold the post of emperor themselves due to social rank and lack of family respectively, hailed Vespasian as the new emperor of Rome and swore their and their troops allegiance to him. With a rippling effect, troops in Gaul under the command of Marcus Antonius Primus, declared their allegiance as well and began a march on Rome with a steadfast, but unauthorized, initiative.

Though the march was not necessarily planned to be carried out so rapidly and carelessly, Primus was able to succeed in defeating a section of Vitellius' army. Continuing on, Primus marched on Rome and to the surprise or Vespasian, he was able to take Rome and Vitellius, his son, and his brother Sabinus, were killed. Vespasian then headed for Rome, sending his son Titus Flavius Vespasianus to capture Jerusalem.


Silver "Judaea Capta" denarius of Vespasian
Rome mint, 80 A.D.
Obverse: IMP CAESAR VESPASIANVS AVG, laureate head right
Reverse: IVDAEA, Jewess captive seated right in attitude of mourning under a trophy of arms

To celebrate his son's victory, Vespasian minted the coins with the inscription "IVDAEA CAPTA" or "IVDAEA" on the reverse, meaning Judaea has been captured.

Vespasian restored order and built more in Rome than any emperor since Augustus, the Colosseum being his most remembered addition. He also built the Temple of Claudius and the Temple of Peace and restored the Capitoline temple. He was a strong leader, not always well liked, but his actions always tolerated and accepted by the people. He secured the border provinces from invasions and was careful with the financial instability wrought on Rome by the civil wars. Even up until the time of his death, he held a very light guard and low security as a reminder of his humble upbringing. His death and the succession of his son Titus marked the end of the second era of civil war in Roman imperial history and the beginning of Rome's second dynasty.

Silver denarius of Titus
Rome mint, 80 A.D.
Obverse: IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN P M, laureate head right
Reverse: TR P IX IMP XV COS VIII P P, tripod surmounted by dolphin

In antiquity, the dolphin symbolized creativity and imagination (much like the owl was and is a symbol for intelligence).
 

Works Cited
Grant, Michael. The Roman Emperors. Barnes and Noble Books: New York, 1997. Pgs 34-55.
Sear, Frank. Roman Architecture. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1982. Pgs 134-135

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