S UETONIUS tells a strange story about the extinction of the house of the Julian Caesars. It runs thus: Livia, the wife of Augustus shortly after her marriage to that prince, paid a visit to one of the country residences of her family at Veii. While she was there an eagle that was flying over her head dropped into her lap a white hen that had a sprig of laurel in its mouth. Livia had the hen carefully tended, and planted the sprig of laurel. The bird became the mother of a numerous family; the sprig grew into a shrubbery so large that the Emperor and his successors always gathered from it the laurel crown which they wore on the occasion of a triumph. The sprigs then used were afterwards planted, and it was observed—so the story runs—that the cutting which each Emperor put into the ground began to wither away when his end approached, while the original shrubbery still flourished. In the last year of Nero's reign this too perished entirely, while the whole brood of fowls descended from Livia's hen also died.
If the fall of the dynasty of Augustus was thus foretold, it was also the case, if the same authorities may be believed, that the future greatness of its successor was indicated long beforehand. The stories are difficult to believe; and, yet it is not easy to suppose that they were all fictitious.
The young Galba, paying his court, in company with a number of lads of the same age, to the aged Augustus, received from the old man a curious response. He playfully pinched the lad's cheek, and said: "And you too, my boy, shall have a taste of my power." "This is an established fact," writes Suetonius, when he relates the anecdote. Tiberius who was very fond of dabbling in the secrets of the future, was told by the astrologer that Galba would certainly be Emperor, but not before old age. "Then the matter does not concern me," he said, remembering that he was nearly forty years older than his destined successor. A tradition to the same effect was preserved in Galba's family. On one occasion his grandfather, a man who prudently confined his ambition to literature, was performing the expiations commonly offered when a tree had been struck by lightning. An eagle swooped down on the victim, snapped the entrails out of the sacrificer's hands, and carried them to the top of an oak. Galba asks the soothsayers what this incident portended. "It means," they answered, "that one of your house will be the first man in Rome, but not till late in his life." "That will happen," said the incredulous Galba, "when a mule has a foal." This very unusual birth took place when the grandson was thinking of rising against Nero. To everybody else it seemed a disastrous portent, but Galba welcomed it as an omen of success.
He was indeed on both sides of most distinguished descent. His father was a Sulpicius, the scion of one of the very few old patrician families which had survived into the days of the Empire. A Sulpicius had been raised to the Consulship nine years after the expulsion of the Tarquins, and the honours of the family had been continued by a long line of soldiers and statesmen. Among his maternal ancestors he numbered Mummius, the conqueror of Corinth, and Catulus, who shared with Marius—in what proportion was a matter of angry and lasting controversy—the honour of having delivered Rome from the pressing danger of a great barbarian invasion. Indeed he traced up his ancestry to a far more remote antiquity. The family tree which when he mounted the throne he caused to be hung up in the palace exhibited Jupiter at the head of the paternal, and Minos of Crete of the maternal line.
The young Galba naturally became a considerable personage in Rome, and all the more so because he was a childless widower. His first wife was a Lepida, and had he wished to marry again he might have espoused the mother of the future Emperor Nero. Agrippina indeed showed such a preference for him, even before he was free, that Lepida's mother reproached and even struck her at a ladies' party. He was a close attendant on the Empress-mother Livia, who left him the magnificent legacy of £500,000. This was cut down by Tiberius, the residuary legatee, to £5,000 on the ground that the sum was expressed not in words but in figures. Even this the legatee did not receive.
The high offices of state were opened to him before the usual age. He was praetor probably in his thirty-fifth year, and certainly consul in his thirty-seventh. Persons curious in such matters afterwards observed it as a remarkable coincidence, that his predecessor in the Consulship was the father of Nero, and his successor the father of Otho. Nothing else that was notable occurred except it be that in the Games which it was his duty as Praetor to exhibit he introduced a new spectacle—elephants walking on the tight-rope.
His consulship was followed by a military command in Gaul. His predecessor was a certain Lentulus surnamed Gaetulicus whose easy rule had somewhat weakened the bonds of military discipline. Galba was as conservative in this as in other respects. The day after he took over the command the soldiers applauded the performances of a spectacle exhibited in the camp. This was against rule, and the new general signified his displeasure by giving that night as the watchwords "Hands under cloaks!" The next day everybody in the camp was singing a line which may be Englished thus:
Soldiers! learn to be soldierly:
Galba rules in his stead:
Soldiers! learn to be soldierly.
All the men, veterans as well as recruits, were kept hard at work, while the now commander practised what he preached, if indeed it is true that on one occasion he ran for twenty miles by the side of the Emperor's chariot.
The death of Caligula gave him the opportunity of which he availed himself twenty-seven years later. The various influential people urged him to declare himself Emperor. He declined the offer. Claudius felt his forbearance so strongly as always to show him the greatest consideration. Among other honours he was specially chosen to take charge of the province of Africa, then much disturbed by internal commotions and by the attacks of barbarous neighbours. Galba acquired a great reputation as a justly severe ruler. Some of his recorded decisions have a very oriental aspect. A soldier who was convicted of having sold a peck of flour for a large sum of money when his comrades wore almost starving, he ordered to be starved to death. In a case of the disputed ownership of a horse he directed that the animal should be taken with its head covered to the place where it was accustomed to drink, and be allowed to find its way home.
For his services in Germany and Africa he received the distinctions which had been substituted for the honour of a triumph, by this time reserved for the Emperor, and three priestly offices. The next fifteen years he spent in profound retirement. In A.D. 60 he was appointed to the Governorship of Eastern Spain. Here the old prognostics of power followed him. The hair of the acolyte at a sacrifice at which he was assisting suddenly changed in colour from black to white. The wise men declared that this indicated an approaching change in the government of the world. A young man was to be succeeded by an old. Not less significant was the discovery of twelve axes which seemed to have fallen from the sky at a place which had been struck by lightning. Whatever the cause, Galba found it expedient to change his line of conduct. He began by showing his old severity. He cut off the hands of a fraudulent money-changer, and crucified a guardian who had poisoned his ward, a lad to whose inheritance he stood next in succession. The man protested that he was a Roman citizen. Galba directed that the cross should be white-washed by way of distinction, and made much loftier than those of the criminals who suffered with him. But such energy he felt to be dangerous. In the later years of his government he did as little as he could. "One has not to render an account for doing nothing," he was wont to say.
After all he was compelled to act in self-preservation. Vindex, who had risen against Nero in Gaul, sent him a letter imploring him to deliver the human race from an intolerable tyranny. This entreaty he might have disregarded; but the prayer was enforced by the discovery that Nero had sent orders for his assassination to the imperial agents. This decided him. He held what we may call an assembly of notables, the chief civil and military authorities of the province. He exhibited as many portraits of the victims of Nero as he could collect, and denounced the tyrant. Saluted Emperor, he preferred to call himself the "Lieutenant of the Senate and People of Rome." His position however was precarious. He had but a small military power; a single legion, two squadrons of cavalry, and some auxiliary infantry. Even these could not be relied upon. He had besides a narrow escape from assassination, and when the news of the death of Vindex arrived he felt his prospects to be so gloomy that he meditated suicide. Then came the news that Nero was dead, and that the armies of the Empire had accepted him. On this he dropped the title of Lieutenant and assumed the style of Caesar.
Unfortunately he was no longer the man that he had been. Avarice in particular had grown upon him until it had become a master passion. Ludicrous stories of his meanness were circulated. The people of Tarraco offered him a crown of gold from the Temple of Jupiter. Its reputed weight was fifteen pounds. Three ounces were found to be wanting, and he ordered the town to make it good. A musician performed very much to his satisfaction, and he made the man a present of something less than five shillings. True or false, these stories showed what people thought of him.
Even when he meant well he was not judicious. It had become a regular custom for the troops to have some bounty bestowed upon them by a new Emperor. Galba refused to conform to it. "I choose my soldiers I do not buy them," he answered. It was a noble sentiment; but was not suited to the times. It was idle to deny that the armies were the ultimate repository of power. Doubtless it was deplorable that they should be so, that the old freedom of Rome should have given place to a despotism essentially military, but the fact had to be recognised and reckoned with.
"It is certain," says Tacitus, "that the troops might have been won over by even the smallest bounty from the parsimonious old man;" and it was the duty of a really statesmanlike ruler to acknowledge the necessity. The old maxim ran: "It is not well to rear a lion in the city, but, once reared, you must humour him." The lion in the Roman Empire was the Army. "And then," adds Tacitus, "the rest of his actions were not after this model. The primitive virtue which he affected in his dealings with the troops was conspicuously absent in his other actions. The consciousness of weakness drove him into cruelty. Officers who were popular, or were supposed to be popular, with the troops were put to death on the slightest grounds. A legion which Nero had levied from the fleet, a service which he always favored, was sent back to the ships. It murmured at the change and the new Emperor ordered his cavalry to charge it, and afterwards selected every tenth man for execution. The real power of the Empire was in the hands of three men, all of them unworthy of the charge. One of them was Vinius, who had been his lieutenant in Spain, a man of insatiable cupidity; another was Laco, prefect of the Praetorians, notorious for his indolence and arrogance; the third was a Greek freedman of the name of Icelus. There was nothing which these unprincipled favorites did not sell, all the while their master was affecting, doubtless in sincerity, a primitive strictness and frugality.
The act that proved immediately fatal to Galba was probably, by a curious irony of fate, one of the very best of his reign. He soon perceived that he must have a younger colleague in the cares of the Empire. Had he chosen Otho, a favorite with the populace who saw in him another Nero, a strange but a genuine title to their affections, and popular with the troops, he would probably have ended his days in peace. He was too high principled to make such a compromise. It would, he thought, have been useless to deliver Rome from a Nero, if he was to hand her over to an Otho. Accordingly he chose for his adopted son and successor Piso Licinianus, a man of the highest character, but suspected, I may say, of virtues which were highly unpopular. The end came almost immediately. "Two common soldiers," says Tacitus, "undertook to transfer the Empire of Rome, and actually transferred it." Not a sword was drawn to protect the Prince who seven months before had been unanimously accepted by the armies of Rome. We cannot say that he deserved his fate, for he meant well. But we cannot be surprised at it. He failed absolutely under the test of power. "As long as he was a subject, he seemed beyond a subject's measure; and all men would have agreed that he was equal to Empire, had he never been Emperor," is Tacitus's epigrammatic verdict on this "Nobleman of the Old School."