TACITUS: The Histories [Book I]

The short reign of Galba – After the forced suicide of Nero, the provincial armies elect Galba as emperor. Galba is weak and 77 years old. The soldiers begin to hate him because he does not give them the donative that he promised. Furthermore, he is severe in his treatment of them, a stark contrast to the indulgence of Nero.

Aware of his increasing unpopularity, Galba names Piso as his successor in order to pacify potential revolutionaries. Piso is a virtuous man, 31 years old. His election infuriates Otho, whom Galba also considered naming as his successor.

Otho is as luxurious, extravagant, and wicked as Nero is. He gains the favor of many soldiers and plots to assassinate Galba and Piso. Otho’s adherents storm the palace and kill Galba. They find Piso seeking sanctuary in the Temple of Vesta and, despite the sanctity of the place, kill him.

Tacitus’ account of the reign of Galba contains many insights into human nature. Tacitus demonstrates how swiftly a once noble and great empire can devolve into civil war and ruin when its citizens and soldiers seek to serve their own individual interests rather than those of the State.

There are three types of people: those who are wicked, those who are good, and those who are indifferent and acquiesce to whichever of the two other types of people holds power.

Tacitus also believes that the gods send messages to men about the future. He does not know whether men can avoid the doom that the messages import, or whether the messages are merely indications of what must come to pass.

Otho, now emperor, prepares to take the field against the rival claimant Vitellius – During Galba’s reign, Vitellius, in Gaul, was already mustering forces and preparing a coup. He learned that Otho seized power and he began to march towards Rome. He divided his army into three forces and appointed two generals to lead two of the regiments while he led the third.

Meanwhile, in Rome, the citizens experienced the misfortunes that attend war. The costs of basic necessities rose and all public funds were allocated to the war effort. Otho mustered his army and set out to confront Vitellius.


The history on which I am entering is that of a period rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace.

Never was it more fully proved by awful disasters of the Roman people or by indubitable signs that the gods care not for our safety, but for our punishment.

Thus far you have known only adversity; prosperity tests the spirit with sharper goads, because we simply endure misfortune, but are corrupted by success. Honour, liberty, friendship, the chief blessings of the human mind, you will guard with the same constancy as before; but others will seek to weaken them by their servility. Flattery, adulation, and that worst poison of an honest heart, self-interest, will force themselves in.

The tenth of January, a day of heavy rain, was made dreadful by thunder, lightning, and unusual threats from heaven. In earlier times notice of these things would have broken up an election, but they did not deter Galba from going to the praetorian camp, for he despised these things as mere chance; or else the truth is that we cannot avoid the fixed decrees of fate, by whatever signs revealed.

Death nature ordains for all alike; but it differs as it brings either oblivion or glory in after ages; and if the same end awaits the guilty and the innocent, it is the duty of a man of superior vigour to deserve his death.

As happens in households of slaves, each one was spurred on by his private motive, and the honour of the state was held cheap.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s