Emperor Nero is remembered as one of the most infamous Roman emperors, being the last emperor in the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman emperors. But who succeeded him?
Nero’s death in 68 preceded a period of internal struggle in the Roman Empire called the Year of the Four Emperors, marked by a series of coups. He was succeeded by Galba following a rebellion, then succeeded by Otho, then Vitellius, and then Vespasian at the end of 69, founding the Flavian dynasty.
To find out more about the last days of Nero and the tumultuous period of the early Roman Empire known as the Year of the Four Emperors, read on.
Nero was the fifth emperor of Rome and succeeded his stepfather Claudius in 54 AD and would rule the Roman Empire until 68 AD. This is an infamous period in Roman history, marked by a reported tyranny whereby it was commonly believed that Nero had started the Great Fire of Rome to clear room for his palace, apparently playing his fiddle while Rome burned (although this is rather doubtful).
Nero was also reported to have murdered his mother and wives and burned Christians alive, blaming them for the fire, while also having opponents assassinated and engaging in debauched, extravagant behavior. However, we should be wary of the possible bias of the sources these stories have come from as he was not well-liked by the upper classes who would have kept the records.
He is also reported to have castrated and married his former slave, believing him to be the reincarnation of the pregnant wife he had allegedly kicked to death (although she may have simply died in childbirth).
Conversely, he is thought to have been rather well-liked by the lower classes in Roman society as a populist leader and would stage public performances, cut taxes, build theaters, and focus on the cultural and diplomatic health of the empire, even publicly appearing as an actor, musician, and poet. These public programs were funded using taxes from the wealthy, which they resented.
Under his leadership, the Roman Empire also found peace with the Parthian Empire and put down Boudica’s revolt in Britain. It was this populism, however, that may have worried the Senate and led to him eventually being overthrown, influencing how we remember Nero.
His persecution of Christianity, which would later become the state religion, has not helped Nero’s reputation, being seen as the Antichrist. However, several rebel leaders throughout Roman history would present themselves as Nero reborn to try to secure support, showing the surprisingly enduring popularity of the emperor.
The Year of the Four Emperors
Faced with growing resentment from the Senate, Nero was declared an enemy of Rome in 68, leading the emperor to take his own life, being the first Roman emperor to do so and marking the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Servius Sulpicius Galba had successfully turned the emperor’s bodyguard, the Praetorian Guard, against Nero and took over as emperor in a coup in June 68, leading to Nero’s suicide. However, Galba refused to pay the Praetorian Guard, while legions in Germania rebelled in favor of installing Vitellius as emperor.
Panicked over his legacy, Galba chose a seemingly inexperienced heir called Piso, which angered Marcus Salvius Otho who felt he had been overlooked. As Galba had done, Otho bribed the Praetorian Guard and had him killed in the Forum in January 69.
While Otho tried to present himself as a populist like Nero, he could not maintain control and Vitellius’s legions were marching from Germania to take power. Otho marched north to attack him but was defeated at the Battle of Bedriacum.
Otho killed himself on April 16, 69, and is remembered for trying to avoid a civil war through his actions, serving for only 91 days. Vitellius was recognized as emperor of Rome, but almost instantly, he indulged in lavish celebrations and banquets that nearly bankrupted the Roman treasury.
Unsurprisingly, a new rival to challenge Vitellius appeared, with Vespasian being proclaimed as emperor by his troops in Egypt and Judea, having fought in Britain and once served as governor of Africa. After apparently falling asleep in one of Nero’s performances, he was sent to fight in the First Jewish-Roman War and secured his legacy.
Vitellius was defeated by legions in support of Vespasian at the Second Battle of Bedriacum and subsequently killed, with Vespasian being recognized as emperor on December 21, 69, marking the end to the Year of the Four Emperors and serving as emperor until 79 before choosing his son Titus to succeed him in the Flavian dynasty.
This was the first time the title of emperor was inherited by a natural son, likely remembering the conflicts of the power vacuum Nero had left.