Friday, 4 May 2018

69AD The Year of the Four Emperors - Gwyn Morgan

I have just finished reading 69 AD The Year of the Four Emperors by Gwyn Morgan and thought, as I usually do, that I would share my thoughts and impressions for those thinking of doing something similar.

I decided to take twenty-four hours to sleep on and mentally digest this book on completing it before sitting down to write this post because I wanted to think about how I and fellow wargaming enthusiasts might approach this book.

I write this introduction because I am still finding my way into the literature that supports what for me is a new and intriguing wargaming project, namely my Early Imperial Roman and Dacian collection which in time I plan to add to with German, another Roman and a British collection of figures.

Being more widely read and grounded in more contemporary periods of history, I come at the classical-ancient period with no blinkers and with a process of reading and absorbing facts to inform my hobby and I am now seeking to apply that process to this much earlier period in history.

The aspect that strikes me about reading academic works written for the general reader in this period compared with those written for say the Peninsular War is that given the comparative scarcity and fragmented data together with the quality of the historical sources when looking at events from 69 AD to 1812 AD is that much of the writing is based on opinions rather than facts, learned though those opinions may be, and so the general reader is left to form a conclusion about the subject based on that foundation, which leaves me, the reader, not entirely satisfied.

I am sure this comes as no revelation to the 'Grognard' ancient wargamers of WRG version 6 vintage brought up on this diet of research with their mothers milk, but for me used to a more certain supply of first hand accounts and copiously documented events, I still find the descent into opinion based history a little harder to grapple with.

So having got that preamble out of the way let me first start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed reading Gwyn Morgan's 'portrait' as the 'Publishers Weekly' describes this tome and found his discussion approach to the writing easy to follow and engaging.

As a viewer of the early years of the Roman principate it is easy to use the benefit of hindsight and nod sagely at the way the Roman hierarchy set about setting up their new state following the dissection of the old Republic by Julius Caesar and his prodigy Octavian, thinking to ones self in 'Fast Show' parlance ' you don't want to do it like that!'

However one has to remember that the Romans had no model system to follow other than they knew what they didn't want, namely to run their system of government under the rule of a king and then amazingly seemed to end up doing just that except not calling it a monarchy. If you then add in the age old problem of power corrupts and complete power corrupts completely with most men's innate need to satisfy their own selfish needs above that of the state they were appointed to serve, is it any wonder that the whole corrupt system collapsed into anarchy with the suicide of Emperor Nero in June 68 AD and with no obvious successor in place to replace what to many had been seen to be a totally anarchic rule in the first place. 

So before picking up that point, which is where this book starts from, and doing my usual thing of describing the contents I thought I would also just cover what it was I was looking for in reading a book about this dramatic year in the history of the early principate.

As a wargamer, I read to inform my hobby about the look of my model units to the way they fought and the way they were commanded. I would describe this as their character. Over time, I find that multiple sources read and digested can help one come to a conclusion as to what the character was of the armies you put on the table and you would hope that the rules chosen would enable it to come through given a modicum of good generalship on the part of the player commander.

So as much as I wanted to get clear in my own mind what the known facts were that surrounded the year 69 AD I was also looking to get a picture of the various key players involved and the peculiar traits they displayed in their command and leadership through to the armies themselves and what similarities and differences their were between the units drawn from the Rhine to say those from the Danube or Spain.

On searching various book suppliers I identified three potential books on this period, Morgan's book , 'The Year of the Four Emperors' by Wellesley, and the latest offering AD 69 Emperors Armies and Anarchy' by Nic Fields. I suspect I will end up reading all three over time to gain a wider perspective but this one seemed a good place to start.

As mentioned the book starts from the fall of Nero and the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty through to accession of Vespasian and the start of the new Flavian dynasty.

Thus the book is laid out:

List of Maps
I The Provinces of the Roman Empire in 69
II The Germanies and the French Riviera Coast
III Northern Italy
IV The Capitol and Its Environs


1. The Fall of Nero and the Julio-Claudian House
2. The Reign of Galba (June 68 to January 69)
3. Adoption and Assassination (January 69)
4. The Opening of the Vitellian Offensive (January and February)
5. Otho Prepares for War (January and February)
6. The War between Otho and Vitellius (March and April)
7. The Reign of Vitellius (April to September 69)
8. The Beginning of the End: Vespasian through August 69)
9. The Opening of the Flavian Offensive (August to October)
10. End Game (November and December)


1. The Principle Sources for 68/69
2. Characterisations of Galba and Otho
3. Checklist of the Legions Operational in 68/69



Spread over 322 pages with four maps

I think Morgan lays out the premise for his book really clearly in the introduction, with the bare facts of the year 69 AD as an 18 month period that opened with the death of Emperor Nero in June 68 and closed with the triumph of Vespasian in December 69; with, in the interim, the rise of Galba in June 68 and assassinated in January 69 by supporters of his replacement Otho who seized power in a coup only to commit suicide following the defeat of his forces by those of Vitellius, hailed emperor by his troops serving on the Rhine frontier, later to be cut down by Vespasian's supporters in December 69. 

Morgan then goes on to explain why in the light of three previous full length studies in English published prior to his that he decided to add to the accounts, given that the conflict between the evidence and the conclusions drawn previously in other accounts demanded another look.

He then goes on to dissect the reason for this conflict, highlighting one of the principle sources for our knowledge about this particular period in history, the Roman historian Tacitus, as being particularly troublesome given his tendency to discount the work of his predecessors, causing modern day academics to question his motives and the partiality he brings to his account. 

This to me is all fair enough and the book having laid out this premise then goes on to continuously weigh up each and every fact discussed in the light of these perceived biases of one historical source versus another.

I am sure this is all fine fodder for the professional and amateur historians out there and the discussion and debate it produces is after all what history is all about and great fun to. However one must bear in mind that given the time past since these events unfolded and the small amount of source material available, the likely fact is that in the end these historical opinions are just conjecture and I found myself focusing on attempting to identify likely facts and the most probable reasons why events occurred as they did, sometimes concurring with the author and sometimes not, which is as it should be I think.

There is quite a bit of 'tooing and froing' in this account as the forces involved moved about the empire in readiness for the clashes that followed not to mention the destruction they often caused en route to those final show downs and as usual I found the four maps included absolutely useless for the task of monitoring this progress.

To counter this omission I turned to my copy  of  'The Roman Empire Order of Battle for the Civil Wars 68-70 AD by Micheal Lane and published by the Society of Ancients, see link below, which as well as detailing the likely forces involved in the various clashes referred to in Morgan's book also comes with an excellent selection of maps that I printed out together with diagrams of the various battles and now have folded into my copy of  69 AD for future reference.

So what were some of the key points that I took away from this read that might well influence the campaign I have in mind around this year as well as the armies involved.

It seems too me that the character of the leaders involved had a huge influence on the support they obtained from the people, the Senate and the troops with all three of those pools of support having an influence on their likely success or not leading up to the inevitable battle.

The portrait of Galba as the unreformable old Republican Patrician seemingly oblivious to the needs of others and able to cause offence easily by his unwillingness to compromise his principles explains why his supporters loved him and his many detractors couldn't wait to see the back of him once he achieved power.

The sheer ineptitude he appears to display in handling the army, people and Senate is sometimes breathtaking and his reliance on the fact that he could trace his ancestry back to Jupiter's Grandfather as a guarantee of his longevity almost laughable to a modern reader. I can only imagine that the coup that saw his final demise must have come as a terrible surprise that anyone would have had the temerity to commit it. 

Otho comes across as the former pal of Nero and a bit of a 'hooray Henry' as we British might say,  living it up in the higher class brothels of Rome until he fell out with his best buddy and got himself banished to modern day Portugal, a backwater in the empire at that time. 

Needless to say, he was opportunistic in his approach to getting back to his former hedonistic good life which meant borrowing up to the hilt to bribe whoever it took to get him into the top job and hoping no one would notice that he had just stabbed in the back the chap who got him back to Rome . I don't buy his attempt at stopping the bloodshed that followed with the campaign of Vitellius by his suicide once his forces had been beaten at Cremona and see it more likely that he knew that events were catching him up and better to end things at his own hand rather than allow someone else the pleasure.

Vitellius is described as the weak willed, easily lead, hedonistic party thrower who just wants to be liked by everyone. Put forward as emperor by his German legions as the best chap to get rid of Galba who surprisingly had managed to grievously offend said legions during his time on the Rhine frontier, couldn't see that the chaps supporting him were a bunch of sycophantic toadies only in it for themselves and would sell him out the first chance they got, which they did.

And then the 'dark horse', Vespasian, from very humble origins who no one expected to throw his hat into the ring, quietly observing the chaos from the sidelines and noting the offenses caused to various parties, most notably the Danubian legions who were just looking for a chance to stick it to the Rhine boys who thought they were the cream of the army after beating Otho's motley forces at the first battle of Cremona. Opportunistic maybe, but a soldiers soldier who was known to lead from the front and who in the end did what was necessary to restore the empire and its fortunes so perhaps the right man for the job in the end.

In all this the Senate seem to be filled with individuals keeping their heads down and careful not to be seen as too partisan towards one side or another, but it is interesting that Senate approval was still seen as critical to achieving recognition for each of the usurpers mentioned in their attempt to gain legitimacy for their claim.

Legitimacy seems a preposterous word to use when describing this change-over of power, as no party could really claim such a position with a system completely removed from any rule of law; but still the Roman state seemed to cling to some concept from its Republican past. Morgan describes the efforts all the claimants went to to establish their credentials as to why they were the most credible alternative, highlighting their breeding and family or their experience and rank or that their mother liked them and they were kind to cats.

The people and principally the people of Rome were one key audience for this political positioning and it is interesting to see how some parties struggled to gain acceptance (Otho was seen as a back stabber and opportunist by many despite the fact that Galba was not popular) whilst others seemed to bathe in a sea of support despite their obvious faults (Vitellius seemed to capture the public of Rome's support who lined up ready to fill the ranks of citizen legions and march off to fight the Flavians). 

The other key players in this game were the troops and I found this aspect of Morgans work very compelling with copious notes taken on aspects that I would be keen to model in any tabletop encounters.

As far as the troops were concerned they had to have compelling reasons to fight for their candidate, be it pay and rewards in the case of the Praetorian Guard, the fact that the other sides candidate was hated so we'll fight for our chap, or that the other sides troops think they are the cream of the Roman army and need pulling down a peg or too and our chap leading us is just the fella to help us do that.

The armies were trained to fight in the same manner so aspects such as a firm belief in the cause and their commanders and the troops being united in support of the cause became vital for success and the situation reminded me of the Napoleonic Hundred Days Campaign with the return of Napoleon where the French army was riddled with intrigue and conspiracy alarms as the troops became nervous about commanders they suspected of having Royalist sympathies.

Similarly the men appointed to command the legions supporting one faction or another often found their orders questioned by the men they commanded if the troops suspected any 'back-sliding' on the part of their commanders with several generals needing rescuing from their own troops putting together a lynch party at the slightest provocation. In some cases it seemed the common soldiers were leading the generals rather than the other way and commanders were often forced to explain why they were choosing not to fight on a certain position or at a certain time so as to gain an advantage when the opposing sides did meet in battle.

Throughout the description of events Morgan compares the source material available and weighs up his opinion on the validity of one source versus another to present a conclusion. This process continues through to the end of the book with a look at the characters of Galba and Otho who were so closely linked in each others fortunes and the effects on the empire at the conclusion of this dramatic year. The change of leadership would reinforce the process of change to the body politic as the old Patrician families dating back to the Republic were being superseded by the noveau-riche of the new appointees to the Senate created during the Julio-Claudian years;  bringing with them different ideas about legitimacy and the possibilities of power changing hands outside of Rome.

69 AD was published in 2006 by Oxford University Press and I bought my hardback copy of the book through Amazon for the princely sum of £1.55 excluding postage and packaging.


  1. One Show, most amusing.

    Quite often those apparently making a play for the top job faced a tough decision , either accept the troops acclamations and declare themselves the new Emperor or they would be quickly killed and another would be put forward by the army in their place. Of course there were many would-be Emperors who bribed or charmed the troops in their own bid for power but sometimes you weren’t given a lot of choice.

    1. A good book this Steve, I commend it for your attention.

      You make a good point about many of the candidates often having little choice in the manner of their appointment and Morgan takes this point further by describing the risks involved for anyone and their closest family members, particularly sons, comntemplating throwing the towel in and abdicating. That is abdicating was not an option and your successor would still kill you and yours anyway so leaving no other option other than to fight to the death.

  2. Thanks for this review as it proved very enlightening

    1. My pleasure Sean, glad you found it useful.