69 A.D: The Year of Four Emperors

By Gwyn Morgan | Go to book overview

Appendix 2:
Characterizations of Galba and Otho

The most difficult problem faced by anybody attempting to reconstruct and interpret the events of 68/69 is that of determining how to view Otho. Assessing Galba is not much easier, and since there are grounds in one case at least for thinking the portrayals interlinked, both issues need discussion. To do this in the main narrative would have caused it to bog down on page after page. To gloss over the problem, however, or to make a choice without any attempt to set out the reasoning behind it, would be misleading as well as dishonest.

Three of our sources lie at the heart of the problem, Plutarch, Tacitus, and Suetonius. (Dio's account is too fragmentary to be helpful and Josephus does not concern himself much with either ruler.) Between them, nonetheless, they give us two different portraits of Galba and three of Otho. On Galba they divide into opposing camps. Plutarch admires the man, presenting him as a harsh but just, worthy, and misunderstood old man. Tacitus, by contrast, declares that Galba “did not so much possess virtues as lack vices,” and the only redeeming quality Suetonius seems to have found in Galba was his not being a heavy drinker. On Otho the situation is more complicated. Here Plutarch stands at one extreme, presenting us with a panicky, effeminate, vicious weakling. Tacitus stands at the other, picturing Otho as a tough-minded, murderous usurper. And Suetonius pursues a middle course with Otho the impetuous risk taker. On the whole, Suetonius' account is, once again, closer to Tacitus' than it is to Plutarch's, as in the story that when Otho went ahead with his coup, he joked that it made no difference to him whether he fell beneath his creditors in the forum or beneath his enemies in battle. Nonetheless, Suetonius' picture can be accommodated to either of the other two, but not to both at once. So we must make a choice.

As if this were not complication enough, making that choice has become entangled in another conundrum. All our literary sources drew material from the so-called common source (see Appendix 1), and even though we cannot establish how reliable he was, his existence has been used as an argument to prove Plutarch more trustworthy than Tacitus

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