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Tacitus: The Death of the Emperor Galba

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Publius Cornelius Tacitus, History I:41, 49:

Viso comminus armatorum agmine vexillarius comitatae Galbam cohortis (Atilium Vergilionem fuisse tradunt) dereptam Galbae imaginem solo adflixit: eo signo manifesta in Othonem omnium militum studia, desertum fuga populi forum, destricta adversus dubitantis tela. iuxta Curtii lacum trepidatione ferentium Galba proiectus e sella ac provolutus est. extremam eius vocem, ut cuique odium aut admiratio fuit, varie prodidere. alii suppliciter interrogasse quid mali meruisset, paucos dies exolvendo donativo deprecatum: plures obtulise ultro percussoribus iugulum: agerent ac ferirent, si ita [e] re publica videretur. non interfuit occidentium quid diceret. de percussore non satis constat: quidam Terentium evocatum, alii Laecanium; crebrior fama tradidit Camurium quintae decimae legionis militem impresso gladio iugulum eius hausisse. ceteri crura brachiaque (nam pectus tegebatur) foede laniavere; pleraque vulnera feritate et saevitia trunco iam corpori adiecta...

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Galbae corpus diu neglectum et licentia tenebrarum plurimis ludibriis vexatum dispensator Argius e prioribus servis humili sepultura in privatis eius hortis contexit. caput per lixas calonesque suffixum laceratumque ante Patrobii tumulum (libertus in Neronis punitus a Galba fuerat) postera demum die repertum et cremato iam corpori admixtum est. hunc exitum habuit Servius Galba, tribus et septuaginta annis quinque principes prospera fortuna emensus et alieno imperio felicior quam suo. vetus in familia nobilitas, magnae opes: ipsi medium ingenium, magis extra vitia quam cum virtutibus. famae nec incuriosus nec venditator; pecuniae alienae non adpetens, suae parcus, publicae avarus; amicorum libertorumque, ubi in bonos incidisset, sine reprehensione patiens, si mali forent, usque ad culpam ignarus. sed claritas natalium et metus temporum obtentui, ut, quod segnitia erat, sapientia vocaretur. dum vigebat aetas militari laude apud Germanas floruit. pro consule Africam moderate, iam senior citeriorem Hispaniam pari iustitia continuit, maior privato visus dum privatus fuit, et omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset.


As this armed band approached, the standard-bearer of Galba's escorting cohort (said to have been Atilius Vergilio) tore Galba's insignia off and threw it underfoot. The sentiment of the troops turned out to be for Otho. The populace fled the drawn weapons in the Forum. Near the lake of Curtius, Galba's frightened litter bearers dropped him to the ground. His last words have been differently reported. Those who hated him have said that he asked pitifully what he had done wrong and begged for a few more days to pay his soldiers the bonus he had promised. Those who admired him--and it is the more general account--have said that he offered his neck to his killers and told them to strike quickly if they thought killing him would be good for the country.

Those who killed him did not care what he said.

Nothing is certain about the man who actually killed Galba. Some have said that he was called Terentius, others Lecanius, but the most reliable report is that one Camurius of the 15th legion, cut his throat by stomping down on his sword. The other soldiers disgraced and mutilated his arms and legs--his breast was still protected by armor--and were so savage and ferocious that they managed to inflict a number of wounds on the headless trunk.

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Galba's corpse was neglected for quite a while. Darkness gave permission for the body to suffer a host of insults, until finally his slave-steward Argius gave the body a modest grave in Galba's gardens. Galba's head, which Otho's camp-followers had desecrated and stuck on a pike, went missing until the next day when it was found in front of the then put with Galba's cremated body.

Such was the end of Servius Galb. In his seventy-three years he had lived prosperously through five Emperors. He had been luckier when ruled by others than when he ruled. His family boasted of its noble lineage. His wealth was great. His character was average--he was rather free from vices than distinguished by virtues. He neither ignored fame nor did he vainly grasp for it. He did not covet other people's money. He was parsimonious with his own money. He was avaricious with the government's money.

His tolerance for his freedmen and friends would not have been blameworthy had he surrounded himself with more worthy followers. But since his followers were worthless his blindness was criminal. His noble birth and the perilous times made him look wise when he was only lazy. While in the prime of his life he was an effective commander in Germany and proconsul in Africa. When old he showed the same administrative competence in Eastern Spain.

While he was a subordinate he seemed a supreme commander. And all would have agreed that he was fit to be an Emperor if only he had never been one.

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