Servius Sulpicius Galba was born in 3 BCE, and lived through the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. He came from an ancient aristocratic house and proved himself to be competent in governing several provinces of the empire, albeit in a ruthless manner. Over the decades of Julian-Claudian rule, Galba had good fortune. He became a governor of Aquitania during the reign of Tiberius. Caligula gave him another high office as governor of Germania Superior. Claudius followed suit, giving Galba a military and administrative position in Africa. Nero ignored him for a while, but eventually appointed Galba as governor of Tarraconensian Spain in 60 CE, a position that he would use to usurp power in Rome eight years later. By 68 CE, Emperor Nero had lost the support of several powerful governors in his empire. A rebellion broke out in Gaul, and Galba, with his Spanish legions, joined the rebels and became the leader. The Roman Senate was sympathetic to the rebels and declared Nero to be an enemy of the state. In June of 68 CE, Nero committed suicide and Galba was proclaimed emperor.
Up to this point, Emperor Galba had a fortunate life, especially by the ruthless standards of ancient Roman politics. His luck was so palpable that it apparently inspired a series of folkloric tales. The Roman biographer Suetonius (c. 70-130+), a man who loved such rumors and yarns, recorded two stories that gave a divine explanation for Galba’s fate. According to the tales presented by Suetonius, one of the reasons that Galba had a successful life was because he was a life-long favorite of the goddess Fortuna, the divine personification of fortune.
As the story goes, when Galba was a young man, the goddess Fortuna visited him in a dream. It was not a very elaborate dream—the setting was in his house and Galba never even saw the goddess. Instead, he only heard a knocking sound coming from his door. When Galba approached the locked door in his dream, he was greeted by the impatient voice of Fortuna, demanding that he let her in, lest she leave and grace someone else’s doorstep with her presence. Galba woke up before he could open the dream world’s door, so he did the next best thing and rushed to his front door in reality. When he opened it up, Galba realized that the goddess had actually left him a present—a bronze statue of Fortuna was apparently waiting just outside the threshold of his home.
According to Suetonius, Galba enshrined the statue in his summer home at Tusculum and offered it a sacrifice every month. With Fortuna on his side, Galba survived the tumultuous reigns of the Julio-Claudian emperors and even gained control of the empire, himself, when he was in his early seventies. Yet, something went wrong—his luck had an abrupt end. Suetonius wrote down another piece of folklore that offered a mythological explanation for Galba’s fall from grace. According to the tale, Galba began to slack in his sacrifices to Fortuna once he achieved the title of emperor. In particular, he allegedly halted a shipment of jewelry that was heading for the shrine of Fortuna at Tusculum, and instead donated the treasures to a temple of the goddess, Venus. Unfortunately, Fortuna, like many deities, was a jealous goddess, and she immediately invaded one of the emperor’s dreams to express her anger and sense of betrayal. When Galba awoke from the dream, he apparently tried to make things right, but he never regained Fortuna’s favor. In 69 CE, Galba was assassinated during a military coup spearheaded by his former ally, Otho.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Sketch of Emperor Galba by Rembrandt (1606–1669), with a depiction of Fortuna from “The literary digest” 1890, in front of a modified cityscape by Thomas Cole (1801–1848), all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars (Galba) by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.