Verginius Rufus’ Surprising Rejection Of A Chance To Become Emperor Of Rome

In the year 68, Lucius Verginius Rufus was serving as a Roman governor on the German border when he learned that Gaius Julius Vindex, a Roman senator and governor of Aquitanian-Gallic descent, had rebelled in Gaul against Emperor Nero (r. 54-68). Vindex curiously rebelled not on behalf of himself, but in hopes of replacing Nero with a man named Galba, who was a respected Roman governor in Spain. Although Nero was a highly unpopular emperor whose premature demise was fast approaching, Lucius Verginius Rufus decided to do his duty and confront Vindex’s rebellion, and he reportedly did so without even waiting for instructions from Nero. After mobilizing his Rhine legions, Verginius Rufus engaged the rebels in a battle near Besançon, France. It was a crushing defeat for the rebellion, and Vindex ultimately committed suicide. Nevertheless, the revolt had already set in motion Nero’s downfall—before Vindex’s death, Galba answered the rebellion’s call by joining and assuming leadership of the revolt. Nero, depressed and afraid over growing support for Galba, ultimately ended his own life on June 9, 68.

After Nero’s suicide, Galba continued his march to Rome, where he was confident that the Roman Senate would accept him as the new emperor. Yet, he had a major potential rival in the figure of Lucius Verginius Rufus, the man who had recently defeated Vindex in battle. In fact, the Rhine legions reportedly were quite eager to proclaim Verginius Rufus as their chosen emperor, but their leader, curiously, was much less enthusiastic about assuming ultimate power. The great biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120), described the intriguing situation:

“[I]n the present crisis he [Verginius Rufus] was true to his original resolves and maintained the senate’s right to choose the emperor. And yet when Nero’s death was known for certain, the mass of his soldiery were insistent again with Verginius… [but when] letters had come from Rome telling of the senate’s decrees [in favor of Galba], he succeeded at last, though with the greatest difficulty, in persuading his soldiers to declare Galba emperor” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Galba, chapter 10).

Nevertheless, Galba’s ascendance never set right with the Rhine legions, especially when Galba (understandably) lavished praise on the late rebel, Vindex, and rewarded the man’s supporters. This provoked the Rhine legions to rebel in the year 69 under the command of a new leader, Vitellius, setting in motion the so-called Year of the Four Emperors. During that bloody year, Galba was assassinated by his lieutenant, Otho, who was in turn defeated by Vitellius; and he, in turn, was conquered by the fourth and final contender—Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79). As for Lucius Verginius Rufus, he lived into his eighties and remained a greatly admired and respected man. After his death (reportedly due to injuries from an awkward fall), Rome threw a lavish funeral in his honor, and the famous historian, Tacitus, delivered the eulogy.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (cropped section of Decius Mus Addressing the Legions, by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1577 – 1640), [Public Domain, Open Access] via Creative Commons and the National Gallery of Art).



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