Galba may have been the first to fill the power vacuum left by Nero’s suicide, but he was by no means the last. His violent, tight-fisted, and fundamentally unpopular reign lasted just 7 months, from when he seized the throne in June 68 to his assassination on January 15 69. Events started when the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Otho emperor in their camp. Deciding they needed to lure Galba away from safety, they sent soldiers to him Otho had been killed, and the emperor was needed at the camp. He set off through the Forum, but, abandoned by his attendants, was cut down by cavalry at the side of the street.
There are varying accounts of his final moments. One has the shocked emperor cry out: “Soldiers, what are you doing? I am yours and you are mine!” before being cut down. Another has him trying to bribe his way out, offering his assassins a donative if they spare his life. Most ancient accounts, however, agree that he faced his death bravely, bearing his throat to his assassins and urging them to strike if they believed that the right thing to do.
The only ones to come to Galba’s rescue were a detachment of German soldiers. Fiercely loyal by nature—as they had been to Caligula moments after his assassination—this detachment had been treated particularly well by the emperor whenever one of its men was sick or wounded. Orienteering wasn’t their strong point, however; having got hopelessly lost trying to locate him in the Forum, they arrived too late to help.
Galba’s corpse was subjected to terrible humiliation. A passing soldier, returning from the corn distribution, set down his load, pulled out gladius and decapitated it. He wanted to take the head to Otho but had difficulty gripping it. He couldn’t take it by the hair as Galba was completely bald. So after hiding it inside his tunic on his way through the Forum, he pulled it out, stuck his thumb in its mouth, and carried it thus to Otho.
The new emperor Otho impaled the head on a lance and paraded it around the Praetorian Camp. Encouraging jeers and insults from his men, Otho was said to have shouted: “What a pretty boy you are Galba, better make the most of your youthful good looks!” At 73, however, Galba had been neither; reputed to have a hooked nose, crippling arthritis, and a sprawling fleshy growth protruding out of his right flank.