A History of Rome in Paintings: 18 Four Emperors in a Year

Karl Bryullov (1799–1852), The Last Days of Pompeii (1830-33), oil on canvas, 456.5 x 651 cm, The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

As with the assassination of Julius Caesar, Nero’s death in 68 CE did little to solve Rome’s problems. First to seize power was Servius Galba Caesar Augustus, who lasted just over seven months as emperor before he was murdered by the Praetorian Guard – whose duty is to safeguard the emperor. Next up was Marcus Otho Caesar Augustus, who lasted just a day over three months before he had to commit suicide after he lost the battle of Bedriacum. Then came Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Augustus, who managed a more respectable eight months, but was then tortured and murdered by the troops of Vespasian (Caesar Vespasianus Augustus), who restored stability in late 69 CE, eighteen months after Nero’s death.

Over this period, the mighty Roman Empire consisted of a myriad of small tribes scattered throughout its lands. One such tribe was the Batavi, a warlike group of no more than about 35,000 people living in swampland in the Rhine delta roughly where the southern part of the Netherlands is today. Its capital was near modern Nijmegen. They had negotiated a good deal in the Empire: rather than pay direct taxes on their lands like most tribes, they supplied the Roman army with around 5,000 men, many of whom served in the elite regiment of the German Bodyguards.

Their leader at this time was Gaius Julius Civilis, who had a quarter of a century of military service behind him, in the course of which he had lost one eye. In the late 60s CE, the Batavi had become disaffected with Rome. Civilis and his brother had been arrested and charged with treason by Nero, but his successor, Galba, acquitted Civilis and allowed him to return to the Batavi, where he was arrested again on the orders of the local Roman governor.

When Rome was going through emperors as if they were going out of fashion, military support of the Batavi was suddenly needed. Civilis was released to help the cause, but the disaffection of the Batavi deepened. With civil war raging in the Empire in 69 CE, Civilis led a revolt against the Romans, besieging a camp containing 5,000 Roman legionaries. The following year the Batavi appeared to be gaining the upper hand, but the Romans brought more substantial military forces to bear, and the Batavi made peace again.

This chapter in the history of the Roman Empire is detailed by Tacitus in his Histories, book 4. Although known in Tacitus’ account as Gaius Julius Civilis, in art for some reason he has become known as Claudius Civilis. The revolt started when Civilis gathered the tribal chiefs and military leaders at “one of the sacred groves”, for a banquet. There he convinced them to join in the rebellion, binding them “with barbarous rites and strange forms of oath”, according to Tacitus.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (1661-2), oil on canvas, 196 x 309 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Wikimedia Commons.

Sadly the painting we see today as Rembrandt’s Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (1661-2) is not only much smaller than the original, but its colours are far weaker. A slightly better impression may be gained from the detail shown below, which gives stronger clues as to the blue areas on Civilis’ crown and regal garments.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (detail) (1661-2), oil on canvas, 196 x 309 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt shows us a lofty king of his people, dressed in finery, his lost eye witness to his bravery and experience. His tribal chiefs join their swords and hands with his sword, in an oath to which they will be bound unto death, if necessary. The light, apparently from a source on the table and carefully hidden behind the foreground figures, heightens the moment and its meaning. Body language, swords, and light between them make this a turning point for the Batavian nation – well, albeit a small tribe, but who would have thought that this great king was leader of just 35,000?

Rembrandt’s painting was commissioned for what was then the new Amsterdam City Hall, completed in 1655, which is now the Royal Palace. The dozen large spaces intended for paintings were going to be filled by Govert Flinck (1615–1660), who had started but not completed them when he died in 1660. Rembrandt was commissioned to paint his version for the City Hall in 1661, and sketched what he is believed to have completed in the summer of 1662.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (sketch, recto) (c 1659), pen and pencil, brown ink on paper, 19.6 x 18 cm, Staatliche Grafische Sammlung, München, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The painting which we see today is but a small central rectangle within the original. The whole painting was hung in place for a while, but it appears that it fell into disfavour. It was taken down and returned to Rembrandt. He no longer had sufficient influence to change anyone’s mind in the matter. Meanwhile Jürgen Ovens (1623–1678) completed Flinck’s version of The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis shown below, which was hung instead of Rembrandt’s.

Govert Flinck (1615–1660) and Jürgen Ovens (1623–1678), The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (c 1659-63), oil over watercolour on canvas, 500 x 500 cm, Royal Palace of Amsterdam, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt was desperately short of money at this time, and was never paid for the original commission. He therefore cut the painting down to a more saleable size, repainted parts of it, and sold it on. A hundred years later, it had made its way to Sweden, and by 1782 had come into the possession of the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm. In 1864 it was transferred to the Nationalmuseum, where you can see it today.

The Batavi, or Batavians, became a founding element of the nation which developed in the Netherlands, even though their greatest depiction had been sent away and cut up. As the Dutch East Indies developed and made the Netherlands rich from trade, its capital was named Batavia (now Jakarta). During the French Revolution, the Netherlands itself became the Batavian Republic (1795-1806). But the greatest painting of Civilis and the original Batavian chiefs was already in Sweden.

Life in Rome during the ‘year of the Four Emperors’ must have been exceedingly tense.

Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), Vitellius traîné dans les rues de Rome par la populace (Vitellius Dragged Through the Streets of Rome by the People) (1882-3), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée de Sens, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Georges Rochegrosse’s painting of Vitellius Dragged Through the Streets of Rome by the People was his great success and medal-winner of the Paris Salon in 1882.

Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Augustus (15-69 CE), known briefly as Vitellius, was Emperor of Rome for just eight months. In that time the Roman legions in the east revolted, and crushed his loyal forces in northern Italy, forcing Vitellius to prepare for abdication. Rome was not prepared to wait, nor to let him get away with abdication. The Praetorian Guard forced him to take shelter in his palace, then he was dragged out, driven to the Gemonian Steps in the city, and executed.

Rochegrosse shows Vitellius being forced down the Gemonian Steps, a long dagger held at his throat. Already his fine clothing has been torn back and is stained with his blood. Surrounded by this seething mob, his face shows naked fear, and the knowledge that in a few moments, it will all be over.

Exactly two months after Vespasian’s son Titus succeeded as emperor, just as everyone was hoping that the empire was becoming increasingly peaceful and stable, nature intervened for tens of thousands of Roman citizens living in the sizeable town of Pompeii and the nearby city and port of Herculaneum, on the Bay of Naples.

Following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 CE, which overwhelmed and killed most of the population of Pompeii and neighbouring towns, the Romans abandoned the site which had been buried in lava, ash, and rock until their rediscovery in 1599. By the early nineteenth century, their story had become popular, and was inspiring artists to show that most famous eruption of the volcano.

The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, restored 2011 by John Martin 1789-1854
John Martin (1789–1854), The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum (1822, restored 2011), oil on canvas, 161.6 x 253 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1869), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2017), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/martin-the-destruction-of-pompei-and-herculaneum-n00793

As far as I can tell, John Martin never visited Italy, let alone witnessed Vesuvius erupting, but painted a series of very large works of apocalyptic visions, among them The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum in 1822. This is a Romantic and highly wrought depiction of the eruption.

Martin was careful, though, to base this imaginative view on local geography. It is seen from the town of Stabiae, some distance away on the shore of the Bay of Naples. Herculaneum, in the left distance, has already been swallowed up by lava flows, whose flames and smoke rise above its site. Pompeii, shown in full view at the foot of the volcano, is still seen clearly, with its circular theatre and basilica.

In the foreground are some of the survivors who have fled in the vessels being tossed around in huge waves below.

This painting was first shown to the public in London in 1822, when it was part of a programme of entertainments which mixed art with spectacle. It was originally commissioned by Richard Greville, and in 1867 was purchased by the National Gallery in London. Later transferred to the Tate, it was in storage in the gallery’s basement when that was badly flooded in 1928. Initially written off as damaged beyond repair, it was eventually painstakingly restored in 2011.

Karl Bryullov (1799–1852), The Last Days of Pompeii (1830-33), oil on canvas, 456.5 x 651 cm, The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Karl Pavlovich Bryullov visited Pompeii in 1828, when he was living in Rome, painting portraits and genre works. Some time between 1830 and 1833, he painted The Last Days of Pompeii, with its closer focus on the chaos, destruction, and death among the people in the streets of the town. To avoid overwhelming the viewer with the spectacle, he has carefully hidden the volcano behind collapsing buildings at the right.

Pierre Olivier Joseph Coomans (1816–1889), The Last Hour of Pompeii – The House of the Poet (1869), oil on canvas, 101 × 158.1 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph Coomans became most enthused about trying to depict Pompeii in the fateful hour or so before disaster struck. The Last Hour of Pompeii – The House of the Poet (1869) is a detailed reconstruction showing a crowded interior of a spacious villa. Coomans clearly had a great eye for detail, showing family pets such as a couple of cats and a tortoise. In the distance, plumes of black smoke rise from the growing eruptions of Vesuvius, which was shortly to engulf and kill everyone present.

Titus was to die of natural causes after a reign of little more than two years.