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Italian Civilization Through the Ages

Unit 10, topic 4: Tacitus narrates a mutiny of the Roman legions

10.4 The mutiny of the legions

  • Tacitus's initial passage, describing of the harsh life of Roman soldiers, has been considered one of the most realistic portraits of the military under the Roman empire: as such it was analyzed by German scholar Eric Auerbach, in his book Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953), where it is presented as a great example of classical realism
    • However, after such a realistic description, Tacitus refuses to take side, even momentarily, with the soldiers
    • Look carefully at the way Tacitus frames the speech given by one of the instigators of the mutiny, Percennius: rather than attacking him directly, he takes away his credibility by reframing his statements, with references to his past in the theaters and to his questionable morals

Paternalism in Tacitus's agenda

  • Tacitus's agenda is clear: like many of the conservative Roman Senators, who deplored the Senate's loss of power under the Empire, he did not look favorably at the political alliance between the Emperors and the soldiers
    • Tacitus is trying to portray the soldiers as irrational and irresponsible, and the Emperors as irresolute, inept or immoral
    • He wants to instill in his readers the idea that Rome needs the more experienced, mature and balanced Senators to moderate, control and steer the whole of Roman society in the right direction

The mutiny as narrated by Tacitus: its premise

  • “A mutiny broke out in the legions of Pannonia, which could be traced to no fresh cause except the change of emperors and the prospect it held out of license in tumult and of profit from a civil war
  • 3 legions were quartered, under the command of Junius Blaesus, who on hearing of the death of Augustus and the accession of Tiberius, had allowed his men a rest from military duties, either for mourning or rejoicing
  • This was the beginning of demoralization among the troops, of quarreling, of listening to the talk of every pestilent fellow, in short, of craving for luxury and idleness and loathing discipline and toil”

The instigator

  • “In the camp was one Percennius, who had once been a leader of one of the theatrical factions, then became a common soldier, had a saucy tongue, and had learnt from his applause of actors how to stir up a crowd
  • By working on ignorant minds, which doubted as to what would be the terms of military service after Augustus, this man gradually influenced them in conversations at night or at nightfall, and when the better men had dispersed, he gathered round him all the worst spirits”

The speech by Percennius

  • “At last, when there were others ready to be abettors of a mutiny, he asked, in the tone of a demagogue, why, like slaves, they submitted to a few centurions and still fewer tribunes
  • 'When will you dare to demand relief? We have blundered enough by our tameness for so many years, in having to endure thirty or forty campaigns till we grow old, most of us with bodies maimed by wounds'”

The harsh life of the Roman soldiers

  • ”'If a soldier survives so many risks, he is still dragged into remote regions where, under the name of lands, he receives soaking swamps or mountainous wastes
  • Assuredly, military service itself is burdensome and unprofitable
    • Ten asses a day is the value set on life and limb: out of this, clothing, arms, tents, as well as the mercy of centurions and exemptions from duty have to be purchased
    • But indeed of floggings and wounds, of hard winters, wearisome summers, of terrible war, or barren peace, there is no end'”

The reaction of the soldiers

  • ”'Do the praetorian cohorts, which have just got their two denarii per man, and which after sixteen years are restored to their homes, encounter more perils?
  • We do not disparage the guards of the capital
  • Still, here amid barbarous tribes we have to face the enemy from our tents'
  • The throng applauded from various motives, some pointing with indignation to the marks of the lash, others to their gray locks, and most of them to their threadbare garments and naked limbs”


  • ”…in their fury they went so far as to propose to combine the three legions into one
    • Driven from their purpose by the jealousy with which every one sought the chief honour for his own legion, they turned to other thoughts, and set up in one spot the three eagles, with the ensigns of the cohorts
  • At the same time they piled up turf and raised a mound, that they might have a more conspicuous meeting-place”

Blaesus, the commanding officer

  • “Amid the bustle Blaesus came up
  • He upbraided them and held back man after man with the exclamation 'Better imbrue your hands in my blood: it will be less guilt to slay your commander than it is to be in revolt from the emperor. Either living I will uphold the loyalty of the legions, or pierced to the heart I will hasten on your repentance'
  • None the less however was the mound piled up, and it was quite breast high when, at last overcome by his persistency, they gave up their purpose”

The commanding officer speaks

  • “Blaesus, with the consummate tact of an orator, said
    • 'It is not through mutiny and tumult that the desires of the army ought to be communicated to Caesar, nor did our soldiers of old ever ask so novel a boon of ancient commanders
    • It is far from opportune that the emperor's cares, now in their first beginning, should be aggravated
    • If, however, you are bent upon attempting in peace what even after your victory in the civil wars you did not demand, why, contrary to the habit of obedience, contrary to the law of discipline, do you meditate violence?
    • Decide on sending envoys, and give them instructions'”

The aftermath: a new arrogance

  • “It was carried by acclamation that the son of Blaesus, one of the tribunes, should undertake the mission, and demand for the soldiers release from service after sixteen years
  • After the young man departure there was comparative quiet, but there was an arrogant tone among the soldiers, to whom the fact that their commander's son was pleading their common cause clearly showed that they had wrested by compulsion what they had failed to obtain by good behavior”

Mutiny spreads to strategic areas

  • “Meanwhile the companies which previous to the mutiny had been sent to Nauportus to make roads and bridges, when they heard of the tumult in the camp, tore up the standards
    • having plundered the neighboring villages and Nauportus itself, assailed the centurions who restrained them with jeers and insults, last of all, with blows
  • On the arrival of these troops the mutiny broke out afresh, and straggling from the camp they plundered the neighborhood
  • Blaesus ordered a few who had conspicuously loaded themselves with spoil to be scourged and imprisoned as a terror to the rest”

The soldiers involved in the mutiny

  • “As the men were dragged off, they struggled violently, clasped the knees of the bystanders, called to their comrades by name, or to the company, cohort, or legion to which they respectively belonged, exclaiming that all were threatened with the same fate
    • At the same time they heaped abuse on the commander
    • They appealed to heaven and to the gods, and left nothing undone by which they might excite resentment and pity, alarm and rage
  • They all rushed to the spot, broke open the guardhouse, unbound the prisoners, and were in a moment fraternizing with deserters and men convicted on capital charges”

A worrisome pattern

  • “This intelligence had such an effect on Tiberius, close as he was, and most careful to hush up every very serious disaster, that he dispatched his son Drusus with the leading men of the State and with two praetorian cohorts, without any definite instructions, to take suitable measures
    • The cohorts were strengthened beyond their usual force with some picked troops
    • With them too was the commander of the praetorians, Aelius Sejanus, who had been associated with his own father, Strabo, had great influence with Tiberius, and was to advise and direct the young prince, and to hold out punishment or reward to the soldiers”

Lack of order, lack of leadership

  • “When Drusus approached, the legions, as a mark of respect, met him, not as usual, with glad looks or the glitter of military decorations, but in unsightly squalor, and faces which, though they simulated grief, rather expressed defiance
  • As soon as he entered the entrenchments, they secured the gates with sentries, and ordered bodies of armed men to be in readiness at certain points of the camp
  • The rest crowded round the general's tribunal in a dense mass”

Simple minds, simple strategies

  • “Drusus stood there, and with a gesture of his hand demanded silence
  • As often as they turned their eyes back on the throng, they broke into savage exclamations, then looking up to Drusus they trembled
  • There was a confused hum, a fierce shouting, and a sudden lull
  • Urged by conflicting emotions, they felt panic and they caused the like”

Tiberius's political maneuvering

  • “At last, in an interval of the uproar, Drusus read his father's letter, in which it was fully stated that he had a special care for the brave legions with which he had endured a number of campaigns
  • That, as soon as his mind had recovered from its grief, he would lay their demands before the Senators
  • That meanwhile he had sent his son to concede unhesitatingly what could be immediately granted, and that the rest must be reserved for the Senate, which ought to have a voice in showing either favor or severity”

The blame game and other tricks of the Emperors

  • ”'Why had he come, neither to increase the soldiers' pay, nor to alleviate their hardships, in a word, with no power to better their lot?
  • Yet heaven knew that all were allowed to scourge and to execute.
  • Tiberius used formerly in the name of Augustus to frustrate the wishes of the legions, and the same tricks were now revived by Drusus
  • Was it only sons who were to visit them?
  • Certainly, it was a new thing for the emperor to refer to the Senate merely what concerned the soldier's interests'”

Primitive minds, casual tactics

  • “That terrible night which threatened an explosion of crime was tranquillized by a mere accident: suddenly in a clear sky the moon's radiance seemed to die away
  • This the soldiers in their ignorance of the cause regarded as an omen of their condition, comparing the failure of her light to their own efforts
  • And so they raised a din with brazen instruments and the combined notes of trumpets and horns, with joy or sorrow, as she brightened or grew dark
  • Drusus, thinking that he ought to avail himself of this change in their temper and turn what chance had offered to a wise account, ordered the tents to be visited”

The superstition of the soldiers

  • Tacitus judges the superstitious behavior of the soldiers From the point of view of the rationalist philosophy of Stoicism
    • “The men's troubles were increased by an early winter with continuous storms so violent that they could not go beyond their tents or meet together or keep the standards in their places, from which they were perpetually torn by hurricane and rain
    • And there still lingered the dread of the divine wrath, nor was it without meaning, they thought, that, hostile to an impious host, the stars grew dim and storms burst over them”

The slaughter that ends the second mutiny

  • “Upon this, they sounded those whom they thought best for their purpose, and when they saw that a majority of their legions remained loyal, at the commander's suggestion they fixed a time for falling with the sword on all the vilest and foremost of the mutineers
  • Then, at a mutually given signal, they rushed into the tents, and butchered the unsuspecting men, none but those in the secret knowing what was the beginning or what was to be the end of the slaughter”

Tacitus offer his comments

  • “The scene was a contrast to all civil wars which have ever occurred
    • It was not in battle, it was not from opposing camps, it was from those same dwellings where day saw them at their common meals, night resting from labor, that they divided themselves into two factions, and showered on each other their missiles
    • Uproar, wounds, bloodshed, were everywhere visible; the cause was a mystery
    • All else was at the disposal of chance”

The massacre of the Germans

  • “Soon afterwards Germanicus entered the camp, and exclaiming with a flood of tears, that this was destruction rather than remedy, ordered the bodies to be burnt
  • Even then their savage spirit was seized with desire to march against the enemy, as an atonement for their frenzy
    • it was felt that the shades of their fellow-soldiers could be appeased only by exposing such impious breasts to honorable scars
  • Caesar followed up the enthusiasm of the men
    • Caesar, to spread devastation widely, divided his eager legions into 4 columns, and ravaged a space of 50 miles with fire and sword”

More superstition - Tiberius's reaction

  • “Neither sex nor age moved his compassion
  • Everything, sacred or profane, the temple too of Tamfana, as they called it, the special resort of all those tribes, was leveled to the ground
  • There was not a wound among our soldiers, who cut down a half-asleep, an unarmed, or a straggling foe
  • The news was a source of joy and also of anxiety to Tiberius
    • He rejoiced that the mutiny was crushed, but the fact that Germanicus had won the soldiers' favor by lavishing money, and promptly granting the discharge, as well as his fame as a soldier, annoyed him”

Final remarks on this narration

  • After giving one of the most accurate and realistic descriptions ever of the conditions of the members of the military at the beginning of the Roman Empire, Tacitus takes great pain to remind his readers that all of this happened exactly when the soldiers were allowed to rest and relax, and that without proper guidance or strict rules their minds began to wander (which implies that laziness is the sin that produced all that havoc)
  • The author seems to give too much credit to the manipulative arts and the powers of one Percennius, whose former employment in the theaters becomes all of a sudden greatly relevant and also highly suspicious

Classical historiography and Tacitus

  • Overall, the entire episode is meant to convey the idea that the political alliance between Emperors and soldiers cannot benefit Roman society and may in fact gravely affect its future
    • Don't overlook the reference to the sacrilege committed by the soldiers when they destroy a temple of the barbarians, exposing all Romans to the possibility of a revenge by angry pagan divinities
  • The underlying assumption is that when the Army and its leaders were under the supervision and the leadership of the Senate, Roman society was more secure and stronger
  • Even during the worst times of political turmoil at the end of the republic, Tacitus suggests, there was never such a display of immorality, injustice and lack of discipline


hui216_10/lectures/unit_10.4.txt · Last modified: 2010/04/26 11:15 by afedi
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