XV

MUTINY ON THE RHINE

Caesar is here! Caesar is here!” The word ran through the ranks of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion and the other legions assembled at Mainz.

And there he was. Field Marshal Germanicus Caesar, great-nephew of Augustus, nephew and adopted son of Tiberius, striding to the tribunal with the purple, ankle-length cloak of commander in chief flowing behind him. He was just twenty-eight. The men of the 14th G.M.V. had known him since he’d arrived at Sisak in Pannonia in the spring of A.D. 7. He’d been leading a force of militia hastily raised at Rome by Augustus after Tiberius suffered setbacks against the Pannonian rebels and fear seized the residents of the capital. Germanicus had then been only twenty-two, but the Roman public already idolized him, and the very fact that he’d been sent to help Tiberius had reassured a nervous citizenry that the rebellion would now be quelled. Germanicus had won new admirers by leading a flying column in Pannonia with dash—the only flying column commander to achieve substantial results. By the end of the war in A.D. 9, with one Bato dead and the other in chains, Germanicus was storming town after town in Dalmatia. After Pannonia, he’d served under Tiberius on the Rhine. Only this year, Augustus had appointed Germanicus to take over from Tiberius as Rhine commander in chief. Now, in late August of A.D. 14, Augustus was dead, and the legions were in turmoil.

Germanicus stepped up onto the tribunal.

“Hail, commander!” the twenty thousand assembled legionaries of the Army of the Upper Rhine boomed. But there was none of the applause that usually accompanied his appearance on the tribunal. The men were waiting to hear what he had to say.

As he surveyed the serried ranks of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix, 2nd Augusta, 13th Gemina, and 16th Gallica Legions, the men studied him. He was well-built, athletic. He looked a great deal like his grandfather Mark Antony—square jaw, big mouth, curly hair, thick neck. But he had charisma Antony never possessed, with bright, lively eyes, a ready smile, and a common touch that made every legionary he met think he was special. Now, as he prepared to speak, his eyes rested on the men of the 14th G.M.V. Legion. They were the primary reason for his hurried ride up the Rhine from Cologne. It was their grievance that had inspired the entire A.U.R. to mutiny.

It all hung on the death of the emperor Augustus on August 19. He’d been seventy-seven when he finally died, at a house outside Naples. Few who’d known him as a sickly youth would have imagined he would live so long. Yet despite his age, no one had been prepared for his death, least of all the legions. It was as if the captain of the ship had died at the wheel. Now the crew was running around in confusion. Trouble had broken out immediately in Pannonia, where the legions stationed there, the 8th Augusta, 9th Hispana, and 15th Apollinaris, had killed their more brutal centurions and thrown out their other officers. They’d then prepared a list of demands. At the top of the list: drop twenty-year enlistments; the legions must return to sixteen-year enlistments.

Word of the mutiny quickly spread to the Rhine legions, and the men of the 14th G.M.V. had taken up the demands. The 14th’s last discharge and reenlistment had been in A.D. 11, when the new enlistment period of twenty years had been introduced to the legion. The men who had signed up to serve a second enlistment in the 14th G.M.V.—an enlistment of twenty years this time—were now three years into their new enlistment, having served a total of nineteen years since originally joining. The second enlistment men of the 14th hadn’t liked the idea of a twenty-year enlistment, but they hadn’t relished the idea of life as civilians again either. So they’d signed on again. But now, after three years during which there had been no campaigning, no fighting, no booty, just chores, drills, the boredom of life around the post, with equally bored and frustrated centurions belting them with vine sticks for minor infringements of discipline, they’d had enough and were ready to quit.

The three other legions of the Upper Army had gone along with the 14th, although they didn’t have as big an ax to grind. The four legions of the Army of the Lower Rhine, on the other hand, were of the same mind as the 14th—as they let Germanicus know when he’d arrived back at his headquarters at their Cologne base shortly after the death of the emperor. He’d been supervising the annual tax collection in Gaul when he’d heard that Augustus was dead and then that his Rhine legions had mutinied.

There was another problem to complicate and destabilize the situation. While Tiberius had long been seen as Augustus’s heir apparent, Augustus had never formalized his succession. To many in Rome, Tiberius had only to claim the throne for it to be his. But now the insecure Tiberius held back. He asked the Praetorian Guard and the German Guard to provide him with personal protection, and sent elements of both to forcibly settle the Pannonian mutiny—under his son and Germanicus’s adoptive brother Drusus and one of the two prefects of the Praetorian Guard, Colonel Lucius Sejanus. But he didn’t make any attempt to move into Augustus’s Palatium or declare himself emperor.

In this power vacuum, with Rome leaderless and uncertain, Germanicus had returned to Cologne. He’d found the camp being shared by the 1st, 5th Alaudae, 20th Valeria Victrix, and 21st Rapax Legions in disarray. No centurions were on duty; all had been ejected by the legions. When he’d called an assembly, the men listened with just an occasional murmur as he’d extolled the military achievements of Tiberius. But when he asked why his legionaries had turned against their officers, they spoke up, complaining of the cost of buying furloughs from their centurions, yelling that they were badly paid, baring the scars from vine stick beatings. They were fed up, they said—with digging entrenchments, with lugging lumber and horse feed. This wasn’t soldiers’ work.

Most of all, they told him, they were unhappy at having to serve twenty-year enlistments. The last discharge and reenlistment for one of these legions had been in 4 B.C., and in 1 B.C. for the others. If they’d still been serving sixteen-year enlistments the conscripts of the 1st Legion could have gone home a year ago. The men of the other units, instead of being discharged in two years’ time, still had another six to serve. Tacitus writes of the veterans of these legions complaining that they were exhausted after serving in thirty campaigns or more. One military campaign per year was the norm for the legions. The second-enlistment men of three of these legions had served thirty years by A.D. 14, while those of the 1st Legion had served thirty-three.

They swore that their complaints weren’t directed at Germanicus—so much so that when one legionary declared that if Germanicus wanted to take the throne, the Rhine armies would back him all the way, there were loud choruses of agreement. Soon, thousands were voicing the same sentiment. Germanicus’s face had clouded over. As the deafening shouts continued, he’d tried to leave the tribunal. But men broke ranks and surged around him, urging him to become their emperor.

When he’d declared that he’d rather kill himself than take the throne that was legitimately Tiberius’s, his father’s, a soldier of the 1st Legion had offered him his sword. Germanicus’s staff had hustled their commander to the camp praetorium, and there, as the officers discussed courses of action, word arrived that the mutineers were sending messengers upriver to the 14th G.M.V. and their other brother legions of the Upper Army at Mainz, telling them what had just taken place. Germanicus’s staff began to fear that all eight legions would go on a looting rampage throughout Gaul. There also was the concern that once the Germans on the far side of the Rhine came to hear about the mutiny they might be inspired to launch a raid across the river, or worse, a full-scale invasion. Some of Germanicus’s officers were all for bringing in auxiliaries from camps along the Rhine and calling up fresh recruits from the allied tribes in the Gallic and German provinces to end the mutiny by force. But Germanicus wasn’t prepared to contemplate a step he considered tantamount to launching into civil war.

Deciding to give the legions the one thing they wanted most, he drafted a letter. He agreed to unconditionally discharge and send into honorable retirement with their 12,000-sesterce retirement bonus all men who had served for more than Augustus’s stipulated period of service—twenty years. This took in the second-enlistment men of all four A.L.R. legions. He would also discharge all who had served at least the original sixteen-year period of service—the balance of the 1st Legion—but these men had to stay in camp, on their legion rolls, available to serve behind their standards in emergencies.

The men at Cologne had soon accepted the offer and ended their rebellion. That had left only the legionaries of the 14th G.M.V. and the other legions at Mainz. This was why Germanicus was here now, looking out over their faces. He proceeded to require them all to swear an oath of allegiance to Tiberius as emperor. Tacitus says that as he spoke the words, the men of three legions readily repeated them and took the oath. But the legionaries of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix remained silent and folded their arms.

Germanicus knew what was in their heads. Technically, the 14th didn’t qualify for the unconditional discharge he’d granted the legions of the Lower Army—they’d missed out by one year. Fully aware of this, and confronted by the legion’s hesitation, he thought on his feet. Germanicus now announced that he was extending the unconditional discharge and retirement bonus payment offer to the second-enlistment men of the 14th, regardless. Broad smiles appeared on the faces of the men of the 14th’s senior cohorts.

“Do you agree?” Germanicus asked.

There was a unanimous shout in the affirmative. The satisfied men of the legion promptly swore allegiance to Tiberius. Now that all eight legions had sworn for Tiberius and returned to the authority of their officers, all problems seemed to have been resolved. Germanicus returned to Cologne, where he was joined by his wife, Agrippina—called Agrippina the Elder by historians—Augustus’s granddaughter. They were a loving couple and, unusually for a Roman general’s wife, she lived in camp with her husband. Most of their children were raised at Rome while they were away, at Germanicus’s palace below Augustus’s Palatium on the slopes of the Palatine Hill, but Germanicus and Agrippina always kept their then youngest child with them. Agrippina was to bear Germanicus nine children, and for years on end she was almost perpetually pregnant. Currently their youngest child was a boy, Gaius, born, according to Pliny the Elder, in A.D. 12 in Luxembourg, close to Trier and the Rhine. The boy had spent his first two years in legion camps with his parents, where he was adored by the troops. A legion tailor made the infant a tiny blood-red legionary tunic. A legion cobbler made him military-style sandals, caligulae. The Rhine legionaries soon gave the child a nickname that his parents liked so much they used it themselves: Little Boot. In Latin it was Caligula.

On May 18, Augustus had sent Caligula from Rome, where he’d wintered with his siblings, to rejoin his parents on the Rhine, accompanied by two of the emperor’s personal servants and a doctor. By September, Agrippina, pregnant again after a hiatus of fewer than two years, was now with Germanicus at Cologne, along with Caligula, who had celebrated his second birthday on August 31.

Sometime toward the end of September, as the legions were just settling into their winter quarters, the peace was disrupted by the unheralded arrival in Cologne of a party of senators from Rome led by Senator Lucius Munatius Plancus, a consul the previous year. Senator Plancus announced that the Senate delegation had come to discuss the concessions Germanicus had made to the legions. Via the express riders of the Cursus Publicus, word had quickly reached Rome of the mutiny and of how Germanicus had settled it. Germanicus’s chief of staff, Brigadier General Seius Tubero, described by Tacitus as an intimate friend of Tiberius, also had probably sent messages to Rome. The feeling in the Senate, the envoys now told Germanicus, was that he’d been too generous, and they’d come straight from the capital to investigate the situation for themselves.

Tiberius was behind this delegation. Fearful of rivals, he hadn’t yet taken any step toward taking the throne. He held back, waiting to see what Germanicus would do. Not only was he jealous of the young man’s popularity with the Roman people—he’d been forced by Augustus to adopt Germanicus and make him his heir—he also was fearful of what Germanicus might do with the backing of the eight legions on the Rhine. With the ambitious and manipulative Praetorian Guard commander Sejanus feeding his fears, Tiberius couldn’t bring himself to believe that Germanicus was so selfless that he would turn down the legions’ offer to make him emperor. Tiberius wanted an excuse to remove Germanicus from the Rhine command given to him by Augustus. But if Tiberius simply fired him, he knew the legions could revolt in Germanicus’s favor. The senatorial delegation had come to the Rhine seeking grounds for the Senate to dismiss Germanicus in a way by which no blame could be attached to Tiberius.

Germanicus knew all this. And the last thing he needed was for the mutiny to flare up again and give the senators the excuse they were looking for. There were only two legions wintering at Cologne, the 1st and 20th V.V. The 5th and 21st Rapax had gone into winter quarters at Castra Vetus, Old Camp, sixty miles downstream. But these two were enough to ruin everything. Veterans of the 1st and 20th V.V. Legions, convinced that the senators intended canceling their concessions, gave way to their fears and attacked the delegation in the camp late at night. Senator Plancus had to hide in the tent of the eagle-bearer of the 1st overnight. The next day, Germanicus sent the delegation back to Rome with an escort, knowing that he would have to do something drastic to save his job.

He then told Agrippina that she and Caligula must leave Cologne for Trier at once. In the new year she would give birth to a daughter, Agrippina the Younger, and Germanicus had planned all along to send his wife into confinement in Trever territory, as he had when she was expecting Caligula, although not quite this early in the pregnancy. Agrippina didn’t want to leave his side, but once Germanicus explained his motives to her, she agreed to go without delay.

When the legionaries saw their commander in chief ’s pregnant wife departing from the camp, taking their good-luck charm Caligula with her, they begged her to stay. But she continued on her way. Men then crowded around Germanicus, pleading for his wife and popular young son to be brought back. Nothing could be worse than entrusting mother and child to the Gauls, they said, swearing that no harm would come to the pair while they remained in a legion camp.

Germanicus, a trained and skillful speaker, then addressed them, and they listened in shame as he told them he had removed his wife and child because he genuinely feared for their lives. He had lost faith in these legions, Tacitus records him as saying. “After all, what haven’t you dared over these past few days?” he went on. “What am I supposed to call you? ‘Soldiers’? Men who threatened your commander’s son? ‘Citizens’? When you’ve trampled on the authority of the Senate?”

He spoke of the finest hours of Julius Caesar and Augustus. Descended from them both as he was, he said, it would be a strange and unworthy thing if he was turned on by the same legions that had served them. He reminded his audience that both these legions at Cologne had received their standards from Tiberius himself at their last enlistments—the 1st Legion in 4 B.C., the 20th V.V. in 1 B.C. He reminded the men of the 20th of the Pannonian War battles he’d shared with them, and of the rewards Tiberius had given them for their victories in those battles. What was he to tell Tiberius, he asked, about these men Tiberius himself had led? Men who now murdered centurions, threw out tribunes, and imprisoned senatorial envoys. He should have taken his own life the day he arrived back from Gaul, he said—then he would have died before learning what a disgraceful army this was. And then the troops could have chosen a general “who would avenge the death of Varus and his three legions.”

Avenge Varus? Many a lowered head came snapping up. Germanicus must have decided on this course of action as he set Senator Plancus and his party on the road back to Rome. It was a dramatic and masterly way to kill two birds with one stone.

“Heaven help me,” he said, “I will not allow the Belgians the glory and honor of rescuing Rome’s name and subduing the tribes of Germany, even though they’ve offered.” There is no proof that there had been any such offer. Germanicus was bluffing.

Tacitus says that Germanicus saw an immediate change in the expressions on the faces of the men around him. Roman legionaries were more than proud, they were also arrogant. They had little time for the auxiliaries attached to their units—noncitizens and foreigners—let alone their Gallic and Belgian “allies.” How dare the Belgians offer to take revenge for the Varus disaster! If anyone was to do it, the legions would!

Germanicus’s address didn’t have the brevity of a speech by Julius Caesar or the construction of an oration by Cato. But it had the same power. His troops begged his forgiveness. Bring back his family, they called. Punish the guilty among their ranks. Pardon those who’d been led astray. And lead the legions against the Germans.

In reply, Germanicus said his wife would stay away until after she gave birth, but Caligula would come back right away. Agrippina would in fact soon return to Cologne, no doubt at her insistence, where Agrippina the Younger was born in the new year.

“As for everything else,” Germanicus said, “you can settle matters yourselves.”

Away the soldiers hurried—altered men, says Tacitus. They had experienced such a change of heart, says Dio, that of their own accord they arrested the ringleaders of the mutiny. The chief mutineers were dragged in chains to Brigadier General Gaius Caetronius, commander of the 1st Legion and most senior of the A.L.R.’s legion commanders. Preparations were made, and then the legions were called to assembly.

The men of the legions and the separated groups of semiretired veterans quickly fell in and came to attention as General Caetronius took his place beside Germanicus on the tribunal. The throng of accused mutineers was made to stand on a raised platform, in chains, facing the men of their own units, with centurions on either side of them.

An order rang out: “Draw swords!” All the assembled legionaries of the 1st and 20th slid their swords from the scabbards on their right hips. One at a time, mutineers on the platform were pointed out by young tribunes of their legion.

“Guilty or not guilty?” a lieutenant colonel called.

If the men yelled back “Guilty!” then the prisoner was thrown headlong into the ranks, and the troops, the man’s former comrades, cut him to pieces. One after the other they were dealt with like this. The rank and file enjoyed the bloody business. Tacitus says it was like absolution for their sins, for their own mutinous acts or thoughts.

As the corpses were being hauled away, the second-enlistment veterans of the legions were ordered to collect their gear before marching up the Rhine to the province of Rhaetia, in present-day Switzerland, where they would settle in their retirement. This was nominally to protect the province from the neighboring Suebi Germans, but Germanicus wanted to separate these troublesome men from their legions as quickly as possible.

Germanicus wasn’t finished. He summoned the centurions of the two legions to the tribunal, one at a time. Each man had to state his name, rank, birthplace, and length of service, list his bravery awards, then describe what courageous deeds he’d performed in battle, all in front of the watching, listening legions. The tribunes of his legion then gave their assessment of the centurion. The legions were then asked if they agreed. If tribunes and legions commended his energy and good behavior, the centurion retained his rank. But if charged with greed or cruelty, he was dishonorably discharged on the spot.

Germanicus sent a message to Lieutenant General Aulus Caecina, at the camp of the 5th Alaudae and 21st Rapax Legions farther down the Rhine, ordering him to deal out similar punishment to the mutineers there. Caecina, a consul with Senator Plancus the previous year, had forty years’ experience in the army. In his sixties now, the wily general called in the eagle-bearers, standard-bearers, and legionaries he could trust, read them Germanicus’s letter, and told them to sort out the mutiny’s ringleaders themselves. In the middle of the night, with swords drawn, the loyal troops went into ringleaders’ tents and dealt out rough justice. A few days later, when Germanicus arrived at Old Camp, General Caecina showed him bodies in piles, hundreds of them, proof that his orders had been carried out, that the mutineers had been dealt with. Germanicus sadly shook his head. “This was destruction rather than remedy,” he remarked before ordering the bodies burned.

The men of the 14th G.M.V. and other A.U.R. units escaped the bloody punishments. Yet, despite the executions downriver, or perhaps because of them, the result was as dramatic at Mainz as at the other legion camps. Germanicus had won back the respect, loyalty, and obedience of the soldiery. And he had created a thirst for action.

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