Ancient History & Civilisation

Mutiny on the Frontiers


WHILE these events were taking place at Rome, mutiny broke out in the regular army in Pannonia. There were no fresh motives for this, except that the change of emperors offered hopes of rioting with impunity and collecting the profits afforded by civil wars. Three brigades were stationed together in a summer camp with Quintus Junius Blaesus in command. When he heard of the death of Augustus and accession of Tiberius, he suspended normal duty for public mourning (or rejoicing). This was when insubordination and altercation began.

Before long, easy living and idleness were all the troops wanted; the idea of work and discipline became distasteful. There was a man called Percennius in the camp. Having become a private soldier after being a professional applause-leader in the theatre, he was insolent of tongue, and experienced in exciting crowds to cheer actors. The soldiers, simple men, were worried – now that Augustus was dead – about their future terms of service. Percennius gradually worked on them. After dark or in the evening twilight, when the better elements had dispersed to their tents and the riff-raff collected, they talked with him.

Finally Percennius had acquired a team of helpers ready for mutiny. Then he made something like a public speech. ‘Why’, he asked, ‘obey, like slaves, a few commanders of companies, fewer still of battalions? You will never be brave enough to demand better conditions if you are not prepared to petition – or threaten – an emperor who is new and still faltering. Inactivity has done quite enough harm in all these years. Old men, mutilated by wounds, are serving their thirtieth or fortieth year. And even after your official discharge your service is not finished; for you stay on with the colours as a reserve, still under canvas – the same drudgery under another name! And if you manage to survive all these hazards, even then you are dragged off to a remote country and “settled” in some waterlogged swamp or untilled mountainside. Truly the army is a harsh, unrewarding profession! Body and soul are reckoned at two and a half sesterces a day1 – and with this you have to find clothes, weapons, tents, and bribes for brutal company-commanders if you want to avoid chores.

‘Heaven knows, lashes and wounds are always with us! So are hard winters and hardworking summers, grim war and unprofitable peace. There will never be improvement until service is based on a contract – pay, four sesterces a day; duration of service, sixteen years with no subsequent recall; a gratuity to be paid in cash before leaving the camp. Guardsmen receive eight sesterces a day, and after sixteen years they go home. Yet obviously their service is no more dangerous than yours. I am not saying a word against sentry-duty in the capital. Still, here are we among tribes of savages, with the enemy actually visible from our quarters!’

Percennius had an enthusiastic reception. As one point or another struck home, his hearers indignantly showed their lash-marks, their white hair, their clothes so tattered that their bodies showed through. Finally, in frenzied excitement, they clamoured that the three brigades should be merged into one. But jealousy wrecked this suggestion, because everyone wanted it to take his own brigade’s name. So the proposal was altered, and instead the three Eagles, and the standards of the battalions, were put side by side. Turf was piled up, and a platform erected so as to make the place as conspicuous as possible. As they were hurrying ahead with this, Blaesus came up and began to revile them. Seizing hold of one man after another, he cried: ‘Dye your hands in my blood instead! It would be less criminal to kill your general than to rebel against the emperor. As long as I live I shall keep my troops loyal – if I die, my death will help to bring them to their senses.’

Nevertheless, the mound of turf kept rising. But when it was already breast-high, the stubborn perseverance of Blaesus won the day and they gave up the project. Then he made a tactful appeal to them. Rioting and mutiny were not, he said, the best ways of bringing grievances to the emperor’s notice. The army had never in former days put such unheard-of-proposals to its commanders. Nor had they themselves ever put them to the divine Augustus. Besides, at this early stage of the reign it was untimely to add to the emperor’s burdens. If, however (Blaesus continued) it was their firm intention to claim, in peacetime, what even the winners of civil wars had never claimed, then they must not plan violent, undisciplined, insubordinate measures – they must appoint delegates and brief them, in his presence. There was a clamorous reply that Blaesus’ own son (a colonel) should be the delegate and should request the sixteen-year term of service, his further instructions to follow when the first had produced results. The colonel left for Rome. Then things became fairly peaceful. But the men were pleased with themselves, since the fact that the general’s son had gone to speak in the common cause showed clearly that force had secured more than correct behaviour could ever have.

Before the disturbances began, detachments had been sent to Nauportus for various tasks such as road-making and bridge-building. When these men heard of the troubles in camp, they tore down their colours and looted the villages nearby and even Nauportus itself, a community large enough to rank as a town. Company-commanders who tried to restrain them were jeered at and abused, and finally beaten. The principal object of their anger was the corps chief-of-staff, Aufidienus Rufus. They pulled him out of his carriage, piled baggage on his back and drove him along at the head of the column, with frequent mocking inquiries whether he enjoyed these heavy burdens and protracted marches. For Rufus, promoted to company-commander and then to his present post after long service in the ranks, was all for reviving strict old-fashioned service conditions. He had won free from drudgery himself – but what he had endured made him all the more ruthless.

The arrival of the men from Nauportus revived the mutiny. Now marauders began to roam about ransacking the whole district. A few who had looted more than the rest were ordered by Blaesus to be flogged and confined to cells, in order to frighten the others; for he was still obeyed by the company-commanders and the steadier ordinary soldiers. As they were dragged away they offered resistance and grabbed at the legs of bystanders. Shouting out the names of their friends, and of their companies, battalions, and brigades, they cried that the same fate was in store for everybody – all this with repeated insults against the general and invocations of the gods. In fact, they did everything possible to arouse sympathy, indignation, ill-feeling, and panic. Everyone surged to their rescue. The cells were forced open, and deserters and condemned murderers were released and joined them.

Now the mutiny gained momentum. More and more leaders came forward. A private soldier called Vibulenus was hoisted on the shoulders of the men standing round the general’s dais. The excited crowd, watching to see what he would do, heard him speak:

‘I know you have brought these poor innocent men back to life and daylight. But you can’t give my brother back to me, or me to him! The army in Germany sent him to talk to you about our common interests – and the general had him murdered last night by the gladiators whom he keeps armed to butcher us soldiers. Answer, Blaesus – where have you put his corpse? Even enemies don’t refuse a grave. Later, when I have embraced his corpse and mourned my fill, you can tell them to murder me as well. But they mustn’t grudge us burial. We are not dying because of any crime. We are dying because we worked for the army’s good!’

To add to the inflammatory effect, Vibulenus wept and struck his face and beat his chest. Then he pushed aside those who were holding him on their shoulders, and hurled himself flat in front of one man after another, appealing to them. They went frantic with impassioned hostility. One group arrested the gladiators who were slaves in the service of Blaesus while others captured the rest of Blaesus’ household, and a further band rushed off in search of the body. Indeed if it had not rapidly come to light that there was no body to be found, that the slaves denied the murder even under torture, and that Vibulenus had never had a brother, they were not far from killing the general himself.

As it was, they turned out the other senior officers, including the chief-of-staff – looting their luggage as they fled. The company-commander Lucilius lost his life. In joking army talk his nickname was ‘Another-please’, because every time he broke a stick over a soldier’s back he used to shout loudly for another and then another. His fellow-officers found safe hiding-places, except only Julius Clemens, who was kept because his intelligence was thought to qualify him for presenting the mutineers’ demands. The eighth and fifteenth brigades nearly came to blows when one shouted for the death of a company-commander, Sirpicus by name, and the other protected him. Finally, the men of the ninth brigade intervened with appeals – and with threats of violence against those who ignored them.

The natural inscrutability of Tiberius was always particularly impenetrable in a crisis. However, this news impelled him to send to the scene his son Drusus with a distinguished staff and two battalions of the Guard. Drusus was given no definite instructions – he was to act as the circumstances required. The Guard battalions were strengthened beyond their usual numbers by picked drafts, and were further augmented by a substantial part of the horse Guards and also by the best of the Germans who at that time guarded the emperor’s person. With them went a man whose influence over Tiberius was very great, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, joint commander of the Guard with his father, Lucius Seius Strabo. He was to be the prince’s adviser, and not to let the rest of the party forget what they stood to gain – or lose.

As Drusus approached, the soldiers met him. Ostensibly this was a mark of respect. But there were none of the customary demonstrations of pleasure and glittering full-dress decorations. The men were disgustingly dirty, and their expressions, intended merely to display dejection, looked virtually treasonable. As soon as Drusus had passed inside the outworks, they picketed the gates, and set armed detachments at key points of the camp. Everyone else crowded round the dais in a gigantic mob. Drusus mounted it with a gesture calling for silence. The mutineers, looking round at the great crowd, set up a truculent roar. But the nest instant, as they caught sight of the Caesar, their nerve faltered. Violent yells alternated with confused mutterings, and then silence. They were terrifying and terrified in turn, as their feelings shifted. When Drusus finally got the better of the noise, he read out a letter from his fadier. It stated that the heroic Roman soldiers, his comrades in so many campaigns, were particularly near his heart, and that as soon as the shock of his bereavement was over, he would refer their claims to the senate. Meanwhile he had sent his son to grant without delay any concessions that could be awarded immediately. The remaining points must be saved up for the senate, which was as capable, they must understand, of generosity as of severity.

The answer came from the crowd that the company-commander Julius Clemens was briefed to put forward their demands. He started by proposing a sixteen-year term of service, with gratuities at its com­pletion, pay of four sesterces a day, and no recalls after release. Drusus urged that the senate and emperor must have their say. This caused uproar. ‘Why have you come’, they shouted, ‘if you are not going to raise salaries, improve terms of service, or help us at all? Anyone, on the other hand, is allowed to murder and flog! It used to be Tiberius who blocked the regular army’s grievances by citing Augustus. Now Drusus has revived the same old trick. It looks as though our visitors will always be young men with fathers. How curious it is that the only army matters which the emperor refers to the senate are reforms in service conditions! If he does this, he ought also to consult them when death penalties or battles are in store. Clearly when rewards are concerned, he is not his own master – whereas no one controls punishments.’

At last they left the dais. But if they came upon any Guardsmen on Drusus’ staff, they made menacing gestures, to create ill-feeling and give a pretext for open hostilities. They were particularly bitter against Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus (II), whose seniority and military distinction made them think that, being more disgusted than anyone with the scandalous conduct of the army, he was stiffening Drusus’ attitude. Shortly afterwards they caught him leaving, escorted to the gate by Drusus. Lentulus had seen danger ahead and was withdrawing to the winter camp. The men gathered round him and asked him where he was going. Was he on his way to the emperor, or to the senate – to oppose army reforms there too? Then they closed in on him and began throwing large stones. One hit him and drew blood. He was convinced that his end had come. But the hasty arrival of Drusus’ main force saved him.

The night looked like ending in a disastrous criminal outbreak. But this was averted by a stroke of luck. Suddenly, in a clear sky, the light of the moon was seen to decline. The soldiers did not know why this was, and detected an omen of their own situation. The waning moon seemed to provide an analogy to their own efforts: success would only crown the measures they were adopting if the moon-goddess shone brightly again. To produce this result they made a clattering of brass instruments and blew blasts on every sort of trumpet. The light seemed stronger, and they were happy. Then it looked dimmer, and they were mournful. Finally clouds hid it from view altogether. Men’s minds, once unbalanced, are ready to believe anything; and now they howled that heaven was sickened by their crimes, and endless hardships were in store for them.

Drusus felt that advantage must be taken of this turn of events; a lucky chance could be exploited in the interests of good sense. Summoning Julius Clemens and any other officers whose kind natures had made them popular, he ordered them to go round the tents. Insinuating themselves among the watches and pickets and sentries they worked on the men’s hopes and fears. Was it desirable, they questioned, to go on besieging the emperor’s son? Where would these disputes end? Were they going to swear loyalty to Percennius and Vibulenus? Percennius and Vibulenus were not going to replace Neros and Drususes as lords of the Roman world. They were not going to pay the army and give ex-soldiers land. ‘We were the last to give offence’, the officers suggested, ‘so let us be the first to be sorry. Reform by collective agitation is slow in coming: individuals can earn goodwill and win its rewards straightaway.’ This made a profound impression. Mutual suspicions began to undermine the solidarity between one brigade and another, between young and old. A sense of obedience gradually came back. The gates were left unguarded, and the Eagles and standards set up side by side at the beginning of the mutiny were returned to where they belonged.

At daybreak Drusus called a meeting. Though not a practised orator, he spoke with natural dignity. He censured their former behaviour, and expressed approval of their new attitude. Intimidation and menaces, he said, made no impression on him. If, however, he found that discipline had prevailed and they were pleading for pardon, he would write to his father recommending a merciful hearing for their pleas. They begged him to do this. So the younger Blaesus was again sent to Tiberius, accompanied by a Roman knight on Drusus’ staff, Lucius Aponius, and a senior company-commander, Catonius Justus. There was now a division of opinion. One proposal was that the return of this delegation should be awaited, and that meanwhile the soldiers should be treated gently and humoured. Others favoured a more forceful solution, arguing that the masses only dealt in extremes and would terrorize unless they were terrorized – once intimidated, they could be disregarded with impunity: now, when superstition had a hold of them, was the time for the general to intensify their panic by striking down the leaders of the mutiny. Drusus had a natural pre­ference for severe measures. Summoning Vibulenus and Percennius, he ordered them to be executed. Report has it that they were buried inside the general’s tent. According to another account, however, the bodies were thrown outside the lines to be exhibited. Then all the chief instigators of the mutiny were hunted up. Some were killed by company-commanders or Guardsmen as they wandered blindly about outside the camp. Others were given up by their own units as a proof of loyalty.

The hardships of the soldiers were made worse by an early winter with unceasing rain. It rained so hard that they could hardly leave their tents to confer. They could only barely save the standards from being carried away by hurricane and flood. Besides, they were still afraid of divine wrath – extinguished planets and torrential downpours seemed directly connected with their criminal actions. The only cure for their misfortunes appeared to be the evacuation of this sinister, defiled camp and their return, purged of guilt, to their various winter quarters. First the eighth brigade left, then the fifteenth. The men of the ninth had loudly favoured waiting for a reply from Tiberius. But the withdrawal of the rest left them stranded, and they did voluntarily what they would soon have been forced to do anyway.

Drusus felt that the situation had become reasonably calm. So, without awaiting the delegation’s return, he left for Rome.

At just about this time, and for the same reasons, the regular brigades in Germany mutinied too. They were more numerous, and the outbreak was proportionately graver. Moreover they were in high hopes that Germanicus,… able to tolerate another man as emperor, would put himself at the disposal of the forces, which would then sweep all before them. There were two armies on the Rhine bank. The army of Upper Germany was under the command of Gaius Silius (I), the army of Lower Germany under Aulus Caecina Severus. Their supreme commander was Germanicus, but he was occupied at this time in assessing the property-tax in the Gallic provinces.

The forces of Silius did not regard the mutiny as their own concern and watched it with mixed feelings. But the army of Lower Germany lost its senses. The two brigades which took the initiative, the twenty-first and fifth, brought in the first and twentieth, which shared their summer camp upon the borders of the Ubii and were occupied on light duty, or none at all. When the death of Augustus became known, the simple minds of the majority came under the influence of the masses of town-slaves who had recently been conscripted in the capital. Naturally insolent and lazy, they now argued that the moment had come for old soldiers to demand long-overdue demobilization, and for the younger men to demand an increase in pay. Everyone should insist on relief from their hardships, and retaliate against the savagery of their company-commanders. Here it was not just a matter of one Percennius, as in the army of Pannonia, or of soldiers nervously thinking of other and more powerful armies. This was a massive outbreak. There was a universal cry that they had won Rome’s victories, her fate rested with them, and army commanders used a surname (Germanicus) derived from them.

The general, Caecina, took no counter-measures. The scale of the disturbances broke his nerve. Suddenly, in a passionate frenzy, swords drawn, the men attacked their company-commanders – the customary targets of the army’s ill-will, and the first victims of any outbreak. They were hurled to the ground and given the lash, sixty strokes each, one for each of them in the brigade. Then, broken and mutilated, they were cast outside the lines or thrown into the Rhine, more dead than alive. One, Septimius, took refuge on the general’s dais and fell at Caecina’s feet. But he was shouted for so violently that he had to be given up to his fate. Gaius Cassius Chaerea, who later went down to history as the murderer of the emperor Gaius and was at this time young and fiery, fought his way through the armed mob which held him up. Colonels, corps chiefs-of-staff had no control any longer. Patrols and sentries, and whatever else circumstances demanded, were organized by the men themselves. Students of army psychology could see the momentous and implacable character of the revolt from the fact that its instigators were not few and far between, but there was universal, silent fury, as resolute and unanimous as if they were acting on orders.

At this time Germanicus, as I have said, was engaged upon assessments in Gaul. There he learnt that Augustus was dead. Germanicus was married to his granddaughter Agrippina (I) and had several children by her; arid since he was the son of Tiberius’ brother Nero Drusus, one of his grandparents was the Augusta. Yet Germanicus suffered from the fact that his grandmother and uncle hated him, for reasons which were unfair but all the more potent. For Nero Drusus still lived on in Roman memories. It was believed that if he had obtained control of the empire he would have brought back the free Republic. The hopes and goodwill thus engendered passed to his son, Germanicus. For this young man’s unassuming personality and popular manner were very different from the haughty, ambiguous looks and words of Tiberius. Ill-feeling among the women made things worse. The Augusta had a stepmother’s aversion to Agrippina. Agrippina herself was determined, and rather excitable. But she turned this to good account by her devoted faithfulness to her husband.

At all events Germanicus’ proximity to the summit of ambition only made him work more enthusiastically on behalf of Tiberius. After taking the oath of loyalty himself, he administered it to his immediate subordinates and to the Belgic communities. Then came the news that the army was rioting. He set out for it hurriedly.

The men met him outside the camp. They kept their eyes fixed on the ground, ostensibly remorseful. As soon as he entered their lines, however, they assailed him with all manner of complaints. Some grasped his hand as though to kiss it, but instead thrust his fingers into their mouths to make him touch their toothless gums. Others showed how old age had deformed them. They crowded round him to listen – in no sort of order. Germanicus told them to divide into their units. But they shouted back that they would hear better where they were. He said that they must at least bring their standards to the front so that it could be seen which battalion was which. Slowly they obeyed. Then Germanicus, after paying a reverent tribute to Augustus’ memory, praised the victories and triumphs of Tiberius and, by way of climax, his glorious achievements in German lands with those very brigades. He spoke appreciatively of Italy’s unanimous support for the government, and of the loyalty of the Gauls – of the perfect harmony and order prevailing everywhere.

This was received in silence or with indistinct muttering. But then Germanicus passed on to the mutiny. What on earth had happened, he asked, to their famous, traditional military discipline, and where had they driven their colonels and company-commanders? The soldiers’ reply was to tear off their clothes one after another, and point abusively to the scars left by their wounds and floggings. There was a confused roar about their wretched pay, the high cost of exemptions from duty, and the hardness of the work. Specific references were made to earthworks, excavations, foraging, collecting timber and firewood, and every other camp task that is either necessary or invented to occupy spare time. The most violent outcry came from the old soldiers, who pointed to their thirty years’ service and more, and appealed for relief from their exhaustion before death overtook them in the same old drudgery. ‘End this crushing service!’ they begged. ‘Give us rest – before we are utterly destitute!’

Some asked Germanicus for the legacies which the divine Augustus had left them – adding expressions of personal support for Germanicus. If he wanted the throne, they showed they were for him. At this point he leapt off the dais as if their criminal intentions were polluting him, and moved away. But they blocked his path and menaced him until he went back. Then, however, shouting that death was better than disloyalty, he pulled the sword from his belt and lifted it as though to plunge it into his chest. The men round him clutched his arm and stopped him by force. But the close-packed masses at the back of the crowd, and even, remarkably enough, certain individuals who had pushed themselves into prominent positions, encouraged him to strike. A soldier called Calusidius even drew his own sword and offered it, remarking that it was sharper. But even in their demented frame of mind the men found this a brutal and repellent gesture. There was a pause; and Germanicus’ friends had time to hurry him into his tent.

There they considered what was to be done. The soldiers were reported to be organizing a deputation to bring over the army of Upper Germany. They were also, it was said, planning to destroy the capital of the Ubii, and after that taste of looting to burst into the Gallic provinces and plunder them too. The situation was all the more alarming because the Germans knew of the mutiny in the Roman army: the abandonment of the Rhine bank would mean invasion. Yet to arm auxiliaries and loyal tribesmen against the rebellious regulars would be civil war. Severity appeared dangerous. But large concessions would be criminal. It would be just as desperately risky for Rome to give way about everything or about nothing. When all the arguments had been weighed and compared, it was decided to make a statement in the emperor’s name. In this, demobilization was promised after twenty years’ service. Men who had served sixteen years were to be released but kept with the colours with no duties except to help beat off enemy attacks. Moreover, the legacies which they had requested were to be paid – twice over.

The soldiers saw that these concessions were hastily improvised and demanded their immediate implementation. The discharges were speedily arranged by the senior officers. The cash payments, however, were held up until the troops reached winter camps. Two brigades, the fifth and the twenty-first, refused to move from their summer quarters until, there and then, the whole sum was paid. It had to be scraped together from the travelling funds of Germanicus himself and his staff. The general Caecina took the remaining two brigades, the first and the twentieth, back to the Ubian capital It was a scandalous march – Eagle, standards, and the cash stolen from the commander, all were carried along together.

Then Germanicus moved on to the army of Upper Germany. He had no difficulty in inducing the second, thirteenth and sixteenth brigades to take the oath; the fourteenth only took it after hesitation. Though there were no demands for discharges and money payments, both were conceded, In the territory of the Chauci, however, a fresh outbreak occurred, among a garrison consisting of detachments from the insubordinate brigades. The trouble was soon stamped out by two prompt executions. This illegal but salutary measure was carried out on the orders of the corps chief-of-staff Manius Ennius. Then, as the mutiny began to swell, he got away. But he was discovered. Relying on a bold course for the safety which his hiding-place had failed to provide, he cried out that their offence was not just against an officer, it was against Germanicus their commander – against Tiberius their emperor! At the same time, intimidating all opposition, he seized the standard and pointed it towards the Rhine. Then, shouting that everyone who fell out would be treated as a deserter, he conducted his men back to their winter camp – still rebellious, but frustrated.

Meanwhile the senate’s mission to Germanicus found him back at the Ubian altar1 and capital. The first and the twentieth brigades were in winter quarters there, and also the soldiers who had recently been released but not yet demobilized. Mad with anxiety and bad conscience, these men were also terrified that the concessions which they had won by mutinous methods would be cancelled by the senatorial delegation. Crowds habitually find scapegoats, however unjustifiably, and now they attacked the chief envoy, the former consul Lucius Munatius Plancus, charging him with instigating sanctions against them in the senate. Early in the night they began to clamour for their standard, which was kept in Germanicus’ residence. They rushed the door and forced him to get up and – under threat of death–to hand it over. Then, roaming the streets, they encountered the members of the delegation, who had heard the uproar and were on their way to Germanicus. The soldiers heaped abuse on them. Indeed they had it in mind to kill them, and especially Plancus. His high rank made it impossible for him to run away; and in his extreme danger the only available refuge was the camp of the first brigade. There he found sanctuary, grasping the Eagle and standards. But if a colour-sergeant named Calpurnius had not protected him from his fate, then, without precedent even between enemies, the altars of the gods would have been stained with the blood of an emissary of the Roman people, in a Roman camp.

At last morning arrived; and commanders and private soldiers, and the night’s doings, were seen for what they were. Germanicus came into the camp and ordered Plancus to be brought to him. Escorting him on to the dais, he assailed this disastrous, maniacal revival of violence. ‘It shows how angry the gods are’, he said, ‘rather than the soldiers!’ Then he explained why the delegation had come, and spoke with gloomy eloquence about the rights of envoys, and the deplorable and unfair treatment of Plancus himself – a disgrace to the brigade. The gathering was hardly pacified, but it was cowed; and Germanicus sent the delegates away under the protection of auxiliary cavalry.

In this alarming situation Germanicus was generally criticized for not proceeding to the upper army, which obeyed orders and would help against the rebels. Enough and more than enough mistakes had been made, it was felt, by releases and payments and mild measures. And even if he did not value his own life, people asked why, among these madmen who had broken every law, he kept with him his baby son and his pregnant wife. Surely he owed it to the nation and their imperial grandfather to send them back! Germanicus was long hesitant. His wife scorned the proposal, reminding him that she was of the blood of the divine Augustus and would live up to it, whatever the danger. Then he burst into tears – and clasping to him the expectant mother and their child, persuaded her to go. It was a pitiable feminine company that set out. The supreme commander’s own wife, a refugee, clutched his infant son to her breast. Her escorts, his friends’ wives – forced to leave with her – were in tears. Those who remained were equally mournful. The scene suggested a captured city rather than a highly successful Caesar in his own camp.

The women’s sobbing and lamentation attracted the attention of the soldiers, who came out of their tents and asked why they were crying and what was wrong. Here were these distinguished ladies with no staff-officers or soldiers to look after them, none of the usual escort or other honours due to the supreme commander’s wife. And they were off to the Treviri, to be looked after by foreigners! The men felt sorry for them, and ashamed, when they thought of her ancestry – her father was Agrippa, her grandfather Augustus, her father-in-law Nero Drusus – and of her impressive record as wife and mother. Besides, there was her baby son, Gaius, born in the camp and brought up with the regular troops as his comrades. In their army fashion they had nicknamed him ‘little Boots’ (Caligula), because as a popular gesture he was often dressed in miniature army boots. But their jealousy of the Treviri was what affected them most.

So now they wanted to prevent Agrippina’s departure, and appealed that she should stop and come back. Some ran to intercept her, the majority returned to Germanicus. He stood among them, still smarting with grief and anger. ‘My wife and son’, he told them, ‘are not more dear to me than my father and my country. But my father has his august dignity to protect him, and the Roman empire has its other armies. I would willingly see my wife and children the for your greater glory. Now, however, I am taking them out of your demented reach. Whatever atrocities are impending, my life alone must atone for them. Do not make your guilt worse by murdering the great-grandson of Augustus, the daughter-in-law of Tiberius!

‘In these last days you have committed every possible crime and horror. I do not know what to call this gathering! You men who have used your fortifications and weapons to blockade your emperor’s son can hardly be called soldiers. And “citizens” is not the name for people who cast aside the authority of the senate. The international code too, rights due even to enemies, the sanctity of ambassadors – you have outraged them. The divine Julius Caesar suppressed a mutiny by one word: when his men would not take the oath he called them “civilians”. The divine Augustus put fear into his troops at Actium by a look. I cannot yet compete with them. But I am their descendant; and if the soldiers even in Spain or Syria – where I am not known – were disrespectful to me, it would be surprising and scandalous enough. And here we have you, the first brigade, which received its colours from Tiberius, and you, the twentieth, his comrades in many battles. He rewarded you amply. How splendidly you are repaying your old commander! This, it seems, is the report I must make to my father – amid the good news that he has from every other province – that his own old soldiers, his own recruits, they and they alone, not content with releases and gratuities, are slaughtering their company-commanders, ejecting their colonels, arresting their generals, until the camp and the river are soaked in blood, and I myself, surrounded by hatred, live only on sufferance!

‘When, at that first day’s meeting, you pulled away the sword I was preparing to plunge into my body, your friendly solicitude was inconsiderate. A better, truer friend was the man who offered me his own sword. At any rate I should have died with my conscience spared all my army’s crimes! The leader whom you would then have chosen need not have avenged my death. Instead he could have avenged Publius Quinctilius Varus and his three brigades. For heaven forbid that the distinction and glory of having helped Rome, and suppressed the peoples of Germany, should go to the Belgae – Gauls and foreigners – for all their offers. Divine Augustus, I call upon your spirit now in heaven! Nero Drusus my father, I invoke your image that is in our memories! Come to these soldiers of yours (into whose hearts shame and pride are making their way); wash clean this stain! Direct these revolutionary passions against enemy lives instead. And you men: I see your looks and hearts have changed. Will you give the senate back its delegates, be obedient to the emperor again – and return me my wife and son? Then shake off the contagion. Single out the culprits! That will show you are sorry, and prove you are loyal.’

At this they petitioned for mercy. Admitting the justice of his rebuke, they begged him to punish the guilty, and forgive those who had slipped. He must lead them against the enemy, they urged. And first his wife must be summoned back – the boy they bred must also return, and not be given to Gauls as a hostage. Germanicus agreed that his son should return, but excused his wife since her confinement was at hand, and so was winter. The rest, he said, was up to them. Changed men, they hastened round arresting the leading rebels and dragging them before the commander of the first brigade, Gaius Caetronius. Each ringleader in turn was tried and punished by him in the following fashion. The men, with drawn swords, stood in a mass. One after another the prisoners were paraded on the platform by a colonel. If they shouted ‘Guilty’, he was thrown down and butchered. The soldiers revelled in the massacre as though it purged them of their offences. And Germanicus, though the orders had not been his, did not intervene. For the disgust caused by this savagery would be directed against its perpetrators, and not against him.

The discharged men acted similarly. Soon afterwards, they were sent to Raetia. The pretext was defence against a threat from the Suebi; but the real intention was to remove them from a camp with hateful memories of crimes and of their equally appalling retribution. Then Germanicus revised the roll of company-commanders. Each in turn came before him and reported his name, company, birth-place, length of service, and any battle distinctions and decorations. If the colonels and men spoke favourably of his work and character, then the company-commander kept his job, If, however, he was unanimously described as grasping and brutal, he was dismissed from the service.

This relieved the immediate crisis. But there was still equally serious trouble from the truculent attitude of the fifth and twenty-first brigades wintering sixty miles away at Vetera. It was they who had started the mutiny and committed the worst atrocities. Now they were as angry as ever, undeterred by the punishment and contrition of their fellow-soldiers. So Germanicus, ready to use force if his authority were set aside, prepared to transport auxiliary troops and arms down the Rhine.

When Rome heard of the rebellion in Germany – before the final developments in Illyricum were known – the whole population rounded panic-striken on Tiberius. Here was he with his insincere hesitation, making fools of the helpless, unarmed senate and Assembly; while the soldiers mutinied! Two half-grown boys, they felt, could not control these rebellions. Tiberius ought to have gone himself, and confronted them with his imperial dignity: they would have given way when they saw their experienced emperor, with sovereign powers of retribution and reward. It was recalled that Augustus had made several visits to the Germanies in later life – yet here was Tiberius, in his prime, sitting in the senate quibbling at members’ speeches! The enslavement of Rome, men said, was well in hand. Now something must be done to calm the troops and make peace.

Such talk made no impression on Tiberius. He was determined not to jeopardize the nation and himself by leaving the capital. His worries were various. Germany had the stronger army, Pannonia the nearer. The former had Gaul’s resources behind it, the latter threatened Italy. So which should he visit first? And what if the one placed second should take serious offence? Whereas, through his sons, he could deal with both simultaneously and keep intact his imperial dignity – which was, indeed, more awe-inspiring at a distance. Besides, it was excusable for the young Germanicus and Drusus to refer some points to their father, and resistance offered to them could be conciliated or broken by himself. If, on the other hand, the emperor were treated contemptuously, no expedient was left.

All the same, as though he were going to start at any moment, he chose his staff, collected equipment, and prepared ships. Then, however, he offered various excuses about the weather, and pressure of business. The deception worked – on intelligent people for a little, on most people for some time, and on those in the provinces for longest of all.

Germanicus had brought his troops together and was ready for counter-measures against the mutineers. But he decided to give them more time in case they might profit by the example of the other brigades. So he sent word to Caecina saying that he was coming with a strong force and that, unless they first punished the agitators, he would execute them indiscriminately. Caecina read the letter privately to the colour-sergeants and sergeant-majors and other reliable elements in the camp, and appealed to them to save the army’s honour, and their own lives. ‘In peace-time’, he said, ‘backgrounds and justifications are considered; but when war comes, the innocent fall with the guilty.’ Sounding the men whom they thought reliable, they found that the greater part of the two brigades was loyal. So in consultation with the general, they fixed a time at which the grossest offenders were to be struck down. At a given signal, they burst into the tents, and surprised and killed their victims. Only those in the secret knew how the massacre had begun – or where it would end.

This was unlike any other civil war. It was not a battle between opposing forces. Men in the same quarters, who had eaten together by day and rested together by night, took sides and fought each other. The shrieks, wounds, and blood were unmistakable. But motives were mysterious, fates unpredictable. There were casualties among the loyalists, too; for the culprits also had seized weapons when they realized who were being attacked. Generals, colonels, offered no restraining hand. Mass vengeance was indulged and glutted.

Soon afterwards Germanicus arrived in the camp. Bursting into tears, he cried: ‘This is no cure; it is a catastrophe!’ Then he ordered the bodies to be cremated.

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