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Mutiny in Germania July 22, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Roman helmet, first century A.D. Photo by Matthias Kabel.

This post is one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest described in the last post had occurred toward the end of the reign of Emperor Augustus, in the year 9 A.D. Five years later, Augustus died and his stepson Tiberius succeeded him. This was accomplished through machinations that eliminated three grandsons from the line of succession—a process very entertainingly described by Tacitus in the Annals. One of my favorite passages about the transition of emperors goes: Meanwhile at Rome consuls, senate, other gentry, precipitately became more servile. The more distinguished men were, the greater their urgency and insincerity. They must show neither satisfaction at the death of one emperor, nor gloom at the accession of another: so their features were carefully arranged in a blend of tears and smiles, mourning and flattery.*

Tiberius, second emperor of Rome

Problems soon arose among the armies on the frontiers, particularly in Germania and Pannonia (the latter in the region of present-day Romania). One source has it that the legions in those areas had been promised bonuses by Augustus; another has it that the soldiers were told that the length of their recruitment would not be reduced as promised. Tacitus, as usual, describes the situation colorfully: 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.

Suddenly there was a great outbreak among soldiers in Germania. 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…. They [the commanders] were hurled to the ground and given the lash, sixty strokes each… Then, broken and mutilated, they were cast outside the lines or thrown into the Rhine.

The commander-in-chief, Germanicus, was away in the Gallic provinces when news reached him of the disturbances. He traveled quickly to Caecina’s camp, where a contingent of the rebellious soldiers met him and spoke of their complaints. He did not at first respond directly, but gave a speech carefully praising both Augustus and Tiberius in equal amounts. 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 [else]. This was received…with indistinct muttering. But then Germanicus passed on to the mutiny. What on earth had happened, he asked, to their famous, traditional military discipline…? 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.

The crowd pressed Germanicus for legacies promised them by Augustus. Some said they would support him if he were to take the throne in the place of Tiberius, but at this he shouted melodramatically that he would die rather than be disloyal to the emperor. 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…certain individuals encouraged him to strike. A soldier called Calusidius even drew his own sword and offered it, remarking that it was sharper.

Associates of Germanicus managed to hustle him away to safety.  He faced a delicate situation. The rebel soldiers were rumored to be planning to recruit the other armies of Germania and to go plundering into the provinces of Gaul. On top of that, the local German tribes were aware of the mutiny and might easily take advantage of the situation. Germanicus decided to announce some concessions in the name of Tiberius—a matter that was to greatly annoy the emperor when eventually he learned of it. Demobilization was promised after twenty years’ service. Men who had served sixteen years were to be released but kept with the colors 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 demanded that these be implemented right away. The demobilizations were easily taken care of, but Germanicus was a bit short of cash for the promised payments and had to use the personal traveling funds of himself and his staff. That addressed the immediate problem, but unrest continued in other areas of occupied Germania.

Next to come: Mutiny ends with attack on the Marsi.

* All quotes are from The Annals of Imperial Rome, translated by Michael Grant, Penguin Classics, 1959.

Germanicus. He was named in honor of earlier Roman victories in Germania.


1. Thomas Stazyk - July 22, 2011

Great narrative! I’ve always been amazed at how quickly politics in Rome got so ugly. I love the “mine is sharper” comment. I wonder what Calusidius’s career was like after that!

Jenny - July 22, 2011

I suspect that he soon afterward found himself being tossed into the Rhine….

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