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Alfred J. Church

A Mutiny



T HE accession of Tiberius seems to have been received, if not with enthusiasm, yet without protest throughout the Empire. But it gave the occasion to a dangerous movement among the armies of the frontier provinces of Europe. Pannonia was one of these. It reached along the course of the Danube from Vienna to Belgrade, and extended southward and westward to no great distance from the Adriatic. Its governor was always an officer of consular rank, and he had three legions under his control. These three (the eighth, the ninth, and fifteenth) were at this time quartered together in a summer camp, the general in command being Junius Blaesus.

Blaesus, on hearing of the accession of a new emperor, had relaxed the customary discipline, excusing some of the duties which formed the daily routine of the soldiers' life. Though idleness is notoriously the parent of mischief, this brief holiday could hardly have done much harm, had not some elements of disturbance been already at work. The army had already begun to feel its strength, and to know that the throne really rested upon its arms. The Pannonian mutiny may be described as the first mutterings of a storm which, in after years, was to break out again and again. The time was coming when every army would think itself entitled to set up a candidate for the Empire; and the movement which I am about to relate was the first sign of its approach.

A spokesman of the general discontent was found in a certain Percennius. Before enlisting he had been the chief of a gang of claqueurs, whose business it was to lead the applause, or it might be, the hissing at the theatres of Rome. He was a fluent and reckless man, and had caught in his theatrical experience the trick of exciting a crowd.

There was some natural anxiety in the minds of the troops as to what would be the conditions of service under the new Emperor, and there were undoubted grievances of which they had to complain. On these Percennius enlarged, at the same time reminding his hearers, that the time for demanding redress was come. If they lost the opportunity afforded by a ruler not yet firmly established on his throne, they would be wholly to blame. "Already," he cried, "we have borne too much. They make us serve thirty, nay forty campaigns, and that though we have been maimed with wounds. Even when we are discharged, as they call it, we are not free; we are kept with the standard, and have to perform, under another name, the same services. If by any chance a man survives all the dangers of a soldier's life, what is his reward? What they call an allotment of land, some swamp, some intractable hill. Do they tell us we can save out of our pay? Soldiering is a service as unprofitable as it is hard. Our souls and bodies are valued at half a denarius a day! Out of this we have to find our clothing, our arms, our tents, and to purchase any indulgence which the severity of our officers may allow. We must demand nothing less than this—fixed conditions of service, a full denarius a day, discharge at the end of the sixteenth year, no further service with the standard, and our discharge-money paid us in coin and on the spot. Is the service of the Praetorians, who receive two denarii  a day, and who can retire after sixteen years, more perilous than ours? We do not disparage sentinel's duty in Rome; but it is we who have to live among barbarians, with the enemy in sight of our tents."

This speech was received with a roar of applause. The soldiers pointed in confirmation of his words to their backs scarred by the lash, to their gray hairs, to their ragged clothing. A proposal to amalgamate the three legions, a deadly offence against military discipline, was only defeated by the jealousy of the three corps.

But the eagles and standards were actually massed in one place, and the soldiers set about building a hustings of turf. Blaesus entreated them to desist, imploring them to vent their rage on him rather than rebel against the Emperor. He begged them to remember that this was not the way to convey their requests to the Emperor, requests for privileges which had never before been asked for, either in Republican times, or in the days of Augustus. It was scarcely the time, he said, to approach their sovereign, distracted as he must be by the cares of a new reign. Still if they were inclined to do so, let them do it in regular form, appointing delegates to express their wishes. The soldiers assented, demanding that Blaesus himself should undertake this duty. He was to ask for discharge after sixteen years' service. This granted, they would put their other demands into shape.

A brief interval of quiet followed, though the troops were demoralized by the discovery that they were more likely to obtain their demands by violence than by good behaviour. But the disorder was renewed on the return of a detachment which had been employed in the making of roads and bridges in the neighbourhood of Nauportus. On hearing of what had been going on in the camp, they mutinied, plundered Nauportus, which was a flourishing place, and maltreated their officers. Against the quarter-master Rufus they had a special spite. He had risen from the ranks and was inexorable in his discipline; all the more pitiless in his exactions, says Tacitus, because he had himself gone through all that he demanded from others. They loaded him with a heavy burden, and asked him, as they drove him along in front of the line of march, how he liked carrying such a weight for so many miles.

Blaesus now felt that he must act, for the soldiers were plundering the country. He could still count on the officers and the well disposed portion of the troops, and he ordered that some of the most conspicuous offenders should be arrested, flogged, and thrown into prison. The men thus singled out implored their comrades to rescue them, "You see" they cried, "what will be your fate. What they are doing to us to-day, you will have to put up with to-morrow."

The appeal was not made in vain. The men were rescued. More than this, the prison was broken into, and the criminals confined in it released.

And now came forward one of those "historical liars" as they may be called, who from time to time have made such a sensation in the world by the audacity of their fictions. The General was standing on the hustings, and the mutineers were eagerly watching for his next move. The release of the prisoners was a direct defiance of his authority. How would he meet it? Vibulenus—this was the man's name—was lifted on to the shoulders of his neighbours and thus addressed the crowd:

"You have given back light and liberty to these innocent sufferers; but who will give back life to my brother, or my brother to me? The army of Germany sent him to take counsel with you about our common interests, and last night this man, by the hand of his gladiators, the creatures whom he keeps to destroy you, murdered him. Tell me, Blaesus," he went on, turning to the general, "tell me where you have taken his corpse? Even our enemies do not grudge us burial. Tell me, and then, when I have satisfied my grief with kisses and tears, hand me also over to your murderers—only let my comrades bury your victims, slain for no other crime but taking counsel for the common good."

The crowd was excited by this story to the highest pitch. The gladiators were seized, and with them the general's other slaves; a search party was told off to look for the body. Blaesus's life was in danger, and might have been sacrificed but for the opportune discovery that the whole of this pathetic story was a lie. No corpse could be found, the slaves, when tortured, stoutly denied that any such person had been killed; very soon it came out that Vibulenus had never had a brother! Still the wrath of the soldiers demanded a victim. The general had escaped; but a centurion of the name of Lucilius was killed. The man had earned the nickname of "give me t'other," because after breaking one vine stick, the common implement of punishment on a soldier's back, he would call for another and another. Other unpopular officers contrived to hide themselves; the tribune and the quarter-master were drive out of the camp. Over one centurion the eighth and the fifteenth legions nearly came to blows; the men of the eighth were for killing him; their comrades of the fifteenth protected him. The quarrel was composed by the energetic interposition of the ninth legion.

News of these troubles reached Rome, and compelled Tiberius, so serious did they seem, to open and speedy action. He sent his son Drusus with an open commission to deal with the situation as he thought best. Drusus was accompanied by some of the most distinguished people in Rome, and had a strong escort, consisting of two of the nine Praetorian cohorts, raised above their usual complements by an addition of picked men from the other cohorts, the Praetorian cavalry, and the Emperor's bodyguard. Aelius Sejanus, of whom we shall hear again, was in military command, and had the young Prince in his special charge.

The Legions went out to meet the Emperor's representative, not in the full accoutrements which would be commonly worn on such an occasion, but with a studied appearance of squalor. Drusus entered the camp with them; but his escort was barred out. He mounted the hustings and stood for a while, beckoning in vain for silence. At last he contrived, in an interval of quiet, to read a letter from his father. The Emperor was profoundly interested—so ran this document—in the welfare of his brave legions, sharers with him of so many arduous campaigns. When his grief would allow him, he would bring their demands before the Senate. Meanwhile he had sent his son, who would make such immediate concessions as were possible. The rest must depend upon the decision of the Senate which could not be deprived of the power to give or to refuse.

The soldiers put forth a centurion, Clemens by name, as their spokesman. He stated their demands—discharge at the end of sixteen years, prompt payment in money of the sum then due, pay at the rate of a full denarius, and no detention of full-time soldiers with the standards. Drusus declared that these were points on which the Emperor and the Senate must decide. An angry shout interrupted him. "Why come," said the men, "when you can give us no relief, and bestow no bounty? Tiberius used to mock our demands by referring them to Augustus, you are repeating the same device. As for the decision of the Senate it is a novelty. Does the Emperor intend to consult it on all matters that concern us or only when we are asking for our rights?"

A formidable tumult followed. One of the most distinguished of the visitors from Rome had a narrow escape of his life. Aware of his danger he endeavoured to leave the camp, and was attempting to do so under the protection of the Prince's presence, when the soldiers discovered his intention. They loudly proclaimed their belief that he was on his way to misrepresent their cause before the Senate or the Emperor and made a furious attack upon him. He had been felled to the earth by a blow from a stone, and would have soon perished, but for the interference of the escort.

Things had now a very threatening aspect. It was doubtful whether the Prince emissary himself would long be safe from the violence of the mutineers. Suddenly all was changed in a very curious manner. The night that followed this day of uproar was marked by a total eclipse of the moon. The soldiers regarded this phenomenon with intense anxiety, taking it, we are told, as an omen of their own fortunes. They were ignorant, as all but the educated at that time were ignorant, of its cause, and had no idea, it would seem, that it was a regularly recurring event. Their fancy suggested the notion that the satellite now lost, now recovered its lustre; and they hoped and feared accordingly for themselves and their demands. Clashing their arms together, and sounding in concert on trumpets and clarions they sought to help the "labouring-planet" in its conflict with an unknown enemy. When its face was finally hidden from sight by gathering clouds, they gave up all for lost. They could hope for no respite from their toils; they had given inexpiable offence to the powers of heaven. Drusus and his advisers made prompt use of this change in popular feeling. A few loyal officers who had continued to keep their popularity with the soldiers went round the camp, threatening and promising.

"Who," they asked the mutineers, "are to be your leaders? Percennius and Vibulenus? Are these the names that you are going to substitute for the Neros and the Drusi? "How much wiser," they went on to suggest first to one and then to another, "to secure your own interests by a prompt return to your duty! Benefits that all will share must be difficult of attainment, but you may make certain of a reward for yourself."

Of course these emissaries did not forget to show that the interests of the recruits and the veterans were not identical, and found it easy to sow the seeds of dissension.

The next day Drusus called a general assembly of the troops. He took a more commanding tone. "Threats," he declared, "were useless; but if the men would return to their duty, he would not fail to represent their case to his father."

It was agreed that a deputation should be sent to Rome, charged with the duty of representing the wishes of the troops. But this was little more than a pretence. The movement had failed.

Vibulenus and Percennius were summoned into the Prince's tent, and cut down in his presence. Something like a massacre followed. The ringleaders of the mutiny were slain by their officers or by the Praetorians. Some were given up to justice by own comrades, anxious to secure their own safety.

The eighth legion was the first to return to its duty; the fifteenth soon followed; the ninth was inclined to hold out, but felt that it could not stand alone. Drusus left for the capital, not considering it necessary to wait for the return of the deputation.

The eclipse of the moon mentioned in the narrative given above is fixed by astronomers for the date, September 26th. Augustus died August 19th. We have thus an interval of thirty-eight days into which these events were crowded. We do not know where the summer camp of the Pannonian legions was situated; but it could hardly have been less than seven hundred miles from Rome. We have to allow for the carrying of the news of the Emperor's death from Nola (some twenty miles to the south of Rome) to the camp, for the taking back of the intelligence of the mutiny, (which did not burst out till after some days), and for the march of the military force that accompanied Drusus. It must also have taken two or three days to mobilize these troops. The march alone, at the rate of twenty-five miles per diem, would have taken nearly a month.

The difficulties in the narrative are great, even if we take for granted the excessive alarm displayed by the soldiers at the appearance of phenomena which, after all, they must have witnessed several times. And yet there can be no serious question of its accuracy. While it makes it certain that communication was rapid in these times between the different provinces of the Empire, it may also be fairly taken to suggest that scepticism as to the genuineness or truth of other narratives of a more important kind should be more cautious than it sometimes seems inclined to be.