Peter Jones

How the Romans dealt with mutineers

How the Romans dealt with mutineers
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The RMT union is threatening strikes to bring the country to a halt. Such activities have a long history in the West. The Romans got there first in 494 bc when the plebs – that is, most of the workers – won a degree of political power hitherto denied them, by withdrawing their labour. Using this mass communal strategy in the interests of the majority, but sparingly, they achieved political parity in 287 bc.

The army too sometimes mutinied. This was dangerously different: the historian Tacitus saw it as a failure of leadership.

In ad 14 Augustus died, and the legions in Pannonia (the Hungary-Balkans area) feared their terms of service, harsh already, would become yet harsher. Tacitus gave Percennius, the ringleader of the mutiny (once ‘a rabble-rousing cheerleader for actors’) a model trade union speech. To paraphrase: we are effectively slaves. Now is the time to petition – or threaten – a new, insecure emperor for better conditions. We are on a pathetic 2.5 sesterces (ss) a day, all deductible for clothes, weapons, etc, forced to serve for 30-40 years, and even then still on the reserve list. Retired, we are given remote swamps to live out our final years. We are subject to harsh winters, hard, fighting summers and barren peace. We demand a proper contract: 4ss a day, 16 years of service with no recall, plus cash gratuity. Praetorian soldiers in Rome get 8ss per day just for sentry duty, while we live among tribal savages with the enemy always in sight.

Violence ensued, and the new emperor Tiberius sent his son Drusus to sort things out, but without a remit to make concessions. The furious soldiers only came to heel when an eclipse of the moon convinced them they had done wrong. Meanwhile, the German legions also revolted, and Tiberius again sent someone else to deal with it, the popular Germanicus. His appeal to loyal soldiers to deal with the mutineers ended in dreadful bloodshed, but subdued the revolt.

This was no way to run an army, let alone an empire. Tacitus’s conclusion – what is the emperor for? We might ask the same about our masters.