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Tacitus: Annals: Book 1 [20]

The Works of Tacitus

tr. by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb

[1864-1877]


Tacitus: Annals Book 1 [20]

20. Meanwhile the companies which previous to the mutiny had been sent to Nauportus to make roads and bridges and for other purposes, when they heard of the tumult in the camp, tore up the standards, and having plundered the neighbouring villages and Nauportus itself, which was like a town, assailed the centurions who restrained them with jeers and insults, last of all, with blows. Their chief rage was against Aufidienus Rufus, the camp-prefect, whom they dragged from a waggon, loaded with baggage, and drove on at the head of the column, asking him in ridicule whether he liked to bear such huge burdens and such long marches. Rufus, who had long been a common soldier, then a centurion, and subsequently camp-prefect, tried to revive the old severe discipline, inured as he was to work and toil, and all the sterner because he had endured.

21. On the arrival of these troops the mutiny broke out afresh, and straggling from the camp they plundered the neighbourhood. Blaesus ordered a few who had conspicuously loaded themselves with spoil to be scourged and imprisoned as a terror to the rest; for, even as it then was, the commander was still obeyed by the centurions and by all the best men among the soldiers. As the men were dragged off, they struggled violently, clasped the knees of the bystanders, called to their comrades by name, or to the company, cohort, or legion to which they respectively belonged, exclaiming that all were threatened with the same fate. At the same time they heaped abuse on the commander; they appealed to heaven and to the gods, and left nothing undone by which they might excite resentment and pity, alarm and rage. They all rushed to the spot, broke open the guardhouse, unbound the prisoners, and were in a moment fraternising with deserters and men convicted on capital charges.
22. Thence arose a more furious outbreak, with more leaders of the mutiny. Vibulenus, a common soldier, was hoisted in front of the general's tribunal on the shoulders of the bystanders and addressed the excited throng, who eagerly awaited his intentions. "You have indeed," he said, "restored light and air to these innocent and most unhappy men, but who restores to my brother his life, or my brother to myself? Sent to you by the German army in our common cause, he was last night butchered by the gladiators whom the general keeps and arms for the destruction of his soldiers. Answer, Blaesus, where you have flung aside the corpse? Even an enemy grudges not burial. When, with embraces and tears, I have sated my grief, order me also to be slain, provided only that when we have been destroyed for no crime, but only because we consulted the good of the legions, we may be buried by these men around me."

23. He inflamed their excitement by weeping and smiting his breast and face with his hands. Then, hurling aside those who bore him on their shoulders, and impetuously flinging himself at the feet of one man after another, he roused such dismay and indignation that some of the soldiers put fetters on the gladiators who were among the number of Blaesus's slaves, others did the like to the rest of his household, while a third party hurried out to look for the corpse. And had it not quickly been known that no corpse was found, that the slaves, when tortures were applied, denied the murder, and that the man never had a brother, they would have been on the point of destroying the general. As it was, they thrust out the tribunes and the camp-prefect; they plundered the baggage of the fugitives, and they killed a centurion, Lucilius, to whom, with soldiers' humour, they had given the name "Bring another," because when he had broken one vine-stick on a man's back, he would call in a loud voice for another and another. The rest sheltered themselves in concealment, and one only was detained, Clemens Julius, whom the soldiers considered a fit person to carry messages, from his ready wit. Two legions, the eighth and the fifteenth, were actually drawing swords against each other, the former demanding the death of a centurion, whom they nicknamed Sirpicus, while the men of the fifteenth defended him, but the soldiers of the ninth interposed their entreaties, and when these were disregarded, their menaces.

24. This intelligence had such an effect on Tiberius, close as he was, and most careful to hush up every very serious disaster, that he despatched his son Drusus with the leading men of the State and with two praetorian cohorts, without any definite instructions, to take suitable measures. The cohorts were strengthened beyond their usual force with some picked troops. There was in addition a considerable part of the Praetorian cavalry, and the flower of the German soldiery, which was then the emperor's guard. With them too was the commander of the praetorians, Aelius Sejanus, who had been associated with his own father, Strabo, had great influence with Tiberius, and was to advise and direct the young prince, and to hold out punishment or reward to the soldiers. When Drusus approached, the legions, as a mark of respect, met him, not as usual, with glad looks or the glitter of military decorations, but in unsightly squalor, and faces which, though they simulated grief, rather expressed defiance.

25. As soon as he entered the entrenchments, they secured the gates with sentries, and ordered bodies of armed men to be in readiness at certain points of the camp. The rest crowded round the general's tribunal in a dense mass. Drusus stood there, and with a gesture of his hand demanded silence. As often as they turned their eyes back on the throng, they broke into savage exclamations, then looking up to Drusus they trembled. There was a confused hum, a fierce shouting, and a sudden lull. Urged by conflicting emotions, they felt panic and they caused the like. At last, in an interval of the uproar, Drusus read his father's letter, in which it was fully stated that he had a special care for the brave legions with which he had endured a number of campaigns; that, as soon as his mind had recovered from its grief, he would lay their demands before the Senators; that meanwhile he had sent his son to concede unhesitatingly what could be immediately granted, and that the rest must be reserved for the Senate, which ought to have a voice in showing either favour or severity.

26. The crowd replied that they had delivered their instructions to Clemens, one of the centurions, which he was to convey to Rome. He began to speak of the soldiers' discharge after sixteen years, of the rewards of completed service, of the daily pay being a denarius, and of the veterans not being detained under a standard. When Drusus pleaded in answer reference to the Senate and to his father, he was interrupted by a tumultuous shout. "Why had he come, neither to increase the soldiers' pay, nor to alleviate their hardships, in a word, with no power to better their lot? Yet heaven knew that all were allowed to scourge and to execute. Tiberius used formerly in the name of Augustus to frustrate the wishes of the legions, and the same tricks were now revived by Drusus. Was it only sons who were to visit them? Certainly, it was a new thing for the emperor to refer to the Senate merely what concerned the soldier's interests. Was then the same Senate to be consulted whenever notice was given of an execution or of a battle? Were their rewards to be at the discretion of absolute rulers, their punishments to be without appeal?"

27. At last they deserted the general's tribunal, and to any praetorian soldier or friend of Caesar's who met them, they used those threatening gestures which are the cause of strife and the beginning of a conflict, with special rage against Cneius Lentulus, because they thought that he above all others, by his age and warlike renown, encouraged Drusus, and was the first to scorn such blots on military discipline. Soon after, as he was leaving with Drusus to betake himself in foresight of his danger to the winter camp, they surrounded him, and asked him again and again whither he was going; was it to the emperor or to the Senate, there also to oppose the interests of the legions. At the same moment they menaced him savagely and flung stones. And now, bleeding from a blow, and feeling destruction certain, he was rescued by the hurried arrival of the throng which had accompanied Drusus.

28. That terrible night which threatened an explosion of crime was tranquillised by a mere accident. Suddenly in a clear sky the moon's radiance seemed to die away. This the soldiers in their ignorance of the cause regarded as an omen of their condition, comparing the failure of her light to their own efforts, and imagining that their attempts would end prosperously should her brightness and splendour be restored to the goddess. And so they raised a din with brazen instruments and the combined notes of trumpets and horns, with joy or sorrow, as she brightened or grew dark. When clouds arose and obstructed their sight, and it was thought she was buried in the gloom, with that proneness to superstition which steals over minds once thoroughly cowed, they lamented that this was a portent of never-ending hardship, and that heaven frowned on their deeds. Drusus, thinking that he ought to avail himself of this change in their temper and turn what chance had offered to a wise account, ordered the tents to be visited. Clemens, the centurion was summoned with all others who for their good qualities were liked by the common soldiers. These men made their way among the patrols, sentries and guards of the camp-gates, suggesting hope or holding out threats. "How long will you besiege the emperor's son? What is to be the end of our strifes? Will Percennius and Vibulenus give pay to the soldiers and land to those who have earned their discharge? In a word, are they, instead of the Neros and the Drusi, to control the empire of the Roman people? Why are we not rather first in our repentance as we were last in the offence? Demands made in common are granted slowly; a separate favour you may deserve and receive at the same moment." With minds affected by these words and growing mutually suspicious, they divided off the new troops from the old, and one legion from another. Then by degrees the instinct of obedience returned. They quitted the gates and restored to their places the standards which at the beginning of the mutiny they had grouped into one spot.

29. At daybreak Drusus called them to an assembly, and, though not a practised speaker, yet with natural dignity upbraided them for their past and commended their present behaviour. He was not, he said, to be conquered by terror or by threats. Were he to see them inclining to submission and hear the language of entreaty, he would write to his father, that he might be merciful and receive the legions' petition. At their prayer, Blaesus and Lucius Apronius, a Roman knight on Drusus's staff, with Justus Catonius, a first-rank centurion, were again sent to Tiberius. Then ensued a conflict of opinion among them, some maintaining that it was best to wait the envoys' return and meanwhile humour the soldiers, others, that stronger measures ought to be used, inasmuch as the rabble knows no mean, and inspires fear, unless they are afraid, though when they have once been overawed, they can be safely despised. "While superstition still swayed them, the general should apply terror by removing the leaders of the mutiny." Drusus's temper was inclined to harsh measures. He summoned Vibulenus and Percennius and ordered them to be put to death. The common account is that they were buried in the general's tent, though according to some their bodies were flung outside the entrenchments for all to see.


Next: Book 1 [30]

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