Home » Augustus » Revolts against Rome

Revolts against Rome

At the end of the Augustan reign, the long programmatic conquest of the West gave rise to two major revolts, one in Pannonia and Dalmatia and the other in Rome.

The Pannonian revolt dragged on for four years, causing the Romans to commit huge forces. The losses of the Romans are not easily assessed. Battles were lost and the Roman forces were driven from the area. Roman civilians who were located in the province were vulnerable and were probably killed if they could not flee in time. The rebels struck south into Macedonia and west to the Mediterranean coasts. Smaller garrisons were likely destroyed or abandoned.

Even before the Romans had properly celebrated victory, another major revolt focused military and political attention on Germany. The German revolt deprived Rome of three legions, perhaps 20,000 men. Roman rule east of the Rhine was ended. The long campaigns that had been fought from 16 BC in the German lands could be seen as having failed.

The Roman Response

Rome’s response to news of the disaster was to send Tiberius to the Rhine. Tiberius did not cross the river, but neither did the Germans. The next year, Tiberius and Germanicus went on the offensive. They returned to a policy of raiding and not establishing permanent centres in Germany (Dio, 56. 24-25).

Roman aggression continued through the next few years, though we have few details. Germanicus now appears to have been in control on this frontier. In AD 14, just before the death of Augustus, Tiberius was sent to Illyricum rather than Germany. Germanicus was to drive deep into German territory in the follow years, reaching the Elbe once more and finding his way back to the scene of Varus’ last stand.

The losses were difficult to make up. Augustus had had recourse to extraordinary measures to raise troops for the Pannonian war. After the Varus disaster, he resorted to conscription. Some refused to go. Augustus had them executed (Dio, 56.23).

The three legions were not replaced. There appears to have been a crisis of recruitment into the army. The Romans may have lost 30,000 – 40,000 troops in the wars. One has to wonder whether the real brake on Roman expansion was the emperor’s reluctance to force recruitment into the army and the citizens’ reluctance to serve rather than any fundamental issue in Germany.

Causes of the Revolts

Although our sources tend to treat the revolts in Pannonia and Germany separately, they share common features.

  • The lands had been subjected to wars of conquest stretching over more than two decades.
  • The revolts took place at moments went the Romans seem to have to regarded the province as pacified.
  • The revolts seem to have been related to the imposition of taxation and perhaps also of a military levy.
  • The success of the revolts derived from the combination of previously separated tribal units into a larger political and military grouping. The larger grouping was in a position to resist Rome’s legions.

The revolts can be seen as a response to Roman rule. The pressures of sustained Roman campaigning had worn down local resistance and reduced the capacities of the various tribes. But Roman rule provided opportunities: the Romans did not think of their newly conquered territories in terms of the tribal political units. Instead, they attempted to bring the tribes together to form provincial groupings. Effectively, they created the large political units by which resistance could be organised.

Results among the Barbarians

The results of the revolt were different along the Danube and in Germany.

In Pannonia and Dalmatia, the defeat of the revolt paved the way to the conversion of the regions into Roman provinces. The Danube became the Roman frontier, at least until Trajan, and the lands south of the border came to show the characteristics of Roman provincial society. Slowly, perhaps very slowly, small cities developed. Villas were constructed in the countryside. The economy came to integrate into the Roman world.

It is not possible to estimate how much damage was done by the revolts.

In Germany, the German victory led to a reassertion of tribal units. These groups remained fluid and seem often to have been in conflict. The Roman legions on the Rhine struck out deeper into Germany, but the processes by which a province was to be formed came to an end and were never resumed.

A Change in Policy?

  • Had Roman policy in Germany failed?
  • Did the Romans change approach after AD 9?

Augustan statements of strategy in AD 14 suggest that Rome had adopted or should adopt a less expansionist strategy. It is tempting to see in these statements a response to the revolts and a change from the long period of expansion in Germany and the Balkan region that had been underway since 16 BC.

But if we look at what the Romans did after AD 9, the change seems less obvious. Tiberius stabilised the frontier. The following year, he and Germanicus returned to the offensive. Germanicus was able to reassert Roman military dominance in Germany and inflict severe defeats on the German tribes. He did not return to Varus’ policy of turning Germany into a province, but it seems likely that he would have been able to suppress all resistance in the region, as Drusus and Tiberius and the other generals had done in the period before AD 9.

But Tiberius decided to withdraw him and send him to the East. Germanicus seems to have believed that the provincialization of Germany was possible. In the nationalistic myths and the later Roman view, Germany was impermeable and resistant to Roman imperial conquest. The barbarians were just too wild to be brought under Roman rule. But such a view would have seemed ridiculous in AD 8. The province was conquered and on the verge of conversion into a tax-paying peaceful province. Eight years later, even after the revolt, was there any reason to think differently? Roman military dominance was established. The tribes were defeated.

There is a tendency among historians to think that just because something did not happen, it could not have happened. The parallel events in Pannonia and Dalmatia suggest that Roman power could be extended through these regions even after such a major revolt.

Tiberius made the decision to stop. It was a political decision and was not necessarily driven by military considerations.


Augustus             Roman Military and Imperialism     Conquest in the West                  Augustan Military Policy       Revolt in Pannonia                Revolt in Germany    The Crisis of Succession










%d bloggers like this: