Soon after the news of Augustus’ death was transmitted to the troops in Germany and along the Danube, the legions there mutinied. This was a moment in which the peace and security of the Empire was in the balance.
- Why only on the Danube and in Germany?
- Why did the soldiers take the death of Augustus as an opportunity to mutiny?
- Why did they fail?
Why in Germany and on Danube
The last years of the Augustan era had been a period of conquest and set-back in the West. A major revolt in the Danubian and North Balkan provinces had stretched Roman military resources to the limit (Dio, 55.29-34; 56.11-17; Velleius Paterculus, 2.110-116) . Soldiers had been conscripted from Rome to make good losses: veterans were recalled and even freedmen forced into the legions (Velleius Paterculus, 2.111). Almost the moment that revolt was suppressed, the Germans cut down Varus and his legions in the Teutoburger Wald (Dio, 56.18-22). Three legions were lost. Once more, Augustus was forced to emergency conscription (Dio, 56.23). Those who refused lost citizenship rights. It was clear that Rome was nearing exhaustion.
The events of AD 14 were a consequence of the earlier crises. Many aspects of Roman military organisation appear not to have worked as efficiently as they did in later generations: the Roman army was transitioning from a militia organised for individual campaigns to a professional army. Conscription dragged a man from his family and friends. He might expect to be in service for twenty years. The pressures were such that those due discharge from the army were kept on. We can imagine men in their late 40s or 50s serving in the legions without much hope of retiring.
The mutinies then can be seen as the soldiers who had fought long and hard wars, many of whom may have been conscripted, many of whom might have been forced to remain in the legions long after their term of service was up, taking the opportunity to reassert their rights.
Why mutiny on the death of Augustus?
Tacitus introduces the mutiny on the Danube by saying that it had ‘no new cause’. It is evident that its causes were old, stretching back a decade or more. Both mutinies were, in the Tacitean view, opportunistic, seeking to take advantage of the weakness of Tiberius. But was there more to it?
Many of the soldiers may have had direct experience of Tiberius as general, and it is tempting to say that they did not like him. But nothing suggests that there was an active dislike of Tiberius. At no point did the soldiers prepare to move against Tiberius: the legions in Germany alone could have made a potentially decisive intervention in Roman politics. Instead, they stayed in the provinces and sent petitions. The most important cause of the revolt was, I think, not the accession of Tiberius, but the death of Augustus.
Augustus was an important figure-head for the imperial state. Although we are used to think in terms of patriotism and nation, such emotional ties were different in the Ancient world. People were more closely tied to individuals than to the idea of a nation. The soldiers of AD 14 had been recruited by Augustus and paid by him. They had taken oaths of loyalty to him and probably had images of him around the camps. There was a relationship between Augustus and his troops that we might describe as a political deal.
Our assumption is that the death of a monarch or the change of a President would make little or no difference to the loyalty of an army. But that is a modern Western assumption. Augustus was the first emperor. There was no recognised process of what happened on his death. Why would the soldiers simply shift in their loyalties to now serve Tiberius? At the very least, the death of Augustus was an opportunity to renegotiate their political deal.
Indeed, what seems to be happening on both frontiers is a negotiation. Soldiers expressed discontent. A representative of the imperial family was summoned. The representative issued concessions. As a process, it should have worked.
Why does it go wrong?
Reading Tacitus’s account, two things are immediately noticeable. First, the soldiers’ complaints are, in the main, entirely justifiable. Second, Tacitus expresses extreme hostility towards the mutineers.
The hostility is expressed in social terms: the soldiers are lower class. They are ignorant. They are unable to judge what is right and proper. They behave without deference to their social betters.The offence of the soldiers is social: they do not honour the social and political hierarchy of Roman society.
Tacitus relates the outbreak of the mutinies to the relaxation of discipline in a holiday period to mourn Augustus. That discipline is extreme. The problem is that discipline is necessary for the soldiers to maintain their loyalty to and subordination to the social hierarchies of Rome.
There is a question as to whether this discipline is imperial. In the Danubian episode especially, there is a sense that what the soldiers are asking for is a return to Republican freedoms. Germanicus may also have been thought to represent a more Republican system since his father, Drusus, was considered a Republican.
Two things go wrong: the indiscipline and failure to honour social and political hierarchies leads to violence that escalates towards anarchy and civil war. The soldiers (most of them) finally realise that they depend on the imperial family. They could not achieve their goals without the agreement of the imperial family. They had few other political options but to show loyalty towards them. If they turned from Drusus, Germanicus, and Tiberius, on whom could they rely? As became clear to the soldiers, the risks they were taking were high: civil war was not an attractive prospect and its outcome would have been far from certain.
In Germany, there was an attempt to detach Germanicus from loyalty to the imperial family. Germanicus was absolutely firm. The German episode illustrated that disloyalty to the family, however bad things were (and they were very bad for the soldiers) led to civil violence.
Finally, why is Tacitus so cross? What happened in the mutinies was more than a voicing of legitimate concerns: it was a threat to the social order. It was not what Percennius and the German legionaries said, it was that they spoke at all. The result of their assault on the social order was death and destruction.
- Was Tiberius seriously threatened by the mutinies?
- Can we understand the mutinies as a democratic movement?
- Why did the mutinies end in such violence?