Mutiny on the Danube

The mutiny on the Danube is described in detail by Tacitus, Annales 1.16-30. In summary, it opens with three three legions in summer camp. News of Augustus’ death reaches the camp and the commander, Iunius Blaesus, reduces duties for a period of mourning. One of the soldiers, Percennius, complains to his fellows about the conditions of service. The soldiers break ranks and come together in a combined assembly of the legions. Blaesus becomes aware of the mutiny. Soldiers who were engaged in other tasks away from camp also mutiny and attack their camp prefect. Some of the soldiers attack neighbouring villages. When Blaesus orders them punished, the mutiny becomes more violent and a man named Vibulenus complained that his brother had been killed (though there was no evidence of any brother). A centurion, Lucilius, was killed. He was recognised as being brutal and renowned for beating his soldiers with such violence that the vine stick all centurions carried was often broken on their backs.At this point, Blaesus, despite his best efforts, has lost control of the camp and an embassy is sent to Rome to present the soldiers’ demands.

Tiberius sends his son, Drusus, and the praetorian prefect Sejanus to deal with the issue. Drusus reads a letter from his father, offering concessions, but the soldiers are unimpressed and the meeting breaks up in violent disorder. Overnight, there is a lunar eclipse. The soldiers are spooked by this sign of divine displeasure and persuaded of their errors. Vibulenus and Percennius were summoned to Drusus and killed. Their bodies were either buried under the general’s tent or thrown out into the ditch.


Tacitus gives us a summary speech from an ordinary soldier that inspires the mutiny. It is worth examining the passage in some detail (1.16-17).

  • How does Tacitus introduce Percennius and how does that introduction affect the way we read the speech?
  • Is Percennius accurately describing the situation of the soldiery?

In very few places in Roman history-writing do we get the voice of a person of the lower classes.

  • Is it likely that Tacitus had a report of what was actually said?
  • What does Tacitus think of a lower-class person making a political intervention?

Points to note:

  • Percennius compares the Roman soldiers to slaves. This is an intensely political point because Roman soldiers were citizens and citizens were supposed to be free. They were also supposed to be free from violence since they were protected by the law. Slaves were neither citizens nor protected by law.
  • In the imperial period, political discussions focused on the issue of whether it was possible to be free in a system in which everyone was subordinated to the whim of the emperor.
  • Percennius references the instability of Tiberius’s position: he may also be referencing the role the soldiers played in the civil wars that put Augustus on the throne, suggesting that the throne was in the gift of the soldiers, the very people who were treated with such disrespect.
  • Perecennius discusses military benefits. The pay of the soldiers was 10 asses (a small copper coin) per day. They want one denarius per day. There were 16 asses to the denarius and so this was substantial increase in pay. Their previous increase in pay had been sixty years earlier, under Julius Caesar.
  • The soldiers also received a bonus on discharge from the army, normally after 20 years, of 3000 denarii (more than 8 years pay) [Dio, 55.23]. Percennius complains that this was not often delayed, or that the soldiers were given land in lieu of payment. Why would the Roman state do this? See Military Crisis under Augustus.
  • After Percennius had spoken, the soldiers point to their grey hair and their wounded bodies in confirmation of what he had said. Display of wounded bodies is a way in which Republican orators sometimes asserted that they had served the state and thus had a right to be heard in assemblies.

Does the speech have a Republican flavour?

End of the Mutiny (Annales 1.28-29)

The end of the mutiny also raises problems. Drusus reads a letter from his father, Tiberius, but all the main demands of the soldiers have, he says, to be referred to the senate. The soldiers react with anger: they point out that they can be punished without reference to a court, but rewards were seemingly not under the authority of their commander? This seems a reference to the paradoxical nature of the early Tiberian period, which was both monarchic and Republican. See Accession Debate.  When the debate broke up, there must have been uncertainty as to what would happen next: would the mutiny turn into a march on Rome?

Overnight, the soldiers are spooked by the eclipse.

  • Romans had a good knowledge of the movement of the planets and could predict such astronomical events. The soldiers come across as primitive and unlearned in their reaction. What does this tell us about Tacitus’s attitude towards the soldiers?
  • When the good centurions are sent round the tents, how do they persuade them back to loyalty?
    • What does this tell us about Roman religion and its link to politics?
    • What does it tell us about the imperial family

Then it is all over. The leading mutineers are killed. The soldiers are intimidated. Drusus goes back to Rome. Attention shifts to Germany.

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