Tacitus gives us an extended account of the mutiny in Germany (Annales 31-49[31-39; 40-49]). He uses the opportunity to give us a first portrayal of Germanicus. In many ways, the episode repeats the themes of the mutiny on the Danube, but with more violence and ferocity.
There were two armies in the two German Provinces (Inferior and Superior). Tacitus introduces the mutiny by stating that the mutineers looked to Germanicus to act against his uncle and seize the throne. He deprecates them as a city mob. The mutineers were immediately violent: they attacked their centurions, killing several. When Germanicus finally turned up in the camp, the soldiers were disorderly and refused to return to their ranks. They showed the marks of their suffering on their bodies, but more intimately than happened on the Danube: Germanicus found his hand inserted into toothless mouths (I can’t think of a circumstance which would not make that unpleasant). Germanicus’s speech to the troops goes badly wrong: he was listened to in near silence and at the end, there was a litany of complaints about the length of service, beatings, the need to bribe officers. This culminates in an offer to make Germanicus emperor.
Germanicus responded in horror and threatened suicide. But even this gesture got a hostile reaction. One soldier, Calusidius, offered Germanicus his own sword, since it was sharper. Germanicus was then hurried away.
Germanicus was forced to concessions. Those concession related to discharging those troops who had served their time, paying bonuses that were promised with some additions, and allowing soldiers some immunity from duties. What surprises about these ‘concessions’ are that they are merely putting right what should have been done previously. They acknowledged the soldiers’ case to be valid.
- Did Germanicus and his advisers do anything wrong?
Germanicus then moved on and it looked as if the outbreak might be quelled, but a commission from the senate arrived and their meeting with the troops turned into a riot. The mutiny appears to have become more serious and the soldiers were perceived as a threat to the life of the members of the imperial family in the camp: these included Agrippina, granddaughter of Augustus and wife of Germanicus, and their child, Gaius Caligula.
A decision was taken to send the women and children to safety among Gallic allies. At which point the mood turned and the soldiers appealed for Agrippina to remain. Germanicus made a speech which brought them back to loyalty (Annales 42-44).
Why and how did the mutinies come to an end?
- Why did the soldiers change their behaviour?
- What are the themes of Germanicus’s speech?
- How persuasive do you find Germanicus?
- Do you think Tacitus gives us an accurate version of the speech?
We have to remember that Tacitus is providing us with a version of history and is reconstructing what the soldiers thought and what they heard. Tacitus emphasised the sentimental feeling of the soldiers for Caligula and Agrippina. He gives Germanicus a speech which emphasised family loyalty, with repeated references to Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius. What he offered the soldiers was a chance to return to loyalty to the imperial family.
But what if we look at these event from the soldiers point of view?
Sending away Agrippina was a sign that those around Germanicus were preparing to fight and possibly die. It was time to choose. The soldiers could not persuade Germanicus to march on Rome. What other choices did they now have? Agrippina leaving was a sign of impending civil war and this was a step into the dangerously unknown. Obviously, they needed her back so as to show that they were loyal. It was not just sentimentality.
There was also an issue of loyalty to the family. Germanicus makes the same case as the men that Drusus sent round the camp to persuade the soldiers: if the soldiers wanted to achieve anything, they needed the support of the imperial family. The soldiers had no alternatives.
The aftermath was bloody. Agrippina and Germanicus were at Ara Ubiorum. There, the soldiers held a sort of court in which anyone acclaimed as a mutineer was immediately executed. The list of centurions was also revised and the corrupt removed. Germanicus got what he wanted (the removal of the mutineers) and the soldiers got what they wanted (the removal of the corrupt centurions). It suggests not so much a reassertion of imperial authority as an accommodation between general and soldiers.
There were three legions at Vetera, sixty miles away. Germanicus gathered his loyal forces and marched on the legions there. An amnesty was offered and the legionaries were once more forced to choose. A ‘loyal’ group drew up a list of the disloyal and slaughtered them. Tacitus compares it to civil war.
When Germanicus reached the camp. He burst into tears at the bloodshed, exclaiming that this was not medicine, but catastrophe. With that, he ordered the clearing away of the dead and launched an offensive against the Germans.
- Can we rely on the account in Tacitus?
- How does Germanicus behave? Does he emerge from this episode as a heroic figure or a lucky man?
- Was Germanicus too emotional?
- Why do the soldiers come back to loyalty?