Shortly after the death of Augustus in 14 CE, the civilian soldiers in the three Roman legions stationed in Pannonia were incited into mutiny. Most of the known information about this event was recorded by two statesmen-historians of the Roman Empire, Tacitus (c. 56/57 – 117) and Cassius Dio (c. 163-235). Tacitus, perhaps the greatest orator of his time, gave the lengthier and more detailed account of the mutiny, but he was also known to take artistic license with some of his historical descriptions. Nevertheless, both historians claimed that the goal of the mutiny was to bring about military reforms, specifically a restriction of military service to 16 years, as well as an increase in pay from one sesterce a day to one denarius (4 sesterce) per day. Without these changes, the mutineers claimed that the excessively long period of military service, combined with the harsh discipline and severe punishments in the Roman Army, were simply unfair.
The legions in Pannonia were originally led by a commanding officer by the name of Quintus Junius Blaesus. Yet, when Augustus died, Blaesus and his staff quickly lost control of the Pannonian legions. Cassius Dio did not mention the leaders of the mutiny in his account. Tacitus, on the other hand, claimed that a charismatic soldier named Percennius, supposedly a former theater applause leader, became the first spokesman of the mutiny. Spurred on by Percennius’ speeches, the mutineers were said to have been committed enough to their cause that they were willing to escalate from mutiny into full-blown rebellion. Fortunately, when the troops were considering taking up arms against Rome, their commanding officer, Blaesus, was able to convince them to keep their mutiny peaceful. Instead of rebelling, they sent Blaesus’ son as their delegate to Rome, tasked with delivering the mutineers’ complaints into the hands of Augustus’ heir, Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37).
(1st century statue of Emperor Tiberius, c. 1st century, held within the Louvre Museum, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Unfortunately, the Pannonian military construction crews who were out building roads and bridges near the small town of Nauportus had not received the memo about keeping the mutiny peaceful. Instead, these soldiers beat up their officers and looted the nearby settlement. When these troops returned to the main camp, Blaesus began to punish the looters, but this, in turn, riled up the rest of the mutineers, who promptly freed the military camp’s jailed prisoners.
Around this time, Tacitus claimed that another man began to assert himself as a leader of the mutineers. His name was Vibulenus, and Tacitus provided little information on his background, other than to bluntly paint him as a lying rabble-rouser. Vibulenus supposedly claimed that his beloved brother was murdered by Blaesus’ enslaved gladiators. He delivered the accusation with enough passion that his words led to the arrest of Blaesus’ whole household. Cassius Dio also confirmed this event and stated that several of Blaesus’ slaves were captured and tortured. Nevertheless, the slaves were found innocent of murder, and Tacitus followed this up by reporting that Vibulenus, in fact, did not even have a brother. Whatever the case, by this point the mutiny was back with a vengeance. Even worse, several deaths had, by now, occurred, and some of the Roman officers were either under arrest by the mutineers or in hiding.
From Rome, the events in Pannonia looked dire enough to require Emperor Tiberius to send his son, Drusus, to deal with the mutineers. Drusus was put in command of a large detachment of the Praetorian Guard and was given free reign to pacify the mutiny in whatever manner he wished. When Drusus arrived at the scene of the mutiny, the disgruntled soldiers were reportedly disrespectful, but other than that, things were generally peaceful. The two sides even began to negotiate on concessions, such as the terms of military service and pay. Yet, everything eventually collapsed into chaos. Cassius Dio claimed that the break in negotiations came simply because Drusus would not give the mutineers clear answers about how the mutiny would be resolved. Tacitus, however, wrote that Drusus stirred up the wrath of the mutinous legions by sheltering a particularly hated officer named Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus. Either way, Drusus and his Praetorians eventually found themselves besieged in their camp by the mutineers.
(Carved head supposedly of Drusus Julius Caesar, exhibit in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, USA. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
It was on an exceptionally clear night during that siege that something spectacular took place in Pannonia. Tacitus must have enjoyed being able to exercise his rhetorical and literary skills to bring the odd scene to life in his Annals of Imperial Rome. He wrote that on the night when Drusus was besieged, the moon was bright and the sky was clear. Suddenly the moon began to mysteriously darken and the Pannonian soldiers saw it as an ill omen for their mutiny. Consequently, they somehow came to a consensus that their demands would only be met if the moon returned to its former brightness. At this point, Tacitus would have us believe that the mutinous soldiers began to noisily clang their metal equipment and play musical instruments in order to convince the moon to brighten. Miraculously, the moon did seem to brighten as they played their peculiar symphony, giving a great boost to the morale of the mutineers. Yet, almost immediately, the moonlight (once more) began to dim and the moon, itself, was eventually completely covered by clouds that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Tacitus claimed that this startling turn of events caused the mutineers to howl with despair and give up all hope for their mutiny. Cassius Dio summarized the scene much less dramatically, simply stating that an eclipse of the moon made the soldiers lose their nerve.
After the lunar event, the mutineers transitioned back to peaceful tactics. They ended their siege of Drusus and sent Blaesus’ son back to Rome to resubmit their list of grievances. The officers were able to regain control, and the mutineers handed over their most vocal leaders, such as Percennius and Vibulenus. Cassius Dio vaguely wrote that the mutiny’s leaders were simply punished. Tacitus, however, claimed that Drusus had the men executed and possibly left their bodies exposed as a warning. It is unclear how much the Pannonian soldiers actually gained from their mutiny. Nevertheless, a much bloodier mutiny among the legions stationed along the Rhine occurred almost simultaneously with the one in Pannonia. These German legions called for many of the same military reforms, which were ultimately granted. Tacitus wrote that Emperor Tiberius eventually extended the legions in Pannonia the same concessions that were given to the legions along the German border. Yet, after giving it some thought, Tiberius extended the term of military service back to 20 years.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top Picture Attribution: (Moon in front of a blueish background, [Public Domain] via Pixabay.com)
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.