In the year 82, during the governorship of Julius Agricola, an auxiliary cohort of German Usipi warriors launched an ill-fated mutiny against their Roman supervisors in Britannia. The harrowing event was documented by two historians, Tacitus (who happened to be the son-in-law of Agricola) and Cassius Dio. It was mentioned only in passing in Cassius Dio’s Roman History, but Tacitus described the horrors of the mutiny with gruesome detail in the pages of his Agricola.
In section twenty-eight of the Agricola, Tacitus claimed that an auxiliary cohort of Usipi warriors (approximately 500 men) rebelled against the Romans who oversaw the unit. Many Roman officers were reportedly murdered in the mutiny, including all the centurions assigned to the cohort (there were usually 6), a military tribune, and any other trainers, disciplinarians or average Roman legionaries who had the misfortune of being present at the time. Following the purge of the Romans in their ranks, the rogue Usipi cohort rushed to a nearby harbor and commandeered three Liburnian warships, which are small and quick vessels.
The captains of the commandeered ships were largely uncooperative, so the Usipi mutineers had to make do with their own knowledge of navigation. Perhaps in consequence of this, the progress of the rebels was tortuously slow and, whether or not they actually intended the feat, the mutineers were said to have circumnavigated the island. During their long journey, the rebels eventually ran out whatever supplies they had stockpiled onto their ships. The parched and starving warriors were forced to begin raiding coastal towns of the Britons for food and water. Yet, according to Tacitus’ sources, the Britons were able to fend off many of the attacks launched by the weakening Usipi crews. The little amount of supplies that the mutineers managed to steal from the Britons was apparently not enough to feed the whole group—they reportedly had to resort to cannibalism toward the end of their hellish experience.
After their circumnavigation of Britain, the fate of the mutineers became more vague. As a result of all their raiding, the mutinous Usipi crews apparently gained reputations as pirates, yet their seamanship was subpar. In an ambiguous statement, Tacitus claimed that the Usipi rebels eventually ran their ships aground or were shipwrecked, possibly back on the coast of the European mainland, somewhere around the Netherlands region. Although they had made it back to Germania, the mutineers were not met with a warm welcome by the local tribes, presumably because of reputation for piracy that the rebels had accrued during their journey. Tacitus wrote, “Having lost their ships through poor seamanship, they were taken for pirates and cut off first by the Suebi and then by the Frisii. Some of them were sold as slaves and passed from hand to hand till they reached our bank of the Rhine, where they gained notoriety from the tale of their great adventure” (Agricola, section 28).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Art from Trajan’s Column (plate XCIX, scene CXXXIV), attributed to Apollodoro di Damasco (50–130), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Agricola and Germania by Tacitus and translated by Harold Mattingly and revised by J. B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.