At just about this time, and for the same reasons, the regular brigades in Germany mutinied too. They were more numerous, and the outbreak was proportionately graver. Moreover they were in high hopes that Germanicus, unable to tolerate another man as emperor, would put himself at the disposal of the forces, which would then sweep all before them. There were two armies on the Rhine bank. The army of Upper Germany was under the command of Gaius Silius (I), the army of Lower Germany under Aulus Caecina Severus. Their supreme commander was Germanicus, but he was occupied at this time in assessing the property-tax in the Gallic provinces. The forces of Silius did not regard the mutiny as their own concern and watched it with mixed feelings. But the army of Lower Germany lost its senses. The two brigades which took the initiative; the twenty-first and fifth, brought in the first and twentieth, which shared their summer camp upon the borders of the Ubii and were occupied on light duty, or none at all. When the death of Augustus became known, the simple minds of the majority came under the influence of the masses of town-slaves who had recently been conscripted in the capital. Naturally insolent and lazy, they now argued that the moment had come for old soldiers to demand long-overdue demobilisation, and for the younger men to demand an increase in pay. Everyone should insist on relief from their hardships, and retaliate against the savagery of their company-commanders. Here it was not just a matter of one Percennius, as in the army of Pannonia, or of soldiers nervously thinking of other and more powerful armies. This was a massive outbreak. There was a universal cry that they had won Rome’s victories, her fate rested with them, and army commanders used a surname (Germanicus) derived from them.
The general, Caecina, took no counter-measures. The scale of the disturbances broke his nerve. Suddenly, in a passionate frenzy, swords drawn, the men attacked their company-commanders – the customary targets of the army’s ill-will, and the first victims of any outbreak. They were hurled to the ground and given the lash, sixty strokes each, one for each of them in the brigade. Then, broken and mutilated, they were cast outside the lines or thrown into the Rhine, more dead than alive. One, Septimius, took refuge on the general’s dais and fell at Caecina’s feet. But he was shouted for so violently that he had to be given up to his fate. Gaius Cassius Chaerea, who later went down to history as the murderer of the emperor Gaius and was at this time young and fiery, fought his way through the armed mob which held him up. Colonels, corps chiefs-of-staff had no control any longer. Patrols and sentries, and whatever else circumstances demanded, were organised by the men themselves. Students of army psychology could see the momentous and implacable character of the revolt from the fact that its instigators were not few and far between, but there was universal, silent fury, as resolute and unanimous as if they were acting on orders.
At this time Germanicus, as I have said, was engaged upon assessments in Gaul. There he learnt that Augustus was dead. Germanicus was married to his granddaughter Agrippina (I) and had several children by her; and since he was the son of Tiberius’ brother Nero Drusus, one of his grandparents was the Augusta. Yet Germanicus suffered from the fact that his grandmother and uncle hated him, for reasons which were unfair but all the more potent. For Nero Drusus still lived on in Roman memories. It was believed that if he had obtained control of the empire he would have brought back the free Republic. The hopes and goodwill thus engendered passed to his son, Germanicus. For this young man’s unassuming personality and popular manner were very different from the haughty, ambiguous looks and words of Tiberius. Ill-feeling among the women made things worse. The Augusta had a stepmother’s aversion to Agrippina. Agrippina herself was determined, and rather excitable. But she turned this to good account by her devoted faithfulness to her husband.
At all events Germanicus’ proximity to the summit of ambition only made him work more enthusiastically on behalf of Tiberius. After taking the oath of loyalty himself, he administered it to his immediate subordinates and to the Belgic communities. Then came the news that the army was rioting. He set out for it hurriedly. The men met him outside the camp. They kept their eyes fixed on the ground, ostensibly remorseful. As soon as he entered their lines, however, they assailed him with all manner of complaints. Some grasped his hand as though to kiss it, but instead thrust his fingers into their mouths to make him touch their toothless gums. Others showed how old age had deformed them. They crowded round him to listen in no sort of order. Germanicus told them to divide into their units. But they shouted back that they would hear better where they were. He said that they must at least bring their standards to the front so that it could be seen which battalion was which. Slowly they obeyed. Then Germanicus, after paying a reverent tribute to Augustus’ memory, praised the victories and triumphs of Tiberius and, by way of climax, his glorious achievements in German lands with those very brigades. He spoke appreciatively of Italy’s unanimous support for the government, and of the loyalty of the Gauls – of the perfect harmony and order prevailing everywhere.
This was received in silence or with indistinct muttering. But then Germanicus passed on to the mutiny. What on earth had happened, he asked, to their famous, traditional military discipline, and where had they driven their colonels and company-commanders? The soldiers’ reply was to tear off their clothes one after another, and point abusively to the scars left by their wounds and floggings. There was a confused roar about their wretched pay, the high cost of exemptions from duty, and the hardness of the work. Specific references were made to earthworks, excavations, foraging, collecting timber and firewood, and every other camp task that is either necessary or invented to occupy spare time. The most violent outcry came from the old soldiers, who pointed to their thirty years’ service and more, and appealed for relief from their exhaustion before death overtook them in the same old drudgery. ‘End this crushing service!’ they begged. ‘Give us rest – before we are utterly destitute!’ Some asked Germanicus for the legacies which the divine Augustus had left them – adding expressions of personal support for Germanicus. If he wanted the throne, they showed they were for him. At this point he leaped off the dais as if their criminal intentions were polluting him, and moved away. But they blocked his path and menaced him until he went back. Then, however, shouting that death was better than disloyalty, he pulled the sword from his belt and lifted it as though to plunge it into his chest. The men round him clutched his arm and stopped him by force. But the dose-packed masses at the back of the crowd, and even, remarkably enough, certain individuals who had pushed themselves into prominent positions, encouraged him to strike. A soldier called Calusidius even drew his own sword and offered it, remarking that it was sharper. But even in their demented frame of mind the men found this a brutal and repellent gesture. There was a pause; and Germanicus’ friends had time to hurry him into his tent.
There they considered what was to be done. The soldiers were reported to be organising a deputation to bring over the army of Upper Germany. They were also, it was said, planning to destroy the capital of the Ubii, and after that taste of looting to burst into the Gallic provinces and plunder them too. The situation was all the more alarming because the Germans knew of the mutiny in the Roman army: the abandonment of the Rhine bank would mean invasion. Yet to arm auxiliaries and loyal tribesmen against the rebellious regulars would be civil war. Severity appeared dangerous. But large concessions would be criminal. It would be just as desperately risky for Rome to give way about everything or about nothing. When all the arguments had been weighed and compared, it was decided to make a statement in the emperor’s name. In this, demobilisation was promised after twenty years’ service. Men who had served sixteen years were to be released but kept with the colours with no duties except to help beat off enemy attacks. Moreover, the legacies which they had requested were to be paid – twice over.
The soldiers saw that these concessions were hastily improvised and demanded their immediate implementation. The discharges were speedily arranged by the senior officers. The cash payments, however, were held up until the troops reached winter camps. Two brigades, the fifth and the twenty-first, refused to move from their summer quarters until, there and then, the whole sum was paid. It had to be scraped together from the travelling funds of Germanicus himself and his staff. The general Caecina took the remaining two brigades, the first and the twentieth, back to the Ubian capital. It was a scandalous march – Eagle, standards, and the cash stolen from the commander, all were carried along together. Then Germanicus moved on to the army of Upper Germany. He had no difficulty in inducing the second, thirteenth and sixteenth brigades to take the oath; the fourteenth only took it after hesitation. Though there were no demands for discharges and money payments, both were conceded.
In the territory of the Chauci, however, a fresh outbreak occurred, among a garrison consisting of detachments from the insubordinate brigades. The trouble was soon stamped out by two prompt executions. This illegal but salutary measure was carried out on the orders of the corps chief-of-staff Manius Ennius. Then, as the mutiny began to swell, he got away. But he was discovered. Relying on a bold course for the safety which his hiding-place had failed to provide, he cried out that their offence was not just against an officer, it was against Germanicus their commander – against Tiberius their emperor! At the same time, intimidating all opposition, he seized the standard and pointed it towards the Rhine. Then, shouting that everyone who fell out would be treated as a deserter, he conducted his men back to their winter camp – still rebellious, but frustrated.
Meanwhile the senate’s mission to Germanicus found him back at the Ubian altar and capital. The first and the twentieth brigades were in winter quarters there, and also the soldiers who had recently been released but not yet demobilised. Mad with anxiety and bad conscience, these men were also terrified that the concessions which they had won by mutinous methods would be cancelled by the senatorial delegation. Crowds habitually find scapegoats, however unjustifiably, and now they attacked the chief envoy, the former consul Lucius Munatius Plancus, charging him with instigating sanctions against them in the senate. Early in the night they began to clamour for their standard, which was kept in Germanicus’ residence. They rushed the door and forced him to get up and -under threat of death – to hand it over. Then, roaming the streets, they encountered the members of the delegation, who had heard the uproar and were on their way to Germanicus. The soldiers heaped abuse on them. Indeed they had it in mind to kill them, and especially Plancus. His high rank made it impossible for him to run away; and in his extreme danger the only available refuge was the camp of the first brigade. There he found sanctuary, grasping the Eagle and standards. But if a colour-sergeant named Calpurnius had not protected him from his fate, then, without precedent even between enemies, the altars of the gods would have been stained with the blood of an emissary of the Roman people, in a Roman camp. At last morning arrived; and commanders and private soldiers, and the night’s doings, were seen for what they were. Germanicus came into the camp and ordered Plancus to be brought to him. Escorting him on to the dais, he assailed this disastrous, maniacal revival of violence. ‘It shows how angry the gods are’, he said, ‘rather than the soldiers!’ Then he explained why the delegation had come, and spoke with gloomy eloquence about the rights of envoys, and the deplorable and unfair treatment of Plancus himself – a disgrace to the brigade. The gathering was hardly pacified, but it was cowed; and Germanicus sent the delegates away under the protection of auxiliary cavalry.
In this alarming situation Germanicus was generally criticised for not proceeding to the upper army, which obeyed orders and would help against the rebels. Enough and more than enough mistakes had been made, it was felt, by releases and payments and mild measures. And even if he did not value his own life, people asked why, among these madmen who had broken every law, he kept with him his baby son and his pregnant wife. Surely he owed it to the nation and their imperial grandfather to send them back! Germanicus was long hesitant. His wife scorned the proposal, reminding him that she was of the blood of the divine Augustus and would live up to it, whatever the danger. Then he burst into tears – and clasping to him the expectant mother and their child, persuaded her to go. It was a pitiable feminine company that set out. The supreme commander’s own wife, a refugee, clutched his infant son to her breast. Her escorts, his friends’ wives – forced to leave with her – were in tears. Those who remained were equally mournful.
The scene suggested a captured city rather than a highly successful Caesar in his own camp. The women’s sobbing and lamentation attracted the attention of the soldiers, who came out of their tents and asked why they were crying and what was wrong. Here were these distinguished ladies with no staff-officers or soldiers to look after them, none of the usual escort or other honours due to the supreme commander’s wife. And they were off to the Treviri, to be looked after by foreigners! The men felt sorry for them, and ashamed, when they thought of her ancestry – her father was Agrippa, her grandfather Augustus, her father-in-law Nero Drusus – and of her impressive record as wife and mother. Besides, there was her baby son, Gaius, born in the camp and brought up with the regular troops as his comrades. In their army fashion they had nicknamed him ‘little Boots’ (Caligula), because as a popular gesture he was often dressed in miniature army boots. But their jealousy of the Treviri was what affected them most. So now they wanted to prevent Agrippina’s departure, and appealed that she should stop and come back. Some ran to intercept her, the majority returned to Germanicus. He stood among them, still smarting with grief and anger.
‘My wife and son’, he told them, ‘are not more dear to me than my father and my country. But my father has his august dignity to protect him, and the Roman empire has its other armies. I would willingly see my wife and children die for your greater glory. Now, however, I am taking them out of your demented reach. Whatever atrocities are impending, my life alone must atone for them. Do not make your guilt worse by murdering the great grandson of Augustus, the daughter-in-law of Tiberius! ‘In these last days you have committed every possible crime and horror. I do not know what to call this gathering! You men who have used your fortifications and weapons to blockade your emperor’s son can hardly be called soldiers. And “citizens” is not the name for people who cast aside the authority of the senate. The international code too, rights due even to enemies, the sanctity of ambassadors – you have outraged them. The divine Julius Caesar suppressed a mutiny by one word: when his men would not take the oath he called them “civilians”. The divine Augustus put fear into his troops at Actium by a look. I cannot yet compete with them. But I am their descendant; and if the soldiers even in Spain or Syria – where I am not known – were disrespectful to me, it would be surprising and scandalous enough. And here we have you, the first brigade, which received its colours from Tiberius, and you, the twentieth, his comrades in many battles. He rewarded you amply. How splendidly you are repaying your old commander! This, it seems, is the report I must make to my father – amid the good news that he has from every other province – that his own old soldiers, his own recruits, they and they alone, not content with releases and gratuities, are slaughtering their company-commanders, ejecting their colonels, arresting their generals, until the camp and the river are soaked in blood, and I myself, surrounded by hatred, live only on sufferance!
‘When, at that first day’s meeting, you pulled away the sword I was preparing to plunge into my body, your friendly solicitude was inconsiderate. A better, truer friend was the man who offered me his own sword. At any rate I should have died with my conscience spared all my army’s crimes! The leader whom you would then have chosen need not have avenged my death. Instead he could have avenged Publius Quinctilius Varus and his three brigades. For heaven forbid that the distinction and glory of having helped Rome, and suppressed the peoples of Germany, should go to the Belgae-Gauls and foreigners – for all their offers. Divine Augustus, I call upon your spirit now in heaven! Nero Drusus my father, I invoke your image that is in our memories! Come to these soldiers of yours (into whose hearts shame and pride are making their way); wash clean this stain! Direct these revolutionary passions against enemy lives instead. And you men: I see your looks and hearts have changed. Will you give the senate back its delegates, be obedient to the emperor again – and return me my wife and son? Then shake off the contagion. Single out the culprits! That will show you are sorry, and prove you are loyal.’
At this they petitioned for mercy. Admitting the justice of his rebuke, they begged him to punish the guilty, and forgive those who had slipped. He must lead them against the enemy, they urged. And first his wife must be summoned back – the boy they bred must also return, and not be given to Gauls as a hostage. Germanicus agreed that his son should return, but excused his wife since her confinement was at hand, and so was winter. The rest, he said, was up to them. Changed men, they hastened round arresting the leading rebels and dragging them before the commander of the first brigade, Gaius Caetronius. Each ringleader in turn was tried and punished by him in the following fashion. The men, with drawn swords, stood in a mass. One after another the prisoners were paraded on the platform by a colonel. If they shouted ‘Guilty’, he was thrown down and butchered. The soldiers revelled in the massacre as though it purged them of their offences. And Germanicus, though the orders had not been his, did not intervene. For the disgust caused by this savagery would be directed against its perpetrators, and not against him. The discharged men acted similarly. Soon afterwards, they were sent to Raetia. The pretext was defence against a threat from the Suebi; but the real intention was to remove them from a camp with hateful memories of crimes and of their equally appalling retribution. Then Germanicus revised the roll of company-commanders. Each in turn came before him and reported his name, company, birth-place, length of service, and any battle distinctions and decorations. If the colonels and men spoke favourably of his work and character, then the company-commander kept his job, If, however, he was unanimously described as grasping and brutal, he was dismissed from the service.
This relieved the immediate crisis. But there was still equally serious trouble from the truculent attitude of the fifth and twenty-first brigades wintering sixty miles away at Vetera. It was they who had started the mutiny and committed the worst atrocities. Now they were as angry as ever, undeterred by the punishment and contrition of their fellow-soldiers. So Germanicus, ready to use force if his authority were set aside, prepared to transport auxiliary troops and arms down the Rhine.