Authority: the security problem among co-operating killers
The problem explained
The most delicate point of focus for a potentate always is his personal security. Of course, you have your body guard, but a bad apple may easily creep in, and you will be dead. To most high Roman officials (the emperor himself, proconsuls, generals, even centurions), relatives in their body guard did not seem a good idea. Relatives were dangerous. Generally, Romans were dangerous. So they used foreign slaves for it. Most of them used German slaves. The idea is that a foreign slave has no way to correctly judge forces that might try to offer rewards for killing his master. If treated well, a foreign slave will stick to the safe side and not risk possible unexpected outcomes of murder for a promise of a reward. Body guard slaves should not be too stupid, in order to be able to anticipate security dangers. But neither should they be too smart, because that might enable them to get into a negotiating relation with enemies of their master.
Similar situations are found elsewhere. Later Muslim rulers used black Africans, converted Christians, Turks, Kurds or Circassians (Hourani, Albert (1991) A History of the Arab Peoples, New York: MJF books, p. 130)
Xenophon's Anabasis, describing a
military campaign in the Persian empire around 400 BC clearly shows that the most
difficult aspect for elite in antiquity was not to produce or rob food, or build treasures
of architecture, but to maintain authority over armed people. How do you acquire, let
alone keep authority over an army? In an army, the leader is the smallest minority in a
vast mass of armed people who made murder their profession, and consider murder a part of
their daily life just as common as slaughtering is to a butcher. And the comparison to
butchers correctly renders the idea of killing in antique armies: no guns or bombs,
killing was manual craftsmanship with the help of spears, swords and daggers (and, off the
battlefield, also poison). No doubt these methods of killing are ecologically sound, and
the weapons could be reused: if it sticks really tight in your dying victim, you put your
foot on him and firmly pull a handle especially attached to it for the purpose. With a
little luck, it results in a pulsing fountain of blood. A battle was quite unlike the
creeping and stealing of modern soldiers. It started in straight orders of men opposing
each other and ended more or less like a rugby game, but with shields, spears, swords and
daggers. Sounds must have seemed like those of tennis players hitting hard from the base
line, and football players being tackled from the back on there heels in the mode
that is punished with a red card.
And, at each side, one of the killers was the leader. And all other killers obeyed that one killer. How is this possible?
The best approach is to study a cases where the killer-leader is not obeyed by the other killers: mutiny.
Some instructive cases of mutiny
Tacitus describes the mutinies of quite a number of Roman legions after the death of the first emperor Augustus (14 AD).
The desires of the mutineers have nothing special: more money, less labour, less beatings, less punishments of other kinds. They always want that, also when they are obedient. At some occasions, a mutiny is triggered by a difference of opinion in matters of military tactics: attack now, or later. Reluctance to attack can result from reading "bad signs" in some form of superstition. The superstition can be either spontaneous, or be organised by rebel leaders. "Signs" like thunder, a moon eclipse, the patterns flown by birds, or the intestines of sacrificed animals are often used by augurs in the service of generals to create the superstition proper to the actions the general wants to take. Rebel leaders can copy this use of augurs for their own agenda.
What is never quite the same is the way in which a mutiny is suppressed and order restored.
Octavianus Augustus had died, Tiberius became the second emperor, and rebellion broke
out in several of the Northern legions. Drusus, high government official, arrived at
the legions 8,9, and 15 (each one has around 6000 soldiers) in Pannonia (Hungary). His
first trump is that he is the son of the new emperor Tiberius. The rebels are
unsure what Rome could do against them in the longer run. Nevertheless, the rebels closed
the camp gates after Drusus had entered, which effectively made him a hostage. Drusus
heads for the podium (a high place above the rest reinforces your position, this
is true even for non human primates). The soldiers gather around it, aggressively
encouraging each other, as football players before the starting whistle, then again
looking lightly unsurely up to Drusus. There is some aggressive discussion resulting in a
stalemate. Drusus retires to his tent.
Hotheads make fists to people of Drusus' retinue moving around on the camp. One is in danger to get stoned and has to be saved. It is resistance, but of the unorganised kind known in our times from riots in poor suburbs.
In the night, nature comes to the help of Drusus: a moon eclipse, followed by continuous heavy rain over many days. We shall never know who started to whisper that meant the gods were disturbed about the mutiny, but many a soldier swallowed it.
That gave the opportunity to some experienced gentlemen in Drusus retinue to have a talk with centurion's left and right, forming their judgements about them, and identify the leaders among the rebels, two of whom disappeared in a tent somewhere never to be seen again.
Fear, resulting from the presence of Roman officials and from superstition, the disappearance of two rebel leaders and some vague promises sufficed. The legions orderly returned to their own camps, first number 8, then number 15, finally even number 9. Young Drusus left the finalisation to a new management team and returned to his mother.
Tacitus mentions (too) ruthless and corrupt centurions as cause of the rebellion, but there is no analysis of how such a great number of unwise appointments could have been made under emperor August. Every legion has about 60 centurions, so an eye can be kept on the appointment procedures for centurions for a legion commander with his six staff officers. There were 25 legions, so al emperor Augustus needed was 25 good commanders. This makes it remarkable that things could go wrong in three legions in Pannonia at the same time.
The mutiny in Pannonia was nothing compared to the one in the Rhine legions (Upper Rhine nrs. 1 and 20, Lower Rhine nrs. 5 and 21) following Augustus' death. Their general Germanicus, who was a relative of Augustus and Tiberius (as was his wife), himself a candidate emperor, was out for business elsewhere and headed home to a boiling atmosphere of soldiers adrift. They had started killing the centurions (by lashing) and throwing their dead bodies over the camp wall.
Imagine Germanicus approaching the camp of the upper Rhine legions, hearing a lot of
noise and seeing the lashed naked bodies of his centurions were flying over the walls.
What do do?
Germanicus was a popular general. Even in this situation, the soldiers considered him to be a partner in deliberations.
How is this possible? It strongly resembles the position of Russian presidents, who sometimes are popular among the people though everybody hates the corrupt government officials who physically run the country, and keep stripping the citizens to the bone.
If Germanicus climbs on top of something (remember Drusus in Pannonia, Jeltsin on the tank), the soldiers pose themselves around him and listen to what he has to say. According to Tacitus, Germanicus in his speech took a run over the fame of the legions, but "as soon as he started to speak of the mutiny, and emphatically asked where had gone their respect for law and order in the army, and the discipline they always has been praised for, what they had done with their staff officers and centurions, they all as one man laid bare their bodies showing him the scars of the wounds inflicted upon them and the traces of the lashes....". And then, exactly the same happens as happened to Xenophon when his rebelling soldiers had taken Byzantium: "Hail Germanicus!!". The invitation to Germanicus was to lead the way to where the army wanted to go.
Xenophon had the courage to argue that conquering and pillaging Byzantium would not end well, but this shows you, as a leader, afraid for consequences, no deal for Germanicus. Tacitus: "As if he was afraid to be contaminated with their criminality" he walked away, but got stopped. Thereupon he threatened, according to the traditions of good Roman patrician families, to throw himself over his own sword out of indignation over the behaviour of his men. But though there was a soldier who generously offered his sword for the purpose -Tacitus retained his name for history and such is fully deserved: Calusidius- this "resolve" of Germanicus was prevented by his soldiers.
Thus, Germanicus managed to reach the tent where he wanted to deliberate. The usual question had to be answered: where to be severe, where to be lenient?
In one of Germanicus' legions there was a camp commander who had restored order
independently, and in his own personal way. First of all he had two soldiers executed.
That caused amazement because a camp commander is not licensed to carry out executions.
But they were dead anyhow. This camp commander had started a counter mutiny all by
himself! Against this solitary mutineer the rebels advanced, with the standard of the
legion in front. The camp commander now started to threaten with Tiberius and Germanicus,
pulled the standard off their hands, turned it towards the opposite bank of the Rhine, and
declare to be a deserter everybody who was not aligned at his proper place.
The rebels, taken by surprise by someone with the rank of a camp commander lost self confidence, and the mutiny dimmed to some grumbling here and there. This camp commander justly receives an honourable mention by Tacitus (we all hope the guy did not succeed just to have this story believed in order to further his later career): M'Ennius. Congratulations.
In one of Germanicus' problem legions a high Roman envoy, Plancius, got the soldiers on his tail. He posed himself next to the field signs and the legions eagle, considered to be altars for the gods, and held them firmly. Unfortunately there seemed to be a power cut between gods and altar, because a reserve officer cadet had to prevent that "an envoy of the citizens of Rome would have desecrated the altars of the gods with his own blood". This clearly is a bad mark for Plancius. Out of respect for Plancius' superiors, Germanicus on the next day blamed the gods for the inelegant event.
Time had come for Germanicus to hit the army with his mightiest weapon: he sent his wife Agrippina and her small children, who always cheerfully jumped around in the camp, among whom a toddler nicknamed "little boot" who later would be an emperor, to Trier.
That finished the rebellion. Tacitus: "Nothing had so much influence on the mood of the soldiers as their jealousness on the people of Trier, they started praying and begging, they blocked their way out of the camp. They had to return, they had to stay." In short, the howling of the Roman soldiers now really got loud enough to be heard by the Germans over the river.
This cleared the ground for a new speech by Germanicus. He recalled to mind that his great grandfather Julius Caesar any group of disloyals only had to name "Quirites" ("Citizens of Rome") to turn them around. And Octavianus Augustus, the first emperor, who just died, a brother of his grandfather, as everybody knew, just had to look. Not that he, Germanicus, wanted to compare himself to those giants in his family, but family it was!
So, in establishing authority, it was, at the time at least considered to be effective to come up with the record of your family members (in Homer's Ilias, Hector and Achilles do the same at the start of the fight in which the latter killed the former).
And if you behave well, Germanicus ended, Agrippina can come back. With her children!
Tacitus: "These words brought them on their knees".
Then the end game: the soldiers stood, armed, around the podium. All listed suspects of
disobedience mounted the podium one by one. When the soldiers shouted:
""Guilty!!!", the candidate was thrown off stage and butchered by the
crowd. "Germanicus", Tacitus writes, "did not do any attempt to stop them.
The operation was not ordered by him, so the repugnance raised by the atrocities fell on
those who carried them out". That was a smart way indeed to let the wrath flow
where Germanicus could profit from it, without being involved himself. This trick is
partly explains why Germanicus still was a discussion partner while the soldiers were
already throwing their centurions over the walls: in the preceding Octavian epoch of law
and order, centurions lashing "underhand" would keep order without making
Germanicus a possible object of wrath.
The remaining task was to smother the rebellion in the upper Rhine legions (5 and 21). But now 1 and 20 were disposable for the purpose! So 1 and 20 set out do make a rotting heap of flies of 5 and 21 if necessary, though it would be a waste of such useful legions. Hence a letter was sent to precede the arrival of 1 and 20, in which it was made clear that everybody would be killed without respect of persons, so the good (read: the cowards) could get a chance to show there goodness before Germanicus' arrival.
The letter worked. It effectuated a very unclear night of killing in the camp of the upper Rhine army and when Germanicus came close to the camp, a delegation of the camp came to meet him.
Tacitus: "A little later, Germanicus arrived in the camp. He burst in tears. This was, he said, not the work of a surgeon but of a butcher".
This could strike the reader as ungrateful. Had Germanicus not threatened to kill everyone? Did not his nightly helpers succeed by killing just about half? But of course it is not wise of a military leader to be grateful to those who killed half of their own out of fear for himself.
The "Guilty!!!"-end game was unfeasible in the circumstances: the butchering had already taken place. So Germanicus took one of the other options: we are going to fight against the Germans!
Quickly a bridge over the Rhine was fetched. Tacitus: "He destroyed by fire and sword an area of fifty miles. He have mercy neither for women, not for children or aged people...None of his soldiers were wounded, they had only killed people half asleep, or unarmed, or wandering around".
This kind of behaviour belongs, we can see that clearly from this example, in every reliable handbook on how to build and maintain authority in a well organised empire.
In which one should find also that a successful general such as Germanicus should be killed by his emperor as soon as possible.
And thus happened.
Just ask Tacitus.
Summarising: Germanicus' recipe of suppressing the rebellion was roughly thus:
The main observation is that large armies as they were run in antiquity were inherently unstable social organisations: one could not simply have a large number of soldiers limiting themselves to guarding the Rhine border. The tensions within the legion organisation have to be counteracted by the outside pressures and dangers of military operations, if the army is to remain stable and the leadership respected. If as a leader you think such operations have no good purpose, you should size down your army, which is not a typical thing for a leader to consider. More: Why Fight?