The shadow side of Roman military history was riots, desertion and the transition of soldiers to the side of the enemy. For obvious reasons, Roman historians were not too fond of focusing on these phenomena. Their true scope is evidenced by a solid set of laws adopted against deserters and a number of indirect evidence. Let us dwell on one of them – the story of the historian Herodian about the war with deserters (bellum desertorum), which broke out in the Gallic and German provinces during the reign of Emperor Commodus (177–192).
Most likely, the source for Herodian was the parts of the text of Cassius Dion that have not been preserved to our time. Separate information about these events is available from the author of the Biography of Augustus, as well as from other sources. The dating of events remains unknown and is based only on the sequence of presentation of events in Herodian. Since he talks about Materna immediately after describing the fall of the all-powerful temporary worker and the imperial favorite of Perennis, it can be assumed that these events occurred after 185, but, as we will see later, before the year 186.
In the center of Herodian’s exposition is Materna’s figure. The historian describes him as a brave, intelligent and cunning person, a born leader, who carried many followers along the curve path. Bravado and boundless adventurism are inherent in him, which ultimately prompted Materna to try to seize power and kill Commodus. We know about these plans only from the words of Herodian himself, and there is no guarantee that he simply did not invent this part of the story for the sake of a red word. Materna’s personal motives remain outside the scope of the narrative – as well as the reason that made him become a robber. In the text of Herodian, everything rests on simple psychologism.
Background and reasons
Modern authors are characterized by a much deeper and more justified approach related to the study of the phenomenon against the background of the problems of the corresponding era.
For the Roman army, desertion was not new. Monuments of the legislation of the imperial era indicate a serious attention to this problem and a desire to deal with the causes that generated it. Desertion not only weakened the army but also posed a threat to civilian order. Runaway soldiers poured into gangs of robbers who terrorized the civilian population of the provinces, or went to the barbarians and opened them the way to Roman territory. Takfarinat became widely known, who, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14–37), launched a real guerrilla warfare on the southern borders of the Roman province of Africa. Less well known is a certain Gannask, under Claudius (41–54) he served in Roman auxiliary cohorts: he fled from the army and then, with the support of the hawks on ships, devastated the Gallic coast. As in the case of Takfarinat, the army had to be involved in the fight against this robber, and the final victory over his supporters was won only after the death of the leader.
Trying to explain the scope of the Materna movement, historians pay attention to the disasters that hit the Roman Empire during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161–180). The Antoninova Plague, most likely the epidemic of smallpox, killed around a quarter of the eastern legions and about a fifth of the Danube army in 166–169, on the eve of a long and difficult war with the Marcomances. In total, from 7% to 10% of the population of the empire became victims of the epidemic. To compensate for the lack of recruits, the emperor had to enlist in the army freedmen, gladiators and even robbers from Dalmatia.
The return of the epidemic in 180, and then another wave of 189, also inevitably should have created problems that were exacerbated by the unfavorable economic situation in the provinces. As early as 172–173, a rebellion of buccali occurred in Egypt. During Commodus’s reign, according to his biographer in The Biography of Augustus, internal unrest flared up in Dacia , Pannonia and Britain. All these uprisings, including the war against the deserters, were ultimately crushed by his military leaders.
Enemies or robbers
The author of Commodus’s biography in The Biography of Augustus reports that one of the signs that happened to him during his reign was the sky, “burning before the war with the deserters” (ante bellum desertorum caelum arsit). Other sources also characterize these events as “war” (bellum). According to the definition of Roman lawyer Ulpian, war (bellum iustum) is waged against enemies (hostes):
Since Ulpian gives this definition just in order to distinguish between external enemies ( hostes ) and internal enemies , from the point of view of law considered only robbers and robbers ( latrones aut praedones ), it seems very possible that in this case the Senate adopted a decree declaring the rebels ” enemies of the state ” ( hostes publici ), as was done with respect to dangerous rebels or those with whom internecine wars were fought.
According to Herodian, initially Matern attracted mainly deserters and robbers. When the number of his people increased, he began to break into prisons and accept fugitive slaves and the rural poor. He was no longer content with simple robbery, but dared to attack villas and besiege cities. Some modern historians see in these events a prototype of the future Bagaud movement.with which the rebellion Materna combines a common theater of operations. According to Herodian, a rebellion swept the Gallic and even Spanish provinces. Some French archaeologists are trying to concretize these indications and to associate with the uprising the horizon of treasures and a number of serious destruction noted in the wide space between the mouth of the Loire and the banks of the Seine. True, the accuracy of such comparisons rests on the problem of interpreting finds and the accuracy of the available dating.
Alas, neither the slogans nor the program of movement are known to us, and this makes it difficult to understand its essence. While some see Materna as a fighter for freedom and a defender of the oppressed, others see him as an extraordinarily successful gangster who succeeded in captivating numerous followers.
Suppression of rebellion
Probably, before entering into full force, Mater for some time acted with complete impunity. All measures taken against him were insufficient. This can partly be explained by a lack of strength. According to Herodian, when rumors about the situation in Gaul reached the emperor, he brutally dismantled the governors and demanded the involvement of army forces in the fight against the rebels. From the biography of Lucius Pescennius Niger in the Biography of Augustus, it follows that he was sent to Gaul as an imperial legate (legatus Augusti) ” to capture the deserters, who were then very numerous in Gaul, where they carried out robberies”. The author of the biography reports that Niger did an excellent job: he pacified the robbers and brought order to the provinces. At the same time, he made friends with the then governor of Lugdun province, Lucius Septimius Severus , his future adversary during the Civil War in 193–194.
An important detail about the course of hostilities contains a solemn inscription made by the inhabitants of the Italian town of Urvinum in honor of his fellow countryman and patron Guy Vesnius Vindeks. The information we are interested in is contained in lines three through seven that tell about the military career of Vesnya Vindeks:
From the inscription shows that Legio VIII Augusta was subjected to a siege in his camp Argentorate (modern Strasbourg), but in the end the siege someone was shot, the legion received from the emperor an honorary nickname, and the spring Vindex awarded following the post of military tribune career stage on two years ahead of schedule.
To date these events, another document allows – the so-called tablet from Rottweil with the orders of Mark Juvenius Cesian, legate of the VIII August August legion, dated August 4, 186. The document certifies that at that time the legion was already nicknamed Pia Fidelis. Another mention of the Legio VIII Augusta Pia Fidelis Constans Commodiana is found in an inscription from Oringen dating back to 187.
Researchers agree that it was Matern and his deserters who blocked the VIII Augustus legion in his camp. This not only confirms that Materna had a significant number of people at her disposal, but also provides a geographical reference for events, localizing the center of unrest in Upper Germany.
The End of Materna
After the first successes, luck changed Materna. When great forces were thrown against him, he realized that he had no chance to survive in open battle. Mater refused the battle and ordered his people to disperse, and then, individually or in small groups, make their way through the Alps from Gaul to Italy. It is not known what is true in this story, but what was invented by Herodian, who often fictitious the course of real events for the sake of an entertaining exposition.
The plan invented by Mater was that in early March, when the townspeople celebrated the festival in honor of the Mother of the Gods with a carnival procession, they would bring their people into the city under the guise of imperial guards . He himself, dressed in the form of a tribune of the Praetorians , intended to clamber into the imperial retinue and kill Commodus with his own hand.
Today it’s hard to say how realistic this plan was. Its implementation, as often happens, was prevented by chance. Some people Materna arrived in Rome ahead of time. Here they caught the eye of the city guard, were taken under surveillance, then arrested and under torture admitted everything. One of them pointed to the leader’s refuge. At night, the guard surrounded the house, the robber was captured in a dream and immediately beheaded. The same fate befell his other accomplices, who underwent well-deserved punishment.