September 09, 2009

The Ulsipi

Rome's armies were made up of different soldiers from different nationalities. Like any imperial army they included units from countries they had conquered (think for example of the British Ghurkas or Russian cossacks for more modern examples). Tacitus testifies to the strength of the Roman army later: but he also gives us reason to doubt its cohesion just before the major battle of Agricola's time in Britain. He does this by describing the revolt of the Ulsipi. According to Tacitus, this German tribe maintained a unit within the Roman army in Britain. However they were unhappy with the way that they were being trained and murdered the Roman soldiers placed within the unit. They boarded ships and landed only to get provisions, at which point they fought running battles with the Britons that they robbed and at times were so low on provisions that they committed cannibalism. They were eventually captured as pirates by the Swabians and Frisians on the coast of northern Germany and modern Holland and were sold as slaves- some of them even arriving back in Roman territory and crossing the Rhine by that means. (Mattingley ed. Agricola para 28)

Tacitus tells this story for a couple of important reasons- its presence is not accidental even though he notes that it is 'memorable'. The first reason he tells us it is because he wants to stress the difference between the British force- fighting for their homeland- and the Roman force, a cosmopolitan, artificial, imperial unit. The second is because he wants to expose the effects of indiscipline within the Roman army itself. The difference between the Britons and the Romans is discipline- and the reason for that difference lies in the Roman need to avoid incidents like those committed by the Ulsipi. Worse than any atrocity committed by the Roman army, is the set of atrocities committed by a mutinous part of the Roman army. Rome's forces are only virtuous in so far as they are controlled by the imperial commanders: once lost to command (and hence to the support of tax revenues) they threaten to become an imposition in a strange land and worse still common enemies to human kind including themselves.

In some sense here Tacitus's argument comes back to an earlier point about politics that he is fond of. Political institutions are created to respond to the people that they govern. A tyrannical institution like the Principate is ultimately required by a people who have lost their sense of freedom. In the same way, the Roman army requires, for Tacitus, the direction and discipline of a stern commander to keep its several units in check and prevent the overall unit falling apart into disparate war bands roaming the country. In the fall of the Ulsipi, we have hence a Tacitean diagnosis not of how Rome did fall (Tacitus had no knowledge of that) but of how it might fall.


James Higham said...

It's an interesting argument for the oppressor, the Roman Army. Yet it has basis in history. Looking at Russia, it's the uniformity, the oneness, the willingness to at least accept the rule as not being too bad [post USSR I mean] and more than that - it leads to peace.

When the conquered peoples started getting uppity again, on perceiving Russia's new weakness, then there was great unrest.

There are parallels.