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“Remove justice and what are states but gangs of bandits on a large scale? And what
are bandit gangs but kingdoms in miniature?”
Hollywood has treated us to yet another over-produced Robin Hood movie. At least this time it won’t have Kevin Costner miscast as the lead.
While watching the trailer I couldn’t help but noting how Robin Hood’s character has been slowly transformed over the years.
The early Robin Hood was a yeoman, a commoner, fighting against a corrupt establishment in 14th Century sonnets. It wasn’t until several centuries later that Robin Hood transformed into a wronged aristocrat, loyal to King Richard, and fighting to restore the status quo.
The whole “class war” thing was just forgotten.
The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and the state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice…and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported.
– E. J. Hobsbawm
Of course Robin Hood never existed. He was a creation of ballads and sonnets, so it is easy to turn him into whatever character that is convenient at the time.
There was a real charter that history could have drawn on – Eustace the Black Monk – that lived around the same time as the mythical Robin Hood, but that creates other problems. Eustace fought against both England and France at different times as a mercenary, and came to a poor ending.
This doesn’t mean that there was never a real Robin Hood-type character that matches up to the legend. What it means is that to find this character you must go outside of medieval England. Instead, the golden age of Robin Hood happened about 18 centuries ago in the waning days of the Roman Empire.
An Empire in Decline
The highways of the Roman Empire were dangerous places. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is a perfect example. The question far too few people ask is why?
Most people accept historian Edward Gibbon’s explanation for the Fall of the Roman Empire, which he attributes to a loss of “civic virtue” among its citizens. But could there be a larger reason for the fall of the Roman Empire?
Trials for common criminals in the Roman Empire were a summary affair entirely dependent on the arbitrary decision and power (coercitio) of the magistrate. Procedure was non-existent. Torture was the accepted norm. Penalties for banditry included throwing to the beasts, burning alive, and crucifixion. The term “outlaw” didn’t mean just someone acting outside of the law. It also meant how someone was to be dealt with by the state.
The rules and penalties for upper-class criminals were entirely different, who were granted the right of counsel, a defense, and maybe even a jury.
It was during the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD that a proto-feudalism arose. The first elements of serfdom were codified in 332 AD when Emperor Constantine greatly restricted the rights of the tenant farmers and tied them to the land.
A mostly forgotten contemporary historian named Salvianus, born at the start of the 5th Century, has a slightly different outlook than what Gibbon wrote more than 12 centuries later.
the misery of the Roman world is all due to the neglect of God’s commandments and the terrible sins of every class of society. It is not merely that the slaves are thieves and runaways, wine-bibbers and gluttons – the rich are worse (iv. 3). It is their harshness and greed that drive the poor to join the Bagaudae and fly for shelter to the barbarian invaders (v. 5 and 6). Everywhere the taxes are heaped upon the needy, while the rich, who have the apportioning of the impost, escape comparatively free (v. 7).
There are several juicy items in this quote I want to touch on, but first and foremost I want to talk about the rise of the Bagaudae.
A daring boldness, above his station
Julius Maternus was a soldier serving in Gaul during the late 2nd Century A.D.
For an unknown reason, Maternus deserted the army in 186, and convinced several other soldiers to join him.
In a short period of time his gang of bandits have overrun several villages and estates. As his reputation and wealth increased, so did the number of brigands who flocked to him.
For they now proceeded to attack the largest cities, and forcing open the prisons they set free those who had been confined in them, no matter what they had been charged with, promised them impunity, and by good treatment won them over to join them. They overran the whole land of the Gauls and the Spaniards attacking the largest cities, burning parts of them and plundering the rest before retiring.
Maternus would attack wealthy estates, expropriate the what he wanted to, set the slaves free, and enslaved their former master. Maternus could draw upon a vast supply of runaway slaves, coloni, ruined farmers, deserters from the army, etc.
One contemporary writer of the times called it “the War of the Deserters”, but Maternus’ army was clearly more than just former soldiers, and the numbers are too great to attribute to just thieves and robbers. Instead it appeared to be an open revolt by the peasant class: it was the overture to the Bacauda.
The ruthless Governor of Gault, Septimius Severus, was unable to suppress them. The revolt went on for years. This forced the Emperor Commodus to personally intervene by sending an army.
At this point Maternus made a bold, new change in strategy that would give him legendary status.
He ordered his followers to disperse, to pass the Alps in small parties and various disguises, and to assemble at Rome, during the licentious tumult of the festival of Cybele. (18) To murder Commodus, and to ascend the vacant throne, was the ambition of no vulgar robber. His measures were so ably concerted, that his concealed troops already filled the streets of Rome.
It was an incredibly ambitious strategy, and just one day before the festival it appeared it was going to happen.
Materus had gone beyond the wishes of his fellow insurgents. He now wished to be Emperor, the symbol of what his comrades were fighting against. In hindsight, it was inevitable that someone would betray him.
Materus was seized and beheaded, along with his most loyal followers.
The Bandit King
If ever there lived a man who Robin Hood was modeled after, it was Bulla Felix.
About 205 A.D. the Italian Bulla gathered around 600 men to his command and began raiding the Italian countryside.
Although many men pursued Bulla, and the emperor Severus himself tracked the man zealously, he was never seen when seen, never found when found, never caught when caught. In part this was because of Bulla’s great generosity with gifts and his intelligence.
Bulla was the originator of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. It’s because of this distribution of goods that he was able to hide within the peasant society.
Those who had wealth, he would take a portion of their goods and then set them free. Those tradesmen he seized, he would hold for a time, taking advantage of their skills, and then set them free with partial payment for their services.
What truly set Bulla apart was his legendary audacity.
One story tells of when two of his bandit comrades were captured and about to be thrown to wild beasts, Bulla went to the prison posing as a local imperial official and requisitioned two strong prisoners for manual labor who’s description just happened to match the two bandits. The fooled prison guard turned them over to him.
In another story, Bulla approached a centurion that was tasks with tracking down and killing Bulla. Bulla pretended to be someone else while pretending to be a victim of himself. He then promised to lead the centurion to Bulla’s gang.
After his men easily captured the centurion, Bulla mounted a tribunal, dressed in magistrate robes, and ordered the centurion to be brought before him, his head shaven like a slave:
“Tell your masters that if they would put a stop to brigandage they must feed their slaves.”
Eventually Emperor dispatched a tribune to capture Bulla. The tribune learned that Bulla was having an affair with another man’s wife. He promised the woman immunity if she helped capture Bulla.
Bulla was arrested in his sleep.
At Bulla’s trial the praetorian prefect asked him, “Why did you become a bandit?”
To which Bulla replied, “Why did you become a praetorian prefect?”
Bulla was then thrown to the wild beasts.
The Rise of the Bagaudae
The Crisis of the Third Century also brought on a rise in banditry and the first time the term “Bagaudae” is used. E. P. Thompson wrote in the journal Past and Present that the Bagaudae revolts were largely composed of agricultural slaves, but that they had significant support in the working classes.
Very little is known about the Bagaudae because the ruling class specifically omitted mention of them whenever possible. Their objectives were never recorded. However, after the long Bagaudae revolt of 407-417 AD was crushed, Exuperantius, speaking on behalf of the landlords, had this to say of the peace that followed: “restored the
laws and brought back liberty and does not allow the inhabitants to be slaves of their own slaves.”
Obviously the “slaves” had an entirely different perspective on the events.
The term Bagaudae was first used during a widespread revolt that started in 283 and wasn’t put down until 287 by Maximian. The first legion that Maximian tried to use famously mutinied rather than fight the Bagaudae and had to be slaughtered by other Roman legions.
The Bagaudae also revolted in Gaul from 437 to 439 AD.
“And great fear prevailed over all the land, and its inhabitants dwelt in the enjoyment of tranquility and peace.”
– John of Nikiu, describing the aftermath of the crushing of a revolt
As the Roman Empire weakened they increasingly cut bargains with the barbarian invaders. So it was only natural that the Bagaudae did the same.
In Hispania, the king of the Suevi Rechiar, actually made an alliance with the local Bagaudae rebels against the Roman legions and helped them ravage the Ebro valley.
Establishment historians have tried to explain the reason for the downfall of Rome as a subject of morality, but it makes a lot more sense to attribute it to a significant percentage the populace working in tandem with the invaders to bring down feudal tyranny.
E.P. Thompson puts it thus:
Whatever the frequeney of peasant revolts during the third- and fourth-centuries, they reached such a climax in the first half of the fifth-century as to be almost continuous. It would be strange indeed if this fact were considered to be of slight importance in the study of the fall of the Western Empire: Empires only fall because a sufficient number of people are sufficiently determined to make them fall, whether those people live inside or outside the frontier.
Salvianus clearly pointed out how the proto-feudal laws which benefited the wealthy elite at the expense of the lower classes undermined the foundation of the Roman Empire. Is it really such a stretch to think that when a society abandons all sense of fairness, when the wealthy gain such power as to completely disregard the welfare of the working classes, that society in general becomes unstable and flawed?
When you read about the next Robin Hood, or just hear about him/her from word of mouth, you will know that a new Bagaudae is not far behind.