Thursday, 18 December 2014

Tacitus, Annales iv, 72: a too demanding officer.

People can tolerate some suppression, but there are limits. Tacitus tells in his Annales IV.72 how the Frisians were forced by the Romans to pay taxes in the form of hides. The Frisians are the neighbours of the province I live (Groningen), but in Roman times and later the area they lived in was much larger. The North-West part of Germany is called Ostfriesland and though they don’t speak Frisian there but Saxon (Plattdeutsch, Frisian is close Old-English) the name indicates that Frisians wielded power at that region during some time of history – the very early Middle Ages.
There were no Roman forces in Frisia, but they were near enough by to show their teeth and demand tribute. At first it was quite moderate: Drusus just wanted some hides. But then a new commander came: Olennius. He wanted more than they could give, namely hides matching those of aurochs (singular and plural the same in English, though aurochsen, aurochses are attested), but their domesticated cows were much smaller and aurochs were rather rare here. Olennius must have known that, so his demand was just a display of power combined with sadism (how modern!). Being unable to provide the hides, the Frisians were punished by forcing to give away their cattle, fields and finally even their wives and children for slavery. And then the Frisians resented. Not without some amusement and sympathy for the Frisians, Tacitus describes what happened at 28 AD.

[72] Eodem anno Frisii, transrhenanus popolus, pacem exuere, nostra magis avaritia quam obsequii impatientes. tributum iis Drusus iusserat modicum pro angustia rerum, ut in usus militaris coria boum penderent, non intenta cuiusquam cura quae firmitudo, quae mensura, donec Olennius e primipilaribus regendis Frisiis impositus terga urorum delegit quorum ad formam acciperentur. id aliis quoque nationibus arduum apud Germanos difficilius tolerabatur, quis ingentium beluarum feraces saltus, modica domi armenta sunt. ac primo boves ipsos, mox agros, postremo corpora coniugum aut liberorum servitio tradebant. hinc ira et questus et postquam non subveniebatur remedium ex bello. rapti qui tributo aderant milites et patibulo adfixi: Olennius infensos fuga praevenit receptus castello cui nomen Flevum; et haud spernenda illic civium sociorumque manus litora Oceani praesidebat.

(Chapter 73 tells how the Romans tried to take revenge, but were terribly beaten by the Frisians, with a great loss of lives.)

transrhenanus: from the other side (i.e. north) of the Rhine
exuo exui exutum: to cast of (exuere = exuerunt)
nostra avaritia: abl.
impatiens –entis (+ gen.): not willing to bear
pro angustia rerum: in accordance with the poverty of means
in usus militaris: e.g. for making tents
corium: skin, hide
pendo pependi pensum: to pay
non intenta cura: abl. abl. while no care was being taking by anyone which quality, which measure
primipilaris: kind of centurion
regendis Frisiis: with impositus
terga = coria
quorum ad formam acciperentur: the measure of which they had to accept
arduus: difficult
quis = quibus
belua: beast, monster
ferax –acis (+gen.): fertile, abounding
saltus –us (m.): forest
armentum: horned cattle
questus –us (m.): complaint
subvenio: to come to help (non subveniebatur: subject Olennius)
patibulum: wooden bar
infensos fuga praevenit: he was the enemies ahead by flight
Flevum: most likely near modern Velzen, in the Dutch province of Noord-Holland
sperno sprevi spretum: to despise
manus –us (f.): band

Translation by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (1876)

That same year the Frisii, a nation beyond the Rhine, cast off peace, more because of our rapacity than from their impatience of subjection. Drusus had imposed on them a moderate tribute, suitable to their limited resources, the furnishing of ox hides for military purposes. No one ever severely scrutinized the size or thickness till Olennius, a first-rank centurion, appointed to govern the Frisii, selected hides of wild bulls as the standard according to which they were to be supplied. This would have been hard for any nation, and it was the less tolerable to the Germans, whose forests abound in huge beasts, while their home cattle are undersized. First it was their herds, next their lands, last, the persons of their wives and children, which they gave up to bondage. Then came angry remonstrances, and when they received no relief, they sought a remedy in war. The soldiers appointed to collect the tribute were seized and gibbeted. Olennius anticipated their fury by flight, and found refuge in a fortress, named Flevum, where a by no means contemptible force of Romans and allies kept guard over the shores of the ocean.

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