Outlaws and Highwaymen

Section from the Roman History of Cassius Dio
trans. Gillian Spraggs from the Roman History (epitome) of Cassius Dio, LXXVII, 10.

before 229

At this period Bulla, an Italian, brought together a robber band of about six hundred men, and for two years he plundered Italy, regardless of the proximity of the emperors and a large number of soldiers.1 For he was hunted by many men at once, with the emperor Severus eager to track him down,2 yet whenever he was sighted, he turned out not to have been sighted, whenever he was found, he turned out not to have been found, whenever he was hunted down, he turned out not to have been captured: so crafty was he, and so lavish with his presents. He received intelligence of everyone who was travelling out of Rome, and everyone who disembarked at Brundisium;3 he knew who they were and how many were of the party and what and how much they had in their possession. Most people he would set free immediately, once he had taken a share of what they had; craftsmen, though, he detained for a while, and after he had employed them in work for him, he gave them something extra and let them go. Once, when two of his bandits had been captured and were about to be given to wild beasts, he came back and went to the keeper of the gaol.4 He pretended to be the chief magistrate of his native region, and to have a need for some men who matched their description, and so he obtained custody of them and saved their lives. He also approached the centurion whose job was to put an end to the bandit gang and laid information against himself as if he were some other person. He undertook, if the officer would accompany him, to hand the robber over to him. So as if he were conducting him to Felix (for this was another name by which Bulla was known)5 he led him into a ravine, a place that was overgrown with brushwood, and easily took him prisoner. After this he assumed the appearance of a magistrate and ascended the judgement tribunal. He formally summoned the centurion to answer to the court. Next, he had part of his hair shaved off, and said, “Take this message to your slave-masters: ‘Provide food for your slaves so that they do not turn to banditry.’ ” For a large number of those he had with him were members of the Imperial establishment, some of whom had received very little pay, while others had had no payment at all. So Severus, who was informed of these various incidents, became angry because while he was winning the wars in Britain through his representatives there, in Italy, in his own person, he was being outmatched by a robber.6 In the end he sent a tribune from his bodyguard with a large troop of horsemen, after he had threatened him with terrible consequences if he did not bring Bulla back alive. So this man it was who, after he had learned that Bulla was having sex with another man’s woman, persuaded her, by means of her husband, to co-operate with them, in return for a promise of immunity. As a result of this, Bulla was captured while he was sleeping in a cave. The prefect Papinian asked him, ‘Why did you become a robber?’ In reply, he justified himself by saying, ‘Why are you a prefect?’7 After this, a proclamation was made and he was given to wild beasts. His band of robbers was broken up: to such an extent, it seems, did the whole strength of the six hundred lie in that one man.

Cassius Dio


The interest of this passage in the present context lies in the many analogues it contains to stories that are found in the English outlaw tradition. Like Hereward, Fouke Fitz Waryn and Robin Hood, Bulla is a master of disguise. The story of his capture of the centurion recalls Robin Hood’s very similar capture of the Sheriff of Nottingham, in Robin Hood and the Potter. When Bulla puts the centurion through a mock trial, he is behaving rather like Gamelyn, in The Tale of Gamelyn. But Bulla is a magnanimous robber: unlike Gamelyn, he lets his enemy escape with his life. In this, again, he is very like Robin Hood, in Robin Hood and the Potter and A Gest of Robyn Hode. He is also generous; he lavishes gifts, no doubt primarily on his network of spies and supporters; he takes only part of the wealth of those he holds up; and he pays craftsmen fairly for the work that he asks them to do. He is loyal to his men: like Little John in Robin Hood and the Monk, he takes a great risk by going in disguise to rescue his fellow robbers from gaol and execution. Like Hereward, and the Robin Hood of A Gest of Robyn Hode and The Death of Robin Hood, he can be brought down only by treachery.

It is not possible that these resemblances are a result of direct borrowing. Cassius Dio wrote in Greek; manuscripts of his history were not available in the West before the fifteenth century, and even then were only known to a handful of very learned scholars. What this passage helps to witness to is rather the existence of an ancient and quite widespread oral tradition focused on the stereotype of the noble robber, and the steady persistence within this tradition of a number of specific motifs and tale-types.


Translation, notes and page design © Gillian Spraggs 2001, 2007
Text added to site on 31 December 2001 | Page last modified on 28 August 2007

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