Bulla Felix was the Roman version of Robin Hood. He robbed the rich and helped the poor. His activity was reportedly in the years 205-207 CE, the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus. His group consisted mainly of runaway slaves, imperial liberators, and even former praetorians. At its peak, he had 600 robbers under his command.
Bulla remained elusive to legionaries seeking him for two years. The history of the “Roman Robin Hood” has survived to our time’s thanks to Cassius Dio.
The Romans called the people of robbery latrones. This type of activity increased significantly at the turn of the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, when the civil war swept through the Roman state – after the death of Commodus in 192 CE. – plagues, and the barbarian invasions began on the borders of the country. At that time, many robber groups were to arise, the most famous of which was the one supposedly founded by Bulla Felix.
We don’t have much information about Bull’s life prior to the rogue period. According to Cassius Dio’s message, Bulla Felix operated mainly in Italy on the way south, from Rome to Brundisium. The areas near the port were sparsely populated and largely mountainous, which favoured attacks and hiding from the authorities and the army.
According to sources, Bulla was a surprisingly well-educated group leader, which allowed him to organize the group well, infiltrate the commercial/travel community and be well informed about subsequent transports and possible riches carried by travellers. He could use bribes to obtain information effectively. Its purpose was not to kill, but only to take away the wealth being transported, or even just a part of it. For example, when his target was a caravan of artisans, he kidnapped them for a time to do some specialist jobs for him, and then let them go.
Cassius Dio also describes the story that Bulla Felix, when he heard about the capture of his two companions and sentenced them to be eaten by wild animals, was to show great courage. In order to save his comrades, he disguised himself as the provincial governor and arrived in the prison where they were both held. He informed the guards that he needed two convicts with specific characteristics (giving the ideal appearance of his companions), whom he would be able to enlist for hard work. The guards, not suspecting the trick, freed Bulla’s companions.
Another time he personally went to the centurion – who, incidentally, was looking for him – and, pretending to be someone else, offered to help in finding the hiding place of the bandits. The centurion eventually fell into a trap and Bulla staged a parody of the court in which he acted as a judge. He ordered the man to be partially shaved, like slaves, and then freed him and ordered him to hand over to his “masters” so that they would remember to feed their slaves; otherwise, they will continue to be robbers.
In 207 CE one of the military tribunes received an order from the emperor himself to capture the Bulla alive and be able to punish him. The emperor did not accept defeat, and for this purpose, a large cavalry unit was placed under the command of the tribune. The tribune was aware of the feeling there was between Bulla Felix and a married woman. Thanks to the information obtained, the tribune captured a sleeping Bulla in one of the coastal caves in Liguria (northwest Italy).
The captured Bulla was then dragged before the praetorian prefect Papinianus, who asked him why he had become a bandit. The captured man was to answer with the question: “Why did you become a prefect?” As historians have noted, this is one of the frequent examples of discussions between the captured robber and a high-ranking public figure – Alexander the Great was supposed to have had a similar conversation with the captured pirate.
Eventually, Bulla Felix was publicly found guilty and sentenced to death by being eaten by wild animals – the so-called damnatio ad bestias.
Truth or fiction?
Cassius Dio’s story about the bandit seems to be in fact an expression of opposition by a Roman historian and senator to the emperor. This is the opinion of the German historian Thomas Grünewald. Septimius Severus went purple after years of civil wars, and his attitude towards the senate was, to say the least, “disrespectful.” According to professor Aleksander Krawczuk, the emperor deliberately diminished the rank and authority of senators, allowing equites to occupy more important offices. Caius (163/164 – c. 235 CE), who was on the list of senators, certainly did not like this.
When Septimius Severus was fighting in Britain, at the same time in Italy the Bulla Felix was brazenly operating, which the Roman legionaries could not capture. Bulla Felix appears here as an opponent of unjust government and social inequality. The man grew into a leader thanks to his prowess and natural leadership qualities. His gang, in turn, appears to be an opposing subject to degenerate Rome. What’s more, his group was similar to the senate – 600 people.
We do not have any other sources or information about the activities of a certain Bully. Moreover, the symbolism of the name Bulla Felix should be emphasized. Felix was a nickname often used among Roman generals, and it was also carried by Commodus himself. The Bulla is an amulet worn by children and victorious chiefs, which was supposed to bring good luck. Therefore, also in the case of the name, there is a certain symbolism and reference to the emperor himself.
We will probably never know whether the Bulla Felix was merely a figment of Cassius Dio’s imagination or a real robber. It is certain, however, that in the story of a Roman bandit and robber who lived against unjust authorities, we can find many references to other historical stories and contemporary motifs. There are many similarities to later stories about Robin Hood or Janosik.