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Felix Bull – archetype of “good” bandits

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Bull Felix
Bull Felix

Bull Felix was a legendary Italian bandit operating in the years 205-207 CE, during the reign of Septimius Severus. He gathered under his command a band of about 600 men: escaped slaves, freedmen and former soldiers of the praetorian guard expelled by the emperor. He competed with Roman legionaries and could not be caught. The story of this rebel comes from the message of Cassius Dio, a Greek historian and Roman senator, and it is believed that it became the prototype for later legends about “good” bandits like Zorro, Scarlet flower or Robin Hood.

Bulla Felix and his band operated mainly on the Appian road from Rome to the port of Brundisium, attacking the travelers. It should be noted, however, that they did not kill victims and only part of the spoil was taken away. If there were craftsmen among the victims (technitai), their skills were first used, then they were given prizes and then released in exchange for help.

According to Cassius Dio, Bull Felix was a master of deception, and sometimes he resorted to bribery to avoid punishment. When two of his men were captured and sentenced to fight wild animals in the arena, Bulla dressed as provincial governor and visited the prison. There, he persuaded the overseer to give him the two bandits, claiming that he wants to use them for hard work. Another time he approached a centurion commanding Roman forces and, posing as someone else, offered the Romans an indication of the bandit hiding place. Leading the Roman, he trapped him. A “bandit” tribunal was prepared, where Felix, disguised as an official, ordered the half-centurion’s head to be shaved halfway down the slave style. Then he freed the centurion, who had to tell his superiors: “Feed your slaves so that they do not become bandits”.

Felix was finally captured as a result of betrayal. The newly appointed military tribune obtained information that the boss of the gang had an affair with a married woman. The Roman commander managed to persuade a woman to cooperate, who indicated Felix’s whereabouts. The bandit was caught in a cave once sleeping. Felix was then brought before the prefect of Pretorian – Papinian, who demanded an answer as to why Felix had become a bandit. The robber was to answer: “Why did you become a prefect?”

Cassius Dio presents the story of Felix’s – “good” bandit – in order to offend the reigning (2nd and 3rd century CE) Septimius Severus, whom he considered to be the opposite of Augustus gentleness. Bull is depicted as the opposite of unjust power and social inequality. Dio did not like the Emperor, who, after defeating his rivals to purple, dealt with the opposition in the Senate. By his order, 50 senators were killed, and later during his reign members of the Roman elite were persecuted. Inventing Felix’s story, Cassius Dio wanted to ridicule and expose the weakness of Septimius Severus’s power.

  • Kasjusz Dion, Roman History77, 10, 2

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