Bulla Felix: The Outlaw Challenging Authority
As Cassius Dio is the chief source for the antics of Bulla Felix, one wonders if his personal bias against Severus led to the creation of the outlaw. Perhaps it was simply Dio’s way of complaining about Roman society at that time. For example, Felix is the leader of 600 bandits; the Imperial Senate had the same number of seats.
The differing meanings of the bandit leader’s name possibly contribute to his symbolic and probably fictional qualities. A variety of Roman generals and heads of state used ‘Felix’ as a cognomen. The most famous examples are Sulla and Commodus. Perhaps Dio used the name to allude to a speech made by Severus to the Roman Senate. In it, he outlined his plans to carry out a policy of severity when dealing with usurpers after defeating one by the name of Clodius Albinus.
There’s a possibility that Dio meant Felix to represent a satirical mirror image of Severus by ensuring Bulla Felix shared similarities with Sulla. Dio clearly saw Sulla as the model of a good ruler. Felix was an honorable man who only took a fair portion of money from the wealthy and redistributed it across society. He avenged those who had been impoverished by wars and heavy taxation. His idea of Felix being a champion of the people is a million miles from Severus. On his deathbed, the emperor allegedly told his sons to “enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.” It was this attitude that helped create the Third Century Crisis, but that’s another story entirely.
Dio was recruited as official chronicler by Severus but wrote a lot of negative material about the emperor after the death. For example, he wrote that the British expedition was a complete waste of resources by an emperor with a pathological ambition. Bulla Felix represents the opposite of what Severus stood for, and as a result, he was the emperor’s personal nemesis. Overall, Dio hoped to embarrass the administration of Severus with the tales of his heroic bandit leader.
The Death of Bulla Felix
All good things must come to an end and in Bulla Felix’s case; he is captured after two years due to a betrayal. According to Dio, the outraged Severus provided a military tribune with a large force and ordered him to find Felix; the punishment for failure was death. Felix was having an affair with a married woman, and the cuckolded husband took revenge by informing on the bandit leader.
Felix was caught while sleeping in a cave and brought before a prefect named Papinianus. When Papinianus asked Felix ‘why are you a bandit?’ he replied ‘why are you a prefect?’ Here, Dio is implying that prefects are little more than bandits themselves. In the end, Felix is torn to pieces by wild animals in the Roman Colosseum while his victims watched and cheered.