The legend of Robin Hood is a tale widely known in Western literature. It tells the story of an outlaw who lived in Sherwood Forest with his band of merry men. They defied the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and routinely stole money from the rich to give to the poor. While there are suggestions that Robin Hood was a real person, evidence that he existed in England is scant.
There is, however, some evidence to suggest that there was a real Roman Robin Hood in the form of Bulla Felix. The source for the adventures of Felix and his group of 600 bandits is Cassius Dio. According to Dio, Felix operated in and around Rome for two years from 205-207 AD when Septimius Severus was emperor. However, since Bulla Felix roughly translates to ‘lucky charm’ in Latin, there is a suggestion that Dio created historical fiction rather than tell the tale of a real bandit leader.
Bulla’s Bandits & Their Reign of Terror
In Dio’s tales, Felix was the architect of a vast intelligence network that tracked transport and travel in and out of Rome and the port of Brundisium. He gathered information on the size and nature of each group that traveled in the area as well as an overview of the cargo they carried. His 600 strong group was comprised of imperial freedmen, runaway slaves and skilled slaves who once worked for the emperor. The freedmen were probably privileged individuals who lost their positions during the chaos that surrounded the aftermath of Commodus’ death.
There is also a possibility that the bandits included members of the famed Praetorian Guard among their number. This would certainly explain their organizational ability. The group were effectively ancient highwaymen, but unlike their latter-day counterparts, they did not murder their victims and usually only took a portion of their money before freeing them. According to Dio, if the victims included artisans, Felix would keep them for a short time to make use of their talents. Then he would release them with a generous reward.
Master of Disguise
Dio wrote that Felix could never be caught because he had mastered the arts of disguise and deception. For example, he would dress as either a centurion or a magistrate and convince nobles that he was sent to protect them. The unfortunate dupes were then stripped of their possessions before Felix, and his men fled to safe houses to avoid detection.
Perhaps one of Felix’s greatest gifts was the ability to bribe his way out of any situation where his skill and wit were not sufficient. In one tale, Felix pretends to be a provincial governor in an attempt to save two of his men condemned to death. They were to be thrown in the Arena and slaughtered by wild beasts. Felix visited the prison governor and explained that he needed more men for hard labor. He tailored his requirements in such as way that the governor offered him the two bandits. As intriguing as the tales are, there is a possibility that Dio created a fictional character to challenge the authority of Emperor Severus.