Bulla Felix was the Robin Hood of the Roman Empire who allegedly commanded a group of 600 bandits

Domagoj Valjak
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The widespread legend of Robin Hood has been popular for centuries. Many folklore legends, books, and films follow the adventures of the heroic green-robed outlaw who is known for his exceptional skills in archery and swordsmanship.

Robin Hood has always been depicted as the benefactor of the common people and the enemy of wealthy noblemen: he stole from the rich to distribute wealth to the poor and the needy. The legend of Robin Hood rose to prominence in late-medieval England, but the story itself originated in the Ancient Roman Empire when the tale of a populist bandit named Bulla Felix frightened the rich.

Robin Hood statue in Nottingham. Photo Credit

The most significant historical sources for the tale of Bulla Felix are the writings of the Roman senator and historian Cassius Dio, who published 80 volumes of history on Ancient Rome during the 3rd century. Cassius Dio mentioned Bulla Felix as an actual historical figure who roamed the empire at the beginning of the 3rd century, but it is unclear whether these adventures were the exaggerations of a creative historian.

Bulla Felix was allegedly the leader of a group of bandits that consisted of 600 men and included runaway slaves, imperial freedmen, and petty criminals. Bulla Felix’s bandits engaged in highway robbery, but they never killed their victims: they merely stripped the noblemen off their wealth and distributed it among themselves and among the poor.

Part of the Imperial Palace complex on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus, built during the reign of Septimius Severus. Photo Credit

The bandits also created a network of spies who provided them with the schedule of ships that were preparing to leave the harbor at Brundisium in Southern Italy. Bulla Felix and his men would intercept the ships and steal everything they could, but they never engaged in unnecessary slaughter of innocent merchants and sailors.

Bust of Septimius Severus, with modern restorations (Glyptothek, Munich).

The notorious group operated during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, who allegedly proclaimed Bulla Felix as his personal nemesis. Septimus Severus was a successful warrior whose legions won several important battles in Britain, but he was incapable of stopping a band of outlaws that was terrorizing his homeland.

Historian Cassius Dio argued that Bulla Felix successfully eluded capture because he was a master of disguise and deception. Bulla Felix was allegedly able to dress as a magistrate or a Roman centurion and persuade noblemen that he was in fact a man who was sent to protect them. He would then rob the noblemen and escape with the help of a network of associates who prepared safe houses.

A historical reenactor in Roman centurion costume. Photo Credit

Bulla Felix allegedly managed to elude the Roman authorities for two years but was captured in 207 AD when a praetorian prefect saw through his disguise.

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He was sentenced to death and torn apart by wild beasts at the center of the Roman coliseum, while his former victims laughed and mocked his final demise.