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The Batavian revolt

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Batavian cavalryman on a monument from Nijmegen. Museum Valkhof, Nijmegen (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.
Horsemen (Valkhof Museum,
Nijmegen)
 
Batavian revolt: the rebellion of the Batavians against the Romans in 69-70. After initial successes by their commander Julius Civilis, the Batavians were ultimately defeated by the Roman general Quintus Petillius Cerialis. This is the second of nine articles; the first one can be found here.
 

The conspiracy

Vitellius had become emperor and needed soldiers to defend himself against general Vespasian, who was marching on Rome from Judaea. Eight Batavian auxiliary infantry units were on their way to Italy, but the emperor still needed more men. Therefore, he ordered the commander of the Rhine army, Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus, to send extra troops.
The year of the four emperors
The conspiracy
Causes of the rebellion
Into the vortex
The siege of Xanten
The Roman counter-attack
The Gallic empire
The fall of Xanten
The empire strikes back

Chronology

The Low Countries in the first century. Design Jona Lendering.
The Low Countries in the first century

Our main source for the events in the years 69 and 70, the Histories of the Roman historian Tacitus (c.55-c.120), is extremely negative about general Flaccus. Tacitus thinks he was indolent, insecure, slow, and responsible for the Roman defeats in 69. However, in his description of the Batavian revolt, he constantly opposes the civilized but decadent Romans and the savage but noble Batavians (a trick he also employs in his Origins and customs of the Germans). His idealized portrait of the leader of the Batavians, the brave Julius Civilis, is mirrored in the portrayal of Flaccus as an incompetent defeatist. They are extreme types.

Of course it is possible that Flaccus was really incompetent, but if we ignore Tacitus' personal judgments and carefully look at what the commander of the Rhine army actually did, there is no reason to doubt that he was a capable commander who did what he could in a very difficult situation.The least one can say for Flaccus, is that he sensed that the Batavians had become restless, and understood that trouble was in the air. Therefore, he refused to support Vitellius, seeing that it was ill-advised to remove more soldiers from the border.

After Flaccus' refusal, Vitellius demanded that new soldiers would be recruited. This measure was meant as a deterrent to future rebels and might have worked well, but no Batavian was impressed by the measure, as there were no troops in the neighborhood to implement the treath. Tacitus writes:

Batavians of military age were being conscripted. The levy was by its nature a heavy burden, but it was rendered still more oppressive by the greed and profligacy of the recruiting sergeants, who called up the old and unfit in order to exact a bribe for their release, while young, good-looking lads (for children are normally quite tall among the Batavians) were dragged off to gratify their lust. This caused bitter resentment, and the ringleaders of the prearranged revolt succeeded in getting their countrymen to refuse service.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.14;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]


The Batavians lived along the great rivers in the Netherlands on a large island between the rivers Waal and Rhine. (Their name lives on in the present name of the island, Betuwe.) The Island was a relatively poor country, which could not be exploited financially by the Romans. Therefore, the Batavians contributed only men and arms to the empire: eight auxiliary units of infantry, one squadron of cavalry, and -until the Galba dismissed them- the mounted bodyguard of the emperor. Demographic research has led to the conclusion that every Batavian family had at least one son in the army. Recruiting more men was almost impossible, and it comes as not surprise to find the sergeants calling up the old, the unfit, and the young. Tacitus continues his story.
Although the "island" 
between the two rivers
is not really recognizable
as an island, it is 
interesting to note that
during the Second World
War, during the battle
of Arnhem, the Allies
also called the area
"the island".
 

Julius Civilis invited the nobles and the most enterprising commoners to a sacred grove, ostensibly for a banquet. When he saw that darkness and merriment had inflamed their hearts, he addressed them. Starting with a reference to the glory and renown of their nation, he went on to catalogue the wrongs, the depredations and all the other woes of slavery. The alliance, he said, was no longer observed on the old terms: they were treated as chattels.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.14;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
 
Claudius Civilis. Kinkerstraat/Da Costastraat,  Amsterdam. Photo Jona Lendering.
A stone tablet from Amsterdam, showing Julius Civilis (more...).

Julius Civilis was a Roman citizen and a member of the royal family that had once ruled the Batavians. Later, the constitution had changed and they now had a summus magistratus ('highest magistrate'), but the family of Civilis was still very important and influential. He had fought in one of the Batavian auxiliary units in the Roman army during Claudius' invasion of Britain, and was still commanding a unit. Tacitus calls him 'unusually intelligent for a barbarian', which is a commonplace that Roman authors used to describe non-Romans who had surprised them (e.g., the Roman author Velleius Paterculus uses more or less the same words to describe Arminius, who had defeated the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest; and the Greek author says the same about the Thracian Spartacus.)

Julius Civilis and his brother Claudius Paulus -again a name that shows that the man possessed the Roman citizenship- had been arrested in 68 on a charge of treason. According to Tacitus, the charge was trumped up. We do not know the precise nature of the accusation, but we do know the result: Paulus was executed and Civilis was pardoned when Galba became emperor. In the last weeks of 68, Civilis had returned to the area later known as Germania Inferior, where he was again arrested, and brought to the new governor, Vitellius. This time, there is no reason to doubt that Civilis was guilty of conspiracy; however, Vitellius had pardoned him as a gesture towards the Batavians. In this way, he hoped to gain the support of their eight auxiliary units. A few weeks later the soldiers indeed sided with Vitellius, and as we have already seen, they took part in the march on Rome.

 


The banquet in the sacred grove illustrates that the Batavians were only partially romanized - or Tacitus wants us to believe this. Otherwise, they would have gathered in a town hall. Tacitus' words remind one of what he writes in his Origins and customs of the Germans.
It is at their feasts that the Germans generally consult [...], for they think that at no time is the mind more open to simplicity of purpose or more warmed to noble aspirations. A race without either natural or acquired cunning, they disclose their hidden thoughts in the freedom of the festivity. Thus the sentiments of all having been discovered and laid bare, the discussion is renewed on the following day, and from each occasion its own peculiar advantage is derived. They deliberate when they have no power to dissemble; they resolve when error is impossible.
[Tacitus, Origins and customs of the Germans, 22;
tr. A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb]
 


This description of the Germanic way of consultation is highly suspect. Like all Greek and Roman authors, Tacitus was obsessed with the opposition between civilization and barbarism. The Romans and Greeks considered themselves to be civilized, and because they lived in the center of the earth's disk, it could reasonably be assumed that only savages dwelt on the edges of the earth. Since the Greeks and Romans lived on river plains, it was quite obvious that barbarians dwelt in the mountains and forests. (See below; Tacitus even describes the Dutch coast as rocky; Annals, 2.23.3) This explains why the Romans and Greeks always mention forests, even when there were no forests at all. As a matter of fact, pollen research has shown that the Dutch river country were hardly wooded in the Roman age. This does not mean that there never was a banquet in a sacred grove, but that we must be cautious. Tacitus wants to show that the Batavians were noble savages, and is not necessarily telling the truth.

Another feature of ancient descriptions of far-away people, is that they often resemble each other - after all, they were all living on the edge of the earth. The custom of making a double judgment -one when drunk, one when sober- is also known from another source, the Histories of the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (1.133), who correctly says that it is a Persian custom. Again, this does not mean that the Germans did not consult each other in a state of inebriety, but it warns us that we must remain careful when we read the extremely tendentious Histories of Tacitus.

Edge of Empire. The book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about Rome's Lower Rhine Frontier.
Edge of Empire. The book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about Rome's Lower Rhine Frontier (order; review)




to part three




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