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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,
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 fourth of nine articles; the first one can be found here.

Into the vortex

Julius Civilis still commanded one of the Batavian auxiliary units in Roman service, and the commander of the Rhine army, Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus, did not know that Civilis conspired against Rome (although he sensed that something was going on; above). This offered Civilis an opportunity: he induced the Cananefates, the tribe that lived between the Batavians and the sea, to revolt, hoping that Flaccus would send him to suppress the rebellion. Tacitus tells how the war against the Romans started in August of 69.
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


The burning layer at Valenburg, recognizable as a dark line above the number 1A. From W. Glasbergen, De Romeinse castella te Valkenburg ZH (1972).
Burning layer at Valkenburg (dark line above number 1A)
(From W. Glasbergen, De Romeinse castella te Valkenburg, 1972; !!!)

Among the Cananefates was a foolish desperado called Brinno. He came from a very distinguished family. His father had taken part in many marauding exploits [...]. The mere fact that his son was the heir of a rebel family secured him votes. He was placed upon a shield in the tribal fashion and carried on the swaying shoulders of his bearers to symbolize his election as leader. Immediately calling upon the Frisians, a tribe beyond the Rhine, he swooped down on two Roman auxiliary units in their nearby quarters and simultaneously overran them from the North Sea. The garrison had not expected the attack, nor indeed would it have been strong enough to hold out if it had, so the posts were captured and sacked. Then the enemy fell upon the Roman supply-contractors and merchants who were scattered over the countryside with no thought of war. The marauders were also on the point of destroying the frontier forts, but these were set on fire by the commanders because they could not be defended.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.15;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
The treasure of the Domplein. These coins were stolen from the Centraal Museum, Utrecht (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.
The "treasure of the Domplein" (or what remains of it, since most coins were stolen)

Among the two camps that Brinno destroyed was that of the Third Gallic cavalry unit at Praetorium Agrippinae (modern Valkenburg near Leiden), where archaeologists have discovered the burning layer. Among the other frontier forts that were destroyed by the Romans themselves, was Traiectum (modern Utrecht). A telling detail is the treasure of fifty gold pieces that was buried by an officer who was never able to recover his money. (They were rediscovered in 1933 in the ruin of the house of a centurio.) Tacitus continues his story:
The headquarters of the various auxiliary units and such troops as they could muster rallied to the eastern part of the Island under a senior centurion named Aquilius. But this was an army on paper only, lacking real strength. It could hardly be otherwise, for Vitellius had withdrawn the bulk of the units' effectives.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.15;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
Medal of Gaius Aquilius Proculus, found at Nijmegen. Museum Valkhof, Nijmegen (Holland).
Silver medal (text; Museum Valkhof Nijmegen)

By lucky coincidence, this Aquilius is known to us from an archaeological discovery: a small silver disk or medal that was discovered in a cavalry base (the 'Kops Plateau') east of the Oppidum Batavorum, the capital of the Batavians (modern Nijmegen). The man's full name was Gaius Aquillius Proculus, and he belonged to the Eighth legion Augusta, which was not stationed in the Germanic provinces.

This is a very important find, because it vindicates the Roman general Flaccus. If a senior centurion was present in Nijmegen, Flaccus had already sent reinforcements, which can only be explained if we assume that he expected trouble among the Batavians. Tacitus' story that Brinno's attack was a surprise, is misleading: the Romans were indeed caught off-guard because they did not expect a Cananefatian rebellion, but they were aware of the increasing tensions.

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

Civilis decided on a ruse. He took it upon himself to criticize the commanders for abandoning their forts, and offered to deal with the outbreak of the Cananefates in person with the help of the unit under his command. As for the Roman commanders, they could get back to their respective stations. But the Germans are a nation that loves fighting, and they did not keep the secret for long. Hints of what was afoot gradually leaked out and the truth was revealed: Civilis' advice concealed a trick. Scattered units were more liable to be wiped out, and the ringleader was not Brinno, but Civilis.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.16;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
Here we meet Tacitus at his most malicious. He does not mention the Roman commander who saw through Civilis' stratagem and investigated what was going on, but it must have been someone higher in the military hierarchy than Civilis - in other words, Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus. In the sequel of Tacitus' story, his description of the defeat of Aquilius, we see how the Romans are reinforced by ships. Guess who was responsible for sending them.

When the plot came to nothing, Civilis resorted to force and enrolled the Cananefates, Frisians and Batavians in separate striking forces. On the Roman side, a front was formed at no great distance from the Rhine, and the naval vessels which had put in at this point were arrayed to face the enemy. Fighting had not lasted long before a Tungrian unit went over to Civilis, and the Roman troops, disarrayed by this unforeseen treachery, went down before the combined onslaught of allies and foes.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.16;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
The Tungrians where a romanized tribe that lived in the east of what is now Belgium, where their name lives on in the town called Tongeren. To the Romans, their desertion during this battle (which must have taken place south of modern Arnhem) was alarming, because it suggested that auxiliary units that were recruited among otherwise loyal tribes, could be unreliable. However, they and the depleted legions were the only soldiers Flaccus could use. Even worse, volunteers from the northern provinces and the Germanic tribes across the Rhine sided with Civilis.

This success earned the rebels immediate prestige, and provided a useful basis for future action. They had obtained the arms and ships they needed, and were acclaimed as liberators as the news spread like wild-fire thought the German and Gallic provinces. The former immediately sent an offer for help. As for an alliance with the provinces of Gaul, Civilis used cunning and bribery to achieve this, returning the captured commanders of the auxiliary units to their own communities and giving the men the choice between discharge and soldiering on. Those who stayed were offered service on honorable terms, those who went received spoil taken from the Romans.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.17;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
The Romans were now expelled from the country along the rivers Maas, Waal, and Rhine. The cavalry base at the Kops Plateau is the only Roman camp that has no burning layer, which suggests that the Romans were able to keep it, and still controlled the Waal crossing near Nijmegen.

Up till now, the war had, on the Roman side, been waged by auxiliaries: lightly-armed troops that were recruited among the native population and were no match for the Batavians, who were in the majority. Flaccus' reply to their defeat was to send in the legions, heavily-armed infantry men. The Fifth legion Alaudae and the Fifteenth legion Primigenia left their base at Xanten, together with three auxiliary units: Ubians from modern Cologne, Trevirans from modern Trier, and a Batavian squadron. Flaccus and the commander of the expeditionary force, a senator named Munius Lupercus, may have had their doubts about the Batavian squadron, but they knew that it was commanded by a personal enemy of Julius Civilis, a man named Claudius Labeo, and they decided to rely upon his word. Late August, the legions invaded the Island of the Batavians. Somewhere north of Nijmegen, they encountered the Batavian army.

Near Civilis were massed the captured Roman standards: his men were to have their eyes fixed upon the newly-won trophies while their enemies were demoralized by the recollection of defeat. He also caused his mothers and sisters, accompanied by the wives and young children of all his men, to take up their station in the rear as a spur to victory or a reproach to the routed. Then the battle chant of the warriors and the shrill wailing of the women rang out over the host, evoking in response only a feeble cheer from the legions and auxiliary units. The Roman left front was soon exposed by the defection of the Batavian cavalry regiment, which immediately turned about to face us. But in this frightening situation the legionaries kept their arms and ranks intact. The Ubian and Treviran auxiliaries disgraced themselves by stampeding over the countryside in wild flight. Against them the Batavians directed the brunt of their attack, which gave the legions a breathing-space in which to get back to the camp called Vetera [i.e., Xanten].
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.18;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]

At this stage, the base at the Kops Plateau was taken over by the Batavians. It is possible that the absence of traces of violence means that this was the camp of the Batavian cavalry regiment that changed sides. Whatever the precise interpretation, the last garrison was now removed from the country of the Batavians. It was a tremendous blow to Roman prestige. An army of some 6,500 men, which included legionaries, had been defeated. Julius Civilis must have been a happy man, but he was not in the mood for generosity. He did not honor Claudius Labeo, who had played such an important role in the Batavian victory, but had him arrested. He still hated his enemy, one of the Claudii that threatened the position of the old aristocracy of the Batavians (above), and sent him to a place of exile among the Frisians in the north, far from any future theaters of operation.

Whatever the war aims of the rebels, they had been reached. The presence of hundreds of dead bodies proved beyond doubt that Julius Civilis had avenged his brother. The tribe had punished the Romans for the dishonorable discharge of the imperial bodyguard and the forced recruitment. Moreover, the Batavians were now regarded as the most powerful tribe in the area. If Julius Civilis wanted to be king of his tribe, he had it within reach: someone who had defeated two legions had sufficient prestige to be any tribe's leader.

Bust of Vespasian from Narona. Archaeological museum of Vid (Croatia). Photo Marco Prins.Bust of Vespasian from Narona (Archaeological museum of Vid)
The Batavians had gained their freedom, and they knew that the Romans would recognize their independence and would not retaliate. Civilis possessed a letter from Vespasian, the commander of the Roman forces in Judaea who had revolted against the emperor Vitellius. In this letter he asked Civilis, with whom he had fought during the British wars, to revolt. In that way, Vitellius could employ all his troops against Vespasian. Civilis had done precisely what Vespasian had requested him to do -although for other reasons- and the Batavians were justified in their hope that Vespasian would recognize their independence. After all, the emperor Tiberius had in a similar situation, in 28, allowed the Frisians and Chauci their autonomy.

Julius Civilis had reached everything he wanted, but within weeks he had made the fateful decision that was, within a year, to be his undoing.

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 five

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