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

The siege of Xanten

As we have seen in the preceding article, Julius Civilis and the Batavians had reached everything they wanted: an independence that would be recognized by Vespasian (provided that he won the civil war against the emperor Vitellius), and revenge for the oppressive recruitment by the Romans and the death of Civilis' brother.
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

The only thing they should never do, was attack the base of the two Roman legions at Xanten - no emperor could leave an attack on this symbol of Roman power unpunished. If only one spear would be thrown across the walls of the legionary base, it was inevitable that a large army would come to the north and make up for the humiliation. Of course, the civil war had to be over, but whoever would be its victor, he was obliged to punish the attackers. Everybody knew that almost three years before, the Jews had attacked the Twelfth legion Fulminata, and that the Romans had retaliated ferociously. Julius Civilis, who had fought in the Roman auxiliaries and was a Roman citizen, certainly must have known.



And yet, at the end of September 69, the Batavians launched an attack on Xanten, or, to use its ancient name, Vetera. The moment was well-chosen: two weeks earlier, the army of the Danuba had sided with Vespasian and now threatened Italy. If there was to be a Roman retaliation, it would be postponed for some time. So, Julius Civilis died his hair red, and swore that he would let it grow until he had destroyed the two legions. We do not know what made him sign his own death sentence.

Whatever the reasons, the Batavians were well-prepared, because they had received the best  of all possible reinforcements: the eight auxiliary units that had fought for Vitellius in Italy in the Spring, were sent back to defend the Rhine, and had been recalled for the struggle against Vespasian (above). In the preceding year, they had fought against the levies of Gaius Julius Vindex, and still earlier, they had been stationed in the war zone in Britain. These men knew how to fight, and had more battle experience than most legionaries. Civilis' messenger had reached them while they were already marching to the Alps, and had easily convinced them that they had to side with the independent Batavians.

Let us, before we discuss the Batavian attack on Xanten, see what had happened to the eight auxiliary units. The supreme commander of the Roman forces in Germania Superior and Germania Inferior, Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus, had allowed them to pass Mogontiacum or Mainz.

He called his tribunes and centurions together and consulted them on the desirability of bringing the insubordinate troops to heel by force. But he was not by nature a man of action, and his staff were worried by the ambiguous attitude of the auxiliaries and the dilution of the legions by hasty conscription. So he decided against risking his troops outside the camp. Afterwards, he changed his mind, and as his advisers themselves went back on the views they had expressed, he gave the impression that he intended pursuit, and wrote Herennius Gallus, stationed at Bonn in command of the First legion, telling him to bar the passage of the Batavians and promising to follow closely in their heels with his army. The rebels could in fact have been crushed if Hordeonius Flaccus and Herennius Gallus had moved from opposite directions and caught them between two fires. But Flaccus abandoned his plan, and in a fresh dispatch to Gallus warned him not to molest the departing units.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.19;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley] 
It is unclear what really happened. Tacitus obviously blames Flaccus for not destroying the eight units, but things were more complicated than he indicates. We must remember that Germania Inferior, which was threatened by the Batavians, was not an important province; Germania Superior and Gallia Belgica, however, were. Probably, Flaccus wanted to leave the problem in the periphery, and allowed the Batavians to return home. Then, the war would remain somewhere in the north, where it did not threaten vital Roman interests. This attempt to localize the war where it did not hurt could have been a successful strategy, but, as we will see below, Flaccus was murdered, after which everything went wrong.

A second point is that both Roman armies in Mainz and Bonna (modern Bonn) were smaller than the eight auxiliary units. Only when Flaccus and Gallus were able to attack simultaneously, they were in  the majority and could be victorious. Flaccus could not afford that both armies were defeated. Finally, there was a more important war going on in Italy, and he could not move too far to the north. So he decided upon this strategy: keep the vital base of Mainz at all costs, try to keep Xanten, and wait until the civil war is over.


 
It was sound reasoning, but it implied some risk for the garrison at Xanten, which was commanded by the Munius Lupercus we already met above. The siege started at the end of September 69.
The arrival of the veteran auxiliary units meant that Civilis now commanded a proper army. But he still hesitated on his course of action, and reflected that Rome was strong. So he made all the men he had swear allegiance to Vespasian, and sent an appeal to the two legions which had been beaten in the previous engagement [above] and had retired to the camp at Xanten, asking them to accept the same oath.
     Back came the reply. They were not in the habit of taking advice from a traitor nor from the enemy. They already had an emperor, Vitellius, and in his defense they would maintain their loyalty and arms to their dying breath. So it was not for a Batavian turncoat to sit in judgment on matters Roman. He had only to await his deserts - the punishment of a felon.
     When this reply reached Civilis, he flew into a rage, and hurried the whole Batavian nation into arms. They were joined by the Bructeri and Tencteri, and as the tidings spread Germania awoke to the call of spoil and glory.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.21;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
 
 
Thus started the siege of Xanten. Some 5,000 legionaries, belonging to the already defeated Fifth legion Alaudae and Fifteenth legion Primigenia, defended their camp. Tacitus mentions the presence of the commander of the Sixteenth legion Gallica, which shows that Xanten had been reinforced with men from Neuss. However this may be, the Romans were in the minority. The Batavians had reasons to be optimistic, not in the least because they possessed eight well-trained units, and because Julius Civilis had been training his men along Roman lines. (It is too romantic to think of the revolt as a war between barbarian Batavians and disciplined Romans. In fact, two Roman armies were fighting each other.)

The camp at the Fürstenberg near Xanten was large (56 hectares) and modern - it was only ten years old and well-equipped. Archaeologists have discovered the walls (made of mud brick and wood), foundations of wooden towers, and a double ditch. Besides, the garrison had had time to prepare itself. Tacitus frequently mentions the Roman artillery, which must have possessed a lot of ammunition. He also states that there were no food supplies, which is a bit strange, briefly after the harvest season. In fact, Xanten held out for several months.

The Batavians and their allies first attempted to storm the walls of Xanten, but in vain. Then, they attempted to build siege installations, but they did not have the necessary knowledge. Nonetheless, it shows that they were fighting a 'Roman' war, using Roman siege techniques. Ultimately, Civilis decided to starve the two legions into surrender.

During the siege, Civilis sent out units to plunder towns in Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica. Germans from the east bank of the Rhine joined in.

The Batavian leader ordered the Ubians and Trevirans to be plundered by their respective neighbors, and another force was sent beyond the Maas to strike a blow at the Menapians and Morinians in the extreme north of Gaul. In both theaters, booty was gathered, and they showed special vindictiveness in plundering the Ubians because this was a tribe of German origin which had renounced its nationality and preferred to be known by a Roman name.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.28;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
In other words, the northern part of the Roman empire was in a state of turmoil. Tacitus plays a very subtle game in these lines. The words 'the Menapians and Morinians in the extreme north of Gaul' [Menapios et Morinos et extrema Galliarum] contain a reference to a well-known line by the poet Virgil, who had called the Morinians the extremi hominum, 'those living on the extreme edges of the earth' (Aeneid 8.727). By using these words, Tacitus remembered his reader of the well-known fact that this was a war against the most savage of all barbarians, which, as every Roman knew, lived on the edges of the world.
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 six




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