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Claudius Labeo


The Low Countries in the first century. Design Jona Lendering.
The Low Countries in the first century
Claudius Labeo: Batavian nobleman, enemy of Julius Civilis, and one of Rome's allies during the Batavian revolt (69-70).

The Batavians were one of the tribes in the Roman empire, living in the river area of what is now called The Netherlands, which was in Antiquity simply called "the Island" (between the rivers Rhine and Maas). The Roman tax gatherer had little to gather in this region, and therefore, the Batavians had to give soldiers to Rome: eight auxiliary units of infantry, one unit of cavalry, and the emperor's mounted bodyguard.

In 69, the Roman empire was divided by civil war, and one of the competing emperors, Vitellius, demanded extra soldiers. This was the immediate cause of the Batavian rebellion. A nobleman named Julius Civilis organized a conspiracy, and in August, the Dutch river area had turned into a war zone.

There were deeper causes, however, and one of them seems to have been that the old Batavian aristocracy had been forced to share its power with other Batavians. The first group possessed the Roman citizenship for some time and was recognizable by their official name Julius (e.g., Julius Civilis); the second group had received the citizenship later and possessed the name Claudius. To this group, Claudius Labeo belonged, and this may explain the bitter personal hatred that Julius Civilis felt for him.

However, Claudius Labeo sympathized with the rebellion. He was commander of a Batavian cavalry unit, which is perhaps identical to the squadron that was stationed at the Kops Plateau near Nijmegen, the capital of the Batavians.

In the last days of August, the Roman general Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus sent an army against the rebels. It was made up from the Fifth legion Alaudae and the Fifteenth Primigenia, both from Xanten, together with three auxiliary units: Ubians from modern Cologne, Trevirans from modern Trier, and the Batavian squadron. It is likely that the Roman commanders did not know of Labeo's sympathies and trusted the man who was hated by the Batavian leader Julius Civilis. So, they invaded the Island of the Batavians and encountered the Batavian army somewhere north of Nijmegen.

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 Xanten.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.18;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
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)
 
Claudius Labeo's defection was the main cause of the Roman defeat, but Julius Civilis was not the type of man to be grateful.
The commander of the Batavian cavalry regiment, Claudius Labeo, was involved in some petty rivalry with Civilis. As his murder might be unpopular with the Batavians and his continued presence encourage dissension, Civilis had him removed to a place of exile among the Frisians.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.18;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]



While Labeo was exiled, Julius Civilis continued the struggle against the Romans, and was very successful. In September, he had laid siege to Xanten, hoping to destroy the two legions that had invaded the Island of the Batavians. Other tribes -the Tungrians, Ubians and Nervians for example, and Germans from across the Rhine- sided with Civilis, and the Roman legionaries found it increasingly difficult to cope with the situation. In December, they murdered their supreme commander Flaccus.

A new general had to continue the war against the Batavians, Gaius Dillius Vocula. He knew that there were still loyal people among the rebel tribes, and tried to use them. After all, the legions were not on full strength, because many men had gone to Italy to help Vitellius seize the throne. With a small army of legionaries, he went to Xanten, and reached Cologne.

To the same city Claudius Labeo made his escape after bribing his gaolers. This man undertook, if given a bodyguard, to go to the Batavians and force the better part of the tribe to return to their alliance with Rome. Receiving a small infantry and cavalry force, he made no attempt to carry out his venture against the Batavians, but induced a few Nervians and Baetasii to take up arms and conducted less a regular campaign than a series of stealthy raids against the Cananefates and Marsaci.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.56;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
The Marsaci and Cananefates were allies of the Batavians. Tacitus describes Labeo's campaigns as unimportant, but he is mistaken. The Batavian commander in Roman service had discovered that it was not possible to overthrow Civilis, so he started a guerilla war against the allies of the Batavians. In this way, they would start to regret that they had sided with Civilis, who would be forced to sent out troops on a search and destroy mission - which would be difficult, because the country of the Marsaci was a peat area, criss-crossed with brooks.

And so Julius Civilis was forced to split his forces and send units to the west, but they were unable to find Labeo, and started to loot the country of the Nervians, which did little to make them popular in Belgica. It comes as no surprise that the Gauls of Belgica organized a meeting in Reims on the subject how they could stop the rebellion (April 70).

However, the Batavians remained successful. The revolt had spread through the valleys of the Mosel and Rhine, and Xanten had been captured. On the other hand, the strength of Claudius Labeo's army was increasing. Many Tungrians sided with him as he moved to the east, maybe hoping to liberate Cologne, which was occupied by the Batavians but was known to be pro-Roman. He had passed through the capital of the Tungrians, Tongeren, and had crossed the river Maas at Maastricht, when he met Julius Civilis.


The Bemelerberg, east of Maastricht (Netherlands)
The Bemelerberg battle site

The battle fought in this confined space gave neither side the advantage until the Batavians swam the river and took Labeo in the rear. At the same moment, greatly daring or by prior arrangement, Civilis rode up to the Tungrian lines and exclaimed loudly: 'We have not declared war to allow the Batavians and Trevirans to lord it over their fellow-tribes. We have no such pretensions. Let us be allies. I am coming over to your side, whether you want me as leader or follower.' This made a great impression on the ordinary soldiers and they were in the act of sheathing their swords when two of the Tungrian nobles, Campanus and Juvenalis, offered him the surrender of the tribe as a whole. Labeo got away before he could be rounded up. Civilis took the Baetasii and Nervians into his service too and added them to his own forces. He was now in a strong position, as the communities were demoralized, or else felt tempted to take his side of their own free will.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.66;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
 


This was a victory for Julius Civilis, but the problem with a guerilla war is that it ain't over until the enemy is completely rooted out. And Claudius Labeo was still alive and kicking. Civilis moved to the west to hunt down his enemy. He soon lost all that he had gained during the battle: he destroyed Tongeren, the city of the Tungrians, who had just gone over to him.

Meanwhile, the new Roman emperor Vespasian, who had defeated Vitellius, had sent a large army to the north, commanded by Quintus Petillius Cerialis. However, Julius Civilis was unable to organize the resistance, because he was "scouring the remote parts of Belgica in an effort to capture Claudius Labeo or dislodge him" (Tacitus, Histories 4.70). Too late, he returned to the main theater of war; too late, he invited Germans from across the Rhine to assist the Batavians in the struggle for the Mosel valley. When Civilis and his allies attacked Cerialis' expeditionary force at Trier, they were not strong enough (June 70). Three months later, the Batavians had to surrender.

It is not known what became of Claudius Labeo. However, it is always permitted to speculate. We know that after the revolt, the Romans invested much money in the country of the Batavians: at least two very large temples, at Empel and Elst, have been discovered. They were built by the Romans, who seem to have given the credits to loyal Batavians. These men gained prestige and were able to bring the feelings of their compatriots into smooth waters. It is possible that one of these pro-Roman Batavians was Claudius Labeo.





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