Batavian Revolt (8)

Batavian revolt: the rebellion of the Batavians (a Germanic tribe) against the Romans in 69-70 CE. After initial successes by their commander Julius Civilis, the Batavians were ultimately defeated by the Roman general Quintus Petillius Cerialis.

The Fall of Xanten

The Low Countries in the Roman age

As we have seen in the preceding article, the murder of the Roman general Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus gave new courage to the rebels. The Treviran and Lingonian cohortes (auxiliary units) revolted and Julius Civilis renewed the siege of Xanten. The demoralized legions I Germanica and XVI Gallica surrendered to the Gallic empire of the Trevirans and Lingones. After the disintegration of the Roman army north of Mainz, the two besieged legions at Xanten, V Alaudae and XV Primigenia, were lost. In March 70, their commander Munius Lupercus capitulated.

The besieged were torn between heroism and degradation by the conflicting claims of loyalty and hunger. While they hesitated, all normal and emergency rations gave out. They had by now consumed the mules, horses and other animals which a desperate plight compels men to use as food, however unclean and revolting. Finally they were reduced to tearing up shrubs, roots and the blades of grass growing between the stones - a striking lesson in the meaning of privation and endurance. ... But at long last they spoiled their splendid record by a dishonorable conclusion, sending envoys to Civilis to plead for life - not that the request was entertained until they had taken an oath of allegiance to the Gallic empire. Then Civilis, after stipulating that he should dispose of the camp as plunder, appointed overseers to see that the money, sutlers and baggage were left behind, and to marshal the departing garrison as it marched out, destitute. About 8 kilometers from Xanten, the Germans ambushed the unsuspecting column of men. The toughest fighters fell in their tracks, and many others in scattered flight, while the rest made good their retreat to the camp. ... It is true that Civilis protested, and loudly blamed the Germans for what he described as a criminal breach of faith. But our sources do not make it clear whether this was mere hypocrisy or whether Civilis was really incapable of restraining his ferocious allies. After plundering the camp, they tossed firebrands into it, and all those who had survived the battle perished in the flames. ... After his first military action against the Romans, Civilis had sworn an oath, like the primitive savage he was, to dye his hair red and let it grow until such time as he had annihilated the legions. Now that the vow was fulfilled, he shaved off his long beard. He was also alleged to have handed some of the prisoners over to his small son to serve as targets for the child's arrows and spears. ... The legionary commander Munius Lupercus was sent along with other presents to Veleda, an unmarried woman who enjoyed wide influence over the tribe of the Bructeri. The Germans traditionally regard many of the female sex as prophetic, and indeed, by an excess of superstition, as divine. This was a case in point. Veleda's prestige stood high, for she had foretold the German successes and the extermination of the legions. But Lupercus was put to death before he reached her.note
Gallic coin commemorating the surrender of XV Primigenia

After this success, Julius Civilis and his Treviran ally Julius Classicus moved to Cologne, which lay now unguarded. The city was not plundered, because Civilis owed something to Cologne: his son had been kept alive by its inhabitants when the Romans had demanded his execution. Instead, it became Civilis' headquarters. Coins were minted that commemorated the destruction of V Alaudae and XV Primigenia.

By now, the Batavians were the most important tribe in the northwest of Europe, especially since the emperor of the Gallic empire had disappeared. In the next months, the Batavians would try to subdue the romanized tribes of northern Gaul. Several Germanic tribes from across the Rhine were invited to take a share in the fighting, and gladly responded to the invitation to join the looting of Gallia Belgica.

Julius Civilis had a personal reason for this policy. Claudius Labeo, the former commander of the Batavian cavalry unit that had decided a battle in favor of Civilis but had been rewarded with an exile in Frisia, had made his escape. He had been able to reach general Gaius Dillius Vocula, who had helped him to form a small army that attacked the Batavian and Cananefatian homelands from the south. Civilis hated Labeo, and knew that the Batavians at home wanted an end to this guerilla war. The two armies met near the bridge of Trajectum ad Mosam, Maastricht.

Civilis found his advance blocked by the resistance of Claudius Labeo and his irregular body of Baetasii, Tungrians and Nervians. Labeo relied on his position astride a bridge over the river Maas which he had seized in the nick of time. 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.note

The Latin words that have been translated here as "in this confined space" (in angustiis), literally mean "in the mountain passes". This is nonsense, because the Bemelerberg east of Maastricht is a charming hill, not a mountain. (It is not a confined space either.) However, Tacitus plays a trick. From a Roman point of view, the Batavians were living on the edges of the earth, which consisted of forests and mountains. By mentioning mountain passes, he reminded the reader of the nature of the country, which could, in Roman thought, only produce courageous savages.

After the battle of Maastricht, Julius Civilis moved along the ancient road to Atuatuca, modern Tongeren. Its inhabitants tried to prevent the destruction of their town by building a large wall, but in vain: Tongeren was sacked. After this, the support of the Tungrians, which Civilis had just gained, must have been less enthusiastic.