Batavian Revolt (9)

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 Empire Strikes Back

The Low Countries in the Roman age

In the spring of 70, Julius Civilis was at the zenith of his power. Frisians, Cananefates, the Cugerni of Xanten, the Ubians of Cologne, at least some of the Tungrians of Tongeren, and the Nervians all recognized the superiority of the Batavians, and in the south, the Lingones and Trevirans were fighting against Rome as well. However, since Civilis had attacked Xanten, it was certain that the Romans would sent a large army to the north.

Its commander was an old war horse named Quintus Petillius Cerialis, not only a relative of the new emperor Vespasian, but also his companion in the British wars, where he must have met Julius Civilis as well.

The expeditionary force consisted of the victorious Eighth Legion Augusta, the Eleventh Claudia and Thirteenth Gemina, the Twenty-First Rapax (which had been one of those supporting Vitellius), and, of the recently recruited legions, the Second Adiutrix. These were led across the Alps by the Great St Bernard and Mont Genevre passes, though part of the army took the Little St Bernard. The Fourteenth legion Gemina was summoned from Britain, and the Sixth Victrix and First Adiutrix from Hispania.note

Not all these legions saw action. The Eighth merely went from Italy to Strasbourg, where several units may already have been guarding a strategic crossing point of the Rhine. The Eleventh was left behind in Vindonissa (modern Windisch) in Germania Superior. The British and the two Spanish legions first had to pacify parts of Gaul.

So, the army of Cerialis in fact consisted of only three legions, II Adiutrix, XIII Gemina, and XXI Rapax. Nonetheless, it was a powerful army that inspired fear. The army of Civilis' ally Julius Tutor disintegrated even before Cerialis arrived: the former legionaries in Tutor's service returned to their original allegiance, and the soldiers of the two legions that had capitulated, I Germanica and XVI Gallica, did the same. Seeing his enemy collapse in front of him, Cerialis advanced to Mainz, where he found the legions IIII Macedonica and XXII Primigenia (May 70).

The first Roman target was Trier, which dominated an important road from the Mediterranean to the Rhine. Three armies were threatening the capital of the Trevirans: the two legions that had returned to the Roman side; the Sixth Legion Victrix and the First Adiutrix from Hispania; and Cerialis' XXI Rapax from the east. Since Julius Civilis was still chasing the guerilla warriors of Claudius Labeo, the Trevirans had to bear the brunt of the battle all alone. They tried to obstruct the latter's advance near a town called Rigodulum (modern Riol), but were decisively defeated. Next day, Cerialis entered Trier. Here, he encountered the legionaries of I Germanica and XVI Gallica. Cerialis was kind towards them, and showed clemency towards the Trevirans and Lingones, punishing only those who were really guilty of treason.

From this moment on, the Romans were not only superior in tactics, discipline, and experience, but also in numbers. However, their armies had not united yet, and this offered an opportunity to Julius Civilis and his allies Julius Tutor and Julius Classicus. They decided to destroy the army at Trier during a nightly surprise attack. It may have been the moonless night of 7/8 June, but this is far from certain. The Romans were indeed surprised and their enemies were able to penetrate the camp, but ultimately the three legions were able to expel the rebels. In fact, this was the decisive battle of the war: from now on, Cerialis could start to reconstruct the Rhine border - the legions at Mainz may already have made a start - and mop up the last resistance.

News arrived that Cologne had liberated itself. Civilis wanted to suppress this rebellion, but found that the unit of Frisians and Chauci that he wanted to use, was murdered by the inhabitants of Cologne. Even worse, Cerialis' three legions (and perhaps units from the army at Mainz) advanced to the north at top speed. This forced the Batavian leader to return to the north, especially since he knew that the Fourteenth legion Gemina had boarded its ships in Britain and was on its way to the Continent. Civilis was afraid that they might land on the sandy coast of what is now Holland, and hurried back to the Island of the Batavians.

Here, he heard of one of the last successes of his men: the Cananefates had destroyed a part of the Roman navy. However, it was too late: the Fourteenth legion already landed at Boulogne and was marching through Belgica to Cologne.

The theater of war was now narrowed to Germania Inferior on the Lower Rhine, and for the time being, the Romans were content with it. The invasion of the Island of the Batavians, the Betuwe, had no priority. Pacification of the reconquered territories and strengthening the border along the Rhine - these were the things that really mattered. However, Civilis gathered an army and occupied Xanten. His forces were too strong to ignore, and Cerialis advanced against it with XXI Rapax, II Adiutrix, and the newly arrived VI Victrix, and XIV Gemina.

Neither commander was a sluggard, but they were separated by a vast expanse of swampy ground. This was its natural state, and Civilis had also built a dam at an angle into the Rhine to hold up the river and cause it to flood the adjacent soil. Such, then, was the terrain: a slippery, treacherous waste of inundated land. It told against us, for while the Roman legionary was laden with arms and frightened of swimming, the Batavians and their allies were familiar with rivers and could rely upon their height and the lightness of their loads to raise them above the level of the waters.

In answer to the Batavian challenge, therefore, those of our troops who were spoiling for battle threw themselves into the fight, but panicked when their arms and mounts sank into the dangerous depths of the morass. The Batavians knew where the shallows were, and galloped through them, usually avoiding our front-line and surrounding the flanks and rear. There was no question of a normal infantry battle at close quarters. It resembled nothing so much as a naval engagement, as the men floundered about everywhere in the flood waters or grappled hand and foot on any patch of firm ground where they could stand. Wounded and unwounded, swimmers and non-swimmers, they were locked in mutual destruction. However, despite the wild confusion, losses were comparatively light, for the Germans did not venture beyond the flooded ground and returned to their camp.note

The victory monument of VI Victrix

There is archaeological evidence for this battle: military objects have been dredged from the Rhine, which has altered its course to the place of the battle field. Next day, the struggle was renewed, and this time the Romans were able to overcome the Batavians and their allies, although they could not press their advantage because suddenly, rain started to fall down. However, the battle of Xanten clearly meant the end of the revolt of Julius Civilis, who was now pushed back to the Island of the Batavians. The monument that the Sixth Legion Victrix erected to commemorate its victory, has been discovered.

Cerialis now continued to reconstruct of the border. The Fourteenth legion was sent to Mainz, where it joined the First legion Adiutrix; the Tenth Legion Gemina, which had arrived from Hispania immediately after the battle, took its place in Cerialis' army at Xanten. Two of the legions in the south were reconstituted: IIII Macedonica and XVI Gallica, which had disgraced themselves, received new names (IIII Flavia Felix and XVI Flavia Firma) and were sent to Dalmatia and Syria. The First legion Germanica, which was responsible for the murder of general Gaius Dillius Vocula, was disbanded; it soldiers were added to VII Gemina in Pannonia. Vocula's own legion XXII Primigenia was rewarded. V Alaudae and XV Primigenia, which had been destroyed at Xanten, were never reconstituted.

Meanwhile, Civilis had retreated to the Island. He had razed the Batavian capital Nijmegen to the ground, and had destroyed the mole that had once been constructed by Drusus, the stepson of the emperor Augustus, in 13 BCE. To understand the importance of this move, we must take a brief look at the topography of the Dutch river area.

Reconstruction of a Roman warship

The Rhine enters the Netherlands in the east, and divides itself into two rivers. The southern branch is the Waal and passes along Nijmegen; the northern one is the Rhine. Drusus had built a large mole that made the Rhine the largest of these two branches. Now that Civilis had destroyed the mole, the southern branch, the Waal, became the largest of the two rivers (it still is). Since the Batavians lived between the Waal and the Rhine, his measure had as result that their country had a southern border that was hard to transgress - one of the broadest rivers in Europe.

Cerialis knew that he could not cross the river without navy, and decided to wait until ships had been built. Meanwhile, his soldiers had to guard the river. The Sixth and Twenty-first legions were sent to Neuss and Bonn, the Twenty-second Primigenia came from Mainz to Xanten; the Second started to built a bridge at Nijmegen, the Tenth went to an unidentified place called Arenacium. Auxiliary units were stationed at Grinnes and Vada - also unidentified.

Meanwhile, the Romans were occupied with the reconstruction of the Rhineland. Julius Civilis attempted to attack four camps at the same time - he himself attacked Vada, his ally Julius Classicus Grinnes - but the Batavians had underestimated the velocity and effectiveness of the Roman response. Cerialis arrived quickly, and Civilis had to swim across the Rhine to save his life.

A few days later, the Batavians were able to tow away the flagship of the newly built Roman flotilla during a surprise raid, but had to discover that Cerialis was not on board. (He spent the night with a woman from Cologne.) The ship was sent to the Bructerian prophetess Veleda.

Although this was not a great loss, it was humiliating, and Cerialis decided that he could no longer postpone the invasion of the Betuwe, the Island of the Batavians. His ships were now ready, and the navy seems to have invaded the Island from the west, whereas Cerialis crossed the Waal near Nijmegen in the southeast.

Cerialis ravaged the Island of the Batavians severely, employing the well-known stratagem of leaving Civilis' land and farms untouched. But by this time summer was turning to autumn, and repeated rainstorms at the equinox [August 30] caused the rivers to inundate the marshy, low-lying island until it looked like morras. Nor was there any sign of the Roman fleet or convoys in the offing, and the camps on the flat ground were being washed away by the violence of the river. ... It was later claimed by Civilis that the legions could have been crushed at this moment, and he took credit for cunningly diverting the Batavians from this aim when they were set upon it. This may be true, since a few days later, he surrendered.note

Tacitus' account breaks off abruptly when he describes the negotiations, which took place on a half-destroyed bridge somewhere in the Betuwe. It is not known what Cerialis and Civilis discussed, but it is certain that the old alliance between Rome and the Batavians was restored: the latter were not compelled to pay taxes, but had to man eight auxiliary units.

This does not mean that the Batavians were not heavily beaten. They suffered terribly for their support of Julius Civilis. Every Batavian family mourned because of the death of at least one son. The Frisians and Cananefates had to pay the same, immense human toll. The Batavian capital Nijmegen had been destroyed, and the inhabitants were ordered to rebuild it two kilometers downstream on a place where it could not be defended. The Second Legion Adiutrix took over the old site, although it was replaced within three or four years by the Tenth legion Gemina was stationed at Nijmegen-Hunerberg.

What became of Julius Civilis is not known, but it is hard to believe that he enjoyed a quiet old age. It is probable that one of the members of his tribe killed him - the same happened to Arminius and Gannascus, to Germanic leaders who once revolted against Rome and had been defeated. Or perhaps the Romans arrested Civilis. It is true, Tacitus writes that he had been granted immunity, but Cerialis would not have been the first or last Roman commander who felt free to break his promise to a man who had broken several oaths. In that case, Civilis will have received the "punishment of a felon" that Munius Lupercus had promised him when the Batavians laid siege to Xanten: the cross.