Julius Sabinus

Julius Sabinus: Roman emperor in Gaul in the first half of 70.

Map of the Gallic Empire (69/70)
Map of the Gallic Empire (69/70)

In the Summer of 69, the Batavians revolted against the Roman empire. They could be successful, because the Romans were involved in a civil war since the commander of the Rhine army, Aulus Vitellius, had marched on Rome to dethrone the lawful emperor Galba. When his legions arrived in Italy, Galba had already been replaced by Otho, who was defeated near Cremona and committed suicide after Vitellius' victory. A couple of months later, Vitellius was challenged by general Vespasian, who was sole ruler of the Mediterranean empire before the long but single year 69 was over. Meanwhile, the Batavians had overrun the Rhineland, where hardly any legionaries had been left behind since Vitellius had marched on Rome.

Seeing that Rome was seriously weakened, the leader of the Batavians, Julius Civilis, invited the leaders of the Gallic tribes to join his rebellion. One of them was Julius Sabinus, a nobleman from the coimmunity of the Lingones, who lived near modern Langres. The Roman historian Tacitus writes:

Messages were exchanged between Civilis and Julius Classicus, the commander of the Treviran cavalry regiment. [...] Also involved were Julius Tutor and Julius Sabinus, the former a Treviran, the latter a Lingon. Tutor had been placed by Vitellius in command of the west bank of the Rhine. Sabinus for his part, naturally a conceited man, was further inflamed by bogus pretensions to high birth. He claimed that the beauty of his great-grandmother had attracted Julius Caesar during the Gallic War and she had become his mistress.note

The rebellion of Julius Classicus, Julius Tutor and Julius Sabinus has to be distinguished from the revolt of the Batavians. The latter had retained their tribal character, but the Trevirans and Lingones were fully romanized and wanted to start an empire of their own. Their rebellion was a sign that they felt self-confident in their Roman way of life: if the real empire fell, they would start an empire for themselves, continuing the traditions and culture they had embraced. Sabinus became its leader, the fifth emperor in the Roman world in thirteen months.

The first success came in January 70, when two Roman legions, I Germanica and XVI Gallica, were defeated by the Batavians and surrendered to the Gallic empire. The former adherents of Vitellius must have found it easy to break their oath to Vespasian, because they swore allegiance to Sabinus. They were directed to the capital of the new empire, Trier, and hence to Metz. Here, they were far away from the war between the Romans and Batavians.

Probably, Julius Sabinus did not trust the legionaries completely. Maybe he should have used them, however, because he badly needed experienced troops when he attacked the Sequani (who lived along the Doubs). Tacitus writes:

Meanwhile Julius Sabinus demolished any visible reminders of the alliance with Rome, and claimed the title 'Caesar'. He then hastily led a large and ill-disciplined mob of his countrymen against the Sequani, a neighboring state faithful to us. Nor did the Sequani decline the challenge. Fortune favored the better side and the Lingones were routed. Sabinus' rashness in forcing an encounter was equaled by the panic which made him abandon it. In order to spread a rumor that he was dead, he set fire to the farmhouse where he had taken refuge, and people thought that he had committed suicide there. However; the ingenious method of concealment by which he kept alive for another nine years, the unflagging fidelity of his friends, and the remarkable example set by his wife Epponina form a story which I shall relate in its proper context. With the Sequanian victory the war movement came to a halt. Gradually the communities began to recover their senses and honor their obligations and treaties. In this the Remi took the lead by issuing invitations to a conference which should decide whether they wanted independence or peace.note

At this conference, which took place in Reims, the Gauls invited the Trevirans and Lingones to stop their aggression, especially now that the Gallic emperor was (or seemed) dead. However, they refused to do so, and sided with the Batavians. In the summer, they were defeated by the Roman general Quintus Petillius Cerialis, who came across the Alps and smothered the Batavian revolt in blood.

Meanwhile, Julius Sabinus had found refuge in a cave. The romantic story of his survival and death is told by the Greek philosopher Plutarch of Chaeronea in his collection of love stories, the Eroticus.

Civilis, who stirred up the revolt in Gaul, had naturally many associates. Among them was Sabinus, a young man of good family, whose wealth and reputation were second to none of the Gauls. When their great enterprise collapsed, in the expectation of reprisal some killed. themselves and some tried to escape, but were caught. Sabinus' affairs were not such as to prevent him from getting away and making good his escape to a foreign country, except that he had married a most remarkable wife. Her Gaulish name was Empona, which may be translated into Greek as 'Heroine'. He could not abandon her nor take her with him. Now he had in the country underground caves for the storing of his treasures and these caves were known only to two of his freedmen. He dismissed all the other slaves, saying that he was going to poison himself, and took his two trusted servants down into the caves with him. To his wife he sent one of the freedmen, Martial, to tell her that he had poisoned himself and that his body had been consumed in the burning of his country house, for he wished to make use of his wife's genuine grief to gain credit for the report of his death.

And so it turned out. Empona threw herself, just as she was, on the ground and remained there without any nourishment for three days and three nights, in lamentation and tears. When Sabinus heard this, being afraid that she would make away with herself completely, he ordered Martial to report to her secretly that he was alive and in hiding, and begged her to continue in her mourning a little while longer and to neglect nothing that would make her simulation convincing. She, then, played the role of grief to tragic perfection in outward show, but she so longed to see him that she visited him at night and returned again by night. Hereafter for more than seven continuous months, unknown to anyone, she all but lived in the underworld with her husband.

Meanwhile she disguised Sabinus completely by refashioning his clothes, by clipping and binding up his hair and took him with her to Rome, since there was some hope of a pardon. But she accomplished nothing and returned home again, now spending the greater part of her life with him underground, yet from time to time going to town to show herself to her friends and relatives. And what is most incredible of all, she succeeded in keeping the knowledge of her pregnancy from these ladies, even though she bathed with them. There is an ointment which women rub on their hair to make it gold or red; it contains grease which fills or puffs out the flesh and produces a sort of dilation or swelling. She spread this ointment in profusion on all other parts of her body except the abdomen and thus concealed its size as it swelled and filled out. She endured her birth pangs completely alone, like a lioness in a den, descending into the earth to rejoin her husband; she brought up secretly the male cubs that were born. There were two of them: one son was killed in Egypt, but the other visited us recently in Delphi. His name was Sabinus.

At this place, there is a brief lacuna, in which Plutarch must have told how Sabinus was discovered in the ninth year, i.e., 79.

Though Vespasian put her to death, yet he paid the penalty for this murder when his family was totally extinguished in a short time. No act of his principate was more grim and no other gave the gods and the spirits such good reason to avert their faces. Yet the audacity and pride of her words abolished pity in the spectators and roused Vespasian to a high pitch of fury: she renounced all hope of survival and challenged him to exchange his life with hers, declaring that she had lived more happily in the underground darkness than he had on his throne.

This page was created in 2002; last modified on 2 July 2019.