10 February 2007

The Batavian revolt, part 1

It's here, finally! I'm posting it three parts though, as it's rather long. Part 1 deals with the causes of the rebellion and the first battles. Part 2 is about, well, more battles, basically, and also the alliances with various Gallic tribes. Part 3 is about the Roman counterattack. All quotes from Tacitus' The Histories are from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Kenneth Wellesley. Other sources I've used are the book "De opstand der 'Batavieren'" by Hans Teitler and the website livius.org (mostly for information about the different legions, since I'm always mixing them up. The site also has a great article about the revolt which was very helpful during NaNo).

First, another picture of Nidarosdomen (the Nidaros Cathedral) in Trondheim, because this post will look terribly depressing and boring without any pictures :P

And now... the essay.

First, a short version:
In 69 AD the Batavians, a Germanic tribe living in what is now the Netherlands, revolted against the Romans. The Romans fought back, and eventually won.

And now, the long version *grin* I think I got all the ninjas out, but I'm not guaranteeing anything! ;)

The Batavians were a Germanic tribe who lived around the Rhine delta, an area known as the Island, in what is today the Netherlands. According to Tacitus, they were once part of the Chatti, but after they were “driven out by domestic dissensions” sometime between 50-12 BC, they settled further west (there’s a map here). It is possible that the Batavians quarrelled with the Chatti because they were pro-Roman and wished for an alliance with Rome. They seem to have adapted to Roman rule without many difficulties, and the Romans greatly valued them as allies. The Batavians were not exploited financially; instead they supplied the Roman army with soldiers. The Batavian cohorts fought in the German campaigns, and later also in Britain where “they added to their laurels”. There were a number of Batavians in a cavalry unit that served as the emperor’s bodyguard. In their homeland they also had a cavalry force, which Tacitus describes as being highly skilled in amphibious warfare. They could swim the Rhine with their horses and their weapons, without breaking formation. The Batavian cohorts were still commanded by their own nobles, and by the time of the Batavian revolt the important Batavians had all gained the Roman citizenship (which is terribly annoying because I now have a severe lack of Batavian names). Two of the most important and influential Batavians were Julius Civilis and his brother Claudius Paulus, who were of royal descent.

I’ve already written about their names and the whole Julius/Claudius mess – you can find that post here.

Whether Paulus and Civilis were called Julius, Claudius or Bob, they were both arrested on charge of treason by Fonteius Capitio, the commander of the Roman forces in Germania Inferior. Tacitus writes that they were falsely accused, though we cannot be sure if he is telling the truth (or if he even knew the truth). This took during the reign of Nero, presumably in 68 AD. At this time Nero was becoming increasingly unpopular. The governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, revolted against him. He was supported by Servius Sulpicius Galba, who was governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. However, this revolt was a complete disaster. The commander of the legions in Germania Superior (Lucius Verginius Rufus) sent his men south to deal with it, and Vindex was killed. It could be that Civilis and Paulus supported Vindex’ revolt.

Either way, Paulus was executed by Capito, and Civilis was sent to Rome, to Nero. When he arrived in Rome however, Nero had committed suicide. The senate had recognized Galba as emperor, and he now pardoned Civilis. Why? Tacitus doesn’t say, so I have to draw my own conclusions. Civilis might of course really have been innocent, but if he was guilty of treason, it would be treason against Nero (which Galba probably didn’t mind very much). Pardoning Civilis could also have been an attempt by Galba to try to calm down the people in the German provinces. The legions were distrusted by Galba because they had sided with Nero – and thus obstructed Galba’s own accession. Verginius Rufus was immediately replaced by Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus. The native population were looked upon with the same suspicion, and Galba even dismissed the Batavian bodyguard.

This gave the Batavians a couple of good reasons to revolt, but there’s more. When Civilis returned to Germania Inferior, the legions “clamoured for his head”. It could be that they suspected him of murdering Fonteius Capito (though Tacitus writes that Capito was assassinated by Cornelius Aquinus and Fabius Valens, legionary commanders of the Fifth Alaudae and First Germanica, respectively). Civilis was once again pardoned, this time by Aulus Vitellius, the commander of the legions of Germania Inferior. Vitellius had just been proclaimed emperor by his army, and this time it’s pretty easy to understand why Civilis was pardoned: Vitellius needed the support of the Batavians. Eight Batavian cohorts (usually attached to the Fourteenth in Britain) were currently stationed in the land of the Lingones (in France, around Langres), and these would be a real asset in the war against Galba. Vitellius got the support of these cohorts, but around that time Galba was lynched on the forum in Rome. He was succeeded by Marcus Salvius Otho. The war against Galba became a war against Otho.

Vitellius sent to great forces southward to Italy, and to sum it up quickly: they won. Otho committed suicide, and Vitellius became the new emperor. He then realised that the northern frontier along the Rhine was dangerously undergarrisoned. The eight Batavian cohorts were sent northward again – they ended up in Mainz (Mogontiacum). Not long after they received orders to march to Italy again, because Vitellius was now facing a new enemy: Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian), the commander of the Roman forces in Judaea, decided to do a bid for power as well. Vitellius desperately needed more troops, so he ordered Flaccus (the commander of the legions in Germania Superior, and now also of Germania Inferior since Vitellius had gone south) to send more men. Flaccus must have known, or at least guessed, that the Batavians were planning something. He thought it unwise to send the remaining legionaries to Italy, but he obeyed when Vitellius ordered that he recruit new soldiers. Batavians of military age were called up, but the recruiting sergeants went even further than that. According to Tacitus they dragged off old men (to exact a bribe for their release) and boys (to gratify their lust). Needless to say, the Batavians were not at all happy and began to resist service. Tacitus continues with the description of a banquet in a sacred grove, where Civilis holds a nice speech about the glory of their nation and how they were being repressed by Rome. They used to be honoured as allies, but now they were treated as slaves… They could revolt now and gain their independence, since the greatest part of the legions was busy in the south. And so on.

In other words, Tacitus describes the revolt as some kind of heroic fight against oppression – the noble savages fighting against a great (but decadent) empire in a struggle for independence. It probably wasn’t as simple as that. Independence and freedom were probably just two of the motives. The Batavians, after all, were not ruthlessly exploited by the Romans, not financially at least. But the past year had given them a lot to be angry about. First there was the execution of Paulus and arrest of Civilis. This was followed by the dishonourable dismissal of the emperor’s bodyguard by Galba, and the fact that they were distrusted. Add the second arrest of Civilis and the forced recruitments to this, and it’s not that difficult to understand that they were thinking about killing Romans. Furthermore, there were tribes in the north – the Frisians and Chauci – who had gained their independence from Rome some years earlier (28 AD), and the Batavians might’ve wished for freedom like this as well. Whatever their motives, Civilis was an ideal leader with some powerful personal motives of his own. He wanted to avenge his brother, naturally, and he probably also wanted more power.

I’ve already mentioned that he was of royal descent, and though the Batavians were no longer ruled by kings, Civilis’ family was still important and influential. But others were also becoming powerful… The first Batavians who were given Roman citizenship were given the nomen Julius. You could say these were the “old elite”. The “new elite” were the Claudius-Batavians – those who had gained the citizenship later, during the reign of Claudius or Nero. The old elite obviously didn’t want to give any power to the new elite. It might be that Civilis wished to crush the new elite and once and for all establish his family as the most important of all – if it was necessary he would first fight for independence and then become king of his new Batavian Kingdom. The fact that Civilis’ greatest Batavian enemy was called Claudius Labeo supports this theory. If Civilis was in fact called Claudius Civilis it becomes more difficult.

Then there’s a religious motive. Tacitus mentions a prophetess of the Bructeri, Veleda. She predicted the fall of two Roman legions by Batavian hands (and she was right too), and perhaps she also incited the Batavians to revolt in the first place.

In all likelihood there were many reasons for the revolt. Civilis might have tried to restore power to the old elite and his own family for quite a while, and then decided to take advantage of the messy situation in 69 AD (the year of the 4 emperors). The legions were only at half-strength, and his countrymen were angry after the dismissal of the emperor’s bodyguard and the forced recruitments. It was an ideal opportunity to fight for independence. And he also had one last trump card: Tacitus mentions that Civilis had a letter from Vespasian, where the Roman commander *asks* him to revolt. Trouble in the north would keep Vitellius from deploying all his armies against Vespasian’s legions. In return, the Batavians would be granted independence.

So Civilis wishes for more power, and sees that this can be quite easily achieved if they revolt against the Romans. His people are angry because of the forced recruitments, there are few Roman troops in the area… And if they succeed, Vespasian will give them independence… It seems pretty foolproof.

Whatever the motives, it did not take long before they took up arms against the Romans. Civilis is described by Tacitus as “being unusually intelligent for a native”, a statement which is further enhanced by the fact that he only had one eye, just like Hannibal. It could be true and it could be not, but the comparison with Hannibal must’ve had quite an effect on Romans. That Civilis wasn’t stupid is shown by the fact that he didn’t blindly storm Roman forts. Instead, he sent envoys to the Cananefates (who lived between the Batavians and the sea) and induced them to revolt. The Cananefates placed “a foolish desperado” called Brinno on a shield, thus electing him as leader, and with the help of the Frisians they attacked two Roman auxiliary units at their nearby quarters. The posts were captured and sacked, but the Cananefates could not destroy any of the other forts – the Romans set them on fire themselves (so that the rebels couldn’t use them). Archaeologists have found burning layers at various forts, and at Traiectum (modern Utrecht) they have also found fifty gold coins which were buried there by an officer.

The troops themselves rallied to the eastern part of the Island, under a senior centurion called Aquilius (a coin has been found that belonged to a Gaius Aquillius Proculus from the Eighth Legion Augusta). Seeing the panic spread amongst the Romans, Civilis began to criticize them. He suggested that the Roman army should leave the area, while he and his Batavians dealt with the Cananefatian rebels, but the Romans realised it was a trick.
Then Civilis gathered all his men and attacked Aquilius and his “army”. Despite the fact that Flaccus sent 24 ships with reinforcements, the Romans suffered a defeat. A cohort of Tungri auxiliaries switched sides during the battle, and the fact that a lot of the rowers were Batavians didn’t exactly help the Romans either. The helmsmen and centurions were murdered, and in the end the ships either deserted or were captured.

After this battle the Batavians “were acclaimed as liberators as the news spread like wild-fire through the German and Gallic provinces.” (Tacitus: The Histories 4.17)
Germanic tribes from across the Rhine sided with Civilis, who also did his best to get the Gallic tribes on his side.

The Romans stationed in the lands of the Batavians had now been defeated. According to Tacitus, Flaccus himself also supported Vespasian, and tried to hush up Civilis’ revolt. However, after messengers arrived with news of destroyed forts and scattered units, he realised that things were getting out of control. He ordered the legate Munius Lupercus to crush the revolt. Lupercus commanded a camp (Castra Vetera) containing two legions (Fifth Alaudae and Fifteenth Primigenia). Along with the legions went a unit of Ubii, a unit of Treviran horse and a Batavian cavalry regiment. This regiment was commanded by the Batavian Claudius Labeo, a personal enemy of Civilis (Claudius: “new elite”, remember?), so the Romans decided to trust him. A mistake. The Roman army encountered the Batavians near modern-day Nijmegen, and were met with the sight of captured Roman standards which Civilis had brought with him to demoralize his enemy. The battle had not lasted long before Claudius Labeo and his Batavians switched sides. The Ubian and Treviran auxiliaries panicked and fled (according to Tacitus anyway), and the legions retreated to Castra Vetera. If Tacitus can be trusted, Claudius Labeo is largely responsible for the victory of the Batavians, but Civilis hated him as much as ever. He could not kill him though, as some Batavians might be angry about this, but he could not allow him to stay either, because this would cause dissensions. In the end he sent him to a place of exile among the Frisians. Again, this is all according to Tacitus so it might be a little biased, but it’s still interesting. If Labeo was popular (and probably pro-Roman, at least when it suited him) then the people probably weren’t completely united under their glorious leader who would lead them to freedom.

To be continued...


Gabriele C. said...

Celedë, you rock! Thank you, and I'm looking forward to more. That time looks like a fun mess to set a novel in indeed.

I've announced your posts on my blog which has a few more readers (gathered over 20 months of blogging, lol), and sneaked some links to older posts in that may be of interest to you. In case you haven't done already, you should also scroll below those two posts where I rant about my Mediaeval saga, there are more Trier and Moselle pics.

Btw, do you perchance have some info (or links, books to read) about the regent Erling and his son King Magnús beyond what can be found in the Heimskringla? I esp. need the years 1163-1174.

Celedë Anthaas said...

Parts 2 and 3 of the essay are up, and I've found some books that might be of interest, here.

I love your Moselle pics, btw. I definitely want to go there some day.

Carla said...

This is fascinating stuff, Celed, thank you. It'll take me a while to absorb all three posts, though :-)