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The Batavian Rebellion
By Kilroy, Jan. 2007; Revised
Category: Classical Mediterranean and Europe: Roman Military
Meanwhile, Civilis was still in command of his unit. As reported by Tacitus, he criticized the commanders for retreat and he proposed that he and his unit of Batavian horse put down the revolt. However, someone saw through his ruse. The Romans discovered that the leader of the rebellion was not Brinno, but it was indeed Civilis. While we don’t know who exactly figured this out, it is probable that Flaccus saw through the ruse and sent for reinforcements in the form of the Romans navy on the Rhine. Flaccus also sent detachments of auxiliary units to deal with the rebels (12). Civilis combined the force of the three tribes involved, the Cananenfates, Frisians and the Batavians into one army. With this force, he destroyed the Roman units sent to quell him near what is now modern day Arnhem. What was worse was that during the fight, a tribe loyal to Rome, the Tungrians, deserted in the midst of the fighting. Also, the Roman Rhine navy of twenty four ships was struck by treachery. Its Batavian rowers, among others, killed the officers and pilots. All of the Roman ships were either captured or burned (13). This was a huge blow to Roman morale, as it now showed that all allied tribes could not be trusted. The only soldiers Flaccus could count on now, were his legionaries.
The situation, Flaccus felt, was now out of hand. He assembled two (undermanned) legions, the V Aladudae and the XV Primigenia, along with three auxiliary cohorts, including one Batavian unit. An army of over 6,500 legionaries plus auxiliaries (14). The Batavian unit was a focus of much suspicion, but the unit was under the command of Civilis’ long time enemy Claudius Labeo, so the unit was allowed to par take in the fighting. This would prove to be a fatal mistake.
The battle took place near the Batavian capital, and what is now modern day Nijmegen. The Batavian force proudly displayed the captured Roman standards of the previous engagement for all to see. And as the Batavian army shouted their battle chants, the Roman legions only managed a “far less vigorous cheer.” (15). As the two armies met in battle, disaster struck within the Roman lines. Labeo and his unit switched sides. The Roman force was routed, and was forced to retreat to the Roman stronghold at Castra Vetera (what is now modern day Xanten). More soldiers came down from beyond the Rhine from different tribes to join the rebellion (16). Civilis now held the upper hand. He has successfully defeated and driven the Romans out of his tribes land. The Batavians were now independent and Civilis was on his way to becoming their king. Civilis even possessed a letter, written by Vespasian himself, supporting the rebellion. He supported the rebellion because it kept the rest of Vitellius’ legions up north, and unable to support Vitellius in the civil war. Vespasian also declared that if he became Emperor, he would declare the Batavians an independent nation (17).
However, for unknown reasons, Civilis decided to attack the Roman stronghold of Castra Vetera. Civilis attacked knowing that no matter who won the civil war, whether it be Vitellius or Vespasian, they were both honor bound to retaliate in full force. No Roman Emperor would ever let a base of Roman power be attacked without swift and brutal retaliation. This was shown in the aftermath of the recent rebellions in Judea and Britain, which Civilis himself served in years earlier (19). Civilis knew what the consequences would be if he laid siege to the legionary base. This act would eventually lead to his undoing.
During the month of September, in the year 69, Civilis launched his siege of Castra Vetera. He even dyed his hair red, and pledged not to cut it until he has destroyed the two legions presiding in Castra Vetera (20). The timing for his attack, again, could not have been more perfect. The civil war now extended into Italy and Vespasian threatened Rome itself. Reinforcements would not be arriving anytime soon. Also, eight Batavian cohorts that had been serving in the civil war arrived from the fighting, just in time to join the siege. Their arrival was important because it gave Civilis eight highly trained units of veteran soldiers, which in itself outnumbered the closest local Romans forces that were stationed in Bonn and Mainz. However, the fort was well prepared for a siege. They had ample food to wait out the attackers, and they were well supplied with sturdy mud brick walls, wooden towers and two ditches in front of the fortifications (21). The 5,000 remaining defenders could hold out until reinforcements arrived.
The Batavian army started to set up its siege in a very Roman way. They attempted to build ditches around the fort and Roman siege machines, but failed due to lack of knowledge. The initial Batavian attacks on the fort failed. The Batavians got bloodied each time they attempted to storm the fort so Civilis opted to starve the defenders into surrender. He also sent out raiding parties to plunder the outlying villages and towns still loyal to the Romans. In the meantime, Flaccus hesitated in his decision to lift the siege. He waited to see what the result of the civil war would be. With Vespasian winning, and with the knowledge that Civilis possessed a letter from Vespasian pledging his support, he decided to wait for orders from the Emperor, whomever that might have been. Flaccus instead posted extra patrols along the Rhine and reinforced Mainz, a vitally important post. He sent word to the surrounding governors in all parts of the Empire for help (22).
Flaccus now decided to assemble a force, consisting of the XXII Primigenia, I Germania, and the XVI Gallica legions. They force marched from Mainz to what is now Krefeld, on the west bank of the Rhine river in Germany. But the advance suddenly stopped. News came north of Vespasian's victory over Vitellius’ forces. Flaccus once again had to decide whether he wanted to risk attacking one of Vespasians allies. But Civilis suddenly took the initiative. He knew the Roman force was too large to defeat in a head on confrontation, so he opted for a surprise attack, consisting of his eight veteran Batavian units, on the moonless night of December 1st 69 CE (23). The attack did indeed surprise the Roman forces. The Romans were unable to form a traditional Roman battle line. According to Tacitus, the Roman army formed into a “core of legionaries, around which the auxiliaries were clustered in a ragged array.” (24). The crack Batavian force made short work of the auxiliary units. The Nervian Auxiliary force broke and lost their standards. “What followed was not a battle but a massacre,” (25) according to Tacitus. The Legionaries made a disciplined retreat into their camp and held their line against the relentless Batavian assault. The Roman army suddenly found themselves fighting for their lives. But the battle soon turned in the Romans favor. Seemingly out of no where, a unit of Basque auxiliaries that answered Flaccus’ call “heard the shouts of men fighting.” (26). The Basque unit (or Voscan) swept into the Batavian force and routed them. The Batavian’s lost their best soldiers in this engagement, while the only Romans lost only their “poorer fighters.” (27) The victory at Krefeld was an important one for the Romans. Since the Batavians now lost their crack fighting units, nothing could stop the Romans from marching on to lift the siege at Castra Vetera. Civilis soon broke his siege and retreated. Flaccus arrived and deepened the ditches, reinforced the walls and re-supplied the camp. However, he did not stay long. Two other tribes, the Usipetes and the Chattians threatened the important Roman post and Mainz (28). Flaccus took his force, along with 1,000 men from Castra Vetera, and headed south to deal with the problem. Civilis immediately continued the siege once more and even sent his cavalry to attack Flaccus’ army, but was soundly driven off. The fort, though with a depleted garrison, was still formidable.
The Death of Flaccus. The Rebellion Continues
When the force reached Neuss in Western Germany on December 17th, news of Vespasian's victory had arrived. To celebrate, Flaccus distributed money to the soldiers and everyone celebrated. However, not all was right. That night, while Flaccus slept, he was dragged out by some of his men and murdered. His second in command, Vocula, managed to escape the same fate by dressing up as a slave and quietly exited camp (29). We can only speculate about the reason for his murder. Some argue that the men from Castra Vetera felt abandoned when they were left to fight the Batavians alone, some argue that it was done out of drunken rage. Whatever the reason, Flaccus was dead and his second in command gone just after restoring order to Mainz and the surrounding areas. The Batavians continued the siege in late December of 69 CE. To make matters worse the Trevrians and Lingones, Gallic tribes living along the upper Rhine, decided to revolt. This revolt was separate as they sought out to start a Gallic Empire of their own. Their leader was Julius Sabinus, who persuaded the I Germania and XVI Gallica legions to desert and join him. He would be the fifth would-be Emperor in less than thirteen months (30). This Emperor did not last long, as was the trend of Emperors in this year. He was soon killed in a skirmish (or in a house fire). The Trevirans and the Lingones now sided with Civilis.
The two legions besieged at Castra Vetera were now clearly quite demoralized. News reached of the desertion of the I and XVI legions. Food and supplies were running low. Tacitus writes, “The ties of loyalty on the one hand, and the necessities of famine on the other, kept the besieged wavering between the alternatives of glory and infamy.”(31) They were soon forced to eat horse meat, grass, anything to subside their hunger, but the legions soon realized there was little hope of help coming anytime soon. During the march of 70 CE, the two legions surrendered to the Civilis and Batavians (32). Their commander, Munius Lupercus, who had held out against the Batavians for over seven months, was given to an influential Batavian woman named Veleda (whom some claimed foresaw the legion's defeat in a vision). But for reasons unknown he was put to death before he reached her (33). The legions were promised safe conduct out of the base after the fort was sacked. They were ordered to leave their armor and arms at the base before departing. As the defeated Legionaries made their way back to Roman controlled land, about 8 kilometers away, they were ambushed. The departing soldiers were caught completely by surprise. Many scattered and fled, some died. Civilis “Certainly complained of the proceeding, and upbraided the Germans with breaking faith by this atrocious act.” (34). However, Tacitus notes that it is unclear as to whether Civilis had any part in the ambush or not.
After this success, Civilis cut his hair, as he promised to do so after the legions were destroyed (35). The I Germania and XVI Gallica legions also ended up surrendering later to the Trevrians at Bonn shortly after Castra Vetera fell. Civilis had now successfully taken control of the entire region from the Romans. He moved on to the now unguarded city of Cologne and set up his new base of operations there (36).
By now, the North was in total chaos. In Gaul, numerous tribes and armies declared themselves for the Gallic Empire and even fought against one another. Further north, the Batavian revolt was at its peak. All of the Roman legions had surrendered and there was no other major Roman force in the area to challenge Civilis and his Batavian army. Roaming bands of renegades plundered the country side in the name of the rebellion. While the situation was indeed dire, the reports flowing into Rome wildly exaggerated what was happening. Vespasian summoned a force of eight full veteran legions to quell the rebellion. The Legions VIII Augusta, XI Claudia, XIII Gemina, II Adiutrix and XXI Rapax came north from Italy over the alps. The VI Victrix and I Adiutrix legions came from Hispania, and XIV Geminia sailing in from Britain. This huge force was placed under the command of the capable Quintus Petillius Cerialis and Gallus Annius (37).
The two generals were a wise choice made by Vespasian. Both had recently served in the recent string civil wars. Cerialis was Vespasians own brother-in-law and had escaped from Vitellius in order to fight in Vespasians army. Annius fought for the doomed Emperor Otho against Vitellius as he made his way down Italy. So not only were they well seasoned soldiers, but they were loyal as well, and neither had sympathies to the recently defeated Vitellius. Further more, Cerialis was very familiar with local rebellions. Ten years prior, he served in Britannia under Governor Paulinus against the rebel Queen Boudica, and ironically probably served with Civilis while he was stationed their as well.
Although the army was large they made good time crossing the Alps, which remained unguarded due to the lack of response from the Gallic leaders. The rebel Gallic tribes collapsed as the army approached, fearing its very size. Cerialis spread the three legions from Hispania and Britain out along Gaul to quell the remaining rebel tribes and the armies still thriving there (38). The rest of the army marched north to Germania to crush Civilis and the rebel Batavian army.
While the Romans advanced, no one was prepared to meet them in battle. Civilis and his Batavian army were out chasing the remnants of what was left of the Roman armies. But more importantly, Civilis was also chasing his long time enemy, Claudius Labeo. You may remember Labeo from earlier on. Labeo was the commander of the Batavian unit that defected during the first battle between Civilis and the Roman legions. Labeo’s reward for deserting the Romans and turning the tide of the battle for Civilis was exile beyond the Rhine River. However, he of course returned and tried to bring Civilis down. This is important because it left the Trevirians and Lingones alone to face the Romans. The forces met near modern day Riol where three Roman legions successfully routed the rebel forces and forced them to submit. The Gallic Empire was disintegrated and the two surrendered legions, I Germania and XVI Gallica, were dishonorably disbanded by Cerialis due to their desertion to Sabinus (39). The loyal legionnaires were sent to reinforce other legions in other parts of the Empire (principally in Syria). The army than marched to on to the important city of Trier, which lay on the banks of the Moselle river in modern day Western Germany. There, the Romans pitched camp and waited patiently for the remaining legions to unite into one fighting force. Now, Cerialis started to rebuild the broken Roman fortifications along the Rhine river (40).
Civilis, knowing he had to attack the army before it was fully united, decided he had to strike the Roman encampment at Trier. On the moonless night of June 7th 70 CE, Civilis launched a surprise attack on the Romans at Trier. This attack did come as quite a shock to the Romans. The Batavian army managed to penetrate into the Roman encampment itself. However, the battle was never in favor of the Batavians. The Roman legions rallied and badly bloodied the Batavian force. The Batavians withdrew and Cerialis was now free to reconstruct the Roman defenses along the Rhine border as he pleased. Mainz was back in control of the Romans, and four legions began their advance north. Worse, Civilis’ base of operations, Cologne, revolted against him. His forces were ousted and his officers killed. However, all was not bad for Civilis. He learned later that his allies, the Cananefates, successfully raided and burned down part of the Roman navy along the coast but this did little to stop the Romans from advancing (41).
The Batavian leader now ordered what was left of his army back to their home island of Betuwe. But at this time, Cerialis did not consider an invasion of the island important. He was more concerned with restoring order to the rest of the Rhine. He began rebuilding its fortifications, rebuilding the navy on the Rhine and patrolling the old border once more. But after Cerialis consolidated his power in the region, he took four of his legions and began to march on the last Batavian stronghold near Castra Vetera, the old Roman fort (42).
An attack on the Batavian stronghold, however, would be no easy thing. The land according to Tacitus was “a vast expanse of swampy ground.” (43). The heavy legionaries found it hard to walk and maneuver in the harsh swampy land. The Batavians used their knowledge of the landscape to perform a series of successful raids upon the besieging Roman force. Furthermore, Civilis built a dam, prior to the Romans arrival and flooded the land as the Romans advanced (44), making it very difficult for the Romans to engage the Batavian force on favorable terms. But the two forces eventually met, in what would be a two day engagement. On the first day, the fight was inconclusive. On the second day, the Romans eventually overcame the Batavian force, but due to a sudden violent rain storm, the Romans could not pursue their defeated opponents. Civilis made his retreat to Betuwe and prepared for a last stand.
Now, the Roman force was reinforced by two more legions that had caught up with them right after the Batavians retreated. Upon his arrival Civilis had the Batavian capital, Oppidum Batavorum as the Romans called it, burned. Then, the Batavians attempted to capture Cerialis by towing away his own flagship in a surprise raid late at night. The Batavians were disappointed to find that he was not on board. Although this had little impact on the Roman force, it was humiliating to Cerialis who then readied his ships the army began its invasion.
The Roman force first began by invading the western side of the island, crossing the Waal river. Another force, commanded by Cerialis himself, crossed the Waal from the south, and landed near the burned remains of the Batavian capital. Cerialis than wasted no time and he “ravaged the Island of the Batavians severely.” (45). However, on August 30th, his attack was ceased by a great rain storm that had swept in over night. Civilis did not take advantage of the rain storm. Instead, he surrendered a few days later. The two generals, Civilis and Cerialis, met at the remains of a broken bridge near the charred Batavian capital.
What was said between to two leadeCrs is not known, the account Tacitus has laid out for us suddenly stops. What is known is that the Batavians were forced to rebuild their capital in a less defensible position. A full Roman legion was stationed near the new Batavian capital just in case at a newly build Roman fort just outside the capital. The Batavians were forced to give men and arms to the Roman Empire henceforth without interruption, but no tribute or taxes were every collected from them (46). The leader, Civilis suddenly disappeared from the annals of history. While we don’t know what happened to him, some speculate that he was either killed by the Romans afterward, or by one of his Batavian rivals. The Batavians themselves, along with all of the other tribes were said to have lost at least one son from each family over the course of the revolt (47).
The Batavian revolt manages to separate itself from all the other revolts within the Roman Empire during the 1st century for two very important reasons. One reason was that one of the contributing factors of rebellion was not taxes. In all of the other major rebellions during the 1st century, the oppressive taxes forced upon the local populace had been major incentives for rebellion (48). However, the Batavian people were never forced to pay taxes or tribute to the Romans. Second was the fact that if Civilis stopped atastra Vetera, the Batavians probably would have been recognized as independent by Vespasian after his victory over Vitellius. While this has been done before to the Frisians and the Chauci by Tiberius years prior, it was relatively quite rare for the Romans to allow a nation to declare itself independent after an attack on a Roman unit. It is interesting to ponder what an independent Batavia would have been like had Civilis not attacked the legion stronghold at Castra Vetera.
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