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Crtd 13-06-05 Lastedit 16-02-14

Tacitus Historiae
Gaius Julius Civilis, a local Betuwe leader makes history in 60 AD

Since a few days I live in my cabin at the Linge river. That is why my thoughts went to the Roman emperor Nero. He died in what we call the year 68 AD (there was a different calendar at the time). He was the 5th emperor of the Romans. Those five followed their ancestor Gaius Julius Caesar, who had conquered Gaul (now France) [details]. Nero had no obvious successor in his family line, that of Julius Caesar, known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Who would be the next emperor? This would be decided by serious and bloody fighting, the subject of Tacitus' Historiae.

Why my thoughts with this? Because the Batavians, who lived here in the Linge river area that we still call the Betuwe, played a spectacular role in the bloodbath. 16 centuries later, Dutch propagandists of the 80-year Dutch independence war against Spain (Romeyn de Hooghe, but also the famous Hugo de Groot), moulded out of Tacitus' Historiae a fantasy of brave, simple, pious and tidy 1st Century "Dutchmen", even endowed with the typical and inalienable culture of political consultation, and like their 17th century descendants, able to show all corners to an enemy. Thus, the Dutch were claimed to be of Batavian descendency.
But they are not. The Batavians got run over, already in the 4th century, by the Salian Franks. Probably routed to such a degree that the remaining ones got reckoned among those Salii, who in their turn got chased by other German tribes to end up in Toxandria (now Brabant/Kempen, an area North and South of the present Dutch Belgian border. It is an established thing that the name of the German city Passau is a degeneration of the Latin Batavia [High German consonant shift], but nobody knows why. We can be sure, however that It would have been some disappointment for fools like De Groot c.s. to realize that their contemporary French noble elite (and Dutch enemy!) had much more chance having some Batavian(-Frankish) genes than any Dutch burgher.

Like De Groot, Tacitus likes an elegant history. But he clearly does not support a case of people who feature in his story and mainly describes misbehaviour of the powerful. He does so efficiently and avoids boring the reader with moralistic lamentations. As a result you do not get a dirty taste in your mouth the way you get when reading De Groot's attempts to breed false pride with "Batavian" phantasy.

Like the Dutch in the 17th century the Romans did have a republic for quite a long time, with a senate and interesting debates. Why did they change and introduce emperors? According to experts at the time this was caused by the growth of the Roman military machine to proportions unheard of in Antiquity. In a standard community in Antiquity, a people consisted usually of a single tribe endowed with an often large number of slaves, usually prisoners of war and their descendants. The men of the free families had arms and were raised with military training. Slaves were not armed and did not fight. A tribe targeted in an attack by another tribe defended itself. Whoever saw a nice target for an attack had to convince his fellow tribe members, that is, his family in a very wide sense, to attack. There were no mercenaries, no professional soldiers. Many tribes had kings, others had a committee of wise men, but however the leadership was organized, its army consisted of its economically independent men who therefore had the free choice whether to support some operation. Only tribal consensus could lead to military action.

All that changes once leaders manage to maintain a "standing army". Members of such an army typically have no sizeable land nor any other means of survival their own, are hence dependent upon the leaders. That changes the power balance. Moreover, free citizens outside such an army of full time soldiers loose their military routines, hence become dependent upon the army for their defense. And this was how things developed in the Roman Empire. Naturally, the masses of such armies, legions largely located at the edges of the Roman sphere, start to understand that leaders are replaceable, and Roman civilian decisions start to lack a power base for their enforcement as soon as "the army" is not behind them. A need rises for "someone" who can discipline the army into abiding by directions from Rome, or in the other direction, convince Rome that it had better abide by the opinions of dominant streams in the armies. "Someone" who can monitor and maintain this new balance between the defenders and the defended. The name for this "someone" became: emperor. In sum: first you start running a oversize army, then a dictatorship. Even today one can see things going like that. Only few people realize that a dictator is usually more a slave of the powers he balances than a politician in a more consultative environment.

And then comes the moment on which an emperor dies who has no clear successor. Nero.

In Rome a lot of opinions arose, but the over 30 legions at the edges of the empire, each consisting of about 5000 men (that would make 150 000), did not wait to hear those, and formed their own. Census results at the time  [more] counted 5 million free men, the legions would thus form 3% of it. The modern estimate of the Roman population is about 60 million, but that includes women, children, conquered peoples and slaves [more]. 3% does not look much, but if it concerns all trained and armed men then it is a preponderance and that was realized.

A recipe for disaster. And that's what it became. Many generals in the border legions weighed their chances on an armed trip to the throne of the empire in Rome, or at least started to feel like small kings of their own. The ones who did not were were told so by their own soldiers, who, if rebuffed, where not shy to propose a more "suitable" general. But men acquiring ambitions came in quite different sizes. At first Galba was too big for the rest. He was commander of the area we now call Spain (Andalusia excepted). His control over his troops was firm and he had the best relations in Rome. Even before leaving Spain, he had himself crowned emperor, entered Rome, created a sizeable bloodbath among rival patrician families and established his authority there. But the champions of the other legions did not simply give up their ambitions. On the contrary, they learned by Galba's example the novel procedure of making yourself a crowned emperor before even starting your campaign. Otho was the next. He was commander of what we now call Portugal, and the adjacent area in the direction of where now is Madrid. After him came Vitellius, backed by the legions of Gaul and Germania, then Vespasianus who had waited for them all to strike as the last, using the legions of the Northern Balkan, Syria, Judea and Egypt. On a smaller scale, other generals made attempts, got murdered, whereafter again others made attempts and got murdered. After a year of terrible war and loss of life, Vespasian started his 10 year emperorship. Galba, Otho and Vitellius had all been emperors for a few months and had not survived it.

But we're not yet there.

For what happened, already under Galba, here at my place, along the Linge? There dwelled the Batavians. On their "island", Tacitus writes, meaning they lived in the area between two delta branches of the the Rhine, the Nederrijn and the Waal. Downstream the two are linked again by what is now called the "Dordtse Kil". That was the West border of the Batavians, with their brother tribe the Canninefats. Tacitus is a historian with wider gestures and mentions "the ocean" as the West border of the "island". Nero already knew you do not play games with the Batavians. His tax officers lacked courage for a visit. But the Batavians did offer themselves to the Romans as mercenaries, and got a good pay, for their cavalry was unique in being specialized in amphibian operations. Mud, marshland, running water, it all was no problem for them. They could cross the Waal with hundreds of horses without loosing the battle line during the crossing. The Romans took them to wet places where their art was unknown. Any encounter with a big defended river caused wide smirks among them. During the conquest of Britannia (England) they made an effortless crossing of the Thames, not even far from its mouth.


... Batavian views from my cabin on the Linge river (I confess, I found her on Google Images crossing a river in Northern Canada) ...

Quite some legions had quite some Batavians, whose role was often crucial, so their commanders were well informed. Thus here in the Betuwe a lot was known about Roman politics and military movements. The geography of the Roman empire was known, as well as the division and inclinations of the legions. The Batavian leader and broker for his mass of mercenaries was known in Rome and even officially a Roman citizen, thus acquiring a Roman name for that occasion: Gaius Julius Civilis. GJC had known Nero personally. He knew Vespasianus, Tacitus writes, and should therefore have known the nearest of them all: Vitellius, commander in the North. GJC joined the big game, stopped in time when he saw his chances turn and ... survived.

But we're not yet there.

First Otho took over from Galba. Another bloodbath in Rome (and on the way there). The heads of Galba and his crown prince Piso were carried through Rome on pikes. Otho instructed his staff and summoned the Senate to give him all powers, then returned to the Capitol and "his" palace. Crossing the Forum the stench was awful for the dead bodies still lay there, rotting. That reminded him, though a bit late, to allow their burning. Trembling families came to collect them. Those of Galba and Piso had the finding of the heads as a separate task, but after paying some ransom they surfaced.

In the meantime in the North of the empire, the star of Vitellius was rising along the entire Rhine, where the legions were packed denser than anywhere else, crammed with soldiers from local tribes and their leaders, whose interest in Rome could only be kept alive by fear, a difficult job in the present circumstances. Vitellius  employed the varying ambitions in the legions, which often made him, rather than a leader, a slave in the game, who had to do and say the things that gave him support. Once he had acquired a critical mass of supporters, he started receiving lists of people who had to be killed. Those on the lists to whom he was indifferent he sacrificed. About those he felt he had to save he gave devastating judgments in public, then imprisoned them, waiting for better times. The real predicament came when the hero of this story, the Batavian leader Gaius Julius Civilis appeared on the death lists. Vitellius could not even imprison him for his support among the Batavian platoons was near-total and they formed a feared power in the army.
Tacitus does not tell how Vitellius got out of that one but he did. GJC stayed, and feigned to support him. Even the British legions, who usually felt too far from the continent to meddle in its affairs, rallied behind him.
Time to head for Rome! Smacking their lips in the prospect of plunder Vitelius' troops departed. Not counting the auxiliaries they were 70000 head. To render plunder more profitable they formed two columns. One under Valens went through Gaul (France), the other under Caecina through Helvetia (Switzerland). Command was shaky since the troops knew where the booty was. They simply went. However sometimes Command succeeded to cash a decent bribe from a city for and attempt to keep the troops clear of it. Sometimes Command even succeeded to deliver, but usually the armed mob was simply on the rampage.
Vitellius himself stayed behind on a safe distance. Tacitus describes him as "apathetic, just taking an advance on his future position by giving himself to vain luxury and costly amusement. Around midday he used to be drunk and groggy due to his excessive eating".

In the meantime the legion-Batavians under Valens reached the Po and jumped in the water with their horses fully armed in battle order before anyone could stop them. Otho had gladiators on the rivers in little boats. But while in conversaton about the uncomfortable heat of the water the swimmers turned those over. No more gladiators.

Once merged at the Po, the French and Swiss branches of Vitellius were in such power that Otho took a stand before his troops and told them he had decided to stop the civil war timely. He ordered them to join Vitellius, entered his tent and threw himself on his knife. Tacitus: "Hearing his death groan his people entered and found one single wound in his breast".

Vitellius arrives, still far behind his generals and his 100 000 men, in Rome. Another blood bath, and plunderers now plundering plunderers who themselves had been plundering plunderers.

Time for Vespasianus, on the East edge of the empire, to wake up a bit and suspend the grain transport from Egypt to Rome, a critical supply line, even more now it hosted 100 000 additional soldiers from the North. Second, he started to prepare his legions technically and financially for the campaign to Rome, accommodating what he learned from the armies' looting-campaigns from Spain, Portugal and the Rhine. After the Vitellius campaign there would very probably be too few legions to collect for a similar operation. But Rome was doomed to receive a last mob of murderers and robbers.

Rumours from the East reached Rome.

And surely these rumours reached the location of my present kraal: the Betuwe, where things had gotten dull, since all good soldiers, including the Batavians, had gone down to Rome under Vitellius, Valens and Caecina. One could simply go and steal a cow at the next-door Roman Castellum. Who still was there was ill, old, imbecile or all three of them. This had not gone unnoticed by our hero the Batavian Gaius Julius Civilis. Even with only the part of his soldiers left home he could establish some more hold on the vicinity, he could call his boys back from Italy, and then ...


... my present kraal at the Linge (Betuwe, Netherlands) on the bones of Batavians ...

The boys were galloping to Rome, but GJC's letter was even faster and enough to turn home at once. That is called desertion, but who would interfere? Flaccus, their commander, lacked the guts. He sent a letter to the Roman Castellum near Bonn ordering them to stop the Batavians. That letter scared the hell out of the remaining caretaker-part of the legion there. They ordered some Belgians in, but on arrival the Batavians chased them into their own (dry) wall trench, that became one large grave. Far from all died by Batavian weaponry. In the stampede down in the trench many got killed by friendly swords.

The Batavians have never showed pride of this incident. They always maintained it was just because these legionnaires tried to block the road.


... "Gentlemen" GJC said ...

"Gentlemen", GJC said after welcoming them, "never had some decent battles paid off so well as the coming ones, but let us first swear an oath of loyalty"
That surprised the Batavians. Why an oath of loyalty. They had come hadn't they?
"No, not to me", GJC said, "I am going to swear the same oath".
The eyebrows rose further. "To whom?"
"To Vespasianus"
Resounding laughter. "OK! But why"?
"Look, this Vitellius thing looks no good, I gather you've seen that".
They had.
"Well, we are going to conquer everything around here and levy taxes. As long as the Romans are in the mess, we will be OK. If they return in overwhelming force we have all done it for Vespasianus. We give some parts back, keep some others, renegotiate our tax exemption and, if they have the money, offer ourselves again as mercenaries. Got it? Now swear!"
And they swore. A relations artist, this GJC. Rome was still trembling in the grip of Vitellius, not too many there had information to believe Vespasianus really planned to come. GJC would not cut his red hair, he said, before things would be solidly on the rails.


 ... GJC: council of war with his Batavians (Rembrandt): the oath (swords on each other) ...

The first target was the Castellum of Vetera (now near Xanten), harbouring what Vitellius left behind of two legions that earlier got beaten Eastward off the Betuwe by GJC and his neighbouring tribe the Canninefates, even before his mercenary boys had come back from Italy. Tacitus: "Civilis advanced, he himself in the middle with some Batavian elite. On both river shores he had a mass of Germans to scare off; the cavalry galloped through the fields, while the ships [many taken from the Romans BH] sailed upriver in convoy. Here you saw the colours of Roman veteran cohorts, there again animals on pikes taken by the Germanic tribes from their forests and fields, as they do when they advance for battle". On arrival at Vetera GJC demanded that the defenders would swear loyalty to Vespasianus. A brilliant fake demand, meeting an important requirement: it was unacceptable.

Vetera was in a predicament even before GJC arrived: food shortage had forced them to loot the German tribes nearby. Naturally those tribes were delighted to see GJC come and lay siege to Vetera. No food in, no messages out. Nevertheless Flaccus, Vitellius' governour of Germania sent troops for relief. Vespasianus was still in Syria, his legions were on the way to Rome but had not yet crossed the Apennines. But things went wrong for Vitellius in Rome during the Flaccus' relief operation of Vetera, so Flaccus had to shift to Vespasianus' side, which got him where GJC wanted him: now GJC and Flaccus were of the same party, but GJC had been there first!

Flaccus, far from stupid, played the game: GJC had reached his goal, so now should go home. But instead, GJC turned from Vetera and confronted Flaccus' relief army, ready for a battle of Vespasians against Vespasians! GJC won, but at a very narrow margin. He had a lot of damage himself and Flaccus' opposing general Vocula could proceed to Vetera with the remains of his troops.

I needed some time to consider what this type of struggle means to ordinary farmers in the vicinity when reading Tacitus: "Soon the defenders of the town saw the signs of devastated fields and burning farms and realized that a relief army was approaching". GJC had been already back at the gates, and turned to the relief army. The battle started, the town defenders broke out, it lasted, luck was turning, until GJC's horse stumbled. GJC's somersault was a beauty but he had to leave the field for some treatment. Friend and foe erroneously thought he was out of combat. GJC returned too late to restore order on the spot.

But GJC was back at Vetera before the Castellum could have been seriously reinforced and supplied and laid siege again. With GJC posing as a Vespasianus-supporter, Roman Germania governour Flaccus, and Vocula, his acting general at Vetera, now doing the same after both having been "Vitellians", what about the soldiers? They still felt strongly "Vitellian" (though Vitellus was dead). To most of the Gallian and Germanic soldiers in the legions "Vitellian" meant curiously enough largely "not under Rome", an ambition that the former Vitellian leadership, when still "rebels", had not been shy of encouraging. Now the legionnaires were weary of being disciplined by the coming star in Rome, Vespasianus. This led to tensions whenever they received too little money or had to take risky or fatiguing orders from their freshly "Vespasian" commanders. Flaccus thought to ease the tensions and change the mood by paying them, shouting this was from Vespasianus. But after the booze got swallowed Flaccus got killed and Vocula escaped in stealth dressed as a slave. With Vitellius not rising from the dead, the Northern legions called themselves Vitellian again. New flags were needed but nobody knew which ones.

This created a load of attractive options for "Vespasian" GJC. He decided to chase what remained of the legions (largely Gauls now the Germanic soldiers had gone to their tribes). Was that smart? The flying soldiers fell in the hands of Vocula, dressed as a general again. He made them swear loyalty to Vespasianus. But they kept feeling "Vitellian". They did not know what it meant exactly, but GJC did. He managed to engage in talks with the Gallic leaders of the tribes of those soldiers. Shortly afterwards Vocula got killed and the legions swore loyalty to "Whole Gaul". 

All the time, GJC had maintained his siege of Vetera with its two downgraded legions inside. Inside, horses and donkeys were consumed already (though there had been little meat left on them). They were now eating the moss between the stones. They offered to surrender but faced a new demand: loyalty to "Whole Gaul". Tacitus does not mention it, but they probably did it, for they were allowed to leave if they did not take anything. The column of these starved unarmed people then got attacked by "undisciplined" Germanic tribes. Many died, the rest returned to Vetera were they got burned, for the looting was done and the castellum got set on fire. GJC is on the record for sharply denouncing this. Tacitus lacks total trust in that but writes: "there is no proof whether it was feigned or meant sincerely". But could not GJC have deemed the neighbour he had helped making itself "Whole Gaul" powerful and potentially dangerous enough to the Germanic side without the survival of these Vetera-skeletons?

Then GJC cut his hair.

That turned out to provoke the Devil: "Whole Gaul" split, the anti Roman party got crushed in a battle against the pro Romans, Tacitus even calls that the start of the "ebb-tide" of the insurrection. Should GJC have let the Vetera defenders survive?

The Vespasian government in Rome (Vespasianus himself still remote!) sent 5 legions of the Roman occupation and 3 of the edge districts to Gaul to restore order. Tacitus judges that an oversize operation. But getting the legions out of Rome, where there was a food shortage, even for a real job, might be a relief for the governors of Rome. Oversize it was and "Whole Gaul" seeing it coming, lost appetite for any defense.

Part of those legions, under general Cerialis, proceeded to the Germanic tribes at the Rhine. There they really had to fight, first without any decisive battle. A surprise attack of GJC c.s. on the Roman encampments almost ended in a fatal butchery, but they fled too early, victim of the spectre raised by the stories coming out of Gaul of the 8 legion Roman army: they erroneously held a small group of approaching Roman auxiliaries for a full Roman legion. British legions crossed the sea, sailed up the Waal branch of the Rhine and got badly shaven by the Canninefats.

GJC withdrew to Vetera and made a waterline of the kind reported by Xenophon's Anabasis 4 centuries BC, used in the defense of Babylon [more] against Cyrus, and which in the 17th century became famous as part of the defense system of the Dutch Republic. Romans felt obliged to attack and died in numbers but GJC lacked courage to come out. A viable route to the walls got betrayed. Cerialis sent some cavalry. The Batavians had to retreat towards the Rhine where it splits into Waal and Nederrijn (the "Waalkop", then East of where it is now). Before the 4-emperor-year of this story, the Romans had put a dike in the split to make most water flow into the Nederrijn, the defended border of the Roman empire (Batavians inside). De Waal was kept small to allow for easy crossing by Roman traffic. GJC changed the splitting dike, making the Waal large, Nederrijn small, and putting the Batavian "Betuwe" out of easy Roman reach. I do not know the exact history of the split of the 2000 years since then, but surely today it is (still?) as GJC ordered to change it into.

During an upstream fleet movement to inspect the work at the winter camps, Cerialis, Tacitus writes, almost got caught by a group of Germans. The boats were anchored, a camp set at the shore side. The German cut the guy-ropes of the tents, so the sleepers' shapes became visible. Then they started some fierce pricking. They towed away most ships, the flag-ship, containing Cerialis' bed included. But he was lucky: he was out fucking. Angry that he was not timely warned of the attack he got his orders of the previous evening repeated by his staff: "If you disturb me I kill you ..."

Doubt grabbed the Batavians when one time Cerialis managed to cross the now large Waal river with a good number and put the whole Betuwe on fire, except GJC's possessions. This was meant to raise jealousy and suspicion of treachery, a common trick. Cerialis had to retreat, but this was no fun for the Batavians. Neither did GJC see much perspective in fighting Cerialis. At the "Nabalia", thought to be the IJssel near Arnhem, there was a bridge. It had collapsed, but only in the middle. GJC agreed to meet Cerialis there.


The rest of Tacitus Historiae got lost. But it is known that GJC got his former tax exemption back and send his boys again to be mercenaries specialized in amphibian operations with cavalry. I did not find what he did with his hair.

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