During the Roman Empire era, what is now known as the Netherlands was referred to as Batavia. The name referred to its inhabitants, the Batavians, who lived on an island at the mouth of the Rhine, hence its etymology (batawjō = good island). They were a Germanic people separated from the Chatti who were allies of the Romans for quite some time, providing them with auxiliaries for their army—especially sailors. However, in the second half of the 1st century AD, they rebelled, taking advantage of the unstable succession context known as the “Year of the Four Emperors”. The rebellion had a clear leader, who besides being a local prince was a Romanized Batavian veteran legionary: Gaius Julius Civilis, who aspired to establish an independent state in Gaul, the Imperium Galliarum.

Civilis (sometimes also referred to as Claudius Civilis), whose name shows that he or one of his immediate ancestors received Roman citizenship at some point, was born in Batavia on an undetermined date and served in the army for twenty-five years, possibly participating in the invasion of Britain in 43 AD. The lack of data about his youth – the main source on the events being Tacitus – forces us to jump to the year 68 AD, the last of Nero’s reign, when his brother Paulus, who was prefect of an auxiliary cohort but perhaps still a peregrinus (free man but without citizenship), was executed by the legate of Germania Inferior, Fonteius Capito, under the apparently false accusation of treason.

Civilis, who was also a prefect, was also detained, although he did not have such a swift ending probably because of his citizenship status: he was sent to Rome, where the following year he was able to appeal to the new emperor, Galba, and not only was he acquitted, but Galba ordered Capito’s death – after all, appointed by his predecessor – for endangering peace in the north. Except for the tragic fate of his brother, Civilis benefited from the incident, as compensation, he was confirmed in the position of prefect of a cohort.

As we mentioned earlier, this was made up of Batavian auxiliaries, whom Tacitus considered among the bravest warriors, which is why their relationship with Rome was almost on equal terms, without vassalage or more tributes than the effective ones they contributed to the army. We already saw that many served in the Classis Germanica (the fleet responsible for controlling the North Sea and the mouth of the Rhine, based in Colonia Agrippinensis, modern-day Cologne), but those on land were also highly valued because most of them knew how to swim, which was an advantage when crossing rivers quickly, without the need to build bridges.

However, distrust towards Civilis resurfaced when Galba’s ephemeral mandate ended; he was saved by the turbulent circumstances that the Roman Empire was experiencing in that year 69 AD, as after the deaths of Nero and Galba, and with the small two-month parenthesis of Otho, Vitellius ascended to the throne, who having been governor of Germania maintained suspicion towards the Batavian despite the fact that he had fought for him against Otho. What had changed? The fact of receiving a letter from Marcus Antonius Primus, legate of the Legio VII Gemina, stationed in Pannonia, asking for support for the last candidate to the disputed throne, Vespasian. The same was done by the consular legate of Germania Superior, Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus, another supporter of Vespasian.

Specifically, they asked him to organize a rebellion among the Germans, so that the legions stationed there would have an excuse not to move to Rome, where Vitellius wanted them to bolster his forces against the expected march of Vespasian. Likewise, he was to disobey Vitellius’ insulting edict ordering a levy among the Batavians, recruiting the young and forcing the older ones to pay an exemption, with a view to strengthening his troops. In reality, such a charade was not necessary; the Batavians were already outraged by the edict and the brutal way in which it was attempted to be implemented, as well as by the suppression of the imperial guard, in which many of them served, which was seen as an insult.

On the other hand, the lands of Batavia were swampy because they occupied the western delta of the Rhine (in Germania Inferior); unsuitable, therefore, for agriculture, which prevented the number of Batavians from being high (it is estimated at around thirty-five thousand) due to the scarcity of resources, leading them to war as their main occupation. That is why the Romans did not demand tributum (tax on crops and livestock) and, instead, recruited them in considerable numbers, to the point that there must have been about five thousand auxiliarii of that origin, a much higher percentage than any other people. Ironically, this led to such rivalry with the Roman legionaries of the XIV Gemina in Britannia that they had at least a couple of serious altercations.

Civilis decided to take advantage of all this to truly rebel, shake off Rome’s influence, and, incidentally, avenge the affront suffered by him and his deceased brother. The curious coincidence was that he had lost an eye, just like two leaders who also found themselves in a similar situation and whom he admired: Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian who challenged the Romans three centuries earlier, and Quintus Sertorius, the praetor who raised arms in Hispania against Sulla in the 1st century BC. Like them, he broke his ties with the metropolis, beginning to weave a Gallo-Germanic coalition.

The first to join were the neighboring Cananefates, whose leader, Brinno, obtained the collaboration of the Frisians. It was he who took the first step, attacking the Roman winter quarters – including that of Traiectum (Utrecht) – forcing their retreat. Following the planned scheme, Hordeonius Flaccus sent aid to them, eight Batavian auxiliary cohorts, recently returned from Britain and camped in Mogontiacum (Mainz)… and Civilis, believing the time had come, threw off the mask and took the lead in the rebellion, also managing to persuade a cohort of Tungri to desert and join him during a battle near present-day Arnhem.

The climax of the victorious day occurred when the Batavian rowers of the fleet, sent by the river to aid the legions, seized twenty-four of the ships after a mutiny. Marco Antonius Primus and Hordeonius Flaccus’ plan had exploded in their hands, discovering with astonishment how their presumed ally sent messengers throughout Germania Inferior and Superior, as well as Gaul, inciting revolt and proposing an independent united kingdom. The problem had to be tackled as soon as possible, and Mummius Lupercus was appointed for the mission, under whose command the Legio XV Primigenia (one of whose soldiers, named Camurio, had assassinated Galba) and part of the Legio V Alaudae were placed.

The Romans attacked the insurgents on the Insula Batavorum, the island at the mouth of the Rhine where they lived, but everything went wrong; the Batavian contingent that they had in their ranks switched sides as soon as the battle began, and the rest of the auxiliaries, foreseeing what might happen, fled. Suddenly, Lupercus found himself in overwhelming numerical inferiority, and realizing that he could not win that way, he ordered the retreat to Castra Vetera (modern-day Xanten), the base camp founded by Augustus to control the empire’s border with Germania.

The place was besieged by an army that increased its forces with the arrival of several Batavian cohorts that were marching towards Rome to join Vitellius, and upon hearing about the rebellion, they turned back, defeated Herennius Gallus’ troops in Bonna (now Bonn), and joined Civilis’ forces.

He was trying to play both sides, leading the uprising while being reluctant to confront his former allies; that’s why he forced his men to swear allegiance to Vespasian, urging Lupercus to do the same, as if everything boiled down to a civil war among the Romans. But those in Castra Vetera remained loyal to Vitellius, trusting in the ample provisions they had.

The Batavians had no choice but to reveal their rebellious stance and openly fight, receiving reinforcements sent by the Bructeri and Tencteri. However, they were unable to break through the strong defenses of the camp (brick and wood walls, towers, and a double ditch), and it was decided to surrender the opponent by starvation, blocking all roads and even the river, thanks to the captured ships. However, Lupercus knew that he could not resist indefinitely and that he would not receive help, as Hordeonius Flaccus wanted to reserve his troops for a possible clash against Vitellius’ forces.

However, the legate of the Legio XXII Primigenia, Gaius Dillius Vocula, managed to make his way to Castra Vetera; not without difficulties because at the height of Asciburgium (Asberg) he fell into an ambush set by Julius Maximus and Claudius Victor (Civilis’ nephew, son of his sister), and he only escaped thanks to the intervention of some Basque auxiliary cohorts. Upon arrival, he took command from Lupercus and continued the resistance. And so, while the Germans loyal to Rome like the Treveri and Ubii were attacked by other tribes to prevent the example from spreading, time passed.

At the end of the year, Vespasian finally prevailed over Vitellius in the battle of Bedriacum (Cremona); it was the end of the civil war, but Civilis kept the siege of the camp, showing, to anyone who still doubted, that it was an uprising against Rome. Nevertheless, he received a Roman proposal to end it and resume his old alliance. The Batavian rejected it, but could not prevent Vocula, taking advantage of an escort service to a supply convoy, from leaving the camp with part of his troops and trying to reach Gelduba (Gellep) defeating the few forces that Civilis opposed him on the way.

None of the two contenders knew or wanted to decisively pursue victory. The legionaries themselves were on the verge of doing the Batavians a favor by rebelling against their legate, but he managed to solve it and while the Batavian took Gelduba, he continued to Novaesium (Neuss), joining his forces with those of Hordeonius Flaccus. The latter, true to his name, was tremendously unpopular among his soldiers, who considered him old, disabled, and weak. They themselves, who wanted to remain loyal to Vitellius – they still did not know about his death – dismissed him (and later assassinated him). Vocula managed to escape disguised as a slave.

However, as soon as it was known that Vespasian was the new emperor, everyone swore allegiance to him and accepted Vocula as legate, who ordered a mobilization to free besieged Mogontiacum (Mainz), which he achieved. Despite everything, Germania and Gaul boiled believing that the new emperor would not last long either and that the peoples of Germania Magna (those to the east of the Rhine) and even other places (Dacians, Sarmatians) would join the rebellion; a casual fire on the Capitoline Hill seemed like an omen in that direction, and everyone remembered the prophecy of Vedela, a völva (sacred priestess) of the Bructeri, considered a living goddess, according to whom Civilis would achieve his purpose.

Indeed, it seemed so, as all the auxiliary troops that remained loyal to Vocula switched to the rebel side induced by their Gallic commanders, Julius Classicus and Julius Tutor, which determined the final fall of Castra Vetera and the extermination of its defenders, ambushed when they were retreating even though they had accepted to swear loyalty to Civilis; it must be said that that massacre probably took place without his approval.

In any case, Civilis destroyed one Roman fort after another and spared only Colonia Agrippina because his son was imprisoned there without any reprisals taken against him. Tacitus recounts that then, considering final victory close, he shaved off the hair and beard he had let grow since the beginning of the conflict.

However, not all tribes were on his side. The ancestral rivalries between them continued to weigh, and the Batavian Claudius Labeo, an old enemy of Civilis who had also served as a Roman auxiliary fighting in the ranks of Lupercus first and then Vocula, gathered the dissatisfied Batavians, Tungri, and Nervii to wage a guerrilla war against the rebels. Civilis fought and defeated him, although he managed to escape and join the Romans. However, there were other peoples who remained reluctant to join the coalition, suspecting that the Batavians actually planned to subjugate them, and only the Treveri and Lingones agreed to do so.

Meanwhile, Vespasian did not remain idle. With his hands free to consolidate his power, he could focus on Germania and seek solutions. The most obvious was to send more forces to bolster the Rhine Army, which he placed under Quintus Petillius Cerialis as consul suffectus (interim consul), assisted by Annius Gallus.

The former had not shone too much in his military career, suffering defeats in Britain and against Vitellius, but the emperor trusted him for his loyalty since he was a relative. He had at his disposal Legions XIII Gemina, VI Victrix, and XXI Rapax, plus Legio XIV Gemina sent from Britain; three others would take care of Germania Superior.

After crossing the Alps, he was met by the Treveri Julius Tutor, whom he defeated thanks to his men’s desertion, which allowed him to recover Belgica and make it clear to all the undecided legionaries that Vespasian was not a weak emperor. He disbanded Legio I Germanica, incorporating its men into Legio VII Gemina, and reconstituted Legio XVI Gallica, renaming it XVI Flavia Firma. Those who still doubted were discharged, and others were pardoned for their Vitellian past. The campaign continued towards Augusta Treverorum (Trier), which also fell; skillfully, Cerialis pardoned his people, as well as the Lingones, thus beginning to undo the coalition. Civilis realized the danger and proposed peace to Domitian, Vespasian’s son and future emperor, who participated in the operations but did not deign to respond.

The rebels hesitated between attacking the Romans now, as Clasicus and Tutor demanded, or waiting for the Germans on the other side of the Rhine to rebel, as Civilis hoped. The first option prevailed, and an immense wave of German warriors fell upon the camp. Cerialis, who was in Augusta Treverorum, returned hastily to reorganize the troops who were retreating in disorder, prey to panic. Thanks to his prompt arrival and because the enemy wasted time plundering, the Romans counterattacked and eventually prevailed. This allowed them to later conquer Colonia Agrippina, slaughtering most of its inhabitants; Civilis’ wife and sister, as well as Classicus’ daughter, were captured.

The definitive confrontation that both sides expected came in the form of a pitched battle, fought near Castra Vetera, after both received reinforcements they believed were sufficient to prevail. The clash lasted two days, and if on the first day the Germans prevailed, by provoking the Romans to break their formations, on the second the balance tipped towards them because this time they knew how to maintain order and had information provided by a deserter. Everything seemed to have ended, as Civilis fled to his island with the surviving Batavians; but from there he organized various sorties against the Roman camps that Cerialis repelled not without problems.

Something similar happened shortly thereafter when he was caught by a surprise attack on his riverboat, and only the chance of having gone ashore for an inspection saved him from being captured. Tired of that cat-and-mouse game, the consul razed the insula Batavorum. But it was useless because Civilis always managed to slip away, so finally there was no choice but to resort to diplomacy, which the other accepted aware that, with the war just over in Judea, the Romans would pour all their efforts against him.

Celio sent emissaries to his opponent offering peace and forgiveness in exchange for regaining his old alliance; a bridge was built over the Nabalia River (probably the Waal), where the two parties met to negotiate… and there Tacitus’ account ends.

It was the year 70 AD. We know that the Batavians had to move their capital from Nijmegen to another less protected city, watched over by Legio X Gemina, but they returned to enjoy the confidence of Rome and continued to supply its legions in the following centuries – in the 4th century AD, under the rule of Constantius II, they were absorbed or displaced to the region of Texandria (southern Netherlands and northern Belgium) by the Salian Franks – although we do not know what happened to their leader. Did he obtain the promised immunity? Was he crucified, as Lupercus had threatened? Or were he killed by his own men, as happened with Arminius?

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 12, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Julio Civilis, el prefecto bátavo que se rebeló contra Roma para crear un reino independiente uniendo la Galia y Germania


Tácito, Historias | Sexto Julio Frontino, Estratagemas, el arte de la guerra en Roma | Jona Lendering, Batavian revolt | Serguei Ivanovich Kovaliov, Historia de Roma | Julio Rodríguez González, Petilio Cerial | Wikipedia

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