Roman artifacts attest to 1st c. Batavian rebellion

Archaeologists excavating the North Rhine-Westphalian town of Krefeld have unearthed thousands of artifacts attesting to a 1st century rebellion of Batavian tribesemen against Rome.

The Batavians, whose native territory was the delta between the Lower Rhine and the Waal, were long-time allies of Rome. Considered the bravest of all Germanic tribes, they had formed the core of the imperial guard since Augustus and had a special deal with the empire that exempted them from all tribute and taxes. The only resources the Batavians were required to contribute were fighting men, infantry and especially cavalry, famed for their amphibious ability to cross rivers on horseback in full armour. They contributed soldiers in far greater proportion than other Roman allies, an estimated 5,000 men out of a total population of just 35,000.

In 69 AD, the turbulent Year of the Four Emperors that followed the death of Nero, Rome pissed off the wrong Batavians. The year before Fonteius Capito, the governor of Germania Inferior had had Batavian prince Julius Paullus executed on false charges of rebellion. He sent Paullus’ kinsman Gaius Julius Civilis to Nero in chains on the same trumped up charges, but Nero died before rendering judgment. His successor Galba acquitted Civilis and sent him home. He also dissolved the Germanic bodyguard, however, and the Batavians saw this as a grave insult.

Then came the conscriptions. Roman chronicler Tacitus describes this trigger of the Batavian rebellion in his Histories in reliably salacious terms:

At the orders of Vitellius a levy of the young Batavians was now being made. This burden, which is naturally grievous, was made the heavier by the greed and licence of those in charge of the levy: they hunted out the old and the weak that they might get a price for letting them off; again they dragged away the children to satisfy their lust, choosing the handsomest — and the Batavian children are generally tall beyond their years.

Civilis, who had already decided to rebel against at Rome, used this latest outrage as a fulcrum to move the whole tribe to rebellion and soon persuaded neighboring tribes to join in the cause.

Civilis turned to force and organized the Canninefates, the Frisians, and the Batavians, each tribe in a troop by itself: the Roman line was drawn up to oppose them not far from the Rhine, and the vessels which had been brought here after the burning of the forts were turned to front the foe. The battle had not lasted long when a cohort of the Tungri transferred its standards to Civilis, and the Roman soldiers, demoralized by this sudden betrayal, were cut down by allies and foes alike. There was the same treachery also on the part of the fleet: some of the rowers, being Batavians, by pretending a lack of skill interfered with the sailors and combatants; presently they began to row in the opposite direction and bring the sterns to the bank on which the enemy stood; finally, they killed such of the helmsmen and centurions as did not take their view, until the entire fleet of twenty-four vessels either went over to the enemy or was captured.

This victory was glorious for the enemy at the moment and useful for the future. They gained arms and boats which they needed, and were greatly extolled as liberators throughout the German and Gallic provinces.

The 10-month excavation at the site near the Rhine, archaeologists found coins, weapons, helmets, a soldier’s decorated belt buckle and the skeletal remains of more than 300 horses believed to have been casualties of this battle.

The vast dig (covering almost 10 acres in area) unearthed more than artifacts from the brief window of the Batavian rebellion. Close to 6,500 graves were discovered encompassing burials over the course of a millennium, from 800 B.C. to 800 A.D., many containing significant gave goods. It is one of the largest ancient cemeteries north of the Alps.

The archaeological material is now being studied and conserved at the Burg Linn Museum where a selection of items from before, during and after the rebellion will go on display next year.

7 thoughts on “Roman artifacts attest to 1st c. Batavian rebellion

  1. Those Romans…

    Again and again, they met their downfall through greed, lust, and arrogance in their power. What could they have accomplished had they practiced more self control and humility?

  2. The roman ‘Gelduba’ and Gellep, or Gellep-Stratum, is a part of modern Krefeld. Originally, there were Ubians, it then became a ‘vicus’, was indeed laid under siege by the Batavians and later became Frankish.

    An impression of the Rhine back then, the fortification, the cemetery areas with the ‘Arpvar’ grave is e.g. this one.

    Also, there is a very 1990’s-styled webpage, which might be of some kind of archaeological interest on its own to some 😉

  3. In case you read the part of Tacitus’ histories linked to in the post:

    ‘Gelduba’ is a part of modern Krefeld, ‘Novaesium’ is Neuss near Düsseldorf, ‘Mogontiacum’ is Mainz, ‘Marcodurum’ is Düren and ‘Vetera’ is right next to Xanten.


  4. >>What could they have accomplished had they practiced more self control and humility?<<

    As it was they built a society that in many ways still shapes our world 1,500 years later. Nothing lasts forever, especially when it subject to human nature.

  5. …not even to mention those kinds of achievements concerned with drainage, medicine, roads, housing, education, viticulture and any other contributions to the welfare of Batavians of both sexes and hermaphrodites :shifty:

  6. According to Pliny the Elder, Emperor Tiberius (b. 42 BC) was a big fan of a ‘Siser’ beet root from Krefeld, which from there he ordered yearly a personal stash of.

    Skirret (sium sisarum) and parsnip (pastinaca sativa), which -if I am not mistaken- is a very aromatic and tasty sort of ‘carrot’, harvested and then often stored in dry cellars, i.e. in wooden boxes with earth around the roots (e.g. in what is now Belgium).

    “Siser et ipsum Tiberius princeps nobilitavit flagitans omnibus annis e Germania. Gelduba appellatur castellum Rheno inpositum, ubi generositas praecipua, ex quo apparet frigidis locis convenire. inest longitudine nervus, qui decoctis extrahitur, amaritudinis tamen magna parte relicta, quae mulso in cibis temperata etiam in gratiam vertitur. nervus idem et pastinacae maiori, dumtaxat anniculae. siseris satus mensibus Februario, Martio, Aprili, Augusto, Septembri, Octobri.”

    “The skirret, too, has had its reputation established by the Emperor Tiberius, who demanded a supply of it every year from Germany. It is at Gelduba, a fortress situate on the banks of the Rhenus, that the finest are grown; from which it would appear that they thrive best in a cold climate. There is a string running through the whole length of the skirret, and which is drawn out after it is boiled; but still, for all this, a considerable proportion of its natural pungency is retained; indeed, when modified by the addition of honied wine, this is even thought to impart to dishes an additional relish. The larger parsnip has also a similar sting inside, but only when it is a year old. The proper time for sowing the skirret is in the months of February, March, April, August, September, and October.”

    (Gaius Plinius Secundus, Naturalis Historia, Liber XIX, XXVIII)

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