Roman Empire: End of the German Revolt (Part 29)

After the severe reverse at Trier Civilis recruited his army in Germany, and pitched his camp near Vetera. The position was a safe one, and he hoped to inspirit his native troops with the memory of their former victories there. Cerialis followed in his footsteps, with forces now doubled by the arrival of the Second,[Adiutrix] Thirteenth, and Fourteenth legions, besides auxiliary troops, both horse and foot,[Before this Cerialis had five legions, I, IV, XVI, XXI, and XXII, but of these only XXI was in full force, so these new reinforcements may have doubled his army. The auxiliaries had been called out by Hordeonius Flaccus] who had long received their summons and came hurrying on the news of victory. Neither general was dilatory, but a vast plain lay between them. It was by nature swampy, and Civilis had built a dam projecting into the Rhine, which stemmed the current and flooded the adjacent fields. The treacherous nature of the ground, where the shallows were hard to find, told against our men, who were heavily armed and afraid of swimming. The Germans, on the other hand, were used to rivers, lightly armed, and tall enough to keep their heads above water.

Provoked by the Batavi, the bravest of our troops opened the engagement at once, but soon fell into a panic when their arms and horses began to sink in the deep marshes. The Germans, who knew the fords, came leaping across them, often leaving our front alone and running round to the flanks or the rear. It was not like an infantry engagement at close quarters, but more like a naval battle. The men floundered about in the water or, finding firm foothold, strove with all their might for possession of it. Thus, wounded and whole, those who could swim and those who could not, struggled helplessly with each other and perished all alike. However, considering the confusion, our loss was less than might have been expected, for the Germans, not daring to venture out of the marsh, withdrew to their camp. The result of this engagement gave each of the generals a different motive for hastening on a decisive battle. Civilis wanted to follow up his success, Cerialis to wipe out his disgrace. Success stimulated the pride of the Germans; the Romans thrilled with shame. The natives spent the night singing uproariously, while our men muttered angry threats.

At daybreak Cerialis formed up his cavalry and the auxiliary cohorts on his front, with the legions behind them, while he himself held a picked body in reserve for emergencies. Civilis did not deploy his line, but halted them in columns, [Perhaps ‘in wedge-formation’] with the Batavi and Cugerni on his right, and the forces from across the Rhine[Bructeri, Tencteri] near the river on the left. Neither general followed the usual custom of haranguing the whole army. They rode along and addressed their various divisions in turn. Cerialis spoke of the ancient glory of the Roman name and of all their victories old and new. He urged them ‘to blot out for ever their treacherous and cowardly enemy whom they had already beaten. They had to punish not to fight them. They had just fought against superior numbers and had yet routed the Germans, and, moreover, the pick of their troops. This remnant had their hearts full of panic and all their wounds behind them.’ He then gave special encouragement to each of the legions, calling the Fourteenth the conquerors of Britain, reminding the Sixth that the influence of their example had set Galba on the throne, and telling the Second that in the coming fight they would for the first time dedicate their new colours and their new eagle to Rome’s service.[They had been newly enrolled] Then riding along to the German army, [i.e. the Roman army of occupation which had joined the Gauls and come over again] he pointed with his hand and bade them recover their own river-bank and their own camp[Vetera] at the enemy’s expense. They all cheered with hearts the lighter for his words. Some longed for battle after a long spell of quiet: others were weary of war and pined for peace, hoping that the future would bring them rest and recompense.

Nor was there silence in Civilis’ lines. As he formed them up he appealed to the spot as evidence of their valour. The Germans and Batavians were standing, he told them, ‘on the field of their glory, trampling the charred bones of Roman soldiers under foot. Wherever the Romans turned their eyes they saw nothing but menacing reminders of surrender and defeat. They must not be alarmed by that sudden change of fortune in the battle at Trier. It was their own victory which hampered the Germans there: they had dropped their weapons and filled their hands with loot. Since then everything had gone in their favour and against the Romans. He had taken every possible precaution, as befitted a cunning general. They themselves were familiar with these soaking plains, but the swamps would be a deadly trap for the enemy. They had the Rhine and the gods of Germany before their eyes, and in the might of these they must go to battle, remembering their wives and parents and their fatherland. This day would either gild the glory of their ancestors or earn the execration of posterity.’ They applauded his words according to their custom by dancing and clashing their arms, and then opened the battle with showers of stones and leaden balls and other missiles, trying to lure on our men, who had not yet entered the marsh.

Their missiles exhausted, the enemy warmed to their work and made an angry charge. Thanks to their great height and their very long spears they could thrust from some distance at our men, who were floundering and slipping about in the marsh. While this went on, a column of Batavi swam across from the dam which, as we described above, [Stationed in the Rhine] had been built out into the Rhine. This started a panic and the line of our auxiliaries began to be driven back. Then the legions took up the fight and equalized matters by staying the enemy’s wild charge. Meanwhile a Batavian deserter approached Cerialis, avowing that he could take the enemy in the rear if the cavalry were sent round the edge of the swamp: the ground was solid there, and the Cugerni, whose task it was to keep watch, were off their guard. Two squadrons of horse were sent with the deserter, and succeeded in outflanking the unsuspecting enemy. The legions in front, when the din told them what had happened, redoubled their efforts. The Germans were beaten and fled to the Rhine. This day might have brought the war to an end, had the Roman fleet arrived in time. As it was, even the cavalry were prevented from pursuit by a sudden downpour of rain shortly before nightfall.

On the next day the Fourteenth legion were sent to join Annius Gallus in Upper Germany, and their place in Cerialis’ army was filled by the Tenth from Spain. Civilis was reinforced by the Chauci. Feeling that he was not strong enough to hold the Batavian capital, [Cleves] he took whatever was portable with him, burnt everything else, and retired into the island. He knew that the Romans had not enough ships to build a bridge, and that they had no other means of getting across. He also destroyed the mole built by Drusus Germanicus. [This mole, begun by Drusus in A.D. 9, was built out from the left bank of the Rhine near Cleves. It turned most of the water into the Lek, thus making the island easily accessible from the Roman side and barring access from the north. Civilis now reversed this position. His friends were now on the north. The swollen Waal would be an obstacle to the Romans] As the bed of the Rhine here falls towards Gaul, his removal of all obstacles gave it free course; the river was practically diverted, and the channel between the Germans and the island became so small and dry as to form no barrier between them. Tutor and Classicus also crossed the Rhine, [i.e. the Waal] together with a hundred and thirteen town-councillors from Trier, among whom was Alpinius Montanus, who, as we have already seen, had been sent by Antonius Primus into Gaul. He was accompanied by his brother. By arousing sympathy and by offering presents, the others, too, were all busy raising reinforcements among these eagerly adventurous tribes.

The war was far from being over. Dividing his forces, Civilis suddenly made a simultaneous attack on all four Roman garrisons—the Tenth at Arenacum, the Second at Batavodurum, and the auxiliary horse and foot at Grinnes and at Vada. [These places cannot be certainly identified. They must have lain on the south of the Waal, probably east and west of Nymwegen] Civilis himself, Verax his nephew, Classicus and Tutor each led one of the attacking parties. They could not hope all to be successful, but reckoned that, if they made several ventures, fortune would probably favour one or the other. Besides, Cerialis, they supposed, was off his guard; on receiving news from several places at once he would hurry from one garrison to another, and might be cut off on his way. The party told off against the Tenth considered it no light task to storm a legion, so they fell on the soldiers, who had come outside to cut timber, and killed the camp-prefect, five senior centurions, and a handful of the men. The rest defended themselves in the trenches. Meanwhile another party of Germans endeavoured to break the bridge [Across the now swollen Waal] which had been begun at Batavodurum, but nightfall put an end to the battle before it was won.

The attack on Grinnes and Vada proved more formidable. Civilis led the assault on Vada, Classicus on Grinnes. Nothing could stop them. The bravest of the defenders had fallen, among them, commanding a cavalry squadron, Briganticus, whom we have seen already, as a faithful ally of Rome and a bitter enemy of his uncle Civilis. However, when Cerialis came to the rescue with a picked troop of horse, the tables were turned, and the Germans were driven headlong into the river. While Civilis was trying to stop the rout he was recognized, and finding himself a target, he left his horse and swam across the river. Verax escaped in the same way, while some boats put in to fetch Tutor and Classicus.

Even now the Roman fleet had not joined the army. They had, indeed, received orders, but fear held them back, and the rowers were employed on various duties elsewhere. It must be admitted, also, that Cerialis did not give them time enough to carry out his orders. He was a man of sudden resolves and brilliant successes. Even when his strategy had failed, good luck always came to his rescue. Thus neither he nor his army cared much about discipline. A few days later, again, he narrowly escaped being taken prisoner and did not escape disgrace.

He had gone to Novaesium and Bonn to inspect the winter quarters that were being built for his legions, and was returning with the fleet. [Which he had found on his way] The Germans noticed that his escort [Marching along the bank] straggled, and that watch was carelessly kept at night. So they planned a surprise. Choosing a night black with clouds they slipped down stream and made their way unmolested into the camp. [Pitched on the left bank somewhere between Novaesium and Vetera. The German assailants were probably Tencteri] For the first onslaught they called cunning to their aid. They cut the tent-ropes and slaughtered the soldiers as they struggled under their own canvas. Another party fell on the ships, threw hawsers aboard, and towed them off. Having surprised the camp in dead silence when once the carnage began they added to the panic by making the whole place ring with shouts. Awakened by their wounds the Romans hunted for weapons and rushed along the streets, [Dividing the different portions of the camp] some few in uniform, most of them with their clothes wrapped round their arms and a drawn sword in their hand. The general, who was half-asleep and almost naked, was only saved by the enemy’s mistake. His flag-ship being easily distinguishable, they carried it off, thinking he was there. But Cerialis had been spending the night elsewhere; as most people believed, carrying on an intrigue with a Ubian woman named Claudia Sacrata. The sentries sheltered their guilt under the general’s disgrace, pretending that they had orders to keep quiet and not disturb him: so they had dispensed with the bugle-call and the challenge on rounds, and dropped off to sleep themselves. In full daylight the enemy sailed off with their captive vessels and towed the flag-ship up the Lippe as an offering to Veleda.

Civilis was now seized with a desire to make a naval display. He manned all the available biremes and all the ships with single banks of oars, and added to this fleet an immense number of small craft. These carry thirty or forty men apiece and are rigged like Illyrian cruisers. The small craft he had captured [But the ships captured by Civilis were not small craft. Perhaps “luntres” is here repeated from the preceding sentence by mistake for “naves” or “puppes] were worked with bright, parti-colored plaids, which served as sails and made a fine show. He chose for review the miniature sea of water where the Rhine comes pouring down to the ocean through the mouth of the Maas. [The de Noord channel carries the combined waters of the Maas and the Waal into the Lek a few miles above Rotterdam. From the point of this confluence to the sea the Lek takes the name of Maas] His reason for the demonstration–apart from Batavian vanity–was to scare away the provision-convoys that were already on their way from Gaul. Cerialis, who was less alarmed than astonished, at once formed up a fleet. Though inferior in numbers, he had the advantage of larger ships, experienced rowers, and clever pilots. The Romans had the stream with them, the Germans the wind. So they sailed past each other, and after trying a few shots with light missiles they parted. Civilis without more ado retired across the Rhine. [Into the country of the Frisii up toward the Zuyder Zee] Cerialis vigorously laid waste the island of the Batavi, and employed the common device of leaving Civilis’s houses and fields untouched. [To make his party suspect that he was in league with the Romans] They were now well into autumn. The heavy equinoctial rains had set the river in flood and thus turned the marshy, low-lying island into a sort of lake. Neither fleet nor provision-convoys had arrived, and their camp on the flat plain began to be washed away by the force of the current.

Civilis afterwards claimed that at this point the Germans could have crushed the Roman legions and wanted to do so, but that he had cunningly dissuaded them. Nor does this seem far from true, since his surrender followed in a few days’ time. Cerialis had been sending secret messages, promising the Batavians peace and Civilis pardon, urging Veleda and her relatives to change the fortune of a war that had only brought disaster after disaster, by doing a timely service to Rome. [i.e. by betraying Civilis to them] ‘The Trevirii,’ he reminded them, ‘had been slaughtered; the allegiance of the Ubii recovered; the Batavians robbed of their home. By supporting Civilis they had gained nothing but bloodshed, banishment, and bereavement. He was a fugitive exile, a burden to those who harboured him. Besides, they had earned blame enough by crossing the Rhine so often: if they took any further steps,–from the one side they might expect insult and injury, from the other vengeance and the wrath of heaven.’

Thus Cerialis mingled threats and promises. The loyalty of the tribes across the Rhine was shaken, and murmurs began to make themselves heard among the Batavi. ‘How much further is our ruin to go?’ they asked. ‘One tribe cannot free the whole world from the yoke. What good have we done by slaughtering and burning Roman legions except to bring out others, larger and stronger? If it was to help Vespasian that we have fought so vigorously, Vespasian is master of the world. If we are challenging Rome–what an infinitesimal fraction of the human race we Batavians are! We must remember what burdens Raetia and Noricum and all Rome’s other allies bear. From us they levy no tribute, only our manhood and our men. [Tacitus remarks in the “Germania” (chap. 29) that the Batavi do not suffer the indignity of paying tribute, but, ‘like armour and weapons are reserved for use in war] That is next door to freedom. And, after all, if we have to choose our masters, it is less disgrace to put up with Roman emperors than with German priestesses.’ Thus the common people: the chieftains used more violent language. ‘It was Civilis’ lunacy that had driven them to war. He wanted to remedy his private troubles by ruining his country. The Batavians had incurred the wrath of heaven by blockading Roman legions, murdering Roman officers, and plunging into a war which was useful for one of them and deadly for the rest. Now they had reached the limit, unless they came to their senses and openly showed their repentance by punishing the culprit.’

Civilis was well aware of their changed feelings and determined to forestall them. He was tired of hardship, and he felt, besides, that desire to live which so often weakens the resolution of the bravest spirits. He demanded an interview. The bridge over the river Nabalia [Perhaps the Neue Yssel, near Arnhem] was broken down in the middle, and the two generals advanced on to the broken ends. Civilis began as follows: ‘If I were defending myself before one of Vitellius’ officers, I could expect neither pardon for my conduct nor credence for my words. Between him and me there has been nothing but hatred. He began the quarrel, I fostered it. Towards Vespasian I have from the beginning shown respect. When he was a private citizen, we were known as friends. Antonius Primus was aware of this when he wrote urging me to take up arms to prevent the legions from Germany and the Gallic levies from crossing the Alps. The instructions which Antonius gave in his letter Hordeonius Flaccus ratified by word of mouth. I raised the standard in Germania, as did Mucianus in Syria, Aponius in Moesia, Flavianus in Pannonia….'[The rest is lost.]


REFERENCE: The Histories (Book 5) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus: Translated w/Notation: By W. HAMILTON FYFE (1912)
CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick