Caius Cornelius Tacitus.

Tacitus: The Histories, Volumes I and II online

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Having thus made up his mind to rebel, Civilis concealed in the 14
meantime his ulterior design, and while intending to guide his
ultimate policy by future events, proceeded to initiate the rising as
follows. The young Batavians were by Vitellius' orders being pressed
for service, and this burden was being rendered even more irksome than
it need have been by the greed and depravity of the recruiting
officers. They took to enrolling elderly men and invalids so as to get
bribes for excusing them: or, as most of the Batavi are tall and
good-looking in their youth, they would seize the handsomest boys for
immoral purposes. This caused bad feeling; an agitation was organized,
and they were persuaded to refuse service. Accordingly, on the pretext
of giving a banquet, Civilis summoned the chief nobles and the most
determined of the tribesmen to a sacred grove. Then, when he saw them
excited by their revelry and the late hour of the night, he began to
speak of the glorious past of the Batavi and to enumerate the wrongs
they had suffered, the injustice and extortion and all the evils of
their slavery. 'We are no longer treated,' he said, 'as we used to be,
like allies, but like menials and slaves. Why, we are never even
visited by an imperial Governor[273] - irksome though the insolence of
his staff would be. We are given over to prefects and centurions; and
when these subordinates have had their fill of extortion and of
bloodshed, they promptly find some one to replace them, and then there
are new pockets to fill and new pretexts for plunder. Now conscription
is upon us: children are to be torn from parents, brother from
brother, never, probably, to meet again. And yet the fortunes of Rome
were never more depressed. Their cantonments contain nothing but loot
and a lot of old men. Lift up your eyes and look at them. There is
nothing to fear from legions that only exist on paper.[274] And we are
strong. We have infantry and cavalry: the Germans are our kinsmen: the
Gauls share our ambition. Even the Romans will be grateful if we go to
war.[275] If we fail, we can claim credit for supporting Vespasian: if
we succeed, there will be no one to call us to account.'

His speech was received with great approval, and he at once bound 15
them all to union, using the barbarous ceremonies and strange oaths of
his country. They then sent to the Canninefates to join their
enterprise. This tribe inhabits part of the Island,[276] and though
inferior in numbers to the Batavi, they are of the same race and
language and the same courageous spirit. Civilis next sent secret
messages to win over the Batavian troops, which after serving as Roman
auxiliaries in Britain had been sent, as we have already seen,[277] to
Germany and were now stationed at Mainz.[278]

One of the Canninefates, Brinno by name, was a man of distinguished
family and stubborn courage. His father had often ventured acts of
hostility, and had with complete impunity shown his contempt for
Caligula's farcical expedition.[279] To belong to such a family of
rebels was in itself a recommendation. He was accordingly placed on a
shield, swung up on the shoulders of his friends, and thus elected
leader after the fashion of the tribe. Summoning to his aid the
Frisii[280] - a tribe from beyond the Rhine - he fell upon two cohorts
of auxiliaries whose camp lay close to the neighbouring shore.[281]
The attack was unexpected, and the troops, even if they had foreseen
it, were not strong enough to offer resistance: so the camp was taken
and looted. They then fell on the Roman camp-followers and traders,
who had gone off in all directions as if peace were assured. Finding
the forts now threatened with destruction, the Roman officers set fire
to them, as they had no means of defence. All the troops with their
standards and colours retired in a body to the upper end of the
island, led by Aquilius, a senior centurion. But they were an army in
name only, not in strength, for Vitellius had withdrawn all the
efficient soldiers and had replaced them by a useless mob, who had
been drawn from the neighbouring Nervian and German villages and were
only embarrassed by their armour.[282]

Civilis thought it best to proceed by guile, and actually ventured 16
to blame the Roman officers for abandoning the forts. He could, he
told them, with the cohort under his command, suppress the outbreak of
the Canninefates without their assistance: they could all go back to
their winter-quarters. However, it was plain that some treachery
underlay his advice - it would be easier to crush the cohorts if they
were separated - and also that Civilis, not Brinno, was at the head of
this war. Evidence of this gradually leaked out, as the Germans loved
war too well to keep the secret for long. Finding his artifice
unsuccessful, Civilis tried force instead, forming the Canninefates,
Frisii and Batavi into three separate columns.[283] The Roman line
faced them in position near the Rhine bank.[284] They had brought
their ships there after the burning of the forts, and these were now
turned with their prows towards the enemy. Soon after the engagement
began a Tungrian cohort deserted to Civilis, and the Romans were so
startled by this unexpected treachery that they were cut to pieces by
their allies and their enemies combined. Similar treachery occurred in
the fleet. Some of the rowers, who were Batavians, feigning clumsiness
tried to impede the sailors and marines in the performance of their
functions, and after a while openly resisted them and turned the
ships' sterns towards the enemy's bank. Finally, they killed the
pilots and centurions who refused to join them, and thus all the
twenty-four ships of the flotilla either deserted to the enemy or were
captured by them.

This victory made Civilis immediately famous and proved 17
subsequently very useful. Having now got the ships and the weapons
which they needed, he and his followers were enthusiastically
proclaimed as champions of liberty throughout Germany and Gaul. The
German provinces immediately sent envoys with offers of help, while
Civilis endeavoured by diplomacy and by bribery to secure an alliance
with the Gauls. He sent back the auxiliary officers whom he had taken
prisoner, each to his own tribe, and offered the cohorts the choice of
either going home or remaining with him. Those who remained were given
an honourable position in his army: and those who went home received
presents out of the Roman spoil. At the same time Civilis talked to
them confidentially and reminded them of the miseries they had endured
for all these years, in which they had disguised their wretched
slavery under the name of peace. 'The Batavi,' he would say, 'were
excused from taxation, and yet they have taken arms against the common
tyrant. In the first engagement the Romans were routed and beaten.
What if Gaul throws off the yoke? What forces are there left in Italy?
It is with the blood of provincials that their provinces are won.
Don't think of the defeat of Vindex. Why, it was the Batavian cavalry
which trampled on the Aedui and Arverni,[285] and there were Belgic
auxiliaries in Verginius' force. The truth is that Gaul succumbed to
her own armies. But now we are all united in one party, fortified,
moreover, by the military discipline which prevails in Roman camps:
and we have on our side the veterans before whom Otho's legions lately
bit the dust. Let Syria and Asia play the slave: the East is used to
tyrants: but there are many still living in Gaul who were born before
the days of tribute.[286] Indeed, it is only the other day[287] that
Quintilius Varus was killed, when slavery was driven out of Germany,
and they brought into the field not the Emperor Vitellius but Caesar
Augustus himself. Why, liberty is the natural prerogative even of dumb
animals: courage is the peculiar attribute of man. Heaven helps the
brave. Come, then, fall upon them while your hands are free and theirs
are tied, while you are fresh and they are weary. Some of them are for
Vespasian, others for Vitellius; now is your chance to crush both
parties at once.'

Civilis thus had his eye on Gaul and Germany and aspired, had his 18
project prospered, to become king of two countries, one pre-eminent in
wealth and the other in military strength.


[264] Cp. iii. 46.

[265] One of the greatest and most warlike of the German
tribes living in the modern Hessen-Nassau and Waldeck. Tacitus
describes them at length in his _Germania_.

[266] i.e. a stretch of land about sixty miles in length, from
Nymwegen to the Hook of Holland, enclosed by the diverging
mouths of the Rhine, the northern of which is now called the
Lek, the southern the Waal (in Tacitus' time Vahalis). The
name Betuwe is still applied to the eastern part of this

[267] In the _Germania_ Tacitus says that, like weapons, they
are kept exclusively for use in war, and are spared the
indignity of taxation.

[268] Some such word as _peritus_ or _exercitus_ must be
supplied at the end of this chapter.

[269] Probably during the revolt of Vindex. Capito governed
Lower Germany.

[270] Cp. i. 59.

[271] The loss of an eye.

[272] Governor of Upper Germany.

[273] As a subordinate division of Lower Germany the Batavian
district would be administered by 'prefects' subordinate to
the imperial legate.

[274] Vitellius had reduced the strength of the legions (cp. ii. 94).

[275] Because it would weaken the position of Vitellius.

[276] They lived north of the Batavi, between the Zuider Zee
and the North Sea.

[277] ii. 29.

[278] Mogontiacum.

[279] Caligula's only trophy had been helmetfuls of stones and
shells from the sea-shore of Germany.

[280] Living in Friesland, north-east of the Zuider Zee.

[281] Reading _applicata_ (Andresen) instead of _occupata_,
which gives no sense. The camp was probably somewhere near

[282] The Nervii were a Gallic tribe living on the Sambre,
with settlements at Cambray, Tournay, Bavay. Ritter's
alteration of _Germanorum_ to _Cugernorum_ is very probably
right. They lived about a dozen miles west of Vetera, and are
thus a likely recruiting-ground. They were of German origin,
so if _Germanorum_ is right, the reference will still be to
them and the Tungri and other German Settlements on the east
of the Rhine.

[283] See ii. 42, note 301. Here, however, it is not
improbable that the word _cuneus_ means a V-shaped formation.
Tacitus' phrase in _Germ._ 6 is generally taken to mean that
the Germans fought in wedge-formation. The separation of the
three tribes in three columns was also typical of German
tactics. The presence of kinsmen stimulated courage.

[284] Presumably at the eastern end of the island, near either
Nymwegen or Arnheim.

[285] The Aedui lived in Bourgogne and Nivernois, between the
Loire and the Saône; the Arverni in Auvergne, north-west of
the Cevennes. Both had joined Vindex.

[286] 'Many' must be an exaggeration, since Augustus' census
of Gaul took place 27 B.C., ninety-five years ago.

[287] Sixty years ago, to be exact.


Hordeonius Flaccus at first furthered Civilis' schemes by shutting his
eyes to them. But when messengers kept arriving in panic with news
that a camp had been stormed, cohorts wiped out, and not a Roman left
in the Batavian Island, he instructed Munius Lupercus, who commanded
the two legions[288] in winter-quarters,[289] to march against the
enemy. Lupercus lost no time in crossing the river,[290] taking the
legions whom he had with him, some Ubii[291] who were close at hand,
and the Treviran cavalry who were stationed not far away. To this
force he added a regiment of Batavian cavalry, who, though their
loyalty had long ago succumbed, still concealed the fact, because they
hoped their desertion would fetch a higher price, if they actually
betrayed the Romans on the field. Civilis set the standards of the
defeated cohorts[292] round him in a ring to keep their fresh honours
before the eyes of his men, and to terrify the enemy by reminding them
of their disaster. He also gave orders that his own mother and sisters
and all the wives and small children of his soldiers should be
stationed in the rear to spur them to victory or shame them if they
were beaten.[293] When his line raised their battle-cry, the men
singing and the women shrieking, the legions and their auxiliaries
replied with a comparatively feeble cheer, for their left wing had
been exposed by the desertion of the Batavian cavalry, who promptly
turned against us. However, despite the confusion, the legionaries
gripped their swords and kept their places. Then the Ubian and
Treviran auxiliaries broke in shameful flight and went wandering all
over the country. The Germans pressed hard on their heels and
meanwhile the legions could make good their escape into the camp,
which was called 'Castra Vetera'.[294] Claudius Labeo, who commanded
the Batavian cavalry, had opposed Civilis as a rival in some petty
municipal dispute. Civilis was afraid that, if he killed him, he might
offend his countrymen, while if he spared him his presence would give
rise to dissension; so he sent him off by sea to the Frisii.

It was at this time that the cohorts of Batavians and 19
Canninefates, on their way to Rome under orders from Vitellius,
received the message which Civilis had sent to them.[295] They
promptly fell into a ferment of unruly insolence and demanded a
special grant as payment for their journey, double pay, and an
increase in the number of their cavalry.[296] Although all these
things had been promised by Vitellius they had no hope of obtaining
them, but wanted an excuse for rebellion. Flaccus made many
concessions, but the only result was that they redoubled their vigour
and demanded what they felt sure he would refuse. Paying no further
heed to him they made for Lower Germany, to join Civilis. Flaccus
summoned the tribunes and centurions and debated with them whether he
should use force to punish this defiance of authority. After a while
he gave way to his natural cowardice and the fears of his
subordinates, who were distressed by the thought that the loyalty of
the auxiliaries was doubtful and that the legions had been recruited
by a hurried levy. It was decided, therefore, to keep the soldiers in
camp.[297] However, he soon changed his mind when he found himself
criticized by the very men whose advice he had taken. He now seemed
bent on pursuit, and wrote to Herennius Gallus in command of the First
legion, who was holding Bonn, telling him to bar the path of the
Batavians, and promising that he and his army would follow hard upon
their heels. The rebels might certainly have been crushed had Flaccus
and Gallus each advanced their forces from opposite directions and
thus surrounded them. But Flaccus soon gave up the idea, and wrote
another letter to Gallus, warning him to let the rebels pass
undisturbed. This gave rise to a suspicion that the generals were
purposely promoting the war; and all the disasters which had already
occurred or were feared in the future, were attributed not to the
soldiers' inefficiency or the strength of the enemy, but to the
treachery of the generals.

On nearing the camp at Bonn, the Batavians sent forward a 20
messenger to explain their intentions to Herennius Gallus. Against the
Romans, for whom they had fought so often, they had no wish to make
war: but they were worn out after a long and unprofitable term of
service and wanted to go home and rest. If no one opposed them they
would march peaceably by; but if hostility was offered they would find
a passage at the point of the sword. Gallus hesitated, but his men
induced him to risk an engagement. Three thousand legionaries, some
hastily recruited Belgic auxiliaries, and a mob of peasants and
camp-followers, who were as cowardly in action as they were boastful
before it, came pouring out simultaneously from all the gates, hoping
with their superior numbers to surround the Batavians. But these were
experienced veterans. They formed up into columns[298] in deep
formation that defied assault on front, flank, or rear. They thus
pierced our thinner line. The Belgae giving way, the legion was driven
back and ran in terror to reach the trench and the gates of the camp.
It was there that we suffered the heaviest losses. The trenches were
filled with dead, who were not all killed by the blows of the enemy,
for many were stifled in the press or perished on each other's swords.
The victorious cohorts avoided Cologne and marched on without
attempting any further hostilities. For the battle at Bonn they
continued to excuse themselves. They had asked for peace, they said,
and when peace was persistently refused, had merely acted in


[288] V Alaudae and XV Primigenia, both depleted.

[289] At Vetera.

[290] Waal.

[291] They lived round their chief town, known since A.D. 50
as Colonia Agrippinensis, now Cologne (cp. i. 56, note 106).

[292] See chap. 16.

[293] This was a German custom. We read in the _Germania_ that
in battle 'they keep their dearest close at hand, where the
women's cries and the wailing of their babies can be heard'.

[294] This means, of course, simply The Old Camp, but, as
Tacitus treats Vetera as a proper name, it has been kept in
the translation. It was probably on the Rhine near Xanten and
Fürstenberg, some sixty-six miles north of Cologne.

[295] Cp. i. 59; ii. 97; iv. 15.

[296] Who got better pay for lighter service.

[297] i.e. at Mainz, Bonn, Novaesium and Vetera.

[298] See note 283.


After the arrival of these veteran cohorts Civilis was now at the 21
head of a respectable army. But being still uncertain of his plans,
and engaged in reckoning up the Roman forces, he made all who were
with him swear allegiance to Vespasian, and sent envoys to the two
legions, who after their defeat in the former engagement[299] had
retired into Vetera, asking them to take the same oath. The answer
came back that they never followed the advice either of a traitor or
of an enemy: Vitellius was their emperor, and they would keep their
allegiance and their arms for him so long as they had breath in their
bodies. A Batavian deserter need not try to decide the destiny of
Rome; he should rather expect the punishment he richly deserved. When
this was reported to Civilis he flew into a passion, and called the
whole Batavian people to take arms. They were joined by the Bructeri
and Tencteri,[300] and Germany was summoned to come and share the
plunder and the glory.

Threatened with this gathering storm, Munius Lupercus and Numisius 22
Rufus, who were in command of the two legions, proceeded to strengthen
the ramparts and walls. They pulled down the buildings near the
military camp, which had grown into a small town during the long years
of peace, fearing that the enemy might make use of them. But they
omitted to provide a sufficient store of provisions for the camp, and
authorized the soldiers to make up the deficiency by looting, with the
result that what might have supplied their needs for a long time was
consumed in a few days. Meanwhile Civilis advanced, himself holding
the centre with the flower of the Batavi: on both banks of the Rhine
he massed large bands of Germans to strike terror into the enemy: the
cavalry galloped through the fields, while the ships were
simultaneously moved up the stream. Here could be seen the colours of
veteran Roman cohorts, there the figures of beasts which the Germans
had brought from their woods and groves, as their tribes do when they
go to battle. It seemed both a civil and a savage war at once; and
this strange confusion astounded the besieged. The hopes of the
assailants rose when they saw the circumference of the ramparts, for
there were barely five thousand Roman soldiers to defend a camp which
had been laid out to hold two legions.[301] However, a large number of
camp-followers had collected there on the break-up of peace, and
remained to give what assistance they could to the military

The camp was built partly on the gentle slope of a hill and partly 23
on the level ground. Augustus had believed that it would serve as a
base of operations and a check upon the German tribes: as for their
actually coming to assault our legions, such a disaster never
occurred to him. Consequently no trouble had been taken in choosing
the site or erecting defences: the strength of the troops had always
seemed sufficient.

The Batavians and the Germans from across the Rhine[302] now formed up
tribe by tribe - the separation was designed to show their individual
prowess - and opened fire from a distance. Finding that most of their
missiles fell harmlessly on to the turrets and pinnacles of the walls,
and that they were being wounded by stones hurled from above, they
charged with a wild shout and surged up to the rampart, some using
scaling-ladders, others climbing over their comrades who had formed a
'tortoise'. But no sooner had some of them begun to scale the wall,
than they were hurled down by the besieged, who thrust at them with
sword and shield, and buried under a shower of stakes and javelins.
The Germans are always impetuous at the beginning of an action and
over-confident when they are winning; and on this occasion their greed
for plunder even steeled them to face difficulties. They actually
attempted to use siege-engines, with which they were quite unfamiliar.
But though they had no skill themselves, some of the deserters and
prisoners showed them how to build a sort of bridge or platform of
timber, on to which they fitted wheels and rolled it forward. Thus
some of them stood on this platform and fought as though from a mound,
while others, concealed inside, tried to undermine the walls. However,
stones hurled from catapults soon destroyed this rude engine. Then
they began to get ready hurdles and mantlets, but the besieged shot
blazing spears on to them from engines, and even attacked the
assailants themselves with fire-darts. At last they gave up all hope
of an assault and resolved to try a waiting policy, being well aware
that the camp contained only a few days' provisions and a large number
of non-combatants. They hoped that famine would breed treason, and
counted, besides, on the wavering loyalty of the slaves and the usual
hazards of war to aid them.

Meanwhile, Flaccus,[303] who had received news of the siege of 24
Vetera, dispatched a party to recruit auxiliaries in Gaul, and gave
Dillius Vocula, in command of the Twenty-second, a force of picked
soldiers from his two legions.[304] Vocula was to hurry by forced
marches along the bank of the Rhine, while Flaccus himself was to
approach by water, since he was in bad health and unpopular with his
men. Indeed, they grumbled openly that he had let the Batavian cohorts
get away from Mainz, had connived at Civilis' schemes, and invited the
Germans to join the alliance. Vespasian, they said, owed his rise more
to Flaccus than to all the assistance of Antonius Primus or of
Mucianus, for overt hatred and hostility can be openly crushed, but
treachery and deceit cannot be detected, much less parried. While
Civilis took the field himself and arranged his own fighting line,
Hordeonius lay on a couch in his bedroom and gave whatever orders
best suited the enemy's convenience. Why should all these companies
of brave soldiers be commanded by one miserable old invalid? Let them
rather kill the traitor and free their brave hearts and good hopes
from the incubus of such an evil omen. Having worked on each other's
feelings by these complaints, they were still further incensed by the
arrival of a letter from Vespasian. As this could not be concealed,
Flaccus read it before a meeting of the soldiers, and the messengers
who brought it were sent to Vitellius in chains.

With feelings thus appeased the army marched on to Bonn, the 25
head-quarters of the First legion. There the men were still more

Online LibraryCaius Cornelius TacitusTacitus: The Histories, Volumes I and II → online text (page 21 of 29)