The Empire of Rome: spreading their civilization and parasites everywhere it wasn’t wanted; planting flags in everything that didn’t belong to them, and then subsequently running around with 5,000 thugs to beat the snot out of anyone who didn’t like the new regime.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Romans – bit of a fangirl, you could say – but not everyone appreciated the fish sauce and subsequent taxes that came with it; unrest was pretty common. And back then “unrest” wasn’t worth the trouble unless it came at the end of a 6 foot wooden haft and a Roman-skull-skewering metal point.
The Batavian Rebellion was one of the most successful uprisings, and yet I wouldn’t blame you if you had never heard of it. It doesn’t tend to get much limelight, but it should, because within this juicy story there are Romans getting the civilization kicked out of them, Romans fighting other Romans, disgruntled legions, grown men crying, and plenty of “whoah, that’s messed up” moments.
It is AD 69, and almost a century has passed since one of the greatest emperors of all time had changed the Roman republic into a monarchy.
Following on from Caesar’s assassination, through the Liberator’s Civil War, and then the civil war against Anthony, Caesar Augustus proved to be THE MAN. Under his very long and prosperous rule, Shit . Got . Done. Granted, that whole debacle in Pannonia occurred later in his watch, and the “little spat” in the Teutoburger Wald probably gave him a stomach ulcer, but – for the most part – he prided himself on the relative peace of the Roman Empire under his rule and the prosperity he had forged.
So revered was he, that the empire had grown accustomed to a one-man rule, and as long as that man was capable and savvy, well, the system worked pretty well.
In AD 54 Nero stepped into the limelight. The provinces were prosperous, trade flourished, and Nero started to behave like a complete and utter tool. Let’s just say that burning down Rome so he could build a palace complex on its ashes, and then dipping Christians in oil and lighting them up in his garden like torches, probably had a few people on edge.
Now hold onto your seats here boys and girls, because this is going to start sounding like a daytime TV soap opera.
In late 67 or early 68, Caius Julius Vindex (“Vinnie”), governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policy, with the purpose of substituting Servius Sulpicius Galba for emperor. Vindex was unsuccessful, as the legions stationed nearby in Germania basically marched on over and gave him a right royal slapping and told him to “settle the frik down.” The Rhine army – led by Lucius Verginius Rufus – were victorious and believed that they’d done a great thing. Galba was declared a public enemy by the Senate.
But we are far, far from done here.
In June 68, the Praetorian Guard prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus, decided that he wanted to be emperor. So what do you do when you are overcome with a power-lust and happen to have the Praetorian Guard at your disposal? Well you incite your men to revolt, of course! Except Sabinus wasn’t happy to just put himself on the throne, oh no, he decided to go the long-winded way about things and he backed Galba, the aforementioned “enemy of the state,” promising his men “lots of phat cash” from Galba when he became emperor.
Nero was powerless, friendless, and did what any courageous Emperor would do: he ran for his freaking life.
And then committed suicide.
Aside from the wonderful fact that he was the first Roman emperor to off himself, in so doing, he ended the Julio-Claudian Dynasty; he left no heir … and what happened next got kinda messy.
Galba was recognized as emperor and welcomed into the city at the head of a single legion, the 7th Galbiana, later known as 7th Gemina. And legion names are important here, my gentle friends, because in this particular story they’re as much of the soap-opera as anything else.
“But hold on!” said the Legions of the Rhine, “What about us?”
“You?” replied Galba’s Rome, “you obstructed the new emperor! You guys suck!”
The German legions had their noses put out of joint a little, and then, just to rub salt into the wound, their commander was immediately replaced by the new emperor himself. So the guy calling them a dick, now became their direct boss.
Galba cancelled all the reforms of Nero, including benefits for many important people, and this started to make him a little unpopular. Driven by fear – because unpopular people tend to die, – he had conspirators, senators, equites, and just about anyone else who looked at him funny executed without trial.
Amazingly, this made him even less popular.
The Praetorian Guard were not happy either. After his safe arrival in Rome, Galba refused to pay them the rewards that the prefect Sabinus had promised them in the new emperor’s name.
Things started to massively spiral out of control, and on January 1st, AD 69, the German legions said “screw you, Galba,” and they acclaimed Vitellius, their governor, as emperor.
Galba said “whhhaattt?”, panicked, and apparently decided that setting an heir would be the way to handle things. But as a political screw-up of epic proportions, he managed to offend just about every living influential Roman, by picking a young senator called Lucius.
And one particularly offended person was Marcus Salvius Otho, an ambitious man who desired the honor for himself.
Otho got upset. Otho bribed the Praetorian Guard – who already hated Galba, – swung them to his side, and promptly staged a coup.
Galba, upon hearing about this, decided that the best thing to do would be to head into the streets to talk this through like sensible human beings. Galba made a mistake.
The Praetorian Guard debated at the point of a gladius, and Galba found himself dead on the forum floor in no time at all. His heir, Lucius? Right alongside him.
Otho was recognized as emperor by the Senate that same day, but things were going to be a rough ride as Vitellius was already marching towards Rome with the finest legions of the empire: 1st Germanica and 21st Rapax; veterans of the Germanic Wars.
Otho was far from keen to start another civil war, so he sent emissaries to Vitellius in a bid for peace, which apparently didn’t go over very well, because the army just came marching on, smashed Otho’s resistance, and drove him to suicide.
He had been emperor for a little more than three months.
So we’re cool now, right? Galba’s out! Otho’s out! Long live Vitellius!
With the throne well and securely under his bum, Vitellius engaged in a series of feasts, banquets and triumphal parades that were so extravagant that he drove the imperial treasury to bankruptcy. Debts were quickly accrued, money-lenders demand repayment, and Vitellius immediately demonstrated why he was not to be messed with: he had the money-lenders tortured and executed, killed citizens who had named him as heir, killed co-heirs, and then wooed possible rivals to his palace … and then promptly murdered them, too.
And it was about this point that a certain bloke over in the east decided that he would make a better emperor; enter one “Vespasian.”
Vespasian had been given a special command in Judaea by Nero in AD 67 with the task of putting down the Great Jewish Revolt. He had the support of the governor of Syria, Gaius Licinius Mucianus, and a strong force in the form of the legions of Egypt, Judea and Syria.
In the autumn of AD 69 (there’s a lot going on in this year, isn’t there?) an army of pro-Vespasian troops marched into Italy to overthrow Vitellius. Led by Marcus Antonius Primus, he was keen to prevent reinforcements reaching Vitellius from the Rhine, so he sent a letter to a buddy of his up there, asking for a bit of a ruckus to be created, reasoning that if the legions of the Rhine could be kept busy, then they’d be too distracted to help Vitellius.
Primus’ buddy was “Gaius Julius Civilis.” A man in his early 50’s, Civilis was a member of the Equestrian Order and was a high-ranking descendant of the Batavian royal family. That is correct: he wasn’t actually a Roman.
Civilis had commanded one of eight cohorts of Batavian auxiliaries recently attached to the 14th Gemina in Britain. And back in the AD 40’s, he had befriended the commander of the 2nd Augusta, and that fellow was Vespasian himself.
The Batavi were a sub-tribe of the Germanic Chatti tribal group who had migrated to the region between the Old Rhine and Waal rivers in what became the Roman province of Germania Inferior (S Netherlands/Nordrhein).
Their land was largely uncultivable, consisting mainly of Rhine delta swamps. Thus the Batavi population was tiny at a mere 35,000 people. That said, as tiny as they were, they were bad to the bone warriors, skilled horsemen, boatmen, and swimmers.
They were therefore excellent solider material, and Rome just loved bolstering their legions with local talent: the auxiliaries.
In this instance, the Batavi were exempted from taxes, but in exchange they had to provide a disproportionate number of recruits to the Julio-Claudian auxilia and provided most of the emperor’s elite regiment of German Bodyguard. Over 50% of all Batavi males reaching military age (16 years) may have enlisted in the auxilia, and the Batavi, although just about 0.05% of the total population of the empire in AD 23, supplied about 4% of the total auxilia. That’s 80 times their proportionate share.
Now Civilis may have been ‘pro-Vespasian,’ but he’d had a few problems of his own with the Roman Empire. During Nero’s rule, Civilis and his brother had been arrested by the governor of Germania Inferior on false accusations of treason. The governor ordered his brother to be executed, and sent Civilis to Rome in chains for judgement by the Roman emperor Nero. This probably irked him.
While Civilis was in prison awaiting trial, Nero was overthrown by Galba, who promptly acquitted Civilis of the treason charge and allowed him to return home. Galba then disbanded the German guard, not trusting them, and this sent ripples of discontent throughout the Batavi people, who saw this as an insult.
And then, in the face of an encroaching Vespasian, Vitellius ordered that even more Batavi be forced into the auxilia, and discontent burst over into anger and disaffection from Rome.
When Civilis received the letter from Primus to “kick up a bit of a fuss,” he was more than keen to help out.
Civilis was about to kick off the Batavian Rebellion.
Civilis, a most respected man among the Batavi for his ability, royal blood, and wealth, hosted a banquet for the elders and leaders among his people, and as they ate and drank, he gave an impassioned speech about rising up and freeing their homeland. By the time he was done, they were banging cups on tables, flipping over cars, and setting fire to nearby shops. The Batavi were PUMPED.
Messages were sent to potential allies, but also to Batavian and British nobles commanding eighteen cohorts of auxiliaries nearby. In early AD 69 he had a German tribe – the Canninefates – and 9,000 auxiliaries behind his banner. And the thing about auxiliaries is that they’ve fought alongside the Roman legions, they’ve practiced with them, been equipped by them, and knew their tactics; the auxiliaries were not just some rabble with pitchforks and sticks, they were a highly trained, highly experienced army.
But where would the fun be if we just led all of these guys into the attack? Well there wouldn’t be any, that’s what! Civilis thought the same. Civilis had a much more devious plan up his sleeve.
In the summer of AD 69, thousands of Canninefates and Frisians descended on the town of Vetera and tore it asunder, sending the small garrison of two cohorts and a small river fleet scampering into the distance with the barbarians in hot pursuit. Eventually the cohorts managed to get themselves trapped; Roman legionaries lined up for battle with the river boats armed with artillery in support, but they were going to need help if they were going to get out of this pickle.
Enter Civilis. Remember, Civilis is still a Roman auxiliary at this point, and to the old Roman general – Hordeonius Flaccus – at Mogontiacum, Civilis is to be trusted. So when the Batavian prince offered to go and relieve the trapped cohorts with his own auxiliary cavalry command, Flaccus readily agreed.
The plan was hatched. I’m sure Civilis probably rubbed his little hands in evil glee.
When Civilis arrived with the relief force, the trapped Romans were doubtlessly pleased – maybe even elated – but no sooner was he on the scene that he signaled his men, and they joined the rebels. On the river boats, Batavian crewmen turned on the rest and the vessels were captured, while on the land the vastly outnumbered Romans were utterly obliterated.
It had been a resounding victory, and with a small fleet of river ships at his disposal, it now gave Civilis control of the lower Rhine. News spread quickly throughout Gaul and Germany, and – according to Roman military doctrine – the empire responded quickly.
General Flaccus immediately ordered Minus Lupercus and the 15th Primigeneia, plus Numisius and the 5th Alaudae to stop the rebels in their tracks. But both legions were significantly under strength, and between them they could only field 6,000 men. By the time they had left a small garrison behind, they were closer to 5,000, plus a squadron of cavalry.
The legions finally caught up with the rebels at a place called “Old Camp;” an old Roman fort. The rebels were in battle array, singing songs; their families behind them to provide extra incentive to demolish the Roman forces here and now. The legions formed up defiantly and the cavalry wheeled away.
Then turned around and charged right into the flanks of the surprised Romans.
Discipline saved the legions from utter slaughter, but they were battered back into the Old Camp fort, where the embattled troops shored up defenses and hunkered down. The rebels meanwhile moved in and surrounded them.
But it wasn’t just the Romans who had heard of Civilis’ first crushing victory near the Rhine; four cohorts of Batavians and Canninefates who had been heading towards Vitellius in Italy, promptly turned around and headed back, hellbent on joining their brothers in the growing rebellion.
Flaccus learned of this, decided to keep his ass safe behind the walls of Mogontiacum, and ordered Herennius Gallus and the 16th Gallica and six cohorts of 1st Germanica to intercept them. The plan, according to Flaccus, was for Gallus to meet the rebels head on, and then he would come up behind and would crush them in the Roman vice.
The plan seemed sound, except for one small problem: Flaccus never actually left Mogontiacum.
Just as the rebel 6 cohorts arrived at the camp of Gallus, a new order came in from Flaccus: let the rebels pass.
Gallus was confused and his men not pleased. It was about this time that representatives from the Batavians and Canninefates came into camp and basically laid down their ultimatum: let us pass, or we’ll kick your faces in.
Gallus hesitated, and he hesitated enough that the elements from the 1st Germanica said “sod this for a lark!” and they charged out to give battle. Farmers and merchants, complete with crude weaponry, flooded after them; let’s just say that testosterone and bravado was beginning to rule the day.
The 16th Gallica promptly stared on with some disbelief – for no attack orders had been given – manned the walls, lit up a cigarette or two, and promptly watched to see what would transpire.
The Batavians and Canninefates were handsomely outnumbered, but they were also experienced soldiers. They formed squares, took the brunt of the 1st Germanica charge, and then promptly started to advance with military precision. The Romans were thrown into disarray and confusion, fell back, and promptly became embroiled in all of the civilians who had charged out after them. To say it was a total cluster would probably be far too kind.
Civilians panicked, the 1st Germanica found themselves trapped against the camp defenses, and many were killed as they attempted to get back into the camp.
Victorious, the rebels said “told you so,” and marched on their merry way to join Civilis.
Civilis’ ranks were now beginning to swell. To Old Camp he sent a message advising them to surrender, throw down their arms, and to swear to Vespasian, but the Old Camp survivors were loyal to Vitellius and their response was a curt “we don’t follow the advice of traitors or enemies.”
The siege of Old Camp continued, and Civilis’ ranks grew: thousands of Tencteri and Bructeri joined him. So much so that Civilis felt comfortable assaulting the camp, but the defenders were stubborn and capable and his men were knobs when it came to this sort of thing; crude siege artillery was toppled, burned, or crushed by defending catapults, and an attempt to take the camp with siege ladders failed miserably.
Civilis decided that it would be easier to starve the buggers out.
But don’t worry for the Romans at Old Camp, because it was about this point that the old Flaccus guy decided to get his arse into gear with the reconstituted 18th Legion. Except this legion was a little disgruntled: Flaccus had really dragged this thing out and made a right mess of things; was he secretly a pro-Vespasian supporter and he was purposefully sabotaging efforts to quell the rebellion?
Rumors started to fly around the camp and the men became uneasy, so much so that Flaccus was forced at one point to gather everyone together and parade around messengers sent to him from Vespasian urging him to flip sides. His “proof” that he was pro-Vitellius, was to clap these men in irons, in front of the legions, and then send them packing to Rome. This, it appears, was sufficient to quell any discontent.
Enroute to the rebels, the 18th Legion met up with the 1st Germanica at Bonna; the same 1st Germanica that had charged out of Gallus’ camp in an impetuous charge against the Batavians and Canninefates auxiliary. And the same 1st Germanica that felt that Flaccus had left them high and dry, when he promised to help support them … but didn’t.
The 1st Germanica were, rightly, pretty pissed off, and they were none too shy in being pretty vocal about it as well. For the second time in mere days, Flaccus had upset men on his hands, and again he had to address the troops, this time both the 1st and 18th legions.
Things went pretty pear-shaped quite quickly. Flaccus read aloud his second set of orders to Gallus, in which he had instructed Gallus to let the rebels pass. This, he declared, was proof positive that the 1st Germanica disobeyed orders, so they should shut the hell up. Sensing that this wasn’t quite a “mic drop” moment, he then had the most vocal ringleader pulled out and clapped in chains.
But the solider didn’t go quietly. He started to shout out that he had personally conveyed messages from Flaccus to Civilis, and he was being singled out to ensure that he kept silent.
Flaccus suddenly had one of those “deer in a headlight” looks.
Flaccus looked guilty.
You could hear a pin drop as the mutiny of the legions slowly loomed into sight. But it was within this brief moment that the commander of the 18th stepped forward – Vocula – pushed the dissenting legionary onto his knees, and promptly removed his head with a single sword blow. Dissent: Over.
There was stunned silence from the legions, but ultimately Vocula was well liked and the mouthy legionary who had been throwing around accusations deserved to be executed, but Flaccus … in that moment of hesitation and guilt, knew that he had lost control.
So he handed the house-keys to Vocula and went back home to Mogontiacum. Seriously. He went home. Which probably didn’t do his reputation any bit of good, but he was probably well beyond that.
Vocula immediately set about a little rejiggering of the legions, had a drink with Gallus, and scooped up elements from the 16th. Even leaving garrison forces behind, he was marching towards Old Camp with a pretty stiff 1st, 16th, and 18th. And let’s face it, folks, that’s got to be pretty intimidating and more than enough to get the rebels in check, right?
Except Vocula decided to stop, make camp at Gelduba, and to whip his boys into shape with some disciplined marches and drill.
Now … on one hand you could say that he had been handed near-mutinous forces and he needed to get them ship-shape before they faced Civilis’ rebels. This would be a fair point.
Or … or you could say he was a Vespasian sympathizer and was deliberately delaying the relief of Old Camp.
Guess which one his men went with?
Weeks went by with camp construction and military drills, and with each passing day the men were more and more convinced that their commanders were pro-Vespasian.
And things were not going to get any better.
A grain shipment heading towards the camp via the Rhine ran aground before it arrived, and Gallus – seeing it happen – watched in dismay as Germans suddenly sprang up like Zerglings and poured all over the boats; killing men and stealing food. He immediately ordered a detachment of legionaries to head to the stricken vessels and help them out, but as they arrived on the scene, even more Germans sprouted out of the undergrowth: it was a trap.
The relief force were suddenly fighting for their lives and they had to beat a hasty retreat back to camp. Unfortunately – for Gallus – this was the straw that broke the camel’s back: the legionaries were convinced that they had been purposefully sent into the ambush. So much so, that that night they burst into Gallus’ tent, dragged him out, and gave him a bloody good kicking.
Seriously: legionaries dragged out their commander and beat him up.
You could probably say that discipline was beginning to slip.
Amazingly, and somewhat disastrously, Gallus – with his life in jeopardy – claimed to the men that Flaccus had set up the ambush; I can’t even begin to imagine how murderous that must have made them feel.
By the time Vocula got on the scene, Gallus was in chains and Vocula was not pleased.
Freeing Gallus, Vocula immediately had the ringleaders of this debacle executed, but – clearly – there were some serious issues permeating the legions.
Meanwhile, over in Old Camp the defenders were stubborn and resolved. And crafty. Really crafty. They actually devised a mechanism that I can only imagine looked a little like a weird trebuchet, or something. When they were attacked, this device would reach over the wall, grab a German, and would hurl him INTO the camp, where – of course – waiting legionaries would tear him asunder. That’s pretty damn clever.
Through devices like this, and drunken German assaults, the defenders were able to keep the rebels at bay.
But things were looking grim. There was no food; the besieged legionaries had eaten their supplies, their pack mules, their horses … and were now down to chewing on grass and whatever else they could dig out of the ground (no, I’m not kidding). “Bleak” would be a word that would come to mind.
It was now October, and news started to emerge that Vespasian’s forces had defeated Vitellius in northern Italy, and Vespasian himself was closing in to the east; Vitellius looked all but lost.
In response to this, our mate Flaccus gathered all his men and urged them to switch allegiance to Vespasian. They were not convinced; Vitellius was their boy. Letters from Vespasian urging the Rhine forces to stand down did nothing. Parading around soldiers who had fought in Italy and saw Vitellius’ forces get their faces kicked in did nothing. The final bit of compelling evidence to switch allegiance took the form of a letter from Vespasian to Civilis, requesting that Civilis halt the rebellion now that Italy was about to fall. Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, the troops just took this as proof-positive that Vespasian was a conniving git and not someone they wanted to swear to.
Flaccus administered a new oath of allegiance to Vespasian anyway. His enthusiasm was not echoed by the troops, as they either mumbled his name, skipped it altogether, or stood mute.
Apparently, being the boss of a legion is hard.
Civilis eventually received that same letter asking him to stand down, but … spoiler alert … he didn’t want to. And didn’t. In fact, he did the opposite: he went on the offensive. Fellow countryman Julius Maximus was given a large force, a side-kick called Claudius Victor, and instructions to go find Vocula and give him a bloody good seeing to.
Of course, Vocula was sitting in camp with the 1st, 16th, and 18th legions, so whatever Maximus decided to do, it would have to be pretty clever to take on this type of force.
As it happened, “clever” was “sneak up behind them.” Yes, you read that correctly. Maximus gathered up thousands of men, round around the back of the camp – I didn’t even know there was such a thing – and attacked the Romans while they were looking the other way.
I’m just going to pause there, facepalm, and mutter “are you freaking kidding me?”
Vocula was mauled, and it was only because reinforcements arrived in the middle of the battle from Mogontiacum that they were able to fight the rebel forces off. But it came at a high price: many were killed, and even standards were lost.
Vocula claimed it as a victory, however, and – perhaps realizing that he couldn’t afford to sit there any longer and have the rebels pick away at him – he finally gave the order to march on Civilis.
Who, at this same time, was gleefully parading around outside of Old Camp with prisoners and standards taken from Vocula. Here, he proclaimed, was proof positive that the 5th Alaudae and 15th Primigeneia should finally surrender; the relief force was vanquished!
Morale inside Old Camp must have waivered for a moment, but before they could respond a Roman prisoner held by Civilis shouted out that it was all lies and Vocula had taken the day! He was silenced pretty damn quickly by the Germans guarding him, but it was enough for Old Camp to sniff dismissively; they were staying put!
Within just two days, fires from the Vocula’s scouts could be seen from Old Camp, and then the entire relief force itself. What a sight for sore eyes that must have been.
And then Vocula instructed his men to make a new camp. Yup.
After dragging his feet to get this far, insight of Old Camp, he stopped, yawned, and said “let’s stop here for a pot of tea, shall we?”
Naturally, his men were incredulous. In fact, his men were so incredulous that they refused to do it and charged at Civilis instead. No battle formation, no lines, no order; they just charged. Both sides clashed, and – if you’re paying attention here – you now may be thinking … “so, the Old Camp guys … did they do anything?”
Well, as it happens, they did. As the relief forces and rebels came to blows, they gathered up their strongest men, opened the gates, and poured into Civilis’ rear. Civilis, apparently, had *not* considered this as a possibility.
Trapped between two Roman armies, the rebels quickly started to get their arse handed to them, and Civilis himself was felled. Panicked gripped them and they broke into a full on route; the Romans in hot pursuit.
Except Vocula sounded the recall and went into Old Camp instead. Now, granted, here his legions were welcomed enthusiastically by the starving men of the 5th Alaudae and 15th Primigeneia, but at the point when he instructed his legions to conduct fort repairs instead of pursuing the rebels, people started to scratch their heads; a killing blow could be dealt right here and now, but instead they were going to strengthen the fortifications?
As Vocula sat in Old Camp and had much-needed supplies brought in, what he didn’t know was that Civilis actually had survived. Within mere days he was reforming his army and laying new plans; this revolt was far, far from over.
With supplies at Old Camp now good to carry 4,000 men through the winter, Vocula gathered up the 5,000 survivors of the 5th Alaudae and 15th Primigeneia and asked for 1,000 volunteers to join his own forces. 2,000 stepped forwards (because “who the heck wants to sit in this dump even longer?”) Vocula picked 1,000 of the strongest, added them to his forces, and promptly marched out of camp. If you are now sitting there thinking “wait … what?” well, rest assured, so were the 4,000 men left behind.
And this is when Civilis came back and laid siege all over again.
At this point I’m beginning to feel real bad for the Old Camp guys.
Vocula went to Novaesium and sat on his bum in a manner emulating Flaccus in the worst of ways. It was while he was here that word started to spread amongst the men that Vitellius had sent a large wad of cash to Flaccus in order to give his legions a bonus. I mean, it was an outright bribe, but that type of thing was common back then, especially if an emperor wanted to keep the loyalty of his legions.
Flaccus had pocketed the money.
With absolutely no surprise, Vocula’s men went on strike and demanded that they got paid, which Flaccus eventually agreed to … but only <whiney voice>in the name of Vespasian</whiney voice>. The men didn’t really care; it was a fat wad of cash and they promptly invested it in the local tavern, got rat assed drunk, and decided to drag Flaccus from his bed chamber and murdered the bugger.
These legions, man; “discipline” was clearly just a suggestion and not policy.
Mogontiacum fell into uproar: statues of Vitellius were re-erected, Vespasian statues were knocked down, and cars were burned; you name it. Which, of course, would be the perfect time for Civilis to gather up some of his forces and attack it. Which is exactly what he did.
The legionaries stationed here were barely capable of forming up outside to meet the oncoming rebels, and they certainly weren’t capable of any of that actual fighting nonsense. The moment that Civilis’ forces came into view, the Romans panicked (or, in technical terms: they “bottled it”) and they either deserted or ran back inside Mogontiacum.
Civilis promptly laid siege to this as well.
Vocula got wind of all of this: he was now the most senior officer on the Rhine, the region was in complete anarchy, and Old Camp and Mogontiacum were being pelted by unruly barbaric types. By the end of the year, Vespasian’s troops were in Rome, Vitellius was dead, and the senate had declared Vespasian emperor.
It really wasn’t a great day for a promotion.
At the beginning of the following year, AD 70, Vocula’s troops now re-swore to Vespasian, which was one part of the anarchy and confusion. The other part was, of course, Civilis himself, and Vocula was all kinds of ready to set the record straight on that one.
Gathering up his legions and auxiliaries, he headed out to Old Camp to finally bring permanent relief. But the moment he was insight of his objective, the auxiliary cavalry under Treveran nobles called Julis Classicus and Julius Tutor, defected over to the rebels.
Vocula was utterly floored by this treachery, and promptly went back home again.
Classicus and his cavalry followed Vocula’s movements and ending up camping not far away, which prompted Vocula to send emissaries to try and talk some sense into them. This didn’t really go too smoothly, because when the emissaries arrived, Classicus offered them a whole wad of cash to switch sides. One enterprising young individual – Aemilius Longinius – thought that was a spiffy offer, and switched right then and there. The others were slightly less keen to switch so readily, but by the time that they returned to Vocula, their message was pretty clear: “yeah, Classicus is offering a pretty sum for anyone who switches, you might not want the men to find out about that. Maybe now’s the time to sneak away?”
Vocula did not agree. Vocula felt that a stirring speech to the men was in order.
So he called a general assembly; to which I can only imagine that a very reluctant, utterly pissed off, rag-tag group of angry soldiers came milling out to listen to what the old geezer had to say. Vocula was un-thwarted. Vocula took to the podium.
“Never, when I have addressed you, have I felt more anxious for your welfare, never more indifferent about my own. Of the destruction that threatens me I can hear with cheerfulness; and amid so many evils I look forward to death as the end of my sufferings. For you I feel shame and compassion. Against you indeed no hostile ranks are gathering. That would be but the lawful course of war, and the right which an enemy may claim. But Classicus hopes to wage with your strength his war against Rome, and proudly offers to your allegiance an empire of Gaul. Though our fortune and courage have for the moment failed us, have we so utterly forgotten the old memories of those many times when the legions of Rome resolved to perish but not to be driven from their post?”
“Often have our allies endured to see their cities destroyed, and with their wives and children to die in the flames, with only this reward in their death, the glory of untarnished loyalty. At this very moment our legions at the Old Camp are suffering the horrors of famine and of siege, and cannot be shaken by threats or by promises. We, besides our arms, our numbers, and the singular strength of our fortifications, have corn and supplies sufficient for a campaign however protracted.”
It was not a bad speech. He went on to exalt their glories, to chastise them from wanting to turn their own blades against their countrymen, and to give sense and purpose for the fight ahead.
He was met with stony silence.
No applause, no swords on shields, no cheering. Just silence.
Vocula knew right then and there that this was a lost cause.
He considered then to take his own life, but advisors talked him out of it. It was in this same evening that the traitor – Longinius – came calling with a message “just for Vocula’s ears.” You probably know where this is going already, don’t you? Vocula invited him into his tent, after which Longinus *drumroll* drew his sword and stabbed the bugger to death. And you thought that junk mail was bad.
With his message delivered, Classicus rode up to the camp at the head of his own men and bid the legions join him: amazingly, the 1st Germanica, 4th Macedonia, 16th Gallica, and 18th did. With legion commanders slapped into chains, the soldiery swore their allegiance to the Empire of Gaul.
Didn’t I tell you that this whole episode was completely messed up?
Classicus then split up the new legionary recruits and sent some to Old Camp and the rest to Mogontiacum. Here, the new arrivals spoke to the besieged legionaries within, told them that Vocula was dead, and promptly convinced them to kill their own commanders and switch sides. Which they did.
Elements of the 1st Germanica stationed at Bonna quickly found that the entire region was turning against them, and they too flipped sides and sword to the Empire of Gaul.
The rebellion had just gained a whole new level of impetuous and the Roman general Lupercus and his 4,000 men at Old Camp were, quite literally, the last loyal men of Rome on the Rhine.
With supplies out, the prospect of sucking on grass roots not appealing, and their own legions turning against them, the legionaries of Old Camp decided that it was time to call it quits and emissaries were sent to Civilis to discuss surrender terms. They’d held out for one year.
Eventually terms were agreed, they sword to the Empire of Gaul, and slapped their senior officers in chains. Civilis entered Old Camp and promptly started looting anything of value, while the 4,000 beleaguered, weakened men of the 5th Alaudae and 15th Primigeneia were stripped of arms and armor, and were escorted out under guard.
Five miles from Old Camp, as the prisoners were shuffling along the road, Germans suddenly surged up all around them and attacked. Their escort stood to one side, said “sucks to be you,” and watched as the helpless legionaries were set upon.
With no weapons, they quite literally fought with their fists, but it was an utter massacre and 3,000 of them were butchered right then and there. The other 1,000 managed to fight their way back to Old Camp, where they confronted Civilis and claimed he had betrayed them.
Her denied it, of course, promptly herded them back into the camp, closed the gates, and set the whole freaking lot on fire. Anyone who tried to escape was killed; the rest burned. The 5th Alaudae and 15th Primigeneia legionaries had held out for one year, but now every single one of them was dead.
Lupercus – their commander – was kept alive and taken across the Rhine to be delivered to a certain Veleda, a German priestess who had predicted the fall of the legions. Fortunately for him – because you know it wasn’t going to be too pretty of an end – his escort got a little carried away and killed him enroute.
Junior officers were kept alive and used as target practice for Civilis’ young son; they were trussed up like hogs while he played with his bow.
And that is just all kinds of messed up.
Everything from the North Sea to the Rhine was now under Civilis’ control; the Kingdom of Gaul was in charge.
Rome, naturally, was a little alarmed at these turn of events, and – rightly – a bit miffed.
Her response was swift and strong: seven legions, together with their associated auxiliary units, were gathered from the corners of the empire. Two generals were put in charge of bringing the hurt back to Civilis: Annius Gallus would be the overall commander, but – recovering from a recent fall from a horse – the main action was to be done under the younger, fitter, faster, bionic, Quintus Petilius Cerialis Rufus.
But you can’t gather together seven legions from Italy, Spain, and Britain, without the Kingdom of Gaul (from now on you have to say that in a booming voice, legs apart and braces, and right arm outstretched) hearing about it.
Which they did. Now there are a few ways you could react when told that your uprising was going to be met by seven legions kicking your teeth down the back of your throat: you could stand defiantly, exclaim “bring it on, git-face!” and go grab your spear. That’s what Civilis, Tutor, and Cerialis did.
You could also shit-bricks, rub your chin nervously, and wonder just how the heck Rome seemed to be capable of pooping out entire legions seemingly at will. Perhaps a little surprisingly, most of the Kingdom of Gaul opted for that option, and when everyone got together to have a little vote on the matter, it was the path of peace that actually won out.
Which kinda left the rebels – with their policy of “shield bashing, teeth gnashing, frothing-at-the-mouth, boot-to-Roman-jaw” – out in the cold; for them, negotiations with the oncoming legions had to be at the point of the sword and a bottle to the face.
While the Gauls were all huddled around a campfire, having a drink and a natter about how they were going to greet their Roman visitors, there were other interested parties who also got the news of Uncle SPQR coming to stay for the weekend: the turncoat legions.
Camped outside of Augusta Treberorum, the 1st Germanica and the 16th Gallica had plenty of opportunity to have a bit of a chat about how the impending arrival of seven legions would affect them. Everyone concerned felt “not good” was the likely answer. But they also felt shame and chagrin and concluded that swearing to Vespasian and getting the hell back home was probably in order.
But you can’t just pack up two legions and march out of the Kingdom of Gaul without someone, somewhere going “oi, you, boyo, where the frik do you think you’re going?” right?
Well, apparently they did.
Unchallenged to whole way, the 1st Germanica and 16th Gallica headed down to Divodurum, got themselves into friendly territory, and sat down to have a breather. When Valentinus – Civilis’ right-hand man – got back home and found the Roman’s had booked it, he was not best pleased. I’m still trying to picture what must have issued forth from his mouth when a subordinate broke the news of two legions sneaking out overnight.
At this point the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix were scudding themselves over the channel from Britain. The 14th were bad to the bone; the type of Mirko “Cro Cop” foot to the jaw type of guys you really didn’t want to have arranged against you on the other side of the battlefield. Only nine years prior they had gone up against 100,000 Celts under Boudicca … and, outnumbered 10-to-1, had summarily arm-barred the living crap out of them.
The 21st Rapax were crossing the Alps, the 10th Gemina and 6th Victrix were coming in from Spain, and the 6th Ferrata, 8th Augusta, and 2nd Adiutrix were all hot on the heels of the 21st. Quite frankly, as a Gaul, it must have felt a little bit like this guy …
Except this guy didn’t: Tutor; Treveran general.
Tutor had a hard-on for breaking Roman skulls, and he had at his disposal the remnants of the treacherous 4th Macedonia, 5th Alaudae, 15th Primigeneia, 18th and 22nd Primigeneia legions. And that’s not to be sniffed at, right?
Except there was a problem with these defectors: they were inherently Roman and really were not keen on fighting fellow Romans. Tutor, despite his herculean balls-of-defiance, was forced to throw his hands in the air, spit of “FINE!” and beat a hasty retreat. His Romans? These he had to leave at Mogontiacum to await Cerialis’ arrival.
Defiant or not, the Kingdom of Gaul was proving to be a house of cards.
The 21st Rapax entered Mogontiacum and were met by the former traitors. Cerialis was gracious and gentle; he welcomed the 4th, 5th, 15th, 18th and 22nd back into the arms of Rome, promising them ample opportunity to make up for their … indiscretions.
Meanwhile entire towns and villages flipped back to Roman governance, and the rebels found themselves increasingly isolated. Tutor bounced around the country looking for a hiding spot that didn’t have a cestus-to-the-kisser in it, and found comfort in the arms of Civilis and Classicus to the north.
Valentinus was holed up at Augusta Treverorum with a good sized force of Treveran men; it was here that he got the message from Civilis: “hold up, for Pete’s sake don’t engage the Romans, Classicus and me are coming to help out.”
Which was really unfortunate timing, because at this exact moment Cerialis flying-superman-punched his way onto the scene, marching 75 miles in just 3 days. He had with him his 21st Rapax, but also the 4th Macedonia, 5th Alaudae, 15th Primigeneia, 18th and 22nd Primigeneia, and he had also sent for the 1st Germanica and 16th Gallica. Count it up boys and girls, that’s a metric shit-ton of Romans.
Also unfortunately for Civilis and Classicus, Valentinus said “hold my beer boys, and watch this!” and promptly headed out to meet Cerialis at nearby Rigodulum. Here, with his river on one side and hills on the other, he built solid defensive earthworks and ditches, stood atop a hill, and gesticulated to Cerialis: “come and git some!”
“The barbarians were dislodged and hurled like a falling house from their position.” ~ Tacitus
Cerialis went for the simple, to the point, approach: a full frontal assault with a contingent of elite horse up the Jacksey. The Treveran forces were outmatched in numbers, will, and tactics and they were smashed from their position. Valentinus was captured and Augusta Treverorum threw open its gates in a swift “please don’t hit me” kinda way.
It was with the fall of this city that the 1st Germanica and 16th Gallica arrived. Now normally, as you would expect, when legions marched across the continent to meet up with other legions, there’d be lots of cheering, waving, and man-hugging. You know, solidery stuff.
But there was none of this. Instead the men of the 1st and 16th were wrought with guilt and shame; eyes cast downwards, refusing to come out of their tents, and plenty of them shedding tears.
Observing this, Cerialis gathered all of the men together and gave an impassioned, rallying speech: there would be no more talk of past mutinies or defections. Past crimes would not be remembered by him or the emperor. This was their first day with the Roman army, a new day, and they were to proceed with their heads held high.
While the gains had been sweeping, the overall battle was far from won. As Cerialis camped at Augusta Treverorum, Civilis, Cerialis, and Tutor snuck down and attacked the city while it slumbered overnight. The bridge that crossed the Moselle was seized, and while the Romans were recoiling from that, their main camp was overrun and vicious hand-to-hand fighting had erupted. Civilis was, quite literally, hauling himself out of bed and grabbing a sword – heading out into the fray with no armor on – as a rebel victory loomed.
But this is when Cerialis pulled out his balls and demonstrated to the world how he managed to get so ripped and why the lady-folk just loved him.
He ran over to the Moselle bridge, gathered up the quaking Romans there, and led a ball-busting counter charge that pushed the Germans back. Here he posted a detachment to hold the bridge, grabbed the rest, tore off the rest of his toga, and ran like a stud through the city to the southern camp. Here the 1st Germanica and 16th Gallica legions were in dire straits, and while their banners still stood proudly, they were clearly about to be lost.
“Go tell the emperor,” Civilis shouted, “or Civilis and Classicus, as they’re closer, that you have deserted yet another Roman general on the battlefield.”
Not surprisingly, the 1st and 16th were suddenly filled with his testosterone laden manliness, and they surged against the rebel attackers. The 21st Rapax meanwhile formed up in a clearing and turned on the remaining rebels as they … uh … hold on, this can’t be right … *flip* *flip* *flip* … well, um … apparently the rebels were busy looting the Roman camp and had stopped fighting. So, yeah … the 21st Rapax basically shoved a pilum up their backsides while they looked for treasure.
From looking like a solid victory for the rebels, the attack suddenly turned into an all-out rout and a “flee for your lives!” with Cerialis pursuing them down the river’s edge and through their own camp.
Cerialis bashed his way towards Cologne, where he was greeted by the city fathers, welcomed in, and given the wife and daughter of Civilis, and the daughter of Classicus. And, to add icing to this already delicious cake, the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix, 2nd Adiutrix, and 6th Victrix all joined him here. He now had 50,000 men and was hell-bent on bringing Civilis to heel once and for all.
Perhaps a little ironically, the deciding battle would be at Old Camp.
With both armies lined up to face each other, it was the rebels who drew first blood; a hail of missiles was followed by a charge of spearmen against an auxiliary frontage, and as they were getting turned into minced-beef, Germans forded the nearby river and hit into the right side of the front line; and this began to crumble.
It was now that the legions advanced into the melee and a bloody toe-to-toe scrap took place, as Cerialis – guided by a Batavian deserter – guided his cavalry contingent behind the rebel lines and into their wing; their line broke, and they were heavily pursued as they scrambled for the river. Night and rain fell, forcing the Romans to halt their pursuit; Civilis had escaped and the war would drag on for weeks, but the rebels had been smashed.
As the days and weeks dragged on, popular opinion started to turn against Civilis himself. There was talk of turning him over to the Romans, so – to keep things on his terms – he offered to meet Cerialis to discuss surrender.
The parley occurred on either side of a broken bridge and resulted in the revolt ending. It’s not known whether Civilis was taken back to Rome and executed or not, but some have theorized that – like Bato and Caratacus before – that he was placed under house arrest deep inside Italy.
The beaten Canninefate and Batavian people were formed into new Roman auxiliary units, and the Batavian Horse was retained, destined to gain an even greater reputation as elite fighters.
Footnote: Contrary to whatever promises Cerialis had made about the emperor “forgetting past misdeeds,” several legions were punished for this debacle by Vespasian. The 1st Germanica and 18th were abolished altogether, the 4th Macedonia was remade as the 4th Flavia, the 16th Gallica was likewise reformed as the 16th Flavia. Both were posted far, far away from the Rhine.
All things considered, they probably got off very lightly.
There are several photographs included here from the very awesome folks at 21st Rapax. Their website is always active and brimming with great photography and humor, check them out here: https://www.facebook.com/legioxxirapax/