Batavi (Germanic tribe)

Last updated
Funerary stela of one of Nero's Corporis Custodes, the imperial Germanic bodyguard. The bodyguard, Indus, was of the Batavian tribe. Funerary Stela Corporis Custodes.jpg
Funerary stela of one of Nero's Corporis Custodes, the imperial Germanic bodyguard. The bodyguard, Indus, was of the Batavian tribe.

The Batavi were an ancient Germanic [1] tribe that lived around the modern Dutch Rhine delta in the area that the Romans called Batavia, from the second half of the first century BC to the third century AD. The name is also applied to several military units employed by the Romans that were originally raised among the Batavi. The tribal name, probably a derivation from batawjō ("good island", from Germanic bat- "good, excellent," which is also in the English "better," and awjō "island, land near water"), refers to the region's fertility, today known as the fruitbasket of the Netherlands (the Betuwe).


Finds of wooden tablets show that at least some were literate.


Germania 70 de.svg

The Batavi themselves are not mentioned by Julius Caesar in his commentary Commentarii de Bello Gallico , although he is often thought to have founded his dynasty's Germanic bodyguard, which was at least in later generations dominated by Batavi. But he did mention the "Batavian island" in the Rhine river. The island's easternmost point is at a split in the Rhine, one arm being the Waal the other the Lower Rhine/Old Rhine (hence the Latin name Insula Batavorum, "Island of the Batavi"). [2] Much later Tacitus wrote that they had originally been a tribe of the Chatti, a tribe in Germany also never mentioned by Caesar (unless they were his "Suebi"), who were forced by internal dissension to move to their new home. [3] The time when this happened is unknown, but Caesar does describe forced movements of tribes from the east in his time, such as the Usipetes and Tencteri.

Tacitus also reports that before their arrival the area had been "an uninhabited district on the extremity of the coast of Gaul, and also of a neighbouring island, surrounded by the ocean in front, and by the river Rhine in the rear and on either side". [4] This view, however, is contradicted by the archeological evidence, which shows continuous habitation from at least the third century BC onward. [5]

The strategic position, to wit the high bank of the Waal offering an unimpeded view far into Germania Transrhenana (Germania Beyond the Rhine), was recognized first by Drusus, who built a massive fortress (castra) and a headquarters (praetorium) in imperial style. The latter was in use until the Batavian revolt.

Archeological evidence suggests they lived in small villages, composed of six to 12 houses in the very fertile lands between the rivers, and lived by agriculture and cattle-raising. Finds of horse skeletons in graves suggest a strong equestrian preoccupation. On the south bank of the Waal (in what is now Nijmegen) a Roman administrative center was built, called Oppidum Batavorum. An Oppidum was a fortified warehouse, where a tribe's treasures were stored and guarded. This centre was razed during the Batavian Revolt. The Smetius Collection was instrumental in settling the debate about the exact location of the Batavians.

Military units

The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis by Rembrandt van Rijn Bataafseeed.jpg
The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis by Rembrandt van Rijn

The first Batavi commander we know of is named Chariovalda, who led a charge across the Vīsurgis (Weser) river against the Cherusci led by Arminius during the campaigns of Germanicus in Germania Transrhenana. [6]

Tacitus ( De origine et situ Germanorum XXIX) described the Batavi as the bravest of the tribes of the area, hardened in the Germanic wars, with cohorts under their own commanders transferred to Britannia. They retained the honour of the ancient association with the Romans, not required to pay tribute or taxes and used by the Romans only for war: "They furnished to the Empire nothing but men and arms", Tacitus remarked. Well regarded for their skills in horsemanship and swimmingfor men and horses could cross the Rhine without losing formation, according to Tacitus. Dio Cassius describes this surprise tactic employed by Aulus Plautius against the "barbarians"the British Celts at the battle of the River Medway, 43:

The barbarians thought that Romans would not be able to cross it without a bridge, and consequently bivouacked in rather careless fashion on the opposite bank; but he sent across a detachment of Germanic tribesmen, who were accustomed to swim easily in full armour across the most turbulent streams. [...] Thence the Britons retired to the river Thames at a point near where it empties into the ocean and at flood-tide forms a lake. This they easily crossed because they knew where the firm ground and the easy passages in this region were to be found; but the Romans in attempting to follow them were not so successful. However, the Germans swam across again and some others got over by a bridge a little way up-stream, after which they assailed the barbarians from several sides at once and cut down many of them. (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 60:20)

It is uncertain how they were able to accomplish this feat. The late 4th century writer on Roman military affairs Vegetius mentions soldiers using reed rafts, drawn by leather leads, to transport equipment across rivers. [7] But the sources suggest the Batavi were able to swim across rivers actually wearing full armour and weapons. This would only have been possible by the use of some kind of buoyancy device: Ammianus Marcellinus mentions that the Cornuti regiment swam across a river floating on their shields "as on a canoe" (357). [8] Since the shields were wooden, they may have provided sufficient buoyancy

The Batavi were used to form the bulk of the Emperor's personal Germanic bodyguard from Augustus to Galba. They also provided a contingent for their indirect successors, the Emperor's horse guards, the Equites singulares Augusti .

A Batavian contingent was used in an amphibious assault on Ynys Mon (Anglesey), taking the assembled Druids by surprise, as they were only expecting Roman ships. [9]

Numerous altars and tombstones of the cohorts of Batavi, dating to the 2nd century and 3rd century, have been found along Hadrian's Wall, notably at Castlecary and Carrawburgh. As well as in Germany, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania and Austria.

Revolt of the Batavi

Despite the alliance, one of the high-ranking Batavi, Julius Paullus, to give him his Roman name, was executed by Fonteius Capito on a false charge of rebellion. His kinsman Gaius Julius Civilis was paraded in chains in Rome before Nero; though he was acquitted by Galba, he was retained at Rome, and when he returned to his kin in the year of upheaval in the Roman Empire, 69, he headed a Batavian rebellion. He managed to capture Castra Vetera, the Romans lost two legions while two others (I Germanica and XVI Gallica) were controlled by the rebels. The rebellion became a real threat to the Empire when the conflict escalated to northern Gaul and Germania. The Roman army retaliated and invaded the insula Batavorum. A bridge was built over the river Nabalia, where the warring parties approached each other on both sides to negotiate peace. The narrative was told in great detail in Tacitus' History, book iv, although, unfortunately, the narrative breaks off abruptly at the climax. Following the uprising, Legio X Gemina was housed in a stone castra to keep an eye on the Batavians.

Fate of the Batavi

The Batavi were still mentioned in 355 during the reign of Constantius II (317 - 361), when their island was already dominated by the Salii, a Frankish tribe that had sought Roman protection there in 297 after having been expelled from their own country by the Saxons.

Constantius Gallus added inhabitants of Batavia to his legions, "of whose discipline we still make use." [10] It has been assumed they merged with the Salii shortly before or after and, after having been expelled by another tribe (it has been proposed this was the Chamavi), shared their subsequent migration to Toxandria. In the Late Roman army there was a unit called Batavi .

The name of the Bavarian town of Passau descends from the Roman Batavis, which was named after the Batavi. The town's name is old as it shows the typical effects of the High German consonant shift (b > p, t > ss).

The Batavian revival

In the 16th-century emergence of a popular foundation story and origin myth for the Dutch people, the Batavians came to be regarded as their ancestors during their national struggle for independence during the Eighty Years' War. [11] [12] The mix of fancy and fact in the Cronyke van Hollandt, Zeelandt ende Vriesland (called the Divisiekroniek) by the Augustinian friar and humanist Cornelius Gerardi Aurelius, first published in 1517, brought the spare remarks in Tacitus' newly rediscovered Germania to a popular public; it was being reprinted as late as 1802. [13] Contemporary Dutch virtues of independence, fortitude and industry were fully recognizable among the Batavians in more scholarly history represented in Hugo Grotius' Liber de Antiquitate Republicae Batavicorum (1610). The origin was perpetuated by Romeyn de Hooghe's Spiegel van Staat der Vereenigden Nederlanden ("Mirror of the State of the United Netherlands," 1706), which also ran to many editions, and it was revived in the atmosphere of Romantic nationalism in the late eighteenth-century reforms that saw a short-lived Batavian Republic and, in the colony of the Dutch East Indies, a capital that was named Batavia. Though since Indonesian independence the city is called Jakarta, its inhabitants up to the present still call themselves Betawi or Orang Betawi , i.e. "People of Batavia" - a name ultimately derived from the ancient Batavians. [14]

The success of this tale of origins was mostly due to resemblance in anthropology, which was based on tribal knowledge. Being politically and geographically inclusive, this historical vision filled the needs of Dutch nation-building and integration in the 1890-1914 era.

However, a disadvantage of this historical nationalism soon became apparent. It suggested there were no strong external borders, while allowing for the fairly clear-cut internal borders that were emerging as the society pillarized into three parts. After 1945 the tribal knowledge lost its grip on anthropology and mostly vanished. [15] Modern variants of the Batavian founding myth are made more accurate by pointing out that the Batavians were one part of the ancestry of the Dutch people - together with the Frisians, Franks and Saxons - by tracing patterns of DNA. Echoes of this cultural continuity can still be found among various areas of Dutch modern culture, such as the very popular replica of the ship Batavia that can today be found in Lelystad.

See also


  1. Drinkwater, John Frederick (2012). "Batavi". In Hornblower, Simon; Spawforth, Antony; Eidinow, Esther (eds.). The Oxford Classical Dictionary (4 ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN   9780191735257 . Retrieved January 26, 2020. Batavi, a Germanic people, living on the lower Rhine... an offshoot of the Chatti...
  2. "C. Julius Caesar, Gallic War, Book 4, chapter 10".
  3. Cornelius Tacitus, Germany and its Tribes 1.29
  4. Tacitus, Historiae iv.12
  5. N. Roymans, "The Lower Rhine Triquetrum Coinages and the Ethnogenesis of the Batavians", in: T. Grünewald & H.-J. Schalles (eds.), Germania Inferior: Besiedlung, Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft an der Grenze der römisch-germanischen Welt (2000), 93-145, esp. 94.
  6. Tacitus, The Annals 2.11
  7. Vegetius De re militari III.7
  8. Ammianus Marcellinus XVI.11
  9. Tacitus Agricola 18.3-5
  10. "Zosimus, New History. London: Green and Chaplin (1814). Book 3".
  11. This section follows Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age , (New York) 1987, ch. II "Patriotic Scripture", especially pp. 72 ff.
  12. The Batavian Myth: A Study Pack from the Department of Dutch, University College London
  13. I. Schöffer, "The Batavian myth during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries," in P. A. M. Geurts and A. E. M. Janssen, Geschiedschrijving in Nederland ('Gravenhage) 1981:84-109, noted by Schama 1987.
  14. Knorr, Jacqueline (2014). Creole Identity in Postcolonial Indonesia. Volume 9 of Integration and Conflict Studies. Berghahn Books. p. 91. ISBN   9781782382690.
  15. Beyen, Marnix (2000). "A Tribal Trinity: the Rise and Fall of the Franks, the Frisians and the Saxons in the Historical Consciousness of the Netherlands since 1850". European History Quarterly. 30 (4): 493–532. doi:10.1177/026569140003000402. ISSN   0265-6914. Fulltext: EBSCO


Further reading

Related Research Articles

Batavia (region) region in the Netherlands

Batavia is a historical and geographical region in the Netherlands, forming large fertile islands in the river delta formed by the waters of the Rhine and Meuse rivers. During the Roman empire, it was an important frontier region and source of imperial soldiers. Its name is possibly pre-Roman.

Ubii Ancient Germanic tribe

The Ubii were a Germanic tribe first encountered dwelling on the east bank of the Rhine in the time of Julius Caesar, who formed an alliance with them in 55 BC in order to launch attacks across the river. They were transported in 39 BC by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa to the west bank, apparently at their own request, as they feared the incursions of their neighbors, the Chatti.

Revolt of the Batavi conflict

The Revolt of the Batavi took place in the Roman province of Germania Inferior between AD 69 and 70. It was an uprising against the Roman Empire started by the Batavi, a small but militarily powerful Germanic tribe that inhabited Batavia, on the delta of the river Rhine. They were soon joined by the Celtic tribes from Gallia Belgica and some Germanic tribes.

Germania Inferior Roman province

Germania Inferior was a Roman province from AD 85 until the province was renamed as Germania Secunda in the fourth century. Located on the west bank of the Rhine and bordering the North Sea, the capital of the province was Colonia Agrippinensis.

Menapii Belgic tribe

The Menapii were a Belgic tribe of northern Gaul in pre-Roman and Roman times. According to descriptions in such authors as Strabo, Caesar, Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy their territory had stretched northwards to the mouth of the Rhine in the north, but more lastingly it stretched along the west of the Scheldt river. In later geographical terms this territory corresponds roughly to the modern Belgian coast, the Belgian provinces of East and West Flanders. It also extended into neighbouring France and the river deltas of the Southern Netherlands.

Usipetes ancient germanic population

Usipetes or Usipii were an ancient tribe who moved into the area on the right bank of the lower Rhine in the 1st century BC, putting them in contact with Gaul and the Roman empire. They are known first from the surviving works of ancient authors such as Julius Caesar and Tacitus. They appear to have moved position several times before disappearing from the historical record.


The Tungri were a tribe, or group of tribes, who lived in the Belgic part of Gaul, during the times of the Roman Empire. Within the Roman Empire, their territory was called the Civitas Tungrorum. They were described by Tacitus as being the same people who were first called "Germani" (Germanic), meaning that all other tribes who were later referred to this way, including those in Germania east of the Rhine river were named after them. More specifically, Tacitus was thereby equating the Tungri with the "Germani Cisrhenani" described generations earlier by Julius Caesar. Their name is the source of several place names in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, including Tongeren, Tongerlo Abbey, and Tongelre.

Eburones Gallic-Germanic tribe

The Eburones, were a Gallic-Germanic tribe, dwelling in the northeast of Gaul, in what is now the southern Netherlands, eastern Belgium, and the German Rhineland, in the period immediately before this region was conquered by Rome. Though living in Gaul, they were also described as being both Belgae and Germani.

Vangiones tribe

The Vangiones appear first in history as an ancient Germanic tribe of unknown provenance. They threw in their lot with Ariovistus in his bid of 58 BC to invade Gaul through the Doubs river valley and lost to Julius Caesar in a battle probably near Belfort. After some Celts evacuated the region in fear of the Suebi, the Vangiones, who had made a Roman peace, were allowed to settle among the Mediomatrici in northern Alsace.. They gradually assumed control of the Celtic city of Burbetomagus, later Worms.

The Frisiavones were a Germanic people living near the northern border of Roman Gaul possibly related to the nearby Frisii, who in turn are traditionally considered to be ancestors of modern Frisians. There is very little known about them, but they appear to have resided in the area of what is today the southern Netherlands, possibly in two distinct areas, one in the islands of the river deltas of Holland, and one to the southeast of it.

Batavi (military unit)

The Batavi was an auxilia palatina (infantry) unit of the late Roman army, active between the 4th and the 5th century. It was composed by 500 soldiers and was the heir of those ethnic groups that were initially used as auxiliary units of the Roman army and later integrated in the Roman Empire after the Constitutio Antoniniana. Their name was derived from the people of the Batavi.

Netherlands in the Roman era

For around 450 years, from around 55 BC to around 410 AD, the southern part of the Netherlands was integrated into the Roman Empire. During this time the Romans in the Netherlands had an enormous influence on the lives and culture of the people who lived in the Netherlands at the time and (indirectly) on the generations that followed.

The Baetasii was the name Germanic tribal grouping within the Roman province of Germania Inferior, which later became Germania Secunda. Their exact location is still unknown, although two proposals are, first, that it might be the source of the name of the Belgian village of Geetbets, and second, that it might be further east, nearer to the Sunuci with whom they interacted in the Batavian revolt, and to the Cugerni who lived at Xanten. The area of Gennep, Goch and Geldern has been proposed for example.

The Cugerni were a Germanic tribal grouping with a particular territory within the Roman province of Germania Inferior, which later became Germania Secunda. More precisely they lived near modern Xanten, and the old Castra Vetera, on the Rhine. This part of Germania Secunda was called the Civitas or Colonia Traiana, and it was also inhabited by the Betasii.

The Marsaci or Marsacii were a tribe in Roman imperial times, who lived within the area of the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta, under Roman domination.

The Germani cisrhenani, or "Left bank Germani"., were a group of Germanic peoples who lived west of the Lower Rhine at the time of the Gallic Wars in the mid-1st century BC.

Civitas Tungrorum

The Civitas Tungrorum was a large Roman administrative district dominating what is today eastern Belgium, and the southern Netherlands. In the early days of the Roman empire it was in the province of Gallia Belgica, but it later joined the neighbouring lower Rhine river border districts, within the province of Germania Inferior. Its capital was Aduatuca Tungrorum, which is modern Tongeren.

Numerus Batavorum

The numerus Batavorum, also called the cohors Germanorum, Germani corporis custodes, Germani corpore custodes,, Imperial German Bodyguard or Germanic bodyguard was a personal, imperial guards unit for the Roman emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty composed of Germanic soldiers. Although the Praetorians may be considered the Roman Emperor's main bodyguard, the Germanic bodyguards were a unit of more personal guards recruited from distant parts of the Empire, so they had no political or personal connections with Rome or the provinces.

Hercules Magusanus Germanic deity

Hercules Magusanus is a Romano-Germanic deity or hero worshipped during the early first millennium AD in the Lower Rhine region among the Batavi, Marsaci, Ubii, Cugerni, Baetasii, and probably among the Tungri.

Germanisation is the spread of the German people, customs and institutions. The penetration of Germanic elements in the Gaul region began from the twilight of the Iron Age through migration of Germanic peoples like the Suebi and the Batavi across the Rhine into Julius Caesar's Roman Gaul. Further, one of the earliest permanent settlements of a group of Germans namely the Visigoths on Roman soil was in the Post-classical history period which opened the door for various other Germanic peoples to enter Rome's Gallic provinces through the Great Rhine Crossing in the Middle Ages and further spread Germanic elements. The prevalence of various records of archeological and written evidence regarding the spread of different Germanic elements such as German burials, pottery, costumes, houses mainly between the 3rd to 5th century AD in Gaul depicts the full force of the Germanisation process that took place in Gaul.