The Collapse Of Civilis
Book Five (14-26) of The Histories by Tacitus

14. After his ill-success at Trier, Civilis gathered reinforcements throughout Germany, and took up his position by the camp at Vetera. The site he had chosen was a safe one, and his idea was to hearten the barbarians with the memory of the successes they had won there. Cerialis followed him to the same spot, his forces doubled by the arrival of the Second, Sixth and Fourteenth Legions. Besides, the cohorts and cavalry regiments summoned long before had quickened their pace after the victory. Neither commander was a sluggard, but they were separated by a vast expanse of swampy ground. This was its natural state, and Civilis had also built a dam at an angle into the Rhine to hold up the river and cause it to flood the adjacent soil. Such, then, was the terrain: a slippery, treacherous waste of inundated land. It told against us, for while the Roman legionary was laden with arms and frightened of swimming, the Germans were familiar with rivers and could rely upon their height and the lightness of their loads to raise them above the level of the waters.

15. In answer to the Batavian challenge, therefore, those of our troops who were spoiling for battle threw themselves into the fight, but panicked when their arms and mounts sank into the dangerous depths of the morass. The Germans knew where the shallows were, and galloped through them, usually avoiding our front-line and surrounding the flanks and rear. There was no question of close or open fighting. It resembled nothing so much as a naval engagement, as the men floundered about everywhere in the flood waters or grappled hand and foot on any patch of firm ground where they could stand. Wounded and unwounded, swimmers and non-swimmers, they were locked in mutual destruction. However, despite the wild confusion, losses were comparatively light, for the Germans did not venture beyond the flooded ground and returned to their camp. The result of this encounter prompted both commanders, however different their moods, to force a final decision without delay. Civilis wanted to exploit success, and Cerialis to wipe out humiliation. While the Germans were elated by victory, a sense of outraged honour stimulated the Romans. The natives passed the night singing or shouting, our troops in sullenness and threats.

16. At dawn on the following day Cerialis formed his front of cavalry and auxiliary cohorts and posted the legions behind them, keeping a picked force under his personal command in case of emergencies. Civilis avoided extending his line and marshalled his force in compact battle-groups. The Batavians and Cugerni were on his right, while his left flank nearer the river was held by the Germans from across the Rhine. The two generals did not make the usual speech to their troops at large, but addressed each formation as they rode up to it. Cerialis dwelt on the ancient renown of Rome and alluded to past and present victories, calling for the total annihilation of a treacherous, cowardly and conquered enemy. What was wanted, he said, was vengeance, not battle. They had just fought an engagement in which they were themselves outnumbered; yet the pick of the Germans had been routed, and the survivors bore flight in their hearts and scars upon their backs. Then he found appropriate arguments to spur the courage of the various legions, calling the men of the Fourteenth the conquerors of Britain. Galba, he added, had owed his elevation to the lead given by the Sixth, and in the coming battle the men of the Second would handsel their new standards and new eagle. Riding further along the ranks towards the garrison of Germany, he stretched out his hands in an appeal to them to recover at the cost of the blood of the enemy a river-frontier and a camp rightfully theirs. There was a general shout of mounting enthusiasm. Some were impatient for battle after a long peace, others keen on peace from war-weariness, while for the future they looked forward to rewards and a quiet life.

17. Nor was it in silence that Civilis got his troops into position. He called upon the very site of the battle to bear witness to their courage, and told the Germans and Batavians that they stood upon the tokens of their triumph and trod the ashes and bones of legions. Wherever the Roman looked, he said, he was confronted by captivity, defeat and doom. They must not be dismayed by the fluctuating fortunes of the Battle of Trier when the Germans' own victory had stood in their way, making them drop their weapons and cumber their hands with loot. But afterwards the story was one of unbroken success and enemy failure. Whatever advantages tactical skill could provide had been provided, including a sodden plain with which they were familiar and marshes which hampered the enemy. The Rhine and the gods of Germany were within sight. Under their divine protection they were to take the offensive, with thoughts of their wives, parents and country. This day would either win them a renown unparalleled in their past history, or humiliate them in the eyes of posterity.

When his words had been applauded with the usual war-dances and clashing of arms, a rain of stones, sling-shots and other missiles marked the beginning of the engagement. Our troops did not enter the marsh, and the Germans tried to taunt them into doing so.

18. When ammunition gave out and the fight grew hotter, the enemy charged forward with greater fury. Keeping out of reach themselves, they made use of their imposing stature and immense spears to stab the wavering and shaken Romans. Besides, a party of Bructeri managed to swim across the river from the mole which, as I have recorded, was built out into the Rhine. There was a confused scene here, and the front-line, consisting of allied cohorts, was on the point of being driven from the field when the legions took over and contained the enemy thrust, thus restoring the balance of advantage. While this was happening, a Batavian turncoat came up to Cerialis with an offer to take the enemy in the rear if some cavalry were sent round the far end of the marsh, where the ground was firm and the Cugerni assigned to its defence were off their guard. Two cavalry regiments were sent off with the man, and surrounded the unwary foe. When a burst of shouting told what had happened, the legions pressed forward on the main front, and the Germans turned and fled to the Rhine. This day's work would have marked the end of the war if the Roman fleet had been quick enough to follow it up. Nor did the cavalry press their advantage either, as rain suddenly poured down and dusk was at hand.

19. The next day the Fourteenth Legion was sent off to join Annius Gallus in the upper province, Cerialis' effectives being kept up to strength by the arrival of the Tenth Legion from Spain. As for Civilis, he received reinforcements from the Chauci, but not venturing to hold the Batavian capital, he hastily gathered up such property as was portable, set fire to the rest, and retreated to the Island. He was aware that the Romans had no ships for bridge-building, and that their army was not going to cross the river in any other way. What is more, he dismantled the mole constructed by Drusus Germanicus, and thus the Rhine, which in any case tends to flow into the Gallic arm owing to the fall of the ground, poured down in spate when the barrier visas removed. This was tantamount to diverting the course of the river, for a shallow bed was all that now separated the Island from Germany, presenting an apparently uninterrupted landscape. Others who crossed the Rhine were Tutor and Classicus and a hundred and thirteen Treviran senators, among them the Alpinius Montanus whom I have mentioned previously(1) as the officer sent by Antonius Primus to the Gallic provinces. He was accompanied by his brother Decimus Alpinius. The other leaders, too, by angling for sympathy and offering bribes, proceeded to gather recruits among tribes who thirsted for adventure.

20. In fact, the rebels had plenty of fight left in them, so much so that on one and the same day Civilis mounted a fourfold assault on the positions occupied by the cohorts, cavalry regiments and legions. His targets were the Tenth Legion at Arenacium and the Second at Batavodurum, together with Grinnes and Vada, where the cohorts and cavalry regiments were encamped. Civilis divided his troops into separate contingents under the command of himself, his sister's son Verax, Classicus, and Tutor. He was not so optimistic as to imagine that he would succeed everywhere. But the gamble might well come off at one of these several points. Besides, Cerialis was a reckless commander, and might be intercepted on the way as he rushed to and fro in response to the various alarms. The force detailed to deal with the camp of the Tenth thought that an outright assault would be too difficult. So when the Roman troops had gone out and were busy felling timber, they pounced upon them and threw them into disorder, killing the camp commandant, five senior centurions, and a few other ranks. The rest took refuge behind their defences. Meanwhile a German force tried to break down the bridge which was under construction at Batavodurum, but the action was indecisive and had to be broken off at dusk.

21. The situation was more dangerous at Grinnes and Vada. Vada was attacked by Civilis, and Grinnes by Classicus. The assailants could not be halted, and our best men were killed, including the cavalry commander Briganticus, who, as I have said (2) was faithful to Rome and hated his uncle Civilis. But when Cerialis came to the rescue with a picked body of horse, our luck changed, and the Germans were driven headlong into the river. Civilis attempted to halt the rout, but he was recognized, fired at, and compelled to abandon his mount and swim across the Rhine. Verax escaped in the same way, while Tutor and Classicus were taken off in some small boats which put in. The Roman fleet did not participate in this engagement either. Though ordered to intervene, it was hampered by fear and the dispersal of the crews on other military duties. Admittedly, Cerialis allowed insufficient time for the execution of his orders, being a man who improvised on the spur of the moment and yet in the upshot was brilliantly successful, luck supplying any deficiency of generalship. Hence neither he nor his army worried overmuch about discipline.

Indeed, a few days later an incident occurred which, though involving no risk of his capture, nevertheless earned him some discredit.

22. He had gone to Novaesium and Bonn to inspect the camps which were being put up to accommodate the legions for the winter, (3) and was returning with a naval flotilla. March discipline was poor, and his pickets careless. This was observed by the Germans, who made plans for a surprise attack. Choosing a dark and cloudy night, they swept downstream and penetrated the camp without interference. The massacre was initiated by an act of low cunning. They cut the guy-ropes and put the Romans to the sword while they were still fumbling about under their own tents. (4) Another party of assailants threw the naval force into disarray, and attached hawsers to the ships and towed them off by the sterns. The silence which had assisted surprise was succeeded, once the bloodshed began, by the wild clamour with which the enemy sought to spread dismay and confusion. The Romans were by this time roused by their wounds. They looked about for their weapons and scuttled down the lanes between the tents. Only a few had their proper equipment on. The majority rolled their clothing round their forearms and drew their swords. Their commander, half-asleep and practically defenceless, was saved by a mistake on the part of the enemy, who made haste to tow away the flagship, thinking that the commander was aboard. Cerialis had in fact spent the night else-where (according to general belief at the time, because of an intrigue with an Ubian woman called Claudia Sacrata). His guards tried to make excuses for their dereliction of duty by pointing to their commander's scandalous behaviour, alleging that it was because they had been ordered not to make a noise which would disturb his rest that they had omitted to exchange their calls and had fallen asleep themselves. It was broad daylight by the time the enemy sailed away in the captured ships and proceeded to tow the Roman flagship up the River Lippe to present it to Veleda.

23. Civilis could not resist the urge to stage a naval demonstration. He manned all the biremes and single-banked vessels he had, and to these was added a large number of small craft carrying thirty to forty men apiece and fitted out like Liburnians. (5) Moreover, there were captured craft assisted by improvised sails made from coats of many colours. These presented a brave sight as they moved along their chosen course through a vast gulf, resembling the ocean, by which the mouth of the River Maas conveys the waters of the Rhine to the North Sea. (6) Quite apart from their native vanity, they had a motive for putting their fleet on a war footing: they hoped by this impressive array to intercept the convoys sailing from Gaul. Astonishment rather than fear was the emotion with which Cerialis mustered his fleet. Though inferior in numbers, it enjoyed the advantage of experienced rowers, skilled helmsmen, and ships of greater size. The Romans moved with the current, the enemy before the wind. Thus the two fleets sailed past each other in opposite directions and had only time for a tentative discharge of light weapons before they lost touch.

24. Civilis risked no further offensive, but retired across the Rhine. Cerialis ravaged the Island of the Batavians severely, employing the well-known stratagem of leaving Civilis' land and farms untouched. But by this time summer was turning to autumn, and repeated rainstorms at the equinox caused the river to inundate the marshy, low-lying island until it looked like a morass. Nor was there any sign of the Roman fleet or convoys in the offing, and the camps on the flat ground were being washed away by the violence of the river. It was claimed by Civilis that the legions could have been rushed at this moment, and he took credit for cunningly diverting the Germans from this aim when they were set upon it. This may be true, since a few days later he surrendered. The situation was that Cerialis, while sending secret messages offering the Batavians peace and Civilis a pardon, had been urging Veleda and her people to bring about a change in the fortunes of war, which had dealt them many heavy blows, by performing a timely service to Rome. The Treviri had been cut to pieces, the Ubii recovered, the Batavians robbed of their homeland. The friendship of Civilis had brought nothing but wounds, defeat and bereavement. As an exile and outlaw, he was a burden to those who harboured him, and the Germans had incriminated themselves quite enough by their many crossings of the Rhine. Any further plots would mean that wrong-doing and guilt on the one side would be confronted by vengeance and the gods on the other.

25. With threats went promises. The loyalty of the Germans across the Rhine was thus undermined, and there was murmuring among the Batavians too. It was no use putting off the evil day, they reflected. A single nation could not shake off a yoke common to the whole world. The fire and slaughter inflicted on Roman legions had merely resulted in bringing more and stronger ones upon the scene. If Vespasian was the man for whom they had fought, then Vespasian was now established as emperor. But if their warlike challenge were addressed to Rome, how small a fraction of the human race the Batavians represented! In contrast with Raetia, Noricum and the burdens borne by other provincials, they were assessed in terms not of taxes but of courage and men. Such a status was the next best thing to independence, and if there were to be a choice of masters, it was more honourable to put up with Roman emperors than women of Germany.

This was how the ordinary people felt. Their leaders used more bitter language. It was Civilis' frenzy, they complained, that had plunged them into war. In order to ward off family troubles, he had destroyed his people. Heaven had turned against the Batavians in the hour in which they besieged the legions, killed their commanders and shouldered a war which, however necessary to a single individual, was fatal to themselves. Their situation was indeed desperate unless they came to their senses and demonstrated a change of heart by punishing the offender.

26. Civilis sensed the way public opinion was moving, and made up his mind to act first. He had had his fill of troubles, and moreover hoped to escape with his life— a prospect which often helps to sap great resolves. He asked for a conference. A bridge over the River Nabalial was cut, the two commanders advanced to the edges of the gap, and Civilis began his speech in these terms:

'If I were pleading my defence before an officer of Vitellius, my actions would have deserved no pardon and my words no belief. The enmity between us was total. He began hostilities, and I extended them. But for Vespasian I have long felt respect, and while he was still a subject, we were called friends. This fact was known to Antonius Primus and it was his letters that drove me into a war designed to prevent the passage of the Alps by the legions of the German garrison and the warriors of Gaul. What Antonius said in his letters was re-echoed by Hordeonius Flaccus personally. The war I declared in Germany was the war fought by Mucianus in Syria, by Aponius in Moesia and by Flavianus in Pannonia ....(7)