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Batavians

The Batavians (Latin Batavi) were a Germanic tribe, originally part of the Chatti, reported by Tacitus to have lived around the Rhine delta, in the area that is currently the Netherlands, "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" (Tacitus, Historiae iv). This led to the Latin name of Batavia for the area. The same name is used for several military units, originally raised among the Batavi. The tribal name, probably a derivation from batawjō ("good island", from Germanic bat- "good, excellent" 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 they were literate.

The Batavian myth

In the 16th-century invention of a suitably antique origin myth for the Dutch people that would be expressive of their self-identification as separate from their neighbors in the national struggle with Spain of the Eighty Years War for Dutch independence, the Batavians came to be regarded as their eponymous ancestors. The mix of fancy and fact in the Cronyke van Hollandt, Zeelandt ende Vriesland (called the Divisiekronike), 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. Contemporary Dutch virtues of independence, fortitude and industry were rendered fully recognizable in more scholarly history represented in Hugo Grotius' Liber de Antiquitate Republicae Batavicorum (1610). The myth 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 (now Jakarta) that was named Batavia. Modern variants of the Batavian founding myth are made more credible by pointing out that the Batavians were only part of the ancestry of the Dutch people, together with the Frisians, Franks and Saxons, and by tracing patterns of DNA. Echoes of this supposed cultural continuity may still be found in popularisations of the history that follows.

Location

The Batavians were mentioned by Julius Caesar in his commentary Commentarii de Bello Gallico, as living on an island formed by the Rhine River after it splits, one arm being the Waal the other the Lower Rhine/Old Rhine. The strategic position, to wit the high bank of the Waal-- which offered an unimpeded view far into Germania Transrhenanum (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 6 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 Batavi (the name is believed to derive from West Germanic beter (="better", i.e. "superior men") moved into the Betuwe in the late 1st century BC. The previous inhabitants of the area were Celtic-speaking Gauls, as evidenced by the two Latinised Celtic names for their chief town: Batavodurum and Noviomagus (Nijmegen, Neth). It is unclear whether the existing inhabitants were simply subjugated with the Batavi forming a ruling elite, or the existing inhabitants simply displaced. For this reason it is also uncertain whether the Batavi remained Germanic-speaking or adopted the Belgic Gallic tongue of the indigenes.

Military units

The first Batavian commander we know of is named Chariovalda, who led a charge across the Visurgin (Weser) against the Cherusci led by Arminius during the campaigns of Germanicus in Germania Transrhenanum (Annales II, 11).

Tacitus (De origine et situ Germanorum XXIX) described the Batavians 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 swimming—for 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. 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 AD). Since the shields were wooden, they may have provided sufficient buoyancy

The Batavians also provided a contingent for the Emperor's Horse Guard.

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

Batavian Rebellion

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 Batavia. 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.

The fate of the Batavians

The Batavians 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 AD 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. 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 were the Chamavi), shared their subsequent migration to Toxandria, an ancient name for current Brabant after (358).

Notes

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