The Batavians lived along the great rivers in the Netherlands on a large island between the rivers Waal Meuse, and Rhine. The Batavi peoples came originally from the Chattan tribes from the eastern banks of the Rhine and probably colonised the island in the time of Drusus. A civil dissension among the Chatti, a powerful German race within the Hercynian forest, resulted in the expatriation of a portion of the people. The exiles sought a new home in the sparsely-populated Rhine Island, called it Bet-auw, or good-meadow, and were themselves called Batavi thereafter. Their name lives on in the present name of the island, Betuwe. The Batavian 'capital' was Noviomagus Batavodurum (present day Nijmegen).
It can never be satisfactorily ascertained who were islands aboriginal inhabitants. The record does not reach beyond Caesar's epoch, and he found the territory on the west of the Rhine mainly tenanted by tribes of the Celtic family, which constituted the bulk of its population.
The Island was a relatively poor country, which could not be exploited financially by the Romans. Therefore, the Batavi contributed only men and arms to the empire: eight auxiliary units of infantry, one squadron of cavalry, and were, [until Galba succeeding to the purple upon the suicide of Nero, dismissed them] the mounted bodyguard of the emperor. (Although these troops were re-instated as bodyguards by the emperor Trajan). The Batavian cavalry became famous throughout the Republic and the Empire. They were the favorite troops of Caesar, and with reason, for it was their valour which turned the tide of battle at Pharsalia. The Batavian island was also the basis of operations for the Classis Germanica in the Roman wars with Gaul, Germany, and Britain.
The Batavians took no part in the preparations or execution of the Varian disaster in AD 9. If Augustus, under the first impression of the terrible news discharged his Batavian guard, he soon became aware of the groundlessness of his suspicions and the troop was reinstated shortly after. Until the reign of Vespasian, the command of these Batavian divisions was conferred exclusively upon the native Batavi.
The Batavi were accounted indisputably not merely as the best riders and swimmers of the army, but also as the model of true soldiers. In this case certainly the good pay of the bodyguard, as well as the privilege of the nobles to serve as officers, considerably confirmed their loyalty to the Empire.
The Batavians, according to Tacitus, were the most noble and brave of all the Germans. The Chatti, of whom they formed a portion, were a pre-eminently warlike race. "Others go to battle," says the historian, "these go to war." Their bodies were more hardy, their minds more vigorous, than those of other tribes. In times of war their young men cut neither hair nor beard till they had slain an enemy.
On the field of battle, in the midst of carnage and plunder, they, for the first time, bared their faces. The cowardly and sluggish, only, remained unshorn. They wore an iron ring upon their necks until they had performed the same achievement, a symbol that they then threw away, as the emblem of sloth. The Batavians were always spoken of by the Romans with entire respect. They conquered the Belgians, they forced the free Frisians to pay tribute, but they called the Batavi their friends. The tax-gatherer never invaded their island. Honorable alliance united them with the Romans.
"The barbarians thought the Romans would not be able to cross this [the River Medway] without a bridge, and as a result had pitched camp in a rather careless fashion on the opposite bank. Aulus Plautius, however, sent across some Celts who were practised in swimming with ease fully armed across even the fastest of rivers. These fell unexpectedly on the enemy".
Cassius Dio ' The History of Rome'.
One of the Batavians most renowned skills was the method they employed to cross wide bodies of water en-masse, such as the Ems during Germanicus' campaigns in Germany and the Po in the civil wars of A.D.69 where several foot soldiers would swim alongside a single cavalry soldier and his horse, presumably keeping their weapons above water by using the horse as a kind of living raft. Their tactics have been identified in use under Aulus Plautius during the Battle of the Medway in AD43 and also under the governor G. Suetonius Paulinus. The auxiliary troops who crossed the Menai Straits onto the Isle of Anglesey to destroy the Druid stronghold there were in all likelihood Batavian units. It is thought that in the army of Plautius there were eight Batavian units, each five hundred strong.
The historian Cornelius Tacitus (c.55-c.120) refers to the Batavians;
"He therefore prepared to attack the island of Mona which had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with the shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses."
Cornelius Tacitus 'The Annals of Imperial Rome'..
”Depositis omnis sarcinis lectissimos auxiliarium quibus nota vada et patrius nandi usus, quo simul seque et arma et equos regunt, ita repente inmisit, ut obstupefacti hostes, qui classem, qui navis, qui mare expectabant, nihil arduum aut invictum crediderint sic ad bellum venientibus”.
”After dropping all baggage he quickly sent the most elite of the auxiliaries, who were familiar with shallows and traditionally used to swimming in such a manner that they kept control over arms and horses, to the effect that the flabbergasted barbarians, who expected a fleet, who expected a ship across the sea believed that nothing was hard or insurmountable to those who went to war in this fashion”.
Tacitus ‘Agricola’ 18.4
Vegetius gives us some insight as to how the Batavians achieved such a feat:
“Expediti vero equites fasces de cannis aridis vel facere consueverunt, super quos loricas et arma, ne udentur, inponunt; ipsi equique natando transeunt colligatosque secum fasces pertrahunt loris”.
“Battle ready horsemen though have been accustomed to make bundles from dry reeds or, on these they put the body armours and weapons, in order that they do not get wet; they themselves and their horses cross by swimming and they draw the packed bundles along with them with leather straps”.
Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris 3.7
Dio Cassius Comments upon Hadrian and the rigorous training that he insisted his troops be tutored in. In one passage he refers to the Batavians (Presumably the emperor’s personal horse guards) and their river-crossing abilities.
“So excellently, indeed, had his soldiery been trained that the cavalry of the Batavians, as they were called, swam the Ister with their arms. Seeing all this, the barbarians stood in terror of the Romans, they employed Hadrian as an arbitrator of their differences”.
(Dio Cassius Liber LXIX 9.6)
The implication is that the Batavians possessed a unique skill. However, there is a gravestone of a certain Soranus, a Syrian trooper in a Batavian milliary cohort, again, possibly the emperor’s personal horseguard. Soranus' epitaph records that in AD118 he, before the Emperor Hadrian, swam the Danube and performed the following feats..
CIL 03, 03676 (AE 1958, 0151).
Ille ego Pannoniis quondam notissimus orisinter mille viros fortis primusq(ue) BatavosHadriano potui qui iudice vasta profundiaequora Danuvii cunctis transnare sub armisemissumq(ue) arcu dum pendet in aere telumac redit ex alia fixi fregique sagittaquem neque Romanus potuit nec barbarus unquamnon iaculo miles non arcu vincere Parthushic situs hic memori saxo mea facta sacravividerit an ne aliquis post me mea facta sequ[a]turexemplo mihi sum primus qui talia gessi
"I am the man who, once very well known to the ranks in Pannonia, brave and foremost among one thousand Batavians, was able, with Hadrian as judge, to swim the wide waters of the deep Danube in full battle kit. From my bow I fired an arrow, and while it quivered still in the air and was falling back, with a second arrow I hit and broke it. No Roman or foreigner has ever managed to better this feat, no soldier with a javelin, no Parthian with a bow. Here I lie, here I have immortalised my deeds on an ever-mindful stone which will see if anyone after me will rival my deeds. I set a precedent for myself in being the first to achieve such feats”.
The Batavians were a notable addition to the forces of the Roman army from the reign of Caesar, until the reign of Romulus Augustulus. They played an important role in the successes of - and supplementation to - the Legions of the Roman army. Our Batavian unit honours these men and perpetuates their fine tradition.