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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes


MapBatavi (Germanic)

The Germanic tribes seem to have originated in a homeland in southern Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway, with the Jutland area of northern Denmark, along with a very narrow strip of Baltic coastline). They had been settled here for over two thousand years following the Indo-European migrations. The Germanic ethnic group began as a division of the western edge of late proto-Indo-European dialects around 3300 BC, splitting away from a general westwards migration to head towards the southern coastline of the Baltic Sea. By the time the Germanic tribes were becoming key players in the politics of Western Europe in the last two centuries BC, the previously dominant Celts were on the verge of being conquered and dominated by Rome. They had already been pushed out of northern and Central Europe by a mass of Germanic tribes which were steadily carving out a new homeland.

According to Tacitus, the Batavi were originally a constituent part of the Chatti before they migrated westwards before the first century AD. They settled in the central Netherlands (now immediately north of the border with Belgium) with the Frisians to their north, the Bructeri to the east, the Paemani, the Belgic Menapii and Germanic Ubii to the south, and the Canninefates to the west (a tribe that was related to the Batavi). The core of their territory was focussed on modern Betuwe, which lies between the Waal and the Meuse, and central North Brabant (close to modern Nijmegen). Noted by Tacitus in AD 98, their home was painted as 'an uninhabited district on the extremity of the coast of Gaul, and also of a neighbouring island, surrounded by ocean in front, and by the River Rhenus (the Rhine) in the rear and on either side'. Wooden tablets have been uncovered from Batavi settlement areas, showing that, unusually, these people had a system of writing.

The tribe's name can be broken down as follows: 'bat-' [e; f. I.], meaning 'contention, strife', plus the suffix '-au -a -aue', which is related to rivers or water (see the German words 'au' or 'aue'). This meaning of '-au', which has an earlier spelling of 'ow, owe, ouwe', describes settlements beside streams and rivers. An example is Passau, or a town by the name of Aue, or rivers named Aue. In which case, the Batavi were 'the battlers by the river', in this case the Rhine. An alternative interpretation of 'bat' is taken from the Germanic 'good, excellent', which is also the origin of the English word 'better'. This would make them the 'good river settlement [people]', but using 'bat' as 'good' is less fierce than using 'ba∂' as 'battle' (reference: *ba∂wò - sb.f. - Old Norse 'bo∂', meaning 'battle', Old English 'beadu', meaning 'battle, war', Old Saxon 'badu-' (in cmpn.), and Old High German 'batu-' (in cmpn.) - cf. Burg *badus id.

The Batavi were absorbed by the Salian Franks at the end of the third century AD. However, their name has retained a resonance with later Netherlanders, possibly due to the area in which they lived being Latinised as insula Batavorum. The name Batavia was used by the Dutch when they fought the War of Liberation (1568-1648), part of the drive for independence from the Spanish Habsburgs. Revolutionary France also created a client state known as the Batavian republic in 1795. Today the area is known as Betuwe (with the 'w' being pronounced as a 'v' sound).

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Germania, Tacitus, from Agricola, from The Harleian Miscellany: A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Tracts Volume 4, William Oldys & Thomas Park, from Roman Soldier versus Germanic Warrior: 1st Century AD, Lindsay Powell, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, and from External Links: An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Bosworth and Toller (1898), and A Handbook of German Etymology (PDF), and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

c.50s BC

Julius Caesar notes in his Commentaries on the Gallic War that the Batavi live on an island in the Rhine delta. The location is easily defendable and gives its people an unimpeded view deep into Germany beyond the Rhine (ie. outside the Roman dominions).

FeatureThis description of the Batavi (and the Canninefates) must be at a point very shortly after the tribe has migrated into the region. They replace earlier Celtic peoples as the dominant force, but whether they entirely displace the Celts or absorb them and become a new ruling elite is unknown. Equally unknown is their language, whether it remains Germanic, or if it absorbs Belgo-Gallic elements from the locals. It is equally possible that they may straddle both definitions.

c.13 - 11 BC

At the start of campaigns which lead to the Cherusci being subjugated by Rome, Nero Drusus, stepson of the emperor, is appointed governor of the Rhine region of Gaul (13 BC). One of his first acts is to beat back an invading tribe which has crossed the Rhine to attack Roman settlements. This he does.

It is in this period that Drusus probably builds a massive castra (fortress) and an imperial headquarters on the island of the Batavi. This is curious, given that the normally accepted date of their conquest by Rome is a decade later. Either it is wrong, or the Batavi accept client status perhaps a decade before being fully conquered and subjugated.

c.4 BC

The Batavi are certainly conquered by Rome by this date (and perhaps a decade earlier) and become subjects of the empire. None of their rulers are known, but two Batavian figures of importance do feature in Roman history in the first century AD. The tribe also supplies troop units to the empire, with some of them receiving notable mentions for their ability to cross rivers on horseback in full armour.

FeatureAt this time the Batavi still live in small villages of up to a dozen houses located on very fertile land near the rivers. They also value horses highly, with some being included in burials. The Romans build the Oppidum Batavorum, the tribal administrative centre in which all the local treasures are stored, along with important goods and food stocks. The oppidum forms the basis for modern Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Oppidum Batavorum
A detailed impression of Oppidum Batavorum by artist Kelvin Wilson which shows the administrative centre which was built by Rome between about 11-4 BC

fl AD 14 - 15


Batavian Auxiliary commander.

AD 15

Chariovalda leads a charge across the Visurgin (the Wesser) during the campaigns of the Roman general, Germanicus, against the Cherusci. Within six years of this stage of the campaign, the Cherusci are defeated.


When the Roman empire invades Britain, Batavi mounted troops are key to the victory at the Battle of the Medway in the territory of the Cantii and in the later heavy losses suffered by the Britons near the Thames. Both Roman victories are due to the Batavi ability to cross bodies of water on horseback, in full armour, and without any significant disruption to their formation. It is clearly an ability the British have not seen before.


The priestess and prophet of the Bructeri is Veleda. She is regarded as a deity and enjoys a great deal of influence amongst the tribes in central Germania. In this decade she is called up to provide arbitration in a row between the Tencteri and the inhabitants of the Roman settlement of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (modern Cologne), many of whom would also be Germans. Her arbitration is accepted and Veleda later predicts the initial success of the Batavian rebellion (which is possibly taken as encouragement for it).


A high ranking Batavi named Julius Paullus is executed by Fonteius Capito on a false charge of rebellion. A relative of his, Gaius Julius Civilis, is arrested and taken in chains to Rome. Once released, he is allowed to return to his people. The details behind the false charge of rebellion are unknown, but they clearly stir a very real spirit of rebellion within the Batavi.

fl 69 - 70

Gaius Julius Civilis

Rebel leader.

69 - 70

Under the authority of self-proclaimed emperor, the Lingones noble, Julius Sabinus, Gaius Julius Civilis leads a Batavian insurrection against a Rome which is distracted by the events of the 'Year of the Four Emperors'. He is supported by the Bructeri, Canninefates, Chauci, Cugerni, and Tencteri, while the Sinuci are also mentioned as a people who live in the region (although their involvement in the revolt is uncertain). The tribes send reinforcements and Civilis is initially successful. Castra Vetera is captured and two Roman legions are lost, while two others fall into the hands of the rebels. In AD 70 the Chatti, Mattiaci, and Usipetes join in, besieging the legionary fortress at Mogontiacum (modern Mainz).

Eventual Roman pressure, with aid from the Mediomatrici, Sequani, and Tungri, forces Civilis to retreat to the Batavian island where he agrees peace terms with General Quintus Petilius Cerialis. His subsequent fate is unknown, but the Batavi are treated with great consideration by Emperor Vespasian. During the revolt, the Roman fortress ceases to be used (for obvious reasons) and the Oppidum Batavorum is razed. Quintus Petilius Cerialis soon gains the post of Governor of Britain in reward for his triumph.

The Gaulish and Germanic Batavian revolt of AD 69-70 was a major contributor to the instability experienced in the Roman empire during the 'Year of Four Emperors'

2nd-3rd century

Batavi serve in the Roman army on many of the empire's borders, most notably on Hadrian's Wall in Britain, where several altars and tombstones are later found (in the period dating from the 120s, alongside Tungri and Vardulli units). By this time the Batavi are thoroughly converted as Roman citizens, and may have been so within a few decades of their subjugation by Rome.


The Salii, or Salian Franks, seek Roman protection on the Batavian island after being expelled from their own lands by the Saxons. The Roman acceptance of their settlement there marks the beginning of the end for the Batavi and Canninefates as an identifiably separate people, although there is no violence involved in their eventual disappearance.

355 - 358

The Batavi are mentioned by Emperor Constantius II in 355, by which time they have become almost wholly absorbed by the Salian Franks who are still migrating across the Rhine and into northern Gaul. Three years later, both the Batavi and Salian Franks are ejected by another tribe (whose name is unknown but the Chamavi have been suggested). Both peoples migrate southwards, farther into Gaul, where they resettle in Brabant, accepted into the northern Roman empire by Julian the Apostate. Eventually the Batavi disappear altogether, absorbed into the growing Frankish tribal conglomeration, although units of Batavi are still being employed by Rome in the 360s and probably beyond.

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