At dawn on an overcast morning, General Cerialis’s crimson standard was raised in the Roman camp. Trumpets sounded “Assembly.” The legions fell in, and the redheaded, blue-eyed Cerialis and his adjutant stepped up onto the raised turf of the camp tribunal. The adjutant announced the general’s orders. The legions would march down to the Rhine and give battle to the rebels. Once the order of march and of battle was announced, the trumpets sounded “Prepare to March,” followed by “Battle Order.”
Civilis’s scouts had seen the Roman general’s standard go up. They knew what it meant, and so did Civilis when they reported back to him at Old Camp. He and his fellow rebel leaders had already agreed that their men were ready for a full-fledged fight to destroy the notoriously ill-starred General Cerialis. Civilis himself had been in Britain when Cerialis had fouled up against Boudicca, and he’d heard all about his Colline Gate failure in December. As the Roman army marched silently out of camp and tramped down from the hills to raised, dry ground outside Old Camp, Civilis sent his troops out to take up battle positions. Tacitus says Civilis was impatient for a decisive battle. The Batavian knew that the longer he put off a major confrontation, the more time he gave for additional legions to arrive on the Rhine. He himself was expecting a few more German reinforcements from the Chauci tribe east of the Rhine, but not enough to justify waiting.
Separated by a marsh, the two armies faced off. The rebels extended in battle order from the river, looking south. Civilis formed his men in columns, with gaps between each. His Batavians and a German tribe, the Gurgerni, occupied the right wing. Belgian tribesmen occupied his center, along with Canninefates, Frisians, and Treverans, with the marsh in front of them. Germans from east of the Rhine, including Tenctheri and Bructeri, took the left flank beside the river.
General Cerialis formed two north-facing lines. In his front line he placed his auxiliary infantry and, on the wings, cavalry. The legions occupied the second line, with the general keeping back one group as a reserve—probably the six cohorts of the 21st Rapax, which had played a key role in his victory at Rigodulum on the Moselle. It’s likely the 6th Victrix took the left wing. Men of the seven Rhine legions, the former deserters, were bunched together, undoubtedly in the center. Where the 14th Gemina was located we aren’t told, but indications are the legion was assigned the key right wing, beside the Rhine, with the untested youngsters of the 2nd Adiutrix next to it.
Both commanders gave pep talks. General Cerialis was to say he wasn’t much of a public speaker. Instead of the traditional formal speech to the entire army, he rode from unit to unit, addressing each individually and succinctly. He started with the 14th.
“‘Most effective’ 14th Gemina, Conqueror of Britain,” Tacitus says he began. This brought a proud roar from the men of the 14th. After the humiliation of Bedriacum, it was a tonic to be recognized for their glorious record. “Today,” General Cerialis went on, “in destroying forever our treacherous, cowardly, and beaten enemy, I want you to not just fight a battle, I want you to execute a punishment!”
Again the 14th Gemina sounded its approval. The general moved on. To the men of the 2nd Adiutrix, fresh-faced and keen, he said, “Here, today, make the most of the opportunity to consecrate your new standards and your new eagle in battle.”
Galloping to the far wing, he called to the Spanish legionaries of the 6th Victrix Legion: “You held Spain for Galba, who recruited you. It was your powerful influence that helped make him emperor. You have the old glory of the Roman name to live up to, the glory of countless victories by the legions of Spain, as recently as the victory of your countrymen of the Rapax at Rigodulum. Your wait for glory ends here!”
Another roar filled the air. The general moved to the center. He stopped in front of the cohorts of the legions that had disgraced themselves, and Rome, by deserting to the rebels the previous year. Tacitus says that with his arm outstretched, he pointed to the dammed river and then to Old Camp, saying, “Here is your bank of the Rhine. Here is your former camp. Both are yours to recover today, by the slaughter of the rebels!”
A deafening roar went up from the Rhine legions. Cerialis and his staff returned to his command position between the battle lines.
Across the watery field, Civilis, in full armor and looking fierce with his battle-scarred face, was in full voice. Tacitus says he reminded his Batavians and Germans that Old Camp was the site of a great Roman defeat at their hands. “You are standing on the monument to your glory. Under your feet lie the remains of Roman legions.” Referring to Hermann’s famous victory in the Teutoburg Forest, he said, “Today will either rate with the greatest German glories of the past or will be infamous in the eyes of history. It is up to you. All precautions that a skillful general should take have been taken. The Rhine and the gods of Germany are in your sight. Give battle under their auspices, and remember your wives, remember your parents, remember your fatherland!”
In response, a roar went up from the Batavians, Belgians, and Germans.
From across the battlefield the legionaries of the 14th Gemina watched and listened in silence. Tacitus says that men like those in the 6th Victrix Legion couldn’t wait for the fight to begin. Enlisted two years back, they’d been sitting in Spain while other legions fought the battles of the war of succession and while three emperors had won and lost their thrones. They were more than ready for their share of the action, and the fame. But according to Tacitus, others—in particular the men of the 14th Gemina—were weary of war. With retirement just a year away for the 14th, Tacitus says its men were thinking about the financial bonus they would be paid for putting down the rebellion, and of a well-earned rest. But first they had not only to win this battle, they also had to survive it.
Men of the 14th Gemina such as thirty-nine-year-old legionary Publius Cordus from Modena and his good friend Gaius Vibennius had seen plenty of bravado from barbarian tribes opposing them over the years, and would have watched with growing impatience as the Germans and Batavians rapped weapons on raised shields and chanted their deep-voiced war song, the “Barditum.” Tacitus says some Germans even did crazy dances to intimidate the Romans.
The combatants didn’t have to wait long for the battle to begin. Civilis launched it with a signal to the missile throwers he’d stationed at the front of each of his columns. When his standard dropped, the slingers let loose. Now, as the missiles began to fly, even tough old campaigners of the 14th Gemina would have joined the inexperienced and the fearful in the newer legions in private renditions of the legionary’s prayer. Auxiliaries in the front line raised their oval shields to protect themselves as stones and lead pellets came whizzing over the marsh, rattling, bouncing, and ricocheting off leather, wood, and metal, scoring a hit here and there on exposed flesh and bringing cries of pain. The Roman front line stood firm as the rebels maintained the barrage. Occasionally groups of Germans would run out in front of their stationary columns, jumping and splashing and gesticulating as they tried to entice the Roman auxiliaries into the marsh. But Cerialis’s front line didn’t budge.
Once the missile-throwers ran out of ammunition, they retired through gaps in the columns. Now Civilis ordered an advance. Tall Germans lowered their twelve-foot spears, then came on at the march, weapons extended. Reaching the Roman front line, they were able to wound auxiliaries with impunity because they didn’t have to close with them, standing out of the range of auxiliary swords. The auxiliary line wavered, but held.
Now a column of Bructeri Germans from north of the Lippe River appeared on the far side of the Rhine and ran out onto the dam constructed by Civilis. Plunging into the water, they swam upriver a little way before landing beside the Roman army. Dripping wet and half naked, yelling, screaming, the wild, hairy Bructeri went straight into the attack against the nearest auxiliaries, like wolves tearing at sheep. Under fierce assault, many shaken and some demoralized, the auxiliaries began to give ground.
General Cerialis quickly ordered two of his legions to the rescue. Trumpets sounded, and the 14th Gemina and 2nd Adiutrix advanced at the march. Auxiliaries gladly parted to let them through. It was the youngsters of the 2nd Adiutrix who made first contact with the Bructeri, pushing ahead of the 14th in their eagerness to taste first blood. Coming to an abrupt halt at the end of German spears, they faltered. Then the 14th Gemina came up, like a machine, shield lines as solid as rock. The Germans were checked. Then, as the cohorts of the 14th bore in like Sherman tanks, the Bructeri were pushed back, until they retreated in disorder to their own lines. The 14th held its position.
Several hours of fighting passed, with neither side making major gains. In the afternoon, as the darkening sky threatened rain, a Batavian deserter was brought to General Cerialis. Swearing allegiance to Cerialis, the emperor Vespasian, and Rome, the former auxiliary guaranteed that if given a force of cavalry he would lead an outflanking move against the rebels using a route through the marsh that offered solid ground. Cerialis, frustrated by lack of progress, gambled on the deserter, and detached some 240 troopers from his cavalry. Almost certainly men of the Singularian Horse, tall, bearded Germans with hexagonal shields sporting their unit motif of four scorpions, they would have been led by the commander of their 1st Wing, young Colonel Gaius Minicius, who hailed from Aquileia in the home territory of the 14th Gemina. Colonel Minicius would soon receive major bravery awards from his new emperor, Vespasian—a Golden Crown, and the Ancient Spear. General Cerialis gave the colonel his orders, wished him well, then sent him on his way.
Giving the impression that they were deserting the battlefield, the cavalry detachment galloped away. Once out of sight, they skirted around the marsh to the west, guided by the Batavian deserter. True to his word, the deserter led the troopers over firm ground. The Gurgerni, the obscure German tribe posted on the right wing, hadn’t bothered to put out pickets to guard against surprise attack. Now they were surprised! With a loud cheer, the Roman cavalry charged the Gurgernians’ exposed flank, and with Colonel Minicius heroically leading the fight, the vastly outnumbered force broke the rebels’ right wing.
As soon as General Cerialis heard his cavalry cheering from across the battlefield, he ordered a full frontal charge by his legionary second line. Trumpets sounded the “Charge,” standards inclined to the front. The auxiliaries let the legionaries pass through their ranks as they went forward at the run, as, on the rebels’ right, the Roman cavalry was cutting swaths through the Gurgerni and coming to grips with the Batavians.
The legions collided with rebel formations, which gave way, falling back toward the river. The legions pressed after them. Rain began to fall as, fighting all the way, the rebels continued to give ground. The rain grew heavier, bogging down legionaries and cavalry alike and reducing visibility. In the gloom, many rebels, including Civilis and fellow tribal leaders, escaped, some downriver, some across the dam.
With nightfall close, General Cerialis knew it was pointless pursuing the remnants of the shattered rebel army. He sounded “Recall,” and his triumphant troops retired to their camp. They had won a resounding victory. Thanks to the firmness of the 14th on the right wing, the deserter, and the cavalry, the back of the rebel resistance had been broken.
The next morning, the elated men of the 14th Gemina were still patching wounds, telling tales about their part in the Battle of Old Camp, and delighting in the defeat of their old friends become foes, the Batavian cohorts, when the 10th Gemina Legion arrived, having just marched all the way up from its long-term station in Spain, via Mainz.
The Spaniards brought news that ailing Lieutenant General Gallus had finally reached the Rhine from Italy, accompanied by the 8th Augusta Legion. Installing himself at the Mainz A.U.R. headquarters, Gallus, Cerialis’s superior, sent Cerialis orders with the 10th Gemina—send him back the 14th Gemina now that the 10th had arrived to replace them. The old general would feel much more secure with Rome’s most famous legion in his camp rather than a unit that hadn’t seen action in living memory. Reluctantly, Cerialis gave the men of the 14th their marching orders: return to Mainz at once.
Maybe, as they marched away, the men of the 14th Gemina felt they were being cheated out of the final victory over Civilis and their old rivals the Batavians. But then again, maybe they felt they’d done enough. Now they could retire with a major victory under their belts, and with the legion’s conquering reputation restored.
The drama of the Civilis Revolt was nearing its end, but there were still a few scenes to play out, a few surprises before the curtain fell. At Leiden, Civilis, his deputies Classicus and Tutor, and his last supporters collected what belongings they could transport, set fire to the rest, then retreated into the Batavian “island.” General Cerialis continued a steady pursuit, supported now by the Germanic Fleet, which had come back down the Rhine, from where it had fled into Switzerland at the height of the rebel success. To counter him, Civilis divided his remaining fighters into four raiding parties led by himself, his nephew Verax, and Classicus and Tutor. At Arnhem, Roman Arenacum, they struck the 14th’s replacement, the untried 10th Gemina Legion, which in fierce fighting lost its camp prefect and five first-rank centurions before the raiders withdrew. Simultaneously, at Leiden, the overconfident 2nd Adiutrix youngsters were stung by another raiding party.
At a riverside town the Romans called Vada, Civilis himself led an attack on auxiliary infantry and cavalry. Colonel Briganticus, commander of the Singularian Horse and nephew of Civilis, was killed in this engagement. The highly mobile General Cerialis arrived on the scene, but too late to help Briganticus. Cerialis had gained a reputation for galloping from one Roman encampment to the next, impatiently urging his men to push the rebels farther and farther back toward the North Sea and wrap up the campaign before winter set in, as it was now late in the fall and the weather was deteriorating daily. Without hesitation the general plunged into the fighting on the riverbank, to support the dead Briganticus’s struggling Singularians. As German and Batavian attackers were driven into the water, Civilis was recognized, on his horse, trying to rally his troops, until, abandoning his mount, he swam for it like his men. His nephew Verax also was spotted in the water, as both swam to the other side of the river and escaped.
Going back upriver to Neuss and Bonn to inspect the work of troops rebuilding the camps destroyed there by the rebels, General Cerialis decided to spend several nights at Bonn. As was the usual practice, the ships of the Germanic Fleet, now based here, were dragged up onto the riverbank bow first. The admiral in command offered his flagship for use as the general’s quarters, and as General Cerialis’s servants moved his belongings on board, the general’s standard was run up the warship’s flagstaff.
That afternoon, just before sunset, when the tribunes of the watch of each legion camped at Bonn came to General Cerialis aboard ship to pass on the register of able-bodied men in camp and to receive the new watchword, the general told them he wanted a peaceful night. The trumpet calls that normally sounded the change of watch every three hours outside his headquarters were to be suspended, he said, and the sentries were to refrain from demanding the watchword. No doubt raising their eyebrows among themselves, the young lieutenant colonels went back to their units and passed on the instructions to their guard sergeants. After dark, the general quietly slipped ashore and disappeared.
The Bonn camp had been under observation all day by German tribesmen across the Rhine. Sometime after eight o’clock that night, when the first change of the watch took place at the camp, the Germans noticed with surprise that none of the usual trumpet calls took place outside the camp praetorium. When, three hours later, the same thing occurred, the attention of the Germans became rooted on the sentry posts. Before long, in the moonlight, they saw Roman sentries nodding off to sleep. After midnight, as thick clouds rolled in, blanketing the moon and making the night as black as pitch, the Germans moved to capitalize on the apparent laxity of the Roman guards on the far bank.
From upriver, the Germans launched small boats. Using the current so they only had to paddle a little, reducing noise, they came gliding into the western shore beside the Roman camp. While one German commando party concentrated on ships of the fleet, throwing grappling hooks over sterns, another slipped ashore, crept up to a guard post, slit the throats of sleeping sentries, then slithered into the camp.
In camp, there was silence but for the snoring of thousands of troops and the occasional whinny of a horse. Torches flickered at legion altars and on the camp’s main streets. Creeping to the nearest tentline, the Germans cut tent ropes. As eight-man tents collapsed, the raiders let out a terrifying war cry, then began stabbing through the canvas at the men trapped beneath. Down at the water’s edge, their comrades let out a yell in reply and set about dragging frigates and double-banked light cruisers of the bireme class out into the river, rowing their own little craft furiously. At the same time, several Germans noticed the square crimson standard of a praetor hanging on the staff of the largest Roman cruiser. Climbing aboard, they went on a vain search for General Cerialis.
With confusion and panic reigning in the camp, the raiders slipped away. As half-dressed legionaries ran around with sword in hand, General Cerialis appeared in their midst, almost naked, according to Tacitus. The historian was to say it was believed that Cerialis had been spending the night in the bed of a German girl, Claudia Sacrata, a native of the Ubi tribe from the west bank.
On this occasion, General Cerialis’s willfulness had saved his life. But there was still the matter of his reputation. Quintus Petillius Cerialis was not only a married man, he also was the husband of the emperor’s cousin. The scandal could have ruined his career, but it wasn’t allowed to. The event was hushed up, the disgrace hidden. A later inquiry to determine the reason for the success of the German raid put the blame on the officers of the guard, despite their testimony that they’d only been obeying orders.
The next day, just as order was being restored to the camp, the Germans had the audacity to row their captured ships past Bonn. They even sent the general’s flagship up the Lippe River as a gift to the German prophetess Veleda. Shortly after, where the Meuse met the Rhine, the rebel “navy” confronted more Roman vessels of the Germanic Fleet, but after a brief exchange of missiles the craft parted. It was Civilis’s last hurrah.
General Cerialis now doubled his efforts to occupy Batavian territory north and south of the Waal. As his legions pushed on through heavy autumnal rains, rivers began to flood, and much of the low-lying Batavian land between the Waal and the Meuse was inundated. Soon there would be nowhere left for the rebels to run.
Within several days of Civilis’s naval demonstration on the river, the rebel leader learned that General Cerialis had sent secret emissaries to leading Batavians, and even to the influential prophetess Veleda. The Roman general promised peace for the Batavi and a pardon for Civilis if the rebels capitulated at once. Civilis also discovered that some of his followers were convening meetings among themselves, without him and without telling him, to discuss a possible surrender. Tacitus says that tribal leaders were now holding Civilis solely responsible for the Rhine war, blaming their now adverse situation on his lust for power. They’d lost their homes, they were out of food, they were at the end of their tether. They began talking of repenting, and of punishing the guilty.
Civilis realized that if he didn’t act quickly and contact the Romans, other Batavians would beat him to it—maybe even deciding to deliver Civilis’s head to Cerialis as a sign of their good intent. General Cerialis received a Batavian messenger. Reading the message the rider carried, Cerialis would have smiled—the rebel leader proposed a peace conference involving just the two of them. A bridge across the Waal River had been cut down at his instruction, said Civilis. At an appointed time, he would walk to one end of the broken bridge, Cerialis to the other. They would then talk across the gap.
On the agreed day, probably overcast and cold, at the agreed time, the two leaders walked to the ends of the bridge from opposite riverbanks. As their nervous escorts hung back, the pair stood looking at each other across the fast-moving floodwaters. Redheaded General Cerialis, in his armor and scarlet general’s cloak. Battle-scared Civilis, in his best Roman armor, his hair color close to normal now after the red dye he’d been adding since the year before in emulation of ancient German warrior custom had faded, just as his dreams of Batavian independence had faded.
There at the bridge, the two leaders struck a deal, and Civilis surrendered. His followers soon did the same. Josephus, commenting on the end of the Civilis Revolt, says that General Cerialis forced the rebels “to abandon their madness, and to grow wiser.”