Who were the Ancient Germanic Batavi Tribe?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Europe was a diverse place, filled with small but unique cultures. One society to have a pretty large impact were the Batavi. In this lesson, we'll learn about this Germanic tribe and see how they played into European history.

Ancient Germanic Tribes

A lot of what we know about ancient European peoples came from the Romans. As the Romans spread across the continent, they wrote about the people they interacted with. Few, however, captured the Romans' attention as much as the Germanic tribes. The Romans saw them as barbaric and uncivilized, but fierce warriors nonetheless. One population to really catch the Romans' attention was the Batavi tribe.

The Batavi

Relatively little is known about the origins of the Batavi. By 1 CE, they were living along the Rhine in what is now Holland. According to some Roman historians, the Batavi originated in Germany, but were driven out by a war between the tribes.

Regardless, the Batavi made their way along the Rhine and eventually settled down. They seem to have been farmers and cattle herders, and were known for their horsemanship. Living in a very concentrated part of the Germanic territories, the Batavi population was never too large. Still, they had a pretty sizable impact.

The Batavi and the Romans

In 1 CE, the young Roman Empire was looking to expand its borders into Northern Europe. As a result, this time period can be characterized by never-ending wars against Germanic populations. Many Germanic tribes fought Roman expansion. Others, however, found a different tactic for their survival.

The Batavi fought and were defeated by the Romans around 12 CE. After that, they found a better survival strategy in fighting alongside the Romans. This guaranteed their ultimate survival and gave them a chance to clear their own tribal enemies out of the region as well. Within a few decades, the Batavian warriors had built themselves into an indispensable fighting force. The Romans relied heavily on their Batavian allies in the Germanic wars, and utilized them in Britain as well.

As a result, the Batavi received the rare honor in the Roman Empire of being exempt from paying taxes; they owed the emperor nothing in their alliance but their soldiers. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote frequently about the Batavi, describing them as heroic noble savages. There was some Roman influence in their society (their leaders were given Latin names and some learned to read and write) but they were not Roman and did not live in large stone cities, so from a Roman perspective, they were clearly uncivilized. They wore pants (the telltale sign of barbarous populations to toga-wearing Romans) but Tacitus also characterized them by their stoic bravery and skill in combat. We do have to acknowledge that Tacitus, as a Roman, did have prejudices here. He admired the Batavi but also clearly saw them as barbarians, and likely exaggerated some of their traits and actions to correspond to expected stereotypical behaviors.

In Roman art, baggy pants were the sign of barbarian and generally Germanic tribes

The Batavian Revolt

For decades, the Batavi people fought alongside the Romans in the Northern European provinces of Germania and Gaul, as well as in Britain. However, this alliance would eventually be challenged by problems back in Rome itself.

By 68 CE, a man named Nero was emperor of Rome. Nero is remembered for inefficient policies that started to break apart the Empire, and even worse, for frequently blaming his problems on minority groups and scapegoats. As senators and governors of the Roman territories started turning against Nero, issues arose in administration on the military frontier.

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