This painting was created by the Dutch artist, Ferdinand Bol (c. 1616-1680), sometime between 1658 and 1662. Like other 17th-century inhabitants of the Netherlands, Ferdinand Bol was drawn to the ancient story of the struggle of Julius Civilis (flourished c. 1st century) against the Roman Empire. It was common in the artist’s day to compare the Netherlands’ own war for independence against Spain to Civilis’ uprising against the Romans, and Ferdinand Bol encouraged this comparison by dressing the figures of his painting in gear and clothing that mixes ancient fashion with that of the artist’s own era.
Julius Civilis was a prominent leader of a group known as the Batavi—an ancient people who inhabited the Netherlands region. Details about the life and career of this man were preserved for posterity by the Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 56/57-117). According to Tacitus’ account, Civilis was already deemed a political threat to the Romans as early as the reign of Emperor Nero (r. 54-68), as he had Civilis arrested. Fortunately for the imprisoned Batavian figurehead, a Roman governor named Galba rebelled against Nero and seized power in Rome. This Emperor Galba (r. 68-69) decided to acquit Julius Civilis of whatever allegations had been pinned to him, and the Batavian leader was released to rejoin his people. Along with this acquittal, Galba also gave another gift to Civilis (and to all other ambitious men, for that matter)—political instability. The year 69 became the so-called Year of the Four Emperors. In that tumultuous year, Emperor Galba’s power was usurped by Emperor Otho, who was defeated by Emperor Vitellius, who then was challenged for the throne by Vespasian. Although Julius Civilis was not named among these emperors, he became a major power player during the war between Vitellius and Vespasian.
When Vespasian mobilized the Roman legions of the eastern section of the empire in his bid to seize Rome from Emperor Vitellius, Julius Civilis positioned himself as Vespasian’s ally. Nominally in support of Vespasian’s cause, Civilis pulled together an army of Germanic, Gallic, and mutinous or defector Roman warriors, and began attacking Roman military positions that were loyal to Emperor Vitellius. Although Civilis’ occupation of Roman territory started under the pretext of aiding Vespasian’s bid for imperial power, the war quickly shifted into something new. Instead of waging war for Vespasian’s sake, Julius Civilis and his forces soon embraced a new goal—creating an empire of their own. Vespasian, however, defeated Vitellius by December, 69, and became the new Roman emperor. When Vespasian now realized that Civilis was no longer an ally, but instead a rival for Roman lands, the new emperor sent his generals to dismantle the upstart empire.
Quintus Petillius Cerialis was put in charge of the Roman campaign to conquer Julius Civilis’ newly seized land. Unfortunately for Civilis and the Gallic Empire, Cerialis would prove to be a much more effective general than the Vitellian governors that Civilis had faced earlier. Petillius Cerialis began his relentless campaign against Julius Civilis around July or August in the year 70. In a remarkably short amount of time, Petillius Cerialis pushed Civilis all the way back to his homeland of Batavia. It was there, in September, 70, that Julius Civilis surrendered to Petillius Cerialis. Tacitus described the scene:
“It did not escape Civilis’ notice that the people’s feelings were changing, so he made up his mind to act first. He was tired of troubles, but he also hoped to escape with his life—a prospect which often undermines the resolve of ambitious characters. He asked for a meeting. There was a shattered bridge over the River Nabia, and the two generals advanced to the broken edges of the gap” (Tacitus, The Histories, 5.26).
Such is the story that inspired Ferdinand Bol’s painting. It shows the leaders of the opposing forces negotiating the terms of surrender from their positions atop the broken bridge. Unfortunately, Tacitus’ account of the surrender breaks off mid-speech, the rest lost to history. Julius Civilis’ ultimate fate is unknown, but he reportedly surrendered under the impression that he would be pardoned. As for Quintus Petillus Cerialis, Vespasian rewarded him for his success by promoting him to the position of governor of Roman Britannia from the year 71 to 73.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Tacitus, The Histories, translated by Kenneth Wellesley. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.