This painting, by the Dutch-Flemish artist Otto van Veen (c. 1556–1629), was inspired by ancient history. Particularly, it features a scene from a Gallic-Germanic war for independence against the Roman Empire that occurred during the 1st century. Otto van Veen’s painting highlights the life of a man known as Julius Valentinus—a leader of the Treviri people, who rebelled in coordination with an ambitious Batavian leader known as Julius Civilis. During the civil war between Emperor Vitellius and soon-to-be-emperor Vespasian in the year 69, Julius Civilis had positioned himself as an ally of Vespasian. 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. Civilis and his colleagues, however, had no intention of relinquishing any territory that they had occupied, even after Vespasian won the war. When newly crowned Emperor Vespasian realized that Civilis was not a subservient officer, but a rival ruler with a military in disputed territory, the Romans went to war against Civilis’ coalition, beginning their campaign by July or August of the year 70.
Although Civilis could be considered the commander-in-chief of the Gallic-Germanic Empire he was trying to create, military command in the coalition forces was actually quite decentralized. Regional leaders such as the aforementioned Julius Valentinus of the Treviri would often lead their own warbands in pursuit of their own goals. As the Gallic-Germanic coalition had in effect divided themselves, it made it all the easier for Quintus Petillius Cerialis—the Roman military commander tasked with orchestrating the campaign—to defeat Civilis’ colleagues and allies in piecemeal fashion. Such was the fate of Julius Valentinus. The Romans caught him and a force of warriors from the Belgae Confederation (which included the Treviri people) holed up at a city called Rigodulum. Tacitus (c. 56/57-117+), an ancient Roman historian, described the battle that ensued at that city:
“[Quintus Petillius Cerialis] marched in three days to Rigodulum. Valentinus had already occupied this place with a large contingent of Treviri, since it was protected on one side by mountains and on another by the River Moselle. He had reinforced the position with trenches and rock barricades, but these defenses could not frighten a general of Rome. Petilius ordered his infantry to force a way through and sent his cavalry up the rising ground, pouring scorn on such a hastily assembled enemy force: any advantage they derived from their position was more than outweighed by his own men’s courage. There was a slight delay while they climbed up, as the cavalry rode past the missiles hurled by the enemy. However, when the hand-to-hand fighting came, the Treviri were dislodged and sent tumbling down the hillside like an avalanche. Moreover, a detachment of the cavalry which had ridden around along the lower contours, captured some chieftains of the Belgae, including their general Valentinus” (Tacitus, The Histories, 4.71).
It is the battle of Rigodulum that is featured in the painting above. As Otto van Veen’s title specified, the artwork particularly shows the hand-to-hand fighting in which Julius Valentinus was captured. After falling into the hands of the Romans, Valentinus was given a show-trial and then executed. The other Gallic-Germanic coalition leaders similarly could not hold off the Roman military machine. Quintus Petillius Cerialis forced Julius Civilis to surrender by September in the year 70.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Tacitus, The Histories, translated by Kenneth Wellesley. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.