FROM THE INVASION OF THE NETHERLANDS BY THE ROMANS TO THE INVASION BY THE SALIAN FRANKS
B.C. 50—A.D. 200
The Netherlands form a kingdom of moderate extent, situated on the borders of the ocean, opposite to the southeast coast of England, and stretching from the frontiers of France to those of Hanover. The country is principally composed of low and humid grounds, presenting a vast plain, irrigated by the waters from all those neighboring states which are traversed by the Rhine, the Meuse, and the Scheldt. This plain, gradually rising toward its eastern and southern extremities, blends on the one hand with Prussia, and on the other with France. Having, therefore, no natural or strongly marked limits on those sides, the extent of the kingdom could only be determined by convention; and it must be at all times subject to the arbitrary and varying influence of European policy. Its greatest length, from north to south, is about two hundred and twenty English miles; and its breadth, from east to west, is nearly one hundred and forty.
Two distinct kinds of men inhabit this kingdom. The one occupying the valleys of the Meuse and the Scheldt, and the high grounds bordering on France, speak a dialect of the language of that country, and evidently belong to the Gallic race. They are called Walloons, and are distinguished from the others by many peculiar qualities. Their most prominent characteristic is a propensity for war, and their principal source of subsistence the working of their mines. They form nearly one-fourth of the population of the whole kingdom, or about one million three hundred thousand persons. All the rest of the nation speak Low German, in its modifications of Dutch and Flemish; and they offer the distinctive characteristics of the Saxon race—talents for agriculture, navigation, and commerce; perseverance rather than vivacity; and more courage than taste for the profession of arms. They are subdivided into Flemings—those who were the last to submit to the House of Austria; and Dutch—those who formed the republic of the United Provinces. But there is no difference between these two subdivisions, except such as has been produced by political and religious institutions. The physical aspect of the people is the same; and the soil, equally law and moist, is at once fertilized and menaced by the waters.
The history of this last-mentioned portion of the nation is completely linked to that of the soil which they occupy. In remote times, when the inhabitants of this plain were few and uncivilized, the country formed but one immense morass, of which the chief part was incessantly inundated and made sterile by the waters of the sea. Pliny the naturalist, who visited the northern coasts, has left us a picture of their state in his days. “There,” says he, “the ocean pours in its flood twice every day, and produces a perpetual uncertainty whether the country may be considered as a part of the continent or of the sea. The wretched inhabitants take refuge on the sand-hills, or in little huts, which they construct on the summits of lofty stakes, whose elevation is conformable to that of the highest tides. When the sea rises, they appear like navigators; when it retires, they seem as though they had been shipwrecked. They subsist on the fish left by the refluent waters, and which they catch in nets formed of rushes or seaweed. Neither tree nor shrub is visible on these shores. The drink of the people is rain-water, which they preserve with great care; their fuel, a sort of turf, which they gather and form with the hand. And yet these unfortunate beings dare to complain against their fate, when they fall under the power and are incorporated with the empire of Rome!”
The picture of poverty and suffering which this passage presents is heightened when joined to a description of the country. The coasts consisted only of sand-banks or slime, alternately overflowed or left imperfectly dry. A little further inland, trees were to be found, but on a soil so marshy that an inundation or a tempest threw down whole forests, such as are still at times discovered at either eight or ten feet depth below the surface. The sea had no limits; the rivers no beds nor banks; the earth no solidity; for according to an author of the third century of our era, there was not, in the whole of the immense plain, a spot of ground that did not yield under the footsteps of man.—Eumenius.
It was not the same in the southern parts, which form at present the Walloon country. These high grounds suffered much less from the ravages of the waters. The ancient forest of the Ardennes, extending from the Rhine to the Scheldt, sheltered a numerous though savage population, which in all things resembled the Germans, from whom they derived their descent. The chase and the occupations of rude agriculture sufficed for the wants of a race less poor and less patient, but more unsteady and ambitious, than the fishermen of the low lands. Thus it is that history presents us with a tribe of warriors and conquerors on the southern frontier of the country; while the scattered inhabitants of the remaining parts seemed to have fixed there without a contest, and to have traced out for themselves, by necessity and habit, an existence which any other people must have considered insupportable.
This difference in the nature of the soil and in the fate of the inhabitants appears more striking when we consider the present situation of the country. The high grounds, formerly so preferable, are now the least valuable part of the kingdom, even as regards their agriculture; while the ancient marshes have been changed by human industry into rich and fertile tracts, the best parts of which are precisely those conquered from the grasp of the ocean. In order to form an idea of the solitude and desolation which once reigned where we now see the most richly cultivated fields, the most thriving villages, and the wealthiest towns of the continent, the imagination must go back to times which have not left one monument of antiquity and scarcely a vestige of fact.
The history of the Netherlands is, then, essentially that of a patient and industrious population struggling against every obstacle which nature could oppose to its well-being; and, in this contest, man triumphed most completely over the elements in those places where they offered the greatest resistance. This extraordinary result was due to the hardy stamp of character imprinted by suffering and danger on those who had the ocean for their foe; to the nature of their country, which presented no lure for conquest; and, finally, to the toleration, the justice, and the liberty nourished among men left to themselves, and who found resources in their social state which rendered change neither an object of their wants nor wishes.
About half a century before the Christian era, the obscurity which enveloped the north of Europe began to disperse; and the expedition of Julius Cæsar gave to the civilized world the first notions of the Netherlands, Germany, and England. Cæsar, after having subjugated the chief part of Gaul, turned his arms against the warlike tribes of the Ardennes, who refused to accept his alliance or implore his protection. They were called Belgæ by the Romans; and at once pronounced the least civilized and the bravest of the Gauls. Cæsar there found several ignorant and poor but intrepid clans of warriors, who marched fiercely to encounter him; and, notwithstanding their inferiority in numbers, in weapons, and in tactics, they nearly destroyed the disciplined armies of Rome. They were, however, defeated, and their country ravaged by the invaders, who found less success when they attacked the natives of the low grounds. The Menapians, a people who occupied the present provinces of Flanders and Antwerp, though less numerous than those whom the Romans had last vanquished, arrested their progress both by open fight and by that petty and harassing contest—that warfare of the people rather than of the soldiery—so well adapted to the nature of the country. The Roman legions retreated for the first time, and were contented to occupy the higher parts, which now form the Walloon provinces.
But the policy of Cæsar made greater progress than his arms. He had rather defeated than subdued those who had dared the contest. He consolidated his victories without new battles; he offered peace to his enemies, in proposing to them alliance; and he required their aid, as friends, to carry on new wars in other lands. He thus attracted toward him, and ranged under his banners, not only those people situated to the west of the Rhine and the Meuse, but several other nations more to the north, whose territory he had never seen; and particularly the Batavians—a valiant tribe, stated by various ancient authors, and particularly by Tacitus, as a fraction of the Catti, who occupied the space comprised between these rivers. The young men of these warlike people, dazzled by the splendor of the Roman armies, felt proud and happy in being allowed to identify themselves with them. Cæsar encouraged this disposition, and even went so far on some occasions as to deprive the Roman cavalry of their horses, on which he mounted those new allies, who managed them better than their Italian riders. He had no reason to repent these measures; almost all his subsequent victories, and particularly that of Pharsalia, being decided by the valor of the auxiliaries he obtained from the Low Countries.
These auxiliaries were chiefly drawn from Hainault, Luxemburg, and the country of the Batavians, and they formed the best cavalry of the Roman armies, as well as their choicest light infantry force. The Batavians also signalized themselves on many occasions, by the skill with which they swam across several great rivers without breaking their squadrons ranks. They were amply rewarded for their military services and hazardous exploits, and were treated like stanch and valuable allies. But this unequal connection of a mighty empire with a few petty states must have been fatal to the liberty of the weaker party. Its first effect was to destroy all feeling of nationality in a great portion of the population. The young adventurer of this part of the Low Countries, after twenty years of service under the imperial eagles, returned to his native wilds a Roman. The generals of the empire pierced the forests of the Ardennes with causeways, and founded towns in the heart of the country. The result of such innovations was a total amalgamation of the Romans and their new allies; and little by little the national character of the latter became entirely obliterated. But to trace now the precise history of this gradual change would be as impossible as it will be one day to follow the progress of civilization in the woods of North America.
But it must be remarked that this metamorphosis affected only the inhabitants of the high grounds, and the Batavians (who were in their origin Germans) properly so called. The scanty population of the rest of the country, endowed with that fidelity to their ancient customs which characterizes the Saxon race, showed no tendency to mix with foreigner, rarely figured in their ranks, and seemed to revolt from the southern refinement which was so little in harmony with their manners and ways of life. It is astonishing, at the first view, that those beings, whose whole existence was a contest against famine or the waves, should show less inclination than their happier neighbors to receive from Rome an abundant recompense for their services. But the greater their difficulty to find subsistence in their native land, the stronger seemed their attachment; like that of the Switzer to his barren rocks, or of the mariner to the frail and hazardous home that bears him afloat on the ocean. This race of patriots was divided into two separate peoples. Those to the north of the Rhine were the Frisons; those to the west of the Meuse, the Menapians, already mentioned.
The Frisons differed little from those early inhabitants of the coast, who, perched on their high-built huts, fed on fish and drank the water of the clouds. Slow and successive improvements taught them to cultivate the beans which grew wild among the marshes, and to tend and feed a small and degenerate breed of horned cattle. But if these first steps toward civilization were slow, they were also sure; and they were made by a race of men who could never retrograde in a career once begun.
The Menapians, equally repugnant to foreign impressions, made, on their part, a more rapid progress. They were already a maritime people, and carried on a considerable commerce with England. It appears that they exported thither salt, the art of manufacturing which was well known to them; and they brought back in return marl, a most important commodity for the improvement of their land. They also understood the preparation of salting meat, with a perfection that made it in high repute even in Italy; and, finally, we are told by Ptolemy that they had established a colony on the eastern coast of Ireland, not far from Dublin.
The two classes of what forms at present the population of the Netherlands thus followed careers widely different, during the long period of the Roman power in these parts of Europe. While those of the high lands and the Batavians distinguished themselves by a long-continued course of military service or servitude, those of the plains improved by degrees their social condition, and fitted themselves for a place in civilized Europe. The former received from Rome great marks of favor in exchange for their freedom. The latter, rejecting the honors and distinctions lavished on their neighbors, secured their national independence, by trusting to their industry alone for all the advantages they gradually acquired.
Were the means of protecting themselves and their country from the inundations of the sea known and practiced by these ancient inhabitants of the coast? or did they occupy only those elevated points of land which stood out like islands in the middle of the floods? These questions are among the most important presented by their history; since it was the victorious struggle of man against the ocean that fixed the extent and form of the country. It appears almost certain that in the time of Cæsar they did not labor at the construction of dikes, but that they began to be raised during the obscurity of the following century; for the remains of ancient towns are even now discovered in places at present overflowed by the sea. These ruins often bring to light traces of Roman construction, and Latin inscriptions in honor of the Menapian divinities. It is, then, certain that they had learned to imitate those who ruled in the neighboring countries: a result by no means surprising; for even England, the mart of their commerce, and the nation with which they had the most constant intercourse, was at that period occupied by the Romans. But the nature of their country repulsed so effectually every attempt at foreign domination that the conquerors of the world left them unmolested, and established arsenals and formed communications with Great Britain only at Boulogne and in the island of the Batavians near Leyden.
This isolation formed in itself a powerful and perfect barrier between the inhabitants of the plain and those of the high grounds. The first held firm to their primitive customs and their ancient language; the second finished by speaking Latin, and borrowing all the manners and usages of Italy. The moral effect of this contrast was that the people, once so famous for their bravery, lost, with their liberty, their energy and their courage. One of the Batavian chieftains, named Civilis, formed an exception to this degeneracy, and, about the year 70 of our era, bravely took up arms for the expulsion of the Romans. He effected prodigies of valor and perseverance, and boldly met and defeated the enemy both by land and sea. Reverses followed his first success, and he finally concluded an honorable treaty, by which his countrymen once more became the allies of Rome. But after this expiring effort of valor, the Batavians, even though chosen from all nations for the bodyguards of the Roman emperors, became rapidly degenerate; and when Tacitus wrote, ninety years after Christ, they were already looked on as less brave than the Frisons and the other peoples beyond the Rhine. A century and a half later saw them confounded with the Gauls; and the barbarian conquerors said that “they were not a nation, but merely a prey.”
Reduced into a Roman province, the southern portion of the Netherlands was at this period called Belgic Gaul; and the name of Belgium, preserved to our days, has until lately been applied to distinguish that part of the country situated to the south of the Rhine and the Meuse, or nearly that which formed the Austrian Netherlands.
During the establishment of the Roman power in the north of Europe, observation was not much excited toward the rapid effects of this degeneracy, compared with the fast-growing vigor of the people of the low lands. The fact of the Frisons having, on one occasion, near the year 47 of our era, beaten a whole army of Romans, had confirmed their character for intrepidity. But the long stagnation produced in these remote countries by the colossal weight of the empire was broken, about the year 250, by an irruption of Germans or Salian Franks, who, passing the Rhine and the Meuse, established themselves in the vicinity of the Menapians, near Antwerp, Breda and Bois-le-duc. All the nations that had been subjugated by the Roman power appear to have taken arms on this occasion and opposed the intruders. But the Menapians united themselves with these newcomers, and aided them to meet the shock of the imperial armies. Carausius, originally a Menapian pilot, but promoted to the command of a Roman fleet, made common cause with his fellow-citizens, and proclaimed himself emperor of Great Britain, where the naval superiority of the Menapians left him no fear of a competitor. In recompense of the assistance given him by the Franks, he crossed the sea again from his new empire, to aid them in their war with the Batavians, the allies of Rome; and having seized on their islands, and massacred nearly the whole of its inhabitants, he there established his faithful friends the Salians. Constantius and his son Constantine the Great vainly strove, even after the death of the brave Carausius, to regain possession of the country; but they were forced to leave the new inhabitants in quiet possession of their conquest.
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