• Hans Faber

Pagare il fio

Death of Caligula by the Frisian artist Lourens Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)

Pagare il fio is Italian for ‘paying the penalty’. More literally, it means paying the fee. It is an expression the Italian language inherited from the Barbarians from the North when they toppled the Western Roman Empire. The English word fee originates from Old English feoh, which means cattle. The Mid-Frisian word for cattle still is fee. In Dutch and German it respectively is vee and Vieh. So, pagare il fio is, in fact, paying the cattle. When in AD 28 the Romans raised taxes and demanded more cattle had to be paid, it led to an uprising of the Frisians. The fighting was won by the Frisians, and a staggering 1,300 legionnaires died in battle. Death and taxes, the two certainties in life.

The dainty Romans arrived two thousand years ago at the rough and mighty deltas of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt, including massive impenetrable peatlands bordering the coastal zone from Flanders to Denmark. Combined, the three rivers are responsible for releasing, on average, circa 2,5 million liters of water per second into the North Sea. The Frisians, called Frisii or Fresones by the Romans, lived along the coast from the River IJ near modern Amsterdam, to more or less the River Ems, now the border between the governments of Germany and the Netherlands. Although parts of this border in the Dollart Bay are still being disputed by Germany and the Netherlands. Disputable too, parts of modern province Drenthe was the territory of the Frisians, and that of Chauci, as well. In our post The Killing Fields, of the Celts more about this area’s history.

The first record of the Frisians dates from BC 12, and recounts how the Frisian tribes became an ally during a battle against the Chauci. The Chauci were a tribe in the north of what is now the Wadden Sea coast of northwest Germany, roughly between the River Ems and the River Elbe. So, neighbours of the Frisians, and their material culture was akin to them. Both tribes living on artificial dwelling mounds (i.e. terps) on the barren tidal marshlands. Read our post Shipwrecked people of the salt marshes for a better understanding of this common sea culture. Like the Frisians, the Chauci were not pacified either. Frisians, and especially Chauci, were notorious pirates. In our post It all began with piracy we shed some light on their excessive entrepreneurship, ánd the impact this had on Western history.

It were the Romans Pliny, or Plinius, the Elder and Tacitus who wrote about the Frisians and these northern lands in the first century AD. Historian Tacitus described Germanica in general as follows: “The terrain is fierce, the climate is rough, life and landscape are bleak. You only come here if it’s your homeland.” This must have been especially true for the wet, swampy coastal zone along the Wadden Sea, and his words had a long-lasting negative effect on tourism to the north of Germany and the Netherlands.

Close at the North Sea coast, the Roman army tried to penetrate into the north and conquer the watery area of the Frisians and the Chauci, among other. In the area of present-day town Velsen, just northwest of the modern city of Amsterdam, the Romans established two pre-limes fortresses (limes means border), probably around the year AD 15. The Romans called the place Flevum. There was a naval base, and a fortress of the type castra, roughly eleven hectares large. This implies a legion of about 5,000 to 6,000 men was deployed here between AD 15-47, which makes Velsen the most northern castra-type fortress of the Roman Empire.

Back then, the River IJ connected Velsen with the North Sea, and also with lacus Flevo ‘lake Flevo’, and via this lake with the hinterland. It explains the name Flevum given to the fortresses. So, a strategic spot to control and to tax the movement of goods and people. But also a strategic location for the military campaigns to the north, the Wadden Sea area. Archaeological research also has identified a place of cult of the Frisians at the modern village of Velserbroek, just south of Velsen.

Roman geographer Pomponius Mela described lacus Flevo and gave it its name in the first half of the first century AD. It was a lake with an island in it. Flevo is related to the modern Mid Frisian verb floeie meaning ‘to flow’. Later River Vlie is named after it, likewise Wadden Sea island Vlieland. The name Flanders might have the same etymological origin. See our post A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders. So, all of Frisia in the flow.

fortresses Flevum at present-day Velsen

Roman outposts might (briefly) have been established near current villages Winsum-Bruggeburen in province Friesland, and at current Bentumersiel at the River Ems in region Ostfriesland in the first century. The latter in the land of the Chauci tribe. These outposts are indicated by the many Roman finds like terra sigillata, amphoras, coins and militaria. Possibly, both outposts had as function to collect taxes, and to facilitate trade. However, there is still discussion among scholars how to interpret the archaeological finds at Winsum and Bentumersiel. Perhaps it was not Roman presence at all but merely indicates intensive contacts with the Romans. Or, were it Frisians who had served in the army?

AD 16 was the year general Germanicus Julius Caesar made his final effort to conquer the tribes north of the River Rhine. Via the Wadden Sea, his immense fleet of four legions reached the muddy mouth of the River Ems being the border of the Frisians and the Chauci. Here, Gallic and Germanic auxiliary troops of the Roman army, who had marched over land, joined the main army. The Frisians were that time friendly of the Romans. From the River Ems, Germanicus continued to the River Weser to confront the Germanic army led by commander Armenius of the Cherusci tribe.

Although the battles between Germanicus and Armenius took many lives, Germanicus was victorious in AD 16. A big set back, however, during Germanicus’ military campaign was, that on the way back from the River Ems the fleet ran into a storm on the Wadden Sea. Ships were wrecked, many drowned and the army was dispersed over a large area. Army officer praefectus Albinovanus Pedo wrote about this maritime disaster, which, by the way, is the oldest account describing the Wadden Sea area. Read our post Racing the Wadden Sea with a mud sledge to find Pedo’s compelling account. Although Germanicus was successful over all, he was ordered by Rome, for unclear reasons, to settle behind the River Rhine nevertheless.

One year after John the Baptist was beheaded by tetrarch ‘ruler’ Herod Antipas, it were the Frisians who revolted against the Romans this time. Immediate cause was the raise of taxes, which led to the great revolt in the year AD 28. At least, this is what historian Tacitus gave as reason. The Roman tax collector by the name Olennius was not satisfied with the small cattle pelts and demanded more and bigger ones. When the Frisians explained to Olennius the size of their cattle was the size of their cattle, Olennius wanted the Frisians to give their women and children as slaves. No reasoning with this antithesis of Zacchaeus. Hence, the Frisians were left no choice but to revolt.

The Frisians, men and probably women too since war was a family affair, attacked the fortresses at Flevum in a battle which has became known as the Battle of the Baduhenna Forest. No, not the Teutoburg Forest. Ba-du-hen-na Forest.

the Battle at Baduhenna Forest (r); farm of Cruptorix (l)

The Romans suffered significant losses against the Frisians in the Baduhenna Forest. Tacitus reports 900 Roman casualties in the forests, and yet another 400 Roman soldiers who killed each other just after their retreat at the villa or farmstead of a certain person named Cruptorix. Reason for the butchery at Cruptorix was fear of mutiny and betrayal, after the massacre in the forests, and the fear they would be slaughtered by the strong Frisians soon.


ever since the name of the Frisians has a bright sound

The reports of Tacitus are supported by archaeological finds. Archaeological research has found no less than 520 lead sling bullets at the former fortresses that were under siege by the Frisians.

As a consequence of this fierce resistance, the Romans had to give up their pre-limes fortresses at the River IJ at modern Velsen too. Maybe this applies to the recently discovered fortifications at the town of Krommenie too, located circa twenty kilometers northwest of Amsterdam. The Romans were pushed back south by the Frisians, behind the River Rhine. And, as it was perceived in Rome those days, the imperial army had lost much of its honor in the north against the Germanic tribes above the River Rhine.

Despite all military efforts, the River Rhine turned out to be the most northern border of the empire on the Continent. Do not forget, no less than three Roman legions were slaughtered by Germanic tribes in the relatively nearby Teutoburg Forest at the present-day town Kalkriese in Germany not long before, in the year AD 9. An even more humiliating defeat. With the already mentioned disastrous battle in AD 28, the Romans adjusted their ambitions in expanding their territory northbound. For the time being, that was, because one famous commander would give it one more try, as we shall see.

More resistance

From around the year 40 the Romans constructed the limes along the south banks of the River Rhine, being the northernmost border of their empire on the Continent. The limes was a series of fortresses, watch posts and, near the coast, a naval fleet, all connected with roads. The most western castellum was Lugdunum, built around the year 40, and locally known as Brittenburg. It was built a the mouth of the River Rhine near present town Katwijk, circa 900 meters from the coast. Since Roman times, the North Sea coastline has moved about a kilometer inland. Probably, two hors equitata ‘cavalry units’ of each about 480 men of the Cananefates tribe were stationed here. After the uprising of Cananefates, Batavians, Frisians and Chauci in the years 69 and 70 (see further below), these cavalry units have been replaced by other auxiliary forces from outside the region. The fortress remained exceptionally long in use, even after the Romans basically had left the limes and their military presence along the River Rhine halfway the third century. In the period 364-375, namely, castellum Lugdunum was reduced in size and received the function as a secured granary for the supply of Britannia (Wolfrat 2022).

Also on the south bank of the River Rhine, not far from Lugdunum, the Romans constructed a military complex consisting of a harbour, very big horrea ‘granaries’, a castrum ‘army camp’, and a castellum ‘fortress’ . The complex, built in the year 39, was named Praetorium Agrippinae and located at modern town of Valkenburg, circa 15 kilometres north of The Hague. It supported about 6,000 military. Purpose of this huge military site was to serve as one of the bases for the invasion of Britannica. It was emperor Caligula who personally inspected the base in the year 40. In the following years the invasion of Britannica unfolded. Emperor Caligula was murdered a year after he visited Valkenburg. See featured image of this post the death of Caligula and his mother Agrippinae behind the drapes, painted by the Frisian artist Lourens Alma-Tadema (see nota III below). Caligula pagato il fio, indeed.

In the year 46, under the command of 'pirate' Gannascus and a member of the Cananefates tribe, the Chauci together with the Frisians started raiding the North Sea coasts south of the River Rhine all the way to Gaul. A year later, general Corbulo was appointed. He started punitive expeditions against the Chauci and the Frisians in the north, and managed to subdue the Frisians. The limes, part of the Limes Germanicus, were erected along the south banks of the lower River Rhine from AD 47 onward, and the northern outposts at Winsum and Bentummersiel were abandoned. Despite commander-in-chief Corbulo was quite successful in giving the Frisians and the Chauci a hard time, Rome ordered Corbulo to stop his campaigns and to settle with the River Rhine as the northern-most border of the empire. Army camp Flevum was given up. Corbulo leaves the area in the year 50. Probably feeling he could have achieved so much more if only the out-of-touch bureaucrats in the capitol had listened to him.

Another massive uprising which must be mentioned, is the one in the years 69 and 70, known as the Revolt of the Batavi. The Batavians were under the command of Gaius Julius Civilus. The Cananefates, under command of king Brinno, the Chauci, and the Frisians also participated in the revolt. These tribes were considered the bravest forces by Civilus. The naval power of these allied forces was mainly supplied by the Cananefates and the Frisians, and their fleet laid waste to the mighty castellum Praetorium Agrippinae. Actually, with the destruction of Praetorium Agrippinae by the Cananefates and Frisians, the whole Batavian Revolt started in the first place. Read more in our post It all began with piracy.

Forum Hadriani also known as Municipium Aelium Cananefatium MAC by Glimmerveen

In AD 121, in the land of the civitas ‘tribe’ Cananefates, living between the mouths of the rivers Flevum (Rhine) and Helinium (Haringvliet), the Romans founded the most northern capital of the Roman Empire on the Continent, namely Forum Hadriani also known as Municipium Aelium Cananefatium. Commonly abbreviated, something the Romans loved to do, to MAC. MAC was located near the present-day city of The Hague, and had an estimated 5,000 inhabitants. The nearest other town was Noviomagus, modern Nijmegen in the Netherlands, with also an estimated 5,000 inhabitants.


Nota I – If you think the presence of the Roman Empire was merely a burden for the Frisians, this was not the case. It meant more trade possibilities, like woolen cloth, salt and probably dairy products, but also Frisian warriors enrolled the army as soldier. Read our post Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army.

Nota II – Did you know that between 1504 and 1795, ancient Roman Law in its purest form was the applicable law in province Friesland? Check our post Medieval Migration Law for more about this anomaly in European law practice.

Nota III – Featured image is a painting of the Frisian painter Sir Lourens Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) from Dronrijp. It is the death of emperor Caligula in AD 41. On the wall a painting of the famous naval Battle at Actium in BC 31 . Alma-Tadema was one of the most famous painters of his time, and lived for a big part of his life in England. His paintings shaped for many generations how people envisioned Antique Rome, and maybe it does to this very day. Alma-Tadema was promoted to British nobility and is buried in the Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which all together a huge honour given to someone in Britain. In the Netherlands he was not even allowed to a Dutch art school.

Credit images Romans encountering Frisians: Stichting Oer-IJ and Rob van Eerden.

Further reading

Berkel, van G. & Samplonius, K., Nederlandse plaatsnamen verklaard. Reeks Nederlandse plaatsnamen deel 12 (2018)

Bosman, V.A.J., Rome aan de Noordzee. Burgers en barbaren te Velsen (2016)

Broeke, van den P.W., Pierenpaté? Fries aardewerk ten zuiden van de Nederrijn (2018)

Buijtendorp, T., De gouden eeuw van de Romeinen in de Lage Landen (2021)

Bunt, van de A., Wee de overwonnenen. Germanen, Kelten en Romeinen in de Lage Landen (2020)

Dhaeze, W., The Roman North Sea and Channel Coastal Defence. Germanic Seaborne Raids and the Roman Response (2019)

Diederik, F., Germania en de keizerlijke politiek (2011)

Galestin, M.C., Frisii and Frisiavones (2016)

Gelder, van J., Nieuwenhuis, M. & Peters, T. (transl), Plinius. De wereld. Naturalis historia (2018)

Ginkel, van E. & Vos, W., Grens van het Romeinse Rijk. De limes in Zuid-Holland (2018)

Haywood, J., Dark Age Naval Power. A Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Seafaring Activity (1999)

Heeren, S., Grensoverschrijdingen. Romeins-Germaanse interactie (2022)

Heeringen, van R.M. & Velde, van der H.M. (eds), Struinen door de duinen. Synthetiserend onderzoek naar de bewoningsgeschiedenis van het Hollands duingebied op basis van gegevens verzameld in het Malta-tijdperk (2017)

Huisman, K., De Friese geschiedenis in meer dan 100 verhalen (2003)

Hunink, V (transl), Tacitus. In moerassen en donkere wouden. De Romeinen in Germanië (2015)

Lendering, J., Romeinen in Velsen (2016)

Londen, van H., Ridder, T., Bosman, A. & Bazelmans, J., Het West-Nederlandse kustgebied in de Romeinse tijd (2008)

Looijenga, A., Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)

Lugt, F., Rijnland in de donkere eeuwen. Van de komst van de Kelten tot het ontstaan van het graafschap (2021)

Meijlink, B. & Silkens, B. & Jaspers, N.L., Zeeën van Tijd. Grasduinen door de archeologie van 2500 jaar Domburg en het Oostkapelse strand (2017)

Naber, M.J. & Smit, E., Romeinse veldtochten. 7 wandelingen langs de noordgrens van het Romeinse Rijk (2016)

Nieuwhof, A. & Nicolay, J., Identiteit en samenleving: terpen en wierden in de wijde wereld (2018)

Nijdam, H., Law and Political Organization of the Early Medieval Frisians (c. AD 600-800) (2021)

Mijle Meijer, van der R.A., Scheveningseweg gemeente Den Haag. Archeologische begeleiding rioolvervanging (2011)

Stolte, B.H. (ed.), Germania Inferior. Untersuchungen zur Territorial- und Verwatungsgeschichte Niedergermaniens in der Prinzipatszeit (1972)

Tuuk. van der L., De Romeinse Limes. De grenzen van het Rijk in de Lage Landen (2017)

Vugts, T. (ed.), Varen op de Romeinse Rijn. De schepen van Zwammerdam en de limes (2016)

Wolfrat, E., De Brittenburg bij Katwijk. Een reconstructie op basis van schriftelijke bronnen (2022)