The Legendary Prophetess Veleda: A Secret Weapon Against the Romans
Legends about beautiful women who drove armies of men to glory are very familiar in history. In the case of Veleda, her story didn't end with the loss of her people, but withstood the passage of time due to her unique talents and the weakness of a Roman Emperor. Moreover, her gift of clairvoyance was so well-known in her time that the barbarian prophetess was described by the famous Roman writer Tacitus.
Between 69 and 70 AD, the Roman province of Germania Inferior was covered with battlefields. The site that is now the southern part of the Netherlands and northern part of Rhineland struggled during the famous Revolt of Batavi - an uprising started by a small Germanic tribe known as Batavi. Although there were few fighters, they were very well prepared and militarily powerful. They inhabited the delta of the Rhine river and stepped up against the Roman Empire. As the battles continued, the revolt was supported by other tribes, including Celts from Gallia Belgica. One of the most mysterious individuals to endorse the rebels was Veleda, a prophetess whose visions warmed the warriors’ blood. According to her visions, the tribe of Batavi was about to succeed in their revolt.
The Prophetess Veleda. ( CC BY 2.0 )
The leader of the Batavi people was the Romanized Gaius Julius Civilis, whose skills were polished in the Roman army. Either Augustus or Caligula gave him Roman citizenship. He was an auxiliary officer, and he knew the characteristics of Roman warfare. However, he decided to use this knowledge to help Batavi, instead of supporting the Empire. In the beginning, he was very successful. However, when the situation started to be hectic, his army needed more help. The one who stood in front of him and won the battle was the general Quintus Petillius Ceralis. The battles between 69 and 70 AD were dark cards in Roman history. Everything went exactly as the prophetess foretold. However, the Roman’s found success in 77 AD.
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‘The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis’ (1661-1662) by Rembrandt. ( Public Domain )
Searching for the Legendary Prophetess Veleda
Veleda’s name seems to have Celtic roots and is related to the title of an ancient Celtic prophet. She belonged to an old tradition found in many different civilizations - women who were actively connected to deities and known for their prophetic skills. However, in the case of this specific woman, she lived in a tower close to the Lippe River and was very respected by the inhabitants of those lands. Before she became an icon of the Batavian revolt, she helped the society of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, now the city Cologne, in Germany. She was an arbitrator in a conflict among them and another German tribe, called Tencteri. Descriptions of Veleda and her story are rare, so it is hard to create a full-bodied image of her.
Detail of a sculpture titled ‘Velleda’ by Laurent-Honoré Marqueste. ( CC BY 3.0 )
However, as Tacitus wrote while describing the story of the Revolt:
“Then Civilis fulfilled a vow often made by barbarians; his hair, which he had let grow long and coloured with a red dye from the day of taking up arms against Rome, he now cut short, when the destruction of the legions had been accomplished. It was also said that he set up some of the prisoners as marks for his little son to shoot at with a child's arrows and javelins. He neither took the oath of allegiance to Gaul himself, nor obliged any Batavian to do so, for he relied on the resources of Germany, and felt that, should it be necessary to fight for empire with the Gauls, he should have on his side a great name and superior strength. Munius Lupercus, legate of one of the legions, was sent along with other gifts to Veleda, a maiden of the tribe of the Bructeri, who possessed extensive dominion; for by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity. The authority of Veleda was then at its height, because she had foretold the success of the Germans and the destruction of the legions. Lupercus, however, was murdered on the road. A few of the centurions and tribunes, who were natives of Gaul, were reserved as hostages for the maintenance of the alliance. The winter encampments of the auxiliary infantry and cavalry and of the legions, with the sole exception of those at Mogontiacum and Vindonissa, were pulled down and burnt.”
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Veleda’s prophecy was correct regarding the revolt, but her thoughts on the next battles have been lost. However, that didn’t mean she had died. She became alluring to the Romans. In 70 AD, the commander of the Roman garrison, Munius Lupercus was sent to Veleda. The Romans hoped to adopt her for their needs. However, Munius died of an unknown cause on his way to see her. Was it a coincidence or her magical skills? Nobody knows the answer.
Sculpture of Veleda at Jardin du Luxembourg. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Woman Who was a Friend of Gods
Veleda continued her work until 77 AD, when the Romans finally defeated the Batavian troops. The story of Veleda’s prophetic talents was described in a Greek epigram discovered near Rome. They suggest that after 77 she traveled to Adrea near Rome, but this is uncertain.
She had died before 89 when Tacitus wrote his book. However, it seems that her fame made her attractive to the Romans, who perhaps remembered the remarkable impact of the prophetess. Her Celtic roots made her even more appealing and precious and helped her to become a legend.
Veleda ( 1852) by Alexandre Cabanel. ( Mazmorra Maldita )
Top Image: Detail of ‘Velleda’ , as imagined in a 19th-century painting by Charles Voillemot. Source: Public Domain