Hugo Grotius

De antiquitate reipublicae Batavicae (1610)

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), advocate-fiscal of the province of Holland, in 1610 wrote an official version of historical events leading to the foundation of the Dutch Republic as recognised by the States-General. Grotius, in #De antiquitate reipublicae Batavicae attempted to establish the continuity between the Batavians, as described by Tacitus, and the rebellious Dutch Republic warring with Spain.

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) - click to view large image
>Hugo Grotius (1583-1645)

His main argument was that the Dutch had been a free people from ancient times onwards: free to elect their sovereign, and free to remove this same sovereign if he did not act in the best interest of the people. Based on Tacitus, Grotius worked with the assumption that:

De antiquitate, Cap. I, 1:
“Now this is the most lawful beginning of a free state: that a people of free origins found it on free soil”.

Little had changed between the period of the Batavians and the Middle Ages:

De antiquitate, Cap. V, 6:
“… because they and their Counts of old [the people and Counts of Holland] possessed a sovereignty which had no obligations to anyone, and jurisdiction in every field, ever since the time when Dirk I had reclaimed the country, that was not subjected to any king, from the clasp of the barbarians”.

Like in ancient ‘Batavian’ times, according to Grotius, the time before and during the Revolt against Spain also saw natural submission of the sovereign to the States.

De antiquitate, Cap. I, 4:
“This is clearly indicated by Tacitus, when he says that the kings of the Germans had no unlimited or arbitrary power; and he even adds that in an assembly, they were listened to for their convincing power, rather for their competence to give orders”.

In the 16th century, however, king Philip II chose to unilaterally ignore these long-standing institutional relation between sovereign and States. In order to preserve their freedom and their ancient rights, the Dutch were left with no option but to stand up against their sovereign. He, not the people, according to Grotius, had rebelled.

De antiquitate, Cap. VI, 7:
“However, for a long time, the loyalty of the people fought with their sense of freedom. But when, given the open violation of the laws and comtempt of the States, the form of government of so many centuries and the freedom of future generations could no longer be preserved, the States of Holland, in whom the protection of the laws and of private and public law was vested, on the 19th of July of the year of 1572, convoked a meeting in Dordrecht of the nobility and most of the towns. Following the example of their ancestors, who took up arms against the Romans who tried to secure domination, they declared war on Alva”.

Like the Batavians had fought the Romans to remain free, the Dutch now had to wage war on the Spaniards, according to Grotius, as power belonged to the States, not to the sovereign. Yet this was only one possible way of reading Tacitus’ texts. Another political interpretation of Tacitus’description, also in the early 17th century, was put forward by the poet >Pieter Cornelisz Hooft.