By the end of the 2nd century BC the Roman Republic had become the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Pyrrhus, Hannibal, Philip V, Antiochus III – all had ultimately been unable to stop the rise of this Italian power.
Yet in 113 BC a new threat neared Italy – a giant Germanic horde that had descended from the northern reaches of Europe, intent on finding new lands to settle. The greatest threat to Rome since Hannibal Barca, this is the story of the Cimbric War and the shining moment of one of the Republic’s most famous figures.
The coming of the Cimbri
In 115 BC a great migration shook central Europe. The Cimbri, a Germanic tribe hailing originally from what is now the Jutland Peninsula, had started migrating south. Harsh winter conditions or flooding of their homeland had forced them to take this drastic measure and search for a new homeland.
The horde headed southwards. Hundreds of thousands of people filled its ranks – men, women and children. And it was not long before the migration swelled further. As the Cimbri journeyed south, two other Germanic tribes had joined the migration: the Ambrones and Teutones.
By 113 BC, after a long and perilous journey, they had arrived at the Celtic kingdom of Noricum, situated on the northern reaches of the Alps.
At the time, Noricum was inhabited by the Taurisci, a Celtic tribe. Upon the arrival of this huge migration they sought aid from their ally to the south. That ally was Rome.
The Romans agreed to help. Gnaeus Carbo, the Roman consul for the year 113 BC, was sent to Noricum with an army to deal with this new threat.
Disaster at Noreia
For Carbo this was his moment. The Roman patrician was consul for only one year. If he was to make his name in the history books, gaining glory on the battlefield with a great victory was essential.
But Carbo was to be disappointed. Upon his arrival in Noricum, the Cimbri sent ambassadors. They had no intention of getting involved in a war with the Mediterranean superpower. Carbo, however, had other ideas. Feigning agreement to a peaceful solution, secretly he made preparations for battle.
A disaster ensued. Carbo had planned to ambush the horde as they were leaving Taurisci territory, but his treachery was discovered. Reports reached the tribesmen of the intended ambush.
The Roman military author Vegetius:
An ambush, if discovered and promptly surrounded, will repay the intended mischief with interest.
Carbo and his men experienced such a fate. Their ambush discovered, thousands of Germanic warriors descended on the soldiers. Almost all of the Roman force was killed – Carbo himself committing suicide in the aftermath.
Following their victory, the Cimbri, Teutons and Ambrones headed west to Gaul. Traversing the land, they raided and pillaged – Gallic tribes either joining or resisting the new threat.
It was not long before the Romans responded. Armies attempted to contest to Cimbri and their allies in southern Gaul, keen to retain Roman control over Gallia Narbonensis. But these initial forces met only with defeat.
In 105 BC the Romans decided to end the threat once and for all. They amassed two massive armies – 80,000 Romans in total mustered to form one of the largest forces in the Republic’s history.
This new force headed to southern Gaul and it was not long before it encountered the Cimbri and the Teutons. Near the town of Arausio on 6 October 105 BC the decisive battle was fought, with disastrous consequences for the Romans.
Animosity between the two leading Roman commanders caused the engagement to end in catastrophic disaster. In turn the two commanders and their armies were surrounded by the Germans and slaughtered.
By the end of the day 80,000 Roman soldiers lay dead, not to mention the thousands of auxiliaries that had accompanied them. It was the greatest military disaster in Rome’s history, eclipsing Cannae 100 years before and the Teutoburg Forest tragedy 100 years later.
Victorious once again, the Cimbri, Teutons, Ambrones and their Gallic allies decided against invading Italy proper. Instead they searched for more plunder in Gaul and the rich Iberian Peninsula.
For Rome, this decision offered them the critical respite they so desperately needed.
The return of Marius
In 105 BC, a famous Roman general returned to Italy. His name was Gaius Marius, the victor of the recently-concluded Jugurthine War in north Africa. Marius was very popular with the soldiers – a general with multiple victories behind his back. It was Marius who the Romans looked to in this time of need.
Taking advantage of the time the Germans had gifted him, Marius set about recruiting a new army. But there was a problem. Manpower was an issue. Over 100,000 Romans had already perished fighting the migration; new, eligible recruits were sparse.
So Marius came up with a radical solution. He altered the Roman recruitment system to allow the Roman proletarii – the poor and landless – to enlist.
In what was considered a truly radical move, he removed the property requirement until then necessary for service in the legions. Promises of pay and land at the end of their service were added incentives.
Thanks to these reforms, it was not long before Marius’ new army swelled with new recruits. He placed them on an effective training regime, transforming his array of raw recruits into a physically tough and mentally strong force.
Disciplined and loyal, Marius prepared his men to stand up to the toughest attacks that manic Germanic fighters would throw at them.
The tide of war turns
In 102 BC the news finally reached Italy that the Germanic tribes were now marching east towards Italy. Marius and his new model army headed to southern Gaul to confront the menace.
In 102 BC Marius and his men encountered the Teutons and Ambrones at Aquae Sextiae. After fending off a Teuton attack on their encampment, the two forces engaged in a pitched battle.
Marius and his legionaries positioned themselves on a hill, while their enemy charged. As the legions held their ground inflicting terrible losses on their foe fighting uphill, a Roman contingent charged the Germans from behind, causing a rout. The Teutons and Ambrones were massacred.
Fresh from victory, Marius and his legions returned to northern Italy. The Cimbri, in the meantime, invaded from the north. On 30 July 101 BC the final battle occurred at Vercellae. Once again Marius and his new army won a decisive victory. The Cimbri were massacred. And there was to be no mercy.
As the Romans stormed the Cimbri camp, the tribes’ women resisted their foe in a last stand. But this did not alter the result. Almost all the Cimbri tribesmen were slaughtered – their women and children sent into a life of slavery. The Germanic threat was no more.
‘The Third Founder of Rome’
Despite initially suffering several disastrous defeats, the Romans had recovered and adapted. But in the end their foe’s decision to plunder Spain and not march on Italy after their great victory at Arausio was key, allowing Marius the time to muster and train his new, model army.
As for Marius, he was hailed as the saviour of Rome – ‘The Third Founder of Rome’:
as having diverted a danger no less threatening than was that when the Gauls sacked Rome.
Marius would go on to take consulship 7 times – an unprecedented number. Backed by his army he became the first of the great warlords that epitomised the late Republican period and dominated the Roman political scene. Yet his victory against the Cimbri was his finest hour.