Roman victory marked the beginning of the end for Rome as a republic.
For a third of a century after Rome destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C., it faced no seriously threatening enemies in the Mediterranean region. Yet a major challenge was stirring in far-off Jutland. The Germanic Cimbri and Teutoni tribes abandoned their homes in Jutland and began a southward migration in 120-115 B.C. In 113 B.C., they arrived in Noricum, in present-day Austria.
The local tribe in Noricum, an ally of Rome, begged for help against the incursion. The next year, the consul Gnaeus Papirius Carbo marched a Roman army to drive away the intruders. Yet Carbo barely escaped with his life, and his legions were destroyed.
Declining to invade Italy, the Germans then turned west into Gaul, gathering allies such as the Celtic Ambrones. When the interlopers encroached on Rome’s allies in southern Gaul, the Romans in 105 B.C. decided to end the matter and dispatched two consuls, each leading an army.
Totaling 80,000 men and half again as many camp followers, the two armies comprised the largest Roman force assembled since the one Hannibal had annihilated at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C. – and this latter Roman force met an equally disastrous end. When the two consuls refused to combine their armies, the Romans were slaughtered at the Battle of Arausio on the Rhone River.
Rome panicked at the terror cimbricus. But inexplicably, the Cimbri marched into Spain on a great plunder raid while the Teutones remained in Gaul. Yet such was the emergency that the Romans overrode their constitution and elected General Gaius Marius, famed for conquering Numidia, to an unprecedented five continuous years as consul beginning in 104 B.C., with the mandate to create a new army.
Heretofore, the right to serve in the Roman army had been based on land ownership. However, the continuous wars against Carthage and Macedonia had kept Rome’s peasant soldiers in the field so long that an increasing number of them had to sell their farms to pay their debts. The slaughter at Arausio further decimated the shrunken manpower pool.
Marius, therefore, completely disregarded the property qualification and instead recruited poor and landless Romans to serve in his army. Fortunately, the Germans’ failure to march immediately on Rome gave him the precious time he needed to train this new force.
In 102 B.C., Marius marched his army of six legions (40,000 men) into southern Gaul to confront the Teutones. By then, the Cimbri had returned to Gaul and the two tribes decided to invade Italy from separate directions – the Teutones along the Mediterranean coast, and the Cimbri through the Alps’ Brenner Pass.
Marius was fortunate to catch the Teutones and the Ambrones after the Cimbri had departed, yet his army still faced great odds since the enemy force numbered 120,000 warriors. He kept his men in their fortified camp, where they repulsed a German attack. The enemy then decided to bypass the camp and march into Italy.
The Germanic horde took six days to march by, and its troops taunted the Romans, shouting, “Do you have any messages for your wives? After all, we’ll soon be with them!” Marius broke camp and followed the enemy to Aquae Sextiae, where he built another fortified camp. Roman slaves drawing water from the river provoked the Ambrones to attack. Marius then launched his soldiers downhill at the Ambrones and crushed them at the river.
Two days later, Marius led his army to confront the Teutones while secretly placing 3,000 Romans in a nearby woods. The Germans filled the plain and charged up the hill at the Romans, who met them with a javelin storm and then drew their swords. As Marius’ men forced back the Teutones, his hidden troops attacked at the enemy’s rear.
The Teutones panicked and retreated to their camp, with the pursuing Romans inflicting great slaughter. The Teutones’ king, Teutobod, and many of the survivors surrendered. The Greek biographer Plutarch reported that over 100,000 were killed or captured, and that in subsequent years the soil, enriched with the rotted flesh of so many, yielded unprecedented bounty.
As the Teutones met their destruction, the Cimbri crossed the Alps. Since Roman consul Quintus Lutatius Catalus had withdrawn his garrisons from the passes, the Cimbri marched through an undefended northern Italy. When they finally confronted Catalus’ men, the Roman troops fled. Meanwhile, Marius returned to Rome and then marched his army to join Catalus’ soldiers. Together, the two armies numbered over 50,000 men in eight legions.
The Cimbri had delayed their offensive believing the Teutones would soon join them. However, Marius told them that they need not worry about their Teutone brothers, saying, “They already have land, and they’ll keep it forever; it was a gift from us.” He then brought out Teutobod in chains. The Cimbri thereupon demanded that Marius set a time and place for battle, and he designated the Raudine Plain at Vercellae near the confluence of the Po and Sesia rivers.
As the Cimbri emerged from their camp, they generated a huge dust cloud that obscured the size of their force – thereby preserving the Romans’ morale, since Marius’ soldiers could not see how greatly they were outnumbered. The Cimbri sent a cavalry force to trap the Romans, but it was defeated by the Roman cavalry under Catulus’ legate, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Indeed, thanks to Sulla, it was the Cimbri who were eventually trapped and crushed by Roman cavalry.
Marius then ordered that for each Roman javelin, one of the two iron pins affixing the point to the shaft be replaced with a wooden dowel that would break upon impact. When the javelins connected with the opponents’ shields during battle, the weight of the shafts bent the javelins, which then could not be withdrawn and thrown back at the Romans. The heaviness of the embedded javelins eventually forced the Cimbri to throw away their shields.
The best of the Cimbri warriors in the front rank chained themselves together in resolve to conquer or die; the Romans assisted them in the latter. Sulla’s cavalry attack sowed panic, and the enemy survivors fled to their camp with the Romans in pursuit. Enough of the Cimbri survived to yield 60,000 prisoners, but twice as many of their dead littered the field.
Marius returned to Rome for his well-deserved triumph. However, at the time, no one realized that his victory would lead to the destruction of the Roman republic. By recruiting landless men, Marius, and later Sulla and then Julius Caesar, created armies beholden only to them and not to the Roman state. The institutions of the republic could not withstand this irresistible force unleashed upon them. Strong and violent men fought over the body of Rome for the next 60 years, and out of the ashes of the republic emerged the Roman Empire.
Peter Tsouras is the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses and his grandchildren.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armchair General.