It may not have the charm of the Punic or Macedon wars, but the Cimbrian War, played a key role in shaping Roman history. Not only did the Romans adapt to a new style of warfare, the longstanding impact of the war, would forever change the Republic, leading to it’s eventual downfall.
Who Were the Cimbri?
The Cimbri were a Germanic and/or Celtic tribe that occupied the Jutland Peninsula (modern day Denmark). Supposedly, the Peninsula was flooded, which forced a mass migration of the Cimbri and their neighboring tribe, the Teutones on a long journey south. Apparently, they migrated as the Jutland Peninsula was flooded heavily, but there are doubts about the validity of that. It could be likely, they might have just wanted to migrate to newer areas that were warmer.
On their way, they encountered and defeated the Scordisi and Boii tribe people, many of whom subsequently joined this great migration. It’s estimated this great host had at least 200,000 warriors (not including the non-combatants).
By 113 BCE, they had reached Noricum (modern Austria), held by the Roman Allied Taurisci tribe. Their attempts to defeat the invasion failed, forcing the Taurisci to send envoys to request assistance from the Romans.
The First Battles
Now, before we talk about the Roman response, it is important to know that the Roman Military was on a decline during this time. While their realm and influence increased, the number of citizens eligible to join the Legions was reduced as landless people had no rights to join the army. This meant that the Roman army was gradually deteriorating.
When the Taurisci envoys arrived, the Gneaus Papirius Carbo answered the call. In 113 BCE, he marched towards the Cimbri with 30,000 troops the two sides began negotiations. By then, the Cimbri were told about the prowess of the Legions and were willing to to stop their attacks on the Taurisci and leave Roman lands. Carbo agreed to this, and provided guides to lead them away from Roman territory.
However it was all a ruse for the Roman Consul. Glory hunting and hoping to secure a crushing victory, he had laid instructions for leading the Cimbri host into an ambush. Either through treachery of the spies, or their own intelligence efforts, the Cimbri found out and were furious. They launched an assault on the Roman Army and crushed it, with at least 24,000 of the 30,000 killed.
Carbo would escape the slaughter, but he was prosecuted for his failure by Marcus Antonius (grand father of Marc Anthony), and committed suicide. The Romans braced for an invasion of the Cimbri, but that never came to pass.
For reasons not known, the Cimbri did not press their advantage and instead moved West into Gaul via Noricum. Here, two further tribes including the Tigurini joined their expedition. For the next few years between 112 to 109 BCE, the Gauls not allied with them were raided, slaughtered and pillaged.
In 109 BCE, the Cimbri finally turned their attention on Roman territory, as they raided Gallia Narbonensis, and the Roman Consul of the year, Marcus Junius Silanus marched with his army. The Cimbri demanded to have land in the Rhone valley, and would protect the Roman border, but this offer was rejected. In the ensuing battle, the Romans were yet again, defeated.
In 107 BCE, the Romans once again suffered another defeat. 10,000 men and the Consul of the army, Luicis Cassius Longinus were killed and the remaining 30,000 had to walk through a yoke of spears in humiliation, and give up a lot of the baggage and supplies.
In 105 BCE, the Romans decided to step up. The largest army since the Second Punic War was mobilized. Command was given to the Consul of the year, Gnaeus Mallius Maximus and his second in command was Quintus Servilius Caepio. The latter detested Maximus, given that he was a Novus Homo and refused to cooperate.
When the armies were near each other at the town of Arausio, Caepio and Maximus had separate camps as the pompous Caepio was quite full of himself. The Cimbri had engaged in negotiations with Maximus, about permission to move into Hispania instead of engaging the Romans.
Caepio, without orders and wanting to take the glory, attacked the Cimbri with his forces and the Romans were slaughtered en-masse. The now angry Cimbri, charged the camp of Maximus, encircled his forces and cut them down.
According to the Roman historian Livy, the Battle of Arausio, cost the Romans 120,000 dead (Legionnaires and camp followers together). Both Maximus and Caepio were exiled for defeat, and the Romans genuinely panicked. It was the same fear, that they had when Hannibal crushed them at Cannae.
Enter Marius and His Reformed Legions
Once again, for Reasons unknown, the Cimbri did not invade Italy. They moved and pillaged Hispania, and that gave the Romans some breathing space. With the concurrent Jurgunthine War now ended, Rome’s best general of the time, Gaius Marius returned.
He was elected Consul in 104 BCE (despite not being legally allowed) for the second time and would continually be elected till 100 BCE as Consul.
Assessing the situation, Marius realized that a military change was necessary and he began to reform the army. The reformed legions, known to us today as the Marian Legions can be read here but here are the basics.
- The property requirement to join the legion was removed.
- The army was professionalized, with the legions becoming a pure heavy infantry formation.
- Training took place all year
- Soldiers enlisted for 16 years and would be given land on discharge, as well as any booty from campaigning.
- The supply chain and army was overhauled.
- Army tactics were changed to become more agile and professional.
Over the next couple of years while the Cimbri were busy plundering Hispania, Marius took the time to drill and train his men, preparing for the inevitable invasion which was sure to come. The time would prove beneficial, as the Romans now would be ready for war in terms of quality and quantity.
The New Legions in the Field
In 102 BCE, after a few years ravaging Hispania, the Cimbri and their allies finally turned their gaze on the Italian heartland and invading Rome itself. Moving in two invasion columns, the Teutones led one invasion of Italy while hugging the Mediterranean coastline and attack Western Italy. The Cimbri would enter via Noricum and through the mountains, to assault Eastern Italy.
With this information, Marius deployed his forces to oppose the Teutones with around 40,000 men. Quintus Lutatius Catulus was sent with a similar sized force to block the Cimbri advancing via Noricum.
Near the Rhone River, the Germanic tribe attacked Marius’ camp but they were easily repelled by the legionnaires. The Romans then shadowed the tribal army, forcing them to battle, at Marius’ choosing, giving him an advantage. He would position 4,000 men for an ambush nearby while the rest of the men would hold the line against an estimated 80,000 Teutones.
After provoking the enemy into attacking them, the new Roman legions were able to weather their assault and tire out their opponents. As the Teutones began their retreat, the Romans pursued them. At this time, the Roman ambush was let lose upon the tribal army from the rear and crushed their cohesion. Over 50,000 warriors and thousands of others in their camp were killed or enslaved, breaking the Teutones army. This was just at the cost a few thousand Romans.
The Cimbri on the otherhand, managed to push back the Roman forces guarding the passes near Noricum. The Romans retreated behind the Po River, as Catulus waited for Marius to reinforce him. In the meanwhile, the Cimbri started to plunder the Po River Valley. It would prove to be a costly mistake.
The combined Roman army, now around 55,000 men and were up against around 65,000 enemy warriors. In 101 BCE, Marius began to push the Cimbri to the North West of the region and entrap him. As the armies faced down, an eventful message was exchanged between the Cimbri and Marius.
The Cimbri sent an envoy to the Romans, stating they would be willing to accept battle when their allies arrive. Marius inquired who were these allies. When he was told that it was the Teutones, Marius replied:
“Then don’t trouble yourself with your brethren, for they have land, and they will have it forever – land which we have given them”
When the envoy was puzzled, Marius brings out several captured leaders of the Teutones. The Cimbri king, once aware of this, decided to offer battle. The two armies lined up at Vercellae. During the engagement, the Roman cavalry on the flanks charged and routed the Cimbri horse. Concurrently, the main Cimbri and Roman infantry lines engaged. After routing the enemy, the Roman cavalry returned to the center and attacked the Cimbri from the rear, effectively destroying the enemy formation.
Most of the Cimbri were enslaved or killed. This last action was the final battle of the Cimbrian War, as the Romans emerged victorious and most of the Germanic and Celtic tribes that joined the mass migration, were killed or enslaved.
Aftermath and Consequences
After the War, some of the Boii tribesman settled in Gaul. However the real impact and long term consequences were for the Romans to bear.
After the battle of Vercellae, Marius and Catulus were at odds, as to who deserves most credit for the victory. Ultimately, the Roman senate granted a joint triumph, but Marius reaped most of the rewards. This created some resentment, as Catulus would become a political enemy to Marius in the next few years.
Marius, without consultation of the senate, granted Roman citizenship to every Italian, thus making all of these men eligible to server in the Legions and not as auxiliary. It was a move, that was not popular with the senate at the time.
However, the Marian Reforms had long lasting consequences. Despite being essential, the new army structure switched the allegiance of the soldier from the state, to the General. In the hands of powerful generals such as Marius and Sulla, there were now Roman Soldiers who would march against their home, for their General. This reforms would acce
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