Military Heritage Magazine & Warfare History Network
The Cimbri and Teutones humble Rome’s Legions
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
Chronicling the initial Roman battles against the Cimbri and Teutones, from the origin of these tribes up to the beginning of the gigantic battle of Arausio in 105 BC.
Who were the Cimbri and Teutones?
In 113 BC the Cimbri and Teutones marched into the limelight of recorded history when they appeared on the Roman Balkan frontier. Clad in primitive hides and furs and rumored to be eaters of raw flesh, the tall, blond, and blue-eyed people appeared to the Romans as a race of savage giants. In lumbering wagons, literally huts on wheels, they traveled with their entire families alongside herds of livestock.
The Cimbri and Teutones’ origin mystified the Romans who in those days knew little of the realms and peoples of northern Gaul and Germany. Most claimed that they were Germans; some thought they were Celts. Others pondered if they were Galloscythians, a mix of the Gauls and the Scythian peoples of the eastern steppes, or the Cimmerians of Greek legend who lived in eternal darkness at the world’s edge.
Modern scholars generally believe that the Cimbri and Teutones were Germans. This Germanic argument is based on the location of the Cimbri and Teutones’ homelands in northern Denmark, which were within the Germanic and outside of the Celtic domains. Nevertheless, the names of their chieftains are Celtic, which leads some modern historians to maintain that the Cimbri and Teutones were Celts.
However, classical historians might have transmitted German names to us in Celtic form because they were more familiar with the Celtic language. Whether they were Germans or Celts, the incredible saga of the Cimbri and Teutones began during the late 2nd century BC when a rise in the ocean level inundated large tracts of the Danish coast. A scattering of tribes were forced to seek homelands elsewhere; they were led by the Teutones and Cimbri. Classical historians hopelessly exaggerated their numbers, either to justify Roman defeats at the barbarians’ hands or to magnify the scale of the final Roman victories. Plutarch claimed that there were 300,000 warriors. The precise number of Cimbri and Teutones will never be known, but it is likely that together the two tribes numbered less than 150,000 men, women, and children, a figure on par with the larger German tribes of the 5th to 7th centuries AD.
The Epic Journey of the Cimbri and Teutones
Starting from northern Denmark, the Cimbri and Teutones first wandered south along the Elbe around the year 100 BC. From there, they headed east along the Danube. In Bohemia they met the Celtic Boii whose resistance persuaded the two tribes to trek farther south into the Balkans. There they clashed with the Celtic Scordisci. As a result of this encounter, the Scordisci were pushed south into Macedonia while the Cimbri and Teutones were deflected westward toward Italy via the valley of the Drave and the passes of the Carnic Alps. They now threatened the Celtic kingdom of Noricum, a close trading partner of Rome, and the iron mines of Noreia. This placed them dangerously close to the borders and interests of the Roman Republic.
To meet this new barbarian incursion, Consul Papirus Carbo was sent to bar their way in the heights north of Aquileia, near present-day Venice. Although outnumbered, Carbo felt that his disciplined legions could deal with the crudely armed barbarian rabble. Having had little contact with the civilized world, the half-naked Cimbri and Teutones warrior probably had little more than a wooden shield for protection, his principal weapon a wooden, bone, or for some an iron-tipped spear. Cavalry was uncommon and the bulk of the warriors fought as infantry. A few of the chiefs, their retainers, and warriors of renown may have sported body armor and wielded iron long swords. It was they who boldly formed the front ranks in battle.
A Failed Roman Army Ambush
When the Cimbri and Teutones heard that the people of Noricum were friends of the Roman Republic, they sent word that they would leave them in peace. Carbo praised the barbarian envoys, and in a gesture of goodwill, offered guides to take them back across the Noricum borders. In reality, Carbo’s guides led the Cimbri and Teutones into a Roman ambush. Carbo sprung his trap near Noreia but failed to scatter the barbarians, who rallied and viciously counterattacked. The Roman army was suddenly in very serious trouble. It would have been completely annihilated had it not been for a severe tempest that put an end to the battle. In face of this disaster, Carbo took his life by poison.
After their victory, the Cimbri and Teutones did not press on toward Italy; perhaps because remnants of Carbo’s army still guarded the passes. They crossed the Alps, and skirting their northern reaches, marched into Gaul by way of the lowlands between the Jura and Vosges Mountains. En route the Celtic Tigurini of western Switzerland gave the wanderers a warm welcome. The guests boasted of their triumph against the Roman Republic and of the treasures amassed in their epic journey. Such tales whetted the Tigurini’s taste for adventure and they decided to join the Cimbri and Teutones in their travels.
For over a year the Cimbri coalition pillaged the southern Gallic countryside but lacked the siege know-how or the required patience of a blockade to take any of the walled towns. By 109 BC the barbarians reached the northern border of Narbonese Gaul where their progress was blocked by a Roman army under Consul M. Junius Silanus.
The People of Mars
Barbarian envoys arrived before Silanus and asked that “the people of Mars should give them some land by way of pay and use their hands and weapons for any purpose they wished”¹. Silanus referred the matter to the Senate. In another age, Roman Emperors who lacked the manpower to protect their crumbling frontiers might have accepted such an offer, but in 109 BC it was a different matter. Victorious against the armies of Greece, Spain, Carthage and Asia Minor, the Roman Republic had no need to settle such barbarous folk within the borders of its rising empire. Silanus told the barbarians that “Rome has no lands to give, and desires no services.”² He went out to engage the intruders and was promptly defeated.
Fortunately for Rome, the barbarians did not push onward into Italy. The Cimbri and Teutones turned north to plunder Gaul while the Tigurini continued westward. Led by their chief Divico, the Tigurini raided Roman Republic territories along the Rhone and in 107 incited a revolt among the Volcae Tectosages who placed the Roman garrison of Tolosa in chains. To suppress the uprising, Consul L. Cassius Longinus, commander of Narbonese Gaul, confronted and initially routed Divico. However, the Tigurini withdrawal was but a feint to waylay the pursuing legions northwest of Tolosa (around Agen on the Garonne). Longinus and a great part of his army were slain. The Tigurini chose to spare the survivors but demanded half their valuables, a number of hostages and humiliated the legionaries by forcing them to crawl under the yoke.
Raising Yet Another Army
To avenge these insults and restore order in Narbonese Gaul, the Roman Republic raised yet another army to be placed under the command of Consul Quintus Servilius Caepio. Caepio was a veteran of the Spanish wars for which he earned a triumph. In 106, he somehow managed to have Divico agree to a peaceful withdrawal. Caepio recovered Tolosa with the aid of traitors inside and looted the temple treasures of the god Belis (the Celtic Apollo). The fantastic amounts of gold and silver (rumored at 100,000 pounds of gold and 110,000 pounds of silver) would have been a welcome sight in Rome, whose own treasury was drained by the wars in Africa and Gaul. Mysteriously, the treasure disappeared while on its way to Massilia. The blame was put on bandits but not everyone was convinced. Caepio himself fell under suspicion, but Rome’s attention was diverted by the renewed appearance of the Cimbri and Teutones in Narbonese Gaul in 105.
Rome scraped together an additional army to rid itself of the barbarian menace once and for all. It was led by Consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus and accompanied by a separate strong corps under Legatus Marcus Aurelius Scarus. By early October, all three Roman armies gathered on the banks of the Rhone, near Arausio (Orange) to await the Cimbri and Teutones. The Roman Republic’s forces were by far the largest assembled in the barbarian wars, numbering up to 80,000 men. Caepio, now Proconsul, held the east bank of the river, Maximus the west. Well ahead of Maximus, Scarus and his corps occupied a vanguard position.
An Awful End for Scarus
Scarus was the first to feel the fury of the north men. Led by the Cimbri king, Boiorix, the barbarians tore down upon the Romans in a rough square phalanx, relying on sheer speed and ferocity to overwhelm the enemy. Like Silanus before him, Scarus was unable to stand against their charge.
His vanguard smashed, Scarus was thrown into chains and dragged to Boiorix’s feet. The latter held council with his chiefs, contemplating whether or not to move on into Italy. Scarus defiantly cried out that they would learn of true Roman power if they dared to cross the Alps and set foot in Italy. In answer, the barbarians ran a blade through his body.
Rome needed a New Commander and a New Army
Were Caepio and Maximus, with their huge army, able to finally stop the Cimbri and Teutones? And if they could not, who could? Rome did finally find a savior, a man born of humble origins but lofty ambitions, Gaius Marius. Marius would forge a new professional army, which would prove a match for the heretofore invincible barbarians.
The net article “The Cimbri and Teutones humble the Rome’s Legions” by Ludwig H. Dyck was first posted in two separate blogs on April 27, 2014 by James Hart on Warfare History Network. The article was originally published as part of the longer article “Wolves at the Border” in Military Heritage Magazine June 2003. The remainder of Rome’s fierce war with the Cimbri and Teutones is also featured in Ludwig H. Dyck’s book, “The Roman Barbarian Wars, the Era of Roman Conquest.”
¹ Annaeus Florus . XXXVIII, ²Ibid.
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