Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

The Swarm from the North

For a century and a half after the events recorded in my last chapter, no important southward movement of the northern nations took place. The destruction of one great host of Gaul and the permanent settlement of another in Western Asia must have diminished the population of the region beyond the Alps, and lightened the pressure on the means of living. Rome was not called upon to meet any powerful army of invaders; a fortunate circumstance, when we consider the exhaustion that must have followed the terrible struggle of the Second Punic War. After the wars of the first half of the second century B.C., which practically reduced the successors of Alexander to insignificance, Rome even began to advance her frontiers northward.

Curiously enough these successes had the effect of bringing down on the Republic a more formidable attack, the invasion led by Brennus not excepted, than she ever had had to meet before. For some years previous to the year 113 B.C., a homeless people called Cimbri, a word variously translated by friends and enemies as "champions" or "robbers," had been wandering about in the regions north of the Danube. The word suggests the well-known name of Cymri, but the resemblance of sound is deceptive. The Cimbri were really of the Germanic stock. In fact a remnant of the tribe preserved the name for many years afterwards in what seems to have been its original habitation, the peninsula of Denmark. What cause drove them southward cannot be stated with certainty. An ancient writer records one account that had come to his ears, that large tracts of land occupied by the tribe on the shores of the Baltic had been overflowed by the sea, and that its inhabitants were compelled to migrate or to starve. The story seemed incredible to the writer who preserved it. To us, who can easily find a parallel in the history of the great migrations of mankind, it appears not improbable. And this, in the absence of evidence, which indeed is not likely to be forthcoming, is all that we can say. For some time the Celtic tribes that occupied the banks of the Danube had kept the Cimbri from reaching that river. But when the Celts had been seriously weakened by the armies of Rome, they were no longer able, or, it may be, no longer willing to continue this resistance. It is quite likely indeed that they welcomed as allies the people which they had been accustomed to regard as enemies. One thing is certain, that either then, or during their previous wanderings, the Cimbri had added to their hosts many Celtic comrades. The Celts were better armed, more advanced in the military art, and—a most important consideration—more familiar with the Roman methods of warfare. Hence we are not surprised to find among the leaders of the invading host, Germanic as it was in the main, some unquestionably Celtic names.

The movement was on a scale and of a kind new to Roman experience. It was no expedition of warriors. The whole nation had come. The Cimbri had a vast array of waggons with them, containing their wives, their children, and all that belonged to them. There was a curious resemblance between them—something of the same kind may be seen to-day in a shipload of Scandinavian emigrants—for all were huge of stature, the women falling little short of the men, and all fair-haired. For weapons they had a javelin and a long sword; every man carried a long narrow shield, and the chiefs among them were also protected by coats of mail.

The first relation between the Romans and the Cimbri was not other than friendly. Papirius Carbo, the Consul in command of the Roman army, required them to abstain from interfering with the Taurisci, a Celtic tribe inhabiting the northern bank of the Danube, on the ground of being in alliance with Rome. The Cimbri did not refuse obedience. Then Carbo was guilty of a shameful act of treachery, which, as we shall see, met with its due reward. He offered the strangers guides, who were to lead them to a region which they might occupy without hindrance. These guides had in fact instructions to lead the Cimbri into an ambush which had been carefully prepared for them. The plot succeeded in a way, but the result was very different from what Carbo had expected. The Cimbri turned upon their betrayers, inflicted upon them a heavy loss, and, but for the opportune breaking of a great storm over the battlefield, would have entirely destroyed them.

The conquerors did not move southwards, as might have been expected, but marching west through Northern Switzerland and South-eastern Gaul, remained quiet for a while. They were, however, still in need of land which they could call their own, and they asked the help of the Roman general who was in command at the frontier to help them in obtaining it. His own reply was to attack them, with no better result than a terrible slaughter among his troops and the loss of his camp. The Cimbri sent an embassy to Rome, repeating the request that they made to the Consul, and while they waited for the reply employed themselves in subjugating their Celtic neighbours.

Eight years had now passed since the defeat of Carbo, and the unexpected reprieve which Rome had enjoyed was at an end. The Cimbri, disappointed at receiving no reply to their demands from Rome, and recognising that it would be more profitable to invade Italy than to fight for less desirable regions in Gaul, marched to the Rhone under the command of their king Boiorix. The Romans had no less than three armies on the spot. The weakest of the three, commanded by the ex-Consul Ămilius Scaurus, was the first to be attacked. It was routed, and its commander taken prisoner. Brought before King Boiorix, Scaurus warned the invader not to venture on invading Italy, and was put to death for what was judged to be presumption. The two remaining armies were concentrated at Arausio, on the left bank of the Rhone. Unhappily the two officers in command were enemies. They would not occupy a common camp, nor would they deliberate on the plan of campaign that was to be followed. The result was a frightful disaster. It is possible that a conflict might have been avoided altogether. Even after the defeat of Scaurus the two consular armies presented so formidable an appearance that Boiorix expressed himself willing to treat. Negotiations were actually in progress when CŠpio, an ex-Consul, who was inferior in rank to the Consul Maximus, committed an act of surprising folly. Fearing that his colleague might gain all the credit if the negotiations with the Cimbri were successful, he attacked the enemy with the force under his immediate command. The battle of Arausio, fought on October 6, 105 B.C., was not less fatal than Allia and CannŠ, followed as it was by the defeat of the other army. Eighty thousand soldiers are said to have been slain on the field, or to have perished in the retreat.

At Rome the result was something like a revolution. The political history of the time is outside my province. It will be enough, therefore, to say that the most renowned general of the time, C. Marius, was put in supreme command. He was made Consul, in spite of the law that forbade especial election to this office, and he was continued in command for five years in succession.

The Cimbri had not actually carried out their intention of invading Italy. They had turned aside to plunder South-western Gaul, and even to cross the Pyrenees into Spain. Marius made use of the delay, which it is scarcely too much to say was the salvation of Rome, to strengthen the defences of Northern Italy, to recall the wavering tribes of Cisalpine Gaul to their allegiances, and to find auxiliaries among the peoples which had as much reason as had Rome herself to dread the success of the Cimbri.

This people had now received considerable reinforcements. They had been joined by some Helvetian tribes, and by the Teutones, old neighbours in Northern Europe, and now, by a curious chance, associated with them in their invasion of the south. The first intention of the allies was to force their way into Italy in one vast army. This was given up, probably on account of the mechanical difficulty connected with transport. It was finally arranged that the Teutones, with the Helvetian tribe of the Amburones and a Cimbrian contingent, were to invade Italy by the western passes of the Alps, and that the Cimbri, also reinforced by some Helvetians, should try the passes to the east. It is with the former of these two divisions that I am first concerned.

Marius had taken up his position in a strongly fortified camp at the junction of the Rhone and the Isere. Here he resolutely refused to risk the chances of a battle. It was no question, he represented to the impatient spirits in his army, of victories and of triumphs, but of the safety of Rome, which would be lost if her last army were defeated. To the soldiers, who were not less impatient, he used different arguments, appealing, for instance, to their superstition. He affirmed that he was in possession of oracles which promised Rome a decisive victory, which was to be won, however, at a certain place and time. There was a prophetess in his camp, a Syrian, very possibly a Jewess by birth, whom he professed to consult, and who, we may reasonably suppose, accommodated her answers to his ideas of the military necessities of the time. The barbarians were encouraged by the inaction of the Romans to make an attack on the camp. They were easily repulsed, and speedily abandoned the attempt, marching forward as if the Roman force might safely be neglected. For six days so vast was their array of fighting-men and baggage, they filed past the camp, uttering insulting cries as they went. When they had passed, Marius broke up his camp and followed them. He never relaxed, however, his precautions. He chose every night a strong position for his camp, and fortified it to resist an attack. At AquŠ SextiŠ (Aix) he determined to bring the enemy to an engagement. About 15 miles to the north of Marseilles. It must be distinguished, of course, from Aix-les-Bains.

The story ran that he deliberately chose a position for his camp where the supply of water was short, and that when the soldiers complained he pointed to the river that ran close to the position of the barbarians, saying, "There is drink, but you must buy it with blood." "Let us go then," cried the soldiers, "while our blood still flows in our veins." Marius insisted upon their first fortifying the camp. The legion was too well disciplined not to obey him, but there were others less amenable to discipline, and a collision with the enemy took place before the day was out. The camp followers, who had no water for their beasts, or even for themselves flocked down to the river, having armed themselves as well as they could. Here they came into collision with the Amburones, who, taken at first by surprise, soon recovered their courage, and raising their war-cry with what is described as a terrific volume of sound, advanced to repel the newcomers. The light-armed Ligurians on the Roman side came to the help of their comrades, and these again were supported by some of the regular troops. The affair was a skirmish on a very large scale rather than a battle. The Romans had much the best of it, but they were far from feeling the security of conquerors. They spent the night under arms, expecting from hour to hour an assault upon their camp.

The barbarians, however, were less confident than Marius supposed. For two days they remained inactive, and even then it was not they who challenged the conflict. Marius, who had great gifts as a general, had observed a convenient place in the rear of the enemy's position where an ambush might be conveniently laid. Here he posted three thousand men under the command of Marcellus. In the battle that followed the unexpected onslaught of this force on the barbarian rear did much to decide the issue of the day. Attacked both in front and in rear the Teutones gave way. To give way under such circumstances meant utter destruction. What the numbers of the slain and the captured may have been it is impossible to say. Levy says that 200,000 were slain, 180,000 taken prisoners. Other authorities reduce the number of the slain by a half. One thing, however, is certain, that the Teutones ceased to exist. Those who did not fall on the field or in the rout put an end to their own lives. The women also killed themselves rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. It is curious that the name of the tribe was preserved by the remnant left behind in its original seat when the great host migrated southward, and that it is now used to designate one of the great families of the human race. Marius was just about to set fire to a huge pile of the spoils of the dead when messengers from Rome reached the field, announcing that he had been elected for the fifth time to the Consulship.

But Rome was not yet out of danger, for the Cimbri were yet to be accounted for. They had forced their way into Italy, Lutatius Catulus, the colleague of Marius in the Consul, finding himself unable to stop them. His original intention had been to defend the passes of the Tyrol, but he relinquished the idea and took up a strong position on the Athesis (Adige). Even here he did not feel safe. His troops indeed were so terrified by the report of the barbarians' advance that they refused to remain, and Catulus, making a merit of necessity, putting himself at their head, retreated to the southern side of the Po, leaving the richest plains of Northern Italy to the mercy of the foe.

Cimbric War


When news of the threatening position of affairs reached Rome Marius was summoned to the capital to advise on the course to be pursued. As soon as he arrived the people, with whom he was in the very highest favour, offered him a triumph for his victory over the Teutones. He refused to accept the honour so long as the Cimbri remained on Roman soil. He at once went northwards, and summoning to him the elite  of his legions, marched to reinforce Catulus. He effected a junction with this general near VercellŠ (Vercelli). The Cimbri had not heard, it seems, of the disaster which had overtaken the Teutones, and put off fighting in the hope of being joined by them. They even sent envoys to the Roman generals, demanding an allotment of land for themselves and their kinsmen. "We have given your kinsmen their portion, and they are not likely to be disturbed in it," replied Marius with grim humour. "You shall pay dearly for your jest," they replied, and prepared to depart. "Nay," said the Roman, "you must not depart without saluting your relatives," and he ordered the captive kings of the Teutones who had been captured in an attempt to cross the Alps to be produced. After this nothing remained but to fight with as little delay as possible.

The combined forces of the Romans numbered between 50,000 and 60,000. We have no trustworthy account of the battle which followed, Plutarch's narrative being borrowed, it would seem, from writers not favourable to Marius, from Catulus himself, who left a history of his campaign, and from the notebook of Sulla, who was serving with Catulus. His story is that Marius missed his way in a dust-storm that suddenly swept over the plain, and that he wandered about vainly seeking the enemy till the battle had been practically decided by the courage of the troops commanded by Catulus and his lieutenant, Sulla. It is certain, however, that at Rome the credit of the victory was, in the main, assigned to Marius. About one part of the battle there is, however, no doubt. Never has there been seen a more tragic spectacle. The scene that closed the day at AquŠ SextiŠ was repeated on a larger scale and with added horrors at the Campi Raudii.

The Cimbrian women stood on the waggons robed in black. They slaughtered the fugitives when these sought temporary shelter behind the barricade, sparing neither father, brother, or husband. Then they slaughtered their children, and finally put an end to their own lives. As many as sixty thousand prisoners, however, were taken, while the number that fell on the field of battle is said to have been twice as great. The Cimbri perished as utterly as the Teutones.

The triumph which Marius and his colleague celebrated on their return to Rome was indeed well deserved if we consider the consequences of the victory which it was given to reward. For more than two centuries Rome was not again called upon to fight for her life against barbarian foes. Her armies met indeed more than once with serious disasters, but these defeats were incurred in campaigns of aggression. And if, as might easily happen, her frontiers were sometimes crossed, it was a mere matter of hordes of casual plunderers, whose movements did not really affect the general course of events.