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Military History

The Roman Republic: No Match for the Cimbri and the Teutones

Despite numerous clashes, ambushes and bloody fighting, the Roman Republic could not turn away the “barbarian” Cimbri and Teutone tribes.

Despite numerous clashes, ambushes and bloody fighting, the Roman Republic could not turn away the “barbarian” Cimbri and Teutone tribes.

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

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 Carnie 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.

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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. Iunius 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” (Annaeus Florus). 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.” 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 Northmen. 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.

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