Thursday, 30 July 2015

“Mine is the victory” – Marius’ Mules and the end of the Cimbri tribe at the Battle of Vercellae

30 July 101 BCE, The twenty years of the Germanic Cimbri’s meandering through Europe ended with a crushing defeat and obliteration of the tribe at the hands of Gaius Marius and his reformed army in Northern Italy after the Battle of Vercellae.

“Meanwhile the infantry of the Barbarians came on to the attack like a vast sea in motion. Then Marius, after washing his hands, lifted them to heaven and vowed a hecatomb to the gods; Catulus also in like manner lifted his hands and vowed that he would consecrate the fortune of that day. It is said, too, that Marius offered sacrifice, and that when the victims had been shown to him, he cried with a loud voice: "Mine is the victory."” (Plutarch “The Life of Marius”)

Francesco Saverio Altamura’s (1822 – 1897) Romantic imagination of 
“Marius triumphing over the Cimbri” (1859)


Whatever it was that gave three whole tribes in Jutland itchy feet around 115 BCE, the migration of the Germanic Cimbri and Teutones and the Celtic Ambrones had changed the Roman world forever. It was probably a combination of several harsh winters and crop failures that made them pack up their things and trek south, more than 150.000 people, men, women and children, first migrating from Denmark towards Bavaria, Slovenia and Serbia and then to the west again, where they had their first serious contact with the Romans at Noreia somewhere in Styria. The Romans had heard about the peoples of the north, of course, especially from the writings of the Greek geographer Pytheas, but to have hundreds of thousands right at their doorstep made them a bit wary. Consul Carbo closed the Alpine passes, negotiated with the tribal leaders to move further to the west into Celtic Gaul to find new lands to settle there – and, after the talks were finished apparently to everyone’s satisfaction, he attacked. Carbo and his two legions suffered quite a surprise, though. In a terrain where they couldn’t develop their full fighting capacity, the Germans and Celts gave them a drubbing and the Romans were saved only by a heavy thunderstorm that allegedly made the Northerners flee because they feared the skies would fall on their heads. The myth might have saved morally flexible Carbo and his men, but it didn’t stop the tribes from moving further into Gaul as it was agreed before. And five years later, they stood on the borders of Italy again and the next round of highly capable Roman consuls tried their hand at stopping the barbarian invasion. But this time, no divine intervention saved them. Had the 12 fighting legions hurried north been commanded by a Scipio Africanus or Aemilius Paullus, the spook would have been over by then, but in 105 BCE at Arausio, present-day Orange in France, they had Maximus and Caepio, and the Cimbri and Teutones wiped the floor with them and their 80,000 men, the same type of legionaries who had won at Zama, Magnesia and Pydna against the former Mediterranean Great Powers.

A late 19th century imagination of the Cimbri and Teutoni on the march.


Back home, Rome was shocked accordingly, probably even more than a hundred years before, when Hannibal’s three subsequent victories brought the Republic on the verge of collapse. Something had to be done, of course, and legend has it that Gaius Marius reformed the army out of nothing and fought back. In fact, most of his innovations had already been introduced decades before and the legionaries did no longer fight organised as Hastati, Principes and Triarii at least since the days of Scipio Aemilianus. The Gracchi reforms 15 years before already took care that the state cared for the legionaries’ equipment, provisions and pay and not every man for himself. However, as it was customary, a Roman commander was still responsible for the drill and training of his troops and Marius surpassed himself in this field along with his insistence that the legionaries carried their own baggage, earning them the nickname muli mariani, Marius’ Mules. The Marian Reforms might just have been a codifying and standardisation of existing innovations, but there was one improvement that can be clearly traced back to Marius himself, his pension plan of granting army veterans land plots when their active service had ended, usually after twenty years. An idea that would prove to be fateful for the Roman Republic over the next generation. But for now, Marius had plucked six new legions almost out of thin air, better drilled and better equipped than any fighting force before them. In the meanwhile, the Cimbri and Teutones mysteriously decided not to invade Italy after their victory at Arausio, split up and remained in Gaul. In 102 BCE, Marius finally marched his reformed army north, defeated the Teutones and Ambrones at Aquae Sextiae, Aix-en-Provence, in October, wiping out the two tribes, men, women and children, with no losses to speak of and turned towards the Cimbri who had by then moved finally into Italy.


Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville’s (1835 – 1885) 
somewhat racy imagination of the
climax of either Aquae Sextiae or Vercellae 

and the end of the Germanic womenfolk.



Uniting his 30,000 men with the 20,000 under Quintus Lutatius Catulus who were originally charged with guarding the Alpine passes against the 200,000 Cimbri on the march, Marius met with the Germanic chieftains in the plains of Piedmont. They offered the Romans peace for keeping the territories they currently occupied, the Roman commander flatly refused and the Cimbri asked him to name a place then to fight it out. Marius chose the Raudine Plain and there, on 30 July, his 50,000 mules prepared to face the horde of well-equipped and desperate Germanics. Marius chose the battlefield with some deliberation. The horde had to advance right into the midday sun, reflected dazzlingly from the lines of mail-clad Roman legionaries and blinding the Cimbri, their advance stalled, a dashing young cavalry tribune named Sulla seized the opportunity, dispersed the Germanics’ horsemen and Marius gave the signal for a general advance into the huge dust clouds raised by the cavalry action. Marius’ mules smashed into the confused enemy infantry and destroyed them piecemeal. When the Cimbri warriors finally broke, legend has it that their womenfolk defended the baggage train to the last, then strangled their children lest they were captured as slaves and finally hung themselves from the wagon boards. Nonetheless, Plutarch records that more than 60,000 Cimbri were sold into slavery after the Battle of the Raudine Plain had ended and 140,000 were slain. And even if the numbers might be exaggerated, the tribe of the Cimbri was obliterated like the Teutones the year before. Marius was awarded the title pater patriae, father of the fatherland and the course was set for the conflict between him and his cavalry commander at Vercellae, Felix Cornelius Sulla, that climaxed into the Roman civil wars of the 1st century BCE and, ultimately, the end of the Roman Republic.



And more about the Battle of Vercellae on: