The Battle of Vercellae

The Cimbric War: The Classical Migrant Crisis, Italy and the Third Founder of Rome

105 BC and Rome’s very existence hangs in the balance. Thousands of Germanic tribesmen have descended on the Roman heartlands of Italy, intent on destruction. Having already suffered three catastrophic defeats, Rome’s power is now in danger of disappearing completely. Any remaining hope of its survival rests in one man. A man from an unimportant background, yet whose radical army reforms and fascinating public career are to change Rome forever. That man is Gaius Marius; it is to be he that became the saviour of the Roman Republic when it was in its greatest need.

Background: From Far Beyond

At the end of the 2nd Century BC, Northern Europe was a harsh and forbidding place. What we know as the ‘civilised’ Classical World stopped at the Alps; far beyond this natural border lay wild country. There, lands belonged to regionally split tribes – stretching from the Celts in the West to the Germanic and Scythians in the East. Conditions – especially in winter – were harsh and fighting among these tribes was a frequent occurrence. Thus, emigrations of these peoples to seek a better land was not uncommon. This mass tribal movement into Italy was no exception.

We know of three tribes involved in this emigration; the Ambrones, Teutons and the Cimbri. Although our main ancient sources’ descriptions of the Cimbri are light, both Tacitus (Ger. 37) and Plutarch (Mar. 11.3) believe that they, along with the Teutons and Ambrones, came all the way from modern day Denmark in the Jutland Peninsula. Overall they are believed to have 300,000 warriors with even more women and children. Never before would they have travelled so far south and in such great numbers to find a new home. It was a truly radical move, so desperate were the times.  When they finally arrived at the Alps they encountered a new civilisation, very different to any they had encountered before.


That civilisation was the ever-growing power of the Roman Republic. Although its Empire had not yet reached places as distant as Britain, Egypt and Jerusalem, Rome had become the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Famous victories over powerful foes such as Hannibal, Pyrrhus, Philip V and Perseus were legend to this nation. This emigration however, was a completely new threat, different to anything they had experienced before.

March of the Tribesi 113 BC
The Roman Empire at the outbreak of the Cimbric War 113 BC. The Tribal confederation had travelled all the way from Jutland to reach the borders of this great Empire.

Beyond the Alps, the north was unknown to the eternal city. Trade and contact with northern Germanic tribes was non-existent (Plut. Mar. 11.2) with the Romans having only heard terrifying stories of these people; stories of men larger than life with hungry blood-lust for war. No longer would these fierce tribes be just a story to Rome however. Suddenly they became a grave reality.

The Coming of the Tribes

When the tribes finally arrived at the Alpine passes, Rome met them with war. Victory in war, to the powerful Roman aristocrats and politicians, meant glory and fame. These men therefore saw this new foe as a great opportunity to define their legacy.

What followed however was calamity. The ferocity and speed, with which the Germanic warriors threw themselves into battle, shattered any attempt at Roman order instantaneously! As soon as this happened, the Romans became as helpless as rats in a barrel; these soldiers had not trained, unlike their German counterparts, to fight purely as individuals.

The result was slaughter. Multiple Roman armies fell to these warriors. Instead of glory, the commanding aristocrats gained shame and death. At the two battles at Arausio in 105BC, for example, the Roman death count was recorded at a staggering 80,000 (Livy, Periochae. 67). To put that into perspective, that was 30,000 more troops lost here than at the crushing defeat to Hannibal at Cannae.

This horde had now become a very serious problem to Rome. Whilst the tribes devastated their holdings in Southern Gaul, in Italy, the catastrophic defeats had left the Roman heartland in a state of panic. Eligible manpower for any new armies was now scarce and Rome’s very existence was in great danger. The migrating tribes on the other hand still had a bountiful number of fierce warriors, fixated on utterly destroying Roman power (Plut. Mar. 11.9). Rome needed a saviour and they found one.

Caius (Gaius) Marius
Caius (Gaius) Marius Portrait. Photo Credit to Skara commun

Hope at Last

That saviour was Gaius Marius. Having risen from obscurity to become one of the greatest leaders in the Roman Republic, Marius’ life story is absolutely fascinating and unique for the period. As such I would really recommend you read Plutarch’s biography of Marius available here. His military successes in Spain and Africa before 105BC had made him very popular with his soldiers and the people. This rising star was therefore recalled to Rome to deal with this terrifying threat from the North (Plut. Mar. 12.1-2). Having taken control of the armies, he set about changing the direction of the war.

Two things in particular helped Marius the most to achieve this goal: Time and reform.

The Roman army had proven for hundreds of years its effectiveness in battle against a variety of enemies. It wasn’t perfect however; the catastrophic defeats to the Germanic tribes in the previous years had proven that. Thus, Marius realised that fundamental reform of the structure and tactics of the Roman army was necessary to defeat this new enemy.


One key problem for Rome in 105BC was manpower. Over 100,000 Roman soldiers had already perished in this war before Marius had even arrived. Thus, the eligible Romans (property-owning labourers and above) who could enlist were becoming scarce. To solve this huge problem Marius had a simple yet controversial solution; he made the poor and landless – the so called Roman proletariat – also eligible to enlist (Plut. Mar. 9.1).

So why was this so controversial? Well, to Romans, this was a radical decision, completely altering a recruitment system that had been in place for centuries. Only in the most dire of situations had Rome previously ever resorted to arming these men  (for example when Pyrrhus almost subjugated Rome in 280-278BC). This radical reform really demonstrates the dire straits Rome now found itself in; this was the last throw of the dice.

From the reforms, Roman manpower increased magnificently and Marius’ consular armies swelled with new recruits. Marius may have sorted the manpower problem, but now he needed time to train his rabble. If the Germans had invaded Italy at that point, then even with Marius’ superb military command, it seems perfectly possible that they would have conquered Rome.

Playing for Time: The Critical Moment

Time, therefore was the other crucial factor Marius desperately needed. What followed then was, I’d argue, one of the biggest tactical errors in classical military campaigns committed by a nation. For Marius, however, it was a huge stroke of luck.

Following their crushing victories over Rome, the love of plunder blinded these Germanic tribes from making the correct judgement. Now they had the chance to invade Italy and rip the heart out of Roman power. Yet did they do this? Well, no. Instead, they headed to Iberia (modern day Spain), excited by the prospect of exotic riches and substantial wealth. This misjudgement was a godsend to Marius as it gave him time; time Marius so desperately needed to train up his army.

The sheer magnitude of this tactical error is similar to the one made during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Despite crippling the Americans, the Japanese did not press their advantage by destroying the entire base. Instead, they retreated back into the Western Pacific. As a result, the American repair yards, oil tank farms and submarine base all survived the attack. This proved in the long-term catastrophic for the Japanese as this gave the US the time and facilities they desperately needed. As we all know, this allowed America to recover, fight back and eventually emerge victorious. The time they had to recuperate, as with Marius and the Romans, was critical to an eventual victory.

Japanese Zeros
Japan’s  failure to destroy the entire US Naval Base at Hawaii gave the Americans the time and ability to retaliate.

Marius used his time wisely for training his new-look army.  With loaded marches, running and other exercises, Marius physically prepared his troops for fighting a fanatical foe. He did not stop there however.  Marius was also keen to show his troops just how good a general he was; be that in his justice, fighting or attitude (Plut. Mar. 14.3-6). By showing his troops he had these qualities, Marius gained the utmost respect of his new look army. They viewed him not only as their leader, but also as one of their own.

But what of the evident fear factor created by the very sight of these screaming Germanic Beserkers? Yes, Marius addressed that too. When a portion of the tribes finally confronted him near modern day Arles and the River Rhone, Marius got each of his men accustomed to the sight of these tall, built, fearless warriors; men who were itching to kill all Romans in their path (Plut. Mar. 16.3). As with everything in life, if you look at something long enough, you get used to it. The exact same thing happened with Marius’ men. In the previous Roman armies, the initial German fear factor had caused much panic and fractures in the ranks. For Marius and his men, however, it would play little part in the upcoming fights.

Time had been critical to Marius. It had allowed him to improve the Roman army into both a formidable physically tough and mentally strong force. With it, he now trusted his army to be able to stand up to even the most savage attacks.

The Result

Marius had successfully transformed the Roman army into the most effective fighting force yet seen. As a result, the tide of the war turned dramatically against the invaders. On two separate occasions – at Aquae Sextae and Vercellae – Marius destroyed this tribal confederation. Almost none survived.

No Mercy

Let’s remember that this had been a War against three entire Germanic tribes. It wasn’t just the warriors Rome was fighting, but also their women and children. Their survival was dependent on their tribes’ victory. Defeat, however, meant either death or slavery and the almost complete destruction of all three nations –  I say almost because small remnants of these peoples were still in Jutland. The harsh reality of these tribal emigrations was that they were huge gambles; either they would succeed or all would perish.

The Battle of Vercellae
Vintage engraving of the Battle of Vercellae. It depicts the last stand of the Cimbric women after the defeat of their tribe in battle.

The tribes thus failed and perished. Marius had changed the tide of the war and saved Rome from what was, as historians such as Richard Evans state,

‘the greatest challenge to Roman supremacy in the west since the Hannibalic invasion.’ (Acta Classica, 2005, p.37)

Regarding Marius himself, the people now deemed him to be,

…the third founder of Rome, as having diverted a danger no less threatening than was that when the Gauls sacked Rome.

(Plut. Mar. 27.4)

Not only do both remarks show just how serious a threat the emigration had been to Roman existence, but they also highlight Marius’ critical importance in defeating these invaders.

The Cimbric War 112 - 101 BC
The Cimbric War 112 – 101 BC: The Tribes’ decision to plunder Spain rather than Italy following victory at Arausio was a grave mistake.

What if?

But what if the Germanic tribes had not been distracted by the riches in Spain? What if instead they had marched straight to Italy? It was this distraction that had given Marius the time to reform the army; time so critical to the Romans eventually defeating these migrating forces. If this distraction had not occurred however, we must consider a world where Roman power in Italy was destroyed. In its place, imagine a world where Germanic tribal societies became dominant.

One of Marius’ longest lasting achievements was his reforming of the Roman legions. It was these reforms that created one of, if not the, most disciplined and effective armies in world history. With these legions, Rome would conquer much of  the known world. From Western Europe, to Northern Africa, to the Levant, Rome would consistently win famous victories under renowned commanders such as Agricola and Corbulo. It’s interesting to consider a world therefore, where Marius had not had the time to conduct these reforms. If so, then this supreme, expansionist Roman future would never have happened.

Legacy of the Saviour

Regarding Marius himself, history would likely have forgotten his name; the name of a general who failed to defend Rome in its greatest time of need. Plutarch, if he even decided to write biographies in this alternate history, would likely not have included Marius. This would have been a man, after all, who’s defeat would have ended the Roman Republic.

Marius’ victories in the Cimbric War would also lead him into a very dominant political career. Before his death, this man would win election to consul – the most powerful position in the Roman Republic – a staggering eight times. This was a truly unorthodox achievement. Before Marius, Roman law had forbidden any man from holding this position more than once. Yet, Marius had held it not once, not twice but eight times!

This man’s multiple holdings of the consulship would be the start of the end of the Republic; it simply gave too much power to one man. People such as his enemy Sulla and his nephew Julius Caesar would follow Marius’ example, going even further to gain absolute power. Very soon after, Rome became a Republic in name only, replaced by a new idea that would define this nation for centuries. This idea was none other than that of having an Emperor. None of this would have occurred if Marius had been defeated by this emigration.

Reshaping Italy

The most interesting result of a successful invasion of Italy however would be the sacking of Rome itself. It was this, as Plutarch states (Mar. 11.9) , the migrating tribes had vowed to do. If that had happened, many famous Republican Roman buildings could well have been destroyed unceremoniously. Buildings such as the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the most important temple in Rome and the Roman Forum are great examples.

The Forum, Rome, Italy
The Roman Forum would have looked very different if there had been a successful Germanic Invasion.
Photo credit to Robert Linder

The culture of Italy would also have dramatically changed with this Germanic populating in Roman Italy. Following their settlement, a new cross-bred Romano-Germanic culture would have developed. What this culture would have entailed is unknown and purely speculation. Yet the idea that these tribes would have started adopting certain mainstays of the ‘civilised’ world seems likely; sewers, large architecture and roads are good examples of these. They possibly would also have maintained certain parts of their German identity such as their religious, warfare and political systems. Perhaps this is what a new Romano-Germanic culture would look like?


The possible results of a successful Germanic emigration in the Cimbric Wars are therefore fascinating to consider.  If it had not been for Marius, Roman (and indeed European) history undoubtedly would have been very different to what we know today. As so often happens at history’s turning points however, ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man.’ Marius was no exception.

It  does, however, also make you wonder why the Germanic tribes made such a huge error as to not attack Italy when Rome was weakest. This mistake was a critical point in our history. In the end, it is one we should all be very thankful for.

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Notes, Links and Related Reading

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Views are entirely my own when references not stated.

Plutarch’s Life of Marius can be found here.

Tacitus’ Germania

Livy Periochae 66-70 

Evans. R. J, ‘Rome’s Cimbric Wars (114-101BC) and their Impact on the Iberian Peninsula,’ Acta Classica 48, 2005, pp.37-56.

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