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

The year is 105BC and Rome’s very existence hangs in the balance. A massive migration of Germanic tribes has descended on Italy, the heartland of the Roman World. Roman resistance had been crushed in three catastrophic defeats and its power was in danger of total annihilation. Any remaining hope of Roman survival was left in one man. A man from an unimportant background, yet whose radical army reforms and fascinating public career would change Rome forever. That man’s name was Gaius Marius and it was he that became the saviour of the Roman Republic when it was in its greatest need.

At the end of the 2nd Century BC, Northern Europe was a harsh and largely unknown place, with the Alps having become a natural land border between the ‘civilised’ Classical World and the untamed north. Anywhere beyond this border 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 regular occurrence. Thus, migrations of these people to seek a better land for themselves was not uncommon. This mass tribal movement into Italy was no exception.

Regarding the tribes involved in this mass migration, we have three names; the Ambrones, Teutons and the Cimbri. Although our main ancient sources’ descriptions of the Cimbri are light, both Tacitus (Germania, 37) and Plutarch (Life of Marius, 11.3) believe that they, along with the Teutons and Ambrones, came all the way from modern day Denmark in the Jutland Peninsula. Never would they have travelled so far south before then and in such great numbers (300,000 warriors with even more women and children) to find a new home. When they finally arrived at the Alps, they encountered a new civilisation, very different to any seen before.

That civilisation was the ever-growing power of the Roman Republic. Although its Empire had not yet reached places such as Britain, Egypt and Jerusalem, Rome had become the dominant power in the Basin of the Mediterranean. Victories over famous foes such as Hannibal, Pyrrhus, Philip V and Perseus were legend to the Romans, yet this migration was a completely new threat to anything seen before.

Beyond the Alps, to the Romans, the north was unknown. Trade and contact with northern Germanic tribes was non-existent (Plut. Mar. 11.2), with the Romans having only heard stories of their frightening appearance and love of plunder. But no longer would these fierce tribes be just a story to Rome, but a grave reality.

Following the German tribes’ arrival at the Alpine passes, Rome went for war. Victory in war, to the powerful Roman aristocrats and politicians, meant glory and fame and so this new foe was seen by these men as a great opportunity. What followed however was calamity. The fierceness of the barbarians and the rapidity that they went into battle destroyed any sort of Roman order instantaneously! As soon as this happened, the Romans became as vulnerable as rats in a barrel; these soldiers, unlike their German counterparts, had not been trained to fight purely as individuals.

As a result, the Romans were annihilated on three separate occasions and 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 than at the crushing Roman defeat by the infamous Hannibal at Cannae.

This migration had now become a very serious problem to Rome. Its holdings in Southern Gaul were devastated whereas in Italy, the catastrophic defeats had left the Roman heartland in a state of panic. Eligible Roman 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, determined on utterly destroying Roman power (Plut. Mar. 11.9). Rome needed a saviour and they found one.

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

That saviour was Gaius Marius. Having risen from obscurity to become one of the greatest leaders in the Roman Republic at the time of this invasion, 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. After successes in Spain and Africa and being loved by both the people and soldiers, Marius was recalled to Rome to deal with this new threat from the North (Plut. Mar. 12.1-2). Having taken control of the armies, he started to change the direction of the war. But there were two things that helped him the most. Time and reform.

The Roman army had proven for hundreds of years its effectiveness in battle against a variety of enemies, but it wasn’t perfect (the catastrophic defeats to the Germanic tribes in the previous years had proven that). Thus, Marius realised that reform was necessary to defeat this new enemy.

One key problem for Rome in 105BC was manpower. Following the annihilation of over 100,000 Roman soldiers in this war before Marius’ arrival, 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 also eligible to enlist (Plut. Mar. 9.1). Why so controversial? Because in the eyes of the Romans this was a radical decision, completely altering a recruitment system that had been in place for centuries. This radical reform really shows 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 this rabble. If the Germans had invaded Italy now, then even with Marius’ superb military command, it seems perfectly possible to me that Rome would have been totally defeated.

Time, therefore was the other crucial thing necessary for Marius. What happened then was, I’d argue, one of the biggest tactical errors committed by a nation in Classical military campaigns and a huge stroke of luck to Marius. Following their crushing victories over Rome, the Cimbri, Teutons and Ambrones’ love of plunder hindered them from making the correct judgement. Instead of invading Italy and ripping the heart out of Roman power, they turned to the rich provinces of Iberia (modern day Spain). 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 by the Germanic tribes can best be compared with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Despite this being a crippling blow to the Americans, the Japanese did not press their advantage by destroying the base entirely (such as the repair yards, oil tank farms and the submarine base). Instead they retreated back into the Western Pacific. This proved in the long-term catastrophic as this gave the US the time and facilities they desperately needed to be able to recover and fight back. This time, like with Marius and the Romans, was critical to an eventual victory.

The Japanese’s failure to destroy the entire US Naval Base at Hawaii gave the Americans the time and ability to fight back.

Marius used this time wisely for training his new-look army.  With loaded marches, running and other exercises, Marius got his troops physically prepared for fighting a fanatical foe. And he did not stop there. Instead, Marius was keen to show his troops just how good a general he was whether that be in justice, fighting or attitude (Plut. Mar. 14.3-6). In this way, Marius gained the utmost respect of his new look army. He acted as and was 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 Marius near modern day Arles and the River Rhone, Marius got each of his men accustomed to the sight of these tall, built, fearless warriors determined 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 and the exact same thing happened with Marius’ men. Unlike in the previous Roman armies, the German fear factor, crucial in their rapid attacks, would now play little part in the upcoming fights.

Time had been critical to Marius as it had allowed him to improve the Roman army into both a physically and mentally strong force, able to stand up to even the most savage attacks.

Having given Marius the time to transform the Roman army into the most effective fighting force yet seen, the tide of the war altered dramatically against the invaders. On two separate occasions; at Aquae Sextae and Vercellae, Marius destroyed this tribal confederation, leaving almost none alive.

Let’s remember that this had been a War against a migration of three entire Germanic tribes. It wasn’t just the tribal warriors Rome was fighting, but also their women and children. Their survival was dependent on their tribes’ victory. Defeat on the other hand meant death and the almost complete destruction of all three tribes (remnants of these tribes were still found in Jutland). The harsh reality of these tribal migrations was that they were huge gambles; succeed or perish.

Marius changed the tide of the war and saved Rome from what was, as historians such a Richard Evans state, ‘the greatest challenge to Roman supremacy in the west since the Hannibalic invasion.’ (Acta Classica, 2005, p.37)

Regarding Marius himself, he was deemed by the people 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)

Both remarks not only show just how serious a threat the migration had been to Roman existence, but also Marius’ critical importance in defeating these invaders.

The Tribes’ decision to plunder Spain rather than Italy following victory at Arausio was a grave mistake.

But what if the Germanic tribes had not been distracted by the riches in Spain and instead had marched straight to Italy? As I have argued, this distraction gave Marius the time to reform the army, critical to the Romans eventually defeating these migrating tribes. If this distraction had not occurred however, we must consider a world where Roman power in Italy was destroyed and replaced with a Germanic tribal community.

One of Marius’ longest lasting achievements was his reforming of the Roman legions. It was these reforms that created arguably one of, if not the, most disciplined and effective army the world has ever seen. With these legions, Rome would conquer much of modern day Western Europe, Northern Africa and the Levant consistently winning famous victories under renowned commanders such as Agricola and the Emperor Trajan. It’s interesting to consider therefore, that if Marius had not had the time to conduct these reforms, this supreme, expansionist Roman future would never have happened.

Regarding Marius himself, his name most likely would have been lost to history; 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 as this defeat would have finished the Roman Republic.

Marius’ victories in the Cimbric War would also lead him into a very dominant political career, being elected to consul eight times before his death, despite the law previously having forbidden one man to be elected consul more than once. Marius’ multiple consulships 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 and make Rome a Republic in name only. But none of this would have happened if Marius had been defeated by this migration.

The most interesting result of a successful invasion of Italy however would be the sacking of Rome itself as Plutarch states (Mar. 11.9) the 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 Roman Forum would have looked very different if there had been a successful Germanic Invasion.
Photo credit to Robert Linder

The culture of Italy also would have dramatically changed with Germanic settlement in Roman cities around Italy. Following settlement, a new cross-bred Romano-Germanic culture would have developed. What this culture would have entailed is unknown, yet the idea that these tribes would have started adopting mainstays of the ‘civilised’ world such as sewers, large architecture and roads whilst also maintaining their German identity with religion, warfare and politics seems very possible.

The possible results of a successful German migration 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. But it also makes 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 and it is one, in the end, we should all be very thankful for.

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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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