Climate and the Collapse of the Roman Empire | Part 3a: The Cimbrian War
*Note — when writing this, I found that it was almost impossible to find a natural break. So there will be quite a bit of follow through after the Cimbrian War to highlight it’s corrosive effects*
You wake up early in the morning and glance at your phone, catching a few emails and maybe a news article or two. More conflict in the middle east, and a headline or two about a tells-it-like-it-is general commenting on the latest bombing strike against a foreign dictator who prays to a different God. You go to work, have some gossip over coffee, and fire off some emails. On your way home you pass by the TV in the front office. Panicked anchors read confused prepared statements from the US military. Shaky camera footage plays in the background showing wounded soldiers in the Montana badlands. They say that a horrific battle has taken place, and 24,000 members of the US armed forces were dead after the first days fighting, with few surviving troops.
Only a few scattered shots exist of the enemy who won this first meeting. This strikes you as strange, until you realize that the reporters themselves didn’t survive the fight either. A few isolated Twitter posts indicate that the people came from far north and very detached from the civilized world. One shot seems to indicate that there were women and children involved in the attack. How did the US military lose so decisively to an unknown people? What if they keep moving south?
Fortunately, they disappear back into the far north of Canada. The US military launches attacks against them, with two separate boots-on-the-ground battles, both of which the US loses. Following these defeats, the US regroups and resolves to concentrate its power in one decisive engagement at the border. A total of 80,000 men in two major divisions with auxiliary support will hit the strangers from two different sides. For days, there is no news, but then it trickles in slowly — both divisions were wiped out almost completely, with many of the auxiliary support killed as well — the death toll for the US military after just this day may be close to 120,000. For reference, the Vietnam War, which tore the nation apart a generation earlier, killed 58,000 over the course of 10 years.
Two things were now clear — the way the US military was organized was woefully unsuited to taking on this new enemy. And it was clear to both the US and whoever these new people were that they could come and take the US capital.
An outspoken general declares that he alone knows how to take on these mysterious invaders. He runs for president, and wins. He then immediately sets about reorganizing the military, offering substantial pay for anyone who wants to join him in the fight. He sets off, and in two momentous battles he manages to defeat these strange new people. Reporters send video of women killing themselves and their children in the wake of the victory, and the mysterious people are largely annihilated.
The general-president returns a hero in triumph. You notice, that amongst all the furor of the invasion, that the military reforms were a bit different than you expected — the troops had to plead loyalty to the general, not the country. And he paid them — not the country. And soon, his arguments with other generals led to the jingling of swords. The news, usually filled with scandals and politics, increasingly focused on the personalities of the rival strongmen and their armies. They had saved the nation from a mysterious new enemy people — but the nation that emerged from that war was not the same that had entered it.
The Roman Legions
Replace the name of the president with consul, and the setting from today’s (bewildered) America to Rome in end of the second century BC, and you have the tale of the Cimbrian War. We don’t know a lot about them, their language, or their culture. But we do know a great deal about their affects on Roman civil society. Their migration did not occur in a vacuum — there were other social, economic, and political factors that were causing strife in Rome. These were not too different from our own. By the time the Cimbrians invaded in the waning years of the second century B.C., Rome had grown considerably. Beginning as a city-state sometime in 700 or 600 B.C., Rome proceeded to conquer its neighbors in Italy one by one. Following a war with Carthage in the third century B.C., Rome became the geopolitical center of the Mediterranean, quickly consuming nearby Hellenistic states.
Rome’s unique military enabled this rapid rise. The legions were less encumbered than the hopilites that they would run over during the third century B.C. If you were unlucky enough to have to face these legions in battle, you would have first been struck by their armor. Bright rectangular shields could be raised quickly to interlock and defend against a volley of arrows while marching. The legion could then lower them and push forward to defend against javelins or spears. There would have been three rows — the hastati leading the charge, the principes in the middle, and the triari veterans in back. The formation on approach would be a loose checkerbox formation, with the hastati leaving gaps in their lines. A fourth group, the velites, would form a thin line in front of all. This wall of men often stretched as long as a mile. Military tactics was not the sole reason for this type of organization — these legions were based on class and rank.
Once they were close enough to be in striking range, velites and similarly armed units would let loose a volley of small javelins called veretum toward the enemy in a synchronized way to disrupt their formation. These lightly armed units would then disappear behind the checker box formation of the hastati, who would have their large shields out to form a protective shell. Longer javelines called pilum would stretch out behind the now unified wall to provide a solid front.
The other army would have also had skirmishers, but no checker box in their formation. As a result, chaos would consume the font lines of the enemy forces as lightly armed skirmishers tried to retreat through the wall of heavily armed hopilites in the face of the approaching wall. As the armies clashed, the legionaries in the front would use a short-sword called the gladius to slide between the large shields and cut at their enemies.
Fighting in the ancient world was fundamentally different than fighting today. Today, behind the safety of artillery, tanks, guns, or even computers, the person in combat is often far removed from the death of their opponent. Ancient war was not like this. You often killed your enemy by hand, then moved on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one… if you were lucky. War in the ancient world was like being a professional serial killer. Few people have the energy to keep at this for long, so the war fronts in the ancient world were difficult to maintain for more than few minutes of a time in all but the most horrible battles. Instead, there were likely brief episodes of fierce fighting followed by pauses for the lines to reform. This was where the Romans excelled; having three lines meant having two relaxed and ready sets of troops to fill in the lines as the hastati tired. Things were dire but not yet fatal when the lines fell back to the veteran and experienced triari units — though this was rarely the case.
With this basic formation, the Romans swept across the Mediterranean like a wildfire, consuming large Hellenistic and Carthaginian states. There was a moment when the Roman Empire was truly in danger after the Carthaginian general Hannibal (247–183/181 B.C.) crossed the alps in 218 B.C. and led an army of almost 50,000 into northern Italy. While Hannibal would deal many historic defeats to the Romans — chief among them Cannae in 216 B.C., the Romans were able to bounce back. While Hannibal was brilliant at tactics, he was unable to take advantage of his victories, missed opportunities to march on Rome, and received no support from Carthage. The Romans persisted, and under Scipio Africanus (236–183 B.C.) sent an invasion force into Carthage (present-day Tunisia) and managed to draw Hannibal out of Italy and into defeat. Rome’s strength lay not just in it’s ability to out-organize rivals or defeat them with brute force (though both frequently happened). These same military attributed characterized the armies of past conquerers like Cyrus of Persia and Alexander of Macedon. What made Rome different was it’s ability to take a punch. Rome sustained defeats by the Carthaginians that would have destroyed any of its predecessors (and most of its successors). At the battle of Cannae alone they lost 50,000 men, one of the greatest defeats of the ancient world. That one battle was the equivalent of all fatal casualties from the Vietnam War, which lasted 10 years in contrast to one day at Cannae. It’s even worse when you consider that Cannae happened to a much smaller nation. But Cannae was hardly the start of Rome’s woes in the second Punic War. In the previous year, the Battle of Lake Trasimene saw 15,000 Roman soldiers killed. The year before that, at the Battle of the Trebia, Rome lost just under 30,000. That Rome was able to continue the war despite decisive defeats marked the entrance of a new kind of power — the combined ability to deliver defeats and survive them. Rome could almost always defeat, and outlast, any of its competitors following Carthage’s defeat in the second Punic War.
But Rome’s victories were not without cost. The Roman army was fundamentally different from Hannibal’s — where Hannibal used mercenaries, Rome used farmers. The equipment of each soldier — from the large shields, the varieties of javelin and the glaudius, were not provided by the state. Each soldier provisioned himself for the defense of the republic. This is what makes Rome’s ability to survive defeats particularly astounding — the Battle of the Trebia saw 30,000 self-armed defenders of the Republic fall in the field of battle, to be replaced by thousands more at Trasimene, and tens of thousands more at Cannae. And they still pushed on, recruiting farmers willing to defend the republic. This was a significant limiting factor to Roman arms — they were limited by the ability of their own citizens to provide their own arms.
The Roman republic is held up as the example of republican virtue — a society of citizens armed in defense of their freedom from a tyrant. For the republic (lower case r) and Republic (upper case R) to be defended, it had to compel its citizens to rise to the task, to give them a reason to fight. But this core virtue of the republic was the victim of its own success. As Rome expanded across the Mediterranean, it absorbed wealthy states. The rewards of victory flew disproportionately to the Roman optimates, the wealthy class that led Rome through the Senate. The soldiers who were willing to defend the republic were sent on increasingly long conquests to secure more wealth. At the same time, the farmers long absence from their fields led to failing harvests and impending bankruptcy for many. The Roman Republic’s growth fed a widening chasm between the beneficiaries of the conquests and the fortunes of those fighting in them.
Two brothers would walk into this situation with a solution. They would fight, and sacrifice themselves, for the solution. And in the end they would be vindicated, but in a way which would have horrified both beyond measure.
Beginnings of The Roman Revolution
Scipio Africanus, the flashy young general who led the pushback against Hannibal’s invasion and ultimately defeated him in Carthage, had a daughter named Cornelia Africana (190–100 B.C.). She was active in politics, particularly with her husband Tiberias Gracchus the Elder (217–154 B.C.). Tiberius Gracchus the Elder was not a patrician like his wife, but rather a pleb. The Roman republic was ultimately a plutarchy, but made room for the voices of the plebs, or working class, through the Tribunus plebis. The Tribune had emerged after a strike by the plebs, and became an institution to give voice to those who earned a living by work, instead of inheritance. The Tribune could pass legislation, and even veto decisions by the Senate. It was, in essence, a class-based check on powers to ensure that all Romans had representation.
Tiberias Gracchus the Elder and Cornellia Africana had two sons who would hold this same office, Tiberias Gracchus the Younger (169–133 B.C.) and Gaius Gracchus (154–121 B.C.). Tiberius would begin his career as a polarizing figure in the military; he would sign a peace agreement while serving as quaestor in Numantia in present-day Spain to mitigate the consequences of the poor decisions of his general. While this act would undoubtedly save lives, it would also demonstrate Tiberius’ penchant for disregarding protocol (any peace agreement would require at least a legate), and his willingness to act outside past norms. It also illustrates that Tiberius was concerned with the sacrifices being made by the soldiers — armed citizens — that ultimately did not serve them.
This ultimately was the single largest concern of Tiberius — the plight of the part time farmer, full time soldier. In Tiberius’ time, the most potent squeeze on them was the growth of large land owners who could disproportionately seize new farmland in conquered territories while buying the abandoned farmland of soldiers out participating in said conquests. Tiberius’ aimed to put a stop to the trend. It wasn’t just a humanitarian concern that so many Roman citizens were being squeezed out of their meager holdings due to the Roman war machine’s victories. Because farmers were losing their lands, there were fewer and fewer troops who could afford to arm themselves and risk their lives and livelihoods for the nation. Increasing wealth at the top meant fewer and fewer soldiers to fight the wars that generated the wealth.
Tiberius Gracchus was elected Tribune of the Plebs in 133 B.C., and immediately proposed the Lex Sempronia Agraria to, in his eyes, provide a course correction. It would take the land that had been won in past conquests and reorganize them for the benefits of the soldiers who had fought in the wars. This would be accomplished by re-enforced an earlier, but neglected law, that limited the size of a farm holding. Tiberius’ bill would, in effect, be a massive program of redistribution of land from the wealthy to the masses. Tiberius made no effort to hide this fact:
Tiberius, striving to support a measure which was honourable and just with an eloquence that would have adorned even a meaner cause, was formidable and invincible, whenever, with the people crowding around the rostra, he took his stand there and pleaded for the poor. “The wild beasts that roam over Italy,” he would say, “have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; 5 but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own. (Plutarch: Tiberius 4).
Unsurprisingly, this was not a popular proposal among the patricians of the Senate. However, the structure of the Roman government was stacked against them — the Tribune of the Plebs had the power to push this bill through over their objections. The first moves were designed to frustrate the Tribune from moving forward. This included stalled negotiations and even acts as petty as stealing voting urns. Tiberius agreed to send the issue for deliberation by the Senate, and promptly it was stalled by the members who had the most to lose. The chief obstacle was his fellow Tribune Octavius, who held the law up as well. Tiberius, growing impatient, moved to remove Octavius physically from rostrum. Octavius’ life was only spared by a servant of his, who had his eyes torn out of his skull while Tiberius tried to calm the violence. Thus, the agrarian laws were passed.
In one of the great coincidences of history, the future of the Roman Republic hung in doubt. The Tribune of the Plebs and the Senate were at odds over a set of agrarian (really military veteran) reforms which were as-yet unfunded. In Anatolia (present-day Turkey) king Attalus Philometer passed away, and rather than wait for the Romans to invade his province, simply willed it to the Republic at his death. Tiberius seized on this news — the inheritance could be used to subsidize the reforms. The rest of the Tribunate agreed, and they set about multiple reforms. The Senate, in response, brought weapons from home, and in some cases simply grabbed wooden planks from the Forum itself. The patricians of the Senate proceeded to attack the Tribunate, killing hundreds of people, including Tiberius who was stripped naked before being bludgeoned to death. With this act the Senate had exposed the weakness of the Roman Republic — the rule of law could be circumvented by simply killing people in key offices before they could pass laws you disagreed with. The killings did not stop at the Forum — the Senate targeted other influential supporters. One — Caius Villius — they put into a cage with vipers. The body of Tiberus was dragged out of the Forum and thrown into the Tiber to prevent a funeral.
The Tribune, stung by both the defeat of the law and the treatment of its proponents, turned to Tiberius’ younger brother Gaius to continue the fight. And for years, Gaius turned away from it. He spent 12 years in the military, far from Rome. When he did return, little time passed before he was elected, like his brother before him, to the office of Tribune. He took up the mantle of agrarian reform, and added to it a law that would make provisioning the army of their uniforms an obligation of the state. At this time, the armies of Rome still had to provide their own gear, and the broad social dynamics that had pushed Tiberus’ reforms had not abated just because Romans talked about it more. A new controversial proposal was to extend the rights of citizenship to the Italian allies who now formed the majority of Rome’s armies. Perhaps the most threatening of all new proposals to the Senate was to set up a new way of appointing court judges, instead of just using the wealthy. In addition to this, he pushed forward infrastructure projects for roads and public buildings, as well as increasing grain imports. Gaius’ reluctance to enter politics was matched by his productivity within the system. All this made him just as popular, if not more so, than his late brother.
The rising star of another Gracchus was intolerable to the Senate. Their tactic to thwart him couldn’t be any more different — they aimed to outdo his popularity though Livius Drusus — a patricians’ patrician. Drusus’ objective was to outperform Gaius on every issue of interest to the people to isolate him and win over popularity to the Senate. Gracchus evidently remained popular with the people, and settled into life with the poor outside the Forum. The bullet which would set of the next dangerous phase of the Roman Revolution was not a wide-ranging set of land reforms like his brother had envisioned, but rather seating in a stadium.
Gaius, tired of the wealthy Romans getting premium seats for gladiatorial fights in the Forum, came with workers at night to take down the premium seats and open them up for the poor. He lost his seat for a third term as Tribune (despite getting more votes) and, worse still, Lucius Opimius received the consulship, and immediately began repealing Gaius’ laws. Gaius and his followers protested. During the protest, a servant of Opimius was killed. Opimius ordered the Senate to arm themselves and prepare for conflict. Hoping to avoid the earlier murder of Tiberius, loyalists kept watch over his little brother’s house. Despite the danger, Gaius resolved to enter the Forum again to protest the repeal of his laws. Opimius was there waiting for the followers of Gaius with armed men and mercenaries and an offer for the head of the youngest Gracchi brother. After an initial clash the followers of Gaius fled, though this dispersal wasn’t Opimius’ only objective. His mercenaries pursued the people, killing them along the way a wooden bridge over the Tiber. Gaius was killed, and his head was brought to Opimius by his friend Septimuleius, reportedly with the brain replaced by a block of lead to increase the price. All and all three thousand Romans were extrajudicially killed by their government that day. Opimius sold off all the property of Gaius and another of his murdered colleagues, Marcus Fulvius Flaccus. Not only were the families left penniless, but the widows of both men were ordered not to mourn their deaths. Adding to the insult, Opimius put up a temple to honor the slaughter of the people.
The agrarian reforms promoted by the Gracchi brothers had two long-term consequences. They cleft the Roman into two factions — the wealthy optimates and the more people-focused populares. Second, they demonstrated that the Romans had depended not only on written laws, but unwritten norms of behavior in their government. When those norms were cast aside, the system itself broke down. The simple act of Tiberus’ dismissing his colleague in the Tribune undercut the Roman form of government, despite his intentions. It is important to keep in mind that while the primary historical sources (basically Plutarch) focus on the historical actors, there is a powerful social undercurrent to the unfolding revolution in Roman social institutions. Opimius may have been of the opinion that killing Gaius Gracchus and thousands of his followers was sufficient to dispel their clamors for reform, but Gaius and company were responding to a real need. The Roman military was overstretched, it’s soldiers going bankrupt while the wealthy like Opimius received the benefits of their conquest. The degree of this scandal would only widen with the dead. Particularly galling would be the fact that Opimius, while benefitting from the Roman conquests, was also being paid directly by one of Rome’s enemies, Jugurtha.
The Roman world was split into three large land masses. At the time of the Gracchi brothers and Opimius, the Romans were primarily a southern European power. Above them the forests of Germany and the Celts formed a ceiling to Roman ambitions. Beyond that there were talks of giant, largely frozen islands. To the west were the Pillars of Hercules, which led to an unending ocean. To the east was Asia, dominated by the Parthians, the successors to the Achamaeid Persian Empire. Beyond them and to the north was the land of the Scythians, horse-riders of the Eurasian steppe. To the south were the islands of fertile land in Africa, centered around Carthage and the Nile. Beyond them stretched a vast desert of sand, and beyond it was unknown.
The world is a much more difficult place to live in when your frontiers are unknown. We do not need to worry about unknown peoples emerging from the forests to the north, or the deserts in the south. We live in a known world today — and that offers a security that the Romans, Numidians, or other ancient peoples of the world did not enjoy.
Carthage, now a dependent of Rome, was it’s former rival for control of the Mediterranean a century earlier. To the west was Numidia — a land of mostly deserts which was populated by Berber tribes. In the time of Carthage, they were a client state, though they would side with the Romans following Hannibal’s invasion of Italy. With Carthage long since destroyed, they effectively bordered the Roman Empire. The kings of Numidia had been careful to keep close and amicable ties with the Romans. As late as the king Masinissa (240/238–148 B.C.) the tribes of Numidia were sill primarily nomadic. His son Micipsa’s reign (? — 118 B.C.) would see the consolidation of the tribes into a more settled state with a standing army. As he received the Numidian state from his father, he intended to give it to his sons Hiempsal (? — 117 B.C.) and Adherbal (? — 112 B.C.). However, there was another line of descent from Masinissa, an illegitimate one, from which Jugurtha (160–104 B.C.) had descended. Micipsa had adopted Jugurtha, and intended to include him as a successor. Jugurtha became popular with the Numidians, and Micipsa sent him to Spain with a small force to prevent things from getting out of hand. Spain would provide a valuable education for Jugurtha. There, he provided auxiliary forces for the Romans as they fought in Numantia, a province of Spain. The Romans would lean heavily on Jugurtha, who learned their culture and their susceptibility to bribes.
Jugurtha’s return to Numidia was that of a victorious prodigal son. Micipsa was very ill, and in one conversation indicated that he intended this three sons — two biological, one adopted — to inherit different portions of the kingdom. He died a few days later, leaving his two biological sons upset at the prospect of Jugurtha’s elevation. Hiempsal argued fervently against the elevation of Jugurtha — after all, Micipsa was hardly in his right mind when doing so. Jugurtha marked this moment — and Hiempsal — and once his biological brother was near loyalists to Jugurtha, he was isolated, hunted, and killed.
Upon news of his brother’s death, Adherbal knew that civil war was upon his kingdom. He met Jugurtha in battle, lost, and quickly fled to Rome to put the fate of Numidia in the hands of the Senate. Here, he gave an impassioned speech on the shared history of Rome and Numidia. Jugurtha, by contrast, relied on bribing key Senators. Jugurtha gave a quick reply, which the bribed Senators lauded. Opimius — the same one who had led the attack which had killed thousands of Gaius Grachus’ followers, led the commission to partition Numidia between the two. After several payments, Jugurtha acquired the majority of the population and the most fertile regions.
This partition did not last long, and soon Jugurtha led an army into Adherbal’s weaker territory. Adherbal sent a letter to Rome protesting this state of affairs, which aroused the anger of the populares, but fell upon deaf ears in the Senate. However, the in this case the populares managed one concession — that Jugurtha should come to Rome to make his case. Jugurtha made one last attempt to take a key fortress town to defeat Adherbal, where he found unlikely allies in Italians defending the fortress, who urged Adherbal to surrender and put his faith in the Senate. This Adherbal did against his better judgement. Jugurtha seized Adherbal, tortured him to his death, and proceeded to massacre all Numidians who had sided with him.
This incensed the Romans to war against Numidia — not only because of the atrocities committed to Rome and its allies, but also because of the blatant bribery that Jugurtha had exposed before the people of Rome. The closest analogy would be if an enemy of the USA — say Saddam Hussein — was openly buying off politicians of the minority party. It fanned the flames of war not only to prove a point to other would-be bribers, but also to send an unambiguous signal to those within the country.
As Rome debated how to respond to Jugurtha, a wholly separate set of events gathered in the north.
The Cimbrian Migration
By 113 B.C., strange new tribes appeared on the Danube, the Cimbri and the Teutones. This appearance was the Roman’s first warning that the situation in the north was about to become much more precarious.
The origin of the Cimbri is unknown — though there are two separate accounts which suggest their origins are near the Jutland peninsula in present-day Denmark. The most direct account, that of the Res Gestae divi Augustus, written sometime before A.D. 14, puts a contemporary tribe there:
My fleet sailed from the mouth of the Rhine eastward as far as the lands of the Cimbri, to which, up to that time, no Roman had ever penetrated either by land or by sea, and the Cimbri and Charydes and Semnones and other peoples of the Germans of that same region through their envoys sought my friendship and that of the Roman people. Augustus: Res Gestae
This does not prove that the Cimbri are from the Jutland peninsula, only that a people who called themselves the Cimbri lived there a century or so after their migrations. However, Strabo, in his Geography, agrees with this assessment and further presents multiple arguments for why the Cimbri migrated in the numbers that they did.
He (Posidonius) is also of opinion that the emigration of the Cimbrians and other kindred races from their native territory, was gradual, and occasioned by the inundation of the sea, and by no means a sudden movement. — Strabo 663
This is not to say Strabo, by any means, agrees with this argument:
Some of the accounts which we receive respecting the Cimbri are not worthy of credit, while others seem likely enough: for instance, no one could accept the reason given for their wandering life and piracy, that, dwelling on a peninsula, they were driven out of their settlements by a very high tide; for they still to this day possess the country which they had in former times. Strabo Chapter II.I
There is very little information about who the Cimbri where — their beliefs, religion, culture, technology, etc. The few scraps we have suggest a culture that would be largely unrecognizable to anyone in Europe today:
It is reported that the Cimbri had a peculiar custom. They were accompanied in their expeditions by their wives; these were followed by hoary-headed priestesses, clad in white, with cloaks of carbasus fastened on with clasps, girt with brazen girdles, and bare-footed. These individuals, bearing drawn swords, went to meet the captives throughout the camp, and, having crowned them, led them to a brazen vessel containing about 20 amphoræ, and placed on a raised platform, which one of the priestesses having ascended, and holding the prisoner above the vessel, cut his throat; then, from the manner in which the blood flowed into the vessel, some drew certain divinations; while others, having opened the corpse, and inspected the entrails, prophesied victory to their army. In battle too they beat skins stretched on the wicker sides of chariots, which produces a stunning noise — Strabo Chapter II.III
It is impossible to comment on the accuracy of this passage, but taken at face value it would suggest
- the Cimbri had females lead some religious rites
- women traveled with military operations
- despite being nomadic, they brought material culture like large ceramics and had metalworking technology, in addition to chariots
- there was a connection between status and sacrifice
Rome, like Greece, has a literary history of human sacrifice. The Iliad, for example, has Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter to ensure a safe passage to Troy. Cicero suggested that the vestal virgins cast straw figures into the Tiber as a relict of a past sacrifice of old men. However, Romans were fascinated by the idea of human sacrifice, and made repeated references to alleged sacrificial rites by the Celts that have no present-day archaeological evidence. The assumed violence of the Cimbri may be a reflection of the the threat they posed to the Romans. That said, archaeologically the occupation of the Cimbri in Jutland may overlap with the exceptionally-preserved peatbog burials, including Grauballe Man, who had his throat slit in a manner consistent with Strabo’s description of a bloodletting ritual.
As an example of our ignorance of the Cimbri — no one knows if they were Celtic or German (more properly, proto-Germanic). The scant details we have may point to a Celtic group. Pliny the Elder highlights their word for the Baltic:
Philemon again says that it is called Morimarusa or the “Dead Sea” by the Cimbri, as far as the Promontory of Rubeas, beyond which it has the name of the Cronian Sea — Pliny the Elder, IV.27
This name is consistent with modern Celtic languages like Welsh — marw means death and môr means sea. But, place names famously don’t predict where current populations live. The Danube and Dneiper rivers both have Persian names, despite the fact that Slavic and Germanic speaking people live by them now. I am from ‘Wyoming’, but I and most everyone else there speaks English. A stronger argument could be made that the name Cimbri is itself Celtic — the Welsh name for themselves is the Cymry.
Arguments for the Cimbri being a Germanic/proto-Germanic speaking group is much more sparse, and based on its geographic location more than anything. Though Plutarch attributes the Cimbri to the German peoples.
They themselves, indeed, had not had intercourse with other peoples, and had traversed a great stretch of country, so that it could not be ascertained what people it was nor whence they had set out, thus to descend upon Gaul and Italy like a cloud. The most prevalent conjecture was that they were some of the German peoples which extended as far as the northern ocean, a conjecture based on their great stature, their light-blue eyes, and the fact that the Germans call robbers Cimbri. Plutarch Marius 11.3
Plutarch also speculates that the Cimbri could be a combined Gaullic (Celtic) and Scythian tribe, though this is without any evidence, linguistic or otherwise. Though as we will discuss later during the Migration Period, there is a good reason to be suspicious of any ancestral linguistic zone. One interesting possibility is the present distribution of languages — there is a language called Cimbrian spoken today in northern Italy, and it is Germanic (Bavarian). While the region it is spoken in could have plausibly been influenced by the Cimbrian migration of 113–101 B.C., it likely reflects later migrations by Bavarians or even Lombards.
The Cimbri were accompanied by the Teutones and Ambrones. The Ambrones is a distinctively Celtic name, so there is little debate about their linguistic affiliation. The Teutones, while a name distinctively associated with a Germanic name today, may also be Celtic. But there is even less information available for them.
These groups migrated south sometime before 113 B.C., when they showed up on the Danube. They fought with local Celtic groups, including the Boi, as they continued moving south into Noricum (modern-day Austria and Slovenia). There, they occupied the territory of the Taurisci, who quickly recognized that they needed the help of Rome, of whom they were clients, to dispel. The Romans sent Gnaeus Papirius Carbo, then Consul, with an army of 30,000 in 112 B.C. Carbo demanded that the Cimbri and Teutones leave. The fearsome reputation of the Romans preceded them, and the migrating tribes complied.
Carbo then made a potentially-history altering mistake — he decided to attack the tribes anyway. As Rome celebrated its victorious generals with triumphs, he would have been motivated to become the conquerer of a hitherto unknown people. Roman guides, sent ostensibly to lead them out of Noricum, steered them toward an ambush near Noreia. It is not clear what happened in the battle, but only a small fraction of Romans returned from it, including Carbo. For losing something like 25,000 troops, Carbo was impeached as Consul. Rome now had a deadly enemy at its northern borders capable of delivering defeats that the Romans had not seen since Hannibal. Yet the Cimbrian threat seemed to evaporate, the tribes moved into Gaul.
The War Against Jugurtha
In 112 B.C., the Roman government faced a crossroads. It could send more legions northward to defend against this new threat, or pursue Jugurtha in Numidia. For aspiring generals and politicians, this was likely a no-brainer. The fight against Jugurtha promised a likely victory over a wealthy, renown foe while the fight against the Cimbrians would be in unknown hostile territory against a nebulous group of migrants capable of delivering a significant defeat. Furthermore, the war against Jugurtha, for the populares, offered a powerful political statement against the moneyed patricians of the Senate, who would have prefered the Jugurtha situation disappear. The decision fell upon a newly elected consul following Carbo, Lucius Calpurnius Bestia, who decided to attack Numidia. Jugurtha quickly sued for peace, obtaining highly favorable terms after several bribes. This would end up being a miscalculation by Jugurtha — Bestia would go home rich and reviled by the populares who controlled the ability to send other possibly less corruptible forces his way. But in the short term, Jugurtha’s approach was successful, however public. A Tribune of the Plebs, Gaius Memmius (? — 100 B.C.), admonished the Senators and Consuls who had accepted bribes, and in a speech documented by Sallust, lays bare the populares-optimates division of his time.
I am ashamed to speak of how during the past fifteen years you have been the sport of a few men’s insolence; how shamefully your defenders have perished unavenged; how your own spirits have been so demoralized because of weakness and cowardice that you do not rise even now, when your enemies are in your power, but still fear those in whom you ought to inspire fear. But although conditions are such, yet my spirit prompts me to brave the power of this faction. At least, I shall make use of the freedom of speech which is my inheritance from my father; but whether I shall do so in vain or to good purpose lies in your hands, my countrymen. I do not urge you to take up arms against your oppressors, as your fathers often did; there is no need of violence, none of secession. They must go to ruin their own way. After the murder of Tiberius Gracchus, whom they accused of trying to make himself king, prosecutions were instituted against the Roman commons. Again, after Gaius Gracchus and Marcus Fulvius were slain, many men of your order suffered death in the dungeon. In both cases bloodshed was ended, not by law, but by the caprice of the victors. — Sallust 31
Memmius was successful; a war would be launched against Jugurtha. Sallust is known for this heavy moralizing — and writing of these events 70 years later he did so firmly in the camp of Caesar. Still, the war of Numidia began not as just a foreign entaglement, but rather (in the views of Memmius and our historian Sallust) as a proxy war between people of Rome and the wealthy Senate class bribed by Jugurtha.
Jugurtha, hoping to head off the threat of war, made for Rome at once on advice of his Roman clients. Rome seemed to lean toward giving Numidia to another descendent of Manissa. In a manner now essentially routine, Jugurtha had him assassinated but the assassin was caught. He returned to Numidia and prepared for war, quickly gaining an early victory by forcing the largest Roman army in the region under Aulus Postumius Albinus Magnus to surrender in 109 B.C. This would be a shameful defeat, but by no means the worst of the year.
Following this early defeat, the situation in Rome became toxic. Memmius proposed prosecution against those patricians whom Jugurtha had bought off as well as those Romans who had surrendered to him. The hyper-partisan enviornment which had dominated Rome for decades proved corrosive the point where the social classes of Rome fought proxy wars against each other in foreign lands.
Thus the peace for which they had longed in time of adversity, after they had gained it proved to be more cruel and bitter than adversity itself. For the nobles began to abuse their position and the people their liberty, and every man for himself robbed, pillaged, and plundered. Thus the community was split into two parties, and between these the state was torn to pieces. But the nobles had the more powerful organization, while the strength of the commons was less effective because it was incompact and divided among many. Affairs at home and in the field were managed according to the will of a few men, in whose hands were the treasury, the provinces, public offices, glory and triumphs. The people were burdened with military service and poverty. The generals divided the spoils of war with a few friends. Meanwhile the parents or little children of the soldiers, if they had a powerful neighbour, were driven from their homes. Thus, by the side of power, greed arose, unlimited and unrestrained, violated and devastated everything, respected nothing, and held nothing sacred, until it finally brought about its own downfall. For as soon as nobles were found who preferred true glory to unjust power, the state began to be disturbed and civil dissension to arise like an upheaval of the earth. — Sallust 41
Quintus Caecilius Metellus (160–109 B.C.) was elected Consul with Marcus Junius Silianus, and the charge of the war against Jugurtha fell to him. As his Legate, he took with him Gaius Marius (157–86 B.C.), an ambitious military veteran who had long been a client of his. While Metellus came from a powerful family, Marius was what would be called a novo homo, or new man. He had fought in several past campaigns, including the siege of Numantia where, ironically enough, he had fought alongside Jugurtha. At almost every opportunity in his past career, Marius had run for multiple public offices, once with the support of Metellus, and had lost many races, occasionally due to the enmity of Metellus. Marius, like other novo homo, was dependent on the approval of established men like Metellus. However, Marius was decidedly on the populares track, and made sense both militarily and politically alongside Metallus despite both their reservations. The use of populares-types like Metallus and Marius was deliberate — established patricians had shown themselves highly vulnerable to bribing. This removed from Jugurtha his chief weapon. This left little doubt between Metallus and Jugurtha that Numidia would be decided in battle, not negotiation.
While Metallus went to Africa to fight Jugurtha, his co-Consul Silianus was needed in the north. In the far north, the Cimbri and Teutones reappeared, this time in the province of Galla Narbonensis, in the present-day southern coast of France. There is little primary historical material available about what happened exactly, only that Silianus was dealt an unambiguous defeat. Once again, the Cimbri and Teutones had demonstrated that they were an existential threat to Rome. And again, they didn’t press their advantage, but continued migrating.
The Jugurthine war well went considerably better than the attempts to respond to the Cimbri and Teutones in the north. In the first clashes between Metallus and Jugurtha the broad outlines for how the conflict would proceed were clear; Metallus had dedicated troops in an unfavorable position, while Jugurtha had discouraged troops with a natural advantage. Jugurtha also had war elephants, though Jugurtha even managed to mismanage this critical resource by charging them through areas with trees.
After initial encounters, Metallus realized the truth of his position — Sallust notes that “defeat cost them less than victory did his own men.” (Sallust 54). Metallus shifted tactics to deprive Jugurtha of his advantage, and set about a war of attrition. As Romans cheered for his early (and costly) victories, Metallus aimed to avoid Jugurtha in open battle. Metallus’ problem was that Jugurtha also decided on the same strategy, and Jugurtha would win that war. Metallus decided to take a key city — Zama.
Zama had been the location of Carthage’s most costly defeat in the second Punic War, where Scipio Africanus had defeated Hannibal. Metallus would not get to relive Scipio’s victory, relented the siege, and continued to cut off Jugurtha’s resources in the countryside. Following the failure to take Zama, Jugurtha used the moment to sue for peace. then re-new hostilities after Rome had demobilized and prepared for peace. At this stage of the conflict, Marius encouraged discord against Metallus with both the troops and Numidian allies — most notably a descendent of Masinissa named Gauda who hoped to take the throne should Jugurtha be defeated. War reports began to trickle back to Rome which undermined Metallus and sowed doubt about his ability to be commander.
Jugurtha, recommitted to war, began to bribe every person, low and high, that he could to regain the initiative. He found success in the small villages of the Vagenses, where he started a mutiny that would kill almost all Romans stationed there. Metallus redirected his forces there and exterminated the town two days later. Jugurtha put down internal revolts within his closest advisors, one of which almost resulted in his overthrow as king.
While the intrigue of the Jugurthine War thickened, the threat of the Cimbri to the north had not disappeared. In 107 B.C., the Romans were defeated by an allied-tribe of the Cimbri, the Tigurini. This served as a sharp reminder to the Romans of the danger Rome faced — while it’s focus was south, the north boiled.
During this period of chaos, Metallus sent Marius back to Rome after his repeated requests for a furlough, likely as it was one less thing to worry about. Marius had prepped his return to Rome quite well, as the negative dispatches about Metallus had soured Rome on the high-born commander. By contrast, Marius, a man of the people, ran for Consul to continue the people’s fight against the foreign despot who had bribed the wealthy Senators of Rome. Marius boasted that if he was given the Consulship, he would be able to take Jugurtha in a matter of days. Marius won the Consulship of 107 B.C. by large majorities, alongside a largely symbolic vote by the Senate to keep the Numidian war with Metallus. With Marius, Lucius Cassius Longinus was also elected to the consulship. While Marius would take over Metallus’ charge in Numidia, Cassius would venture to the north to verify the security of the northern frontier from the Cimbri and Teutones and punish the Tigurini.
Cassius met the Tigurini in Galla Narbonensis, near the present-day Bordeaux. There, the Tigurini ambushed his forces, killing most of his troops as well as Cassius himself. While not a large battle, the death of a consul, particularly one so recently elected, was a cause for great alarm. Particularly as the other consul was occupied to the south.
While Marius won the consulship, Jugurtha was already on the ropes. Metallus won a series of minor victories against Jugurtha as his forces, and Jugurtha himself, lost hope. Metallus was winning a war he should not have been able to win, most notably the town of Thalla. However, with this victory came a new combatant into the war — Bocchus of Mauritania, who Jugurtha had won over to his cause.
This news came alongisde word from Rome that not only had Marius been elected Consul (Metallus had earlier advised Marius to wait 20 years), but that Marius had been given command of the Numidian campaign. Nonetheless, Metallus managed to forestall any aggressive actions by Bocchus, preventing open conflict before power could be transferred to Marius.
Marius returned to Africa with a sizable reinforcement of troops to strengthen the Roman position. He did not find his former commander upon arrival, as Metallus could not bring himself to face Marius after the betrayal. The two kings, Jugurtha and Bocchus, divided their troops into highly defensible places, with the hope of splitting the Romans. Marius quickly realized (if he had not been lying earlier) that victory would not come in days as he responded to each attack on allied villages. Marius opted for risker strategy, of crossing the desert and attacking Capsa, to rival Metellus’ earlier victory at Thalla. Marius marched his men through the desert, bringing them to a point out of site from the desert village. At dawn, as the inhabitants of the town left, he ordered his men to march, carrying only weapons and water.
When the townspeople perceived what was going on, their disorder, their great panic, their unexpected plight and the fact that a part of their fellow citizens were outside the walls and in the power of the enemy, compelled them to surrender. 6 But nevertheless the town was burned and the adult Numidians put to the sword; all the rest were sold and the proceeds divided among the soldiers. 7 The consul was guilty of this violation of the laws of war, not because of avarice or cruelty, but because the place was of advantage to Jugurtha and difficult of access for us, while the people were fickle and untrustworthy and had previously shown themselves amenable neither to kindness nor to fear. — Sallust 91
The fear of what happened to Capsa prompted Numidians to abandon their towns when Marius’ march was announced. If a city required a battle to acquiesce, Marius took it with the same rashness and speed as he demonstrated at Capsa.
Marius had worked his way to the nexus between the two kingdoms. Jugurtha recognized the opportunity, and sent for a joint attack against the Romans with Bocchus. This came close to the end of the day, almost the reverse of Capsa. The two armies caught the Romans unaware and quickly put them in disarray. The Romans instinctively drew themselves into a circle to limit the chances of being separated. Marius’ body guard charged different elements of the joined attack force. The attack relented as the night went on, and Marius set a quastor, Lucius Cornellius Sulla (138–76 B.C.) from a patrician family, to guard the spring as he gathered the surviving troops. They waited for daybreak, and counterattacked the fatigued Numidian forces, chasing them away.
Marius retreated to the coast near Cirta for the winter. Jugurtha attacked this location as well, though he hit Sulla’s forces first. As this occurred, Bocchus attacked from the other side with his infantry. Sulla managed to both quell Jugurtha’s attack with enough time to wheel around and strike Bocchus before the lines broke. Following this defeat, Marius negotiated a separate peace with Bocchus in secret from Jugurtha, sending Sulla with another quaestor to discuss terms. As these were concluded, Sulla received word that Jugurtha was camped nearby. Sulla proposed to meet with Jugurtha to discuss peace, terms which Jugurtha accepted and came unarmed. Sulla set upon him, had his companions killed, and delivered Jugurtha alive to Marius. It was 106 B.C., and the war to the south had finally been won.
Marius, however, would take complete credit for ending the war, despite Sulla’s critical (and risky) decisions which led to Jugurtha’s capture. Sulla would seethe at the credit given to Marius for the war. As Plutarch reports:
This was the first seed of that bitter and incurable hatred between Marius and Sulla, which nearly brought Rome to ruin. For many wished Sulla to have the glory of the affair because they hated Marius, and Sulla himself had a seal-ring made, which he used to wear, on which was engraved the surrender of Jugurtha to him by Bocchus. By constantly using this ring Sulla provoked Marius, who was an ambitious man, loath to share his glory with another, and quarrelsome. And the enemies of Marius gave Sulla most encouragement, by attributing the first and greatest successes of the war to Metellus, but the last, and the termination of it, to Sulla, so that the people might cease admiring Marius and giving him their chief allegiance. (Plutarch: Marius 10.5)
The Cimbri Return
The normal course of events would have been as follows: Marius would return from the Jugurthine Wars, with a host of political allies and rivals. His consulship would have expired at the years end, but he would have enjoyed a triumph through Rome to celebrate his military achievements. After this, the next generation of leadership, represented by Sulla, would begin to make their mark as Marius enjoyed cultivating his own clients. This would have been the rough course of events, had the Cimbri and Teutones not reappeared in Roman territory.
The Romans could have been excused for not understanding the threat in the North. The Battle of Noreia in 109 B.C. had been a crushing defeat with 25,000 lost, but the battles since then had not been decisive, though in 107 B.C. an ambush claimed the life of a Consul, Cassius. The Jugurthine War, by contrast, was not an existential conflict, but rather a war that allowed aspiring Romans to demonstrate their heroism against a villain. It is easier to fight a villain than a nebulous population migration. And, the Cimbri had thus far demonstrated the ability to a) crush a Roman force and b) wander aimlessly about the northern frontier. Why would any Roman risk his life, like Cassius, for so dangerous a charge and so little a reward? The Cimbri were not wealthy like Jugurtha.
Nonetheless, Cassius had died, and a response was needed. The reward now would be renewing Rome’s threats to the north. So long as Rome suffered defeats, it signaled to other Celtic and proto-Germanic tribes that it was open season in Roman territory. Following Consular elections in 105 B.C., Publius Rutilius Rufus and Quintus Servilius Caepio, from the elite of Rome, were elected. Together they assembled a massive Roman army the likes of which had not been seen since the second Punic War — an army with as many as 120,000 men. Rufus delegated his charge to Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, a novus homo like Marius. However, the army was not as strong as it might have at first seemed — Maximus and Caepio despised each other. Their relationship was a microcosm of the partisanship within Rome that drove the Jugurthine War — Maximus was from a common background, Caepio from a storied one. Technically, Maximus was the leader, but Caepio refused to take orders from someone without noble ancestry.
Caepio, on the way north, raided the gold and silver in the Roman town of Tolosa — a capricious act. The gold itself was said to be cursed since it’s acquisition in the third century B.C. in the Balkans.
It is said that the Tectosages took part in the expedition to Delphi, and that the treasures found in the city of Toulouse by the Roman general Cæpio formed a portion of the booty gained there, which was afterwards increased by offerings which the citizens made from their own property, and consecrated in order to conciliate the god. And that it was for daring to touch these that Cæpio terminated so miserably his existence, being driven from his country as a plunderer of the temples of the gods, and leaving behind him his daughters, who, as Timagenes informs us, having been wickedly violated, perished miserably. Strabo IV.13
In any case, this was not the omen that the Romans wanted before heading into battle. At Aurasio, near present-day Orange, the joint army came to the Rhone river and set up camp — on both sides. Caepio refused to camp with Maximus. To spread his forces, Caepio sent his legate, Marcus Aurelius Scaurus, to set up a camp for the calvary some 30 miles away. Far from the main body of the forces, Scaurus would be the first to encounter the Cimbri and Teutones. Without much of a fight, the Cimbri annihilated the cavalry and took Scaurus prisoner to meet their king, Boiorix. Scaurus refused to surrender; for this, Boiorix had Scaurus burnt alive slowly in a wicker cage.
At the main camp, Caepio has relented a little, and now agreed to camp on the same side of the river as Maximus. Still, Caepio set his tents a distance from Maximus, even as it was clear the enemy was approaching. Boiorix, surveying the massive Roman force, sent overtures to negotiate with Maximus. Caepio attacked the Cimbri before negotiations proceeded far, fearful that Maximus would have all the glory. This was not a fear Caepio needed to entertain — not only where his forces annihilated by the Cimbri defense, but they secured his camp before Maximus could respond. Maximus’ armies were sandwiched between the seized Caepio camp, and the Rhone. The Cimbri marched on them, and Maximus’ force disintegrated with many jumping to their deaths in the river. The total Roman forces lost ranged between 80,000 and 120,000 — possibly twice as severe as Hannibal’s legendary defeat of the Romans at Cannae.
This loss was not just another embarrassing defeat — the road to Rome was open, and the Cimbri could march down there at any time. Rome had gathered it’s strongest forces, and had come short. The crises was all permeating, and in the chaos, the Romans turned back to Marius.
Soon, however, all this envy and hatred and slander of Marius was removed and dissipated by the peril which threatened Italy from the west, as soon as the state felt the need of a great general and looked about for a helmsman whom she might employ to save her from so great a deluge of war. Then the people would have nothing to do with anyone of high birth or of a wealthy house who offered himself at the consular elections, but proclaimed Marius consul in spite of his absence from the city. For no sooner had word been brought to the people of the capture of Jugurtha than the reports about the Teutones and Cimbri fell upon their ears. What these reports said about the numbers and strength of the invading hosts was disbelieved at first, but afterwards it was found to be short of the truth. For three hundred thousand armed fighting men were advancing, and much larger hordes of women and children were said to accompany them, in quest of land to support so vast a multitude, and of cities in which to settle and live, just as the Gauls before them, as they learned, had wrested the best part of Italy from the Tyrrhenians and now occupied it. Plutarch Marius 11.1–2
Panicked, the Romans elected Marius consul — illegally — for a second term in his absence from the city. They were not ready to let go of their popular soldier’s general yet. Marius had endeared himself to the population by eating with his troops, despite being their commander. His manners were rude and distinctly non-patrician. He was a different hero for Rome. And not only was he elected consul for the second time in a row, but he also received a triumph. Following him through the streets of Rome was Jugurtha, stripped of his royal robes (and golden earrings) was thrown naked into a prison where he would starve to death.
Immediately after the triumph, Marius met with Senators (first in his triumphal robes, then seeing their displeasure, he changed to the standard garments). The urgency of the plans would be alleviated somewhat as the Cimbri and Teutones did not press their advantage, and instead moved to Spain. The movements of the Cimbri were almost impossible for Romans to understand — why not march on Rome after destroying its main defenses? But the Cimbri weren’t a conquering army, but rather a migrating people more focused on food than on conquest.
The crises of the moment, and the stature of Marius, made sweeping transformations possible to the Roman military and economy. It was an opportunity Marius would not let go to waste. Marius did not come from nobility, and had risen through the ranks of the Roman military through a combination of skill, persistence, and manipulation. He understood the central crises of the Roman Republic as much as Tiberias and Gaius Gracchus had a generation earlier. The Republic’s rapid expansion was making patricians rich while keeping soldiers from their farms and driving them into poverty. The recent military disasters following battle with the Cimbri, namely Aurasio, had resulted in hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying. These were soldiers who had provisioned themselves and left their farms to fight for the Republic. Their deaths was not only a military blow, but an economic one as well. In parallel, the Jugurthine War, like other wars of conquest that had preceded it, had enriched the patricians despite the hardships imposed on soldiers kept from their farms for years.
Rome’s rapid rise was not without defeat — Hannibal had delivered many sequential defeats a century earlier. But Rome had an ability to bounce back that allowed it to outlast its competitors. Aurasio erased that advantage — the military that Rome had build was not capable of facing this threat. At the same time, more and more farmers were going bankrupt as wealthy patricians bought up their land. Rome had reached the breaking point where it simply did not have an army that could deal with the threat at hand. It was the first time since the Punic wars that Rome would need to re-invent itself to win, and that is precisely what Marius set out to do.
The Roman military was formed by farmers who had to own a certain amount of land, pay taxes, and be able to arm themselves. The relative wealth of the farmer was directly related to his placement into the legions. This was the system that Marius tore apart. Marius eliminated the land ownership requirement to serve in the army. These were the capite censi, the head count, the poor landless masses who had no other opportunities. This would immediately solve the immediate problem of replenishing the ranks after the disaster at Aurasio. However, these men, unlike the old wealth-based military, would be unable to provision themselves for battle. Marius had the state of Rome provide the armor and weapons. With one fell swoop, Marius had solved the military crises and helped address a major economic problem at the same time. Rome’s greatest strength — the ability to suffer a defeat and persist — would only grow from here.
Unlike the earlier armies that had to be raised by each consul, each soldier was expected to serve, in Marius’ time, 16 years in the service. In effect, Marius had created a standing volunteer army. There would be no need to raise a new army each time disaster struck — there would always be tens of thousands of men at arms able to act on immediate threats. The new army would also be required to pack in food and camping gear as well — this would reduce the baggage trains and enable more rapid military operations.
Marius would add one additional reform to the army, one that bring closure to the Gracchi brothers. Included in the benefits for serving in the Roman military was the promise of a land grant following completion of a term. This land would be in any conquered territories the soldier had fought in. This was, in essence, the land reform that the Gracchi had sought, though there was one difference that would change the course of world history. The Gracchi wanted the state to provide the land and pension to its soldiers; Marius would have the general assume that responsibility. Thus, loyalty would be directed not to the Roman Republic, but to the individual general. The consequences of this arrangement were not appreciated at the time, but within years would bring Rome to a decades-long civil war that would ultimately destroy the Republic.
The Cimbrian War
Marius took two years to train this new force, making use of every day afforded to him by the Cimbri and Teutones to train his new force. Unlike the farmer armies, this army needed to be trained from scratch, which many participating in war for the first time. It wasn’t only Romans who formed this army, but tens of thousands of allied Italian cities as well. When word that the Cimbri and Teutones were returning to northern Italy came in 102 B.C., Marius felt he was ready. Rome during this time had kept re-electing Marius to an unprecedented number of continuous consulships; such was the threat from the northern tribes. Everything depended on the new military that Marius had created.
In their march north, Marius did everything he could to make sure provisions flowed readily to his army, even going so far as to divert rivers. The march on desert cities like Capsa in Numidia had taught Marius that if provisions were low, the military lost it’s ability to make strategic decisions and instead was forced into battle on the enemy’s terms.
The Cimbri and Teutones did not take the same care, the Teutones and Ambrones attempted to cross the alps first. This split there forces, and provided Marius with a rare window to capture the tribes in isolation. Marius caught up to them in southern France. Marius immediately choose a favorable hill to set up his camp, and tried to goad the Teutones into attacking. He took care to put groups of forces away from the camp to provide flexibility in responding to their attack. The two sides first exchanged projectiles in bloody but indecisive spurts. The Teutones decided to try and pass the Romans, rather than suffer more projectile attacks. Besides, once the Teutones crossed the Alps, Italy would be theirs.
So they packed up their baggage and began to march past the camp of the Romans. Then, indeed, the immensity of their numbers was made specially evident by the length of their line and the time required for their passage; for it is said they were six days in passing the fortifications of Marius, although they moved continuously. And they marched close to the camp, inquiring whether the Romans had any messages for their wives; “for,” said they, “we shall soon be with them.” Plutarch Marius 18.1–2
Marius broke down his camp and kept close after the massive migrating force. He caught up to them at Aquae Sextiae (modern Aix-en-Provence near the Alps). Marius placed his forces to compel the Teutones to battle. In fact, he also placed his forces to compel the Romans into battle, since there wasn’t enough water to hold the position.
…when many of them were dissatisfied and said they would be thirsty there, [Marius] pointed to a river that ran near the barbarian fortifications, and told them they could get water there, but the price of it was blood.” Plutarch Marius 18.4
The Romans attacked while the majority of the Teutones were themselves gathering water and food. Fortunately for the Romans, the specific tribe they were attacking, the Ambrones, had been enjoying hot springs and wine, and weren’t ready for a full battle from an enemy they had defeated many times in the past. The Ligurians, an Italian allied state, were the first into battle. One moment recorded is interesting — the Ambrones was also the ancestral name of the Ligurians. At the onset of the fighting, both sides chanted the name to claim it as their own. The Ligurians had pushed the Ambrones into the river by time the main Roman force arrived, and much of the Ambrones force was cut down trying to flee. The Ambrones were not themselves an army like the Romans, but instead a migratory city. Women and children were caught up in this fighting.
Here the women met them, swords and axes in their hands, and with hideous shrieks of rage tried to drive back fugitives and pursuers alike, the fugitives as traitors, and the pursuers as foes; they mixed themselves up with the combatants, with bare hands tore away the shields of the Romans or grasped their swords, and endured wounds and mutilations, their fierce spirits unvanquished to the end. Plutarch Marius 19.7
While the first engagement was a success, the Ambrones were only a small part of the Teutones force. That night the Romans listed to the wailing of the Ambrones in the dark as masses of other Teutones, not yet engaged in battle, positioned themselves. Marius waited for an attack, but the Teutones took their time to plan, not even attacking the next day.
As the Teutones forces gathered, Marius placed ambush forces to attack the Teutones from the rear should they push against Rome. As Marius positioned the main body of his troops on a hill, the Teutones attacked in synchronization. Marius kept his force from attacking as the Teutones charged up the hill to maximize their fatigue and the position of the Romans. The Romans held, and by time the Teutones met them the Romans could push them back down the hill they had just charged up. As the battle descended to the valley, the ambush forces struck at the Teutones from the rear. The Teutones, shocked by the attack on two flanks, broke and ran. The Romans pursued them, and managed to kill 100,000 or so fighting men.
For the first time in over a decade, the Romans had managed to score a victory over the migrating tribes that had threatened to subsume them. But victories would not last long. Marius had saved the bulk of his force to handle the Teutones, but did place a reserve force to guard the Alps led by co-consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus (149–87 B.C.). At around the same time Marius battled the Teutones, the Cimbri arrived to cross the Alps and move into northern Italy. Upon seeing the enemy, Catulus retreated past the Alps and into northern Italy to fight them on flat ground. He fortified himself behind the Po river and immediately constructed forts to defend both banks. The Cimbri settled upstream, and began to fell forests to send huge timbers to crash into the forts built by the Romans. The army grew frightened, and Catulus took the standard and marched at the head of the retreat, so that their dishonor would be his own.
Marius joined forces with Catulus to tempt the Cimbri into battle. The Cimbri would not give in, through translators the Romans heard that they were waiting for the Teutones to arrive. Whether the Cimbri were ignorant of the battle of Aquae Sextae or simply in denial, no one knows. The Cimbri offered peace, but only if they and the Teutones were settled in Roman lands. Marius, to move things along, brought the surviving Teutones kings in chains to the Cimbri.
Catulus and Marius were not friends by any means; Catulus detested Marius. But the two were both keenly aware of how rivalries had destroyed an earlier Roman force before the Cimbri. Catuls felt that he was being sidelines in the battle against the Cimbri, but did not deviate from Marius’ proposed action. The Cimbri charged forward, but pushed to the right, splitting the Roman armies from the cavalry. Marius misread this movement, and himself was isolated from the fighting when, somewhat ironically, Catulus’ forces were swept into the middle of the battle. Sulla fought with Catulus, and reported being caught in the middle of the conflict. Sulla also suggested that the heat of the climate became a critical factor — the Cimbri were used to fighting in colder, northern climates and were succumbing to heat exhaustion. Catulus’ forces managed to push the Cimbri back and get them to flee from the Roman lines. From this point, as the Cimbri broke into a panicked run, the most horrifying detail of the battle emerges.
The greatest number and the best fighters of the enemy were cut to pieces on the spot; for to prevent their ranks from being broken, those who fought in front were bound fast to one another with long chains which were passed through their belts. The fugitives, however, were driven back to their entrenchments, where the Romans beheld a most tragic spectacle. The women, in black garments, stood at the waggons and slew the fugitives — their husbands or brothers or fathers, then strangled their little children and cast them beneath the wheels of the waggons or the feet of the cattle, and then cut their own throats. It is said that one woman hung dangling from the tip of a waggon-pole, with her children tied to either ankle; while the men, for lack of trees, fastened themselves by the neck to the horns of the cattle, or to their legs, then plied the goad, and were dragged or trampled to death as the cattle dashed away. Nevertheless, in spite of such self-destruction, more than sixty thousand were taken prisoners; and those who fell were said to have been twice that number. Plutarch Marius 27.1–3
When one takes stock of the Cimbri and Teutones, there are a number of features which differentiate them from Rome’s traditional enemies. First, they move in strategically incomprehensible ways. The Cimbri had at least two opportunities to march on Rome and choke out the Roman Republic, and in both cases went the opposite way following decisive victories. Second, the fighting forces were never separated from the women and children. Third, negotiations, when they did take place, focused on resettlement in fertile land. The last major opponent of Rome, that of Hannibal, brought a war focused on historical grievance. The Cimbri and the Teutones had no deep disagreement with the Romans — their interactions with them appear to be incidental to other goals. The simplest interpretation of the Cimbri and Teutones is that they were a migrating band of people in search of more reliable food sources, many such bands likely had existed in prehistory. The difference was that they stumbled across a Roman Republic on the rise.
Losing the Peace
Upon the victory over the Cimbri on the banks of the Po river, Marius did two things to exacerbate the tensions in the Roman Republic that had lie dormant during the existential threat. The first was the most brazen; he called for all allied Italian soldiers to be citizens of Rome. The bravery of people like the Ligurians should, in his eyes, be as qualifying for citizenship as the more passive act of being born in Rome. The notion of citizenship of the allies had been a long topic of conversation, but this was the first act which legitimized the position. To the Italian allies, it gave an attainable taste of the Roman world’s wealth.
The second action was less bombastic, but similarly consequential. To Sulla and Catalus’ dismay, Marius claimed credit for the victory on the field of battle. Allegedly, the fighting over this point broke down to whose javelinas were most commonly found in the corpses of the Cimbri. Marius, due to earlier success and raw rank, won the argument to the Roman people. Nonetheless, Marius and Catalus would share a joint triumph after defeating the Cimbri completely. To the dismay of traditionalists like Catalus and patricians like Sulla, Marius sought another term for consul despite the victory over the Cimbri and Teutones. This time, he would face Metallus, his former commander in Numidia, for the office. Proving that, if nothing else, history has a deep sense of irony, Marius proceeded to buy the votes he needed to secure a sixth consulship. Still fearful of Metallus after his victory, Marius and his allies found a way to compel him to exile, where he lived the rest of his life outside Rome.
Marius’ military reforms had, in essence, become the land reforms of the Gracchi brothers realized. The longstanding dispute between the poor and the rich had been resolved by Marius, and Marius enjoyed a wide base of support. To most of the population, Marius was the hero of both the Jugurthine War and the savior of the Republic from the Cimbri. He had carte blanche to pursue whatever agenda he wanted, and they didn’t mind him targeting wealthier citizens like Metallus all that much.
The patricians and other influential families, on the other hand, were scandalized by Marius. They saw themselves as traditionalists, though admittedly they had every reason to favor ancient traditions that had benefited them handsomely. Leading men like Catulus and Sulla, who arguably had delivered the critical victories that won both wars, watched sidelined as a populare with no manners flouted tradition and consolidated power.
By all accounts, this should have been the swan song for all involved. Land reform had passed. The enemies of Rome like Jugurtha had been defeated. The existential threats to Rome like the Cimbri had been eliminated. Yet partisanship was worse than it had ever been. And, there was now one key difference, perhaps the difference, which made tensions grow; each side of the political divide now had an army personally loyal to its generals. It is suggested by Plutarch that Marius’ decision to share the triumph following the defeat of the Cimbri was in part due to fear of Catalus’ army.
The situation was forestalled a little by Marius rapidly burning through his political capital due to the machinations of an erstwhile ally, Saturninus. He did not stand for a 7th consulship, and instead left Rome for some time, returning a little later to a small house near the forum. The rising star of Sulla drove Marius mad with rage, particularly as Sulla began to publicly claim credit for the capture of Jugurtha.
However, these tensions would need to be set to the side, as a more pressing problem emerged in Italy.
The Social War
While the Roman Republic sprawled across Africa, Europe, and parts of Anatolia, it was still, technically, just one city. It’s governing structure evolved over the course of centuries to solve the problems of a city-state. Initially, it was run by an oligarchy in the form of a Senate. Later, after workers began to protest, the Tribunate of the Plebs was created to provide farmers with veto power over the Senate’s decisions. Our modern democratic institutions owe a lot to the developments in ancient Rome — but it was just in ancient Rome. As the Romans conquered their neighbors, they subjugated their rule to that of Rome. Rome began making decisions for its neighbors, then farther-flung Italian states, then distant kingdoms like Pergamum and Macedonia. Rome was an old government with a lot of new territory that distorted the effects of its decisions. The reliance on farmers as soldiers was one example of how institutions made for a city-state broke down over a far-flung empire.
However, by time Rome began approaching its territorial maxima, it became increasingly dependent on soldiers provided by it’s neighbors. Some of these, like the Ligurians, had recently been assimilated. Others had been in a confederation with the Romans since the 4th century. Yet while more and more of Rome’s armies were filled with these Latin allies, they were not citizens of Rome. As the Empire grew richer, the benefits of citizenship became more attractive. Increasingly, the Latin allies asked to share in the benefits. This is the background to Marius’ decision to declare the Latin veterans of the Cimbrian war as citizens for their service. This act was widely popular with them, but widely damaging within the city of Rome. Marius had crossed a previously sacred line — Roman citizenship was defined to the city of Rome itself. Now, it included Romans and those allies who had fought to save the Republic from the Cimbri. Really, Marius’ actions from 105–102 B.C. can be seen as the first major steps of transforming the Roman Republic from a city government to something much larger in scale. He not only created a standing army, but also expanded the definition of citizen past the city’s borders.
The pushback from this was strong. After Marius had finished his unprecedented string of consulships, politics returned more or less to normal. Upheaval would begin rapidly when Marcus Livius Drusus, recently elected Tribune of the Plebs, proposed to expand Senate membership from 300 to 600. The Senate seemed to favor this, and to win the Plebs over, he promised land grants. However, the waters became poisoned when Drusus pushed for citizenship for the Italian allies. This was perhaps the one issue that could unite both the patricians and the populares; neither wanted to dilute their power and influence. Even the wealthy Italians outside of Rome didn’t want this, since empowered people in their regions would demand land. Drusus’ actions were confusing to many, until word got out that he had been negotiating with the Italian allies to secure their support as clients. Here, things ran off the rails for Druses. His past bills were cancelled, and he himself was assassinated in 91 B.C. However, the Italians desire for citizenship was not quelled by the murder of their ally, and multiple cities declared war on Rome and formed a new confederation, Italia.
Both Marius and Sulla were among the many called upon to defend Rome. The Senate greatly feared further empowering Marius, so made sure to distribute command to multiple generals. The Social War was chaotic with oscillating victories and defeats on both sides until 88 B.C. Things grew so dire for Rome in 90 B.C. that Rome granted a path to citizenship for those Italian allies who had not revolted if they would participate in the war. I would like to, for the most part, refrain from commenting too much on the history, but here I cannot resist — can you imagine how pissed off the other Italian states where when that happened?
Sulla would prove to be the most decisive commander in this war, bringing it to a close in 88 B.C. by defeating the last hold-outs, the Samnites. Sulla would be awarded rare honors by the army and a consulship for 88 B.C. Sulla was, for the Roman ruling class, the perfect antidote to Marius. They saw a patrician who would maintain the mores of Rome.
The Civil War
Both the Cimbrian and Social wars were the least desirable type of conflict — there was almost no monetary reward, and there was no great villain to rally the people against. Instead, there was existential conflict. So when Pontic king Mithridates IV (134–63 B.C.) began expanding his kingdom into Roman-controlled territory, the comfort zone of the ruling class returned. Mithridates, after a dispute with Rome, occupied Cappadocia with a large force. This reportedly caught Sulla’s eye, as it would be an opportunity to defeat a rich monarch. However, Mithridates would prove to not simply be another Jugurtha. In an event known as the Asiatic Vespers, Mithridates synchronized the slaughter of between 80,000 to 150,000 Romans in Anatolia in 88 B.C. The Senate immediately called for a conquest of Mithridates, kingdom in response. Sulla received the charge, and set out with a large army.
Marius, however, could not stand his former quaestor receiving this glory, and sought the command for himself. He promised the tribune of that year, Publius Sulpicius Rufus (121–88 B.C.), that he would help him with his debts if he would rescind Summa’s command and grant it instead to Marius. They planned to enfranchise thousands of Italian allies to garner the votes for this, a proposal which alarmed the Senate, which moved to cease public business. There weren’t many options for either Marius or Sulpicius to respond within the bounds of the law, so they started a riot. Senators, fearing the violence, pulled back their intervention, and the law passed. With packed votes, command was removed from Sulla and granted to Marius instead.
Sulla took the news in the south of Italy, near present day Naples, waiting to sail for Greece. He took stock of the situation, and set about a course that would forever change Roman history. The earlier Marian reforms had made generals responsible for their soldiers financial situation. By depriving Sulla of the command, Sulpicius and Marius had also deprived his soldiers the opportunity to establish land ownership in Anatolia. Their removal of Sulla’s command set about a perverted set of incentives — they had asked multiple legions to lay down their arms and opportunities for the nation because of internal partisan squabbling and highly questionable political maneuvers. The success of Marius’ gambit hinged on, of all things, the consequences of how his earlier military reforms to fight the Cimbri would affect the loyalty of troops. As it would prove, those reforms made the troops highly loyal to their commander.
When Sulla heard of this he resolved to decide the question by war. He called the army together in a conference. They were eager for the war against Mithridates because it promised much plunder, and they feared that Marius would enlist other soldiers instead of themselves. Sulla spoke of the indignity put upon him by Sulpicius and Marius, and while he did not openly allude to anything else (for he did not dare as yet to mention this kind of a war), he urged them to be ready to obey his orders. They understood what he meant, and as they feared lest they should miss the campaign they spoke boldly what Sulla had in his mind, and told him to be of good courage, and to lead them to Rome. Sulla was overjoyed and led six legions thither forthwith, but all of his superior officers, except one quæstor, left him and hastened to the city, because they would not submit to the idea of leading an army against their country. Envoys met him on the road and asked him why he was marching with armed forces against his country. “To deliver her from her tyrants,” he replied. Appian: The Civil Wars 57
No general had ever turned an army on the Republic. The shock of the moment wasn’t just political, but cultural. Ceremonial triumphs required that the victorious general leave his troops before entering the city. Marching an army on Rome to overturn a political decision mixed the waters in ways that were unthinkable. It was the people who controlled the army, not the reverse. Sulla declared that it was he who was the victim — after all, it was his command that had been taken. And he had a case to make her — Marius’ actions were unprecedented, though it should be noted that the threat of violence against the Senate still could roughly be compared to Opimius killing 3,000 or so supporters of the Gracchi. But Sulla marching an army on Rome was different. It not only threat new violence, but did so on an existential scale. He went a step further, and declared Marius and his allies as enemies of the state. He killed Sulpicius after a slave betrayed him — that slave was freed for his services, then put to death by Sulla for the betrayal of his master. Marius escaped to Africa with his life, but not much else.
The situation in Rome deteriorated further — a consul, Quintus Pompeius, was murdered by supporters of a novo homo, Lucius Cornelius Cinna (? — 84 B.C.). Sensing the mood in Rome was turning against him, Sulla set out for the war against Mithridates, satisfied in securing his command and strengthening the Senate’s position. He first went to Greece, where he quickly shook off opposition, save for Athens. He walked off the ancient city’s access to the sea, and proceeded to dig in for a long siege. As he waited there, refugees began to appear from Rome, with disturbing news. Marius had returned to the city, and with Lucius Cornelius Cinna (? — 84 B.C.), set it in opposition to Sulla.
Sulla’s march on Rome had been deeply unpopular with the populares, and while he had forced potential opponents like Cinna to swear personal loyalty to him, that faded rapidly after his election as Consul. The situation grew tense between the differing factions, both old and new citizens, optimates and populares. Following Sulla’s departure, consul Octavius became champion of the optimates, while Cinna for the populares.
The partisans of Cinna took possession of the forum with concealed daggers, and with loud cries demanded that they should be distributed among all the tribes. The more reputable part of the plebeians adhered to Octavius, and they also carried daggers. While Octavius was still at home awaiting the result, the news was brought to him that the majority of the tribunes had vetoed the proposed action, but that the new citizens had started a riot, drawn their daggers on the street, and assaulted the opposing tribunes on the rostra. When Octavius heard this he ran down through the Via Sacra with a very dense mass of men, burst into the forum like a torrent, pushed through the midst of the crowd, and separated them. He struck terror into them, pushed on to the temple of Castor and Pollux, and drove Cinna away. His companions fell upon the new citizens without orders, killed many of them, put the rest to flight, and pursued them to the city gates. Appian, the Civil Wars 64
Rome descended into street violence between Cinna and his fellow consul, Octavius, who aligned with the Senate. Cinna was chased out of Rome, and for the moment at least, it looked like Sulla’s faction had persevered again. But having learned from Sulla’s example, Cinna began to raise an army, and soon Marius returned from exile to join his cause.
For a moment, let’s pause to take in the norm-shattering of this period. Traditionally, the consulship had been an honor bestowed upon both plebians and patricians alike. Yet within one year, one consul had marched legions onto the city (Sulla), another had been murdered (Pompeius), and a third had been exiled after street fights (Cinna). Each broken precedent was like a ratchet, pushing Rome to an end that no one could foresee. Even the traditional divisions of the optimates and populares had given way to a newer division between old and new citizens — e.g. traditional Romans and Italian allies recently given citizenship. And at this point, the factions began to swirl around the personalities of two men — Sulla, the representative of the old Roman order, and Marius the de-facto leader of Italy. But it would be a mistake to take Sulla for a traditionalist — his reactions tended to break Roman norms more than the installations of his enemies.
In Sulla’s absence, Marius and Cinna lay siege to Rome, and after one battle Rome invited him back into the city and to his consulship provided he did not kill anyone. Presumably, they hoped he would be more honest with him than he had been with Sulla.
Accordingly Cinna and Marius entered the city and everybody received them with fear. Straightway they began to plunder without restraint the goods of those who were supposed to be of the opposite party. Cinna and Marius had sworn to Octavius, and the augurs and soothsayers had predicted, that he would suffer no harm, yet his friends advised him to fly. He replied that he would never desert the city while he was consul. So he withdrew from the forum to the Janiculum with the nobility and what was left of his army, where he occupied the curule chair and wore his robes of office, attended by lictors as a consul. Here he was attacked by Censorinus with a body of horse, and again his friends and the soldiers who stood by him urged him to fly and brought him a horse, but he disdained even to arise, and awaited death. Censorinus cut off his head and carried it to Cinna, and it was suspended in the forum in front of the rostra, the first head of a consul that was so exposed. After him the heads of others who were slain were suspended there. Appian, The Civil Wars 71
Slaughters became increasingly common in Rome, and soon Octavius’ head was not alone in the forum. Most of the violence was instigated by Marius. In the midst of this violence, even Catalus, Marius’ co-commander in the war against the Cimbri and Teutones, would commit suicide rather than be killed by factions loyal to the city’s new rulers. Marius would receive his unprecedented seventh, and final, consulship of 86 B.C., after which he would he would pass away before his inevitable terror would come true: that Sulla would return victorious from ok his war against Mithridates.
As Sulla’s siege of Athens wore on, the pace of refugees returning to his camp grew. Among the optimates who had survived the violence of Marius and Cinna, his one wife and children came. The people of Athens starved in the city, and began to neglect their walls. Sulla exploited one such weakness, and broke through them late in the night. The slaughter would continue until Senators convinced him to spare some of the ancient city. Sulla fought his way through Greece toward Anatolia, absorbing an army sent to him by Cinna to replace his command. At Orchomenus in Boeotia, Sulla dug ditches and dikes to trap a massive force of 150,000 Pontic soldiers. This drove them towards Sulla’s tightly packed legions, turning the battle into a route of a massive force by a smaller, more strategically placed one. Sulla’s victory here established Roman dominance, and would foreshadow conquests of the region to follow. But Sulla was not eager to take advantage of it; he met personally with Mithridates and signed a peace agreement that surprised the latter. Perhaps, had Rome been more stable, Sulla would have continued to take the entire Pontic kingdom for himself; instead it was conquest of Rome that was on his mind. Sulla now turned his forces back to that city, where Cinna still ruled.
Sulla dispatched letters that left no room for misinterpretation — he was returning to destroy the Cinna faction. Cinna, now in his second consulship, along with his fellow consul Gnaeus Papirus Carbo(~130 B.C. — 82 B.C.) attempted to raise an army to meet Sulla, but they simply weren’t the caliber of commander that he was. After a storm interrupted the transport of troops to meet Sulla outside Italy, many soldiers returned. Cinna angrily called those troops to admonish them, but after a brief scuffle was himself killed by them. Carbo alone was left consul to face the return of Sulla. As Sulla marched a second time toward Rome, patricians and optimates fled the city to greet him, among them a 23-year old Gnaeus Pompeius (106 B.C. — 48 B.C.), commonly called Pompey, who brought a small army to join to Sulla’s forces and fate. Pompey would be one of three key men who would push the next wave of civil wars to rock Rome. The second key figure in Rome’s future, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115–53 B.C.), also met Sulla on the road, marching from Spain with a force that would prove critical.
While Sulla’s first march on Rome had been met with a relatively peaceful taking of the city, the situation now was considerably dire. Neither Marius nor Cinna had survived to face Sulla, but both had pushed the seizure of his property and the murder of his friends. The city of Rome prepared to defend itself. While violence had broken out within Rome, this war would consume all of Roman territory.
Rome invested its hope in a young nephew of Marius, Gnaius Marius (110/108–82 B.C.) who was elected consul at the age of 27. He met Sulla near Præneste, where he was quickly defeated after the collapse of his left flank of troops. They fled inside the town, where most of the army was slaughtered by Sulla’s faction while the young Marius was lifted up the city walls on ropes. Sulla starved the city of food, as Marius occupied his time doing what he could to purge disloyal Senators from the city of Rome from afar. Sulla sent forces to take roads leading to Rome, with nearby towns falling cautiously in their wake.
Carbo met Sulla near Colsium at a battle that would lead to the defeat of neither. During this, Carbo sent a force to attempt a relief of the young Marius at Præneste when word of hunger in the city got out, but this force was broken by the small force of Pompey. The continued defeats and setbacks wore on Carbo’s forces, who began to desert him. After still another failed attempt to break the siege of Præneste, Carbo fled to north Africa, hoping to draw Sullan forces there. Sulla took advantage of this, and defeated a large contingent of his troops who remained in Italy.
From here, Sulla’s forces marched on Rome. Initially, his forces were successful on the outside of the city. Carbo’s men however, dropped the portcullis of the Colline Gate on top of Sulla’s rushing men, killing many and creating a frustrating setback to Sulla. The battle around the walls of Rome would claim 50,000 lives on both sides. Many thousands who had surrendered to Sulla were killed by him, since many were Samnites, the traditional enemies of Rome. In the end, the city would fall to Sulla. He sent the heads of the commander of the city to Præneste, where the surviving force under Marius learned that they had lost the war. The young, starving Marius committed suicide in hiding as the city fell. Another holdout city, Norba, also saw defections and slaughter in the wake of Sulla’s victory. It was 82 B.C., and for now, the civil war was over. Sulla sent Pompey to destroy the residual force left with Carbo in north Africa, and he himself entered the city. Pompey’s force would defeat Carbo, and send his head to Rome.
Sulla was declared dictator for life by the Senate in 82/81 B.C. As dictator, he could create any laws, and make any decisions. The post of dictator had been created exclusively for absolute existential threats to Rome, and was intended to only last 6 months traditionally. But there was no external enemy to Rome now, as Mithridates had been pacified, Jugurtha a distant memory, and the Cimbri and Teutones had been all but annihilated as people.
While Sulla had promised vengeance against his enemies, many Romans were still acting as if the politics of the past guided current affairs. One example comes from the town of Antemenae, where the inhabitants had learned of Sulla’s victory. Some citizens begged for clemency, to which Sulla demanded they prove it by slaughtering any still aligned with Carbo. They dutifly complied, and killed their neighbors while opening the gates to Sulla’s forces. Sulla’s forces entered the city, and captured both those who had joined his side and their surviving opponents.
However, the survivors of both parties alike, to the number of six thousand, were collected by Sulla in the circus at Rome, and then the senate was summoned by him to meet in the temple of Bellona, and at one and the same moment he himself began to speak in the senate, and those assigned to the task began to cut to pieces the six thousand in the circus. The shrieks of such a multitude, who were being massacred in a narrow space, filled the air, of course, and the senators were dumbfounded; but Sulla, with the calm and unmoved countenance with which he had begun to speak, ordered them to listen to his words and not concern themselves with what was going on outside, for it was only that some criminals were being admonished, by his orders. Plutarch: Sulla 30:2–3
The slaughters would only begin with those thousands in the circus. In the chaos, one of Sulla’s allies would ask only for clarity on which citizens should be killed. Sulla complied, and provided lists of people to be killed. These proscriptions targeted people high and low alike, claiming Senators and military veterans. Sulla’s proscriptions grew in scope, and soon began to claim his allies in the war. His ally who had taken Præneste was murdered in the forum, simply for seeking an office Sulla disapproved. It would continue for years, and become a legal way to kill and acquire wealth for any of Sulla’s friends.
Moreover, proscriptions were made not only in Rome, but also in every city of Italy, and neither temple of God, nor hearth of hospitality, nor paternal home was free from the stain of bloodshed, but husbands were butchered in the embraces of their wedded wives, and sons in the arms of their mothers. Those who fell victims to political resentment and private hatred were as nothing compared with those who were butchered for the sake of their property, nay, even the executioners were prompted to say that his great house killed this man, his garden that man, his warm baths another. Quintus Aurelius, a quiet and inoffensive man, who thought his only share in the general calamity was to condole with others in their misfortunes, came into the forum and read the list of the proscribed, and finding his own name there, said, “Ah! woe is me! my Alban estate is prosecuting me.” And he had not gone far before he was dispatched by some one who had hunted him down. Plutarch Sulla 31:5–6
Sulla sometimes showed mercy. In one instance, a young noble from a largely failed and bankrupt patrician family sought the office of Pontifex Maximus. Sulla was inclined to kill the upstart, but was dissuaded from doing so. Sulla commented that in the young man he saw ‘many Mariuses’, but consented only to let the young man, Gaius Julius Caeser (100–44 B.C.), escape the city. Caeser was the third man, in addition to Pompey and Crassus, who would continue the next phase of the collapse of the Roman Republic. Each of these men had grown up in an era where traditional norms and laws were to be disregarded, and the wholesale slaughter of people was an acceptable political tactic. And after them, their heirs, including Marcus Antonius (83–30 B.C.) and Gaius Octavius (63 B.C. — 14 A.D.) would complete the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.
Sulla’s dictatorship was perhaps was the final death knell for the Republic — it would survive past Sulla for some decades, but only a shell of what it was. Sulla himself would resign the dictatorship after 81 B.C. and accept the consulship of 80 B.C., and thereafter retire to the countryside, satisfied with, in his view, saving the Roman Republic. His funeral in 78 B.C. was a grand event in Rome, to be rivaled only by that of the first Emperor, Augustus, almost a century later.
Climate, the Cimbri, and the Civil Wars
In 105 B.C., facing the existential threat of the dual invasions of north Italy by the Cimbri and the Teutones, Marius reformed the military to replenish the legions and counter the threat. While these reforms would inarguably save the Republic at the time, they laid the groundwork for its collapse. In Marius’ own lifetime he saw his reforms give the ability for one Roman general and rival, Sulla, to march on the city. By transforming an army of farmers into, essentially, a mercenary army dependent on the fortunes of its general, he took power away from the state and handed it to the judgement of a few individual commanders.
Those same military reforms were rooted in the decades-old debate between the patricians, who reaped the benefits of a century’s worth of conquests, and the farmers, who formed the majority of the fighting forces and suffered crop failures and insolvency. The attempts of the Gracchi brothers to reform the system in the 130’s and 120’s B.C. would end in failure and death, ultimately setting up foreign wars. Their desperation to reform the system would lead to the first round of shattering political norms; this proved to be a ratchet that moved the Republic inexorably to civil war and autocracy with no recourse to return to the functioning Republic of the past. Marius’ military reforms of 105 B.C. would not only deliver Rome from the Cimbri and Teutones, but also accomplish the reforms of the Gracchi brothers. Though the land reform bills of the Gracchi brothers would not have wed the soldiers of foreign wars so tightly to the fortunes of their generals after the battles.
While the military reforms of Marius in response to the invasion of the Cimbri and Teutones proved to be their most long-lasting consequence, it was hardly the only one. Following the decisive final battle at Po river, Marius granted the Italian allies who had fought with him citizenship — an act unprecedented in itself. This would set up a larger struggle between Rome and her allies, leading to the Social and Civil Wars.
The migration of the Cimbri and Teutones precipitated these consequential changes that would ultimately destroy the Roman Republic. And, as I argued in my 2017 paper, that migration was brought about by changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation that led to sequential droughts in the Jutland peninsula, which ancient authors like Augustus and Strabo posit was the homeland of these people.
The Cimbrian War followed the first major NAO+ change in Rome’s history. At the time of the migrations, the NAO index is consistent with a widespread drought not just in the Jutland peninsula, but throughout north-central Europe and Scandinavia.
It is likely that the Cimbri and Teutones were not the only migrating people — at this time the majority of the area afflicted by drought was beyond the knowledge of the historical authors. It would not be until the first century of the Imperial period of Rome, in the midst of the Pax Romana (27 B.C. — 180 A.D.), that Roman historians would document the behaviors of the people far north of their borders.
The semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Celts and proto-Germanic peoples to the far north of the Empire was, in part, an adaption to these kinds of systematic droughts. And the emphasis needs to be on the word ‘systematic’ — this was not only a couple years of less-than-normal rainfall. These NAO shifts lasted decades, if not centuries, and undermined the ability of people to feed themselves in a region. Today, we are comfortable with the amount of food we receive — few of us on Earth today, and the majority of the people reading these words, do not need to worry that there will not be enough food to feed their family next year. Our agricultural system extends thousands of kilometers in any direction, and our own kitchen is an international convention of crops. The Celts and proto-Germanic tribes were dependent on their farms. They lived in large numbers of hundreds of thousands of people, and if the land could not feed as many as it could last year, they would be compelled to move. It is almost certain that the movements of large groups of people across Europe in response to droughts was the typical pattern in Europe for the majority of the Holocene (10,000 B.C. — present). The Romans were the first major complex, modern-like complex state to have solid borders. The migrations of the Cimbri and Teutones were in a sense the meeting of an ancient way of life with the modern. It was immediately disastrous for them, and ultimately disastrous for the Romans.
Rome’s political difficulties were of its own making — the rich were unwilling to let go of their riches, and the farmers grew dissatisfied with fighting wars for the wealth of others. Parallel to this, the increasing dependence of Rome on her Italian allies increased the demands for citizenship. These twin conflicts have (almost) nothing to do with climate change, and would have created conflict without the massive migrations of foreign people into northern Italy. But the precise way in which they destroyed the Republic and led to an Empire was the consequence of the reaction of Rome to the migrations of the Cimbri and Teutones.
This, ultimately, is what makes climate change so dangerous. We discuss climate change today as the immediate problem of farmers suffering from drought — this is a very limited view of its corrosive effects. The example of the Roman Republic shows that the reactions of people to climate change, and the reactions of the people who interact with them can create a domino effect that permanently changes social institutions and values. In the eyes of historians like Edward Gibbon, the decline and fall of Rome was one of the degradation of social institutions and civic virtue. This process was amplified and accelerated in the collapse of the Roman Republic, when citizen soldiers gave way to what were essentially mercenary armies fighting for wealth instead of the state. The reaction of Rome to the climate refugees of an NAO event precipitated the decline of not only their institutions, but arguably their civic values. Again, the line between climate change and social consequence is not direct, but therein lies its devastation as well. Climate change serves as a threat multiplier, and any societies response to external threats runs the risk of permanent damage to the foundational values of that society. So it was with republican virtues in Rome.
It was not the Cimbri or Teutones that was ultimately the greatest existential threat that Rome faced. Instead, it was the inability of a republic designed for a city to handle the foundations of an Empire. The catalytic meeting of the two would destroy the Cimbri and Teutones as people, and the Romans as a republic.