“They were of invincible strength and fierceness in their wars" - The Cimbri and Teutoni and the Roman Defeat at Arausio

6 October 105 BCE, at Arausio (present day Orange) in the Rhône valley, 12 Roman legions under the command of Consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus and Proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio were almost annihilated by the warriors of the Cimbri and Teutoni in one of the most crushing defeats Rome suffered in its long history.
“They were of invincible strength and fierceness in their wars, and hurried into battle with the violence of a devouring flame; none could withstand them: all they assaulted became their prey. Several of the greatest Roman commanders with their whole armies, that advanced for the defence of Transalpine Gaul, were ingloriously overthrown, and, indeed, by their faint resistance, chiefly gave them the impulse of marching towards Rome. Having vanquished all they had met, and found abundance of plunder, they resolved to settle themselves nowhere till they should have razed the city and wasted all Italy.“ (Plutarch, “Gaius Marius”)

Furor Teutonicus: A 19th century imagination of fierce Germanics in battle

Whatever it was that gave three whole tribes in Jutland itchy feet around 115 BCE, the migration of the Germanic Cimbri and Teutoni and the Celtic Ambrones had changed the Roman world forever. It was probably a combination of several harsh winters and crop failures that made them pack up their things and trek south, more than 150,000 people, men, women and children, first migrating from Denmark towards Bavaria, Slovenia and Serbia and then to the west again, where they had their first contact with the Romans at Noreia somewhere in Styria. The Romans had heard about the peoples of the north, of course, especially from the writings of the Greek geographer Pytheas, but to have hundreds of thousands right at their doorstep made them a bit wary. Consul Carbo closed the Alpine passes, negotiated with the tribal leaders to move further to the west into Celtic Gaul to find new lands to settle there – and attacked after the talks were finished apparently to everyone’s satisfaction. Carbo and his two legions suffered quite a surprise. In a terrain where they couldn’t develop their full fighting capacity, the Germans and Celts gave them a drubbing and the Romans were saved only by a heavy thunderstorm that allegedly made the Northerners flee because they feared the skies would fall on their heads.

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

Nevertheless, the tribes migrated further into Gaul, came twice into conflict with the Romans again when they brushed the borders of the province of Gallia Narbonensis, the Roman Provence, but it was not until five years later that both parties opposed each other again. Obviously, the tribal chiefs had decided to finally invade Italy and the two consular armies rushed to the Rhône to stop them. 12 legions should have been sufficient to stop almost anything during the 2nd century BCE, had they been commanded by a Scipio Africanus or Aemilius Paullus, unfortunately it were Maximus and Caepio, who immediately got into a squabble over who outranked whom, and even if the exact course of the battle is unknown that quarrel and the encampment of the armies on both sides of the river allowed the Cimbri and Teutoni to destroy the Romans piecemeal. The Roman losses must have been disastrous, even if they were not wiped out with horse and man and wagon, like most antique authors claimed to exaggerate the threat and later triumphs.

Put an end to the Germanic fury: Gaius Marius

The defeat at Arausio was a disaster for Rome though. And it could have become more disastrous if the Cimbri and Teutoni had decided to migrate into Northern Italy, but they didn’t. What motivated them to split their trek is likewise unknown, but after moving towards the Pyrenees the tribes separated during the next two years, while Rome elected a “homus novus”, Gaius Marius, who pushed through with the long overdue reforms of the army. Marius’ Mules finally defeated the Cimbri at Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence) in 102 and the Teutoni at Vercellae in the Po valley in 101 BCE and both tribes were obliterated. However, the Romans had learned of the “furor teutonicus”, the Teutonic fury, that became a winged word when Caesar finally invaded Gaul 50 years later and Ariovistus’ Germanic Suebi and became a catch-all for the tribes beyond the Rhine that would trouble the Romans for centuries to come and made significant contributions to the final destruction of the Western Empire.

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