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The Battle of Vercellae 101 BC was the Roman victory of Consul Gaius Marius over the invading Germanic Cimbri tribe near the settlement of Vercellae in Cisalpine Gaul. ~ art by Igor Dzis

Marius and the Ambassadors of the Cimbri.

The Cimbri people were an enigma. Virtually unknown until they appeared around 120 BC during a mass migration in search of a new homeland. They had joined with the Teutones and other tribes to swell their ranks to well over 600,000. They came in contact with the Romans, due to a dispute with Rome’s ally the Taurisci in Noricum in 113 BC. Respectfully they acknowledged the sovereignty of Rome and made a request of Consul Gnaeus Papirius Carbo for land on which to settle. They offered themselves as auxiliaries to Rome should the need arise. Carbo informed them that there was no land in Noricum, but that guides would direct them to a rich and bountiful area a short march away. But Carbo had already planned an ambush to rid the world of these “barbarians”; an act that would cause Rome more pain than Carthage ever inflicted…and put Rome once again under the threat of occupation.

Marius owed his victories largely to his military reforms, which helped to convert a citizen-militia into a semi-professional army. True, the Roman armies of this period were very different from those of the early Republic when men were eager to hasten back to their homes and farms after each annual campaign, and probably in practice many men not enrolled in the five property classes (i. e. the capitecensi) had been recruited, but it was Marius who officially opened the army to them as a career (cf. p. 42). One far-reaching effect of recruiting these landless volunteers was that they would look to their commanders to provide spoils and to help them after demobilization. As the State did not step in with any scheme of pensions, the men tended increasingly to expect their generals to provide allotments for them by securing the passing of a lex agraria. This spelt danger: these semi-professionalized soldiers, bound to their commanders by ties of personal interest, made possible the rise of a series of military dictators who in the end overthrew the Republic.

Marius also introduced far-reaching tactical changes in the army. The legions had normally fought in a formation based on three separate lines which differed in age and equipment; these were now abolished and all the infantry were armed alike. For some time the sections (maniples), into which a legion was divided, had on occasion been grouped into threes in a unit known as a cohort. Marius now made the cohort the standard tactical unit (the battalion) of the legion, which henceforth consisted of ten cohorts of 600 men, each of which was subdivided into six centuries. At the same time each legion was given a silver eagle as its standard, and the men began to develop a `regimental’ loyalty to their legion. The legionaries’ chief arms were the sword and a long javelin (the pilum). Marius, following the example set by Rutilius Rufus (cos. 105), gave his men a thorough training in armsdrill by methods based on those of the gladiatorial schools, and provided the pilum with a wooden rivet to help fasten the metal head to the wooden shaft; on impact this rivet would break and thus made it impossible for the enemy to throw the pilum back. When on the move, Roman armies built a camp each night for protection and for this purpose had depended on baggage trains. Marius made the army more mobile and independent by making the men carry their own entrenching tools and other equipment: consequently they became known as Marius’ mules (muli Mariani). But an efficient army is lost without efficient officers. The commanding officer was normally a consul, who had under him six military tribunes and sixty centurions for each legion; and it was these centurions, seasoned and experienced veterans, six to each cohort, that provided firm leadership for the rank-and-file. Thus by his military reforms Marius partly gave final shape to earlier developments and partly introduced real innovations. The Roman army owed him much and became one of the finest fighting machines of antiquity.

Rome was exceedingly fortunate in that the rambling movements of the German tribes allowed Marius time to shape his army into a first-class force. In fact he had so much time that he employed his men in digging a new channel at the mouth of the Rhone to by-pass the estuary which tended to silt-up. This new waterway, the fossa Mariana, which ran from near modern Fos to Arles (Arelate), allowed shipping to get to the Rhone in safety, facilitated the supply-line of Marius’ army, promoted the commercial prosperity of Arelate and of S. Gaul in general, pleased the Equites, and fore-shadowed the similar use of the imperial army on public works. In 102, however, Marius, who had been elected to his fourth consulship in Rome with Saturninus’ help, received news that brought him post-haste back to Gaul. The barbarians were planning a converging attack on Italy: the Teutones were hoping to advance along the coast from the west, the Cimbri over the Brenner Pass from the north, and the Tigurini over the Julian Alps from the north-east. This division may have weakened the strength of the attack, but it also forced the Romans to divide their armies. While his colleague Q. Lutatius Catulus stood guard in N. Italy, Marius at first refused battle in S. Gaul (probably near Tarascon), allowed the Teutones to march past him, and then managed to work his way round in front of them before they reached Aquae Sextiae (modern Aix). Here in a valley surrounded by hills he cut to pieces the Ambrones who arrived first, and then engaged the Teutones in a tough struggle; a detachment of 3000 Romans concealed in reserve suddenly threatened the enemy’s rear and helped to achieve a complete victory. The western invasion was smashed and Narbonese Gaul was safe. Meanwhile Catulus had foolishly advanced up the Adige to meet the Cimbri in the hilly country near Tridentum (Trento), but his army managed to extricate itself, though at the cost of abandoning Transpadane Gaul to the invaders. Nevertheless his command was prolonged for 101 when he was joined by Marius, now consul for the fifth time. Together they advanced with some 55,000 men over the Po and finally in the heat of the midsummer met the enemy at Campi Raudii near Vercellae. Here the rout of the Cimbri was no less decisive than that of the Teutones at Aquae Sextiae. The Tigurini found safety by retreating to Switzerland, hastened on their way by Sulla.

The northern peril was ended. Both Marius and Catulus received triumphs, but though some senators might try to believe that their man Catulus deserved his, the People’s hero Marius clearly was the real saviour of Rome. Memories of the sack of the city by the Gauls in 390 B.C. combined with the series of recent defeats that had culminated at Arausio, had justifiably aroused Rome’s fears and now increased her gratitude towards her preserver. Many Romans may have been thinking that disciplined legions must in the end have succeeded in defeating the barbarians, despite their numbers, but that would not have been possible without outstanding leadership. Marius in his army reforms, tactics and strategy had proved himself to be a general of great ability, if not of genius. The future was soon to show whether he could rival his military achievements when he turned to the battleground of politics.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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