Rome in Gaul Before Caesar II

Given the unstable situation in Gaul a consul of 106, Quintus Servilius Caepio, was sent against the Volcae and suppressed the rebellion. He did not have to immediately face the Cimbri who were far to the north in the Seine basin. Perhaps Caepio’s victory set them in motion once again, looking for an easier point of entry into the Roman controlled lands of the south. They moved east to the Rhône and then down its eastern bank as far as Arausio (Orange) in 105. One of the consuls, Gnaeus Mallius, was posted there awaiting the Germans. Caepio had been retained in command as proconsul and he seems to have been assigned the area to the west of the Rhône while Mallius was to keep watch to the east of the river. The appearance of the Cimbri and the defeat and death of his legate Scaurus led Mallius to summon Caepio to his aid, but relations between the two men were strained. The question at issue was seniority in command. As consul, Mallius would normally have been senior to Caepio who was now in 105 serving as a proconsul. But Caepio claimed his command was independent and not subordinated to Mallius. Caepio moved up to the Rhône’s west bank but at first did not cross it. The dispute between the two continued until Caepio, in fear that Mallius would win the glory of a victory without him, crossed to the east bank and encamped between Mallius and the enemy in hope of defeating the Cimbri before Mallius could come up. Together the two must have had an army of about 50,000 to 60,000 men including four legions and allies. There seem to have been two separate engagements in which the Romans were outflanked and totally defeated. Both camps were then taken and sacked. The sources claim that the defeat, with a loss of 80,000 men, was the most devastating since Cannae in the Second Punic War. The date of the battle is given as 6 October 105, which was added to the religious calendar as a dies nefastus, an ill-omened day on which no public business could be conducted. The figure of 80,000 is clearly not credible, but it is clear that Roman losses were very heavy and southern Gaul was now open to invasion.

The tribes of northern Europe were certainly the most formidable foes that Rome faced in this period, but the series of Roman defeats against the tribes are surprising. During the campaigns of 125–120 the Romans had faced large Gallic armies and had consistently beaten them. There is no indication in the sources that the Germans had superior equipment. The weapons finds in German areas point to the dominance of infantry and the relative lightness of their equipment. Little body armour has been found but it may have been made of perishable materials. The finds do show the importance of missile weapons, which indicate a reliance on speed and agility among Germanic warriors. Unfortunately little is known about German tactics or strategy although it is clear that they were able to plan large-scale tactical movements. Their string of victories is all the more surprising in that for most of the next three centuries the Romans were normally able to win set-piece battles against them. The Roman disaster at the Teutoburger Wood in AD 9, where three legions were destroyed, was the result of an ambush not a formal battle. The difference in numbers is not a sufficient explanation. In general Greek and Roman sources give impossible figures. At a later battle the sources claim that the Germans had 300,000 warriors, but this seems impossible. The best that can be said is that in some of these encounters the German forces were larger. But as these later battles show they were hardly unbeatable. In the encounters of 113, 109 and 107 BC it may well be that superior numbers told. At Arausio it seems not to have been a question of numbers but rather of lack of coordination and incompetence on the Roman side.

Luckily for the Romans the Germans did not immediately move south. They moved into Celtic territories which were closer and less strongly defended. The Germans tribes now separated, with the Teutones and Ambrones along with the Tigurini plundering the lands of the Arverni in south-central Gaul after failing to defeat the Belgae in north-eastern France. The Cimbri pillaged Languedoc and then moved south to the lands of Celts and Iberians in northwestern Spain. Their plundering there was not successful. They were defeated by the Celtiberi of north-central Spain and turned north, re-entering Gaul by the spring of 103.

The fear of the northern barbarians and the string of Roman defeats created panic at Rome. A successful but difficult war had just ended against the Numidian prince Jugurtha in 105, after a series of campaigns that stretched over six years and were at times marked by incompetence and corruption. The war had damaged relations between the Senate and the broader mass of citizens. The victorious commander Gaius Marius celebrated a triumph for his victory on 1 January 104. Marius came from a locally-important family at Arpinum, a town 60 miles (96km) southeast of Rome. His rise to the consulship had resulted from patronage extended by certain leading aristocratic families, his ties to various financial interests and his military ability. The last had led to his appointment to command in the war against Jugurtha despite strong senatorial opposition. In the aftermath of Arausio he was the obvious choice and was elected as consul for 104 and given the command against the Germans. Many military reforms have been ascribed to Marius in preparation for the northern campaign, but many of them are dubious. Some seem authentic and seem to have been due to Marius’s efforts, including the encouragement of a greater level of professionalism and the introduction of more intensive weapons-training and steps taken to increase the mobility of the legions.

After their return from Spain the Cimbri reunited with the Teutones and the other wandering tribes near Rouen. It was here that a decision was taken to invade Italy. What prompted this decision is far from clear. Italy was to continue to attract northerners throughout antiquity and in this period, and later its wealth and climate were continuous attractions for those living north of the Alps. The Alps could be a formidable barrier at certain times of the year but the Cimbri had already crossed and re-crossed the Pyrenees, and the Alpine passes were easier to negotiate for those coming from the north than they were for movement in the opposite direction. In addition, the Romans must have seemed a less than formidable foe. Every time the tribes had encountered them they had beaten them and the Romans were the only power that had sufficient strength to successfully oppose them.

Whatever the actual numbers involved, it is probable that for logistic reasons, and perhaps to create additional problems for the defence, the tribes decided to descend into Italy separately. The Tigurini were to proceed by way of Noricum (part of Austria) and the Julian Alps into Cisalpine Gaul, the Cimbri, some way to the east by the Brenner Pass and the Adige River while the Teutones and Ambrones were to pass into Italy through the Roman province and then cross the Maritime Alps. The likeliest time for this decision would have been towards the end of 103.

The consul and his army, probably consisting of five legions totalling about 30,000 men and perhaps 40,000 allies, arrived in Gaul in the late spring or early summer of 104. He did not pursue the Germans but set about defending the east bank of the Rhône. The exact site of his camp is not known, but it was either at Arles, the lowest ford on the Rhône, or more probably near the confluence of the Isère and the Rhône at Valence where the valley of the Isère leads to the Alpine pass of the Little St Bernard. It may be at this point that Marius expected the German invasion would come down the Rhône and through the Maritime Alps. We do not know where his colleague Gaius Flavius Fimbria was, but it is not unlikely that he was posted in Cisalpine Gaul as was the case in 102. Perhaps because he did not trust the Allobroges or because they were unable to supply the number of troops involved, Marius had his men construct a canal linking Fos-sur Mer to the Rhône and its confluence with the Isère. It simplified the problem of moving supplies upstream in a river known for its strong downstream currents. It was probably built over the winter of 103/2.

Certainly the Romans had learned of the Germans’ plans by the beginning of 102. While Marius was posted in southern Gaul the other consul of 102, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, was probably based at the road nexus of Cremona north of the Po to meet the invasion of the Cimbri, probably with a normal consular army of two legions and an equal number of allies.

The Teutones and Ambrones had been moving down the east bank of the Rhône when they encountered Marius’s camp. The consul refused to engage them. The sources report that he remained in camp for three days without responding to attacks by the Germans. The reason they give for the refusal to fight does not carry conviction and it may be that Marius was looking for a more favourable location before engaging the enemy. The Teutones and Ambrones decided to bypass Marius and proceeded on towards the Alpine passes. The Germans moved along the valley of the Durance until they descended towards the plain of Aquae Sextiae. Marius must have skirted their main body and also arrived in the plain, while only the Ambrones who formed the vanguard of the German force had reached Aix.

Marius encamped on a hill overlooking the River Torse, which supplied the Romans with their drinking water. The Ambrones were camped on the opposite side of the river. It was from a skirmish at the river that the first battle developed. Roman support troops had gone down to the river for water when they were attacked by a party of Ambrones. The sounds of the struggle alerted the rest of the Ambrones, who then attacked en masse. The Ambrones lost cohesion as they crossed the river and before they could reform they were attacked by Celtic and Ligurian troops fighting alongside the Romans. While the engagement was taking place the legions came up in support and the Ambrones were routed and a number were cut down. After the destruction of the Ambrones Marius now had to face the more numerous Teutones.

Less is known about the origins of the second battle. Even the month is uncertain, although September has been suggested, and its exact location remains a mystery. It seems to have been deliberately sought by the Romans. It appears that Marius had decided to hold the Teutones in front while he launched an attack on their rear and flanks. Apparently, before the battle he sent a force of 3,000 infantry under his legate Marcus Claudius Marcellus to set up an ambush on some wooded hills to the rear of the enemy. He opened the battle by sending his cavalry down into the plain of Aix. The Teutones attacked the cavalry, which then retreated to the legions arrayed on the slopes of the hill where Marius had camped. The Teutones charged uphill, which was always a difficult manoeuvre, and while this was going on Marcellus’s troops attacked their rear. The tribesmen lost cohesion and fled. There is no doubt that they suffered heavy casualties, but the ancient figures, which number up to 200,000 dead, seem greatly exaggerated.

The defeat of the Teutones and Ambrones did not end the threat to Italy. The next year saw another great battle against the Cimbri who had crossed the Alps by the way of the Brenner Pass – which today connects Innsbruck, Austria to Bolzano, Italy – probably in the winter of 102/101, although an earlier crossing cannot be ruled out. Catulus, based at Cremona to the west, learned of the Cimbri’s descent into the Veneto and marched to confront them. He reached the Adige and then moved for a considerable distance up the river valley. The terrain was mountainous and Catulus may have selected it purposely to minimize the enemy’s numerical superiority. It has also been suggested that he hoped to catch the Cimbri before they had recovered from the rigours of their passage of the Alps. It is also possible that, given the terrain, he may have wanted to try to defeat them in detail. If this was his plan it did not meet with success. Catulus was twice defeated and forced to retire behind the Po. In doing so he abandoned the plains north of the Po, which the Cimbri proceeded to pillage.

At the end of spring 101 Marius with 30,000 troops joined Catulus, bringing the Roman forces up to about 50,000 men. With Marius in command the Romans now crossed the Po to seek a battle with the Cimbri. Surprisingly the battle took place in the western part of the plain of the Po near Vercellae (modern Vercelli), about 60 miles (100km) west of Milan. The site of the battle, the Campi Raudi, is unknown. It is difficult to explain why the Cimbri had moved so far west and the sources provide us with no explanation. It is not easy to accept that they moved west to link up with the Teutones as they must have known of their defeat as almost a year had passed, although one of the sources, Plutarch, claims this was the case.24 One possibility is that, having pillaged their way across the Po valley, they were now seeking to return to Gaul where they could expect to meet less resistance.

The Cimbri entered into negotiations with the Romans before the battle, again asking for land to settle in as they had seven years before. This is further confirmation that the Germans were not simply raiders but migrating tribes. The Cimbri, through their king Boiorix, challenged Marius to battle and a day was set, 30 July. This is not impossible as most large-scale battles in antiquity required a decision of both sides to fight. The course of the battle is far from clear. The Roman accounts of the battle have been distorted by the memoirs of both Catulus and later Sulla, who were both opponents of Marius. Apparently the Romans drew up in their normal battle formation in three lines with the cavalry on the wings, though the implication of the sources is that the majority of the Roman cavalry was arrayed on the right. It may be as well that the centre of the infantry line was deployed somewhat to the rear of the wings. This may have been an attempt to draw the Cimbri in and then attack them on the flanks. But none of this is certain. Marius commanded the Roman right while Catulus took the centre. The commander of the left is unspecified but it might have been Catulus’s legate Sulla.

The battle formation of the Cimbri seems rather unusual. Apparently, all of their cavalry, which numbered 15,000 men, was drawn up on their left. The biographer Plutarch in his Life of Marius provides a vivid description:

(The cavalry) rode out in magnificent fashion with helmets made to resemble the jaws of wild animals or the heads of strange beasts. Their helmets had crests of feathers, which made the riders seem larger than they were and they wore iron breastplates and held glittering white shields. Each trooper carried a pair of javelins and a large heavy sword for hand-to-hand fighting.

According to Plutarch the infantry of the Cimbri were drawn up in a square formation with their depth equal to their frontage and each side was approximately 3 miles (5km) long. There are serious problems with the extant descriptions of the battle. This formation seems impossible as most of the German infantry could not have engaged.

Plutarch mentions an opening manoeuvre by the Cimbric cavalry to draw off the Roman cavalry by swerving to the right to try to outflank them and pin them between themselves and their own infantry. The cavalry then disappear from Plutarch’s account. The fifth-century Christian writer Orosius has the German cavalry being driven back by the Romans on their own infantry and throwing them into disorder.26 The course of the rest of the battle is lost in the polemic between the commanders, with each trying to take credit for the victory. Certainly, Marius’s election to an unprecedented sixth consulship indicates that at least in the eyes of the Roman populace he deserved the major share of the credit for the victory. A further indication of the Cimbric migration as an attempt to find new land for the tribe rather than as a raiding expedition is the final stage of the battle, which our sources have dramatically elaborated. After their victory in the field the Roman attacked the camp of the Cimbri, which as was normal in German migrations consisted of their encircled wagons. They had placed their women and children there for safekeeping. The women fought back as long as they could and then killed themselves and their children.

Unlike Aquae Sextiae this seems to have been a soldier’s battle. No stratagems are mentioned on the Roman side. The accounts make much of the sun shining in the face of the Germans, as well as the effect of dust and heat on men from cooler climates. This implies a long, drawn out struggle rather than a quick decisive battle. One source mentions that there were few casualties on the Roman side but that 40,000 of the enemy were slain and a further 60,000 captured. The numbers are not impossible and are certainly more credible than the ones given for Aquae Sextiae.

With the defeat of the Cimbri the threat of invasion ended. The third group of invaders, the Tigurini, who were to enter Italy by way of the Julian Alps, retreated to Switzerland. The German threat to Rome was only to reappear centuries later. Although it has been claimed that the invasions made the Romans aware of the importance of Transalpine Gaul, there is little support for it. There is no evidence for an extension of provincial boundaries or exceptional activity in the period after the invasions. One striking aspect of the turmoil in Gaul was the passivity of the southern Gauls. It is true that they suffered from the depredations of the invaders, which might have made an uprising against the Romans more difficult. Nevertheless there is no evidence of any major unrest in the Roman area of control during this period. Other Gauls had joined the Germans; those of the south did not. There were to be isolated rebellions of various tribes until the time of Caesar but there does not seem to have been any general movement to oust the Romans from the area. Even during the strains of the Gallic War it remained remarkably quiet.

There are only fragmentary references to Transalpine Gaul until the late 70s. Understanding the situation is made more difficult by the fact that the references to Gaul can refer either to Cisalpine or Transalpine Gaul, although the occasional reference to the ‘Two Gauls’ helps remove the ambiguity. The first possible governor of Transalpine Gaul is Lucius Licinius Crassus, who was consul in 95. As consul he was active in Cisalpine Gaul where he repressed raiders and brigands. He was then assigned to Gaul as proconsul. What is not clear is which Gaul is meant. He had a long history of association with Transalpine Gaul. As a young man he had been instrumental in passing the law that authorized the founding of Narbo and so had existing connections with the province. It is possible that he governed both provinces at the same time, but there is no firm evidence that he did so or operated as a military commander there.

The next reference to a Roman official operating in Gaul is to Marcus Porcius Cato, who had been a praetor. He set out for Transalpine Gaul in 91 and died there. There is, however, no evidence as to why he was in the province. It could have been for private reasons and have had no connection to the government of the province. However, it is just possible that Cato was acting in an official capacity. In 90 the Saluvii revolted and were put down by Gaius Coelius Caldus, who had been consul in 94 and was presumably acting as proconsul in Transalpine Gaul. Cato may have been operating against the Saluvii when he died since we do not know when the revolt began.

The situation in Gaul remains obscure over the next few years. Gaius Valerius Flaccus, consul in 93, suppressed a revolt of the Celtiberian tribes in north-central Spain, probably in 92. He was in Transalpine Gaul probably in the years 84–82 and held a triumph over Gauls and the Celtiberians in 81. It may be that he governed both Nearer Spain and Transalpine Gaul together. This would suggest that the Gauls he conquered were probably located west of the Rhône.

Flaccus’s activity falls in a period when Roman control in Transalpine Gaul became much more crucial. A serious and difficult war had broken out in Spain in 83 and once again Gaul assumed its role as a vital supply route for Roman armies operating in the Iberian Peninsula. The war, which was to greatly affect both Spain and southern Gaul, had its origin in a fierce internal struggle in Rome that threatened its political structure and its hold on its empire.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.