Cimbrian War: Rome’s Greatest Threat Since Hannibal

When the Cimbri invaded Italy, it was the gravest threat to Rome since Hannibal. The Cimbrian War provided one man—Marius—a platform for greatness.

Apr 17, 2024By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History

cimbrian war rome


In the middle of the second century BCE, the Roman Republic had fought and won a number of overseas wars. Carthage had been decisively defeated in the Third Punic War, while the Greeks and Macedonians in the east had also been brought to heel. By the end of the century, however, war was back in the Italian peninsula. For the first time since Hannibal had ravaged the peninsula, an enemy had brought the fight to the Romans: the Cimbri. This is the history of Rome and the Cimbrian War.


Rome on the Eve of the Cimbrian War

curia hostilia early senate meeting place
Curia Hostilia in Rome (one of the original Senate meeting places), by Giacomo Lauro, 1612-1628, Source: Rijksmuseum


In the years that preceded the Cimbrian Wars, the attention of the Roman Republic had begun to turn inward. During the early and middle decades of the second century, a series of decisive foreign wars had been fought, and Rome’s victories cemented her primacy in the Mediterranean world.


The Seleucids had been defeated, Carthage had been obliterated during the Third Punic War, and the Achaeans and the Macedonians had been brought to heel. In the years that followed, internal political tensions came to the fore. There was a divide in Republican politics between the populares, who represented the interests of the people more widely, and the optimates, who represented the established, senatorial aristocracy.


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Death of Gaius Gracchus, by François Jean Baptiste Topino Lebrun, 18th Century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


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These tensions had erupted into violence, most notoriously with the murder of Tiberius Gracchus, a populist (or political agitator, depending on which faction you asked). Elected as Tribune of the Plebs, Tiberius used the platform provided by his magistracy to propose sweeping changes, including land redistribution. He also used his power of veto as tribune to block legislation. Tensions erupted into violence in 133 BCE, and Tiberius was murdered by a senatorial mob led by Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica.


It proved to be an unhappy period for the Gracchi, as Gaius chose to follow in his elder brother’s footsteps. Although their mother, Cornelia, was upheld as a paragon of Roman matronly virtue, Gaius, like Tiberius, was murdered as a political agitator in 121 BCE. It was during this swirling maelstrom of political violence that the Republic once more found itself at war, this time against the Cimbri.


A People at War: Who Were the Cimbri?

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Details of the Gundestrup Vessel, pre-Roman Iron Age, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Cimbri were a people that lived in the Jutland peninsula in northern Europe. These Germanic people would, in time, become “friends” of the Romans; according to Augustus’ Res Gestae, the Cimbri were one of several Germanic peoples who sent envoys to seek the approval of the first princeps. The famous Gundestrip cauldron, an especially ornate silver vessel discovered in Denmark, is possibly a work of Cimbrian art. Significantly, the iconography on the cauldron testifies to the relationship of the artist’s culture with others.


Late in the second century BCE, the Cimbrians (along with the Ambrones and the Teutons) migrated southeast en masse. As they traveled, their numbers were swollen by defeated Celtic groups who joined their ranks; this included the Scordisci and the Boii.


In around 113, they entered Noricum, where they invaded the territory of the Taurisci. This Celtic group had allied with the Romans. The stage was set for war…


Roman Reversals: Arausio and Other Defeats

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Denarius minted by Gnaeus Papirius Carbo, obverse head of Roma with reverse depiction of Jupiter in quadriga, minted 121 BCE, Source: the British Museum


To begin with, the Romans had dispatched the consul, Gnaeus Papirius Carbo, to Noricum. With the legions that accompanied him, the plan was ostensibly to put on a show of strength to deter the Cimbri from further incursions into allied territory.


The Cimbri did initially comply with Roman demands. However, they soon discovered that Carbo had attempted to ensnare the invaders in an ambush; it is possible that Carbo foolishly thought the Cimbri and their allies offered an easy opportunity to claim a Triumph of his own. However, the Cimbri were enraged by this treachery, and they attacked the Romans. Foreshadowing the early course of the war, the Battle of Noreia in 113 was a disaster for the Romans. The Roman army was annihilated, and Carbo only narrowly escaped with his life. He perhaps should have stayed with his men; later, he would be prosecuted for his failure by Mark Antony, and unable to accept the punishment of exile, he killed himself.


The saving grace for Carbo was that the Cimbri did not immediately follow up on this victory. Instead of advancing on Italy, they went west, over the Alps and into Gaul. Along the way, additional groups of Celtic peoples joined their armies, and again the Roman forces sent to defeat these growing ranks were crushed. The Republic was battered when the legions marched to drive the invading Cimbri out of Gallia Narbonensis in 109 BCE, and another defeat followed two years later when a Roman commander — Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravalla — was slain at the Battle of Burdigala.


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Detail of a sculpted panel on the Triumphal Arch of Orange depicting Romans battling Gauls and Germanic warriors, Augustan age, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Roman nadir would come in 105 BCE. Another Roman army marched northward and established a camp on the Rhône River (near Orange, a town famed today for its Roman remains). The consul, Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, and the proconsul, Quintus Servilius Caepio, were not an effective team and the hostility between the two would prove disastrous. Nevertheless, they were able to put into the field the largest Roman force seen since the Second Punic War, when the Republic had been mobilized against the genius of Hannibal.


With over 80,000 men under their command, the Romans foolishly divided their forces across the two banks of the river and both forces were wiped out. Caepio’s overconfident attack was the first to be destroyed, and this left the consul’s camp undefended. In the end, only a few hundred Romans were able to escape.


This battle at Arausio was the worst Roman defeat since the massacre at Cannae. Again, however, the Cimbri did not press home their advantage. Instead of rounding on the Italian peninsula, they advanced into Spain. There, they would suffer the first reverse since they had departed their homelands in Jutland. The disaster at Arausio also focused Roman minds. Political antagonism at home was set aside (temporarily, at least) and the rules regarding multiple consulships were eased. This allowed a new man—in more ways than one—to lead the fight…


The New Man: Marius

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Jugurtha Bound and Handed Over to Silanus who Takes Him to Marius, by Mariano Salvador Maella, 1772, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the aftermath of Arausio, the Republic was in a state of terror; the expectation was that the Cimbri would imminently appear at the city gates. Desperate times called for desperate measures: Gaius Marius, a novus homo (“new man”), was re-elected to the consulship in 104 BCE. In an unprecedented (and highly illegal) move, it was a position to which he would be appointed every year from 104-100. He had previously been consul in 107 when he had led the Roman forces in Numidia. There, he led the Romans to victory in the Jugurthine War.


Marius established a base at Aquae Sextia (modern Aix-en-Provence). There he spent his successive consulships training his men for the coming conflict against the Cimbri. The delay of the Cimbri in pressing home the advantage they had won at Arausio would prove to be a serious blunder when Marius marched his army out for revenge in 102 BCE.


Rome Triumphant: Victory at Vercellae

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Defaite des Cimbres et des Teutons par Marius (Defeat of the Cimbri and the Teutons by Marius), by François Joseph Heim, c.1853, Source: Harvard Art Museums


The campaign conducted by Marius against the Cimbri was methodical and calculated. The Cimbri, whose forces were now supplemented by additional Celtic groups (such as the Helvetians), divided their forces.


One group would march into Italy from the north-east, the other through the north-west; Marius, having made camp at the confluence of the Isère and Rhône rivers, merely observed the enemies’ movements. Marius and the Romans followed cautiously as the enormous invading army crossed into Italy. Soon, this patience would pay off.


For reasons unknown, one group of invaders—the Ambrones—had separated from the Teutons. Inadvertently, a skirmish broke out between some of Marius’ camp servants who had gone to fetch drinking water and some bathing Ambrones, and this escalated rapidly into a full battle. Plutarch’s Life of Marius describes the slaughter of the Germanic tribe.


The survivors rushed to join the remainder of their Teuton allies, who regrouped at Aquae Sextiae to await Marius’ army. The battle that followed was a crushing Roman victory. They had taken the initial advantage by fighting from high ground, while a detachment of five cohorts, hidden by Marius in a nearby wood, devastated the Germanic rear. The Teuton king, Teutobod, was captured while his armies were massacred.


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The Battle of Vercellae, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1725-29, Source: The Met Museum


The battle at Aquae Sextiae crushed only one half of the threat to the Roman Republic: the Cimbri were still at large. By 101 BCE, they had retreated out of Italy and were preparing for a final showdown with the Romans. They were able to advance into the peninsula through unfortified Alpine passes. Again, however, they dawdled and missed their chance. Instead of advancing, the Cimbri stopped to plunder the rich territories of northern Italy. This gave Marius the crucial time needed to march north to engage the invaders.


Unfortunately for the Cimbri, he arrived with the six legions that had triumphed at Aquae Sextiae, Marius and his battle-hardened soldiers met the Cimbri at Vercellae, a plain near the confluence of the Sesia and Po Rivers. On the plain, the Cimbri were undone by the Roman cavalry, led by Lucius Sulla. While Quintus Lutatius Catulus (Marius’ co-consul) pinned the enemy in place with his legion, Marius himself flanked the Cimbri. The result was a devastating slaughter of the Cimbrians. Plutarch suggests that 120,000 were killed and a further 60,000 enslaved. The Cimbrian War was over.


The Beginning of the End? The Republic After the Cimbrian War

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The Triumph of Marius, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1729, Source: The Met Museum


For the Cimbri, the end of the war was not the end of their history with the Roman world. As noted in the introduction, these people were still notable enough within the Roman consciousness in the early first century to warrant a place in Augustus’ Res Gestae. More immediately, it has been suggested that some of the captives taken in the aftermath of Vercellae were among those rebellious gladiators who joined Spartacus during the Third Servile War.


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Bust identified as Sulla, 1st century BCE, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Back in Rome, Marius and Catulus shared a joint triumph for their victory at Vercellae, the former was awarded an unprecedented sixth consulship in 100 BCE, and the Republic appeared to have been saved. However, the lasting damage caused by the Cimbrian War would prove, in time, to have been internal. Tensions that had been festering for some time were exacerbated, and bloody civil violence would soon break out on scales hitherto unknown in the Roman world.


In particular, the Cimbrian war served to escalate tensions between the two great Roman military commanders of the age: Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Soon, civil war would break out and the victorious Sulla would rule over Rome as a dictator. Despite his nickname (Felix; the happy), it was an age that would prove to be unlucky for some…

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.