What is the Significance of the Battle of Vercellae?
30 July 101 BC
“Then don’t trouble yourself with your brethren, for they have land, and they will have it forever – land which we have given them.” (Gaius Marius)
“Marius washed his hands, and lifting them up to heaven, vowed to make a sacrifice of 100 beasts should victory be his.” (Plutarch)
In the late Second Century BC the meteoric rise of the Roman Republic ground to a halt as a huge invasion saw its future rest on a precipice. In 113 BC a migrating Germanic-Celtic band, likely from Jutland, entered the Roman sphere of influence north of the Alps. The Consul Carbo had tried to ambush them but was in turn crushed at Noreia, though in the following year they made for Gaul rather than Italy. The swelling alliance, composed largely of the Cimbri and Teutones tribes, now numbered close to half a million as the migrating nation bulldozed through the disparate collection of tribes opposing them.
In 109 BC the Consul Silanus led fresh legions to again face down the Cimbri, only to suffer another devastating loss of both life and prestige.
In 107 BC the Consul Longinus managed to rout the Cimbri, though was then ambushed himself and saw his force crushed at Burdigala as the success of the Cimbri swelled. This took place amidst growing social unrest in Rome itself with the populist Gracchi brothers having been killed for their populist moves to extend citizenship, provide a grain dole and proffer land to veteran legionaries.
The wealth divide in Rome grew while the number of legionaries shrank, as with citizens needing to meet land requirements to serve in the legion while also serving away from home for prolonged periods, land fell out of use and citizens were impoverished by their service.
As a result, emboldening the wealthy Patrician senators to buy up said land which they staffed with slaves rather than citizens, creating an employment crisis in addition to a dwindling manpower pool of soldiers.
These tensions came to a head when the haughty Patrician Caepio appeared to have stolen the gold of Tolosa, a find of immense wealth from when the Gaul Brennus had sacked Greece over a century earlier only to believe the gold of Delphi cursed and thus dump it in a lake near Toulouse. The Romans raised their biggest host yet of more than 100,000 men, with the Consul Maximus leading his force north to take command of those with Caepio and annihilate the Cimbri. Caepio refused to acknowledge the superiority of his commander due to his less prestigious lineage, going so far as to camp on the opposite side of a river as the Cimbri approached and then only camp ten miles away after he did cross.
This shocking display of defiance and disunity emboldened the Cimbri to attack and annihilate each force in turn.
With more than 100,000 Roman and allied soldiers killed at the Battle of Arausio in 105 BC in one of Rome’s darkest hours and its’ greatest defeat since Hannibal destroyed the great host at Cannae over a century earlier. A generation of Roman men were dead, without enough men meeting the property requirements to replace them. The path to Rome lay open and unguarded, with the Cimbri ready to destroy the republic.
While the Cimbri looked set to destroy Rome. Another war was taking place further south under another aspiring commander.
Gaius Marius was a new man without a prestigious family lineage to his name having made his fortune in the position of Praetor from the silver mines of Hispania. He had served under his former commander Metellus in the war in Numidia (Algeria) after a succession crisis saw the ruler Jugurtha besmirch Roman honor by brazenly bribing all those sent to investigate him, even doing so in Rome itself.
Metellus too struggled to make headway, with Marius eventually ignoring his superior’s desires to seek his elevation to Consul. Marius took command of the war without the legionaries to fight it, and so came to the obvious solution – to abandon the land requirements for service. With enough wealth of his own to fund and equip his legions, Marius set the trend of legionaries having their kit purchased for them and serving for a salary, opening the floodgates for the landless masses of poor to pour into the legions. Still it was a struggle to defeat Jugurtha, who would disappear into the desert when his troops were defeated, and it took the cunning of his adjutant Sulla to sneak into the camp and capture the African leader to end the war.
Roman convention stipulated that a man could only serve as Consul once every decade.
Though as the Cimbri looked set on destroying a Rome shorn of its best soldiers and commanders, there appeared to be an obvious solution – to return Marius to the post just three years after his first term. Marius was Rome’s best general still standing, and in 104 BC he returned as Consul and led his legions north to face the Cimbri. In addition to raising more men by scrapping the land requirements, he abandoned the great baggage trains of slaves and mules as soldiers carried their own equipment, and were given the derisory nickname of “Marius’ Mules” for their troubles, and he had the pilum javelin fixed together with a pin that broke on impact to ensure their enemies could not throw them back, while the Romans could easily retrieve them after the battle and replace the pins
Despite having marched north, Marius found that the Cimbri were not forthcoming, having instead made west to ravage Gaul and Hispania. Having paid for legionaries in his employ that were not fighting he put them to use in civil engineering, constructing roads and aqueducts to ensure they did not sit idle between their relentless training sessions. As his term as Consul came to an end the imposing threat of the Cimbri would see the Romans take the unprecedented step of re-electing Marius as Consul for another four successive years.
In 102 BC the behemoth coalition was finally marching east again, planning for a three-pronged invasion of Italy. Marius’ consular colleague Catalus engaged the Cimbri to try and keep them out of Italy, having to retreat against the advance of the huge host but keeping his army intact. In southern Gaul Marius found an ideal hill to fortify and defend, provoking the splintered Teutone group from the main army to assault him. The Battle of Aquae Sextiae (Aix en Provence) was a massacre in which the Teutones were shattered, and their king Teutobod captured. By July 101 BC the Cimbri had crossed into Italy to advance along the Po valley, though the legions of Marius and Catalus managed to merge near Placentia to oppose them.
Now in his fifth consulship, Marius’ command was unquestionable. The Cimbri demanded land to settle on, boasting of their huge invasion to come, and Marius responded: “Then don’t trouble yourself with your brethren, for they have land, and they will have it forever – land which we have given them.” He then showed them the imprisoned Teutobod, the first the Cimbri had learnt of the fate of their brethren, and they understood that there would be no more reinforcements arriving. The armies spent the next few days maneuvering, with the Cimbri having between 120,000 and 180,000 warriors to the 54,000 legionaries under Marius’ command. Marius chose the Raudine Plain near Vercellae for the battle, and the Cimbri King Boiorix agreed.
On 30 July the Roman legions marched into the plain, with Marius splitting his veterans into two segments facing the wings while the recruits of Catalus took the center. Marius commanded the left, and Sulla the cavalry on the right. The legions faced west, so the sun rose over them to blind the oncoming Cimbri. The wind blew behind the backs of Marius’ mules, whipping up the dust that tens of thousands of marching men made to blow into the eyes of the approaching enemy.
The Cimbri advanced in a square with their warriors as deep as they were wide to cover over ten square miles, with the cavalry forming the vanguard ahead of the advance. The Romans held their position to force the exhausted Cimbri to close with them, with the sun reflecting off their bronze helmets given the illusion of the sky being ablaze. As the anxious Cimbri slowed their advance, Marius seized the moment to attack.
At first all was confusion, for as Marius’ wing marched through the thick dust cloud they emerged to an empty plain, having missed the enemy army entirely. The Cimbri had launched a huge wedge at Catalus’ center, wheeling their cavalry right to try and get the legionaries to break ranks. Those who fell for the ruse became swiftly turned on and hacked down, though for the most part the legions maintained their discipline.
The Cimbri cavalry became caught completely unaware by the advance of the horsemen under Sulla.
Who threw them back into the main body of their own army. Confusion set in as horses crashed into infantry and, amidst the throat parching heat and blinding dust, panic began to spread. Catalus sensed the opportunity as chaos set in, and advanced his legions against them. Roman javelins poured into the densely packed and confused Cimbri, who were barely able to recover from this onslaught before the heavily armored legionaries closed in on them with the thick, double-sided gladius in their hand while their bodies seemed impossible to reach behind their large scutum shields.
The other wings of the Roman force now repositioned themselves to close in on the Cimbri flanks, hemming them into a tight knot to provide the kind of close quarters butchery at which the legions excelled. Legionaries stayed close but ordered their comrades, keeping their heads low and their eyes above their large shields, thumping out with the shield in their left hand before a short stab with the gladius in their right, giving it a brutal twist to open the wound when they felt it open flesh. Soon the battle descended into a rout, with the Cimbri hampered in their retreat by the wagons of the caravan train that surrounded the rear of the field. The massacre continued until the Cimbri began to surrender en masse. With Boiorix and his guard making a last stand rather than trusting in Roman mercy.
Vercellae was a comprehensive victory for the Romans.
Which, coupled with the previous year’s triumph at Aquae Sextiae, decisively ended the threat of invasion. The Cimbri and Teutones were annihilated. With Marius claiming 100,000 killed and many more captured and enslaved. Children of the captives may well have fought alongside Spartacus in the Third Servile War two decades later. News of the victory, brought to Rome by Marius’ brother-in-law Julius Caesar, whose son would learn from his uncle’s military brilliance to go on to eclipse him in the decades to come. Marius and Catalus bickered over who was due the credit, with Marius claiming it as the commander while Catalus showed the residents of nearby Parma that many of the corpses had the javelins of his legionaries impaling them.
Marius had already alienated Sulla in this way for not crediting him for the capture of Jugurtha, and the growing resentment between them would have huge ramifications for Rome in the decades to come. A joint triumph became held for Marius and Catalus. With the former riding the wave of popularity and becoming elected again for his sixth Consulship.
Just one short of the prophesied seven he believed he was due after finding an eagle’s nest with seven eggs in as a child. Marius would become declared the Third Founder of Rome. Raising him onto the pantheon of legendary figures of Romulus and Camillus. Marius granted citizenship to all of the allied soldiers at Vercellae without the approval of the Senate. Moreover, claiming he could not distinguish ally from Roman in the heat of battle. And drawing up the political lines around the growing issue of how far to extend Roman citizenship.
This was the first time a victorious Roman general defied the Senate, and would begin the trend that would see first Sulla and later Caesar march on Rome. Marius’ career had peaked though, while Sulla’s was just beginning. His sixth consulship dogged by political unrest. The war time leader found himself ill equipped to cope with this political unrest. And as a result, he suffered a stroke that prevented him from running for a seventh.
A second stroke cut short his apparent return to prominence in the Social War. After which the Mithridatic Wars saw Sulla march on Rome to send Marius fleeing into exile.
In conclusion, Marius’ return to Rome would see him “elected” as Consul as blood flowed through the streets in a bitter purge, with Catalus among those executed, though Marius would die of a third and final stroke just days into this tenure. The war that continued saw Sulla crush all opposition. With the young Caesar spared after the protestations of his mother, also Sulla’s sister-in-law (both he and Marius had married the aunts of Caesar), while the rising generals Marcus Crassus (who barely survived Marius’ purge) and Pompey Magnus (whose father died besieging the city for Sulla’s faction) saw their stock rise with his. His death set the stage for the three of them to begin the faithful dance that would finally bring the creaking republic crashing into oblivion. With the mighty empire to rise in its stead.