Gaius Marius, Rome’s Eisenhower in the First Barbarian War.

by Daniel Russ on May 29, 2009

imagesHistory is an endless proof to the theorem that history repeats itself. War itself is the biggest mistake one, or a group could make, but it is inextricably human to fight, to do battle, and to visit harm on others as Orwell might say. That said war is a social activity. Perhaps that’s why Clausewitz notes that war is the ultimate instrument of national policy. It’s something that we all do together, as clans or families or nations or those who share a similar belief whether we actually fight or not. If Clausewitz is right, it also follows then that politicians often find their vocation in war and warriors end up politicians. It then follows that the same mistaken ambitions and machinations that drive politics and politicians also drives wars and its generals. Rome had many leaders who won Emperor status by taking it. Some were born into it. Some married into the Imperial power of Rome. And some actually earned their leadership after successful military careers as Consuls.

Rome had arguably the most powerful army in the world for at least 250 years, and 112 BC was no exception. A general caste system of the wealthy senators who kept their jobs comfortably for generations resembled in some ways the US Senate of today. It was a corporate-ocracy where money bought favor, and more money and votes and influence. It was corrupt through and through and with corruption always follows the inept. One of the most wasteful policies that despite disaster after disaster held it’s own because powerbrokers rarely vote themselves out of power. Consuls were the highest civil and military magistrates essentially those who ran the affairs of the country on a day to day basis. Two consuls ruled together and had control during their term of the Roman army. Thus they would often lead massive Roman armies into battle. Emperors and Senators could lead as well. The problem was two fold: the Consuls only ruled for one year unless re-elected. So whatever you set out to do you have 365 days and unless you are a wild success, that’s it. The second problem was that many Consuls who were great at politics were horrible at ground combat. Now granted, the Roman army lost many famous battles. But they were like the New York Yankees. You could bet that they would win more often than not. So an inexperienced nitwit could actually crush a rebellion by accident, and perhaps even get called back to lead again because of his first “victory”.

At the last half of the second century BC, Rome had become almost about as big as the Mohammedan empire; the entire Mediterranean was engulfed, with outposts and frequent excursions into Gaul, Britannia and Germania. Three to five legions at any time could be anywhere in the empire putting down a rebellion or fighting set piece battles. In 115 BC a rebellion had brewed in Numidia, current day Tunisia, right across the Mediterranean from Rome itself. There a Roman Consul named Marius was doing something few Roman Consuls were-winning. Previous military excursions there solved nothing and even resulted in minor battlefield defeats. At this time the government was full of intrigue and a new enemy, Gallic tribes appeared in the north – the Teutons under Teutobod, the Cimbri under Boiorix, and the Ambrones were alternately raiding Roman allies and settlements at the northern most mouth of the Alps.Gnaeus Papirius Carbo, a new Consul recently elected felt compelled to be the one who stopped the dreaded Cimbri from blocking trade routes through the Alps. Having been born into power he had to prove his manliness, so to speak.

You must understand that Romans were a distinctly different breed of people than the pagan tribes emerging from the cold dark forests of Germania. By this time almost 85 million gallons of fresh water per day was rolling down advanced aqueducts into Rome’s population of one million. Romans washed, wore bright clean clothes, shaved, and had the habits of hygiene and the infrastructure of waste management. They had a written and spoken language, massive architecture, a road system built throughout their empire, and an organized military system. Romans were cosmopolitan and right there on their borders was their worst nightmare: hideously filthy, unkempt brigands trailing their filthy children and women who were little more than slaves. Some say the word barbarian is derived from a contemptuous way that the Romans would imitate their language, ‘bar bar bar…’. The Romans barely considered them human. Why was this worse than their previous enemies? This group of barbarians had fairly modern weapons, a mix of their own clannish weapons and the plunder of previously defeated Legions in the field, and trade with other warrior tribes in Asia and Thrace. They also had military organization a bit beyond the frontal attacks from disorganized masses of Gauls. So the image here is a civilized stronghold over run by an uncivilized throng, this is nothing less than the end of the world. This is where barbarian at the gates becomes a saying that struck fear in the empire for another five centuries when Alaric actually did breach the gates of Rome.

The Cimbri looked Aryan in many ways, tall, generally white, many times blue eyes and blond hair, as Plutarch describes them. “Their speech, their shouts, no one has heard anything like them,” he writes.

Even more frightening, after they raided and plundered the very Romanized allies tribes living north of the Alps, these tribes liked to stay around. They weren’t just looking for food and gold. They were looking for a place to live.

To be a Roman soldier, one had to have some standing first as a landholder. A life in privilege might get you special military training and enter you into ranks of military leadership. So these soldiers, tough as nails, well trained, were still from a society where every bathes every day, everyone reads, everyone writes, everyone knows some math or science. Standing outside in rank and file, facing hordes of men, faces painted, some partially naked, some with body armor and helmets, running at you at full speed, with little regard for their own lives at all, shouting at the top of their lungs- this must have been absolutely terrifying to the new Roman recruits raised into the army only recently.

So it’s 113 BC and Gnaeus Papirius Carbo is leading an army into the Alpine passes to meet and destroy the Cimbri and the Ambrones who have invaded the peoples of Noricum. The Noricunians, also nothern trbes people, had gone native so to speak and spoke Latin and traded goods with the Romans and had fairly stable relations with the Roman government. Naturally they sent emissaries into Rome and asked for help when the Teutons and the Cimbri and the Ambrones began raiding them. This was the front door of the Roman Empire and saving Noricum was a policy where Carbo felt he couldn’t go wrong.

Carbo set camp in a valley above an Alpine pass near Noricum near a force of barbarian encampments. Carbo received Boiorix the Cimbri leader into his camp. Boiorix asked for land in return for peace. Carbo agreed, and then when the emissary party heads back, Carbo set upon them in a back stabbing ambush. He destroyed the representative force of the Cimbri and his forces flushed out the allied tribal encampments near-by.

This betrayal backfired however. Word got around that Carbo sucker punched Cimbri on the battlefield, and the move enraged Boiorix. The Cimbri surprised with a counterattack and with a much larger force. Carbo’s forces were routed, unused to the terrain where a phalanx doesn’t work as well in a forest where the ambush happened .

For a while, Rome seemed helpless. Consular armies under Maximus and Caepio subsequently had their glutei handed to them in battles with the barbarians who had come through the front of the empire in 105 BC, losing some 80,000 men.

So unruly tribes threatened Rome itself and no army was coming home with a decisive win. When two Consuls lose 80,000 men, it’s hard to find another 80,000 in a world where there weren’t that many people to begin with. The Senate was desperate and Marius was recalled to Rome from North Africa and asked to run the Barbarians out of Rome’s borders. His first problem was that the Army short of manpower. There were simply not enough Roman men of fighting age and stature around to fill the ranks of these armies that inept leaders were grinding up. So Marius took his recruitment to another segment of Roman society that could legally fight, the poor. Poor people who didn’t own land were rarely ever Legionnaires. But this would serve as a great way to fight unemployment and give these people a life of travel and wonder and steady pay that could only come from military service. He raised a modest force of about 50,000 men won a reprieve. The Cimbri had split their 100,000 men from the main body of the Teutons and Ambrones and headed into Spain to plunder. This gave Marius a chance to train his army for a season or two. He raised men, hired experienced officers and put together a first rate Roman army consisting of eight legions.

Marius was elected Consul again and given a chance to finish what he had started. People liked his shy and steady style. Not unlike Dwight David Eisenhower. He engendered confidence at a time when the flamboyant bon vivants like Carbo were getting themselves and their men killed quite literally. Yet Marius was respected as well because he was not a Roman Senate insider. He had earned his rank and the Roman Senate agreed.

By the time Marius was headed back to the Alpine region to hit the barbarians head on, his army was ready. In the time it took for Marius to train and blood his troops the Cimbri had ridden out of Spain and back into the northern Alps and headed into the Tyrolese Alps where they intended to go around Marius and hit him from the Northwest.

The Ambrones and the Teutons, flush with the memory of six years of unopposed victory marched into Marius head on. They numbered probably in the order of 150,000 to 200,000 soldiers. Horribly outnumbered, Marius wasn’t worried. His 50,000 man army was well trained; they liked him, and felt confident that they were under the right leader. He also knew that the vast majority of the barbarian force was undisciplined. Once a portion of the line started fleeing, they all ran, fierce as they were.

Marius followed the main body of barbarians. They were moving to find a place to fight outside of the woods. It was a hot week in the Alps and Marius was waiting until he found the right spot. He let them march around and followed discreetly behind them, ready to attack just as the barbarians were at their most exhausted moments. But he came to a place he thought he could win from, and he stopped.

He placed his main body of phalanx infantry on a slight hill facing an open field protected from the left and right by thick Alpine woodland near Aries, Italy is today. On the other side of the narrow gap in the woods sat the barbarians, organized into pikes men, spear throwers, and horsemen behind. They shouted and taunted and the Romans shouted and taunted back. What Teutobod did not know was that Marius secretly placed 6,000 of his best troops in woods behind the barbarians on both sides of a battlefield gap.

Marius chose his moment, set his phalanx up and decided to outright pick a fight and had groups of cavalry and slingsmen ride by and harass the Teutons. The barbarians had been marching and riding up these difficult roads for days. It was hot and humid, but they were itching for fight, one where they were certain they would prevail. As Marius expected, they took the bait and began a massive frontal charge. The Ambrones, not to be left out of the fight charged after them. The Roman lines clashed with this mass of Germanic tribesmen, one charge after another but held. When the barbarians started to retreat to regroup, Marius went after them. But when they barbarians retreated back through the gap, the 6000 Roman regulars hidden there cut off the escape. It was a classic envelopment and a few hours later the entire Ambrone people were done for, the Teutons had been decimated, and the Cimbri had no idea.

The Cimbri meanwhile had been pushing the Romans back almost all the way to the Po River. Rome called Marius back to fix this as well. The Senate wanted Marius to stay for ceremonies of the victory over the Teutones at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae. When he heard that the Cimbri were milling around Milan looking for the Teutons, and rushed out to join his forces with Catulus.

They found the Cimbri looking for Teuton scouts and met with Boirix who again offered to exchange land for peace once again. Boirix told Marius that together with the Teutons, they would eventually take what they wanted. At that moment, Marius had Teutobod led forward in chains to show Boirix that he would be fighting alone.

The gesture did not deter Boirix who soon thereafter had his gluteus handed to him by Marius and Catulus. That is another battle and another post. But the story is about a man who was elected to office many times because of his military prowess and his ability to lead coalitions against a common enemy.

Back in Rome, Marius was hailed as the savior of the state. This was far from the last of Marius however. He was elected Consul seven times, a deep departure from the term limits of Roman law. He built coalitions in government between those who wanted Rome to expand and crush all the barbarians, and those who sought peace. But no matter, the acumen that drove him to win office was far short of his battlefield prowess and he ended up colluding with three of the worst criminals in Roman history.

That’s a whole other tale.

Sources and Citations:

Kildahl, Phillip Andrew. Caius Marius. New York: Irvington Publishers, 1968

Life of Marius by Plutarch

Peddie, John. The Roman War Machine. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1996.

This is a great military history blog.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt McDougall May 31, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Interesting read and a good intro to one of the too many Romans overshadowed by Caesar (who, as it happened, was Marius’ nephew), but there are a few broad generalizations of the Roman legions I think could use some clearing up.

First and foremost, the legions were practically designed to compensate for weak generalship. The first “safeguard” was the military requirement for political office. Anyone running for magistracy had to have served in at least ten campaigns…and while this in no way ensured brilliant commanders, no one was a neophyte.

Second…the real core of the legions wasn’t the command staff. It was the noncoms, in this case the centurions. They were the ones who held the legions together, who enforced discipline, were responsible for training and unit cohesion.

Third…it’s difficult to talk about Marius without talking about the massive reforms he brought to the legions. In the 2nd century B.C., legionnaires were drawn from the propertied classes and placed in one of five elements – the velites (skirmishers), cavalry, and three ranks of heavy infantry, the hastati, principes, and triarii. This arrangement conquered Italy, destroyed Carthage, and brought the Greek East under Roman control. But by the time of the Jugurthine War, the needs of empire had stretched the system to its breaking point. With so many men serving in far-off lands for so long, smaller farms were gobbled up by massive landholders, leading to unrest and to an increasingly pressed and shrinking pool of manpower.

Marius addressed this by doing away with the property qualifications and, in effect, turning the Roman legions into a professional army. This vastly increased the manpower available, and made it possible to field more-or-less permanent legions. Serving and training together, they became even more formidable than the legions that had preceded them…and played a massive role in Marius’ victories over the Germans.

And…due to the fractious nature of Roman politics, the legions’ commanding generals often became their leading advocates for just compensation from the Senate in the form of payment or land…and that advocacy gave rise to legions who were fanatically loyal to their commanders. One of Marius’ lieutenants, Sulla, would take this development to its logical conclusion a few decades later and lead his legions on Rome. And thirty or so years after that, Caesar would do the same and kick off a fresh round of civil wars that wouldn’t really end until Octavian and Agrippa’s triumph over Antony at Actium in 31.

Daniel Russ May 31, 2009 at 11:45 pm

There’s another way to look at this- that that Romans built an Empire the opposite way Empire’s typically build one- Rome started with an army comprised of middle class landowners and later filled the ranks with the poor and disenfranchised.

Typically, it has been the other way around, first the poor serve, then the middle class carries the burden.

Kent Mitchell December 13, 2009 at 10:21 am

Caesar learned much of his military craft at the feet of Gaius Marius. Marius was married to the sister of Caesar’s mother, Auralius. While Caesar was a child, Marius suffered a stroke and Caesar spent much time with him as a companion. A genius, Caesar soaked up the knowledge of Marius.
If you want to learn some Roman history and enjoy some REALLY good reads, try Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series. It’s done so well you almost become a Roman . . . and Caesar becomes a friend, not a bad guy as historians today portray him.
The novels of the series include:
The First Man in Rome (1990); spanning the years 110–100 BC
The Grass Crown (1991); spanning the years 97–86 BC
Fortune’s Favourites (1993); spanning the years 83–69 BC
Caesar’s Women (1997); spanning the years 67–59 BC
Caesar (1998); spanning the years 54–48 BC
The October Horse (2002); spanning the years 48–41 BC and
Antony and Cleopatra (2007); spanning the years 41–27 BC
Caesar is my favorite. It covers his conquest in Gaul in detail, not boring detail, but lively campaigning detail. Caesar would have been a GREAT Marine!!!!!!

Daniel Russ December 13, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Thank you Kent. Always great to see your name

I agree.

I adore history and feel that I should be on the History channel answering those questions along with other military historians. I wonder if I will be lambasted for my latest post.

Louis Kolkman December 2, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Coming late to the party, I have a comment not covered before:
the Romans, even in their old legions, did not have anything that could be called a Phalanx, as it is generally understood, namely a sort of shield wall, with long pikes protruding from it. Their earlier legions (which did not have the long pikes that the phalanx had) were organised in a sort of chequerboard fashion, which was much more versatile than a phalanx, but could be disrupted, just like the phalanx, in wooded or broken country, just not as much. But with a horde of screaming barbarians coming at you, that might just be the final straw to break anyway.
Marius’ legions did still have this sort of chequerboard formation, but he just made the size of the individual units a lot larger. In fact, they should, and were, big enough to be able to function as a more reliable manouver units, which were better able to stand, and take it. Sort of mini phalanxes, but with swords men, and a relay system that ensured that the front row men were always more or less fit, as opposed to the enemy, who was stuck in the front row until he died, or ran away, after which he usually died anyway.
I also think that quite a lot of the Cimbri and Teutons were not murdered, but were captured and sold as slaves. If I recall right, Marius made quite a fortune in selling these slaves…..

Daniel Russ December 8, 2014 at 6:37 am

love this

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