The Great Threat from the North: The Years 104-103 BCE

View of the Forum Romanum.


  • Gaius Marius celebrates a triumph for his victory over King Jugurtha of Numidia (104 BCE);
  • Marius takes command of the new army raised by Publius Rutilius Rufus and subjects it to a rigorous training programme (104 BCE);
  • Start of the Second Servile War on Sicily (104 BCE);
  • The praetor Publius Licinius Nerva manages to defeat one rebel force, but his general Titinius (a convicted criminal) is then defeated by a second slave army (104 BCE);
  • The slaves choose Salvius as their leader (104 BCE);
  • Nerva suffers a sharp defeat at Morgantina, but the rebel slaves fail to capture the city (104 BCE);
  • Another slave revolt erupts in the territories of Segesta and Lilybaeum (104 BCE);
  • Led by a Cilician named Athenion, the slaves put Lilybaeum under siege, but they suffer heavy casualties when a force of Mauri attacks them (104 BCE);
  • Salvius makes his capital at Triokala (104 BCE);
  • The praetor Lucius Licinius Lucullus inflicts a heavy defeat on the slaves, but fails to achieve anything else (103 BCE).

On 1 January of the year 104 BCE, Gaius Marius celebrated a triumph for his victory over King Jugurtha of Numidia. The war had brought the Romans rich spoils: they had confiscated 3.007 pounds of gold, 5.775 pounds of unminted silver and 287.000 silver denarii. The king himself was paraded in the triumph and afterwards executed in the Tullianum. Plutarchus claims he was first molested by other prisoners, who tore off his tunic and ripped the golden earring from his earlobe. All in all, the once powerful Jugurtha suffered a fate that was inhumane, but the Romans could not care less. They had other problems on their hands. For the moment the Germanic tribes of the Cimbri and Teutones were not a threat, having split and wandered off into Spain and Northern Gaul respectively. But the Romans knew they would be back and counted on Gaius Marius, the victor of Numidia and elected consul for the second time, to stop them.

The Great Threat from the North

Replica of a Roman gladius (left).

Marius broke with protocol by appearing in the Senate still wearing the robes of a triumphant general. This was highly irregular, and the general quickly realised his mistake. He left the Senate building – the meeting was held on the Capitoline – and subsequently returned wearing the toga praetexta of a consul. Marius decided to disband his African army and took command of the new army raised by Publius Rutilius Rufus, one of the consuls of 105 BCE. He continued the rigorous training programme his predecessor had started. The soldiers were forced to carry their own baggage, for which they were nicknamed ‘Marius’ mules’. Discipline was everything for the general, and he even rewarded a soldier named Trebonius who had killed his own nephew, who had served as an officer in his uncle’s army. This Gaius Lusius had abused his power and had tried to seduce the soldier. Trebonius had repeatedly refused, and when the officer had tried to rape him, he had drawn his sword and killed the man. It was the kind of behaviour that Marius applauded.

There were no battles against the Cimbri and Teutones in the years discussed here. Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a former quaestor who now served as a legate under Marius, did manage to capture Copillus, a king of the Volcae Tectosages, who lived in the vicinity of Tolosa (now the city of Toulouse). The people still believed that only Marius could defeat the Germanic tribes and he was easily elected consul for the third time. In 103 BCE, Sulla served under him as a military tribune. In this capacity Sulla was said to have made friends and allies of a people called the Marsi. This claim, which is found in Plutarchus’ work, is rather puzzling. Perhaps he was referring to a Germanic tribe that had joined the Cimbri and Teutones, but now defected. However, the historian was more likely referring to the Italian Marsi, allies of the Romans who were becoming ever more restless because they were frequently denied Roman citizenship. Sulla may have convinced them to stay loyal a little longer.[1]

There was no fighting against the Germans in 103 BCE either. On the political scene, Marius had allied himself with a demagogue people’s tribune named Lucius Appuleius Saturninus. Thanks to Saturninus’ support, he was elected consul for the fourth time. By now the Cimbri and Teutones had reunited in the territory of the Veliocasses in North-western Gaul.  Soon they would threaten Roman territories again.

The Second Servile War

In 104 BCE, another slave revolt broke out on Sicily, which is usually called the Second Servile War. As with the First Servile War (135-132 BCE), Diodorus Siculus is our most important source for the conflict. He was himself a native of the island. At first the revolt seemed nothing too serious. Some thirty slaves in the vicinity of Halicyae had killed their masters and had chosen a certain Varius as their leader. Their group soon grew to some 200 slaves, who entrenched themselves at a fort which could not easily be assaulted. The praetor Publius Licinius Nerva, who served as governor of Sicily, soon realised it was pointless to try and storm the place, so he decided to hire a man named Gaius Titinius Gadaeus. Titinius was a convicted criminal who had been sentenced to death two years previously. He had escaped before he could be executed and had subsequently robbed and murdered his way across the island. But – and this is important – he had never harmed a slave. The praetor sent him to the rebel fort with a band of slaves of his own. The slaves under Varius truly believed he wanted to join them and let Titinius and his men in. These then admitted the praetor’s men and the revolt was quickly crushed.

Now that peace seemed to have been restored, Nerva disbanded much of his army. This was a foolish thing to do, for soon there was a another revolt. The rebel slaves took up position on Mount Caprianus near the river Alba, but the praetor decided not to engage them with the few men he still had under his command. Instead, he fled to Heraclea and sent Titinius with part of the garrison of Enna against them. These troops were easily defeated by the rebels, who captured large quantities of arms and armour. Diodorus claims their number quickly increased to more than 6.000 slaves. The slaves held an assembly and chose a man named Salvius as their leader. He was a talented leader, who split the slave army into three separate columns and sent them to all corners of the island to pillage. Soon the slaves had an army of 20.000 infantry and 2.000 cavalry, although Diodorus admits that many of these men had little combat experience.

Republican legionaries, late 2nd century BCE (photo: Jastrow).

Salvius now advanced on the city of Morgantina, where Eunus (who had led the slaves during the First Servile War) had died in prison. The city was put under siege, but taking a fortified position was always difficult, especially if the army involved was basically composed of amateurs. Suddenly the praetor appeared with an army of about 10.000 men and surprised the slaves. He stormed, took and looted their camp. Believing he had already won, he was then himself surprised and routed. 600 Romans and allies were killed and 4.000 of them were captured. But in spite of this victory, the rebels did not manage to capture Morgantina, which was too well defended. Ironically, many of the defenders were themselves slaves.

Later this year, a new revolt broke out in the territories of Segesta and Lilybaeum. The rebellious slaves here were led by a Cilician named Athenion. When he had about 10.000 men under his command, he attacked Lilybaeum and put the city under siege. This was rather foolish, as not even the Romans had managed to capture this large city during the First Punic War. In 250 BCE, they had suffered a defeat here, and the city had only fallen into Roman hands once the Carthaginians had evacuated all of Sicily. Athenion quickly realised his siege was not going anywhere and told his followers that he had received instructions from the gods that they should lift the siege or face divine punishment. Then suddenly troops from the Mauri, perhaps sent by the King Bocchus of Mauretania, landed near Lilybaeum to aid the citizens. They fell upon the slaves and inflicted a sharp defeat on them. Somehow this only boosted Athenion’s reputation, as he had correctly predicted the punishment from the gods.

Priests and a lictor (Ara Pacis, Rome).

In the meantime, Salvius had marched to the territories of Leontinoi. There the Sicilians worshipped the Palici, two indigenous deities. After making a sacrifice, Salvius was proclaimed king and given the nickname Tryphon. Salvius then moved to a place known as Triokala, which he turned into his capital. The exact location of Triokala is unknown, but it may have been just north of Heraclea. It was in any case located at a formidable and almost impregnable location, and Salvius had it fortified even further with a wall and moat. He then summoned Athenion to join him and the two leaders united their forces. Later Salvius had Athenion arrested though, believing the man was plotting against him. From Diodorus’ account we may conclude that the rebel leader behaved like a Roman magistrate. He wore the toga praetexta, was accompanied by lictors with rods and axes and set up some kind of Senate as a permanent advisory body.

In 103 BCE, the Romans struck back. The praetor Lucius Licinius Lucullus arrived on the island with an army of some 14.000 Roman and Italian soldiers, plus several thousand auxiliaries from the Greek-speaking East. Salvius now released Athenion from captivity and the two leaders deliberated what to do. Salvius wanted to stay at Triokala and let the Romans come to him, but Athenion again advocated a daring strategy and wanted to fight the Romans in a pitched battle. Athenion got his way, and the two armies met near Skirthaia. Although the Romans were probably outnumbered, they won a resounding victory, chasing the rebels back to Triokala and killing many of them along the way. However, that was all that the praetor Lucullus managed to achieve. He seems to have been more interested in money and was later convicted of embezzlement.


Primary sources


[1] In 91 BCE, they would revolt anyway and ignite the so-called Social War. One of the most capable generals of that conflict was a Marsic general named Quintus Poppaedius Silo.

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  1. Pingback:The Jugurthine War and the Great Threat from the North: The Year 105 BCE – – Corvinus –

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