The Great Threat from the North: The Year 102 BCE

View of the Forum Romanum.


  • Gaius Marius annihilates the Teutones and Ambrones at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae;
  • Quintus Lutatius Catulus gives up the Alpine passes;
  • The Cimbri overrun Catulus’ defences at the river Atiso;
  • The praetor Gaius Servilius fails to achieve anything on Sicily during the Second Servile War;
  • The censor Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus clashes with the populares Gaius Servilius Glaucia and Lucius Appuleius Saturninus.

Although the Cimbri and Teutones had reunited after the former’s adventures in Spain, they soon split again. The Cimbri marched east to Noricum and intended to threaten Italy from the north, while the Teutones and their allies the Ambrones (a Celtic tribe) marched south to Gallia Transalpina to invade Italy from the west, through Liguria. Plutarchus suggests this was a deliberate pincer movement, but it could just have been the tribes’ own erratic way of migrating. In any case, the Romans were aware of these movements, possibly through messengers from allied peoples such as the Gallic Aedui. They also used spies and scouts, and one of these was a man named Quintus Sertorius. He had survived the carnage at Arausio three years previously by swimming the river Rhône fully armoured. Sertorius had some basic knowledge of Germanic or Celtic, so while serving under Marius, he disguised himself as a tribesman and went to the enemy camp to spy. There he collected valuable information about the Germans’ plans and movements.

The Roman consuls prepared accordingly. Quintus Lutatius Catulus guarded the Alpine passes in Gallia Cisalpina, while Gaius Marius had marched to the Rhône in Gallia Transalpina. There the latter constructed a fortified camp and had his men dig a long canal, which was named the Fossa Mariana after him. The canal allowed ships to reach his camp from the sea, greatly improving his supply situation. Marius was ready for the enemy.

Theatre of the War against the Cimbri and Teutones (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Germanic warrior (Huis van Hilde, Castricum).

The Battle of Aquae Sextiae

When the Teutones and Ambrones appeared, Marius wisely kept his men in camp and under tight control. We should keep in mind that the men under his command were not the veterans from his African campaign, but fairly green troops levied by Publius Rutilius Rufus, one of the consuls of 105 BCE. They had little combat experience and Marius wanted them to get used to the enemy first. He told the soldiers that he was waiting for the right time and place, which were ultimately to be decided by the gods. For interpreting the will of the gods, Marius was accompanied by a Syrian prophetess named Martha who was said to be able to foretell the future. She had been introduced to him by his wife Julia (an aunt of Gaius Julius Caesar). Even the ancient sources doubted whether he truly believed in her purported gifts or whether she was just part of the theatrics.

When Marius refused to fight, the Teutones and Ambrones pillaged the countryside and then attacked the Roman fortifications. They were greeted by a hail of missiles and easily repulsed. The tribes now decided to continue their eastward advance. As they marched past the Roman camp, the Teutones and Ambrones jokingly shouted to the Romans and asked whether the soldiers had any messages for their wives, for the tribes would soon be meeting them. Marius now quickly broke camp and gave chase, always keeping a safe distance and occupying strategic positions. Near Aquae Sextiae, a Roman colony founded some twenty years ago, the consul took up position on the high ground and started to make a new camp there. Since the place was devoid of water, a group of camp servants went down to the river to fetch some. These men were probably the calones which are also mentioned for the Battle of Arausio. Most of them were armed, either with tools such as axes, or with proper weapons such as swords and spears. The calones surprised a number of tribesmen, who had not expected the Romans to come down and were taking a bath in the river or the hot springs after which Aquae Sextiae had been named.

Some Celtic war gear.

As the calones fought and killed the outnumbered tribesmen, their shouts and cries drew reinforcements from the other side of the river. Especially the Ambrones, a Celtic tribe that had joined the Teutones, seem to have responded. From the Roman camp, Ligurian cohorts marched down to protect the calones. Both sides started to intimidate each other, with the Ambrones rhythmically banging their weapons against their shields, jumping and shouting the name of their tribe. The Celts were at a disadvantage though, as they still had to wade through the river. The Ligurians easily stopped their attack and then with the aid of some recently arrived Roman legionaries chased them back across the river. Many Ambrones were killed as the Romans and Ligurians hunted them down, and at one point the fighting reached the enemy camp, where women armed with swords and axes joined the fray. The Romans ultimately pulled back to their camp on the other side of the river. They had been victorious, but the unexpected fight had drawn so many men away from the Roman camp that that camp itself had only been half-finished. The nervous Romans now prepared for a Germanic counterattack during the night, and their nervousness was only increased by the wails of the Germans and Celts, who lamented their fallen warriors.

The night attack never came, and there was no fighting the next day either. As the tribesmen mustered their forces, which were probably spread out over a large area, Marius sent a certain Marcus Claudius Marcellus with a force of 3.000 men around the enemy positions. The men marched under the cover of darkness and had orders to hide on the high ground behind the German lines (the river is never mentioned again in the sources). Once the battle was underway, they were to attack the enemy in the rear. The next day, Marius deployed his troops in front of the camp. The Teutones and surviving Ambrones were ready for a fight and took the bait. They stormed up the hill, but their charge was stopped dead in its tracks by a well-aimed volley of Roman pila. The legionaries and allies then drew their swords and using their large body shields began pushing the Germans and Celts down the hill. When the fighting reached the plain, the Romans lost the advantage of fighting downhill. The battle could now have gone either way, but then Marcellus, who had successfully completed his mission, ordered his men to charge the enemy rear. Caught in a baguette of death, the Teutones and Ambrones were annihilated.

Dying Celt (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

Plutarchus claims that 100.000 ‘barbarians’ were killed or taken prisoner. The Periochae of Livius’ work mention 200.000 killed and 90.000 captured. These numbers are almost certainly inflated, but enemy casualties must have been horrendous, and they included thousands of women and children that were captured and sold as slaves. The Teutonic king Teutobodus was also captured and taken to Rome. Marius had his men collect the best weapons, armour and standards to be paraded in the triumph that he knew would be awarded to him. The rest of the enemy possessions were piled up and burned as a sacrifice for the gods. Just as Marius was about to set fire to the pyre, horsemen arrived with the message that he had been elected consul for the fifth time (and once again in absentia). Since at this point in Roman history, consular elections were usually held in December[1], it seems the Battle of Aquae Sextiae was fought very late in the year.

The Cimbri invade Italy and other events

Unfortunately for the Romans there was bad news as well. Catulus had given up the Alpine passes, believing that it was unwise to split up his forces into smaller units, which could be defeated piecemeal by the Cimbri. The consul had withdrawn his army behind the river Atiso, which is now the Adige in North-Eastern Italy. He had a bridge constructed across the river and had set up fortifications on both shores. However, Catulus was not Marius. When the Cimbri attacked, his men panicked and fled, in spite of their commander’s brave efforts to stop them. Roman casualties were probably light and Catulus was not blamed too harshly for the defeat. Still, the Cimbri were now in Italy (or rather: Gallia Cisalpina) and Marius was quickly recalled to Rome. Although the Senate offered him a triumph, the consul refused, as he wanted to defeat the invaders first.

Slaves on a second century CE Roman mosaic (photo: Pascal Radigue; CC BY 3.0 license).

So in spite of Marius’ decisive victory at Aquae Sextiae, the Romans still had plenty of things to worry about. Apart from Catulus’ retreat, the Second Servile War was not going well. The praetor Gaius Servilius failed to achieve anything, with Florus claiming he suffered at least one defeat at the hands of the rebel leader Athenion. The slave revolt had originally been led by Salvius, who had been proclaimed king and nicknamed Tryphon, but Salvius seems to have died this year. Athenion now assumed command of all the rebel forces, which was probably a blessing in disguise for the Romans, as Salvius had been much more talented and much less rash than his successor.

The Romans had once again elected censors, whose term of office started this year. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, the hero from the War against Jugurtha, served with his cousin Gaius Caecilius Metellus Caprarius, the consul of 113 BCE. As censor, Numidicus, himself a staunch optimas, tried to punish two populares named Gaius Servilius Glaucia (not to be confused with the praetor that served on Sicily) and Lucius Appuleius Saturninus. The latter, a former people’s tribune, had helped Marius win his fourth consulship. Numidicus’ attempt failed, with Appianus claiming he was stopped by his colleague. Cicero, however, suggests that the armed mob that Saturninus commanded was a decisive factor. The years to come would certainly demonstrate that Glaucia and Saturninus were more than willing to use violence to achieve their goals.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the name of Rome, p. 144-150.


[1] Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 10, note 4.


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