The Great Threat from the North: The Year 101 BCE

View of the Forum Romanum.


  • The consul Manius Aquillius defeats Athenion and ends the Second Servile War on Sicily;
  • The consul Gaius Marius and the proconsul Quintus Lutatius Catulus annihilate the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae;
  • Marius and Catulus hold a joint triumph;
  • Marius works together with Glaucia and Saturninus and is elected consul for the sixth time.

The previous year, the Romans had crushed the Teutones, ending at least half of the Great Threat from the North. But they were not there yet. The Cimbri had invaded Gallia Cisalpina and the consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus had not been able to stop them. His defeat did not prove fatal though. He was allowed to continue the war against the Cimbri as proconsul was not replaced with the consul of this year, Manius Aquillius. The latter was sent to Sicily to end the Second Servile War. This Aquilius did competently. He defeated and killed the rebel leader Athenion and besieged the survivors, probably at their fortress at Triokala. The slaves ultimately surrendered and Aquilius had them thrown to the beasts (damnatio ad bestias). The consul’s successes allowed the other consul, Gaius Marius, and the proconsul Catulus to focus on the German threat in the north.

The Battle of Vercellae

Plutarchus claims the Roman army numbered 52.300 men in total. Being consul, Marius commanded 32.000 men and Catulus just 20.300. The Cimbri once again asked for land on which to settle, but Marius refused and battle was now inevitable. It would take place on 30 July on the Campi Raudii in the vicinity of Vercellae, now the town of Vercelli in Piedmont. The Cimbri were led by their kings Boiorix, Lugius, Claodicus and Caesorix. The size of their army is unknown, but they may certainly have outnumbered the Romans. Plutarchus claims their cavalry alone was 15.000 men strong. He no doubt exaggerated its strength, but his description of the horsemen is vivid and colourful. Our historian writes that they:

“rode out in splendid style, with helmets made to resemble the maws of frightful wild beasts or the heads of strange animals, which, with their towering crests of feathers, made their wearers appear taller than they really were; they were also equipped with breastplates of iron, and carried gleaming white shields. For hurling, each man had two lances; and at close quarters they used large, heavy swords.”[1]

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).

Catulus’ troops formed the centre of the Roman battle line and those of Marius had been deployed on the two flanks. As the battle started, Marius promised to sacrifice 100 bulls and Catulus to dedicate a temple to Fortuna Huiusce Diei (The Fortune of this Day). The thousands of marching feet threw up huge clouds of dust, obscuring the view, and the men fought for hours in the heat and under the scorching sun. Plutarchus claims the Cimbri had the sun in their face, which gave the Romans a marked advantage. They ultimately managed to break through the Germanic lines and routed the enemy.

The survivors fled to their camp, which was composed of a ring of wagons. There many of the Cimbri, men and women, committed suicide. They killed their children as well, to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. 120.000 warriors were killed according to Plutarchus, and in spite of the mass suicide more than 60.000 Cimbri were captured. Livius gives the number of dead as 140.000 (or 160.000, depending on the Latin text; CXL vs. CLX), while Velleius Paterculus and Florus give slightly lower estimates of 100.000 and 65.000 casualties respectively.[2] Obviously these numbers need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the Great Threat from the North, which had haunted the Roman since 113 BCE, had now finally been destroyed.

After the battle, there was a row between Catulus’ soldiers and those of Marius about who had contributed most to the victory. Plutarchus quotes Sulla, who fought under Catulus and claimed that Catulus’ men in the centre had borne the brunt of the enemy attack. The Roman victory was therefore their victory. But Sulla probably wrote this claim down when he had already fallen out with Marius, so we should not accept it too easily. As consul, Marius outranked his colleague, and since he had also destroyed the Teutones and their allies, most of the credit for the victory at Vercellae went to him. The masses hailed him as the third founder of Rome, after Romulus and Camillus.

Other events

Marius and Catulus reconciled and held a joint triumph later that year. The Teutonic king Teutobodus was likely paraded during this triumph, but the Cimbrian king Boiorix had already been killed on the battlefield. Orosius, a very late source (4th-5th century), claims that Lugius was also killed, while Claodicus and Caesorix were captured. They were likely paraded in the triumph as well, and afterwards executed in the Tullianum. Catulus made good on his vows and had a temple built for Fortuna Huiusce Diei on the Campus Martius. Its remains can still be admired today: they can be found in the Area Sacra del Largo Argentina (see the image below).

Remains of the round temple of Fortuna Huiusce Diei.

Marius was now at the height of his fame and power. He had held five consulships, four of them in succession. But he was not yet satisfied and wanted more. Marius still had a beef with Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, his former patron under whom he had served in Numidia and who was currently serving as censor. In this capacity, Metellus had quarrelled with Gaius Servilius Glaucia and Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, two populares. Marius had worked with Saturninus in the past, and now the three men worked together to get Marius elected consul a sixth time. In this they succeeded, but Publius Rutilius Rufus (another former legate of Metellus who was quoted by Plutarchus) and Livius claimed they were guilty of bribery on a massive scale. Glaucia was elected praetor for the next year and Saturninus was given a second term as people’s tribune (he had previously held the office in 103 BCE). It was a choice that would lead to more violence in the streets of Rome. It was already widely rumoured that Saturninus had been responsible for the murder of another candidate for the tribuneship[3], and more death and destruction was to follow soon.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the name of Rome, p. 150-151.


[1] Life of Marius 25.

[2] Florus mentions 300 Roman dead.

[3] The man’s name was Aulus Nunnius or Nonius.

One Comment:

  1. Pingback:Nikola Benin. The Year 101 BCE: The Great Threat from the North – HISTORY

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