The Cimbri and the Teutones c.120 BC-101 BC

In 1891, farm workers digging in a peat bog at Gundestrup in the far north of Jutland, Denmark, discovered a large silver cauldron. The cauldron was decorated with spectacular scenes of Celtic gods, warriors, mythological animals and human sacrifice. The workmanship shows that the cauldron was made in Bulgaria in the second century BC by a Thracian craftsman, probably for a Celtic patron. This remarkable artefact is the only surviving legacy of the amazing migration of two early German peoples, the Cimbri and the Teutones.

The Germans were another offshoot of the well-travelled and far-spreading Indo-Europeans. The Germans are thought to have emerged in northern Germany between 2500 and 1000 BC, well beyond the horizons of literate observers in the Mediterranean world, who remained blissfully unaware of their existence until the Cimbri and the Teutones burst rudely onto the scene in 113130. The original homeland of the Cimbri and the Teutones was the same part of Jutland where the Gundestrup cauldron was found. In ancient times Jutland was known as Cimbria, and the present-day names of the districts of Himmerland and Thy are thought to be derived from the names of the two peoples.

The Gundestrup Cauldron, detail

The Cimbri and the Teutones began their migration around 120 BC. According to ancient writers they were looking for new farmlands. Some Cimbri and Teutones remained behind in Jutland, so it is unlikely that they were driven out by an invader. The tribal territories of both peoples were not large, so over-population is the most likely cause of their migration. How the emigrants were chosen is not known. Women and children, as well as men, were involved and they took wagon loads of possessions with them in their search for a new homeland. The seemingly aimless course of their migration. which would take them the length and breadth of western Europe, makes it clear that they set out without any clear idea of where they were going to finish up. Roman sources claim that there were hundreds of thousands of migrating Germans. This seems improbable, but there is no way to tell for certain whether or not the numbers are exaggerated.

A run-in with the Romans

Five years after leaving Jutland, the Cimbri and Teutones passed through the territory of the Celtic Boii in Bohemia; on reaching the Danube, they followed it south into the territory of another Celtic tribe, the Scordisci, who lived in Serbia. The Scordisci were near neighbours of the Thracians, so it was probably from them that the Gundestrup cauldron was looted and returned home to be placed in a sacred bog as an offering to the gods. The Scordisci put up stiff resistance and forced the migrants to turn west into the territory of the Taurisci, a Celtic tribe of the eastern Alps which was allied to Rome. Responding to their appeals for help, the Romans despatched an army to protect them but it was crushed by the Germans at the Battle of Noreia in 113 BC. Fortunately for the Romans, the Germans did not try to follow up their victory by invading Italy but instead headed northwest around the Alps into the territory of the Gauls, the major group of Celtic tribes inhabiting what is now France and Switzerland. On the way they were joined by three Gaulish tribes: the Helvetii, the Tigurini and the Ambrones.

The destrution of the Cimbri camp; unknown artist, 1483, Tapestry

Alarmed by this development, the Romans sent another army against the Germans and their allies but this was defeated when it tried to stop them crossing the River Rhone in 109 BC. This success encouraged two more Gaulish tribes, the Volcae and the Tectosages from the region around Toulouse, to join the Germans. The Romans quickly conquered the Volcae and the Tectosages in 107-106 BC, plundering 100 tons of gold and silver from their temple at Toulouse in the process, but if they thought the crisis was over, they were to be disappointed.

After a request for lands to settle was rebuffed, the Germans annihilated another Roman army at Arausio (Orange, Provence) in 105 BC and rampaged through Roman settlements in the area. Up to 120,000 Roman soldiers and civilians may have been killed. News of the disaster caused panic in Rome. The road to Italy was wide open but the Germans did not take it. Instead they split up: the Cimbri migrated west, crossing the Pyrenees into Spain, while the Teutones headed north into the territory of the Belgae, a large group of warlike Celtic tribes living in what is today northern France and Belgium (which is named for them). The Romans were given a breathing space and made good use of it.

Teutons migrating from Italy into Gaul.
Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration

The apparently irresistible advance of the Germans revived uncomfortable memories for the Romans of the sack of their city by the Celts in 390 BC. Since that awful event, the Romans had become accustomed to winning. Not even mighty Carthage and Macedon had stood before their legions, so the experience of defeat by a barbarian rabble was deeply shocking. In the aftermath of Arausio, Gaius Marius, a popular and capable general, was given command of the war against the Germans. Marius saw that nothing less than radical army reform would save Rome from another sack. The army of the Roman Republic was a citizen army that served only in wartime. Service in the army was open exclusively to property owners because it was believed that people who could be relied upon to fight for the state were those who owned a stake in its survival.

Radical Roman reforms

The most important source of recruits was the peasant freeholder class, but this class was in decline. Freeholders were finding it hard to compete with the great estates of the aristocracy, which were run using cheap slave labour. This was in plentiful supply because of the mass enslavement of conquered Falling into debt, freeholders were dispossessed by aristocratic landowners and they drifted to Rome to join the ranks of the landless urban poor. To head off the looming recruitment crisis, Marius abolished the connection between military service and property ownership, allowing Rome to fully mobilize its considerable reserves of manpower, and opened the way for the creation of a professional standing army. The structure of the legions was reorganized to make them more flexible, and drill, weapons training and equipment were standardized.

Bust of Gaius Marius in Glyptothek, Munich, Germany

Marius’s reforms were completed in the nick of time because by 102 BC the Cimbri and the Teutones were heading back towards Italy. Defeated in their separate ventures, the Cimbri and Teutones planned a two-pronged invasion of Italy. The Teutones would invade from the west, while the Cimbri would cross the Alps and invade Italy from the north. Marius first led his new army against the Teutones, defeating them at Aix-en-Provence. Those Teutones who were not slaughtered were captured and sold into slavery. Around midsummer the following year, Marius won a similarly total victory over the Cimbri at Vercellae, near Milan. Thousands of the defeated Cimbri committed suicide rather than be taken captive; the survivors went to the slave markets.

A Slave Market in Rome, Jean-Leon Gerome

The migration of the Cimbri and the Teutones was a disaster. All 20 years of wandering had brought them was death or enslavement. But this was just the beginning of five centuries of German expansion resulting from population growth and social change. The north was stirring. Though victorious over the Cimbri and the Teutones, the Roman Republic did not escape unscathed. Marius’s reformed legionary army became the backbone of Roman power for the next 400 years. However, it also enabled ambitious generals to dominate political life. The representative institutions of the republic were sidelined, and Rome slid into military dictatorship and civil war. Finally in 30 BC, Octavian, the victor of the civil war that followed the murder of Julius Caesar, abolished the republic and ruled as emperor under the name Augustus.

From “The Great Migrations, From the Earliest Humans to the Age of Globalisation” by John Haywood