Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 8

The Northern Wars: Disaster at Arausio (106–105 BC)

With the Jugurthine War ended we can now turn our sole focus to the Northern Wars. Although the conflicts on Rome’s northern borders had been simmering since 113 BC, from 105 BC onwards they escalated to a far more intense level. In many ways, these conflicts reflect the Jugurthine War. Both began as relatively minor issues, a domestic dispute in Africa and a migrating tribe in Gaul, but both escalated into full-blown conflicts that threatened Rome’s empire.

As we saw earlier, repeated defeats at the hands of the Cimbri (113 & 109 BC) had apparently led to a collapse of Roman authority in the region. Even with our few meagre surviving sources, we hear of the revolt of the Volcae against Rome and the invasion of the Tigurini and Toygeni from Helvetia (Switzerland).

The Gallic War (106 BC)

Again, with the focus of our surviving sources on the actions of Marius in Africa, we have few details for the campaigns of 106 BC. What we do know is that once again Rome suffered no obvious effects from the defeat at the hands of the Tigurini. In many ways, this is hardly a surprise. The Romans still had the Alps as a barrier and the Tigurini were more intent on plundering the tribes of southern Gaul, in the absence of Roman authority than challenging Rome directly by invading her own territory.

The absence of a direct threat to Italy from either the Tigurini or the Cimbri allowed the Romans time to recover their position in southern Gaul. Of the two consuls that year, Q. Servilius Caepio and C. Atilius Serranus, Caepio received Gaul as a province and began the process and bringing Rome’s rebellious allies back under Roman authority. The only clear details we have of this process are the capture of the town of Tolossa (Toulouse), which is widely commented on, though not for purely military reasons. When the town was sacked, the Romans came to control a vast hoard of treasure. Orosius says that it came from a Temple to Apollo, Strabo (quoting Poseidonius and Timagenes) argued that the treasure found at Tolossa ultimately came from the Temple of Delphi, supposedly sacked by the Gauls in 279.316 In any event, it was a vast sum, which then mysteriously vanished, whilst under guard and en-route to Massilia.317

The best account of the campaign is by Dio:

Tolossa, which had formerly been in alliance with the Romans, but had revolted, as a result of the hopes placed in the Cimbri, even to the point of keeping the garrison in chains, was suddenly occupied at night by the Romans, after they had been admitted by their friends. They plundered the temples and obtained much money besides; for the place was wealthy from old, containing among other things the offerings which the Gauls under the leadership of Brennus has once plundered from Delphi. However, no treasure of importance reached Rome, but the soldiers themselves stole most of it, and for this a number were called to account.318

In addition to Dio, the majority of sources name Caepio himself as being complicit in the theft, but at the time his command was extended to a proconsulship for 105 BC.

However, such a focus on treasure comes at the expense of any other details of the year’s campaigning. We have no details of any activities by or against the Tigurini in this year. They barely feature in the rest of the war, aside from a supporting role in the Cimbric invasion of Italy in 101 BC.

The Cimbric War (105 BC)

Once again, after having defeated a Roman army, it appears that the Cimbri moved away from southern Gaul, and made no move towards Italy, having been rebuffed in their apparent request to settle there. Once again, we are faced with their disappearance from our surviving accounts. Given that Roman armies were continuing to operate in southern Gaul during this period, they did not encounter the Cimbri for another four years. It has been speculated that they moved northeastwards again towards the River Main and founded settlements, but there is little evidence to support this. Once again, we have to admit to our ignorance of their movements. Clearly, whatever settlement plans they had in this period failed once more, as by 106 the Cimbri, possibly joined by their allies, moved southwards towards Roman territory for the third time.

Here we must analyse the pattern of continued battles with Rome interspersed by periods of absence. In 113, when the Cimbri first encountered Rome, this happened in the east of the Alps and apparently by chance. In 109 the Cimbri approached Roman territory from the west and this time sought permission to settle in Italy. By 106 BC, the Cimbri would have been fully acquainted with the Roman hegemony over southern Gaul, and deliberately moved towards their territory, clearly knowing the response they would receive. Rather than taking a Romano-centric view that they were only ‘barbarians’, who only obeyed natural instinct and had no grater desire other than conquest, we have to ask ourselves why they approached Rome this third time and whether their tactics had changed.

One aspect that is apparent is that seven years after initially fighting Rome they had still not found a region to settle in peacefully. Given the attrition rates of battle, and disease and the need to find enough food for several hundred thousand people, clearly some element of frustration and desperation must have set in. As events showed, the Cimbri were clearly not intent on invading Italy at this point, nor is there any clear evidence of an alliance with any other tribes, such as the Teutones and Ambrones. Furthermore, there is no evidence of a formal pact between the Cimbri and Tigurini in this period either, despite the fact that both had a common enemy. What must have been clear to the Cimbri is that they would not be able to settle in southern Gaul or Spain until Roman influence had been removed from north of the Alps. In the period that followed 109 BC, this looked as though it may have been accomplished, with the Tigurini invading the region and defeating a Roman army and revolts amongst the native cities and tribes under Roman suzerainty.

However, within a few years it appeared that Roman influence had not been eliminated, and in fact the Romans began to re-assert themselves in the region. It may have been down to random chance that the Cimbri fought Rome for a third time in 105 BC, or it may have been connected to Rome beginning to reassert her dominance in the region. Thus there is an argument that this third clash was not the result of random wanderings at all but a deliberate attempt by the Cimbri to eliminate Roman influence north of the Alps and thus allow them to carve out land for themselves. To do this they would require a further and comprehensive victory over the Roman army, removing them from the Gallic theatre of operations altogether.

This line of argument allows us to develop the seemingly-random Cimbric clashes with Rome into a more logical sequence and allows for the evolution of the Cimbric attitude towards Rome. It began with an initial unplanned encounter, which then turned into a military confrontation. This was followed by a Cimbric request to settle again, which led to another battle. Growing increasingly impatient, the Cimbri then waited for the collapse of Roman power north of the Alps, set in motion by the earlier victory, and when this failed to materialize they then took a more positive step to ensure the removal of Roman influence north of the Alps, by militarily emasculating them. Whilst the above theory is an attractive one, as ever it needs to be clearly stated that it is merely a speculative one, for which there exists no positive evidence. Nonetheless, it does allow for a more nuanced and evolved consideration of the seemingly-random clashes between the Cimbri and the Romans. As always it is up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The Battle of Arausio (105 BC)

The Battle of Arausio represents one of the greatest defeats the Romans ever suffered, and is one of the least known. On the face of it, the Romans and their allies lost between 60,000 and 80,000 soldiers. This makes it a far greater defeat than those suffered at Teutoburg Forest and Carrhae, and on a par with the defeat to Hannibal at Cannae. Yet whilst these other battles are all well known, Arausio remains in the background by comparison. This is due to the fact that we have no surviving narrative that covers the battle, thus minimizing its modern historiographical impact. However, we should be under no illusion as to its impact at the time.

We have no clear timetable of events that led up to Arausio, but we can piece together some fragments. It appears that at some point in early 105 BC, the wanderings of the Cimbri and their allies (whether together or independently) brought them back into southern Gaul. With the memories of the defeats of 113 and 109 still fresh and with Roman armies apparently pacifying southern Gaul, it appears that a concerted effort was made to finish the tribal threat once and for all. This renewed threat was perhaps made even graver by the possible first appearance of the Teutones, along with the Cimbri.

In any event, to bolster the Roman military presence in Gaul, one of the consuls of 105 BC, Cn. Mallius Maximus, was dispatched with a fresh Roman army. We are given no size for this army. The ancient sources quote the two armies as being between 60,000 and 80,000 men. Brunt estimated that the number of Roman legions involved was four, two from each Roman army. He estimated the size of each Roman army at 11,000 Roman and 22,000 allied infantry and cavalry, utilizing a postulated ratio of 2:1 allied to Roman. Thus he places the total Roman strength at around 66,000 men.319

Thus Rome had two armies in Gaul, one under the proconsul Caepio and one under the new consul, Mallius. Rather than combining their forces, the two men were assigned different provinces. We are not explicitly told which, but the Rhone was the dividing line between the two men’s commands. By Roman tradition, Caepio as proconsul would have been outranked by Mallius as serving consul, yet both men had separate provinces to maintain the distinction between them. Added to this was the fact that neither got on well with the other. Dio reports that Caepio was resentful of being outranked by Mallius, especially as Gaul had been his sole command.320

It appears that prior to the battle there was an initial encounter between the Romans and the Cimbri. Serving under Mallius, as a legate, was M. Aurelius Scaurus, who had been suffect consul in 108, and was obviously serving under Mallius to bring some experience to his general staff. A number of sources report that Scaurus and a Roman force fought a battle with the Cimbri, during which the Romans were routed and Scaurus captured. Both the Periochae of Livy and Licinianus report a story that Scaurus faced a council of Cimbric leaders and demanded that they desist from crossing the Alps and invading Italy.321 Following his argument he was murdered by a Cimbri named Boiorix, whom Plutarch believes was a king or chieftain.322 We naturally have to ask ourselves how the Romans learnt of this story, given the non-Roman audience (though it is possible that it came from prisoners later captured). Furthermore, we have to consider the language barrier, with Scaurus only speaking Latin (as well as Greek) and the Cimbri their own native tongue (though it is possible that they had bi-lingual guides from the local tribes with them). All we can say for sure is that the encounter cost Scaurus his life.

Orosius places this incident during the Battle of Arausio itself, yet there is good evidence to argue that it preceded the battle by some period of time.323 Firstly, although the Periochae of Livy has the two events following each other, the passage covers several years’ worth of events and does not indicate that they occurred at the same time. In fact, this usually indicates an elapse of time. Secondly, both Licinianus and a fragment of Dio (see below) indicate an elapse of time between Scaurus’ death and the main battle.

Thus it appears that Scaurus’ force met the Cimbri on its own, separate from the two main Roman armies, and was easily routed, being outnumbered. The most obvious explanation is that Scaurus’ force was on a scouting mission to locate the main Cimbric army, which unfortunately for him was a mission he accomplished only too well.

With the enemy located, the two Roman armies drew up on the banks of the Rhone, near to the town of Arausio (now the town of Orange) on what now equates to 6 October 105 BC.324 We have no surviving detailed account of the battle; all we can do is analyse the surviving fragments:

Granius Licinianus

The ex-consul M. Aurelius Scaurus was thrown from his horse and captured. When they [the Cimbri] summoned him to a council, he neither did nor said anything which was unworthy of a Roman, who had held such great honours. Because of this he was killed, although he could have escaped; he refused their request to act as their leader, out of shame that he should survive after the loss of his army. The consul Mallius was alarmed by this victory of the Cimbri, and sent a letter begging Caepio to join forces with him and confront the Gauls with a large combined army; but Caepio refused. Caepio crossed the Rhone and boasted to his soldiers that he would bring help to the frightened consul; but he did not even want to discuss with him how to conduct the war, and he disdained to listen to the envoys whom the Senate sent, asking the generals to co-operate and jointly to protect the state. The Cimbri sent envoys to arrange a peace and to ask for land and for corn to sow, but he dismissed them so brusquely that they attacked the next day. His camp was situated not far away from Mallius’ camp, but he could not be persuaded, though he was so close, to join together their armies.

The greater part of the army was destroyed… on the day before the nones of October. Rutilius Rufus says that at least 70,000 regular troops and light-armed troops perished on this one day…325

Dio Cassius

After the death of Scaurus, Mallius has sent for Servilius [Caepio]; but the latter replied that each of them ought to guard their own province. Then, suspecting that Mallius might gain some success by himself, he [Caepio] grew jealous of him, fearing that he might secure the glory alone, and went to him; yet he neither camped in the same place nor entered into any common plan, but took up a position between Mallius and the Cimbri, with the evident intention of being the first to join the battle and so of winning all the glory of the war. Even thus they [the Romans] inspired their enemies with dread from the outset, as long as their quarrel was concealed, to such an extent that they were brought to desire peace; but when the Cimbri made overtures to Mallius, as consul, Servilius [Caepio] became indignant that they had not directed their embassy to him, gave them no conciliatory reply, and actually came near to slaying the envoys. The soldiers forced Servilius [Caepio] to go to Mallius and consult with him about the situation. But far from reaching an accord, as a result of the meeting, they became even more hostile than before, and parted in a disgraceful fashion.326


In this battle, M. Aemilius [Aurelius Scaurus], who was of consular rank, was captured and killed, and the two sons of the consuls were slain. Antias writes that 80,000 of the Romans and their allies were slaughtered in that disaster and that 40,000 servants and camp followers were killed. Of the entire army it is said that only ten men survived. Having gained possession of camps and a huge amount of booty, the enemy seemed driven by some strange and unusual urge. They completely destroyed everything they had captured; clothing was cut to pieces and strewn about, gold and silver were thrown into the river, the breastplates of the men were hacked to pieces, the trappings of the horse were ruined, the horses themselves were drowned in whirlpools and men, with nooses fastened around their necks, were hanged from trees.327


At Arausio these same enemies conquered in battle Cn. Manlius (Mallius) the consul and Q. Servilius Caepio, the proconsul stripped them both of their camps and killed 80,000 soldiers and 40,000 servants and camp followers, according to Valerius Antias.328


M. Manlius and Q. Caepio were defeated by the Cimbri, Teutones, Tigurini and Ambrones, nations of Germans and Gauls, near the River Rhone, and being reduced by a terrible slaughter lost their very camp as well as the greater part of the army.329


The Cimbri destroyed the legions of Caepio and Mallius inside Gaul. The remnants were taken up by C. Marius, who trained them in the knowledge and art of warfare.330


He [Sertorius] had his first experience of war under Caepio during the campaign in which the Cimbri and Teutones broke into Gaul, when the Romans suffered a crushing defeat and their army was routed.

After this battle, in spite of losing his horse and being seriously wounded, Sertorius swam across the Rhone in the teeth of a strong current still carrying his shield and his breastplate.331

VIII. The Battle of Arausio (105 BC), Stage 1


The first aspect to note is the closeness of the fragments of Dio and Licinianus, with Licinianus naming Rutilius Rufus (Marius’ deputy) as the source (see Appendix V). Both sources detail the lack of agreement between the two commanders, with both placing the blame squarely on Caepio for his refusal to cooperate. This was crucial to the defeat at Arausio, the two Roman armies operating as two individual forces. Together they numbered up to 80,000 men, if we are to believe the sources, facing anything up to 300,000 tribesmen (the number Plutarch gives, which he argues is a low one).332 Thus, despite the fact that even the combined Roman forces would have been outnumbered by the Cimbri, the two armies refused to coordinate their effort or battle-plans and operated as separate armies. Both commanders were so intent on winning the war themselves that they ensured that neither would. Again we see the fatal combination of desire for personal glory and the arrogance of Roman military invincibility, despite facing an enemy that had already defeated two Roman armies in previous years and routed a smaller force more recently.

IX. The Battle of Arausio (105 BC), Stage 2


Again, both Dio and Licinianus note that before the battle the Cimbri sent emissaries to the Romans. Whilst Dio has this being from a dread of the Romans, which after two victories is difficult to believe, Licinianus states that they again requested land for their tribe to settle on, as they had done before the battle of 109 BC. At the time it would have been impossible to expect this from the Romans, given the desire for glory on the part of the commanders, not to mention revenge for the previous defeats. Given that the Cimbri now represented more than just a wandering tribe, their victories had made them a talisman of anti-Roman efforts (whether they sought that mantle or not) and such an acceptance would have been a severe blow to Roman authority in the region.

With battle a certainty, it is not clear how this failure to cooperate worked in the battle itself. Caepio’s army was nearer to the Cimbri and would have borne the first attack, but whether he took the offensive or waited for the Cimbri is impossible to tell. Given his desire for glory it is likely that he initiated the first attack, hoping that Mallius would back him up. Clearly, it seems that this attack failed, which would have forced his army back towards the Rhone and possibly even towards Mallius’ army. If the two Roman forces did become entangled, with one retreating into the other, then we can understand the slaughter. Furthermore, the Roman retreat was cut off by the river itself, which would now have acted like a barrier. Sertorius may have survived by swimming it, but many would not have and this would have only increased the overall number of dead. These losses were further magnified by the apparent slaughter of all Roman survivors by the tribesmen. In addition, a number of sources focus on the fact that the Cimbri were able to storm both Roman camps and slaughter the camp followers, indicating the speed and surprise of their attack.

In short, the Romans were outnumbered, failed to cooperate and had the river behind them to cut off any retreat. Antias, who is quoted by both Livy and Orosius, puts the Roman and allied losses at 80,000 men with 40,000 ancillaries, whilst Rutilius Rufus, puts the figure at 70,000 troops lost. Diodorus places the total number lost at 60,000.333 We should take Orosius’ figure of only ten survivors with a large pinch of salt, especially given the fact that we can name three of them: the two Roman commanders Mallius and Caepio and the then-obscure soldier Sertorius. Furthermore, Vegetius speaks of survivors of the battle.334 Nevertheless, the impact of the massacre can be seen by Mallius losing two sons in the battle.

As Roman military disasters go, the defeat at Arausio was indeed on par with the Battle of Cannae, which also resulted in part from a dual command structure. Long accepted as the greatest Roman defeat the Republic suffered, Polybius gave casualty figures of 70,000 Roman and allied troops for Cannae, compared to 60,000 to 80,000 at Arausio.335 Livy only gave a figure of 45,000 for Cannae and 80,000 for Arausio.336 Whilst these ancient figures for battle losses have long been treated with suspicion, the scale of the comparison, with Arausio being greater than Cannae in Livy’s account (albeit from the Periochae), only shows the significance of the Roman losses that day and the terrible effects of the battle. Regardless of whether we have a detailed account of the battle or not, the Battle of Arausio stands as one of Rome’s greatest defeats.

The Aftermath of Arausio

Furthermore, both Dio and Licinianus report the news of the defeat reaching Rome, which is on a par with comparable accounts in Livy following Cannae. Dio wrote:

So great a multitude had perished, some grieved for sons, others for brothers; children left fatherless bewailed the loss of a sire and the desolation of Italy; and large numbers of women, bereft of their husbands were made acquainted with the sad fate of widowhood. The Senate, with courageous fortitude in the face of disaster, sought to restrain the general mourning and the excessive lamentation and bore their heavy load of grief without showing it.337

Licinianus has it as follows:

The consul Rutilius, the colleague of Mallius, remained in sole charge of the government. Therefore, since the whole state was in trepidation and fear of an attack by the Cimbri, Rutilius made the young men take an oath, that none of them would travel anywhere outside Italy. Messengers were sent along all the coasts and ports of Italy, with instructions that no-one under the age of 25 years should be allowed to board a boat…338

It appears that Rutilius kept his head and assembled a large force from scratch in order to meet any invasion of Italy. Furthermore, Valerius Maximus provides us with an interesting note on the training methods Rutilius used:

Practice in handling arms was passed on to soldiers by the consul P. Rutilius Rufus, Cn. Mallius’ colleague. Following the example of no previous general, he called in gladiator instructors from the school of C. Aurelius Scaurus to provide the legions with a more sophisticated system of avoiding and striking a blow.339

Thus it appears that Rufus brought in gladiators to train these inexperienced soldiers and shows that Marius was not the only military reformer at the time.

However, the overall situation at the time must have looked bleak. Sallust sums the situation up nicely:

About the same time (as Jugurtha’s capture) the Gauls (Cimbri) inflicted upon our commanders Q. Caepio and Cn. Manlius (Mallius) a defeat that made all Italy tremble with terror and inspired in the Romans a belief which existed even to our own day that, while all other peoples could easily be subjected by their (Roman) valour, a war against the Gauls was a struggle for very existence and not just a matter of making a bid for glory.340

Whether or not the Cimbri intended to invade Italy is not the issue. In Rome, amongst both the citizenry and the elites, they clearly believed that such an event was imminent. Once again, the spectre of the Gallic sack of Rome would have come to the forefront of their minds. It was now that timing played a hand in Roman politics. Whilst two more ‘establishment’ commanders had failed and, in Roman minds, had left Italy vulnerable to invasion, it was into this atmosphere of doom and disaster that the news of Marius’ capture of Jugurtha and the end of the long-running Jugurthine War arrived.

Even without Arausio it had probably already occurred to Marius that he needed to follow up the Numidian command with another command, especially as the Northern Wars had been rumbling on for as long as the Jugurthine one and with less success. The tactics (both political as well as military) which had worked once may well have worked again. What he got, however, was a situation tailor-made for him. Our surviving sources do not mention any pressure on Marius’ part, or that of his supporters, to have him appointed to the command in Gaul, nor do we have a timescale for the news of Arausio, the news of Jugurtha’s capture and Marius’ re-election as consul. As it is portrayed, Marius was elected in absentia with popular and Senatorial backing.

Such an act was technically against the law, with there being a ban on consulships within ten years of each other, though this had been laid aside for the benefit of Scipio Aemilianus (see Chapter 1). In such an emergency, however, whether the Senate were that enthusiastic about this or not, by ending the Jugurthine War there was only one clear choice for command of the Northern War: Marius. By his return to Rome, with Jugurtha in chains, he had already been elected as consul for 104 BC and, in an unprecedented situation, was to continue to be re-elected consul another four times (103–100 BC), though it is unlikely this was ever discussed at this stage. He entered office spectacularly on 1 January by celebrating his triumph over Jugurtha. Though the Romans did not yet know it, the brief Age of Marius had begun.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!