top of page
  • Writer's picturesulla80

The Cimbrian War

If you look beneath the surface and consider what happened and what it felt like to the people who lived in these times, the environment in which our European ancestors lived must have been brutal and inhumane. The story of this hurried and inelegant series of denarii gives pause to reflect on the events of the time: could the Romans have reached a different outcome? Lessons from ancient Rome appear to me to be no less relevant, 2000 years later, to policy debates and our individual behaviors in consuming information.

M. Lucilius Rufus, 101 BC, AR Denarius (20-21.5mm, 3.90 g, 3h), Rome mint (?)

Obv: Helmeted head of Roma right; PV to left; all within laurel wreath

Rev: Victory, holding whip and reins, driving galloping biga right, RVF above, M LVCILI below.

Ref: Crawford 324/1; Sydenham 599; Lucilia 1; RBW 1180

Romantic images like this one of the Teutones crossing into Gaul conjure up the "old lie" cited by Wilfred Owen's poem: "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" [it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country].

"The Teutones Passing from Italy into Gaul", from The Story of the Greatest Nations, vol. III, by Edward Sylvester Ellis and Charles F. Horne, published 1900, New York, F.R. Niglutsch, pp. 500-501, image public domain via

The dehumanized invaders, barbarians, are defeated by the heroic Romans in the Battle of Vercellae. Tens of thousands killed and tens of thousands enslaved.This portrait ignores the struggle for existence and fierce competition for resources that both sides of this battle faced. Was there not another way to look at the challenges facing both Cimbri and Romans?

Although by ancient standards we have solved some of the epic challenges of hunger, disease, and war, these are not gone. It is, unfortunately, too easy to recognize all three, even two millennia removed from the Roman Republic, and perhaps too easy to be misled by the simplified fables that are more available than the realities of history.

The Story

The war between Rome and Numidia was brought to and end in 104 BC, with the capture of their king, Jugurtha, by Lucius Cornelius Sulla as a general in the legions of Gaius Marius. Jugurtha was paraded in a triumph in Rome and then murdered in captivity.

Marius had his first consulship in 107 BC and was elected again after the Jugurthine war for his second consulship in 104 BC. The damaging rivalry and conflict between Sulla and Marius was born from this war and the willingness of both men to put themselves ahead of the people of Rome: Sulla's expectations of greater credit for the victory and Marius' unwillingness to share any limelight was devastating to the Roman Republic.

With one war ended, another challenge became more visible in Rome. A large number of Germanic migrants coming from the north and west in search of land to support themselves.

For no sooner had word been brought to the people of the capture of Jugurtha than the reports about the Teutones and Cimbri fell upon their ears. What these reports said about the numbers and strength of the invading hosts was disbelieved at first, but afterwards it was found to be short of the truth. For three hundred thousand armed fighting men were advancing, and much larger hordes of women and children were said to accompany them, in quest of land to support so vast a multitude, and of cities in which to settle and live, just as the Gauls before them, as they learned, had wrested the best part of Italy from the Tyrrhenians and now occupied it
-Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Marius, 11.2 

This was not a new conflict. It had been escalating since 114 or 113 BC. As consul Carbo decided to attack the Cimbri proactively and almost did not survive circa 109 BC.

In pursuit of plunder, the nomadic tribe of the Cimbrians came to Illyricum. Consul Papirius Carbo and his army were defeated by them.
-Livy, Periochae, Book 63.5-6 

What we know of these stories is largely defined by the victors. The language of Livy, writing mostly during the time of Augustus, and Plutarch writing up to the first years of Hadrian's reign, biases the story: "invading hosts", "In pursuit of plunder". Is this truth or opinion or propaganda? Florus, writing during the time of Hadrian and basing his accounts mostly on Livy, hints at another side to the story that should be considered: the Cimbri ask Silanus for land in exchange for labor either just before or just after they defeated him in battle in 107 BC.

The Cimbri, Teutones and Tigurini,fugitives from the extreme parts of Gaul, since the Ocean had inundated their territories, began to seek new settlement throughout the world, and excluded from Gaul and Spain, descended into Italy and sent representatives to the camp of Silanus and thence to the senate asking that "the people of Mars should give them some land by way of pay and use their hands and weapons for any purpose it wished."
- Florus, Epitome, XXXVIII

The Romans rejected the request. They had been wrestling with internal divisions over land grant policies, and rules for personal property between Roman citizens and Italians, between nobility and the rest of the population. These divisions were enlarged by the deaths of the Gracchi brothers and the actions that grew from the enmity between Marius and Sulla. The divisions took shape as political parties of "populares" and "optimes". Could there have been a different path taken with the Cimbri and for Rome? Could the Romans have benefited and avoided more than 12 years war if they had seen this as low cost economic resource rather than barbarian threat?

M. Aurelius Scaurus, 118 BC, AR serrate denarius (20mm, 3.85g, 12h), Narbo mint

Obv: Head of Roma right, wearing Phrygian helmet; mark of value to left

Rev: Gallic warrior (Bituitus?) driving galloping biga right, hurling spear and holding shield and carnyx

Ref: Crawford 282/1; Sydenham 523; Aurelia 20; Type as RBW 1106

Note: the moneyer is likely the son of the consul of 108 of the same name and father of the M. Aurelius M.f. Vol, see also British Museum notes

In 105, Marcus Aurelius Scaurus (consul of 108 BC) was defeated and killed, and then the Cimbri defeated consuls Manlius and Caepio.

After the defeat of his army, Marcus Aurelius Scaurus, a deputy of the consul, was captured by the Cimbrians and called to their council, where he deterred them from crossing the Alps and going to Italy, saying that the Romans were unconquerable. He was killed by a savage young man, Boiorix. Defeated by the same enemies, consul Gnaeus Manlius and proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio were stripped of both their camps; according to Valerius Antias, 80,000 soldiers and 40,000 servants and camp followers were killed near Arausio. Caepio, who had caused the defeat by his rashness, was convicted; his possessions were confiscated (for the first time since king Tarquinius), and his powers abrogated.
- Livy, Periochae, 67.1-3 

Marius with support from Catulus defeated the Cimbri on 30 July 101 BC at the Battle of Vercellae, located by a red dot on the map above, destroying the Germanic armies and taking tens of thousands of prisoners/slaves. For this he was acclaimed as the savior and third founder of Rome. Perhaps he learned a lesson from his slight of Sulla, and he included Catulus in his triumph. Or perhaps, as Plutarch shares, he acted in self interest, fearing the reaction of the soldiers.

Above all, the people hailed him as the third founder of Rome,​ that peril which he had averted from the city was not less than that of the Gallic invasion; and all of them, as they made merry at home with their wives and children, would bring ceremonial offerings of food and libations of wine to Marius as well as to the gods, and they were insistent that he alone should celebrate both triumphs. Marius, however, would not do this, but celebrated his triumph with Catulus, wishing to show himself a man of moderation after a course of so great good fortune. Perhaps, too, he was afraid of the soldiers, who were drawn up and ready, in case Catulus were deprived of his honour, to prevent Marius also from celebrating a triumph.
-Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Marius, 27.5 

For when the messenger brought the news, at the beginning of the night, that the Cimbri were defeated, there was not a man who did not, amid the rites of his table, make an libation to Marius as if to the immortal gods
- Valerius, 15.6

The "Victory" on the reverse of this coin celebrates the victories of Marius, and perhaps more specifically the victory hoped for or achieved over the Cimbrians. These coins are not well executed as a whole. Sydenham, citing Eckhel's AD 1796 publication, notes, "it is probable that they are, wholly or in part, a military coinage issued during the war against the Cimbri and Teutones". He sites find locations and the "large flans, heads outspread and in low relief, style of work unequal, but generally poor".

Crawford assigns these coins to the mint at Rome, and doesn't explain his difference with Sydenham, only noting "in addition the years 101-100 are marked by a great outburst of victory coinage with the issues or L. Iulius, M. Lucillius Rufus, and P. Servilius Rullus".

Here is a second example which I think illustrates the low quality of this issue and reflects the speed and volume issued.

I've followed Crawford's assignment given his later publication date, and general reliability, founded on careful analysis of hoards, dies, and other evidence. The style of these coins certainly reinforces that they were made under less than typical Rome mint standards and the online hoard evidence leaves me with only a major impression that these coins circulated widely, and not surprisingly, a lot ended up near Rome.

Facts can be difficult to sift from opinions and propaganda, the truth behind these stories is not simply or easily found. The coin is an ancient fact, the history of its context is harder, perhaps impossible to see perfectly, even from a well documented time period. History is a science that relies on facts, stories, technical tools and critical thinking to continually revise and challenge a working hypothesis.

With large volumes of information at our disposal, actively looking for "the other side of the story" and "considering the source" are just as useful to our daily consumption of current information as it is to reading about history. Simple pictures can improve understanding, and ideally we could all start from a premise that reality, history, public policy, and life in general are not that simple and have ambiguity, and call for compromise and trade-offs more than simple answers. There were no easy answers for Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis.


146 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page