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Battle of Vercellae

(30 July 101 BCE)

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Battle of Vercellae
Battle of Vercellae, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The Battle of Vercellae was an armed clash that took place on July 30, 101 BCE between the Roman legions led by Gaius Marius and the forces of the Germanic Cimbri tribe. The battle ended with a great defeat of the Germans. A year earlier, Marius defeated the Germanic Teutons and Ambros in the battle of Aquae Sextiae, who, together with the Cimbrians, invaded Roman territory.

Raid of the Cimbri and Teutons

Forced by difficult climatic conditions to look for new habitats in Europe, the peoples of the North Sea (Cimbri, Teutons and Ambrons), after years of wandering, unexpectedly invaded northern Italy, destroying (thanks to great numerical superiority) several Roman armies directed against them (113 BCE – Battle of Noreia and 105 BCE – the Battle of Arausio).

The Roman Republic was in great danger, for the first time in a very long time the very existence of the state was threatened. In this situation, the senate entrusted the command of the army and the mission of removing the danger to an experienced and extremely talented military, new consul – Gaius Marius

In the fall of 102 BCE, Marius destroyed the Teutons at Aquae Sextiae. However, the Cimbri in numbers, stronger than them, still posed a great threat to Italy. The second consul, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, tried to secure the passes in the Alps and not let the barbarians go south. Ultimately, however, he decided not to fight them alone, and by retreating, he made it possible for them to enter the Po valley. He then joined forces with Marius’s forces who had come to northern Italy. The leader of the Cimbri Bojorix rejected the peace offer, and the decisive battle took place on the vast fields near Vercellae (today Vercelli).

Battle

The combined forces of both consuls amounted to just over 50,000 soldiers (8 legions and auxiliary units). It was a modern, reformed by Marius, experienced army. The number of Cimbri is estimated at 200,000 (including women and children).

Scientists mention the area of ​​modern Vercelli, on the Piedmont plateau in northern Italy as the site of the battle. However, it is also noted that the name “vercellae” may in fact designate any mining area at the confluence of two rivers.

The battle was fought around noon, and the fight was in disarray due to a sandstorm. The Romans additionally positioned themselves in such a way that the rays of the sun were reflected from their shield, which offended the barbarians.

Ultimately, better training, discipline, and organization of the Roman forces were decisive for victory. It can be assumed that the then heavy heat in some way additionally helped the Romans, accustomed – unlike the peoples of the north – to high temperatures. Chasing the remains of the defeated Cimbri soldiers, Marius’ soldiers entered the fortified barbarian camp, just like after the battle of Aquae Sextiae, Germanic women massively committed suicide, previously murdering their offspring. The losses of the Roman army were negligible (about 1,000 killed). According to various sources, Cimbri died from 90 to 140 thousand. About 60,000 were taken into Roman captivity.

Consequences

The victory at Vercellae finally ended the barbarian invasion of the Roman Republic and put an end to the threat. This battle indirectly exacerbated the rivalry between Marius and Sulla.

In Rome, Marius had a triumph. As the saviour of the republic, he was hailed as the Third Founder of Rome. In return for good service, Marius granted Roman citizenship to his Italian allies, without prior approval or even consultation with the senate. After challenging the decision, Marius stated that during the battle he was unable to distinguish the voice of a Roman or an ally from the letter of the law. It was the first time a Roman politician had openly opposed the senate’s decision. As it turned out, this attitude was not to be an exception in history. Later, in 88 BCE, Sulla led his troops to Rome, and in 49 BCE. Caesar crossed the Rubicon and started the war home.

Sources
  • Paweł Rochala, Imperium u progu zagłady. Najazd Cymbrów i Teutonów, Warszawa 2007
  • Paweł Rochala, Vercellae 101 p.n.e., Warszawa 2013
  • John Warry, Armie Świata Antycznego, 1995

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