|Giovanni Battista Tiepolo|
The battle of Vercellae, 1725-1729
Well, then raise your hands if you have ever heart about the Battle of Vercellae. I don't see many. Then let me tell you the story about this important event, at least important for the progress of the Roman Empire. Just try to image if the Germanic plans to invade Rome would have been successful and possibly the Roman Empire as we know it would never have come into existence. History would have taken a completely different term...and probably I would also not be writing this blog.
The Battle of Vercellae was the last and decisive battle between the migratory Germanic tribe of the Cimbri and the Romans. We do not know what caused the Cimbri to leave their settlements at the Northern Sea together with the tribes of Teutons and Ambrones and to wander throughout Europe looking for new settlement area. It was the Cimbri, who had separated from the other tribes and penetrated Northern Italy, which belonged to Roman Territory. They had defeated the Romans in several battles, such as the Battle at Noreia (113 BC) and the battle of Arausio (105 BC).
The Roman commander Quintus Lutatius Catulus had the task to secure the Alpine passes. But as the Cimbri flooded over the Alpes, he gave up the passes and retreated behind the river Etsch. The Cimbri attacked the last defenders beyond the Etsch. In full admiration of the Roman courage, they granted the defenders free passage. Nevertheless, they devastated the entire landscape. In the meantime, Roman consul Gaius Marius, who had successfully defeated the Teutons the previous year in the battle of Aqua Sextiae, moved with his troops to Northern Italy to unite with the troops of Catulus. His soldiers were part of the reformed army, i.e. they had to carry all equipment and military gear by themselves - therefore they were also called 'muli Mariani' (mules of Marius).
The leader of the Cimbri, Boiorix, made a peace proposal to Marius. The Cimbri would not fight against the Romans if they were allowed to keep the land. Marius rejected and instead, he brought forward the captive king of the Teutons, Teutobod. Up to this time, the Cimbri did not know about the defeat of the Teutons. Now, Biorix called Marius to determine the battle ground, and Marius decided for the Raudine Plain, 5 km from Vercelli.
The 13,000 strong Cimbri cavalry rode onto the battlefield. Behind them came the 197,000 strong infantry. Marius made a final sacrifice to the gods. According to Plutarch "Marius washed his hands, and lifting them up to heaven, vowed to make a sacrifice of 100 beasts should victory be his." The Romans got into position first, therefore the sun would be reflecting off the Roman's armor. The Cimbri thought the sky was on fire. Sensing their sudden anxiety, the Romans attacked. The Cimbri cavalry were taken completely by surprise by the Roman cavalry. The Cimbri were forced back. The Roman legionnaires than engaged the Cimbri infantry. The Cimbri were very unnerved by this. Plutarch writes that the Romans now were able to slaughter the enemy with ease. Boiorix and his noblemen made a last stand in which they were all killed. The Romans had won a complete and stunning victory.
The victory of Vercellae put an end to Germanic plans to invade Rome. The Cimbri were virtually wiped out, with the Romans claiming to have killed 140,000 and captured 60,000, including large numbers of women and children. Politically, this battle had great implications for Rome as well. It marked a continuation in the rivalry between Marius and Sulla, which would eventually lead to the first of Rome's great civil wars. But this is already another story...
At yovisto you can learn more about the times of the Roman Republic in the lecture of Melinda Cole Klein from the series 'Imperial Empires'.
References and Further Reading:
- The Cimbric War, Heritage History
- Philipp C. Morey: Outlines of Roman History, The Times of Marius and Sulla
- Plutarch: De Fortuna Romanorum (also in English translation)
- The Fate of Western Civilization at Stake on the Catalaunian Plains
- Rome is Burning
- The End of the Roman Empire</li>
- Edward Gibbon and the Science of History
- Waterloo and the European Balance of Power
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