Text #9610"Battle of Arausio", in .
The Battle of Arausio took place on 6 October 105 BC, at a site between the town of Arausio (modern day Orange, Vaucluse) and the Rhône River. Ranged against the migratory tribes of the Cimbri under Boiorix and the Teutoni were two Roman armies, commanded by the proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio and consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus. However, bitter differences between the commanders prevented the Roman armies from cooperating, with devastating results. The terrible defeat gave Gaius Marius the opportunity to come to the fore and radically reform the organization and recruitment of Roman legions. Roman losses are described as being up to 80,000 troops, as well as another 40,000 auxiliary troops (allies) and servants and camp followers — virtually all of their participants in the battle. In numbers of losses, this battle is regarded as the worst defeat in the history of ancient Rome.
The migrations of the Cimbri tribe through Gaul and adjacent territories had disturbed the balance of power and incited or provoked other tribes, such as the Helvetii, into conflict with the Romans. An ambush of Roman troops and the temporary rebellion of the town of Tolosa caused Roman troops to mobilize in the area, with three strong forces.
Having regained Tolosa, the proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio adopted a defensive strategy, waiting to see if the Cimbri would move toward Roman territories again. In October 105 BC, they did.
Even before battle was joined, the Romans were in trouble. The senior of the year’s two consuls, Publius Rutilius Rufus, was an experienced and highly decorated soldier, veteran of the recent war in Numidia, but for some reason did not take charge of the military campaign himself but remained in Rome while his inexperienced, untried colleague Gnaeus Mallius Maximus led the legions north. (The reasons for Rutilius not taking charge himself do not seem to be known: perhaps he faced political opposition because of his friendship with Gaius Marius, or perhaps he believed Mallius Maximus deserved the chance to earn himself a share of glory, or perhaps he was simply temporarily ill.) Two of the major Roman forces available were camped out on the Rhone River, near Arausio: one led by Mallius Maximus, and the other by the proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio. As the consul of the year, Maximus out-ranked Caepio and therefore should by law have been the senior commander of the combined armies. However, because Maximus was a novus homo and therefore lacked the noble background of the Roman aristocracy - in addition to his military inexperience - Caepio refused to serve under him and made camp on the opposite side of the river.
The initial contact between the two forces occurred when a detached picketing group under the legate Marcus Aurelius Scaurus met an advance party of the Cimbri. The Roman force was completely overwhelmed and the legate was captured and brought before Boiorix. Scaurus was not humbled by his capture and advised Boiorix to turn back before his people were destroyed by the Roman forces. The king of the Cimbri was indignant at this impudence and had Scaurus executed.
Meanwhile, Maximus had managed to convince Caepio to move his force to the same side of the river, but Caepio still insisted on a different camp, and actually pitched his closer to the enemy. The sight of two Roman armies gave Boiorix pause for thought, and he entertained negotiations with Maximus.
According to Mommsen, Caepio was presumably motivated into action by the thought that Maximus might be successful in negotiations and claim all the credit for a successful outcome; he launched a unilateral attack on the Cimbri camp on 6 October. However, Caepio’s force was annihilated because of the hasty nature of the assault and the tenacity of Cimbri defence. The Cimbri were also able to ransack Caepio’s own camp, which had been left practically undefended. Caepio himself escaped from the battle unhurt.
With a great boost in confidence from an easy victory, the Cimbri then proceeded to destroy the force commanded by Maximus. Already at a low ebb due to the infighting of the commanders, this Roman force had also witnessed the complete destruction of their colleagues. In other circumstances the army might have fled, but the poor positioning of the camp left them with their backs to the river. Many tried to escape in that direction, but legionaries of the time were not known for their prowess at swimming, and certainly not when encumbered with armor. Certainly, the number of Romans who managed to escape were very few. This includes the servants and camp followers, who usually numbered at least half as many again as the actual troops. Though the actual casualty figure remains debated, Livy claims that the total number of Roman casualties (not including camp followers or other non-combatants) amounted to 80,000. Mommsen claims that besides the 80,000 Roman soldiers, half as many of the auxiliaries and camp-followers perished.
One can only speculate as to what might have happened, had Rutilius rather than Maximus taken command - whether Caepio would have been willing to defer to Rutilius’s military record and accept him as the senior commander, or still insisted that his aristocratic birth gave him the right to keep his army separate (and commit the same blunders as before and have his army annihilated). It would however seem unlikely that Rutilius would have committed the strategic, tactical and positional errors that Mallius Maximus did, but would at least have kept his army alive, or possibly even won the battle. As things were, the catastrophic scale of the loss inspired the Roman senate and people to set aside the peacetime legal constraints that prevented a man from being consul a second time until ten years had passed since his first consulship, and to immediately propose and elect Gaius Marius (despite his absence) to consulship instead, only three years after his first consulship, and then for a further four successive years after that.
Rome was a war-faring nation and was accustomed to setbacks. However, the recent string of defeats ending in the calamity at Arausio was alarming for all the people of Rome. The defeat left them with a critical shortage of manpower but also with a terrifying enemy camped on the other side of the now-undefended Alpine passes. In Rome, it was widely thought that the defeat was due to the arrogance of Caepio rather than to a deficiency in the Roman Army, and popular dissatisfaction with the ruling classes grew.
As it turned out, the Cimbri next clashed with the Averni tribe, and after a hard struggle set out for the Pyrenees instead of immediately marching into Italy. This gave the Romans time to re-organise and elect the man who would become known as the savior of Rome, Gaius Marius.
Plutarch, in his “Life of Marius”, mentions that the soil of the fields the battle had been fought upon were made so fertile by human remains that they were able to produce “magna copia” (a great quantity) of yield for many years.
Valerius Antias (1st century BC). Manubiae (quoted by Livy, Periochae, book 67).
Albert A. Howard (1906). “Valerius Antias and Livy”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 17, p. 161-182.
Canon Rawlinson (1877). “On the Ethnography of the Cimbri”, The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 6, p. 150-158.
Mommsen, Theodor; The History of Rome, Book IV
According to Publius Rutilius Rufus (quoted by Granius Licinianus, page 12), the figure concerning regular and light-armed troops was 70,000. Valerius Antias’ figure includes 40,000 suppliers.
Mommsen, Theodor; The History of Rome, Book IV
Livy; Book LXVII