02 May 2012

Massacres: The Cimbrian Migration and the Battle of Vercellae

By Heather Domin

In the last century or two BC, European tribes began to migrate around the continent in search of better land. The Cimbri, a Germanic/Celtic people originating in what is now Denmark, left their northern homeland and wandered south and west, elbowing other tribes out of the way wherever they went. Soon they were stepping on the toes of Roman allies, who asked the legions for help. What followed was a decade known as the Cimbrian Wars, in which the Cimbri basically spanked the Romans every time they met—battle after battle ended either in Roman defeat or stalemate, while the Cimbri and their allies continued to get their pillage on across vast sections of Europe.

map of the Cimbrian Migrations, from Wiki Commons
The goal of the Cimbrian Migration was not to snatch loot and go home but to move their entire society to a new land (as soon as they decided which one they liked best). Everyone came along for the ride—during battles, the Cimbri women would scream and beat drums to freak out the enemy, and didn’t hesitate to join the fight if the battle got too close to their wagons. Cimbrian culture had a reputation for fearsome, warlike ways and violent religious practices; with their blond hair and blue eyes, they seem to have enjoyed the same notoriety that the Saxons and Vikings would inspire centuries later. All along the borders of the Republic the terror cimbricus, the panic of the Cimbri, filled Roman hearts with dread.

Marius paraded in triumph, from Wiki Commons
The tide turned in 105BC when the Cimbri made the error of invading actual Roman territory. (Big mistake.) They got off to a good start at the Battle of Arausio, then joined up with some allies to cross the Alps and invade Italy; the allies were stopped at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae, but the Cimbri pressed on alone and made it over the border. There the migration of this formidable people came to a vicious and permanent end at the Battle of Vercellae. On July 30, 101BC, a massive Roman force under the command of General Marius annihilated the Cimbri, killing or capturing as many as 200,000 people. Soldiers and civilians were executed en masse; surviving women and children were taken into slavery, though many managed to kill themselves to escape this fate. Germanic advance into Roman territory was halted for centuries, and the Cimbri as a culture were practically erased from history.

Germanic warrior circa 1st century BC,
Germanics and Dacians by Peter Wilcox 
Practically, but not entirely. Maybe a few managed to escape, or maybe some who had settled in other areas returned north, but people calling themselves Cimbri lived in Denmark a century after the massacre at Vercellae, when the famous General Drusus invaded Germania before his death in 9BC. Many modern-day Danes consider themselves direct descendants of the Cimbri. As a people the Cimbri were knocked down but not out—whether by settling in other areas or intermarrying with other tribes, it’s very likely that Cimbri blood flows through the veins of countless Germanic, Gaulish, and Norse people of today.

Heather Domin is the author of The Soldier of Raetia, a novel of Augustan Rome and Allegiance: a Dublin Novella.

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