Well-known sayings: “Furor Teutonicus”

The term “Furor Teutonicus” – “Teutonic Fury” in English describes a hawkishness that spares neither the enemy or oneself. It was most probably coined by the Roman poet and historian Marcus Anneaus Lucan (39-65 AD). He used it in his description of the Germanic tribes that threatened Rome about a century before the change of the eras and inflicted a number of bloody defeats on the empire.

At the time, Rome was consolidated and had expanded its territory to the Alps and all around the western Mediterranean Sea. Peace was made with the Celtic tribes along the northern border and alliances were forged. Flourishing trade with its direct neighbor fostered Roman lifestyle and affinity to the empire.

This way, Rome skillfully created a buffer zone to the barbarians in the north. While raids on allies like the Markomans, Helvetians, Hermunduri and Belgae by different Germanic tribes regularly occurred, Rome was never directly affected. Luckily, the Germanic troublemakers oftentimes attacked each other as well, and whenever Rome was called to help its allies, the legions were usually very quick in pushing back the barbarians.

What happens farther north, beyond the Teutons left of the river Rhine, is largely unknown to Rome. Who is interested in these cold, inhospitable areas beyond the rivers of the Rhine and Danube anyway? No wine is produced there and apart from hides and a bit of amber, there is nothing that couldn’t be purchased from other regions of the world for cheaper and better. This corner of the world is so dull and barren that the poet Homer has apparently used it as a model for his description of the netherworld.

The departure

In 120 BC however, a mass migration begins in the barbaric territory, one which would bring Rome to the brink of downfall. Tens of thousands of Germani from the tribes of the Cimbri, Teutons and Ambrones left their settlements in Jutland in today’s Denmark. They moved south to where the rich Celts lived. Their journey most likely led them along the Odra river and through Bohemia and today’s Austria; their exact route is unknown.

We can also only speculate about the reason for the Germani migration. Famine and bad harvests as a consequence of storm tides or simply overpopulation could be possible reasons. What is certain however, is that the migrants were looking for new areas of settlement. They traveled with their women and children and all their belongings in the hope to find a new place to settle.

But wherever they went, all the worthwhile settlement areas were occupied already. Sometimes they were escorted, at times they plundered and stole required provisions, or they were pushed back by the force of weapons; they were unable to find a permanent settlement however. All the while, the group was growing in size: Small groups of other tribes joined the migrants here and there. They were led by the Cimbri duke Boiorix, who, in his heyday, presumably commanded an army of 120,000 fighters. The whole column, including the fighters’ families must have been many times greater.

Battle of Noria

The Romans only became aware of the column as the Cimbri invaded the territory of the Norici in today’s Carinthia in 113 BC. The tribe was allied with Rome and called them for help. A Roman legion was stationed nearby and its commander, Papirius Carbo, sent them to face the enemy. He declined the new arrivals’ plea for land to settle and closed the Alpine passes, but promised them safe passage to the west.

He then however decided to betray the Teutons and attacked their column during a break. At Noria, which must have been located in what is southern Austria today, battle commenced. Consul Carbo was dealt a damaging defeat and only by chance did his legion avoid total annihilation. Reportedly, a heavy thunderstorm caused the Teutons to end the battle.

Moving west

The Teutons now turned west, continued north of the Alps, crossed the Danube and Rhine rivers and marched towards Gaul. Two years later they reached the border of the Roman province Gallia Narbonensis on the Mediterranean coast and Rome is in danger of losing the land bridge to its Spanish provinces. The Teutons again ask for a place to settle and Marcus Julius Silanus, the governor of the province, refered them to the Roman senate, since he cannot decide on such crucial matters.

Rome declined the request yet again and in 109 BC a further battle ensued between the Cimbri and Teutons against the Romans, this time under the lead of governor Silanus. Again, Rome was defeated by the Teutons and a year-long dispute begins, while the Teutons were marauding in southern Gaul and continued to look for a permanent settlement.

In 105 BC, the Romans began a battle against the Teutons. This time, Rome was prepared and had a large army at its disposal led by two generals: The two consuls Quintus Servillus Caepio and Gnaeus Mallius Maximus were to bring victory. The two however didn’t quite get on well. Caepio built up his reputation in the Spanish provinces and stemmed from within the old Roman aristocracy. Maximus however was a “homo novus”, since he was the first in his family to have reached such a high office in the Roman Empire.

Furor Teutonicus

So Rome’s army was split and led into battle against the Teutons. The armies met near Arausio on the banks of the river Rhone, close to today’s Orange. But since each of the two generals wanted to have the fame of victory for himself, no agreements or planning took place. The Teutons led by the duke Boirorix attacked the Romans and defeated their legions one after the other. Defeat was total, reportedly more than 80,000 Roman soldiers died.

Almost worse than defeat itself were the reports of the battle. Allegedly, the Teutons killed all the Romans they met in a blood frenzy. Many were sacrificed to the Teutonic gods. They were hanged or had their throats cut, their severed heads were tied to trees. Loot was also sacrificed in great quantities: Weapons were destroyed, horses drowned and thrown into the river together with other valuables like clothes, jewelry and golden decorations. News of this frenzy of destruction fanned the Romans’ fear of the “Furor Teutonicus”, which would now undoubtedly be directed at the city and its inhabitants.

It is no longer known, why the Teutons didn’t seize the moment to move south and conquer Rome. But instead of attacking the defenseless city, the Teutons turned west and even split up in the years that followed. This was probably due to the fact that it was difficult to keep supplying a column of that size for extended periods of time. While the Cimbri moved towards the Pyrenees to try their luck on the Iberian peninsula, the other group of Teutons and Ambrones moved north-west towards Biscay.

But wherever they went, they couldn’t find a place to stay. The armies united again in 103 BC and, following a defeat against the Belgae in north-eastern Gaul, moved south towards Italy.

Breathing time

This time, however, the Romans were prepared. They used the two years to reform their army. Instead of drafted citizens, professional soldiers were now fighting and these Legionnaires were also recruited from the lower class, so that enough soldiers could be trained. They were subjected to strict discipline: They carried up to 40kg of equipment on their marches; a heavy load. But it made the army independent of the usual impedimenta of hardware and supplies, and allows for much faster troop movement.

The army was led by Gaius Marius, a simple soldier of modest descent. His first accomplishments came from a campaign in northern Africa in which he defeated and captured Jugurtha, the disloyal king of a vassal empire in 104 BC and later displayed him publicly during a victory parade in Rome. The next enemy was waiting for him, though. The Teutons had been moving around Europe and ravaging the lands for almost 20 years now; a constant threat to Rome and its vassal peoples.

In 102, the Germani turned south and again they split their army: The Cimbri were to cross the Alps from the north, while the Teutons and Ambrones moved along the coast from Gaul. Marius decided to meet them with three legions, about 32,000 soldiers, and faced the Teutons and Ambrones under the command of the duke Teutobod in Aquae Sextiae, today’s Aix-en-Provence.

With his strategic finesse, he provoked an attack by the Teutons against his Legionnaires, who were positioned on top of a hill. His plan worked out: The fast-approaching Teutons were losing momentum and the Roman Phalanx were able to push them back. When a small Roman division attacked the rear flank of the Teuton army, its battle formation came apart and the Teutons and Ambrones were defeated. The Romans killed their enemies by the thousands and the column of women and children was also exterminated. The bones of the defeated, it is said, acted as a fertilizer for the vineyards for years afterwards.

The decisive battle against the Cimbri, who had crossed the Alps in the meantime, took place in the following year. At the Raudic fields close to today’s Milan, Gaius Marius and the proconsul Quintus Lutatius Catulus assembled an army of 50,000 Legionnaires. How many Cimbri were led into battle by their commander Boiorix is not recorded.

What we do know is the result of the battle: The Legionnaires of Gaius Marius achieved total victory and the Romans were no less ferocious to their enemies. Following the defeat of their army, they also took on the column of the Cimbri. Women and children defended the Teutons’ carts and many opted to kill themselves rather than being taken prisoner.

This battle ended the decade-long migration of the Cimbri and Teutons, and Rome was able to avert a deadly threat. It also marks the end of these tribes in history, whilst other Germanic tribes began to draw Rome’s attention. There is one later record of the Cimbri, as not all of them had moved south. In 5 AD, a group of this tribe traveled to Rome to visit Emperor Augustus. With them they brought their greatest treasure, a cauldron, to atone for their attack.