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Bill Thayer

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Ch. 10
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Romans
on the Riviera and the Rhone

by W. H. Hall

originally published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Ch. 12

 p109  Chapter XI
The Battle of Aquae Sextiae

It was in the spring of the year B.C. 102, that the Marians, from their outpost at Glanum on the range of Les Alpines,º at length caught sight of the long expected host of Teutones and Ambrones, making their preparations to cross the Rhone from Beaucaire to Tarascon. As we read in Plutarch, that the subsequent defile of the combined hosts past the camp of Marius at Glanum occupied six days, we may infer that the passage of the river was a very long and complicated business. To the north of Les Alpines there is a wide and fertile plain which extends as far as the Durance, the bed of which is concealed by an intervening range of hills.

In this plain, in full view of the Roman camp at Glanum, were now massed the barbarian hordes, with their vast agglomeration of covered waggons, conveying wives, children and all their worldly effects. For, unlike the Gauls, who at various times had swooped down on Italy and Greece to raid and return home with their spoil, these Ambrones and Teutones had come to stay wherever they could find unoccupied lands.

If, without necessity of fighting for it, lands could have been peaceably assigned to them, anywhere in the south, there these formidable invaders would have been only too thankful to settle down quietly. It was not till a concession of land had been refused to the Cimbri  p110 in the territory subject to Rome in Provincia that they attacked and defeated M. Junius Silanus B.C. 109.1

But so far from having unoccupied fertile land to offer to vagrant northerners, the Romans themselves were suffering from land famine in Italy and felt acutely the need of transmarine or Transalpine colonization on which to plant their own redundant population.

The stake which was now to be fought for was in fact the possession of the soil in Italy. It was the final scene in this early life and death struggle between Rome and barbarism, in which victory had already on five occasions declared for the barbarians. Surely the battle of Aix-Pourrières should have been included amongst the decisive battles of the world. For nothing but Marius and his legions stood between Rome and premature extinction.

In vain, with discordant shouts and insulting gestures did the barbarians day after day advance to the Roman camp in the hopes of drawing Marius out to give them battle. But the purpose of the Roman general was fixed, not to budge an inch from his entrenchments until the first effects of the formidable aspect of the barbarians, whose gigantic stature and ferocious mien could not fail to terrify the Italians, should have worn off. For the glare of the fierce blue eyes of the Teutones, gleaming with newly-awakened appetite for that Roman blood, with which they had so recently slaked their thirst, was calculated to make even the boldest quail. And the presence of the tall barefooted priestesses, clad in long white robes, with the gleaming sacrificial knife suspended from their girdles, ready for Roman throats, lent an additional terror to the barbarian ranks.

And here it is interesting to recall that during the first year of the Gallic war,​2 more than forty years after this barbarian invasion, when Julius Caesar seized Besançon preparatory to his first encounter with Ariovistus,  p111 a panic invaded even the superior officers of his army at the bare idea of facing the terrible aspect of the Germans, in spite of the fact that Marius and his army had given such a good account of them. Possibly in order to serve as some set-off to these Teuton priestesses, Marius carried about with the army in great state a Syrian prophetess, named Martha, who had won the confidence of his wife Julia in predicting the winner at some Roman games, and in whose infallibility he professed implicit belief. When his troops, now accustomed to the aspect and gestures of the enemy, began to reproach their general for still confining them within the camp, Marius would lay the whole blame for the prohibition to sally forth on his Syrian oracle, who would, he assured them, give the signal as soon as the omens were favourable.

Baffled by these tactics and impatient of inaction, perhaps also compelled to move to fresh ground by exhaustion of supplies, the barbarians at last broke up their camp and insultingly enquiring if the Romans whom they were leaving behind them had any messages to send to their wives in Italy, set themselves in motion towards the Alps. As soon as the barbarians had moved off, Marius, breaking up his camp, followed closely upon their heels, ready to seize on the first opportunity of attacking them at a disadvantage.

Marching in an easterly direction, the Teutones leading and the Ambrones bringing up the rear, the barbarians followed the primitive track at the northern base of Les Alpines, which strikes the Durance at Orgon. Orgon was doubtless their first halting place for the night. At Orgon where the river furnished the water supply, which was always the first object in selecting camping ground, there is a cleft in the precipitous cliffs, which there overhang the Durance, leaving only just space for the passage of the old roadway. As the modern traveller crosses the Durance by the tubular railway bridge, which replaces the ferryboat mentioned  p112 by Strabo​3 as stationed there to convey travellers over to Cavaillon, he can descry the old track by the river side. But, being bound for Aix, the barbarians had no occasion to cross to the north bank of the Durance, their road only touching the river at the point where it is carried round the base of the cliffs. Two or three days' march from Orgon in a south-easterly direction would have sufficed to bring the barbarians to the hot springs below Entremont, recently converted into the Roman bathing establishment and garrison town of Aquae Sextiae.

That Plutarch should fail to give us any information as to the part played by the Roman garrison which had been stationed at Aquae Sextiae already 20 years, or as to the fate of the Roman population, which had gathered around it, is not a little disappointing. We must however remember that Plutarch did not profess to be writing a history of the campaign, on which he dwells only so far as it concerns his biography of Marius.

Whatever else is uncertain, it is clear from Plutarch's narrative that there were two engagements with the barbarians, and that on both occasions the Romans occupied the higher ground, while the Ambrones and Teutones were encamped in the plain below. For the bed of the Arc, almost dry more than half the year, consists of a narrow and shallow depression in the plain, the banks of which are alternately abrupt or sloping. That both these fights took place somewhere on the slopes of Mt Sainte Victoire between Aix and Pourrières — the Campi putridi — where the final slaughter of the Teutones culminated, may likewise be considered certain.

It was the desperate need of water felt by the Romans which brought on prematurely the first engagement with the Ambrones. "If you want water," said Marius pointing to the river below, in the possession of  p113 the enemy, "you must purchase it with your blood. But first let us fortify the camp." However before the work of fortification was far advanced the thirst of the Romans became uncontrollable and a rush was made for the water, and, what began as a mêlée between half-armed scullions and scattered parties of the Ambrones surprised at their baths, presently became a regular battle.

For we are expressly told by Plutarch that the Ambrones advanced not in a wild and disorderly manner or with a confused or inarticulate noise, but beating their arms at regular intervals, and all keeping time, they came on crying out "Ambrones, Ambrones."

To join in the battle, which was fought on the right or north bank, the main body of the Ambrones had to cross the Arc. Before they could reform their ranks broken by this operation, they were charged by the Italian Ligurians serving under Marius.

A notable feature about this fight was the identity of battle cry used by Ambrones and Ligurians, the latter echoing back the word Ambrones, or "the Valiant," which Plutarch observes was their own ancient name. This seems to imply some ethnical affinity between Ligurians and Ambrones, but neither Plutarch nor any other writer throws any light on this obscure subject.

Making a good fight of it, as long as they were matched against the Italian Ligurians single handed, the Ambrones were soon over­powered when the Roman legionaries joined in the fray. Driven back with great slaughter across the Arc, the bed of which was soon choked up with dead and dying, the survivors fled in panic to the shelter of their camp.

The reception, however, which the fugitives met with at the hands of their own women was even more terrible than the dangers from which they were flying. For uttering hideous cries and snatching up axes and whatever weapons came in their way, the infuriated women hurled themselves on pursuers and pursued alike, dealing  p114 death around them indiscriminately and accusing their husbands of cowardice and treachery.

As far as it went, this preliminary success over the Ambrones was encouraging to Marius. But the great bulk of the enemy was still untouched, and the night following the first battle was a terrible one.

For with the fate of Italy hanging in the balance, Marius had failed in the most ordinary and indispensable precaution of getting his camp duly fortified. And that too when myriads of barbarians were swarming around like bees disturbed in their hive and maddened with rage. For all night long he dreaded a rush in the darkness upon his still unfortified camp, the fury of the barbarians being excited beyond measure, by the slaughter of their confederates.

The Teutones, however, who were encamped at a considerable distance to the eastward, abstained from attack, spending the night and the whole of the following day in making their plans for the momentous battle, which was imminent. As it is certain that the decisive battle in which the Teutones were annihilated took place near Pourrières, at least fifteen miles from Aquae Sextiae, it must be assumed that Marius marched further eastward between the two battles and that he pitched a fresh camp in the direction of Pourrières previous to the final engagement.

The existence of a fortified enclosure on the summit of a neighbouring hill has naturally enough given rise locally to the tradition that the so‑called 'Pain de Munition' — the Ligurian oppidum mentioned in Chapter V — and about four miles to the north of the village of Pourrières — was the site of the second camp of Marius. But the plan of those fortifications consisting of a triple circle of walls composed of uncemented and unhewn stones in no way meets the requirements of a Roman camp, which was invariably quadrangular, and of vastly larger dimensions. It is also much too far away, and inaccessible amongst a network of intervening hills. It  p115 is indeed surprising that a French officer, Captain Dervieu, should have lately published a pamphlet on the Campaign of Marius, in which he deliberately adopts Le Pain de Munition as the second camp of Marius.

Having lately re-visited the battle-field of Pourrières for the express purpose of examining this highly interesting fortification, I entertain no doubt of its having been originally one of the Ligurian oppida, which served the inhabitants as a place of refuge in time of danger. It may have been utilized by the Roman general as a place of safety for a part of his stores, but it is a mere coincidence that it happens to be near the battle-field.

Just before nightfall on the eve of the great battle, Marius, observing the very broken nature of the ground shutting in the plain occupied by the Teutones, detached a force of three thousand men under Marcellus with directions to get round the enemy unobserved and hold themselves in readiness to fall on his rear. It is impossible to determine the precise depression of which Marcellus availed himself for his ambuscade, which turned out completely successful.

The fortification of the camp being this time duly completed, the Roman general dismissed the rest of his army early to their much needed repose, which they could now enjoy in comparative security. No alarm seems to have disturbed the quiet of the night.

At earliest dawn Marius drew up his army in front of his camp, probably on one of the natural terraces, which stand out at various levels from the slopes of the Mont Sainte Victoire — the isolated mountain which dwarfs every other eminence in the neighbourhood of Aix.

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Mont Sainte-Victoire and environs of Aix-en‑Provence

No battle-ground more advantageous to the Romans could have been selected. For the perpendicular ridges of the mountain, rising like a wall behind him, effectually secured Marius from the risk of being surrounded by the immensely superior numbers of the enemy, and his occupation of the advanced terraces and slopes gave  p116 the Romans an invaluable vantage ground over the Teutones drawn up in the plain below. One can hardly doubt that the position had been deliberately selected beforehand by Marius, who had doubtless surveyed the region during his long period of awaiting the barbarians.

While the bare gleaming mass of the Mont Sainte Victoire completely shuts in the north side of the battle-field, the plain is bounded on the south by wooded heights, overtopped by a background of perpendicular rocks, culminating in the Mont Olympus — a mountain not unworthy of its Grecian namesake. No grander setting could be imagined for the trial of a great issue.

The battle began by the descent of the Roman cavalry towards the plain. By this manoeuvre, which was completely successful, Marius reckoned on drawing on the barbarians, always impatient of awaiting attack, to a disadvantageous uphill engagement.

Charging uphill, the ground being slippery and the heat excessive, the Teutones, on whom ten years' indulgence in wine and enervating southern luxuries had begun to tell their tale, soon showed signs of exhaustion. They were besides powerless from their insecure footing on lower ground to deliver the cleaving down cuts with their long swords, which the shields of the Romans had in former encounters proved powerless to ward off.

Seeing that the favourable moment had arrived, Marius ordered a general advance all along the line. Up to this point, the infantry, like the British at Waterloo, had maintained its original position on the higher ground, whence it kept up a discharge of pila into the confused ranks of its assailants.

Yielding to the irresistible pressure of the down-hill charge of the heavy-armed legionaries, the dense masses of the barbarians were little by little pushed back down the slopes into the plain.

Rallying, as soon as they found themselves on level ground, the Teutones for some time made a good fight of it. As long as the Romans had the advantage of  p117 higher ground, there had been little hand to hand fighting. For while the Romans had chiefly used their shields in bringing their weight to bear, the Teutones had been prevented from dealing effective blows by the nature of the ground.

Now was the real crisis of the battle, the Romans having lost their preponderant advantage of ground.

And now it seemed as if the superior discipline of the Romans could avail nothing against the enormous bulk and overwhelming numbers of the enemy. Nothing but the foresight of Marius in sending Marcellus to fall on the rear of the barbarians could have saved the Romans from disaster at this critical juncture.

In the very nick of time, Marcellus sprang from his skilfully laid ambush, creating the panic, on which the Roman general had not reckoned in vain to decide the day in his favour. The battle which at one moment had threatened to add another disaster to the list of Roman reverses, was now converted into a decided victory. But the bloodiest work had yet to be accomplished in the butchery of at least 100,000 of the demoralized barbarians. At least as many women, many of whom perished by their own hands having previously dashed out the brains of their children, have to be added to the losses of the Teutones on that day.

Never before or since have the plains of Provence witnessed such a terrible slaughter, and rich were the subsequent harvests gathered in, as Plutarch relates, by the Massiliot cultivators of the lands around Pourrières.​4 In addition to the slaughtered, many thousand of the barbarians were taken prisoners to be sold as slaves.

We gather from Caesar​5 that German slaves played a formidable part in the Servile war, B.C. 73‑71. But these may have been mainly Cimbri captured at Vercellae the year after. The executioner, who was sent to  p118 slay Marius in person, when his fortunes had deserted him, is said to have been a Cimber, who shrunk back in dismay from the task.

In the valley of the Arc, the memories of Marius and his battles are still as fresh as if they had occurred but yesterday. Hardly a year passes but what at least one fresh publication issues from the press, and the latest theories about the site of the encampments and engagements are eagerly discussed by the literary circles of Aix.

Nor is it only the city of Aix, where the battles of Marius and the Teutones are fought over again. If you address a peasant at work in the fields, whose plough has often turned up relics of the battle field, he will probably be ready with some remark referring to the bloody work perpetrated on the field of Pourrières (Campi putridi) 2,000 years ago. The daughter of the landlady of the Hotel Silvy at Pourrières is as well up in her Plutarch, as if she had been a student at Newnham or Girton. Even the village fountain is modelled after the triumphal monument of Marius, the base of which is still extant, close to the high road from Aix to St Maximin. The remains are marked on the government maps as "Ruines de l'arc de Triomphe de Marius."

The peasant, who pointed them out to me as the tomb of a Roman general, informed me that French troops on the march invariably salute these remains of departed Roman greatness.

It lies outside the scope of the work to give any description of the destruction of the Cimbri in the spring of the following year B.C. 101, at Vercellae in Piedmont, where the combined forces of Marius and Catulus completed the work only half accomplished at Aquae Sextiae by Marius single-handed.

The Author's Notes:

1 Livy, Epit. 65.

2 De Bello Gallico, Lib. I.39.

3 p184.

4 The name of Pourrières is derived from 'Campi putridi.'

5 De Bello Gallico, I.40.

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