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Mary Macgregor

Marius Mocks the Ambassadors of the Cimbri

While Marius was carrying all before him, his colleague Catulus was in a sorry plight.

He had found it impossible to hold the passes of the Alps against the Cimbri, and had been forced to descend into the plain of Northern Italy. Here he crossed the river Adige, and encamped on its bank.

The Cimbri never doubted that they would be able to conquer the Romans. Already they were elated to find that the passes were not guarded. No tidings of the terrible battle of Aquæ Sextiæ had yet come to daunt their courage.

And so, in the sheer pride of their strength, they flung aside their clothing, and naked, climbed through falling snow and over ice-clad rocks to the top of the mountain passes. Then, turning their broad shields into sledges, they boldly shot down the slopes on the other side.

When they reached the Adige they saw the Roman camp across the river. Before attacking it they determined to dam the stream.

The Roman soldiers, as they watched the barbarians at work, were amazed at their strength.

Giant trees were uprooted and flung into the river as though they were saplings. Huge rocks, too, that seemed beyond the strength of man to move, were hurled into the bed of the Adige as though they were stones. Who could fight with such men as these barbarians seemed to be?

To the dismay of Catulus, his army decided that they could not face such foes, and they began to steal out of the camp. It was evident that soon the whole army would take to flight before it was attacked.

But the Consul could not let the soldiers so disgrace their fame. Rather would he take upon himself the blame of having ordered a retreat. So, seizing the Roman eagle, he hastened with it to the front of his men, and himself led them away.

When the Cimbri saw that most of the Romans had left their camp they crossed the river and captured it, in spite of the brave defence of those who had scorned to turn their backs upon an enemy.

The barbarians showed that they could respect courage, for they spared the lives of these brave soldiers. But before they let them go they made them swear upon their brazen bull to observe certain conditions. Now the brazen bull was to these barbarians sacred as a god.

When, a short time after this, the Cimbri were defeated, the bull was carried away with other spoil, and treasured by Catulus in memory of his victory.

After taking the Roman camp, the barbarians wandered through the plains of Lombardy, burning and plundering wherever they went.

Marius, meanwhile, after his victory over the Teutones and Ambrones, was recalled to Rome, and voted a triumph.

Hearing, however, that Catulus was in danger from the barbarians, he would not stay to celebrate it, but hastened to join his colleague.

The two Consuls met near the river Po, and crossing the river they found the Cimbri at Vercellæ.

Here the barbarians expected each day to be joined by the Teutones and Ambrones.

As they did not wish to fight until their allies arrived, they pretended that they were anxious to make terms with Marius, and sent to ask him to give them land for themselves and their brethren.

"Who are your brethren?" the Consul asked the ambassadors who stood before him.

"The Teutones," answered they.

Those who surrounded Marius laughed, for well they knew what had befallen the Teutones.

"Do not trouble yourselves for your brethren," replied Marius, taunting them, "for we have already provided land for them, which they shall possess for ever."

Then the ambassadors understood that their brethren lay slain upon the ground, and their anger rose. Fearless of danger, they hurled threats at the Consul, saying that the Cimbri and those Teutones who were still left alive would avenge the death of their fellows.

"Their rulers are not far off," cried Marius. "It will be unkindly done of you to go away before greeting your brethren."

Then the kings of the Teutones, who had been captured, were brought before the ambassadors, loaded with chains.

Seeing how these mighty chiefs had been humbled, the ambassadors were silent, and soon after they went back to the Cimbri to tell them what they had heard and seen in the Roman camp.

The Cimbri could not restrain their rage when they knew what had befallen their allies. Three days later they were on the plains of Vercellæ, impatient to avenge their defeat.

Marius, too, was eager for battle. His cavalry, strong as ever, wore that day strange helmets. Each one looked like the head of some strange beast, while above the head waved a lofty plume, that added to the height of the soldier. Their white shields gleamed in the sun, and their breastplates were of iron.

The day began in discomfort for the Cimbri. Cold and frost they could endure, as they had shown when they crossed the Alps, but heat soon made them weak and stupid.

In vain they tried to shelter their faces with their shields. The sun shone in their eyes, beat upon their heads. Clouds of dust, too, were blowing, and hiding them from the Romans, who, not seeing the great numbers arrayed against them, fought the more fearlessly.

To help them to keep their ranks unbroken, the front rows of the Cimbri were fastened together by long chains, which were slipped through their belts. But when the battle went against them these chains were a source of danger.

On this day the Cimbri were worsted, and when the Romans began to cut them down, the chains made it impossible for those in the front to escape.

Those in the rear fled to their camp. But here, as in the camp of the Ambrones, the women, clad in black, mounted upon the wagons and slew their own husbands, brothers, sons, if they ventured to seek refuge from the enemy.

Rather than fall into the hands of the Romans, many of the men and women hanged themselves, after first killing their little children. Although many of the Cimbri died in this terrible way, more than sixty thousand were taken prisoners.

Catulus claimed the victory of Vercellæ as his, and was dissatisfied with Marius, who, he said, did not wish to share the honour with any one.

However that may be, when the Consuls returned to Rome, Marius was offered two triumphs, but he would only accept one, and that one he shared with Catulus.