Soon after Marius had been chosen Consul for the fourth time, the Teutones, and the Ambrones, another of the fierce barbarian tribes which Rome had feared, did actually approach Italy.
So Marius marched toward the Rhone, and here, not far from the river, he set up his camp. His first work was to secure a safe passage to the sea, so that he could be sure of getting provisions for his army.
As the mouth of the Rhone was choked with huge banks of sand and mud, Marius ordered his soldiers to clear the bank away, and then set them to work to dig a great canal.
Now soldiers would usually rather fight than dig, and as the summer passed, and still their general did not lead them to battle, they began to grumble.
"Has Marius found us cowards," they cried, "that he should thus like women lock us up from encountering our enemies? Come on, let us show ourselves men, and ask him if he expects others to fight for Italy. Does he mean merely to employ us to dig trenches and cleanse places of mud . . . and turn the course of the river?"
These complaints reached the ear of Marius, but they did not at all displease him. He wished that his soldiers should be eager to fight, and bade them wait but a little longer and he would lead them against the enemy.
The Teutones were encamped not far off, and they, seeing that the Romans did not attack them, began to wonder if these legions, of which they had heard so much, were, after all, as brave as they had been told. They would at least find out what the enemy was worth, and they determined themselves to attack the Roman camp.
But their attempt was discouraging. Many of them were killed and wounded, and this although the Romans were restrained by the orders of their general from rushing out upon the foe, and could only hurl upon them any missile on which they were able to lay their hands.
The barbarians now resolved to take no more notice of the Romans. Since the enemy would not fight, they determined to break up their camp, cross the Alps, and invade Italy, as had been their intention before Marius placed his army in their path.
So the vast hordes of Teutones and Ambrones began to march slowly past the Roman camp. For six days, it is said, Marius refused to let his men stir, while the great procession filed past their tents.
The Roman soldiers were like caged lions, and when some of the barbarians jeered at them as they passed, asking if they had any message for their wives in Rome, they all but broke loose.
At length the long line of the barbarian hosts came to an end, and then Marius broke up his camp, and to the undisguised relief of his soldiers marched after the enemy.
The barbarians had encamped a few days' march from the pass into Italy, at a place called Aquæ Sextiæ.
Marius set up his camp near to the enemy, but while he had not enough water for his army, the barbarians were close to a river, and had a plentiful supply.
When the Roman soldiers complained that they were thirsty, Marius pointed to the river which flowed past the camp of the enemy.
"There," said he, "you may have drink if you will buy it with your blood."
"Why, then," answered the soldiers, "do you not lead us to it before our blood is dried up in us?"
"Let us first fortify our camp," replied the general, and reluctantly the men began to obey.
But the servants and slaves belonging to the Roman army determined to get water at once for themselves and for the horses. So, carrying pitchers in one hand, and swords and axes in the other, they went boldly down to the edge of the river.
On the bank sat a band of the enemy. It had been bathing, and was now carelessly eating and drinking.
But seeing the Roman servants, the barbarians sprang to their feet, and with loud shouts fell upon them.
Their cries and the clash of their weapons were heard in both camps, and, hastily arming, Romans and barbarians alike rushed to the river. Soon the Ambrones and the Romans were engaged in a fierce battle.
But the Ambrones were not a match for the strictly-trained soldiers of Marius. Numbers of them were cut to pieces, while others turned and fled to the wagons which surrounded their camp, hotly pursued by the enemy.
When the Ambrones reached the wagons, they met with neither welcome nor help.
The women, in anger that their men had turned their back upon the foe, had climbed into the wagons, carrying with them the first weapon which they had been able to find. And now, shouting the wild war-cry of their peoples, they attacked with sword or hatchet all who came within their reach, were they friends or foes.
The arms of the women were bare, and as they fought they received many wounds. Then they tried to pull from the Romans the shields with which they protected themselves.
Still the battle raged, and only when night fell did the Romans retire, leaving the field strewn with the dead bodies of the Ambrones.
But there was no rest for the Roman soldiers that night, nor did they dare to rejoice as though the barbarians were vanquished. For the Teutones were not yet beaten. Even then their wild cries and lamentations over the dead, mingled with threats against their enemy, reached the ears of the Romans. In the darkness the strong soldiers trembled, lest they should be attacked that night, while their camp was defended by neither trench nor rampart.
But although the terrible cries never ceased, the Teutones did not attempt to attack their enemy.
Next morning Marius saw that it would be easy to set an ambush beyond the camp of the Teutones.
So he ordered Marcellus, one of his officers, to take three thousand men and hide them in the thickly wooded hills behind the camp of the enemy. His orders were strict, that Marcellus should not stir from the hill until the Teutones were in the thick of the battle with the main body of the Romans.
The Roman camp was on a hill, and Marius now ordered his cavalry to ride down to the plain.
But when the Teutones saw the horsemen coming toward them, they threw prudence to the winds, and dashed up the side of the hill to meet the enemy.
Marius, who had followed his cavalry with the main body of his army, saw that the steepness of the ground would make the foothold of the Teutones uncertain and their blows less strong than they would have been on the plain.
So he bade his troops to stand and await the attack of the barbarians, and then, after hurling their javelins into the midst of the foe, to force them steadily backward with sword and shield.
Marius himself stood by the side of his men, ready to fight where the danger was greatest.
Against the solid front of the Roman army the Teutones threw themselves in vain. They could not break its ranks. Slowly and in disorder they found themselves being pushed back toward the plain.
At length they were once more on level ground, and immediately they attempted to form their front ranks anew, meaning again to attack the enemy.
Suddenly those in front heard behind them wild cries of despair. Swords flashed in the air, javelins seemed to fall among their ranks as thickly as a storm of fail.
Marcellus, with his three thousand men, had dashed out of his ambush, and had fallen upon the rear of the Teutones.
This was more than the barbarians could bear. With the terrible enemy before and behind, they yielded to panic, broke their ranks, and fled.
The Romans followed, determined that the enemy should not escape, and cut down more than one hundred thousand men.
For long months the bones of the barbarians were left in the field, until at length, bleached clean, they were used by the neighbouring folk to fence their vineyards.
After this great victory, Marius chose the most splendid treasures from the spoil and laid them aside, to grace his triumph when he returned to Rome.
He then ordered the rest to be gathered into one great heap, to be sacrificed to the gods.
Around the huge pile the soldiers were presently gathered, their arms in their hands, their clothes decked with garlands. In their midst stood Marius, wearing a robe with the purple border, and holding aloft a lighted torch with which to set fire to the sacrifice.
But at that moment horsemen were seen in the distance spurring their horses toward the assembled army.
What tidings did they bear? No one in the great gathering stirred until the horsemen rode up, and crying that Marius had been elected Consul for the fifth time, handed him letters from the Senate to tell him of this new honour.
The soldiers were well pleased that their general should be so distinguished, and clashed their shields to show their delight, while the officers crowned him with a wreath of laurel.
Marius then touched the pile of treasures with his lighted torch. The flames leaped up, crackled, and soon the sacrifice was consumed.