A Refuge in the Roman Empire
The large-scale movement of people into the European Union reflects movements in past eras; numbers were smaller, but so were the numbers of people on earth.
The Romans were never like the Greeks in the classical period. The Citizenship Law of Pericles, approved in Athens in 451BC, required that an Athenian citizen had to be the son of an Athenian citizen and of a woman who was the daughter of an Athenian citizen; women did not have citizenship, but could convey it to a son. Scorn was placed on Thebes, whose kings it was claimed were from Asia Minor. Herodotus speculates that the Spartans were part Egyptian, but then Herodotus had a mother with a Persian name. Alexander I, king of Macedon (ancestor of Alexander the Great) took a delegation of Macedonians to the Olympic Games, but while he was admitted, because he could prove he was a Greek, the others were turned away because they couldn’t. Any Athenian resident of non-Athenian ancestry who did not match up was categorised as a ‘metic’, and any Athenian man who had not completed the course as an ephebe was excluded from citienship, as were men who owed certain debts, or whose ancestor had. They still had to pay taxes, however.
Rome was always different; they believed that they were descended from a group of Trojan refugees, and had themselves been founded by immigrants. Being a Roman citizen was always a juridcal matter, not one of birth. They were told that Romulus had offered to protect on the Capitolium any man who would follow his rule; Emma Dench of Harvard calls it ‘Romulus’ Asylum’. The earliest Rome featured thre different groups with differing languages – including a bunch of Sabines who spoke Oscan, not Latin; Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius, was a Sabine, and of course the incomers had already married Sabine wives. Later, not only was Attius Clausus Romanised as Appius Claudius, he was made a patrician and a senator.
The secession of the Plebians in 494BC to the Mons Sacer (Sacred Hill) three miles away in protest again debt imprisonment and bondage showed even at the early date how people were prepared to quit Rome if the conditions weren’t right. It took Rome a long times to achieve suitable conditions, for there were secessions in 449BC, 445, 342 and as late as 287BC, when they moved to the Janiculum. Removing the labour of the lower orders could remove agricultural production and manufactures.
The settlement of Germanic and other groups within the empire is known by two contradictory names in different languages: the French refer to les invasions barbares, the barbarian invasions, whilst the Germans call the process the Völkerwanderungen, the wandering of the people. Such titles are modern and reflect political differences centuries after the events. But the movements were now new, even in the fourth century.
The first settlement clash was with Germanic tribes who were moving south. This resembles the sort of movement we see today when a modern calamity strikes a particular region. In the case of the Cimbri and Teutones, it was a tsunami which hit northern Jutland around 130-120 BC. We know this because one of them gave an eye-witness description to Posidonius, a Greek geographer (fl.100BC), who was told that the sea retreated and then the tide came in faster than a horse could run. That’s clearly a tsunami, for all that Strabo poo-pooed the idea, because Mediterranean tides aren’t so powerful (Strabo 7.2.1).
The reason for the tsunami is unknown, but might have been due to a shift in the rocks on the bed of the North Sea, known as the Storegga Slide. It flooded nothern Jutland and broke of the northern tip into islands, flooding good farm land with salt water. The loss of their land seems to have set the Cimbri and their neighbours the Teutones on the move. It is unlikely that they marched all the way down the peninsula; perhaps they were transported by boat (by the Aviones, the ancestors of the Saxons) to the mouths of the Rhine. At the foot of the Jutland peninsula was (and is) the Danwerk, a large earthwork which it would not have been possible to cross without permission, so that route is unlikely.
The Cimbri and Teutones probably walked up the Rhine towards its source and then down the Danube. Given the confused accounts of Cimbri turning up in wht are now central France and Spain, it is feasible that all movement of unknown people was counted as them. The Romans had never encountered Germans before. They thought they were Gauls, and compared them to the attack on Rome by Gauls in the early fourth century. Given that Gauls had taken over northern Italy c.500BC, the displacement probably affected the Roman kingdom.
As the Cimbri made their way up the Rhine, they seem to have left some members behind: the Atuatuci, who lived in the Meuse valley near Namur, claimed to descend from those Cimbri and Teutones who stopped there. Since what is now southern Germany was populated by Gaulish speakers first, there were probably many such stopovers which turned out to be permanent.
Did the Cimbri and associated groups even know who the Romans were? They must have heard tales about a big and rich land down south, and severely misjudged what that meant. For them, a big country was viewed in Iron Age terms, maybe twenty miles across. They would have no idea that a realm could be hundreds of miles across. This is similar to the viewpoint attributed to Prince Jugurtha, the north Asfrican price who said he would never have attacked the Roman Republic had he known how big it was.
The Roman involvement began in 113BC, when the wandering Cimbri made it down the Danube as far as Vindobona, modern Vienna, where the king of Noricum, a Celtic kingdom in the eastern Alps, roughly modern Austria, called on his allies, Rome, and were forced to retreat, but turned and defeated a Roman army that had underestimated them. A further attempt to reach the Mediterranean by means of the Rhone must have involved retreating to western Switzerland, where the sources of Rhine Danube and Rhone are very close.
This must have taken years to complete, because they next met a badly-led Roman army at Arausio (modern Orange in the middle Rhone) in 105BC; the Romans commanders could not agree on tactics and the Romans were defeated. A battle against Germnaic people at Burdigala (Bordeaux) in 107BC was probably a quite separate group, but assigned to the Cimbri.
In 103BC, the Romans defeated the Cimbri at the Isère in Gaul and captured their king, Teutobod. The rest of the Cimbri entered Gallia Cisalpina, where in 101 they were completely defeated at Vercellae and those who survived were enslaved.
As a result of several bad decisions and drastic underestimation, the Romans had been defeated by ‘barbarians’ in their own neck of the woods for the first time since Hannibal. Henceforth all northern invaders – if that’s what they were – were to be regarded as hostile.
The Cimbri seem to have attracted incomers – possibly given inferior rank below that of the warrior elite which can only have developed as they encountered obstacles. Young men inspired by a spirit of adventure and young women fancying available Cimbri will have joined them as they moved across the land, taking what they wanted. The destruction of their heimat (homelad) would have meant the Cimbri had nowhere to return to.
This was a Völkerwanderung in the true sense. They did not set out to attack the Roman world, and probably had little or no awareness that it existed, but had nothing to lose by pressing forward. A lesson should have been learnt that inbound settlers will fight when they have to, but if given a reason not to could be turned into settlers, eventually into taxpayers.
One reason for Roman weakness here could have been the fact that the armies were loyal to their general providing he won and they could earnt a living out of it. There was nothing to be made by fighting off armed settlers, so there was nothing to motivate the soldiers.