Monday, May 25, 2009

The strange case of Teutobochus, king of the mastodons

Teutobochus fell, and was buried on the field. His sepulchre was discovered in A.D. 1613, near the confluence of the Rhone and Isere, built of brick, and within it was written, "Teutobochus Rex."

History of Rome for Young Persons
By Mrs. Hamilton Gray, 1858

Once upon a time there was a giant who died and was buried in France, or so they say. He wasn't really French; he was just passing through on his way from someplace to someplace else when he came to a bad end there. He wasn't a real giant and he might not have died or been buried in France. But why let such quibbles get in the way of a good story.

Part 1: The invasion

Sometime around 113 BC, a group of tribes left their homes in the neighborhood of modern Denmark and headed south looking for a new home. No one is sure why they left the North. Some ancient sources say it was because the sea had swamped their old lands. Some later writers suggest overpopulation had reached a tipping point. No one is sure what language they spoke. Some say Germanic. Some say Celtic. Some say both. Everyone agrees that there were a lot of them, but no one agrees on the definition of a lot. No one is even sure what they called themselves. The Romans called them the Cimbri, Teutones, and Ambrones.

The tribes spent a decade trying out different lands and fighting with the peoples already inhabiting those lands before setting their hearts on the rich farmland of Northern Italy. The Roman Senate was understandably less that thrilled by this and sent armies to repel the tribes. The first army was defeated in Slovenia. The second army was defeated Southern France. A third army was defeated by some Swiss tribes who decided to join the Northerners. The Senate now sent two strong armies to stop the tribes on the Rhone river in Southern France. The commanders squabbled and both armies were annihilated.

Rather than invade Italy now that it was defenseless, the tribes went off the check out Spain and those parts of France that they hadn't invaded yet while the Roman Senate took advantage of the reprieve to engage in some very important finger pointing. When not engaged in passing the buck, it occurred to some Senators that they should do something about the war across the Alps before the Northerners returned. Fortunately, they had a tested general on hand in the person of Gaius Marius, who was just then completing a victorious war in North Africa. Marius was a Great Man™ whose turn in power would hasten the death of the Republic. But that's not what's important here; we're interested in how he handled the crisis in the North. Marius put together a new army staffed by veterans of the North African war and headed for the frontier. When he got there, the Northerners were nowhere to be seen--they were still in Spain--so he used his free time to give his new army some practice by slapping a few local tribes who had revolted back into line.

After almost three years of mixed success on the road, the Northerners decided to finally make their move into Italy. In the summer of 102 BC, one portion of the migrating tribes, made up of the Teutones, Ambones, part of the Cimbri, and one the revolting Swiss tribes, headed for the passes defended by Marius' army while a second portion, made up of the rest of Cimbri and Swiss tribes, headed for passes further east. The horde that met Marius was led by a Teutone chief named Teutobochus (that's the Latinized form; he would have called himself Teutobod). Not much is known about Teutobochus except that he was very large. The early Christian historian Paulus Orosius wrote that Teutobochus could "vault over four or even six horses" and towered above other men.

Gaius Marius
The victor of Aquae Sextiae and seven times Roman consul. From: Young Folks' History of Rome by Charlotte Mary Yonge, 1880.

Teutobochus' first attempt to cross the Alps was along the same route Hannibal had used a century before. This involved crossing the Rhone River and following one of the tributaries of the Isere to a pass where they could enter the Po Valley from the Northwest. Marius anticipated this route and had placed his army in a well fortified camp at the junction of the Rhone and Isere. The tribes under Teutobochus fought the Romans for three days but couldn't break through Marius' fortification. Rather than continue the attacks, Teutobochus broke off and led his people south hoping to take the coastal road along the Riviera and invade the Po Valley from the Southwest. Marius caught up with the Northerners near the Roman settlement of Aquae Sextiae, the modern Aix en Provence outside Marseilles. After another three day battle, Marius lured Teutobochus into attacking a well-fortified Roman position on a hilltop. A Orosius, reports that "as the sun grew hot, the flabby bodies of the Gauls melted like snow." Though it's unlikely that their bodies actually melted, their attack did and, in the Roman counter-attack, the Teutones were defeated with most of them dying on the battlefield. What happened to Teutobochus is unclear. Orosius says he was killed in the battle. The Roman historian Lucius Annaeus Florus says he was taken alive to Rome for Marius' triumph where "being a man of extraordinary stature, he towered above the trophies of his defeat" (and, presumably, then executed).*

This should have been the end of Teutobochus. As real as the danger was at the time, the invasion of the second century BC never caught the imagination of classical and later writers in the way that the invasions of Hannibal, Alaric, and Attila did. Almost no details of the life and person of Teutobochus have been carried down to us. At best, he was one name on a list of dangerous barbarian leaders. That's how things remained for seventeen centuries until the Renaissance.

* I have based this account primarily on that of Theodore Mommsen's History of Rome, vol. 4.

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