See Cimbrians for the unrelated contemporary dialect group of Northern Italy.

The Cimbri were a tribe from Northern Europe, who, together with the Teutones and the Ambrones threatened the Roman Republic in the late 2nd century BC. The Cimbri were probably Germanic, though some believe them to be of Celtic origin. The ancient sources located their original home in Jutland, in present-day Denmark, which was referred to as the Cimbrian peninsula throughout antiquity (Greek: Κιμβρικὴ Χερσόνησος / Kimbrikē Chersonēsos).[1]


Homeland and name

Archaeologists have not found any clear indications of a mass migration from Jutland in the early Iron Age. The Gundestrup Cauldron, which was deposited in a bog in Himmerland in the 2nd or 1st century BC, shows that there was some sort of contact with southeastern Europe, but it is uncertain if this contact can be associated with the Cimbrian expedition.[2]

Advocates for a northern homeland point to Greek and Roman sources that associate the Cimbri with the peninsula of Jutland, Denmark. According to the Res gestae (ch. 26) of Augustus, the Cimbri were still found in the area around the turn of the First Century AD:

My fleet sailed from the mouth of the Rhine eastward as far as the lands of the Cimbri, to which, up to that time, no Roman had ever penetrated either by land or by sea, and the Cimbri and Charydes and Semnones and other peoples of the Germans of that same region through their envoys sought my friendship and that of the Roman people.

The contemporary Greek geographer Strabo testifies that the Cimbri still existed as a Germanic tribe, presumably in the "Cimbric peninsula" (since they are said to live by the North Sea and to have paid tribute to Augustus):

As for the Cimbri, some things that are told about them are incorrect and others are extremely improbable. For instance, one could not accept such a reason for their having become a wandering and piratical folk as this that while they were dwelling on a Peninsula they were driven out of their habitations by a great flood-tide; for in fact they still hold the country which they held in earlier times; and they sent as a present to Augustus the most sacred kettle in their country, with a plea for his friendship and for an amnesty of their earlier offences, and when their petition was granted they set sail for home; and it is ridiculous to suppose that they departed from their homes because they were incensed on account of a phenomenon that is natural and eternal, occurring twice every day. And the assertion that an excessive flood-tide once occurred looks like a fabrication, for when the ocean is affected in this way it is subject to increases and diminutions, but these are regulated and periodical.[3]

On the map of Ptolemy, the "Kimbroi" are placed on the northernmost part of the peninsula of Jutland.,[4] i.e. in the modern landscape of Himmerland south of Limfjorden (since Vendsyssel-Thy north of the fjord was at that time a group of islands). Himmerland (Old Danish Himbersysel) is generally thought to preserve their name,[5] in an older form without Grimm's law (PIE k > Germ. h). Alternatively, Latin C- represents an attempt to render the unfamiliar Proto-Germanic h = [χ], perhaps due to Celtic-speaking interpreters (a Celtic intermediary would also explain why Germanic *Þeuðanōz became Latin Teutones).

The origin of the name Cimbri is unknown. One etymology[6] is PIE *tḱim-ro- "inhabitant", from tḱoi-m- "home" (> Eng. home), itself a derivation from tḱei- "live" (> Greek κτίζω, Latin sinō); then, the Germanic *χimbra- finds an exact cognate in Slavic sębrъ "farmer" (> Croatian, Serbian sebar, Russ. sjabër).

Because of the similarity of the names, the Cimbri were at times associated with Cymry, the Welsh name for themselves.[7] However, this word is generally derived from Celtic *Kombroges, meaning compatriots,[8] and it is hardly conceivable that the Romans would have recorded such a form as Cimbri.[9] The name has also been related to the word kimme meaning "rim", i.e. the people of the coast,.[10] Finally, since Antiquity, the name has been related to that of the Cimmerians.[11]

Language of the Cimbri

A major problem in determining whether the Cimbri were speaking a Celtic or a Germanic language is that at this time the Greeks and Romans tended to refer to all groups to the north of their sphere of influence as Gauls, Celts, or Germani rather indiscriminately. Caesar seems to be one of the first authors to distinguish the two groups, and he has a political motive for doing so (it is an argument in favour of the Rhine border).[12] Yet, one cannot always trust Caesar and Tacitus when they ascribe individuals and tribes to one or the other category, although Caesar made clear distinctions between the two cultures. Most ancient sources categorize the Cimbri as a Germanic tribe,[13] but some ancient authors include the Cimbri among the Celts.[14]

There are few direct testimonies to the language of the Cimbri: Referring to the Northern Ocean (the Baltic or the North Sea), Pliny the Elder states:[15] "Philemon says that it is called Morimarusa, i.e. the Dead Sea, by the Cimbri, until the promontory of Rubea, and after that Cronium." The words for "sea" and "dead" were mori and *maruo- in Gaulish (muir and marbh in Modern Irish and môr and marw in Modern Welsh).[16] The same word for "sea" is also known from Germanic, but with an a (*mari-), whereas a cognate of marbh is unknown in all dialects of Germanic.[17] Yet, given that Pliny had not heard the word directly from a Cimbric informant, it cannot be ruled out that the word is in fact Gaulish instead.[18]

The known Cimbri chiefs have names that look Celtic, including Boiorix (which may mean "King of the Boii" or, more literally, "King of Strikers"), Gaesorix (which means "Spear King"), and Lugius (which may be named after the Celtic god Lugus), although this may not mean that they are Celtic as the elements could work in Germanic (compare the name of the Vandalic king Gaiseric, which is likely identical to Gaesorix).[19] Also, although the kings of the Cimbri and Teutones carry what look like Celtic names, the origin of a name need not say anything about the ethnicity or language of the individual carrying the name. Other evidence to the language of the Cimbri is circumstantial: thus, we are told that the Romans enlisted Gaulish Celts to act as spies in the Cimbri camp prior to the final showdown with the Roman army in 101 BC. Some take this as evidence in support of "the Celtic rather than the German theory".[20]

Jean Markale[21] wrote that the Cimbri were associated with the Helvetii, and more especially with the indisputably Celtic Tigurini. These associations may link to a common ancestry, recalled from two hundred years previous, though they may not. Henri Hubert[22] states "All these names are Celtic, and they cannot be anything else". Some authors take a different perspective.[23] For example, Peter S. Wells[24] states that the Cimbri "are certainly not Celts".

Countering the argument of a Celtic origin is the literary evidence that the Cimbri originally came from northern Jutland,[23] an area with no Celtic placenames, instead only Germanic ones.[25][26] This does not rule out Cimbric Gallicization during the period when they lived in Gaul[23] . Boiorix, who may have a Celtic name if not a Celticized Germanic name, was king of the Cimbri after they moved away for their ancestral home of northern Jutland; Boiorix and his tribe lived around Celtic peoples during his era as J. B. Rives points out in his introduction to Tacitus's Germania (book) and moreover that the name Boiorix can work in Proto-Germanic as well as Celtic.[19]

The journey

Journey of Cimbri and Teutones
Battle icon gladii red.svg Cimbri and Teutons defeats
Battle icon gladii green.svg Cimbri and Teutons victories

Moving south-east

Some time before 100 BC many of the Cimbri, as well as the Teutons and Ambrones migrated south-east. After several unsuccessful battles with the Boii and other Celtic tribes, they appeared ca 113 BC in Noricum, where they invaded the lands of one of Rome's allies, the Taurisci.

On the request of the Roman consul Gnaeus Papirius Carbo, sent to defend the Taurisci, they retreated, only to find themselves deceived and attacked at the Battle of Noreia, where they defeated the Romans. Only a storm, which separated the combatants, saved the Roman forces from complete annihilation.

Invading Gaul

Now the road to Italy was open, but they turned west towards Gaul. They came into frequent conflict with the Romans, who usually came out the losers. In 109 BC, they defeated a Roman army under the consul Marcus Junius Silanus, who was the commander of Gallia Narbonensis. The same year, they defeated another Roman army under the consul Gaius Cassius Longinus, who was killed at Burdigala (modern day Bordeaux). In 107 BC, the Romans once again lost against the Tigurines, who were allies of the Cimbri.

The war against the Romans

Attacking the Roman Republic

It was not until 105 BC that they planned an attack on the Roman Republic itself. At the Rhône, the Cimbri clashed with the Roman armies. The Roman commanders, the proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio and the consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, hindered Roman coordination and so the Cimbri succeeded in first defeating the legate Marcus Aurelius Scaurus and later cause a devastating defeat on Caepio and Maximus at the Battle of Arausio. The Romans lost as many as 80,000 men, excluding auxiliary cavalry and non-combatants who brought the total loss closer to 112,000.

Rome was in panic, and the terror cimbricus became proverbial. Everyone expected to soon see the new Gauls outside of the gates of Rome. Desperate measures were taken: contrary to the Roman constitution, Gaius Marius, who had defeated Jugurtha, was elected consul and supreme commander for five years in a row (104-100 BC).


The Defeat of the Cimbri, by Alexandre-Gabriel Décamps.

In 103 BC, the Cimbri and their proto-Germanic allies, the Teutons, had turned to the Iberia Peninsula where they pillaged far and wide. During this time C. Marius had the time to prepare and, in 102 BC, he was ready to meet the Teutons and the Ambrones at the Rhône. These two tribes intended to pass into Italy through the western passes, while the Cimbri and the Tigurines were to take the northern route across the Rhine and later across the Tirolian Alps.

At the estuary of the Isère River, the Teutons and the Ambrones met Marius, whose well-defended camp they did not manage to overrun. Instead, they pursued their route, and Marius followed them. At Aquae Sextiae, the Romans won two battles and took the Teuton king Teutobod prisoner.

The Cimbri had penetrated through the Alps into northern Italy. The consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus had not dared to fortify the passes, but instead he had retreated behind the River Po, and so the land was open to the invaders. The Cimbri did not hurry, and the victors of Aquae Sextiae had the time to arrive with reinforcements. At the Battle of Vercellae, at the confluence of the Sesia River with the Po River, in 101 BC, the long voyage of the Cimbri also came to an end.

It was a devastating defeat and both the chieftains Lugius and Boiorix died. The women killed both themselves and their children in order to avoid slavery. The Cimbri were annihilated, although some may have survived to return to the homeland where a population with this name was residing in northern Jutland in the 1st century AD, according to the sources quoted above.

However, according to Justinus, 38.3.6, more than a decade later, at some time in 90 - 88 BCE, Mithridates the Great sent ambassadors to the Cimbri to request military aid; judging from the context they must have been living in North Eastern Europe at the time.[27]


Gundestrup cauldron, Plate E

Strabo gives this vivid description of the Cimbric folklore (Geogr. 7.2.3, trans. H.L. Jones):

Their wives, who would accompany them on their expeditions, were attended by priestesses who were seers; these were grey-haired, clad in white, with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, girt with girdles of bronze, and bare-footed; now sword in hand these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel of about twenty amphorae; and they had a raised platform which the priestess would mount, and then, bending over the kettle, would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up; and from the blood that poured forth into the vessel some of the priestesses would draw a prophecy, while still others would split open the body and from an inspection of the entrails would utter a prophecy of victory for their own people; and during the battles they would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons and in this way produce an unearthly noise.

The Cimbri are depicted as ferocious warriors who did not fear death. The host was followed by women and children on carts. Aged women, priestesses, dressed in white sacrificed the prisoners of war and sprinkled their blood, the nature of which allowed them to see what was to come.

If the Cimbri did in fact come from Jutland, evidence that the they practised ritualistic sacrifice may be found in the Haraldskær Woman discovered in Jutland in the year 1835. Noosemarks and skin piercing were evident and she had been thrown into a bog rather than buried or cremated. Furthermore, the Gundestrup cauldron, found in Himmerland, may be a sacrificial vessel like the one described in Strabo's text. The work itself was of Thracian origin.

Physical Appearance

Plutarch wrote that the Cimbri were light-blue eyed:

‘‘The most prevalent conjecture was that they were some of the German peoples which extended as far as the northern ocean,
a conjecture based on their great stature, their light-blue eyes, and the fact that the Germans call robbers Cimbri.’’[28]


According to Julius Caesar, the Belgian tribe of the Atuatuci "was descended from the Cimbri and Teutoni, who, upon their march into our province and Italy, set down such of their stock and stuff as they could not drive or carry with them on the near (i.e. west) side of the Rhine, and left six thousand men of their company therewith as guard and garrison" (Gall. 2.29, trans. Edwards). They founded the city of Atuatuca in the land of the Belgic Eburones, whom they dominated. Thus Ambiorix king of the Eburones paid tribute and gave his son and nephew as hostages to the Atuatuci (Gall. 6.27). In the first century AD, the Eburones were replaced or absorbed by the Germanic Tungri, and the city was known as Atuatuca Tungrorum, i.e. the modern city of Tongeren. The Sicambri might have their name derived from Cimbri[citation needed].

The population of modern-day Himmerland claims to be the heirs of the ancient Cimbri. The adventures of the Cimbri are described by the Danish nobel-prize-winning author, Johannes V. Jensen, himself born in Himmerland, in the novel Cimbrernes Tog (1922), included in the epic cycle Den lange Rejse (English The Long Journey, 1923). The so-called Cimbrian bull ("Cimbrertyren"), a sculpture by Anders Bundgaard, was erected 14 April 1937 on a central town square in Aalborg, the capital of the region of North Jutland.

A German ethnic minority settled in the mountains between Vicenza, Verona and Trento in Italy (also known as Seven Communities and as) is also called the Cimbri (it:Cimbri (minoranza linguistica)). For hundreds of years this isolated population consisting now of 4.400 inhabitants, has claimed to be the direct descendant of the Cimbri retreating in this area after been defeated by the Romans. On one occasion in 1709, for instance, Frederick IV of Denmark, also paid them a visit and he was greeted as their King. The population which kept its independence during the Venice Republic was later severely hit by World War I. As a result, many Cimbri has left the mountain region and dispersed around the world.


  1. ^ References to modern discussions in W. Pohl, Die Germanen, 2000, p. 89.
  2. ^ Kaul, F. & Martens, J. "Southeast European Influences in the Early Iron Age of Southern Scandinavia. Gundestrup and the Cimbri", Acta Archaeologica 66 (1995) 111-161.
  3. ^ Strabo, Geogr. 7.2.1, trans. H.L. Jones; as a geologist, Strabo reveals himself as a gradualist; in 1998, however, the archaeologist B.J. Coles identified as "Doggerland" the now-drowned habitable and huntable lands in the coastal plain that had formed in the North Sea when sea level dropped, and that was re-flooded following the withdrawal of the ice sheets.
  4. ^ Ptolemy, Geography 2.11.7: πάντων δ᾽ ἀρκτικώτεροι Κίμβροι "the Cimbri are more northern than all (of these tribes)"
  5. ^ Jan Katlev, Politikens etymologisk ordbog, Copenhagen 2000:294; Kenneth W. Harl, Rome and the Barbarians, The Teaching Company, 2004
  6. ^ Vasmer, Russisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, 1958, vol. 3, p. 62; Z. Gołąb, "About the connection between kinship terms and some ethnica in Slavic", International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics 25-26 (1982) 166-7.
  7. ^ C. Rawlinson, "On the Ethnography of the Cimbri", Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 6 (1877) 150-158.
  8. ^ C.T. Onions and R.W. Burchfield, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1966, s.v. Cymry; Webster's Third New International Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2002: 321
  9. ^ The form Cambria is Neo-Latin.
  10. ^ Nordisk familjebok, Projekt Runeborg
  11. ^ Posidonius in Strabo, Geography 7.2.2; Diodorus Siculus, Bibl. 5.32.4; Plutarch, Vit.Mar. 11.11.
  12. ^ A.A. Lund, Die ersten Germanen: Ethnizität und Ethnogenese, Heidelberg 1998.
  13. ^ Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars 1.33.3-4; Strabo, Geographica 4.4.3, 7.1.3; Pliny, Natural History 4.100; Tacitus, Germania 37, History 4.73.
  14. ^ Appian, Civil Wars 1.4.29, Illyrica 8.3.
  15. ^ Naturalis Historia, 4.95: Philemon Morimarusam a Cimbris vocari, hoc est mortuum mare, inde usque ad promunturium Rusbeas, ultra deinde Cronium.
  16. ^ F. M. Ahl, "Amber, Avallon, and Apollo's Singing Swan", American Journal of Philology 103 (1982) 399.
  17. ^ Germanic has *murþ(r)a "murder" (with the verb *murþ(r)jan), but uses *daujan and *dauða- for "die" and "dead".
  18. ^ Accordingly, Pokorny, Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, 1959, p. 735, describes the word as "Gaulish?".
  19. ^ a b {{cite book Rives, J.B. (Trans.) (1999). Germania: Germania. Oxford University Press ISBN 0198150504}}
  20. ^ Rawlinson, in Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 6 (1877) 156.
  21. ^ Markale, Celtic Civilization 1976:40.
  22. ^ Hubert, The Greatness and Decline of the Celts1934 Ch. IV, I.
  23. ^ a b c Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí (2003). The Celts: A History. Boydell Press. p. 131. ISBN 1-085115-923-0 9780851159232. 
  24. ^ Wells (1995) p. 606[unreliable source?].
  25. ^ Bell-Fialkoll (Editor), Andrew (2000). The Role of Migration in the History of the Eurasian Steppe: Sedentary Civilization v. "Barbarian" and Nomad. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 117. ISBN 0312212070. 
  26. ^ "Languages of the World: Germanic languages". The New Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago, IL, United States: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 1993. ISBN 0-85229-571-5.  This long-standing, well-known article on the languages can be found in almost any edition of Britannica.
  27. ^ Marcus Junianus Justinus, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, 38.3.6 'In the next place, well understanding what a war he was provoking, he sent ambassadors to the Cimbri, the Gallograecians, the Sarmatians, and the Bastarnians, to request aid'
  28. ^ Life of Marius, XI. 3.

See also

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External links

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