History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

The Heist of the Millennium


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In the fall of 105 BC, a truly gigantic crowd of migrating German tribes arrived at Roman soil in southern France after they had wandered for ten years through the greater part of the continent. The multitudes were composed of the two large tribes of the Cimbri and Teutones and two smaller clans called the Tigurini and Ambrones. Forming a centipede perhaps a quarter million strong, they marched down the valley of the Rhone southward, until they touched Roman ground near Lugudunum, today’s Lyon. News of their presence was hastily delivered to Rome.

The migrations of the Cimbri and the Teutones
The migrations of the Cimbri and the Teutones

The sheer size of the throng persuaded the Senate to employ more than the usual precautions. The standing army of four Roman and four allied legions under the command of the plebeian consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus was ordered to find and shadow the enemy but not to risk battle until a second newly established corps under the patrician proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio (Consul 106 BCE, the year before) was able to meet and reinforce them.

In September, the Germans rested near the village of Arausio (today’s Orange, in the Vaucluse Department, on the Rhone River), about fifty miles north of Marseilles; perhaps they did not know where to turn. Mallius’ legions had arrived in the meantime and built their standard camp about three miles downriver. As ordered, Mallius kept contact with the barbarians who did not move, awaiting Servilius Caepio.

Eventually Mallius discovered more about the intentions of the presumptive enemy. It would seem that the barbarians were inclined or might be nudged to move into the direction of western France or northern Spain and might thus no longer threaten Roman possessions. Negotiations were taken up and proceeded encouragingly.

When Caepio arrived with the ersatz corps a bit later, in early October, he viewed the machinations of his plebeian colleague with deep mistrust. Legally, as consul of the year, Mallius’ imperium outranked Caepio, but the proconsul declined to comply with the Senate’s instructions and submit his corps and his command to Mallius: nobody could expect him to defer to the authority of a plebeian blockhead, whether he was consul or not. He refused to cooperate with Mallius at all, and erected a camp of his own at a distance of about five miles from the enemy.

Soon the important news reached Caepio that Mallius was achieving a diplomatic breakthrough and a truce was about to be signed. In prevention of such an amateurish mistake by dunderhead Mallius, for the greater glory of Rome and to crown himself with the laurels of a military triumph, he ordered his legions to attack the Cimbri camp on the morning of October 6, 105 BCE.

Not only was the unmotivated attack brutally repulsed, Caepio´s legions were annihilated and the prospective hero barely saved his life by a quick retreat. Since the Cimbri had begun the day well, they did not mind extra work and destroyed Mallius´ camp as well, killing everyone they could lay hands on.

The combined losses exceeded that of Cannae: about 80,000 legionaries expired on the fields of Arausio; Servilius Caepio escaped. Yet even in a time famous for colourful characters like Julius Caesar and Pompey, Quintus Servilius Caepio was one cool customer.

One year before Arausio, during his own consulship, he had set out to clean up the vicinity of Tolosa, today’s Toulouse, from the inroads of a few minor Germanic tribes who supposedly had annoyed the Volcae Tectosages, the local Gallic inhabitants who were friends and allies of Rome. But when Caepio and his four legions arrived, he found the alleged Germans non-existent and his army out of a job. Yet, being in Tolosa anyway, he began to think of the famous riddle of the town that had commanded the imagination not only of the locals for two centuries.

Tolosa
Tolosa

It was common knowledge that the Volcae Tectosages had been a part of the great Celtic migration that had brought them as far southeast as Macedonia about 170 years ago. From there, a part of the tribe had returned to Aquitania and their old capital, Tolosa, around 275 BC, carrying the accumulated spoils of hundreds of sacked towns and temples. What nobody remembered, however, was where the loot had been stored, although generations of treasurehunters had combed the hills around Tolosa for caves. Caepio, with lots of free time at his hands and after protracted divination, hatched the idea to investigate the lakes in Tolosa’s temple district, and struck gold, the famous Gold of Tolosa.

The course of Volcae tribal migration throughout the 3rd centuries BC, noting the destination of some Tectosages and the Arecomisci to the area around Tolosa
The course of Volcae tribal migration throughout the 3rd centuries BC, noting the destination of some Tectosages and the Arecomisci to the area around Tolosa

The Volcae Tectosages, it turned out, had melted down all the gold into handy bricks, and deposited them on the bottom of their temples’ lakes. The silver they had shaped into immense millstones, painted over, and sunk as well; pulling them up each year at harvest time for milling, and then submerging them again.

Boums Lake in Haute-Garonne, one of the many lakes near Toulouse suspected to have held the 'cursed' riches
Boums Lake in Haute-Garonne, one of the many lakes near Toulouse suspected to have held the ‘cursed’ riches

Having solved the riddle, a happy Servilius Caepio created a plan how to deliver the treasure into his personal property. The silver he was prepared to give up, but not the gold. When it was lifted from the waters, weighed and measured, the loot amounted to 10,000 talents or about 250 tons of silver and 15,000 talents, or 375 tons, of gold. The silver was taken to the nearest big port, Narbo, today’s Narbonne, and shipped to Rome, with Caepio’s greetings.

With the ships went a message to the treasury, in which Caepio explained that, due to security concerns, gold could not be transported in such a risky way: ships may sink, he cautioned. When the wagons returned from the Narbo job to Tolosa,they were reloaded with gold and safely escorted, by a cohort of Caepio’s own legions, on the slow but secure way to Rome by road. The trek was sent on its way south, but when it passed by the vicinity of the fort of Carcasso, the cavalcade was attacked by a very large band of robbers. The hoodlums attacked and slaughtered the escorts and took off with the wagons; the gold was never seen again.

Initially, the attack was regarded as a local affair, until a few people computed the probability that a group of criminals big and armed well enough to annihilate a whole cohort of experienced legionaries would meet the wagon train exactly at the moment in time when it passed through Carcasso, and did not like the numbers. Servilius Caepio, visibly saddened, blamed the raid on the enemies of Rome.

But when he came out of the massacre at Arausio with nary a hair missing, rumour control began to assert that not only had he lost the whole Roman army for his patrician arrogance but also had organized the raid on his own soldiers and wagons. He had shipped the booty in small portions, the story went, around the Mediterranean Sea: from France to Spain to Africa to Syria to Smyrna, today’s Izmir on the Anatolian coast of Turkey, where it was deposited with local bankers who had a reputation of being discreet.

His greed being a prominent attribute of his character, second only to his arrogance, his guilt was considered a foregone conclusion. The theory of his guilt also explained why, a few years after the disappearance of the loot, the fortunes of the Servilii Caepiones skyrocketed from extensive to gigantic: the family literally bought a part of Gallia Cisalpina, lower Italy, complete town sand villages; imported the best iron ore from Noricum, today’s Austria, and invested in the foundation of a complete weapon and armour industry; a novelty for Rome which had until then custom-made each legionary’s gear.

Their wealth soon eclipsed that of Crassus and secured the dominance of the patrician Servilii Caepiones in Rome’s financial industry, particularly in usurious lending, up to and including the last heir, Marcus Junius Brutus, of the Ides of March.

Although his guilt could never be proven, the effect of non-stop gossip finally eroded Caepio’s position in Rome. It was true that he could not be tried, for lack of evidence, for the heist of more gold than Rome had in her treasury, but he could be and at length was tried for the disaster of Arausio by Gaius Norbanus, a tribune of the plebs, found guilty by the people, and sentenced to the harshest sentence available –banishment from Rome, loss of citizenship and a fine of 15,000 talents of gold (a talent was about 25 pounds (ca. 11 kg), which of course could never be collected (at this time, the Lex Porcia practically forbade the execution of a Roman citizen). For his place of exile Caepio chose – Smyrna.

A Tribune of the People - perhaps Gaius Gracchus - at work ...
A Tribune of the People – perhaps Gaius Gracchus – at work …

The events surrounding this entry are described very nicely and in detail in Colleen McCullough‘s 1990 historical fiction novel The First Man in Rome.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    And I thought Socialists with six mansions stank to high heaven!

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