Gaius Marius earned the nickname Third Founder of Rome by preventing the de facto invasion represented by the migration of a coalition of Germanic peoples to the Italian peninsula. That episode left a series of subsidiary stories, two of which were protagonized by the same character: Quintus Servilius Caepio. In the first – the juiciest, no doubt – he confiscated a fabulous loot from the barbarians, later pretending its theft to keep it, as he was accused. In the other, he was disastrously defeated by the enemy in the Battle of Arausio.

For enthusiasts of Roman history, the name Quintus Servilius Caepio may sound familiar because three men from three successive generations achieved fame with it. The first was the consul who fought against Viriathus in Hispania during the so-called Lusitanian Wars, hiring assassins to kill him and later refusing to pay them with one of those phrases that became famous despite being apocryphal: “Rome does not pay traitors.” By the way, the Senate deemed this way of settling the Lusitanian rebellion improper and denied Caepio the military triumph in the metropolis.

Another person with the same name was his grandson, though not so much for his own actions but for having a daughter with his wife Livia, who, following the custom, carried the name of their gens, Servilia. She became the lover of Julius Caesar. It’s worth adding as a curiosity that after divorcing Caepio, his mother married Marcus Porcius Cato, and together they had another famous son, Cato the Younger, a staunch opponent of Caesar, considering him a potential dictator.

But the Quintus Servilius Caepio we are interested in here is chronologically between the previous two, the son of the first and the father of the second, born around 150 BC. In his cursus honorum, it is noted that he served as the praetor of Hispania Ulterior, where, like his father, he fought against the Lusitani between 110 and 108 BC. This is recorded in the Fasti Triumphales (lists that recorded the annual triumphs of magistrates), the writer Valerius Maximus in his work Factorum et dictorum memorabilium, and the historian Eutropius in his Breviarium historiae romanae.

Two years later, he obtained the consulship alongside Gaius Atilius Serranus (whom Cicero described as a stultissimus homo). In that position, he passed a controversial law, the Lex Servilia, which granted exclusive control of the courts to members of the senatorial class, to the detriment of the competences that had been held by the equites until then. This annulled what had been established by the Lex Sempronia two decades earlier. Despite having the support of an illustrious orator like Lucius Licinius Crassus, it would soon be repealed in 104 BC by his relative Gaius Servilius Glaucia.

In 107 BC, alarms rang on the northern border: the Cimbri, Teutons, and Ambrones had started an emigration in search of new lands. During their march, they incorporated other peoples, and after the Romans denied them a place to settle, this colossal coalition became a danger to the integrity of Roman territories, first in Gaul and then in Italy. The consul Lucius Cassius Longinus, who had been sent to meet them with the order to stop them, died in an ambush, making the situation even more delicate.

The following year, Quintus Servilius Caepio was appointed proconsul of Gallia Narbonensis, which had been partially occupied by the Cimbri. They managed to incite the Tectosages Gauls of Toulouse against Roman power. Caepio marched against them from Narbo with eight legions, attacked the wealthy city, and proceeded to carry out a tremendous plunder of houses and sanctuaries. This was sublimated by the discovery, submerged in nearby lakes, of fifty thousand gold ingots and ten thousand silver ones, including millstones made of solid gold.

Apparently, this treasure had been stolen from the temple of Apollo in Delphi in 279 BC by the Scordisci (a tribe from Pannonia), and the aforementioned Volcae Tectosages during the Gallic invasion of the Balkans. The total value of the gold was fifteen thousand talents, and the same for silver, approximately. Just like what would happen centuries later with the Treasure of Decebalus, it’s not surprising that it was given a proper name: the Aurum Tolosanum or Gold of Tolosa (Toulouse). And as usual, such fortune carried a curse with it.

Due to its origin from a sacred place, its theft was considered sacrilege, and, as Aulus Gellius explains, it gave rise to a series of fateful legends about the fate of its possessors. Thus, the Gallic leader Brennus, who led the campaign, would have died during the return after a long agony from the wounds he received. The Romans used the curse as a propaganda weapon against the Gauls, unaware that they would soon have the opportunity to apply it to their own detriment.

And indeed, the Aurum Tolosanum never reached Rome. At least not in its entirety, since the silver was received, but not the gold. During its transfer to Massilia (Marseille), where it was to be shipped, it was stolen by a band of bandits who also made sure not to leave witnesses by murdering the cohort in charge of its custody. The operation was flawless; so much so that speculations about the authorship soon circulated. Who knew the caravan’s itinerary and had the ability to organize a group of thieves large enough to eliminate the guards and take four hundred and fifty wagons?

All rumors pointed to the consul himself; no one else seemed to have the information and the means necessary for such a grand operation, at least in the eyes of the Romans. In fact, despite the enormous difficulty of taking and hiding such a loot, it was never located or recovered. Tradition says it remained in the hands of the family, discreetly guarded and passed down through generations until the last maternal heir of the Servilius Caepio lineage, who was a well-known figure.

His name was Marcus Junius Brutus, the son of Caepio’s granddaughter, the aforementioned Servilia, and the recipient of another immortal phrase: the famous Tu quoque, Brute, fili mi (You too, Brutus, my son) that, in various literary versions, an agonizing Julius Caesar allegedly said to him on his last breath, disheartened upon discovering his involvement in the assassination. In any case, if it were true that Caepio was the mastermind behind the theft, he would have enjoyed the wealth he obtained before Brutus and allegedly laundered it by acquiring numerous properties in Cisalpine Gaul under the names of front men.

In 105 BC, facing the direct threat of the Cimbri, the consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus was sent with another army. Theoretically, given his position, he should have received imperium, supreme command. However, he was a Homo novus, a term used then to designate men who were the first in their families to enter the Senate and the consulship, often from rural nobility and sometimes with plebeian ancestry. In fact, Mallius had the audacity to grant himself the cognomen of Maximus, a provocation for the Roman patricians.

Despite Cicero considering him little more than useless, he managed to be elected to the high office alongside Publius Rutilius Rufus and arrived in Gaul with an image of an upstart that led Caepio to refuse to collaborate with him. Consequently, they divided the province into two parts, one for each, the eastern part for Mallius and the western part for Caepio, with the border on the Rhône. They planned to operate separately, but news of the defeat suffered by the legate Marcus Aurelius Scaurus against the Cimbri forced Caepio to yield and join his forces with the consular ones, more out of fear that the other would take the glory alone than out of tactical conviction.

His troops arrived at Arausio (present-day Orange, France), where Mallius’ forces awaited, but their leader ordered them to camp separately, between the consul’s camp and the enemy – a coalition of Cimbri, Teutons, Ambrones, and Tigurini – with the idea that this would make it easier for him to enter into battle earlier and thus have the opportunity to achieve victory without the help of the other. In fact, Caepio expelled the barbarian ambassadors who asked to negotiate the surrender of lands to settle peacefully, angry because Mallius had received them, and then he initiated the attack on his own, in what would be one of the greatest military disasters in Roman history, comparable to that of Cannae.

The seven legions of Caepio and the nine of Mallius were annihilated without their generals being able to cooperate even in such dramatic circumstances. Cornered between the Germans and the Rhône, between sixty thousand and eighty thousand legionaries lost their lives, according to classical authors like Valerius Antias or Publius Rutilius Rufus; modern historians estimate less, around twenty thousand (including Quintus Sertorius, a future rebel in Hispania, who managed to escape wounded by swimming across the river on his shield), and they also correct the number of survivors, who would not be a meager dozen but several thousand.

In any case, the catastrophe was expressed very vividly in that era, marking the date as unfortunate or, on a more mundane level, alluding to the countless number of widows and orphans who had to resort to begging, lacking paternal income. Mallius himself lost his sons in the battle, and upon returning to Rome, he was sentenced to the loss of his office and exile under “prohibition of water and fire” (meaning that he could not be provided shelter), according to the Lex Maiestatis. Gaius Marius replaced him, but illegally since he was elected in absentia – at that time, he was a proconsul in Africa, fighting against Jugurtha – and also for three years.

Caepio also had to answer for his actions. Besides being held accountable for the disaster, he was also questioned about the Aurum Tolosanum, which became a real outcry and revived the idea of the cursed gold. The tribune of the plebs Gaius Norbanus Balbus was tasked with bringing the accusation, assisted by Lucius Apuleius Saturninus. Both followers of Marius – another Homo novus – they blamed Caepio for incompetence and dereliction of duty, aside from embezzlement, before the Concilium Plebis (popular assembly). It wasn’t easy because Balbus was also a “new man” and the Senate tried to defend the proconsul as if it were a class trial. Additionally, the accused had Lucius Licinius Crassus as his lawyer, who, as mentioned earlier, was an excellent orator.

However, the military disaster, the theft of gold, and the growing aura of Gaius Marius formed an insurmountable barrier, to the point that the attempt to veto the process made by two other tribunes was in vain. Caepio was eventually declared guilty, and the imposed penalty was severe: his powers were stripped, he was deprived of Roman citizenship, his properties were confiscated, and he was fined a huge sum of fifteen thousand talents, an amount that exceeded Rome’s treasury and was never collected.

There are three different versions in the sources about what happened to Quintus Servilius Caepio. One says he died in prison, and his body was mutilated by an executioner before being exhibited on the Gemonian stairs (steps that connected the Forum with the Palatine and were used as a scaffold). Another version suggests that he escaped with the help of a friend, Tribune Lucius Antistius Reginus. And a third version claims that he went into exile under the same conditions as Mallius – prohibition of water and fire – and died in Smyrna (modern-day Turkey) on an unspecified date.

As an epilogue, three additional facts can be added. The first, once again, is the survival of the curse legend. Authors such as Strabo and Pompeius Trogus blamed it for the defeat in Arausio, and even among the Romans, an adage emerged that said Aurum Tolosanum habet, meaning “He has the gold of Tolosa” in the sense that a fatal destiny awaited anyone who enriched themselves illicitly. That’s why the descendants of Caepio ended badly: according to the historian Timagenes of Alexandria, his daughters, deprived of a means of livelihood after the death of their male sibling from illness in 90 BC, had to resort to prostitution. And a granddaughter, as we saw, became the mother of an assassin.

The second fact is that a colossal strategic error by the Germans, in not attacking Italy immediately when it was relatively defenseless, allowed Gaius Marius to gain time to carry out a comprehensive reform of the army – the famous Marian reforms. He reorganized the legions and trained them to function as a genuine war machine. In this way, he crushed the enemy in the battles of Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae, putting an end to the threat.

The last fact is that the silver from the Aurum Tolosanum that did reach Rome was used to buy land in Sicily, Achaea, and Macedonia to establish Roman colonies. So, despite everything, Caepio did contribute something positive to the history of Rome.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 2, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Quinto Servilio Cepión, el procónsul que robó el «Aurum Tolosanum», el fabuloso tesoro que los galos se llevaron de Delfos


Cornelio Tácito, Anales | Valerio Máximo, Hechos y dichos memorables | Eutropio, Breviario | Aulo Gelio, Noches áticas | Francisco García Campa, Cayo Mario. El Tercer Fundador de Roma | Sergei Ivanovich Kovaliov, Historia de Roma | Pierre Grimal, La formación del Imperio Romano. El mundo mediterráneo en la Edad Antigua | Mike Duncan, Hacia la tormenta. El comienzo del fin de la República Romana | Wikipedia

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