Rebel with a Lost Cause

Rebel with a Lost Cause

By Justin D. Lyons
May 2019 • Military History Magazine

The army stood in silence as its general, a battle-hardened Roman veteran and proconsul, glared down on them. His remaining eye burned with intelligence and purpose, and his scarred face proclaimed his tenacity. In combat he was as strong and sharp as iron. With tactics he was as flexible as a bending reed. The wild Iberian tribesmen he led revered him, and they were unified as never before. Thousands vowed, should he perish in battle, to continue to fight until all had died with him, their blood spilled as a libation to his spirit.

Perhaps their general had called the assembly to chastise them, for they had departed from the lessons he had taught them. Inflated with increased numbers, swollen with the pride of past success and impatient with the measured tactics that had produced them, they had rashly engaged the enemy, being saved from disaster only by the intervention of the commander who had sought to restrain their reckless haste.

Quintus Sertorius had two horses brought into the field dividing the ranks. One of the beasts was old, feeble and lean, the other robust and grand. Beside the nag stood a tall, strong man, while beside the vigorous charger waited another, small and frail. At the motion of the general’s hand the brawny man took hold of the weak horse’s tail with both hands, as if to tear it free. The scrawny man, meanwhile, patiently plucked hairs one by one from the great steed’s tail. Though the efforts of the strong man excited much mirth, they proved fruitless, while the patient labor of the other in time stripped every strand. The lesson was clear: Forces that cannot be overcome when united are vulnerable when plucked off in small numbers, thus even the greatest powers can
be reduced through persistence. Such was the key to resisting the legions of Rome that marched against them.

In 83 bc Sulla returned to Rome and launched merciless reprisals against the followers of both Marius and Cinna. (Look and Learn (Bridgeman Images))

Sertorius was in exile. A lone rebel in a lost cause, he now looked on Rome from the outside, watching as his homeland sent a stream of armies to strike him down. Born circa 123 bc into a family of equites—minor aristocrats of the equestrian order, ranked beneath senators—Sertorius had shown great military and political promise in his youth. He had served as military tribune in Hispania and Gaul, distinguishing himself in conflicts with the Cimbri, Teutons and other recalcitrant tribesmen. When elected quaestor of Cisalpine Gaul around 91 bc, his path to the Roman Senate seemed clear. Soon after that he commanded forces in the Social War against Rome’s onetime Italian allies, losing an eye in combat and becoming a popular war hero. But his upward trajectory stalled after he lost an election for tribune of the plebs, the next step up the political ladder.

The reason for the electoral failure was straightforward—Sertorius had been caught up in the struggles of more powerful men, whose quarrels threatened to destroy Rome itself. He would subsequently labor in the shadows of men like Gaius Marius and Cornelius Sulla, whose deep-rooted mutual enmity grew from a disagreement over who deserved credit for victory in the Jugurthine War (112–106 bc). They had since regarded one another with jealousy and suspicion. After being elected consul, Sulla marked Sertorius as a political opponent, as the general had served under Marius’ command. He thus swayed allies to deny Sertorius the tribuneship, and in turn Sertorius became a committed enemy of Sulla.

The 89 bc outbreak of war against King Mithridates VI of Pontus fanned the embers of Marius and Sulla’s rivalry into more destructive flames. As a consul with experience of eastern wars, Sulla secured command of the campaign from the Senate. Marius, however, was determined to deny his rival a bid for glory and through political machinations managed to have the command transferred to himself, despite his advanced age. Neither Sulla nor his troops would stand for it. The forsaken consul marched on Rome with six veteran legions, ostensibly to restore civil order. Facing a death sentence and unable to mobilize sufficient opposition, Marius fled to Africa.

Although Sulla had established his supremacy, the eastern war was still to be fought. In a rebuke to his actions, voters rejected Sulla’s two endorsed candidates to replace him as consul of Rome, so he had a new pair of co-consuls hurriedly swear to adhere to his policies, then rushed off to confront Mithridates. One of the consuls, Gnaeus Octavius, blacklisted supporters of Marius, while the other, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, did not. Sertorius aligned with the latter. So when the Senate predictably erupted in violence, and an exiled Cinna began to recruit troops, Sertorius played a leading role. Octavius stripped Cinna of his consulship and citizenship and slaughtered his counterpart’s followers. Then civil war broke out, with its attendant reprisals.

At Cinna’s behest, Marius returned from exile, entered Rome and promptly slaughtered Sulla’s allies. In 83 bc, having beaten Mithridates in battle and negotiated a peace, Sulla returned to Rome and wrought terrible vengeance. By then Marius had died, and Cinna had been murdered, but Sulla nevertheless hounded their supporters without mercy. Sertorius alone had refrained from such proscriptions. Fed up with the backbiting and incompetence of the Marian generals who remained to oppose Sulla, Sertorius opted to withdraw from Italy altogether.

He set his sights on Hispania.

Divided into Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior (nearer and farther Iberia), the Roman-held portion of the peninsula was a complicated region, as was Sertorius’ position there.

Rome had spent centuries, along with much blood and treasure, to pacify this strip of the Mediterranean coast, a land of wild tribesmen whose passion for butchering one another was surpassed only by their zeal for killing Romans. The process of Romanization was by no means complete, and although Sertorius claimed a position as praetor of Hispania Citerior, his authority held no sway with Sulla. The provinces were, in fact, governed in absentia by Gaius Valerius Flaccus, a man of doubtful political allegiance. Sertorius would have to take and hold as much of the region as he could as a redoubt against the inevitable assault of Sulla’s allies. The troops Sertorius had with him combined with any sympathetic Italians living in Hispania would not be enough. He would have to win the fierce Iberian tribesmen to his cause. Before he could establish himself, however, the stroke fell; Sulla proclaimed himself dictator of Rome and dispatched an army to destroy the last holdout. Outnumbered 5-to-1—and with surrender meaning certain death at Sulla’s ruthless hands—Sertorius fled, as a rebel and outlaw.

His first priority was to find a defensible safe haven. With 3,000 men he sailed south for the tribal kingdom of Maurusii (present-day Mauretania) in West Africa. Shortly after landing, however, his men came under attack by local Berber warriors, prompting Sertorius to sail back to Iberia. There, too, they were repulsed, leaving the rebel adrift with no clear purpose and no refuge from Sulla’s pursuit.

Given his increasingly desperate situation, Sertorius formed an unlikely alliance with Cilician pirates, the plague of Mediterranean shipping. With their help he displaced the Roman garrison on Pityussa (present-day Formentera), southernmost of the Balearic Isles, off Hispania Ulterior. The move advertised his whereabouts to Caius Annius Luscus, the new Sullan governor of Hispania, who quickly dispatched a full legion of 5,000 men against Sertorius. Unable to contend on land, Sertorius was forced to wage a preemptive naval battle. Outclassed by heavier vessels and battered by stormy seas for days afterward, the surviving ships of his fleet fled eastward from the Mediterranean through the Pillars of Hercules, at last coming to rest on the western Iberian coast north of the Baetis River (in the present-day Bay of Cádiz). It was there, at the edge of the known world, Plutarch relates, Sertorius seriously contemplated leaving behind responsibility, command, war and exertion for the blessings of peace and obscurity. But the mood passed, as new theaters of action beckoned, and his fortunes were about to turn.

A dispute over the throne of Maurusii, from which he had formerly been repulsed, offered Sertorius the chance to create the stronghold he’d been seeking. With his army at his back, he made himself master of the country, in the process defeating a general dispatched by Sulla and winning over more Roman soldiers. An even greater opportunity soon presented itself.

In 80 bc the Lusitanians, a predominant tribal people of western Iberia, sent envoys to ask whether Sertorius would lead them in their struggle against Rome. Eager to regain a foothold on the peninsula, Sertorius assented. At the core of the force he mustered were 2,600 Romans—men who had been with him since his flight from Hispania, as well as troops who had switched their allegiance to him after his victory in Maurusii. Joining them were 4,700 Lusitanian soldiers, 700 North African mercenaries, disaffected local Romans and various tribesmen in a rebel army numbering some 8,000 men.

Fortunately for Sertorius, Rome could not immediately apply its full strength. When a naval force dispatched against Sertorius’ invasion fleet failed to stop it, Lucius Fufidius, the new praetor of Hispania Ulterior, launched a pre-emptive attack down the Baetis to stamp out the resurgent Sertorian threat. He was beaten back with a loss of 2,000 men. Iberia seemed an unfolding opportunity before Sertorius. In the disgraced Fufidius’ stead Sulla appointed consul Quintus Metellus Pius to curtail the rebel’s ambitions, but winter was coming. Both sides withdrew to regroup and rearm.

The respite afforded Sertorius a chance reflect on his purposes, the tools in his chest and how best to plan accordingly. He realized permanent victory over Rome or Roman recognition of independent status for Iberia lay beyond the realm of possibility. He entertained no fantasy of crushing Rome beneath his conquering stride, nor did he desire to set himself up as sovereign of a rival power. Although Rome had forsaken Sertorius, he ultimately wished to return, work through the ravages of civil war and Sulla’s rule, and restore the republic to its previous glory.

Mindful Rome might welcome back a rebellious Roman governor, but not an Iberian chieftain or war leader, Sertorius was careful to preserve his Roman identity and authority. A change in Roman leadership was possible at any time, so he decided to weather the storm and hold off the legions until able to negotiate a political settlement. All the while he asserted he was still fighting Rome’s civil war and, therefore, just as Roman as the generals sent against him.

Sertorius also sought to maintain all forms of Roman government and command. Within the stream of exiles from Rome, for example, were men of senatorial rank. He duly organized them into a Senate-in-exile, while appointing others as quaestors and praetors. And while he depended on Iberian troops, Sertorius did not promote them into his officer corps, instead keeping Romans at the head of his command structure. The everyday Roman must perceive his fight as one for freedom from Sulla’s tyranny rather than an Iberian revolt against Rome. It was a delicate balance. Sertorius had to exude the authority of legitimate governance—maintaining the superiority of Rome and the primacy of its authority—even while leading barbarian tribesmen against its armies.

To reassure his superstitious Iberians, Sertorius claimed to receive insight from the goddess Diana via a pet fawn. (Look and Learn (Bridgeman Images))

The soldiers under his command were the tools with which he would forge his victories. The core of his force comprised men trained to fight in the Roman way—namely disciplined, close-formation shock combat. That said, he depended on local forces to augment his numbers. While the Iberian tribesman were formidable warriors, Sertorius knew what the Roman legions could do in close combat. Confronting them head-on was likely to lead to disaster. But the Iberians were excellent cavalrymen and skilled in the use of javelins. With their fast, flexible formations, they could launch a stream of missiles while keeping out of the reach of a counterstrike—then simply melt away. And if the troops doubled up in the saddle, as was their custom, Sertorius’ army would be able to maneuver much faster than even legions on forced marches.

Such considerations shaped the kind of war Sertorius would fight—guerrilla-style, employing ambush, hit-and-run tactics and rapid movement. Light troops would collect or destroy anything edible in the enemy’s path, cavalry would cut down foragers and Sertorius would exploit his tribal allies’ knowledge of the terrain to surprise any relief forces. He would adapt, only fighting battles he could win and avoiding fights likely to end in defeat. Sertorius had only to break his Iberian troops of the inclination to launch suicidal charges directly into massed Roman heavy infantry.

By the time Metellus wound up his consular affairs in Italy and arrived in Iberia in 79 bc, Sertorius’ forces had destroyed two Roman armies and tempted or coerced several Iberian cities into service against Rome.

Metellus was ill-suited to the war he was called on to fight. Used to commanding ponderous blocks of infantry in set-piece battles, he was cautious and methodical, thus wholly unprepared for Sertorius’ lightning assaults, ambushes and flank raids. Sertorius referred to him as the “Old Woman.” Not one for chasing around the countryside, Metellus established strong camps along his line of march. But Sertorius was too canny to directly attack the fortified locations. Instead, he harassed them by cutting off their supplies of food and water and destroying their foraging parties. When the exasperated Romans sent troops after him, Sertorius simply evaded them.

Seeking to deny Sertorius his crucial support among the tribesmen, Metellus shifted his tactics and resolved to threaten the cities that supported him. To make an example, he settled on the town of Langobritae, as the water source on which it depended lay outside its walls. By choking it off, Metellus hoped to undermine Sertorius or perhaps even lure his enemy into a direct confrontation. However, Sertorius’ well-connected intelligence network informed him well in advance, and he was able to thwart the besiegers. His men transported 2,000 wineskins of water over the mountains, collected everything edible from the surrounding countryside and evacuated all nonessential personnel from the city long before the Romans arrived. Instead of easy prey, Metellus found a fortified, well-provisioned city ready for a fight. With their own supplies exhausted, the Romans were forced into an ignominious retreat that turned into a nightmare of relentless pursuit and devastating ambushes.

The following year, 78 bc, welcome news arrived from Rome that Sulla had died. Consul Marcus Aemilius Lepidus quickly moved to deride the late dictator’s legacy and again raise the Marian standard in Rome, lifting Sertorius’ hopes of a return. But co-consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus opposed the Marians. While the factions exercised relative restraint, Lepidus was ultimately driven from Rome, and the Sullan faction was revived under young general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey. While Pompey’s rise ended Sertorius’ hopes of restoration, it benefited him indirectly, as five and half legions of Roman regulars under exiled Marian general Marcus Perpenna Vento joined his ranks. Sertorius also faced a new enemy, as Pompey soon embarked for Iberia to aid Metellus in the rebel’s destruction.

For all his fearsome reputation and subsequent fame, Pompey initially fared little better than his predecessors. An emboldened Sertorius even took the fight to Pompey on the east coast of Iberia, inflicting a severe defeat on the Romans in Hispania Citerior. Perpenna, for all the aid he brought, grew overconfident and became embroiled in engagements he should have avoided, which soon pulled in the rest of the army. The generals from Rome therefore finally got the head-on confrontation they’d been seeking on the central Iberian plain of Saguntum, where, despite being badly mauled, they destroyed Sertorius’ heavy infantry and with it his ability to fight another pitched battle. Sertorius fell back on the guerrilla tactics that had served him so well. He refused to give up or give in.

But with each passing year the unending conflict appeared ever more fruitless. The strain of constant struggle and the havoc war wrought steadily eroded Iberian support for Sertorius. It also disaffected the Romans senators in exile. Encouraged by the arrogant and self-interested Perpenna, they plotted against Sertorius. In 72 bc, as he and his men feted yet another victory, the most gifted general of his generation, who had bested every commander sent against him, was brought down by the blades of assassins from within his own ranks.

In open defiance of the Roman Senate, Sertorius had independently ruled much of Iberia for eight years. The martial acumen and sheer endurance he’d exhibited make him a remarkable historical figure who deserves more acclaim. But surviving sources are slim, and the Sertorian War has largely faded into historical obscurity.

Justin D. Lyons is an associate professor of history and political science at Ohio’s Ashland University. For further reading he recommends Sertorius and the Struggles for Spain, by Philip Matyszak, and Life of Sertorius, by Plutarch.

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