The Sertorian War: How Rebels Nearly Toppled Rome from Within
Even the greatest of empires and kingdoms can be weakened by internal strife and civil war. The formidable power of Rome was no exception. Throughout its history—from the Republic to the Empire days—it saw numerous usurpers and rebels, as well as countless civil wars. One that truly left a mark on its history was the Sertorian War, which raged between 80 and 72 BC. A major civil war, it threatened to rock the very foundations of the Roman Republic, causing a major crisis. How did the government of Rome handle this dire threat which came from its very own ranks?
The Sertorian War Cleaves Rome in Two
During the 1st century BC, Rome was dealing with one problem after another. This period was part of the wider Crisis of the Roman Republic, which itself lasted from 134 BC to 44 BC, and culminated in the shift from the Republic to the Empire.
The Sertorian War was one of the more significant conflicts that took place during this period. It was named after its primary instigator and leader, Quintus Sertorius, a talented Roman general and a prominent politician. Occurring between 80 BC and 72 BC, the Sertorian War primarily took place in the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal), which was then called Hispania by the Romans.
The roots of this civil war lie in the death of Gaius Marius. Marius was one of the most famous Roman generals and consuls, who greatly reformed the Roman army, making it the most formidable fighting machine in the world. He was assassinated in 86 BC, however, during Sulla’s Civil War.
- Gaius Marius was the Savior of Ancient Rome, but was he a Hero or Villain?
- Eunus: Slave ‘King’ and Leader of the First Servile War
His murderer, and the victor of this war, was Lucius Cornellius Sulla. A general and statesman, he was the first man in the Republic to come to power through brute force, going on to become dictator. Due to his actions, Sulla had many opponents, while the late Gaius Marius still had his supporters. At this time, the Roman Republic was in a state of upheaval known as the Sullan period, and several rivaling political factions were formed.
During the Sertorian War, the main opposing factions were the Sullans, i.e. the Roman Government, and the Sertorians, i.e. the rebels. Amongst the former, the leading figure was Pompey the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus), with his army made up of Italic and Roman rebels, and a coalition of Celts, Iberians, and Aquitanians. Quintus Sertorius was a staunch supporter of late Gaius Marius and was determined to fight against Sulla’s supporters. The stage was set for war .
The Sullan faction in the Sertorian War was led by Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the first man in the Republic to come to power through brute force. (José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0)
A War Rages Through Hispania
During the preceding Sulla’s Civil War, Quintus Sertorius fought against Sulla, being a loyal supporter of Gaius Marius. His party, however, lost the war, and he himself was banished by Sulla, left to wander Rome’s regions. During this time, he remained a staunch supporter of Marius, allying himself to other disposed and anti-Sulla factions.
Once the war had ended, with Gaius Marius assassinated by his enemies, his staunch supporters could not be eliminated so easily. Sertorius eventually ended up in Tingis, in North Africa, where he was involved in the elimination of a pro-Sullan tyrant, Ascalis. It was here that Sertorious met an embassy of Lusitanians, Celtic peoples from Hispania.
The Lusitanians were seeking help, being heavily oppressed by the Sullan government back in Hispania. Being fierce and warlike, the Lusitanians were not ready to sit idly and accept their situation. After all, they had a long history of warring against Rome. So, in the end, they allied themselves to Sertorius, who in the past had already held the post of Governor of Hispania. They remembered him as a mild and just governor. Now, they wanted him to lead them in revolt.
The Lusitanians were not the only ones displeased with Sulla and his new tyrannical rule. Many people in Rome itself and its key territories were dissatisfied with Sulla's rule and the proscriptions (lists of enemies to be executed or exiled) that targeted his opponents. Quintus Sertorius, being an ambitious and capable military leader, saw an opportunity in this dissatisfaction to challenge Sulla's authority and establish his own power base in Spain.
The Supporters Heed the Call in Lead Up to the Sertorian War
Once in Iberia, Sertorius began building his armies. Local Celts, ever dissatisfied with Rome, quickly flocked to his side. There were also the Aqulinians, a fierce local tribe, and the Iberians too. He also gained the support of Roman veterans living in Hispania, many of them supporters of Gaius Marius. Italic rebels and everyone who hated Sulla, flocked to his side. In time, Sertorius proved to be a charismatic and capable leader, winning the loyalty of the local population and building a formidable rebel force.
Almost at once, on entering Hispania Sertorius achieved his first victory against Rome. He organized the tribes allied to him and marched towards the Baetis Valley, where he confronted and decisively defeated the Roman general Lucius Fufidius. This was a major victory and a shock for the Sullan government, letting them know that they have a formidable enemy—and a civil war—on their hands.
With the victory at Baetis, Sertorius gained control over Hispania Ulterior. The Lusitanian warriors proved to be valuable assets for Sertorius, contributing their expertise in guerrilla warfare and knowledge of the terrain. From the get-go, the Sertorian forces adopted the guerilla style of warfare, and managed to achieve successes most of the time.
One great example of that adaptive guerilla warfare is documented early in the war. Sertorius’ chief general, legate Lucius Hirtuleius, was sent to deal with the remaining Sullan forces in Hispania. Anticipating the moves of Roman generals, he fortified the town of Consabura and barred the passage for the Roman armies. Frontinus wrote:
“Hirtuleius, a lieutenant of Quintus Sertorius, was taking a handful of cohorts up a narrow road between two steep and impassable mountains. On being told that a substantial enemy force was approaching he dug a ditch between the mountains, and set a wooden rampart behind that. He then set fire to the rampart and made his escape with the enemy cut off [on the other side of the flames].”
It was this unique method of guerilla warfare that the Sertorian forces would become known for, and they won many victories as a result.
The Sertorian War was marked by the unique guerilla warfare employed by the Sertorian rebels. (Travel Drawn / Adobe Stock)
The Sertorian War Erupts
Hirtuleus’ effective guerilla methods achieved him a great victory over the newly arrived Roman general. The Sullan government suffered a true disaster, as their army was decimated methodically, and its remainders defected to Sertorius. Around this time, Sertorius stringed several victories, using his guerilla tactics.
What is more, being shrewd and seasoned as he was, Sertorius did not allow his enemies to create strongholds and bases around Hispania. Instead, he employed constant hit-and-run tactics and guerilla harassment. As a result, his Roman enemies could not gain a foothold in Hispania. Things were rapidly changing in Sertorius’ favor. This culminated in 78 BC when Sulla died in Rome, leaving his party without a strong and effective leader.
The government in Rome, with Pompey Magnus as its most capable representative, now realized that Sertorius is a far more dangerous threat than what was first thought. He literally broke away Hispania, and kept defeating the Roman general Metellus at every corner. A new and brutal plan now had to be devised in order to quell this civil war and uprising. Of course, the best solution that Rome always had was simple — more men. The man to lead this new army? None other than famed Pompey Magnus. Pompey gathered a massive army of 30,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, and marched promptly towards Hispania.
But in that same year, Sertorius received more forces. He was joined by one Marcus Perpenna, who came from Sardinia with the rebellious troops of consul Lepidus. Perpenna had a huge army at his command, of more than five legions. However, he was not keen to obey Sertorius and only nominally placed himself under his command. This would prove to be a cardinal fact later on. Meanwhile, Pompey was coming ever so closer, with an intent to draw Sertorius into a pitched battle, defeat him promptly and end the revolt with a single stroke.
Pompey Magnus the Great and the Sertorian War
There is no doubt that Pompey felt as confident as could be. After all, at his back marched a massive army of veteran soldiers. With it, he had little to fear. Because of this, he at once took up the offensive. Soon enough, he met unexpectedly with Sertorius near the city of Lauron. But Sertorius saw his overconfidence, and carefully planned his next move.
“Pompey was delighted with the way things had turned out, for he now positioned his army so that Sertorius was, as he believed, caught between the city and the army. So Pompey sent a messenger to the people of Lauron. He invited them to celebrate, and take their seats along the city wall to see how Sertorius enjoyed being besieged. Sertorius was told of this, and found it highly amusing. Sulla's pupil (as he jokingly liked to refer to Pompey) was due another lesson – this time from Sertorius himself.”
What ensued was a brilliant tactical victory for Sertorius, and a complete shock for Pompey. Sertorius employed his harassment tactics to continually endanger Pompey’s foraging parties. When they at last went to remote places, Sertorius laid an ambush against the foraging parties and inflicted a major defeat on Pompey. The latter only belatedly managed to retreat and remove his troops from the area. He also learned that Sertorius wouldn’t be such an easy nut to crack. The Sertorian War was now far from over.
But Sertorius was not invincible either. While he was good at guerilla tactics, he wasn’t so skilled at open battle. As a result, he suffered two major defeats in 75 BC, one from Pompey and another from General Metellus. These were the battles of Valentia and Italica, and collectively they cost Sertorius around 30,000 men. This was followed by two battles against Pompey, both of them inconclusive but very costly for weakened Sertorius. He was forced to withdraw inland.
The assassination of Quintus Sertorius by his own men. (Public domain)
An Unexpected Outcome During the Sertorian War: The Tables Get Turned
The war went on, but with a more cautious tone. Neither Sertorius nor Pompey wanted to engage directly, as both had been seriously bruised up to that point. During the winter of 74 BC, Pompey retreated to Gaul in order to spend the winter there with his troops. From here, he wrote an angry letter to Rome, saying that if he did not receive more funds and supplies, he would retreat to Rome, and be followed by Sertorius and his Celts.
- Vigilant and Ready: Life as a Roman Frontier Watchman (Video)
- The Deeds of Julius Caesar, Rome’s Greatest Son
This letter, itself a threat, scared the nobles of Rome and told them that the situation in Hispania was truly dire. They raised the needed funds and sent them to Pompey so he could fight on.
Sertorius, however, was defeated defeated by his own men before Pompey had to act. He began growing increasingly paranoid and erratic, and was no longer as popular as before. There were growing divisions amongst his men and it was now only a question of time before someone would betray him. The betrayal occurred when his leading man, Perperna, invited him to a feast and proceeded to murder him in cold blood. A capable leader and general, Sertorius ended in such an inglorious way.
Perperna wanted to gain the leader’s position for himself, but things quickly went south. The Celts, seeing that the leadership was crumbling to bits, abandoned the rebellion and quickly made peace with Pompey. This only left Perperna and the Roman renegades, whose trust was quickly dissipating. The war was about to end.
Defeated with a Knife’s Thrust: The End of the Sertorian War
Perperna’s assassination of Sertorius proved to be a fatal mistake. Pompey was quick to utilize the new situation to his own advantage, laying a terrible ambush against Perperna’s remaining army. The defeat was quick and brutal, and many men were slaughtered. Perperna was captured and pleaded for his life, but Pompey simply had him murdered on the spot.
And with that, the Sertorian War was efficiently over. After skillfully and persistently challenging Rome for such a long time, Sertorius ultimately met an unfortunate demise, rendering his efforts ultimately futile. So many lives lost and so many battles fought, only for everything to end so unceremoniously and without honor.
Top image: The Sertorian War saw Roman generals and forces clash with the rebel leader Sertorius in a prolonged struggle for control. Source: Hui / Adobe Stock
Konrad, C. F. 1994. Plutarch's Sertorius. UNC Press Books.
Matyszak, P. 2013. Sertorius and the struggle for Spain. Pen & Sword Military.
Spann, P. 1987. Quintus Sertorius and the Legacy of Sulla. University of Arkansas Press.