Ancient History & Civilisation

4. THE NUMANTINE WAR

Encouraged by the initial success of Viriathus the Celtiberians had again broken into rebellion in 143. This Third Celtiberian, or Numantine, War was centred around Numantia, which was situated on a hill at the junction of two rivers which run through heavily forested valleys. It had been founded on the site of earlier settlements by the Iberians who penetrated the Celtic highlands about 300 BC. The Iberian element was responsible for the town wall with an inner ring of houses, while the centre was laid out in accordance with Greek principles. The population gradually spread beyond the walls, and when the town was attacked in 153 the larger settlement would be protected by a palisade.14 Though their civilization was somewhat backward and their pottery coarse, the Numantines had magnificent iron weapons. Through scarcity of corn they continually raided the valleys of the Ebro and Jalon; they derived supplies from the Vaccaei and found pasturage among the Arevaci.

At the beginning of the war Numantia remained inviolate. Q. Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus conquered the tribes of the Jalon valley in Nearer Celtiberia (143), and then advanced against the Vaccaei in the north-west in order to cut off the Numantines’ source of supplies (142). He was succeeded by an inefficient soldier, Q. Pompeius, who encamped on the hill Castillejo at Numantia, but although he commanded 30,000 men he failed to storm Numantia with its 8,000 defenders. Thereupon he advanced to annoy the walls of Termantia on the Douro, but in vain. Returning to Numantia, he attempted a blockade and even essayed to flood the eastern plain (140). But at the approach of winter his troops suffered from dysentery and intense cold, so that he was ready to induce the Numantines to accept terms. On the arrival of his successor, Popillius Laenas, in 139, Pompeius repudiated the terms, which had not yet been ratified by the Senate, but he carefully kept the money he had demanded for arranging the treaty; though later he was court-martialled at Rome he escaped the consequences of his treachery. Popillius campaigned against the Lusones, but his attack on Numantia miscarried (139–138). The year 137 was marked by disaster and further disgrace. The commander Mancinus was cut off in the pass of Tartajo near Nobilior’s former camp at Renieblas while attempting to withdraw from Numantia to the Ebro. He surrendered with 20,000 men, and the young Tiberius Gracchus, who was trusted for his father’s sake, undertook responsibility for the fulfilment of the terms. The Senate disgracefully refused to accept the conditions and with shameful hypocrisy made a scapegoat of Mancinus by sending him back to Numantia, naked and with his hands bound behind him. The Numantines with dignity refused the offering. They had lost the chance of a signal victory over their enemies through treachery. Rome’s name was again dishonoured, and one more incident could take its place alongside those for which Lucullus, Galba and Pompeius were responsible. Mancinus’ successors left Numantia alone and were content to plunder the Vaccaei. So the war dragged on, until in 135 the Roman people again elected to the consulship (before the legal interval had elapsed) the recent conqueror of Carthage, Scipio Aemilianus, son of Aemilius Paullus the victor of Pydna and adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus the Elder.

Instead of regular reinforcements Scipio took to Spain a number of volunteers and a corps of five hundred friends and dependants as a kind of private bodyguard to protect him while he redisciplined the army. This cohort, devoted to the person of its general, gave him personal protection and was in essence the prototype of the later imperial Praetorian Guard. Scipio’s first task was to restore efficiency among the demoralized troops in Spain. Camp-followers, women and soothsayers were sent packing; the men were vigorously dragooned and made to use the spade as well as the sword. But such an army, though redisciplined, could not take Numantia by storm, so that Scipio determined to reduce it by blockade and starvation. But first he cut off its source of supplies. Marching up the Ebro to Deobriga he turned westwards against the Vaccaei and reduced Pallantia and Cauca. Then he approached Numantia from the west along the Douro, scouring the fields as he went (autumn 134).

Behind a defensive palisade he built seven camps around the town and linked them together with a strong wall, set with towers, so that Numantia was completely invested. The two chief camps were at Castillejo in the north where he had his headquarters, and at Peña Redonda in the south; each held a legion, while the other camps were manned by Italian and Iberian allies. Scipio’s forces numbered some 20,000 Italians and 40,000 Iberians. Although the besieged were not more than 4,000, they held out with heroic and tragic courage for eight months, resorting in their desperation even to cannibalism. All attempts to break through Scipio’s iron ring failed, though finally a chief and four companions slipped out on a cloudy night and even got their horses over the wall by a folding scaling-bridge. But in vain. They could not rouse the countryside to arms again. Scipio refused to accept any terms short of unconditional surrender. Finally famine did its work and the heroic Numantines capitulated. Without consulting the Senate Scipio burnt the town to the ground, as a red layer of burnt material still bears tragic witness (August 133). Many famous men saw the smoke and flames of Numantia rising to the sky: Scipio’s brother-in-law, Gaius Gracchus; a young cavalryman, Gaius Marius; the poet Lucilius; the young Numidian prince Jugurtha; two military tribunes Asellio and P. Rutilius Rufus, who both wrote histories of the war; and perhaps Scipio’s friend, the historian Polybius.

The fall of Numantia established beyond question the dominion of Rome in Spain. The story is a painful one and Rome’s methods of diplomacy had deteriorated. But this declension from her pristine standards of honesty resulted in part from contact with more barbarous races than those encountered in Italy or the east. Differences of custom may often have led to misunderstanding. The Spaniards when forced to come to terms did not always intend to keep them, and so Rome learnt to meet treachery by treachery and to fight with Spanish weapons. Further, the Senate was jealous of its power and reserved the right to revise arrangements made by its generals, so that treaties made in good faith in Spain might not always be ratified at Rome. The Senate may have underestimated the difficulty of campaigning in Spain and good generals may have fought shy of the province, but Rome’s chief mistake was her failure to understand the Spanish character. The successes of Scipio Africanus the Elder, the elder Gracchus and Sertorius show that more could have been accomplished by sympathy and moderation than by brute force. Yet Rome gave Spain something, although at the point of the sword, which she could not give herself: out of the blood and tears of conquest a new race painfully raised itself on the first steps of civilized life. By lifting the conquered to the same level of culture as the conquerors Rome abolished the need for opposition and laid the foundations of that great prosperity which Spain enjoyed under the Roman Empire.

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