Ancient History & Civilisation



Quintus Sertorius (c. 125–72 BC)

In the open field he was as bold as any commander of his time, while for any campaign which required secrecy of movement or a sudden initiative in seizing strong positions or crossing rivers, or of operations which demanded speed, the deception of the enemy, or, if necessary, the invention of falsehoods, he possessed a skill which amounted to genius.1

‘NEW MAN’ AND ARISTOCRAT ALIKE, ROMAN SENATORS WERE FIERCELY competitive. Public life was a scramble for office and the opportunity to win fame and glory, where the ideal was to outshine the achievements not only of contemporaries but also of past generations. Even when not actually holding a magistracy or canvassing for election, senators strove always to advertise their successes and virtues, and missed no opportunity of adding to the number of those indebted to them for some favour. Some stressed their Hellenic sophistication, others such as Cato and Marius, their supposedly old-fashioned ‘Italian’ simplicity. Altars were dedicated and temples or other monuments built to commemorate achievements, and family events such as weddings and funerals became public occasions. Gladiatorial fights were first staged as part of funeral ceremonies, and whatever religious or sacrificial element they may originally have had, they soon became primarily a form of entertainment. Spectacular and exciting gladiatorial games drew large crowds who would be suitably impressed and grateful to the family who had staged and funded the event. Politics had always been competitive, but by the first century BC senators were forced to spend ever greater sums of money to stand any chance of success. The wealth lavished on buildings and games continued to rise, as each politician struggled to surpass his rivals. From 133 BC onwards, there was always the chance that such rivalry would culminate in violence. Sulla’s decision to march on Rome in 88 led to nearly two decades of civil war and disturbance. An attempted coup in 63 was followed by years of mob violence in the 50s, and finally in 49 another bout of civil war which would not end until 31 when Caesar’s adopted son Octavian defeated his last serious rival.

The Roman political élite was not unique in its competitiveness and desire to excel. The aristocracies of most Greek cities – and indeed of the overwhelming majority of other communities in the Mediterranean world – were just as eager to win personal dominance and often unscrupulous in their methods of achieving this. Roman senators were highly unusual in channelling their ambitions within fairly narrow, and universally recognized, boundaries. The internal disorder and revolution which plagued the public lives of most city states were absent from Rome until the last century of the Republic. Even then, during civil wars of extreme savagery when the severed heads of fellow citizens were displayed in the Forum, the Roman aristocracy continued to place some limits on what means were acceptable to overcome their rivals. A common figure in the history of the ancient world is the aristocratic exile – the deposed king or tyrant, or the general forced out when he was perceived to be becoming too powerful – at the court of a foreign power, usually a king. Such men readily accepted foreign troops to go back and seize power by force in their homeland – as the tyrant Pisistratus had done at Athens – or actively fought against their own city on their new protector’s behalf, like Alcibiades.

Rome’s entire history contains only a tiny handful of individuals whose careers in any way followed this pattern. The fifth-century BC, and semi-mythical, Caius Marcius Coriolanus probably comes closest, for when banished from Rome he took service with the hostile Volscians and led their army with great success. In the story he came close to capturing Rome itself, and was only stopped from completing his victory by the intervention of his mother. The moral of the tale was quintessentially Roman. However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his own and his family’s reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic. The same belief in the superiority of Rome that made senators by the second century BC hold themselves the equals of any king ensured that no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power. Senators wanted success, but that success only counted if it was achieved at Rome. No senator defected to Pyrrhus or Hannibal even when their final victory seemed imminent, nor did Scipio Africanus’ bitterness at the ingratitude of the State cause him to take service with a foreign king.

The outbreak of civil war did not significantly change this attitude, since both sides invariably claimed that they were fighting to restore the true Republic. Use was often made of non-Roman troops, but these were always presented as auxiliaries or allies serving from their obligations to Rome and never as independent powers intervening for their own benefit. Yet the circumstances of Roman fighting Roman did create many highly unorthodox careers, none more so than that of Quintus Sertorius, who demonstrated a talent for leading irregular forces and waging a type of guerrilla warfare against conventional Roman armies. Exiled from Sulla’s Rome, he won his most famous victories and lived out the last years of his life in Spain, but never deviated from the attitudes of his class or thought of himself as anything other than a Roman senator and general.


Sertorius was another ‘new man’, his family part of the local aristocracy in the Sabine city of Nussa. He was probably the first of his line to seek public office at Rome, for which he had been groomed from an early age, and certainly none of his ancestors had held an important Roman magistracy. A gifted orator and with some learning in law, he began to gain a reputation in the courts before embarking with enthusiasm on a period of military service. As mentioned in the last chapter, he managed to survive the disaster at Arausio in 105, swimming the Rhône in spite of his wounds and still managing to bring away his personal weapons. For the remainder of the war with the Cimbri and Teutones he served under Marius, winning both decorations and promotion on numerous occasions, most notably for going in disguise to spy on the enemy. A few years later in 97 he went as a military tribune to Spain, further adding to his reputation for courage and coolness when the troops he was wintering with at the Celtiberian town of Castulo were suddenly attacked by the population. The Roman soldiers there were poorly disciplined, neglectful of their duty and given to drunkenness. Plutarch does not say whether other Roman officers were present and another in command, but implies that Sertorius was not responsible for the troops’ condition which would suggest that there was someone else in overall charge. It was perhaps because of this experience that in later years Sertorius would make it a rule never to billet soldiers in towns, ordering them instead to construct proper camps outside, even in winter, and live under strict military discipline.

The Roman garrison’s behaviour may have provoked the Celtiberians to rebellion and certainly encouraged their expectation of success. Assistance was sought from the neighbouring Oretani, and on a given night their warriors were admitted into the city. Surprise was complete and many of the legionaries were slaughtered in their billets. Sertorius and a few companions managed to break out of the town, and he swiftly rallied as many other fugitives as he could find. Discovering a gate which the enemy had left both open and unguarded, Sertorius posted a detachment to seal off this means of exit and led the rest of his men back into the streets. Taking control of all the key positions in the town he then ordered his men to kill every Celtiberian male old enough to bear arms. Near disaster had been turned into victory, but Sertorius was not yet content and decided to punish the Oretani immediately. Ordering his men to dress in Spanish tunics taken from the dead, he marched them to the latter’s town. The ploy worked and the Romans found the unsuspecting enemy waiting with open gates and cheering crowds to greet what they believed to be their returning raiding party. Many of those caught outside were swiftly killed and the town immediately surrendered. Most of its population was sold into slavery. Such deceptions were not uncommon. In 109 Metellus had retaken Vaga by putting some Numidian allied cavalry at the head of his column. The townsfolk, who had earlier massacred the Roman garrison, mistook these for Jugurtha’s own troops and had let them in before they discovered their mistake. However, similar ploys did not always work and could be risky. On one occasion Hannibal had tried to use a force of Roman deserters posing as ordinary legionaries to capture a city in Italy, but the deception was revealed and the deserters ambushed and killed.2

Sertorius’ exploits in Spain helped him to win election to the quaestorship, and during the Social War he was tasked with raising, training and leading troops, although his precise rank is unclear. Roman commanders and senior subordinates were expected to lead and direct their soldiers from just behind the fighting line, a style of leadership which inevitably involved considerable risk of wounding or death. Sertorius led in an especially bold fashion, inspiring his men with his contempt for the enemy and trusting to his personal skill at arms to protect himself from any attack. His methods brought him considerable battlefield success, although at the cost of a wound which permanently blinded him in one eye. Plutarch tells us that he was proud of this disfigurement, claiming that he was fortunate in having a symbol of valour which was always visible, unlike a medal which could only be worn occasionally. Proof of his growing fame was given when he attended the theatre at Rome and the crowd greeted him with enthusiastic cheers. Encouraged by this, Sertorius sought election to the post of tribune of the plebs for 88, but was publicly opposed by Sulla, then consul elect, and was defeated. The source for this opposition is unclear, but it led to a permanent breach between the two men. In the turmoil after Sulla had marched his legions on Rome and then departed to fight the eastern war, Sertorius sided with Cinna, who in turn allied himself to Marius.

The occupation of Rome by Cinna’s and Marius’ partisans was brutal in the extreme. Sertorius stood out amongst the leaders of this group by not indulging his personal hatreds and in his efforts to restrain others from their atrocities. Marius had recruited a gang of thugs from amongst the slaves of men he had executed and granted them licence to murder, rape and steal from anyone out of favour with the new regime. In the end, with Cinna’s support, it was Sertorius who dealt with these so-called Bardyaei, surrounding them whilst they were asleep with a body of disciplined soldiers and killing them all, mostly with missiles. With Marius’ sudden death, the worst of the excesses were over, and in 83 Sertorius became praetor, in time to take part in the war against the returning Sulla. Cinna had been lynched when some legions mutinied in the previous year, and supreme command devolved on a number of individuals, distinguished solely by their lack of any discernible military talent. Sertorius was placed in the unenviable position of having his advice ignored, but finding that the accuracy of his predictions concerning the inevitable disaster awaiting the chosen courses of action made him widely resented. It is doubtful that he felt much reluctance to go out to his province in Spain later in the year. However, Sulla’s overwhelming victory in Italy freed his legions to stamp out any survivals of the Marian cause elsewhere, and Sertorius was soon expelled from his province. For a while he wandered around the western Mediterranean, meeting mainly with defeat and failure, until he managed to overcome a Sullan army in Mauretania. This success was followed by a direct appeal from a deputation of Lusitanians to return to the Spanish peninsula and rid them of an oppressive governor. From then on, his fortunes improved dramatically.3


These Lusitanians were most probably representatives of the highly Romanized and settled communities, rather than from the wilder groups on or beyond the margins of the Roman province. Although Sertorius was to draw much of his strength from the indigenous peoples of Spain, the conflict was always fought as part of the civil war and not an attempt to win independence from Rome. His armies also included some troops originally raised in Italy, as well as contingents formed from the Roman settlers in the peninsula. In the beginning, his forces were not numerous, and Plutarch tells us that at first they numbered 2,600 legionaries, some 700 Libyans he had acquired during his time in North Africa, 4,000 Lusitanian lightly equipped infantry (or caetrati – the name was derived from the small round shields which they carried), and about 700 mixed cavalry. The whole force was supported at first by no more than twenty cities. He also possessed, or was to acquire, a small navy with which to support operations on land. Taken as a whole, his resources were dwarfed by those of Sulla’s generals in Spain, who altogether are said to have disposed more than 120,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 2,000 skirmishers. Yet from the beginning Sertorius’ operations met with success after success, and his opponents failed to co-ordinate their war effort effectively. In the first year he defeated the governors of both the Spanish provinces, and in the next his troops defeated and killed the replacement governor of Nearer Spain, one Lucius Domitius. The new proconsul of Further Spain was Quintus Caeclius Metellus Pius, son of the man who had campaigned against Jugurtha. He suffered several reverses, and one of his legates was badly defeated and killed, as he tried to deny the coastal areas of Lusitania to Sertorius.4

With each success Sertorius’ power grew. Though doubtless short of money and all the things necessary to support his campaigns, he always treated the provincials fairly and generously, and insisted that his troops and officers did the same. He took particular care of the local aristocracies, usually granting freedom and restoring their property to those who had opposed him once they capitulated. At Osca (possibly modern-day Huesca) he established and paid for a school for the sons of the wealthy and influential, where the pupils dressed in togas and received a properly Roman education. That these children served also as hostages for their good faith did not reduce the enthusiasm of the Spanish aristocracy for this open declaration of willingness to admit their families into the élite of the Roman province. For Sertorius always declared himself to be a properly appointed magistrate of the Roman Republic. From the many exiles who fled to him from an Italy dominated by Sulla’s supporters he formed a ‘Senate’, and each year held elections to appoint magistrates.5

In spite of its mixed composition, Sertorius also imposed Roman standards of discipline throughout his army. All of his troops were organized into cohorts. Most were equipped in Roman fashion, but all were well trained and drilled both as individuals and as formations. Soldiers were encouraged to use highly decorated arms and armour, both to discourage their loss and to increase the men’s pride in themselves. They were expected to obey orders and misbehaviour was punished harshly. In an incident reminiscent of the Bardyaei, Sertorius is said to have executed an entire detachment of Romans who had gained a reputation for extreme brutality in their treatment of the local civilians. In at least one case he did exploit the native military tradition, taking a personal bodyguard of Celtiberians. These men were bound to their leader with a solemn oath, so that they were not supposed to outlive him if he were killed, in return for which he provided them with weapons, food and the chance to win glory. The practice was reasonably common amongst the tribes of Spain, as well as Gaul and Germany, and provided some chieftains with fanatically loyal bands of followers. It seems to have been quite normal for warriors to bind themselves to chieftains of other tribes, so the transferral of the same relationship to a Roman commander was not in that sense unusual. Julius Caesar would later have a similar guard of 900 German and Gallic cavalry.6

At times his forces were augmented by contingents of allied Spanish warriors who had not had time to undergo proper training, forcing the commander to devise ways of restraining their enthusiasm to fight in unfavourable circumstances. One object lesson is preserved in several accounts. Sertorius is supposed to have brought out two horses, one healthy and the other small and in a poor condition. He then ordered one of his strongest men to pull the tail off the small horse, whilst at the same time instructing a tiny soldier to removed the big horse’s tail one hair at a time. Eventually, after much fruitless effort, the strong soldier was forced to give up his attempt, whilst his smaller colleague slowly completed his task. Sertorius declared that this showed how even the most dangerous opponent could be defeated if gradually worn down in small skirmishes, for continuous pressure is more effective than mere brute force.7

Just as Marius had paraded his soothsayer and Africanus had told his soldiers of the messages given to him by the gods in his dreams, Sertorius added a mystical element to his leadership. At some point a hunter had presented him with a young doe, which the general fed with his own hand until it became completely tame. After a while he began to claim that the animal had been sent to him by the goddess Diana, and that it brought him messages. Sometimes he would announce news brought to him by scouts or messengers as if they came from the fawn, which was also decorated with garlands of victory whenever he heard of a success won by other detachments of his army. Our sources believed that such methods greatly impressed the superstitious Spaniards.8

The sources for Sertorius’ campaigns are meagre, and do not permit the reconstruction of a detailed narrative of the war in Spain, still less permit analysis of individual actions. Instead they provide us with a broad overview, and many stories of his skill as a leader and wiliness as a general. On the whole the surviving accounts present an unfavourable portrait of Metellus, who is depicted as an elderly and lethargic leader. More complex is their portrayal of Cnaeus Pompey, who was appointed by the Senate to govern Nearer Spain in 77 BC, and was already renowned as one of the Republic’s most successful commanders and later as Caesar’s opponent in the Civil War. Pompey’s highly unorthodox career is the subject of the next chapter, but at this point it is worth emphasizing that at 29 he was very young for a Roman general. Desire to contrast his youthful energy with Metellus’ aged caution may well have encouraged our sources to treat the latter in a less favourable way. Sertorius is said to have nicknamed Pompey ‘Sulla’s pupil’. Metellus he had even more scornfully dubbed ‘that old woman’.9

Around the same time Sertorius had himself received some reinforcement from Italy. In 78 one of the consuls, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, had led a rebellion against the Senate, rallying many disaffected Marians to his cause. He had been defeated, but some of his supporters led by Marcus Perperna Vento escaped to Spain. Perperna came from an established, if not notably pre-eminent family, and had pride greatly in excess of his actual capacity, for his military record was an unbroken string of defeats, several of them inflicted by Pompey. At first he disdained to place himself and his men under the command of a new man like Sertorius, but eventually the issue was decided for him when his army heard that Pompey was on his way to Spain and forced him to join the successful general. Pompey was unable to move against Sertorius until 76, for he was forced to fight some of the local tribes as he marched through the province of Transalpine Gaul. In commemoration of victories won en route to his new command, he would later erect a triumphal monument in the Pyrenees.10

In 77 Sertorius and his quaestor Lucius Hirtuleius had inflicted several defeats on Metellus, thwarting his attempt to capture the main town of the Langobritae. Not only did they manage to smuggle water into the town in spite of the enemy blockade, but they also brought out a large number of non-combatants. Soon Metellus’ legions were running out of supplies and, after a foraging party was ambushed and nearly destroyed, he was forced to withdraw. Before this operation Sertorius had even invited Metellus to face him in a single combat, an idea for which the latter’s soldiers showed considerable enthusiasm, their morale having dropped to a low ebb. Pompey’s arrival did much to reinvigorate both army and commander. Sertorius decided to take the measure of his new opponent before risking a pitched battle, and gave strict instructions to his subordinates to avoid a major action with the main army of either Metellus or Pompey. Two of Pompey’s legates leading small detachments were defeated individually, but the young general advanced with great confidence when he learned that Sertorius himself was besieging the city of Lauron (probably somewhere near modern Valencia).

Orosius – a very late source who must be treated with considerable caution – claims that Pompey had 30,000 foot and 1,000 horse, and was opposed by Sertorius with twice as many infantry and 6,000 cavalry, but such a great numerical advantage seems unlikely. A race for control of high ground dominating the town was won by Sertorius, but then Pompey closed in behind him, apparently trapping his opponent between his own legions and the town. His confidence is said to have been so great that he sent messengers to the townsfolk inviting them to climb on to their walls and watch as he smashed the enemy. It was only then that he discovered that Sertorius had left 6,000 men in his old camp on high ground which was now behind Pompey’s position. If he deployed his army for a full attack on Sertorius’ main force then he would himself be taken in the rear. Instead of ending the war in a swift victory, Pompey was forced to watch impotently as Sertorius prosecuted the siege, for he felt that to withdraw altogether would be an open admission of the superiority of the enemy.

This was only the beginning of the lesson which Sertorius had decided to teach ‘Sulla’s pupil’ at Lauron. During the siege there were only two areas from which Pompey’s army could draw forage and firewood. One was only a short distance from his camp, but this was continually being raided by Sertorius’ light infantry. After a while, Pompey decided that his foraging parties should switch their attention to the other, more distant, area, which his opponent had deliberately left unmolested. The time required to travel to the area, gather forage, and return ensured that any expedition in this direction could not complete its task in a single day. Yet at first this did not appear to be a serious risk, as there continued to be no sign of any enemy activity in this area. Finally, when Pompey’s men had become complacent, Sertorius decided to ambush an expedition which he had observed leaving the opposing camp. He sent out Octavius Graecinus with a strong force of ten cohorts armed as legionaries – we do not know whether these troops were Spanish or Roman or a mixture of both – and ten cohorts of Spanish light infantry caetrati, supported by 2,000 cavalry commanded by Tarquitius Priscus.

They moved by night, avoiding detection by Pompey’s main force, and took up a position along the route which they knew the convoy would have to take on its return journey. These officers amply rewarded the trust Sertorius had invested in them, making a careful reconnaissance of the ground before leading their troops into position. The ambush force was concealed in a wood with the caetrati in front and the heavy infantry in close support. The cavalry were stationed in the rear to prevent a neighing horse from revealing the position. The whole force then waited for dawn, but it was not until the third hour that the Pompeian convoy began to lumber along the path in front of them. March discipline was poor, and many of the men who should have been acting as escort had wandered off to forage or loot. The sudden attack of the caetrati – fighting in a way which was traditional for many of the Spanish peoples – threw the whole column into confusion, many isolated individuals being cut down. Pompey’s officers then began to react and tried to rally the escorts and form a rough fighting line, but before this was complete the Sertorian close order cohorts had emerged from the woodland and charged. The Pompeians fled, their rout harried by Priscus and his 2,000 horsemen.

In any period of history, broken infantry have been at the mercy of well-handled cavalry. Priscus certainly seems to have known his trade. He had detached 250 men and sent them riding by another pass to emerge ahead of the fugitives and cut them off from the sanctuary of Pompey’s main camp. News of the ambush had prompted Pompey to send a legion under the command of Decimus Laelius to the convoy’s rescue. Priscus’ cavalry seemed to give way before this new force, wheeling off to the right, but their officers kept them under tight control and took them round to threaten the legion’s rear. Soon Laelius was under attack from Octavius and the main force in front, and from Priscus in the rear. As the situation worsened Pompey rapidly got his entire army on the move in the hope of mounting a rescue. As they moved out of camp so did Sertorius’ main force, which deployed in battle order on the opposite hillside. If Pompey advanced to aid Laelius, then he would be exposed to a massive attack from the rear and would most probably suffer a catastrophic defeat. He was therefore forced to look on as the ambush mopped up both the convoy and most of Laelius’ command. Frontinus, our main source for this episode, refers to a lost passage of Livy which claimed that Pompey suffered some 10,000 casualties in this engagement.11

Once the population of Lauron realized that their visible ally was unable to aid them, they surrendered to Sertorius. He permitted the population to go free, but razed the town itself to the ground in an effort to complete Pompey’s humiliation. It was an extremely disappointing end to Pompey’s first campaign in the peninsula, a bitter blow to a man who liked to style himself as a second Alexander the Great, but who may now have realized that he was for the first time facing a commander of real ability. Perhaps his only consolation came from Sertorius’ reluctance to fight a massed battle with him.

Things got off to a better start for Pompey in 75, for this time he came into contact with a force led by Sertorius’ subordinates, including the inept Perperna, and swiftly defeated them. Although he had planned to join forces with Metellus before confronting Sertorius himself, this easy victory seems to have led to overconfidence and a reluctance to share the credit for winning the war. Pompey hurried on to attack the main enemy army which was encamped near the River Sucro. Sertorius, knowing that Metellus was approaching and preferring to fight a single opponent rather than wait for the two to unite, this time accepted his challenge to battle. Both Pompey and Sertorius stationed themselves at the beginning of the fighting with the troops on the right flank – which was often held to be the place of honour – and left subordinates in charge of the rest of the line. After a while reports reached Sertorius that Pompey’s men were driving back the left wing of his army. Quickly he rode to that part of the field and set about restoring the situation, rallying units in flight and leading up those reserve troops which had remained steady.

His presence injected a fresh impetus into his men, who stopped the enemy and then counter-attacked, driving them back in rout. In the chaos Pompey himself was wounded in the thigh and almost captured, but managed to escape on foot when his pursuers were distracted by the expensive trappings on his horse’s harness and began to squabble over this plunder. However, in his absence, Sertorius’ own right flank had been routed by Pompey’s legate Afranius. As was often the case in ancient battles, these troops made no effort to exploit the breakthrough by rolling up the rest of the enemy line, but simply kept on going to attack and loot Sertorius’ camp. Later in the day Sertorius was able to form up sufficient troops to attack the scattered enemy and inflict heavy losses on them, whilst also retaking the encampment. On the following day Metellus’ legions arrived, dissuading Sertorius from joining battle again. He is supposed to have exclaimed that he would have finished off ‘that boy’ if that ‘old woman’ had not come up.12

With their armies united, Metellus and Pompey were too strong for Sertorius to attack, but their very numbers presented serious problems when it came to keeping the troops supplied. As they operated in the plains around Saguntum, they found their foraging parties continually under attack and in the end were forced to accept battle on Sertorius’ terms. He had been joined by Perperna, augmenting the strength of his forces. Additional encouragement to the men’s, and especially the Spaniards’, morale came when his white doe, which had gone missing, was found again and restored to health. The ensuing action was fought near the River Turia, and Metellus’ and Pompey’s legions may have been caught separately. Sertorius defeated Pompey again, driving his troops back and killing his legate and brother-in-law, Memmius. Metellus also came under heavy pressure and was himself wounded by a javelin. Surrounded by a group of his men, he was carried to safety, and if anything the incident seemed to stiffen the resolve of his men. Sertorius’ troops were probably tired, and may well have fallen into disorder during their successful advance, for they were now driven back and only their commander’s skill prevented a complete rout. On the following day he seems to have launched a surprise attack on Metellus’ camp and, although this was driven off, it did slow the enemy’s pursuit.

Yet Metellus and Pompey still scented victory, and eagerly followed the enemy as he withdrew back into the mountains. Sertorius halted when he reached the town of Clunia. Believing that they had cornered him at last, his two opponents began a blockade, but Sertorius had in fact dispatched messengers to allied communities instructing them to raise reinforcements and send them to him as soon as possible. When the large force approached, he attacked and broke through the blockade to join them. Rather than engaging the enemy’s main force, Sertorius began to attack their supply lines, raiding widely and ambushing any isolated detachments. The two generals were soon forced to withdraw back to the coastal regions, but even there maritime raiders harassed the coast and intercepted convoys of ships bringing supplies. There were few enough of these to begin with, for the Senate in Rome had sent little assistance to its commanders in Spain since the beginning of the war.

Although Sertorius was always faced with the problem of mounting a war effort funded only by the revenue gained from control of parts of the peninsula, and had no ready access to supplies of fresh Roman, rather than local, recruits, his enemies were not much better off. In the winter of 75–74, Pompey wrote to the Senate complaining of their lack of support, and saying that supplies and money barely sufficient for a single year’s campaigning had had to last him for three. His own funds, which he had freely spent to maintain the army, were exhausted, and the legions were now on the brink of starvation, with their pay hugely in arrears. The historian Sallust gives a version of the letter which ends with Pompey threatening to bring his army back to Italy. Whether or not this was so explicit or merely implied in the original, the desired result was achieved and a reinforcement of two legions along with considerable funds was swiftly dispatched to his aid.13

At about the same time Sertorius received an embassy from Mithridates of Pontus. Defeated by Sulla and forced to make peace in 85, a number of incidents, most notably the Roman annexation of Bithynia, had convinced the king that only the defeat of Rome could prevent the steady erosion of his power. Therefore he offered Sertorius an alliance, promising to send warships and money in return for Roman military advisers to retrain his army in the methods of the legions, and acknowledgement of his rightful claim to territories including the provinces of Asia and Bithynia. Sertorius put the matter before his Senate, most of whom were inclined to agree, since the loss of lands which were not under their control seemed a small price to pay for aid. His own attitude was different and once again emphasized that he saw himself first and foremost as a servant of the Republic, for he granted Mithridates the right to everything except Asia, which was an old and well-established Roman province. On hearing this reply, Mithridates is supposed to have wondered what sort of terms would be demanded by Sertorius had he actually been in control of Rome and not penned into a distant corner of Spain. Nevertheless the treaty was confirmed and forty galleys and the great sum of 3,000 talents of silver duly sent by the king.14

In the next years Metellus and Pompey again co-operated during the campaigning season, but their strategy was now far more methodical and consisted of the systematic capture of strongholds loyal to the enemy. At times Sertorius was able to thwart their attacks, replacing the timber fortifications which Pompey had burned at Pallantia before his arrival and then moving on to defeat an enemy force outside Calagurris, inflicting 3,000 casualties. Fortunes were mixed, but the final defeat of Sertorius seemed no nearer. Metellus was desperate enough to have a huge price put on his enemy’s head, promising not only land and wealth but the right for any exile to return to Rome if they killed Sertorius.15

Yet if Sertorius was not losing the war, it was by now clear that he could not win it. Only in Spain, under his command, were there any Romans who still fought against the Senate established by Sulla during his dictatorship. Sulla had retired to private life in 79 and died less than a year later. Most of his enemies were dead, and the Senate which he had enlarged with his partisans had guided the Republic for long enough to convince virtually every citizen of its legitimacy. Certainly, as the years passed the chances of Sertorius and his senate being recognized as the rightful leaders of the Republic dwindled to nothing. With Sulla gone the main reason for the war had vanished for, like all of Rome’s civil wars, the causes of this conflict were the personal rivalries of individual politicians. Even if the Senate was slow in bringing its full resources of waging war to bear against the rebels in Spain, there was no longer any doubt that it would eventually win. Sertorius seems to have realized this, and Plutarch tells us that after several of his victories he sent envoys to Metellus and Pompey offering to lay down his arms. His only condition was that he be permitted to return home to Rome and live there in retirement as a private citizen. These offers were always refused. The same drive for absolute victory which made the Romans so difficult to defeat in foreign wars ensured that their internal struggles were always waged to the death. Compromises and settlements between enemies were very rare and never proved permanent. It was perhaps a growing sense of despair which prompted Sertorius to abandon his previously frugal habits and give himself over to drunkenness and womanizing.

Sertorius fought on, but the same sense of futility pervaded the Romans with his army. There was growing resentment of the fact that he kept a bodyguard of Celtiberians, and rumours that he did not trust his own countrymen. Perperna carried on a concerted whispering campaign to subvert the authority of his commander. The Roman officers with the army became increasingly brutal in their treatment of the natives, in spite of Sertorius’ realization of the need to maintain loyalty. Such behaviour prompted rebellions, after which he felt forced to inflict savage punishment on the communities. A number of the boys attending his school were executed in response to acts of disloyalty by their parents. Over time the just administration of the provincials degenerated into despotism and the goodwill developed over the years rapidly vanished. Deserters, both Roman and Spanish, began to defect in some numbers to the enemy. The Romans may have been encouraged by legislation passed at Rome to grant pardons to Lepidus’ former supporters if they gave in. Perperna had no intention of surrender and wanted instead to seize supreme command for himself. In 72 he entertained Sertorius and some of his bodyguard at a feast and, once they were drunk, ordered soldiers to kill them all. Though his ambition raged unchecked, Perperna’s skill as a leader had not increased and he was quickly defeated by Pompey, who thus brought the war to an end.16

Sertorius was a tragic, rather romantic, figure who had the misfortune to commit himself to the losing side in a civil war. By the standards of the Roman political élite he was a decent and extremely capable man. Although a ‘new man’, he should under normal circumstances have had a highly successful career. His gifts as a leader, administrator and commander were of the highest order – Frontinus recounts far more of his stratagems than of those of any but a handful of other Roman generals – and shine through in spite of the meagre sources for his campaigns.

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