How did Sertorius impact the Roman World?

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A bust of Sertorius

The period before the Fall of the Roman Republic was a dramatic and bloody period and it produced many remarkable leaders and generals. One of those figures was Sertorius (123-72 BC), who is often regarded as one of Rome’s most talented generals and a figure who, if he had not been assassinated could have changed the course of ancient history. This largely neglected general and politicians was a crucial figure in the civil wars that ended the Roman Republic. Moreover, if he had lived he could have established a Romano-Iberian Republic, that could have potentially challenged Rome’s supremacy in the Mediterranean.

Background

A medieval manuscript of a battle in the Sertorian Wars

The Roman Republic in the 80s BC had been riven by violent political divisions. The Optimates, who were loyal to the Senatorial elite were pitched in a bloody struggle with the Populares, who claimed to be representing the common citizen body in Rome and the provincials [1]. Sulla, who was loyal to the Senate had marched on Rome in 88 BC with an army after his victory in the Social War. He captured the city to prevent Marius, head of the popular party from becoming Consul. [2]. Sulla re-imposed the authority of the Senatorial elite and purged Rome of the supporters of Marius. However, before he could complete the destruction of the popular party he was summoned by the Senate to fight King Mithridates IV of Pontus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). In his absence Cinna led a revolution and deposed the Optimates and established a populist government. Marius returned from exile and this led to a bloody purge of the aristocrats and their adherents [3]. In 83 BC Sulla, after his defeat of Mithridates IV, once more marched on Rome and re-imposed an Optimates government on the Republic.

The Life and career of Sertorius

Quintus Sertorius was born in Norscia (modern Perugia), in Sabine territory to the south of Rome. His family were local notables who were also citizens of Rome [4]. As a member of the provincial elite he and his family would have been marginalized by the Senatorial elite. Sertorius would naturally have gravitated towards the popular party as a result. He seemed to have been educated in Rome and was regarded as an accomplished jurist and public speaker. When the Cimbri and Teutones invaded Italy he was a member of Marius’ army which defeated the Germans tribes at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae (102 BC). In 97 BC he served in the Spanish province of Hispania where he suppressed a revolt and was awarded Rome’s highest award for bravery, the ‘grass crown’ [5]. Sertorius later became a Quaestor and fought in the Social War (88-91 BC). When Sulla advanced on Rome, Sertorius, was forced to flee. However, he returned when Sulla left for the east and participated in the political violence that ravaged the city. Sertorius led one of the three armies that drove Sulla’s party from power. The re-establishment of the rule of the popular party was followed by a bloody purge of aristocrats and their supporters. Marius assembled a legion of slaves who committed many atrocities in the city. Sertorius to his credit did not take part in these and he persuaded Marius to limit the violence. He later massacred the slaves who had killed so many during a night-time attack on their camp [6]. Sertorius retreated to Spain with a small army before Sulla returned in 83 BC and ended the rule of the popular party, once more.

Sertorian Wars

A bust of Pompey

The so-called Sertorian wars were fought between Sertorius, the remnants of the Popular party and the Roman Senate. Sertorius was able to secure the Spanish provinces and he soon made himself popular with the local tribes by his mild government and his army’s disciplined behavior [7]. However, after his legate was murdered a Sullan army was able to cross the Pyrenees and ousted Sertorius, who was forced to flee to North Africa. After a number of escapades and adventures, he was able to defeat a force sent by Rome. Later, the powerful and large Lusitanian tribe who lived in modern Portugal they invited him to lead their army [8]. They hated the legates that Sulla had imposed on them and they believed that Sertorius based on his previous government was a better alternative. The Roman understood the local Iberians culture and he forged an alliance between them and the many Romans who flocked to him, to escape the vengeful fury of Sulla. Sertorius was able to seize most of Spain except for the east coast and the Balearic Islands. Rome sent a large army, under the distinguished General Metellus. The wily Sertorius was able to use guerrilla tactics to wear down the superior army and to even extend his control in Spain, until he controlled nearly all of the Iberian Peninsula [9]. His tactic was to use his Spanish tribesmen to wear down the Senatorial army. The Senate recognized that the Republic was in danger of losing all of Iberia. It sent the talented young general Pompey, later to be regarded as one of the greatest commanders in the history of the Republic. In 73 BC Sertorius met the legions of Pompey outside the city of Laroun. Here Sertorius inflicted a bloody defeat on the Pompeiian army and it was only the arrival of Metelleus that prevented the complete annihilation of the legions of the Senate. Later Sertorius fought a much later force at Sucro (74 BC) which ended in a stalemate. While in 75 BC Sertorius was once again able to inflict heavy casualties on his enemies, using guerrilla tactics and this forced Pompey to write to the Senate begging for more reinforcements [10]. At this time the de-facto ruler of much of modern Spain and Portugal was conspiring with the enemies of the Republic including with Mithridates IV. At the battle of Saguntum, the Sertorian army fought a bloody draw with Pompey in 75 BC. However, Sertorius’ coalition of Iberians and Romans was breaking down and he was undermined by internal plots. According to Plutarch, the general had become an alcoholic and had abandoned his traditional policy of clemency. Despite this it appears that his army remained in the field and was far from being defeated [11]. He was assassinated by some of his own party, because they had begun to resent his increasingly erratic leadership. His position was seized by one of his assassins Perpena, but he was later crushed in battle by Pompey. The Iberian provinces were once more in the orbit of Rome and were to remain so until the death throes of the Western Empire in the mid-5th century.


Sertorius and the Popular Party

The future ruler of an independent Iberia was also a major player in the Civil Wars of the 80s BC. He was arguably the reason why the popular party were able to recapture Rome. Sertorius proved himself to be a shrewd and capable politician. During the government of Cinna and Marius he tried to moderate their policies [12]. Unlike them, Sertorius, was believed never to have killed a person out of hatred or vengeance. However, the brutality of the policies of Cinna and Marius appalled him, and he became increasingly disillusioned with Rome itself. However, even after he fled the advance of Sulla he remained a staunch opponent of the Optimates. Sertorius wanted to preserve not only the cause of the popular Roman party but to create a new Republic in Spain that was the embodiment of its ideals and beliefs. His death in 73 BC ended these ambitions.

Independent Iberia

Sertorius was able to rule most of Iberia for over six years. During that time, he won the support of the various Spanish tribes by his moderate government. He was able to persuade them that he could protect them against the brutality of the Republican governors who were imposed on them by the Senate. His own policy of mercy was a contrast with previous administrations and this won him the loyalty of many tribes. The various tribes came to genuinely believe that Sertorius would protect their interests against Rome. Much of this was because he was a brilliant politician and something of a showman. Sertorius used a white faun which he claimed was an oracle of the Goddess Diana to win the support of the more credulous among the tribal leaders [13]. The rebellious general was able to create a nascent state which was based on an alliance between Iberians and Roman exiles. According to Plutarch, Sertorius established a Senate in Iberia. This was composed of both locals and exiles from Rome and numbered 300 strong and there were also offices such as Quaestor [14]. Sertorius also established a school for the children of Spanish nobles where they were instructed in Latin and Greek culture. The general had hoped to establish an independent Iberian state and if he succeed it would have potentially been a rival to Rome itself. However, the assassination of Sertorius ended this possibility. It could be argued that the idea of an independent and united state in Iberia was unlikely. After all, before the general's assassination the alliance between the Latins and the Iberians was breaking down and Sertorius had even executed some of the noble Iberian children that had attended the school he founded, when their fathers rebelled. However, he had a lasting influence on the provinces of Iberia as his polices were crucial in the eventual Romanization of the region [15].

Sertorius and the Fall of the Roman Republic

Plutarch reports that the ruler of the Romano-Iberian state was a patriot, but this did not prevent him from conspiring with the enemies of Rome. For example, he intrigued with Spartacus during the Third Servile War. It is also claimed that he had entered into an alliance with the infamous Cillician pirates, who dominated the Mediterranean Sea for decades and by the 70s BC were even threatening Italy’s trade and food supplies [16]. It has been established that Sertorius has entered into communications with Mithridates IV of Pontus who was engaged in a brutal war with the Republic. If Sertorius had been able to forge an alliance with all these enemies this could have proven to be an existential threat to the Roman Empire. However, Sertorius was not able to perfect his plans and with his death the threat to Rome had passed. This is another example of how this rebel against the rule of the Senatorial elite was not just a threat to the rule of the traditional elite but the Republic, itself. Perhaps his greatest impact, was one that was unintentional. His rebellion like those of Marius, Sulla and others, contributed to the end of the Republic and the emergence of an Imperial system. The ruler of Iberia was among those ambitious generals who destabilized the Republic and who paved the way for the rule by a single autocrat [17].

A 17th century Dutch painting of Sertorius

Conclusion

Sertorius is now largely forgotten but he was a very important figure. Firstly, he played a critical role in the revolution that brought the populists back to power in the Republic and he was also one of those whose actions led to the Fall of the Republic. He was a great general and his use of guerrilla tactics and pitched battles was most unusual for the time. His ability was much admired, and some ancient commentators compared him to Hannibal. Sertorius was also a remarkable politician and he had a vision of creating a Republic in Iberia. This could have changed the history of that region and the entire Mediterranean. Moreover, his campaign and his attempts to enter into an alliance with the enemies of the Republic posed a real threat to Rome. His assassination meant that none of his ambitions were achieved and his career was one that ended in total failure.

Further Reading

Konrad, C. F. "A new chronology of the Sertorian war." Athenaeum 83 (1995): 157.

Wylie, Graham. "The genius and the sergeant: Sertorius versus Pompey." Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History 6 (1992): 145-62.

Millar, Fergus. The crowd in Rome in the late Republic. No. 22. (Michigan, University of Michigan Press, 2002).

von Ungern-Sternberg, Jurgen. "The crisis of the republic." The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic (2014): 84-5.

References

  1. Hildinger, Erik. Swords Against the Senate: The Rise of the Roman Army and the Fall of the Republic (New York, Da Capo Press, 2002), p 112
  2. Plutarch, Life of Sulla, 5, 7
  3. Hildinger, p 116
  4. Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, 3. 1
  5. Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, 3, 7
  6. Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, 4, 1
  7. Philip Matysak, Sertorius and the struggle for Spain (Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2013), p 14
  8. Matysak, p 18
  9. Matysak, p. 47
  10. Matysak, p. 61
  11. Matysak, p 61
  12. Hildinger, p 96
  13. Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, 7, 1
  14. Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, 7. 8
  15. Matyzak, p 119
  16. Holland, Tom. Rubicon (Longman, London, 2006), p 117
  17. Holland, p 167
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