First Celtiberian War

1st Celtiberian War
Part of Celtiberian Wars
Date181 to 179 BC
Result Roman victory
Rome submits certain tribes, but allows them to keep autonomy.
Roman Republic Celtiberian tribes
Commanders and leaders
Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus

The First Celtiberian (181-179 BC) was the first of thee major rebellions by the Celtiberians against the Roman presence in Hispania. The other two were the Second Celtiberian War (154-151 BC) and the Numantine War (143-133 BC). Hispania was the name the Romans gave to the Iberian Peninsula. In those days Spain and Portugal did not exist. The peninsula was inhabited by various ethnic groups and numerous tribes. The Celtiberians were a confederation of five tribes which lived in large area of east central Hispania, to the west of Hispania Citerior. The eastern part of their territory shared a stretch of the border of this Roman province. The Celtiberian tribes were the Pellendones, the Arevaci, the Lusones, the Titti and the Belli. The third major rebellion by the Celtiberians was the Numantine war (143-133 BC).

The Romans took over the territories of the Carthaginians in southern Hispania when they defeated them at the Battle of Ilipa in 206 BC during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). After the war they remained and in 197 BC they established two Roman colonies: Hispania Citerior (Nearer Spain) along most of the east coast, an area roughly corresponding to the modern autonomous communities of Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia, and Hispania Ulterior (Further Spain) in the south, roughly corresponding to modern Andalusia. There were numerous rebellions by many tribes of Hispania, including tribes both inside and outside Roman territory, in most years for 98 years, until the end of the First Celtiberian War in 179 BC. For details of these rebellions see the Roman conquest of Hispania article. The First Celtiberian War was one of the two major rebellions during this period, during which the Celtiberians were the major source of revolt.

The First Celtiberian War (181-179 BC)

As already mentioned, the First Celtiberian war was part of a period of 98 years of rebellions against the Roman presence in Hispania by various tribes in Hispania. The Celtiberians were a major source of revolt and this was the peak of this in this period. The military command the praetors Pulbius Manlius and Quintus Fulvius Flaccus had been given for Hispania Ulterior and Citerior respectively in 182 BC and this was extended to 181 BC. They received reinforcements of 3,000 Roman and 6,000 allied infantry and 200 Roman and 300 allied cavalry. The Celtiberians gathered 35,000 men. Livy wrote: ‘hardly ever before had they raised so large a force’. Quintus Fulvius Flaccus drew as many auxiliary troops form the friendly tribes as he could, but his numbers were inferior. He went to Carpetania (in south central Hispania, to the south Celtiberia) and encamped near Aebura (Talavera de la Reina, in western part of the modern province of Toledo; it was at the edge of the territory of the Vettones). He sent a small detachment to occupy the town. A few days later the Celtiberians encamped at the foot of a hill two miles from the Romans. The praetor sent his brother, Marcus Fulvius, with two squadrons of native cavalry for reconnaissance with instructions to get as close to the enemy rampant as possible to get an idea of the size of the camp. If enemy's cavalry spotted him he was to withdraw. For a few days nothing happened. Then the Celtiberian army drew up midway between the two camps, but the Romans did not respond. They did this for four days. After this they rested in their camp. Both cavalries went out on patrol. Both sides went out to collect wood at the rear of their camps without interfering with each other.[1]

When the praetor thought that the enemy would not expect action, he sent Lucius Acilius to go around the hill behind the enemy camp with a contingent of troops of Latin allies and 6,000 native auxiliaries. He was to charge down on the enemy camp. They marched at night to elude detection. At dawn Lucius Acilius sent Gaius Scribonius, the commander of the allies, to the enemy rampant with his cavalry. When the Celtiberians saw them they sent out their cavalry and signalled their infantry to advance. Gaius Scribonius tuned round and made for the Roman camp as per instructions. When Quintus Fulvius Flaccus thought that the Celtiberians were sufficiently drawn away from guarding their camp he came out of the camp with his army which had been drawn up in three separate corps behind the rampant. Meanwhile, the cavalry on the hill changed down, as instructed, on the enemy camp, which had no more than 5,000 guards. The camp was taken with little resistance. Acilius set fire to that part of it which could be seen from the battlefield. Word spread through the Celtiberian line that the camp was lost. For a while they were unsure about what to do. Then they resumed the fight as it was their only hope. The Celtiberian centre was hard pressed by the fifth legion. However, they advanced against the left flank of the Romans, which had native auxiliaries. This flank would have been repulsed had the seventh legion not come to the aid. The troops which were at Aebura turned up and, as Acilius was at the enemy's rear, the Celtiberians were sandwiched and cut to pieces; 23,000 died and 4,700 were captured. On the other side, 200 Romans, 800 allies and 2,400 native auxiliaries fell. Aebura was seized.[2]

Quintus Fulvius Flaccus then marched across Carpetania and went to Contrebia (near Botorrita, in the province of Zaragoza, Aragon). The townsfolk sent for Celtiberian assistance, but it did not come and they surrendered. The Celtiberians had been delayed by incessant winter rain which caused floods and made the roads impassable and the rivers difficult to cross. Heavy storms forced Flaccus to move his army into the city. When the rain stopped the Celtiberians went on the march without knowing about the city's surrender. They saw no Roman camp and thought that it had been moved elsewhere or that the Romans had withdrawn. They approached the city without taking precautions and without proper formation. The Romans made a sortie from the two city gates. Caught by surprise the Celtiberians were routed. Not being in formation made resistance impossible, but it helped the majority to escape. Still, 12,000 men died and 5,000 men and 400 horses were captured. The fugitives bumped into another body of Celtiberians on its way to Contrebia which, on being told about the defeat, dispersed. Quintus Fulvius marched through Celtiberian territory, ravaged the countryside and stormed many forts until the Celtiberians surrendered.[3]

In 180 BC the praetors Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was assigned the command Hispania Citerior and thus was responsible for the war with the Celtiberians. Messengers arrived in Rome. They brought news of the Celtiberian surrender, told the senate that there was no need to send subsidies for the army as the Hispania Citerior was now able to sustain itself and requested that Flaccus be allowed to bring back his army. Livy wrote that this was a must because the soldiers were determined to go back home and it seemed impossible to keep them in Hispania any longer. It was possible that they might mutiny. Tiberius Gracchus objected to this because he did not want to lose the veterans and have an army of raw and undisciplined recruits. A compromise was reached. Gracchus was ordered to levy two legions (5,200 infantry but only 400 cavalry instead of the usual 600) and an additional 1,000 infantry and 50 cavalry plus 7,000 Latin infantry and 300 cavalry (a total of 13,200 infantry and 750 cavalry). Flaccus was allowed to bring back home veterans who had been sent to Hispania before 186 BC, while those who arrived after that date were to remain. He could bring back the number which was in excess of 14,000 infantry and 600 cavalry.[4]

Since his successor was late, Flaccus started a third campaign against the Celtiberians who had not surrendered, ravaging the more distant parts of Celtiberia. This caused them to secretly gathered an army. They planned to strike at the Manlian Pass, which the Romans would have needed to pass through. However, Tiberius Gracchus told his colleague, Lucius Postumius, who was on his way to Hispania to inform him that he was to bring his army to Tarraco (Tarragona), where Gracchus was to disband the old army and incorporate the new troops, and that he was due to arrive soon. Flaccus had to abandon his campaign and withdraw from Celtiberia. The Celtiberians thought that Flaccus was fleeing because he had become aware of their rebellion and continued to prepare their trap at the Manlian pass. When the Romans entered the pass they were attacked on both sides. Quintus Fulvius ordered his men to hold their ground. The pack animals and the baggage were piled up in one place. The battle was desperate. The native auxiliaries could not hold their ground against men who were armed in the same way but were a better class of soldiers. Seeing that they were no match for the Roman legions, the Celtiberians bore down on them in wedge formation and almost broke their line. Flaccus ordered the cavalry to close ranks and charge the enemy wedge with loose reigns. The men dropped the reins and charged. The wedge was scattered and suffered heavy losses. This inspired the native auxiliary cavalry which also let their horses loose on the enemy. The wedge broke and the enemy scattered through the whole defile. The Celtiberians lost 17,000 men; 4,000 men and 600 horses were captured; 472 Romans, 1,019 Latin allies and 3,000 native auxiliaries died. The Romans encamped outside the pass and marched to Tarraco the next day.[5] Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus had landed two days earlier. The two commanders selected the soldiers who were to be discharged and those who were to remain. Flaccus returned to Rome with his veterans and Gracchus went to Celtiberia.[6]

In his account of this war, Appian wrote that the rebellion was by the tribes which lived along the River Iberus (the Greek name for the Ebro), including the Lusones (a small Celtiberian tribe in the north of Celtiberia, in the high Tajuña River valley, northeast of Guadalajara). He held that the rebellion was caused by the tribes having insufficient land. Whether this was the actual cause of the war is uncertain. He wrote that Quintus Fulvius defeated these tribes. Most of them scattered but those which were destitute and were nomadic fled to Complega, a newly built and fortified city which had grown rapidly. They sent messengers who demanded Flaccus to compensate them with a sagos (a Celtic word for cloak), a horse and a sword for every man who was killed in the battle and that the Romans leave Hispania or suffer the consequences. Flaccus said that he would give them plenty of cloaks, followed the messengers and encamped in front of the city. The inhabitants, feeling intimidated, fled and plundered the fields of the neighbouring tribes along their way.[7]

In 179 BC Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Lucius Postumius Albinus, who was in charge of the other Roman province (Hispania Ulterior), had their commands extended. They were reinforced with 3,000 Roman and 5,000 Latin infantry and 300 Roman and 400 Latin cavalry. They planned a joint operation. Lucius Postumius Albinus, whose province had been quiet, was to march against the Vaccaei (a people who lived to the east of Celtiberia) via eastern Lusitania and, return to Celtiberia if there was a greater war there. Tiberius Gracchus was to head into the furthest part of Celtiberia. As he was the governor of Hispania Citerior he was responsible for the war with the Celtiberians. He first took the city of Munda [8] by storm with an unexpected attack at night. He took hostages, left a garrison and burned the countryside until he reached the powerful town which the Celtiberian called Certima. A delegation from the town arrived while he was preparing the siege machines. They did not disguise the fact that they would fight to the end if they had the strength as they asked to be allowed to go to the Celtiberian camp to ask for help. If this was rejected they would consult among themselves. Gracchus gave them permission. After a few days they returned with ten other envoys. They asked for something to drink. Then they asked for a second cup. Livy wrote that this caused 'laughter at such uncultured ignorance of all etiquette’. Then the oldest man said that they had been sent to enquire what the Romans relied on to attack them. Gracchus replied that he relied on an excellent army and invited them to see it for themselves. He ordered the entire army to march in review under arms. The envoys left and discouraged their people from sending aid to the besieged city. The townsfolk surrendered. An indemnity was imposed on them and they had to give forty young nobles to serve in the Roman army as a pledge of loyalty.[9]

After Certima, Tiberius Gracchus went to Alce,[10] where the Celtiberian camp the envoys had come from was. For a few days he just harassed the enemy by sending larger and larger contingents of skirmishers against their outposts, hoping to draw the enemy out. When the enemy responded he ordered the native auxiliaries to offer only slight resistance and then retreat hastily to the camp, pretending that they had been overwhelmed. He placed his men behind the gates of the rampant of the camp. When the enemy pursued the retreating units in a disorderly manner and came to close range, the Romans came out from all the gates. Caught by surprise, the enemy was routed and lost 9,000 men and 320 men and 112 horses where captured; 109 Romans fell. Gracchus then marched further into Celtiberia, which he plundered. The tribes submitted. In a few days 103 towns surrendered. He then returned to Alce and begun to besiege the city. The townsfolk resisted the first assaults, but when the siege engines were deployed they withdrew to the citadel and then sent envoys to offer their surrender. Many nobles were taken, including the two sons and the daughter of Thurru, a Celtiberian chief. According to Livy he was by far the most powerful man in Hispania. Thurru asked for safe conduct to visit Tiberius Gracchus. He asked him whether he and his family would be allowed to live. When Gracchus replied affirmatively he asked if he was allowed to serve with the Romans. Gracchus granted this. From then on Thurru followed and helped the Romans in many places.[11]

Ergavica, another powerful Celtiberian city, was alarmed about the defeats of its neighbours and opened its gates to the Romans. Livy noted that some of his sources held that these surrenders were in bad faith because whenever Gracchus left hostilities resumed and there was also a major battle near Mons Chaunus (probably Moncayo Massif), which lasted from dawn to midday with many casualties on both sides. They also held that three days later there was a bigger battle which cost the defeated Celtiberians 22,000 casualties and the capture of 300 men and 300 horses. This was a decisive defeat which ended the war for real and the peace now was not insincere. Livy also noted that according to these sources Lucius Postumius Albinus won a great battle against the Vaccaei, killing 35,000. Livy thought that ‘it would be nearer the truth to say that he arrived in his province too late in the summer to undertake a campaign’.[12] Livy did not give any explanation for his doubts about this information about Lucius Postumius Albinus. He did not write anything about his campaigns on his authority either. Lucius Postumius went to Hispania the previous year. Moreover, in earlier passage Livy wrote that he arrived in Hispania before Tiberius Gracchus, who gave him a message with instructions for his predecessor, Quintus Fulvius Flaccus.[13]

Appian wrote about two more episodes about the campaign of Tiberius Gracchus. He wrote that the city of Caravis (Magallon, in north-western Aragon), an ally of Rome, was besieged by 20,000 Celtiberians. Gracchus was informed that it would fall soon. He hurried there, but he could not alert them that he was nearby. The commander of the cavalry, Cominius had the idea of wearing a Hispanic sagum (a military cloak), mingle in the enemy camp and make his way to the town. He informed the townsfolk that Gracchus was nearby and told them to hold out a bit longer. Three days later Gracchus attacked the besiegers, who fled.[14] At about the same time, the people of the town of Complega (location is unknown) which, had 20,000 inhabitants, went to Tiberius Grachus’ camp pretending to be peace negotiators. They attacked unexpectedly. This threw the Romans in disarray. Gracchus quickly abandoned the camp in a feigned retreat. Then he turned on them while they were plundering the camp and killed most of them. He went on to seize Complega. He then allocated land to the poor and made carefully defined treaties with the surrounding tribes and the surrounding country, binding them to be friends of Rome.[15]

Gracchus founded the colony (settlement) of Gracchurris (Alfaro, in La Rioja, northern Hispania) in the Upper Ebro Valley. This marked the beginning of Roman influence in northern Hispania. It was thought that this was the only colony he founded. However, in the 1950s an inscription was found near Mangibar, on the banks of the River Baetis (Guadalquivir) which attests that he founded another one. It was Iliturgi, a mining town and a frontier outpost. Gracchus therefore established a colony outside his province as ti was in Hispania Ulterior.[16]


It is unlikely that the First Celtiberian War was a full-scale war. Despite its short duration duration, Gracchus had time to found settlements. Appian wrote that his ‘treaties were longed for in subsequent wars’.[17] Unlike previous praetors he spent time to negotiate and cultivate personal relations with tribal leaders. This was reminiscent of the friendly relations established by Scio Africanus during the Second Punic War.[18][19] Gracchus imposed the vicensima, the requisition 5% of the grain harvest, a form of tax which was more efficient and less vulnerable to abuse than the usual Roman practice of tendering tax collection to private ‘tax farmers.’ Silva notes this is the first reference to a regulatory collection of revenue.[20] His treaties stipulated that the allies were to provide the Romans with auxiliary troops. They also established that the natives could fortify existing cities, but not found new ones.[21] There is some evidence that he introduced civilian administrative measures, such the issuing of rights for mining to mint coins and the construction of roads.[22] Gracchus is remembered for his administrative arrangements which ensured peace in the conquered territory for the next quarter of a century.[23]

Apart from a few minor episodes, Hispania remained quiet until the outbreak of the Lusitanian War (155-150 BC) and the Second Celtiberian War (154-151 BC).


  1. Livy, The History of Rome, 40.30
  2. Livy, The History of Rome, 40.31, 32.
  3. Livy, The History of Rome, 40.33
  4. Livy, The History of Rome, 40.35.8-13; 40.36.7-10
  5. Livy, The History of Rome, 40.39.1-8; 40.1-13
  6. Livy, The History of Rome, 40.40.14-15
  7. Appian, Roman History, The Foreign Wars, Book 6, The Spanish wars, 42
  8. This must be an unknown town as the well-known town of Munda, near which Julius Caesar fought the last battle of his civil war, was in Baetica (Andalusia), in the south
  9. Livy,The History of Rome,; 40.47
  10. It was probably the Alces which the Antonine itinerary placed between Augusta Emerita (Mérida) and Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza)
  11. Livy, The History of Rome, 40.48, 49.
  12. Livy, The History of Rome, 40.50
  13. Livy, The History of Rome, 40.39.3; 41.3.1
  14. Appian, Roman History, The Foreign Wars, Book 6, The Spanish wars, 43
  15. Appian, Roman History, The Foreign Wars, Book 6, The Spanish wars, 43
  16. Knapp, R. C., Aspects of The Roman Experience in Iberia 206 BC-100 BC, p. 110, n. 18
  17. Appian, Roman History, The Foreign Wars, Book 6, The Spanish wars, 43
  18. Livy, The History of Rome, 40.47.3-10; 40.49.4-7
  19. Silva, L., Viriathus and the Lusitanian Resistance to Rome, p. 58
  20. Silva, L., Viriathus and the Lusitanian Resistance to Rome, p. 263 n. 75
  21. Curchin, L., A., A Roman Spain, pp. 32-33
  22. Richardson, J., R., Hispaniae, Spain and the Development of Roman Imperialism, pp. 112-123
  23. Silva, L., Viriathus and the Lusitanian Resistance to Rome, p. 58


Primary sources
Secondary sources in English
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