Sertorian War

The Sertorian War was a conflict of the Roman civil wars in which a coalition of Iberians and Romans fought against the representatives of the regime established by Sulla. It takes its name from Quintus Sertorius, the main leader of the opposition to Sulla. The war lasted from 80 BC to 72 BC. The war is notable for Sertorius' successful use of guerrilla warfare. The war ended after Sertorius was assassinated by Marcus Perperna who was then promptly defeated by Pompey.[1]

Origin of the War

Discontented Lusitanians decided to send envoys to Sertorius who at the time was in North Africa. The Lusitanians chose Sertorius because of the mild policy he had pursued while governor in 82 BC.[2] The Lusitani had a long history of resistance to Rome.[3] Some historians have concluded that the Lusitani were seeking independence and by taking over the leadership of the movement Sertorius was opposing Rome itself.[4] Philip Spann considers this unlikely, as for Sertorius to accept such a treasonable offer would be to destroy any hope of returning to Rome. More likely the offer grew out of an acceptance by the Lusitani that they would not be able to defeat Rome and that their best hope was to assist the establishment in Rome of a regime sympathetic to them.[5] Spann suggests that a major reason for Sertorius' acceptance was that it was becoming clearer that there would be no amnesty for him and his followers nor reconciliation with the regime set up by Sulla.[6]

Sertorius returns to Iberia

In 80 BC Sertorius, after defeating a naval force under Aurelius Cotta, landed in the Iberian Peninsula.[7] Plutarch's account implies that Sertorius went first to Lusitania, organized the tribes and only then returned to the Baetis valley to defeat a Roman force. Spann suggests that a more probably sequence is that the Battle of the Baetis River occurred during Sertorius' initial march to Lusitania.[8]

Appointment of Metellus

Concerned at the growing threat, the authorities in Rome appointed Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius as governor of Hispania Ulterior.[9] Metellus, basing himself at Metellinum (modern Medellin), made several thrusts into the interior,[9] but was thwarted by Sertorius who used guerrilla tactics so effectively that after two years Metellus was exhausted.[10] Meanwhile Sertorius' subordinate, Lucius Hirtuleius, was able to defeat Marcus Domitius Calvinus.[9] In 77 BC he was joined by Perpenna who brought the remnant of the army of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus from Sardinia.[9] However Perpenna had only reluctantly agreed to put himself under Sertorius' command; when his men had heard that Pompey had been sent to Iberia they had demanded that Perpenna join up with Sertorius.[11]

Metellus and Pompey versus Sertorius

Pompey's first aim, on arrival in Iberia, was to clear the coastal road. Initially successful when facing Sertorius' subordinates, he was forced back when he faced Sertorius himself.[12] Meanwhile, Metellus brought Hirtuleius to battle at Italica and defeated him.[12] The next year, in 75 BC, there were three major battles, two of whose locations is disputed. Metellus defeated and killed Hirtuleius in a battle which Scullard takes to have been near the Segovia in central Spain.[12] Philip Spann considers Segovia in Baetica a more likely site of the battle – if indeed it was fought near either Segovia.[13] Sertorius on hearing of Hirtuleius defeat seems to have decided to attempt to defeat Pompey before Metellus and Pompey could join forces. At the Battle of Sucro, Sertorius met Pompey's army and though he defeated one wing forcing Pompey to flee, his other wing had been defeated in the meantime so the end result was a draw.[14] The third major battle, in which Sertorius faced the combined forces of Pompey and Metellus, is normally taken to be near Saguntum.[12] Philip Spann considers this to be a misreading of the sources arguing that an inland site must be intended, arguing for one or other of the two cities named Segontia.[15] It is probable that the battle was forced on Sertorius against his better judgement by the Roman section of his force who would have little sympathy for Sertorius' guerrilla tactics.[16] In the event, in the battle, the largest of the war, Sertorius was defeated.[17]

The war during the year 74 BC is poorly documented. Pompey and Metellus concentrated their effors on the lands of the Celtiberians and the Vaccae.[18] Overall, however, it seems that Sertorius' position was somewhat eroded.[19]

Division in the Sertorian Camp

During 73 BC there was a growing division between the Roman and Iberian elements of the Sertorian coalition.[20] Plutarch tells how the Romans meted out harsh treatment to the Iberians, blaming their actions on Sertorius' orders.[21] It is normally assumed that Perperna made his move to assassinate Sertorius in 72 BC.[22] However there are strong arguments in favor of 73 BC.[20] After the assassination, Perperna, with his army, was lured into an ambush and captured by Pompey.[23]


In the view of Scullard, Pompey's treatment of Hispania was humane relative to the normal roman treatment for traitors and rebels. Citizenship was given to many supporters and a group of fanatical opponents were resettled to Lugdunum Convenarum in southern Gaul.[22]


  1. Dupuy and Dupuy, The Encyclopaedia of Military History, p. 93
  2. Philip Spann, Quintus Sertorius and the Legacy of Sulla, p. 54
  3. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 58-9
  4. H. Berve, "Sertorius", Hermes 64 (1929) p. 221
  5. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 59-60
  6. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 55
  7. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 56-7
  8. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 57-8
  9. 1 2 3 4 H. H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero,p. 90
  10. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 69-71
  11. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 86
  12. 1 2 3 4 Scullard, Gracchi to Nero, p. 91
  13. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 110
  14. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 111-2
  15. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 114-5
  16. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 114
  17. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 113-5
  18. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 124-5
  19. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 127
  20. 1 2 Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 128
  21. Plutarch, Lives, Sertorius, 25, University of Chicago
  22. 1 2 Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero, p. 92
  23. Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 135


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