Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain – Philip Matyszak

traitor or Hero?

Quintus Sertorius is one of the more interesting characters to rise out of the better documented periods in Roman History, the late Republic. Virtually every other person you come across falls into a standard group – the politicians, aristocrat or ‘populares’ are familiar to us these days, and more similar in how they behave than different, despite the positions they stake out.  The Generals, too, seem to fit a similar mold.  Some are brilliant, some are dolts, but military men all the same.  The corrupt ones that rape provinces or wheedle out deals in the capital are all too familiar.

Sertorius is different.  He was a fine officer in the Roman Army, winning decorations for courage and losing an eye in combat.  The first Civil War broke out when Marius tried to steal the commission for war against Mithridates from Sulla, the consul.  Sulla marched his army on Rome and took it, passing a death sentence on Marius.  Sulla then left for the war in Asia Minor.

This gave Marius and the anti-Sullans room for a comeback and they took it and Rome.  There were even more atrocities than in the first taking of the city, soon followed by Marius dropping dead.  Sertorius, disgusted at the acts of Marius’ motley army surrounded their encampment and butchered them.  Matters in Italy entered a holding pattern for some years until Sulla returned.  When he did, incompetent leadership at the helm of the war effort so disgusted Sertorius that he left Italy and moved to Spain to take up resistance to Sulla there.

This is when Sertorius started to change from yet-another-general to something unique. The first army sent after him was too large for him to defeat, so he fled to Africa. When the army came after him, he managed to kill its general in a skirmish and recruit the army to join him.  Now he had an army and a province.  And soon he heard that the Romans in Spain were squeezing money out of the country to pay for the ruin of the Civil War and they wanted Sertorius to help.  He soon routed the Sullan forces and became effectively the war leader of all Spain.  He even tried to meld Roman government with Iberian customs to make a new nation.

He also invented a new mix of the hit and run brigandry of Spain’s traditional tribes with some Roman ideas and created a force that could crush Roman forces if it caught them in a bad position and vanish into the wild when it couldn’t.  Bad commanders would be ruined, and even good ones had to be very careful.  From 80 BC to 74 BC Sertorius checked first one army under Metellus Pius, then a second under Pompey the Great.  He defeated the overconfident Pompey several times, but could not drive him off and the tides started to turn.  Finally Metellus and Pompey offered a large reward for someone to murder Sertorius.  One of his Roman officers murdered him, and soon after that Pompey caught up to his remnants of Sertorius’ army and destroyed it and its general.  This war in Spain was over.

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