In 75 BC, the last clashes of a great Roman Civil War were being fought in the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal). On the one hand you had Sertorius, a former supporter of Gaius Marius who had vowed to fight on. Over the previous years, seemingly against all odds, Sertorius had risen to take control over almost all of Roman Hispania.
Confronting Sertorius was the Roman regime created by Marius’ great rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla himself had perished a couple of years earlier.
For the ‘Sullan Regime’, the Iberian situation had – almost unbelievably – become drastic. Only their most prestigious commander in the region, Metellus Pius, remained with a sizeable force to combat Sertorius. Yet even he now struggled to contain the growing threat.
Rome agreed to send a new army to deal with the threat and selected one of their most ambitious commanders to lead the force. A man who was still young for leadership, yet whose previous military victories had already gained him much fame: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus.
By the time of Sertorius’ rise in Hispania, many viewed Pompey as the greatest military talent of the time. When he reached Hispania, Pompey faced a foe that many viewed as more than just a man. To almost all that followed Sertorius, his rise against all odds had transformed him into a living legend.
He was a romanticised resistance leader openly defying a new political system in his homeland. Some believed he was favoured by the gods. Sertorius even claimed he received advice from the Goddess Diana from his domesticated hind.
No longer did Sertorius’ foes mock him as commanding a ‘ragtag’ army of Populares, Spaniards and Africans. His force became one of the most battle-hardened, well-trained and disciplined armies of the time.
‘The Great’ vs ‘The One-Eyed’
If Pompey did not realise how powerful an enemy he was facing initially, then he quickly learned the hard way. On multiple occasions, he fell victim to Sertorius’ cunning and military expertise, suffering personal humiliation and demoralising defeats. The ‘Roman Alexander,’ who prided himself as one of the greatest generals of the time, met his match.
Yet despite these setbacks, gradually Sertorius’ forces began to lose steam. Whenever he gained a victory over Pompey or Metellus, his subordinates lost a battle somewhere else. Sertorius, unable to afford to lose as many men as his counterparts, quickly realised he had to change tactics. A decisive battle had to be fought where he could crush the two opposing generals.
The need for speed
Soon enough that chance came. Knowing Pompey would rather avoid sharing a victory with Metellus, persuading him to open battle proved easy enough. But the window of opportunity was short: Metellus and his army were not far away.
Both sides hoped for a quick, decisive victory before his arrival. With both forces likely numbering around 30-40,000 men, they formed up against each other somewhere along the River Sucro. Although our knowledge of the battle is vague at best, certain key moments do survive.
At first, everything appeared to be going well for Pompey. Commanding the right side of his force himself, his men gradually began to push back the opposing Sertorians. Yet his early progress almost proved his undoing. Hearing that his left flank was crumbling to Pompey’s onslaught, Sertorius quickly relocated himself to that side of the battle. Rallying his troops, the tide began to turn against Pompey. Facing troops inspired by a legendary general, Pompey’s troops gave ground.
Pompey was in a perilous position. ‘Sulla’s Pupil’ now found himself fighting for his life in the heat of battle. Suffering a wound, he fell from his horse. His fate looked sealed.
The critical moment
Injured and dismounted on the front lines, capture or death looked almost certain for Pompey. The decisive victory Sertorius sought was within reach. Yet the glorious opportunity was not taken. Plutarch recalls that “after being wounded and losing his horse, he escaped unexpectedly.”
“For the Africans with Sertorius,” writes Pompey, “who took Pompey’s horse, set out with gold, and covered with rich trappings, fell out with one another; and upon dividing of the spoil, gave over the pursuit.” (Sert. 19.4.) For greed and plunder, Sertorius’ troops had knowingly let his greatest opponent escape from their grasp.
An indecisive end
Following Pompey’s unlikely escape, the battle fizzled out without a breakthrough. Overall Sertorius had got the better of his opponent, but a final blow was needed. But by early the next morning, it was too late. Sertorius awoke to hear the news he had been dreading. Metellus and his fresh legions were near. Sertorius now found himself in trouble of facing not one but two Roman armies.
Reluctant to face such odds, the one-eyed general retreated. As he marched, Plutarch reports him saying that “If this old woman [Metellus] had not come up, I would have whipped that boy [Pompey] soundly and sent him to Rome.” Pompey had been saved, ironically by the man he had tried to steal victory from.
The last supper
Slowly but surely, Sertorius’ inability to gain that elusive, decisive victory proved telling. Unable to completely crush his opponents in Hispania, the sense that his cause was increasingly futile spread among his followers. Sympathisers in Rome also began to lose hope. The hope that Sertorius might overthrow Sulla’s legacy in Rome rapidly deteriorated.
He remained a threat in Hispania for a few more years, but defeats and infighting became more regular occurrences. His failure to vanquish his opponents at the Sucro river haunted him. He could not match the power of his enemy, and seeing this, the Marian forces fell apart. For Sertorius himself, the end came sooner than expected.
Sertorius was invited to a dinner party by some of his closest generals. There they murdered the once-legendary leader. Soon afterwards, Pompey captured what remained of the resistance, executing Sertorius’ killers in the process. The war was at an end and Pompey would be sure to take the credit.
To this day, Sertorius represents one of the greatest Roman insurgents in antiquity. Fighting for a cause many believed lost, he stood alone, defying nigh-impossible odds for years. Yet his end, as with many of Rome’s most famous resistance leaders (think of Boudica, Viriathus or Tacfarinas), was a tragic one.