The Rise of Sertorius, Rome’s Roman Enemy | History Hit

The Rise of Sertorius, Rome’s Roman Enemy

Sertorius and the Example of the Horses, after Hans Holbein the Younger. The drawing illustrates the example Sertorius gave to his followers that in the same way a horse's tail can be picked out hair by hair but not pulled out all at once, so smaller forces could defeat the Roman armies.
Image Credit: Public Domain

By 88 BC, the Roman Empire had risen to become dominant throughout almost all the Mediterranean. Power and splendour duly followed. Pyrrhus, Hannibal, Antiochus III – all worthy opponents that the Romans had overcome. By 88 BC, however, those past successes seemed a distant memory.

In that year, Rome once again found itself on the verge of war. Yet this war would be nowhere near as ‘glorious’ or rewarding as those past conflicts with renowned foes. Instead, the Romans now found themselves dealing with a type of warfare unlike any they had previously experienced: a war that put countryman against countryman.

Civil war

Stemming from the political rivalry of two ambitious generals – Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla – open hostilities had broken out between them. Roman vs Roman, the fighting between the two respective forces would be brutal and merciless. Rivals would be slaughtered, families split and betrayal rife.

As the Empire suffered from this internal conflict and these individuals became more and more powerful, the idea of Rome as a Republic was fading.

Although this political system was now waning, not everyone would be troubled by the changing times. For many ambitious individuals, this upheaval was a great opportunity to gain power and prestige. Quickly they would take a side, staking everything on success. Sertorius was no different.

Detail from the Ahenobarbus relief showing two Roman foot-soldiers from the late Republic, c. 122 BC.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Sertorius: a new man

Coming from a modest background, Sertorius was a man of his own making. Having joined the army at an early age, he first made a name for himself in a critical war against Germanic tribes some 20 years earlier: the Cimbrian War.

By the time civil war broke out, Sertorius had risen high; no longer was he just a mere legionary. Now, as reward for his courage and previous heroics, he had become a well-known and respected general. He even had the scars to show for it, having lost an eye in one of his many past battles (a disfigurement he would take great pride in). More fights were still to come.

Seeing Rome in internal strife, this general now had a decision to make. Would he side with Marius’ party (the Populares) and defy the oligarchic elite? Or would he fight for Sulla and the traditional aristocracy (the Optimates / ‘best ones’)?

For him, however, that choice was an easy one. Not being from the aristocracy himself and having served under that same Marius during the Cimbric War, Sertorius quickly aligned with his former commander. Such a choice, however, would have consequences.

Marius and the ambassadors of the Cimbri, depicted by W. Rainey, 1900.

Image Credit: Public Domain

82 BC: on the losing side

Things did not go as planned for Marius and his supporters. Marius died in 86 BC. Although the civil war continued as his surviving supporters fought on, victory for their cause became an uphill struggle.

In one final, great battle Sulla finally made a decisive breakthrough, vanquishing his opponents in Italy and retaking control of Rome itself. Support for the Marian faction crumbled. Their supporters were purged and resistance was removed. The war looked to be over. Sertorius, however, had other ideas.

Fleeing Italy, the one-eyed Marian headed west to continue the fight elsewhere. First in Hispania and then Mauretania would he actively oppose the newly-instated Sullan Regime. Yet everywhere he went, the regime pursued him, determined to eradicate his defiance.

A hunted man, he moved from place to place searching for new opportunities. After much travelling, his persistence finally paid off.

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A new opportunity

At that time, unrest was brewing in a far part of Roman Hispania. In the region of Lusitania (modern-day Portugal), the locals had been suffering at the hands of an oppressive Roman governor. Having a colourful history of challenging Roman rule, dissent quickly emerged among them; enough was enough.

Now, they sought a man that could lead them in the fight – a second-coming Viriathus or Hannibal. Sertorius was the obvious choice. Hastily, he crossed the sea with a small army to grasp this new opportunity with both hands.

Sertorius rapidly proved his worth to the Lusitanians. He defeated the governor and took control of the whole province. This was the base he had been looking for, from where he could build and strike back. The resistance had started.

80 BC: the Sertorian War commences

The task Sertorius initially faced was daunting. At the outset, the amount of Sullan forces that then resided throughout Hispania exceeded his own by more than 15-1. Being so severely outnumbered, you would be forgiven for thinking his resistance was doomed.

But Sertorius was no ordinary challenger. Having served for years in his foe’s army, he knew both their strengths and weaknesses.

Using the overconfidence of his opposing generals to his benefit, Sertorius cleverly managed to lure each out to battle one by one. At first, these commanders were only too happy to oblige – each sought the fame of defeating this notorious general for themselves. Yet such contempt for their foe would prove their downfall.

Merida Amphitheatre in Spain is an ancient Roman ruin and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Divide and conquer

By employing such a tactic, army after army fell to Sertorius and his men. Rather than gaining fame and victory, his opposing generals suffered shame and crushing defeats. Gradually, as the amount of his enemies lessened and more Spanish cities started to realign themselves with this resistance leader, the tide began to turn.

No longer did Sertorius command a small army in a far region of Hispania. Now, within five years of landing in Lusitania, almost all the Iberian Peninsula served his command. Famed for its gold mines, marble, oil and wine, Roman Hispania was one of the wealthiest in the entire Empire. By 75 BC, much of it belonged to Sertorius.

From small beginnings, Sertorius’ persistence had resulted in one of the most unprecedented rises to power in world history. Yet such a rise to power presented an even greater challenge. Now he had to maintain it.

Tristan Hughes