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Quintus Sertorius - Roman General

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Portrait of Quintus Sertorius

Quintus Sertorius (circa 123-72 BC) was one of the Roman Republic's most skilled generals. Living in Rome before it became an empire, Sertorius' world was full of political power struggles and civil wars.

Despite being on the losing side of the Roman Civil War of 84-82 BC, Sertorius became one of the most powerful figures in the Roman world, largely through his phenomenal understanding of guerrilla warfare as well as military psychology. He even has a war named in his honour, the Sertorian War.

Early Life

According to Plutarch, the primary source we have for his life, Sertorius was born circa 123 BC, in Nursia, Sabine, Spain. Though his father died while Sertorius was very young, his mother, Rhea, was extremely supportive of him and ensured that he was fully educated, especially in the judicial arts. Despite an early promising career in Rome as a juror and a well-renowned public speaker, Sertorius instead sought out a life as a soldier.

The Roman Republic at the Time of Sertorius

During Sertorius' lifetime, Rome was not at its most stable, with frequent wars on all fronts. These wars, when won by Rome, often resulted in the victorious general wishing to transfer their prowess on the battlefield into political prestige and power, leading to an intense rivalry and ultimately to civil war. Thus events taking place as far afield as North Africa and Asia Minor (modern Turkey) would ultimately impact on Sertorius' life.

The Rise of Marius

Between 112 and 106 BC, the Jugurthine War took place in North Africa. The throne of the country of Numidia, an ally of Rome, was claimed by Jugurtha, an anti-Rome rebel. He slaughtered Roman citizens there and defeated Roman armies using guerrilla tactics, before being defeated by Gaius Marius, a man who would become consul of Rome an unprecedented seven times and who was an uncle by marriage of Gaius Julius Cæsar.

War with the Cimbri and the Teutones

Meanwhile, two Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones, advanced from Jutland (modern Denmark), through France. Having already defeated Roman armies sent to stop them, they now threatened Spain, northern Italy and even Rome itself. Sertorius served in one of the defeated Roman armies that had already engaged them in battle; he soon became known on the battlefield for his strength, endurance, wisdom, cunning and creativity. A textbook example of all five traits occurred in 105 BC when Plutarch reports that Sertorius was critically injured in battle and the sole survivor of an entire Roman legion. Although he had lost his horse, he still managed to swim against the raging Rhone River to safety, while wearing his entire coat of armour and carrying his shield and sword.

In 104 BC, the Teutones planned to invade Italy. General Marius revolutionised the Roman army, recruited new legions, fortified the key approaches to Italy, and repulsed initial attacks. Sertorius' knowledge of the land he had gained in his earlier exploits meant he was ideal to serve as a scout under Marius' command against the Teutones, enabling Marius to ambush and defeat the Teutones in 102 BC. Sertorius thereby gained an early promotion to the rank of Tribunus Militum, Military Tribune, and a key position in Spain. Marius gained political prestige and even became nicknamed 'the third founder of Rome'.

Sertorius in Spain

While Sertorius served as Tribunus Militum in Spain under Didius around 97 BC, the Roman soldiers stationed at the city of Castulo spent much of their time drunk and disorderly. The locals asked for aid from their neighbours, the Oritanians, and revolted, killing many of the Romans stationed there. Sertorius escaped from the city, discovered that their gate was left unguarded, sneaked back into town with a few Roman survivors and massacred all men of fighting age. He then gathered all the dead Castulians' clothing and armour and distributed them to his soldiers. Masquerading as Castulians, the Romans massacred the Oritanian men as well for good measure, selling the rest into slavery. For this service, he returned to Rome and was appointed Quaestor of Cisalpine Gaul1.

The Social War

Between 91 and 88 BC, the Social War2 devastated Italy. The Romans' Italian allies had been denied Roman Citizenship, and so southern and central Italy rebelled against Rome, creating an independent federation named Italia. As their armies were as well trained as the Romans, a stalemate developed. When this war erupted, Sertorius was one of the first Romans to respond, quickly levying troops. He also led his troops into battle, and in one fight lost one of his eyes. According to Plutarch he was proud of this, stating that

Others could not always carry about with them the evidences of their brave deeds, but must lay aside their necklaces, spears, and wreaths. In his own case, on the contrary, the marks of his bravery remained with him, and when men saw what he had lost, they saw at the same time a proof of his valour.

Lucius Julius Cæsar3 proposed granting citizenship to Rome's Italian allies who had stayed loyal and who surrendered to Rome. In the early stages of the war, Marius commanded legions, but ill health, possibly a stroke, forced him to retire. Instead, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, hero of the Roman–Armenian War of 93-92 BC4 ended the Social War, capturing the key city of Pompeii in the process.

Following the Social War

Sulla was honoured for ending the Social War, but Sertorius was also considered one of the heroes of the war by Rome's population. Sulla therefore treated him as a rival, and when Sertorius stood for tribuneship, Sulla opposed his election and ensured he did not win. From then on, in the power-struggle between Sulla and Marius, Sertorius supported Marius. However since Marius' illness during the Social War, Sulla had the upper hand.

When Mithridates of Pontus, the main enemy in the Roman–Armenian war, threatened Rome again in the First Mithridatic War (88-84 BC), both Sulla and Marius campaigned for the honour of leading Roman troops in battle, and it was Sulla who was granted the right to lead the campaign. Sulla then defied all tradition and expectation by first leading his legions to Rome, forcing Marius to flee into exile. However, when both Sulla and Marius were away from Rome, the city was led by a consul from each side of the growing political divide: on one side, Sulla's ally Octavius; on the other, Cinna, a friend of Sertorius and Marius and an opponent of Octavius.

Prelude to War and the Roman Civil War of 84-82 BC

Octavius forced Cinna and Sertorius to flee Rome in 87 BC. Seeking revenge, Sertorius joined Cinna. Planning to lay siege on Rome, they quickly gathered an army in Italy and defeated Octavius. Cinna invited Marius to return to Rome, replacing Sertorius as military advisor. Cinna, Marius and Sertorius divided command of the army between them.

Victory caused Marius and Cinna to become power-hungry, and the two tried to turn Rome into a split dictatorship. Together, their army massacred many civilians in Rome. Even worse, Marius used an army of slaves that was even more barbaric: The [former] slaves butchered their former masters, lay with their masters' wives, and violated their children.

Sertorius was infuriated and retaliated. Unlike Cinna and Marius, Sertorius did not murder his political opponents once Rome had been subjugated, and instead ordered the deaths of 4,000 of Marius' slave allies who had been looting, pillaging and raping Rome. Sertorius had suspected Marius of being a bad example of a post-coup leader from the start, calling him a man who can endure no partner in power, and who is devoid of any good faith. However, in 86 BC the ageing Marius died.

Meanwhile, Sulla defeated Mithridates' key Greek allies in 85 BC. Sertorius and Cinna sent one of their allies, Gaius Flavius Fimbria, with a legion to relieve Sulla of his command and to replace him as commander in the East. Instead Fimbria and his men defected to Sulla's side and, in 83 BC, Sulla returned to Italy at the head of a large army. Cinna had been assassinated in 84 BC and Marius' son, Marius the Younger, ruled in his stead. Legions under the command of Lucius Scipio were sent to stop Sulla, who instead negotiated and persuaded Scipio's army to join him.

Realising the inevitable, Sertorius left Rome for Spain, while Sulla's army massacred all remaining opposition in Rome in November 82 BC in a battle outside Rome's Colline Gate5. Marius the Younger committed suicide, and his head, along with the heads of others who had opposed Sulla, were placed on display. The Roman Senate declared Sulla Dictator and legalised all of his actions.

Sertorius' Second Stay in Spain

On the way through the Pyrenees, Sertorius bought passage from the local barbarians and arrived in Spain. There he sought to raise an army to oppose Sulla. He negotiated with the native Spanish chiefs, cut taxes and promised to make Roman troops build their own quarters rather than billeting them on the local population. He armed Roman settlers in Spain, constructed siege engines in important cities and controlled the entrance into Spain. He also captured the city of Suessa and based his armies there. His ally, Julius Salintor, was sent with 6,000 men to guard the passage through the Pyrenees.

Sadly Salintor was murdered and Sulla sent Caius Annius to dispose of Sertorius. This was brilliant timing, leaving Sertorius almost helpless and his carefully guarded gateway through the Pyrenees now exposed. All his preparations had been for nothing.

Exile in the Atlantic Islands and Africa

Sertorius was forced to retreat to what Plutarch names the 'Atlantic Islands', though modern historians are unsure which islands he meant:

He was seized with a strong desire to dwell on the happy islands of this happy region, and to live in quiet, free from tyranny and never-ending wars.

However, this wish was not to be. Sulla sent Roman troops led by Pacianis to Mauretania (modern-day Morocco) to help Ascalis, a local prince, regain power. Sertorius chose to aid the opposition and Pacianis was killed. Though Ascalis took refuge in Tingis (now Tangiers), the city and country fell to Sertorius.

Return to Spain: The Sertorian War (80-72 BC)

After his brilliant conquest of Tingis, Sertorius had strengthened his forces by recruiting Pacianis' men. Sertorius then got a job offer from the Lusitanians, a Celtic tribe who lived in what is now Portugal and Western Spain. The Lusitanians had been conquered by Rome in 139 BC, but they asked Sertorius to fight the Romans who were occupying Spain. For some years, though vastly outnumbered6, he and his army successfully defended this territory from all Roman attacks in what has become known as the Sertorian War in his honour.

Doe – a Deer, a Female Deer

When in Spain, Sertorius was given an unusual albino pet fawn by the native Lusitanians. This was an entirely white, tame female fawn that followed him wherever he went and obeyed his call. Sertorius claimed that the doe was a personal gift to him from the goddess Diana and was an oracle of secret messages and his good luck charm. Sertorius was very attached to this tame deer, which he had raised from a fawn, and its presence somehow added to his charisma amongst the enlisted men, though it upset the generals. This encouraged the Lusitanians to perceive him as an invincible god.

The Parable of the Horses' Tails

Just before a battle in which his forces were horribly outnumbered, Sertorius made this demonstration to the untrained Lusitanians. He ordered a large, strong soldier and a puny assistant to step forward, along with a top-condition horse and a broken-down workhorse. He asked the strong man to quickly remove the workhorse's tail and the weak assistant to do the same to the strong horse. The strong man tried to rip off the old horse's entire tail in one go, which only succeeded in getting him kicked. The weak man succeeded in removing all the hairs from the stallion's tail by plucking them off one at a time.

Sertorius said that the moral was that perseverance is stronger than violence and things that cannot be mastered when they stand together are defeated when they are mastered one-by-one.

The Early Stages of the Sertorian War

At the time of the Sertorian War, Spain was divided into two provinces, Hispania Citerior (Near Spain) and Hispania Ulterior (Far Spain), or Eastern and Western Spain. Sertorius defeated the governors of both of these provinces.

Initially, Sertorius' chief opponent was Roman General Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius. By using guerrilla tactics and fast-moving light troops, Sertorius was able to run rings around the heavy-armed Roman phalanx which was unsuited for fighting in rough, mountainous terrain during the winters of 77-75 BC. Metellus himself was an old man and inexperienced in guerrilla warfare, and Sertorius constantly harassed his forces. Sertorius issued Metellus with a humiliating challenge to fight in a hand-to-hand duel, which Metellus declined.

Instead, Metellus responded by attempting to conquer Lacobriga, a key town with a very poor water supply. Sertorius supplied the town with water smuggled in over the mountains. Metellus' chief general, Aquinius (who ironically enough couldn't find the source of the smuggled water), promptly fell into Sertorius' ensuing ambush; this defeat forced Metellus to retire temporarily from Spain. All Spain and Portugal was now under Sertorius' control. In 79 BC, Sulla resigned as Dictator. Taking advantage of this, Sertorius was able to convince other powerful but dissatisfied Romans, led by Perpenna Vento, to defect and join his army. Sulla died in 78 BC, but his allies remained in power in Rome.

One of Sertorius' most famed exploits was in defeating the Charicatani, a people who dwelt in defensible caves in a cliff. After they mocked him for a tactical retreat before Metellus' superior numbers, Sertorius vowed to demonstrate his abilities. Unable to assault the cliff face directly, he enlisted the aid of the elements. He constructed a mound of earth near the cliff face, noting the direction of the prevailing wind. The wind then blew the loose soil directly into the cliff face, which was the only air intake into the caves, choking and blinding the inhabitants. After three days the Charicatani surrendered to Sertorius, who had not even drawn a sword.

Despite his good intentions, Sertorius became more and more controlling of the Lusitanians who had employed him. His most trusted advisors were 300 Roman defectors he called his personal 'Senate'. He also maintained a love for Rome and Roman culture, and values, despite a hatred for the actual government set up by Sulla. An example of Sertorius' love for Roman values combined with prejudice against non-Romans was that he would allow no Spaniards into his personal elite Senate, as he considered the Lusitanians to be barbarians.

To make up for this, he built a school in Huesca, Aragon, so the children of his loyal Spanish soldiers could be educated in the finest Greek and Roman learning, promising to raise them to positions of authority, though they would never be considered true Romans.

Sertorius vs Pompey Magnus

In 76 BC the young and talented Roman general Pompey, already nicknamed Magnus ('the Great') by Sulla, arrived in Spain to fight Sertorius. So powerful was his reputation that on his arrival, many of Sertorius' troops were tempted to defect and to join Pompey's forces. Pompey went so far as to actually demand Sertorius' surrender. Their first clash was at Lauron: Sertorius was besieging the city, and Metellus and Pompey led their forces to relieve the city.

The two sides fought over a strategically useful hill near Lauron, with Sertorius winning control of the hill. Pompey called off his troops, believing he could trap Sertorius between the city and his own forces, but Sertorius had anticipated this, and had left 6,000 troops behind, who were now behind Pompey's army, enabling him to attack Pompey from two sides. Pompey was forced to retreat. Sertorius' troops gained entry to the city and sacked it, although the people of Lauron were spared. Sertorius was not only a very effective strategist, he refused to allow his men to abandon what he considered true Roman values. When one of his men tried to rape an inhabitant of Lauron following the siege, he had the man and comrades executed to punish their brutality, as he considered them addicted to unnatural practices.

However, Sertorius was a one-man show. Whenever he left his generals in command, Pompey gained the upper hand: small battles were lost, soldiers defected and much internal fighting occurred over gold and other booty amongst the men. Each time, disaster was only averted by Sertorius' arrival on the scene.

Sertorius next engaged Pompey in battle along the Xucar River, attempting to seize the opportunity before Metellus' forces were able to join with Pompey's. In the heavy fighting Pompey was wounded, and escaped by abandoning his own horse decorated with gold and rich trappings. This was much to the delight of Sertorius' pursuing Libyan allies, who quarrelled over dividing the plunder rather than pursuing Pompey as nightfall approached. However, Sertorius' side had suffered heavy losses as well, and the following morning his troops reported that Metellus was approaching. Reluctantly Sertorius withdrew, saying:

But as for this boy [Pompey], if that old woman [Metellus] had not come up, I should have given him a sound beating and sent him back to Rome.

In the ensuing confusion and hasty retreat, Sertorius' dear deer was lost, which threatened to discourage his Spanish allies. When found, Sertorius revealed the animal to the maximum effect, as of course the fawn was considered a divine good luck charm.

Shortly after this at a battle in the plains of Saguntum, Metellus was injured and forced to return to Gaul. There he offered a major reward for Sertorius' murder; 100 talents of silver, 20,000 acres of land and freedom to return to Rome. Though murder was considered a dishonourable act, Metellus believed there was no other way to defeat him. In the winter of early 75 BC, Pompey threatened to return his legions back to Rome due to food and supply shortages.

Sertorius was even attracting allies from far afield, including King Mithridates VI the Great of Pontus in 75 BC. Having successfully defended his land against a Roman invasion during the Second Mithridatic War of 83-81 BC, Mithridates felt confident enough to expand his empire in Asia, especially with Sulla's greatest general, Pompey, occupied in Spain fighting Sertorius. Mithridates proposed an alliance, and Sertorius replied that his terms were that Mithridates could expand his empire as much as he wanted, provided he did not conquer Roman provinces or territory. The alliance was accepted – Sertorius sent Mithridates experienced Romans led by Marcus Marius to train Mithridates' forces in Roman warfare, leading to the Third Mithridatic War (75-65 BC), and in exchange he was given ships and money.

The Beginning of the End

In the Spring of 75 BC, things became more difficult for Sertorius. His punishments for infractions in his army became harsher, leading to increased discontent within his men, while he faced a capable and talented enemy who was beginning to recapture many of Sertorius' gains. Some of his Roman 'Senators' could no longer be trusted, yet Sertorius felt he could not replace them with Spaniards, as he felt they were not as loyal to him nor, in Sertorius' opinion, as intelligent or educated as his fellow Romans. He also wished it to be clear that he was not fighting against Rome itself, but instead fighting for the freedom of Rome from the government which he considered had been illegally set up by Sulla.

In-fighting grew, with increasing resentment between the Lusitanians and Sertorius' Romans. The Roman generals treated their Spanish allies harshly, as they considered them to be barbarians, which led to revolts and rebellions. In revenge for these revolts, Sertorius had the Spaniards' children who were enrolled in his school at Osca put to death or sold into slavery, much to the anger of many of his key Spanish allies. Meanwhile one of his chief generals, Perpenna Vento, who longed for power, began plotting against him.

Back in Rome, the city was threatened by the Spartacus Revolt7 (73-71 BC). Sertorius, growing tired of the cat-and-mouse game of the Spanish war, proposed that he return his soldiers to central Roman control to aid in fighting this threat, provided that he was allowed to live out the remainder of his life in peace. This offer was refused, and the Sertorian War dragged on for another year. The Spartacus Revolt was to be later defeated by the forces of the richest man in the Roman World, Marcus Licinius Crassus8.


In 72 BC, ten of Sertorius' most trusted advisers, led by Perpenna, came up with a plot to assassinate him. A letter came to Sertorius with a false report of a great victory by one of his generals. Perpenna proposed a celebratory banquet, which the conspirators had arranged to attend, with Sertorius to make the celebratory sacrifice. Initially the plotters were reluctant to attack Sertorius, although he was relaxed by food and drink and could have been caught off-guard. Instead, they tried to provoke him into a fight by swearing (Sertorius' major pet peeve) and behaving obscenely while pretending to be drunk. Sertorius chose to flop back on his couch, pretending to ignore them. Then they got their nerve. While Antonius held him down, the others stabbed Sertorius repeatedly9.


Thus ended the fascinating and complex reign, career and life of Quintus Sertorius. Unfortunately, Sertorius never married, nor had any heirs to carry on his blood.

Without Sertorius in command, Pompey was easily able to defeat Perpenna and bring the Sertorian War to an end. Perpenna tried to bribe Pompey, promising to reveal documents showing who in Rome had corresponded with Sertorius offering support. He expected Pompey to use these to cull many influential Romans. Instead, Pompey destroyed all these records and had Perpenna executed, ending (at least temporarily) the disharmony in the Republic. Pompey left Spain, mopped up the remnants of Spartacus' slave army in Italy, defeated Mithridates at the Battle of Lycus and went on to become Consul twice. He was Rome's most successful general until Gaius Julius Cæsar first eclipsed and finally defeated him in the Great Civil War (49-44 BC).

Metellus also enjoyed a successful post-war career. As a reward for his loyalty, Sulla had appointed him Pontifex Maximus, the head of the state religion10 in 81 BC. This was a post he held until his death in 64 BC.

How do we Know about Sertorius?

Most of what we know of Sertorius was written by Greek historian Plutarch, who lived 46-120 AD – over a century after Sertorius' death. In his history series Parallel Lives, Plutarch compared and contrasted the lives of a number of pairs of similar historical figures, in each case one Greek and one Roman.

Sertorius is also mentioned by other Roman writers of the early Empire period, including Tacitus (56-117 AD), and Suetonius (69-122 AD). A surviving contemporary record during the Republic was written by Julius Cæsar (100-44 BC).

1Until 43 BC many inhabitants of what is now Northern Italy were considered to be Gauls. Italy north of the River Rubicon was referred to as Cisalpine Gaul, meaning Gaul this side of the Alps, whereas the area that is now known as France was Transalpine Gaul.2The name 'Social' comes from the Latin word socii meaning allies. The people involved were allies of Rome but not Roman citizens.3A distant relation of Gaius Julius Cæsar.4The Roman–Armenian War of 93-92 BC took place in Greece and Asia Minor. King Mithridates VI the Great of Pontus (modern Northern Turkey) allied with King Tigranes I the Great of Armenia and invaded the Roman client-state of Cappadocia (modern Central Turkey), only to be defeated by Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 92 BC.5This battle would inspire the 11th task of The Twelve Tasks of Asterix. Asterix and Obelix would spend a night on the plain outside Rome haunted by the ghosts of the legions massacred by the greed and madness of men in this battle.6Plutarch lists his forces as 2,600 Roman troops, 700 Libyans and 4,700 Lusitanian troops. This force fought the armies of four Roman generals, totalling 120,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 2,000 archers and slingers.7Also known as the Third Servile War, from the Latin word servus, a slave. The first two Servile Wars had been rebellions by slaves in Sicily. The Spartacus Revolt began with 70 escaped gladiators from Capua, growing to a slave army of over 100,000.8Crassus would prove a key ally of both Julius Cæsar and Pompey Magnus, although his greed was to lead to his downfall. After Cæsar's conquest of Gaul made him wealthy, Crassus invaded Parthia (modern Iran and Iraq) hoping to gain the spoils of war. Instead he was killed and molten gold poured into his mouth. His death led to Cæsar and Pompey's Civil War.9Does this sound familiar? Julius Cæsar would later be killed in a similar manner on the Ides of March.10The title means 'Great Bridge Builder'. After Metellus' death, Gaius Julius Cæsar would become the next Pontifex Maximus. From Augustus onwards, the Pontifex Maximus was one of the titles of the Emperor, before being adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. The title is still used today to refer to the Pope.

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