After becoming a juror and a well-renowned public speaker, Quintus sought out a life as a soldier. On the battlefield he soon became known for his strength, endurance, wisdom, cunning and creativity. A textbook example of all five traits occurred in 105 BC when he was critically injured in battle against Germany and the sole survivor of an entire Roman legion. Despite this, he still managed to swim against the raging Rhone River to safety, while wearing his entire coat of armour and still carrying his shield and sword.
He also served as a spy for the military under the command of the democratic leader Marius in 102 BC against the Teutones. Another anecdote concerned his espionage while tribunus militum in Spain under Didius (~ 97 BC). While spending the winter at Castulo, he was booted out of camp by its citizens protesting their treatment by the Romans. Fortunately, Quintus discovered their gate was left unguarded, and he snuck back into town and single-handedly massacred all men of fighting age. But wait… it gets better. He then gathered all their clothing and suits of armour, distributed them to his soldiers who masqueraded as Castulians, sent them off to a nearby town known for supporting the Castulians and massacred them as well for good measure.
Quintus returned to Rome and was elected quaestor, and then served in Cisalpine Gaul (now part of Northern Italy). While quaestor he lost one of his eyes during a war over Cisalpine’s civilians’ rights during 90-88.
Quintus decided to run for a tribuneship seat, but didn’t win. He blamed his loss on his archrival L. Cornelius Sulla, and became a supporter of Marius when Sulla and Marius quarreled over who should be sent to fight against the Mithridates.
Eventually, Sulla won out, which forced all of Marius’ supporters, including Quintus and Marius’ consul L. Cornelius Cinna, into exile. Seeking revenge, Quintus joined Cinna’s rebel army settling in Italy. They were planning to lay siege on Rome. There were three divisions, each led by Marius, Quintus, and Cinna, and eventually Sulla was overthrown.
But victory caused Marius and Cinna to become power-hungry, and by 87 BC, the two tried to turn Rome into a split dictatorship. Together, their army massacred many upon entering Rome. Even worse, the slaves of Marius (whom he promoted to guards as a reward) were even more barbaric: “The [former] slaves butchered their former masters, lay with their masters’ wives, and violated their children.” Quintus was infuriated, and almost single-handedly (with the reluctant support of Cinna) retaliated. “He [Quintus] fell upon these scoundrels in their camp, and speared four-thousand of them through.” Quintus 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.”
Meanwhile, Sulla returned from his exile, and more fighting for power and control ensued. Afterward, Sulla undertook some negotiations with the new leader, Lucius Scipio’s armies, while Quintus was sent on a “busy-work” administrative mission to bring news about the rest of the empire. On the way through the Pyrenees, he bought “free passage” from the local Barbarians and now controlled the gateway into this part of Spain. He also captured the nearby city of Suessa and based his armies there.
But, wait! The negotiations were all about Sulla trying to regain power over Lucius! And Sulla succeeded in persuading Lucius’ army to join him. Sulla then sent out Caius Annius to “dispose” of Quintus. This was brilliant timing, since Quintus’ legate general, Julius Salintor, had just been murdered by Lucius’ quaestors, leaving Quintus almost helpless and his carefully guarded gateway through the Pyrenees now exposed.
Quintus decided to retreat to the so-called “Atlantic Islands”, though modern historians do not know the exact location of these islands. “He was seized 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. Unfortunately, Quintus lacked the protection of the local Cilician pirates, who left him vulnerable to the Barbarians, who chose that moment to attack! Meanwhile, the Cilician pirates had sailed off to Mauretina (now modern-day Morocco) to help Ascalis, a local prince, regain power. Ascalis must have been popular because Sulla and Pacianis sent Roman troops to help Ascalis as well. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain; Pacianis was killed; Ascalis took refuge in Tingis (now Tangiers, Morocco) but the city fell to Quintus.
After his brilliant conquest of Tingis and the additional strengthening of his forces with Pacianis’ men, Quintus got a job offer from the Lusitanians to take his talents to the other side and fight the Romans who were occupying Spain. For some years, he and his armies successfully defended this territory from all Roman attacks.
Quintus was normally sensible; however, he must have sustained a blow during the conquest of Tingis, because en route to Spain, he started believing that his pet fawn (a gift to him from the native Lusitanians) was a revealer of secret messages from spies and his good-luck charm. He also thought that the deer was a personal gift to him from the goddess Diana! Quintus 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 upset the generals.
Fortunately, his mental delusions of grandeur didn’t affect his military prowess and strategy nor his ability to use mind games to keep his soldiers under control. For example, he once gave his soldiers heart with this trick. Just before a battle in which his forces were horribly outnumbered, he made this demonstration to his legion. He ordered a large, strong soldier and a puny assistant 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 latter succeeded by plucking off the tailhairs one at a time, while the strong man tried (TRIED being the operative word) to rip off the entire tail in one go, which only succeeded in getting him kicked. Using this trick, his small army of 4,000 infantry and 700 cavalry plus 2,600 defector Romans held off 120,000 regulation Roman infantry, 600 cavalry, 2,000 archers and numerous slingshooters!
Despite his good intentions, Quintus was always controlling, even when he marched with the Lusitanians. His most trusted advisors were the defector Romans, whom he called his personal “Senate”. He also maintained a love for Rome and Roman culture, values etc., despite hatred for the actual government, run by Sulla.
Quintus defeated both Roman governors of the two Spanish provinces controlled by Rome. In the year 79, our hero convinced more powerful but dissatisfied Romans, led by Perperna Vento and Pompey (who was brought along against his will), to defect and join his army. After Pompey’s arrival, the defecting troops were tempted to rejoin Sulla’s Romans and Pompey went so far as to actually demand Quintus’ surrender. Although Quintus could be a very effective militarist, he refused to allow his men to abandon what he considered true Roman values. For instance, when one of Quintus’ own men tried to rape an inhabitant of Lauron (a Spanish city they were besieging and had already burned down), Quintus executed the man and his whole battalion to punish their brutality, as he considered them “addicted to unnatural practices.”
Another example of Quintus’ paradoxical love for Roman values combined with prejudice against non-Romans was that he would allow no Spaniards into his personal elite “Senate” of 300 Roman defectors. 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,” though they would never be considered true Romans.
However, Quintus was technically a one-man show. Whenever his other generals were in command, things began to go wrong: small battles were lost, soldiers redefected back to Rome and much internal fighting occurred over gold and other booty amongst the men. Each time, the situation was only rescued by Quintus’ arrival on the scene.
A Roman general named Metellus, long-time rival of Quintus, united with Pompey against Quintus during the winters of 77-75 BC. Metellus himself was considered an old man and not good at guerilla warfare tactics, and his forces were constantly harassed by Quintus. He also received a humiliating challenge to fight Quintus in a hand-to-hand duel, which he “wisely” declined. Unfortunately for Metellus, his forced premature retirement was the result of one of Quintus’ tricks. While attempting to take the town of Lacobriga (which should have been easy, given the town’s poor water supply), Quintus saw an opportunity to get under his rival’s skin… literally. Quintus supplied the town with water smuggled in between animal skins (see what I mean?) thanks to Spanish and Moorish volunteers. Metellus’ chief general, Aquinius (who ironically enough couldn’t find the source of the smuggled water), fell into the ensuing ambush, and Metellus retired in disgrace.
As a final nail in the coffin to prevent Pompey from rescuing Metellus, Quintus engaged Pompey in battle along the Xuchar River. The losses were great on both sides; Pompey was wounded, and escaped by abandoning his fancy horse (much to the delight of the pursuing Moors). However, Quintus’ side had been badly hurt as well, and when a messenger arrived to announce a defeat of one of Quintus’ outside legions, it is said that Quintus showed the unfortunate messenger the inside of his blade to prevent the demoralization of his troops. Another brilliant psychological move by Quintus and the birth of a saying: “NEVER kill the messenger.” In the ensuing confusion, Quintus’ dear fawn was lost, then found again, to great pomp and circumstance, as of course the fawn was a good-luck charm. The following day, he was back in top shape (Quintus, not the messenger) and announced that “if the old woman [Metellus] had not come up, I would have given this boy [Pompey] another good drubbing, and have sent him back to Rome.” Quintus went on to chase Pompey and Metellus’ legions far back.
Now, however, things became more difficult for our hero. His Roman “Senators” could no longer be trusted, and needed to be replaced by Spaniards, who were not as loyal nor, in Quintus’ opinion, as intelligent, as Romans. Quintus began more experimentation with the Roman equivalent of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (basically sex, wine, paranoia and cruelty for entertainment’s sake). Remember the school that Quintus had built for the Spaniards’ children? For some reason, he put a number of the same students to death and sold off others as slaves. This was particularly bad timing, since his inner guards were now Spaniards.
By the winter of 75, Pompey threatened to take “his” soldiers back to Rome due to food and supply shortages. At the same time, Metellus offered a major reward for Quintus’ murder because he believed there was no other way to defeat him (though murder was considered cheating and a dishonourable act). Finally, Quintus, growing tired of this cat-and-mouse game, offered to capitulate and return his soldiers to Roman control provided that he was allowed to live out the remainder of his life in peace … but was refused. Remember how Quintus felt he couldn’t trust his Roman Senate? As usual, he was right. By 72 BC, ten of them, including Pompey, came up with an assassination plot. They forged a letter inviting him to a banquet to celebrate a false victory of one of his generals, and Perperna talked him into attending to make the celebratory sacrifice. Though he was relaxed by food and drink and could have been caught off-guard, the plotters were reluctant to kill him. Instead, they tried to provoke him into a fight by swearing constantly (Quintus’ major pet peeve) and behaving obscenely while pretending to be drunk. Quintus flopped onto a couch on his back, pretending to ignore them. While one held him down, the others stabbed him repeatedly (sound familiar?). Thus ended the fascinating and complex reign, career and life of Quintus Sertorius. However, in the end, Quintus had the last laugh, as Metellus and Pompey were disgraced for their deeds and were shunned till their deaths.