Quintus Sertorius (circa 123-72 BC) was one of the Roman Republic's most skilled generals. Living in the Roman Republic 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.
According to Plutarch, the primary source we have for his life, he 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 in the Life of Sertorius
During Sertorius' life, 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 Civil War. Thus events taking place as far afield as North Africa and Asia Minor would ultimately impact on Sertorius' life.
The Rise of Marius
Between 112-106 BC the Jugurthine War took place in Numidia, North Africa, when an ally of Rome's throne was claimed by an anti-Rome rebel who 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 an uncle by marriage of Gaius Julius Cæsar.
War with Cimbri and Teutones
Meanwhile, Germanic tribes the Cimbri and Teutones, advanced from Jutland, through France. Having already defeated Roman armies sent to stop them, they now threatened Spain, northern Italy and even Rome itself. One of the defeated Roman armies that had already engaged them in battle included Sertorius, and 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 Plutarch reports that he was critically injured in battle against Germany 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.
The Teutones then planned in 104 BC 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 Tribunes 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 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. Quintus escaped from the city, discovered their gate was left unguarded, snuck 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 91-88 BC, the Social War 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 Cæsar2 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 BC3 ended the war, capturing the key city of Pompeii in the process.
Following the Social War
Quintus Sertorius was considered one of the Social War's heroes by Rome's population. Considered a rival, when he 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 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. Following his granting of command, Sulla 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 consuls in power were Sulla's ally Octavius and Cinna, a friend of both Sertorius and Marius who opposed Octavius.
Prelude to War and the Roman Civil War of 84-82 BC
Octavius forced Cinna and Sertorius to flee Rome in 87 BC, yet 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 by 87 BC, the two tried to turn Rome into a split dictatorship. Together, their army massacred many civilians in Rome. Even worse, Marius used a slave army 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 replace Sulla as commander in the east, but 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.
Sertorius' Second Stay in Spain
Realising the inevitable, Sertorius left Rome for Spain, while Sulla's army massacred all remaining opposition in Rome in November 82 in a battle outside Rome's Colline Gate4. 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.
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, and 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, with 6,000 men were sent 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
Quintus was forced to retreat to what Plutarch names the 'Atlantic Islands', though modern historians are unsure which islands Plutarch meant. Plutarch writes,
'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. In Mauretina (now modern-day Morocco) Sulla sent Roman troops led by Pacianis to help 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, Morocco), the city and country fell to Quintus.
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 Portugal and Western Spain. The Lusitanians had been conquered by Rome in 139 BC, however they asked Sertorius to fight the Romans who were occupying Spain. For some years, though vastly outnumbered5, 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 from 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 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 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, he 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 both Roman governors of the two Spanish provinces controlled by Rome.
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's tactics, 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 the key town Lacobriga, a 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, and forced Metellus to retire temporarily from Spain. All Sp and Portugal was now under Sertorius' control. In 79 BC, Sertorius convinced more powerful but dissatisfied Romans, led by Perpenna Vento, to defect and join his army.
One of his most famed exploits was in defeating the Characitani, 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 prevalent 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 Characitani 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 run 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 but talented Roman general Pompey, already named Pompey Magnus ('Pompey the Great') by Sulla, arrived in Spain to fight Sertorius on Sulla's behalf. So powerful was his reputation that on his arrival, many of Sertorius' troops were tempted to defecting and rejoin Pompey's forces. Pompey went so far as to actually demand Sertorius’ surrender. Their first clash was at Lauron, a city Sertorius was besieging that Metellus and Pompey led their forces to relieve.
Near Lauron lay a strategically useful hill, which Sertorius occupied. Pompey believed he could manoeuvre to trap Sertorius between the city and his own forces, however Sertorius had anticipated this, positioned 6,000 troops to guard his back and forced Pompey to retreat. The people of Lauron were spared, although the city itself was destroyed. 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, against Pompey, Sertorius was a one-man show. Whenever his generals were in command, Pompey had 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 rescued by Sertorius’ arrival on the scene.
Sertorius next engaged Pompey in battle along the Xuchar 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 pursue 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, 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 Pontius 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 against the dictator Sulla.
In-fighting grew, with increasing resentment between the Lusitanians and Sertorius' Romans. Sertorius' Roman generals treated their Spanish allies, who they considered to be barbarians, harshly, which led to revolts and rebellions. In revenge for these revolts, Sertorius had the Spaniards’ children 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.
Meanwhile Rome was threatened by the Spartacus Revolt6 (73-71 BC). Sertorius, growing tired of this cat-and-mouse game, and his enemy Sulla having retired from office, offered to capitulate. He proposed that he return his soldiers to central Roman control to aid in 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 three more years. The Spartacus Revolt was defeated by the forces of the richest man in the Roman World, Marcus Licinius Crassus7.
By 72 BC, ten of his most trusted advisors came up with an assassination plot. Led by Perpenna, a letter came advising Sertorius of a great false victory of one of his generals. Perpenna proposed a celebratory banquet, which the conspirators had arranged to attend, with Perperna inviting Sertorius to attend to make the celebratory sacrifice. Though relaxed by food and drink and could have been caught off-guard, the plotters were at first reluctant to kill him. 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 back on his couch, pretending to ignore them. Then suddenly while Antonius held him down, the others stabbed him repeatedly8.
Thus ended the fascinating and complex reign, career and life of Quintus Sertorius. Unfortunately, Quintus never married, nor had any heirs to carry on his blood. Without Sertorius, Pompey was easily able to defeat Perpenna. Although Perpenna tried to bribe Pompey by promising to reveal documents showing who in Rome had corresponded with Sertorius offering support, expecting 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 religion9 in 81 BC. This was a post he held until his death in 64BC.
How do we know about Sertorius?
Most of what we know of Sertorius was written by Greek historian Plutarch, who lived 46 - 120AD – over a century after Sertorius' death. In his history series Parallel Lives, Plutarch compared and contrasted the lives of two similar historical figures, one Greek, 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 (100-44BC)