Quintus Sertorius: The Patriot Who Defied Rome

This week, I’d like to write about one of my favorite figures from Roman history: Quintus Sertorius (126 BCE to 73 BCE). Sertorius’ life reads like a combination of Alexander Hamilton and Lawrence of Arabia. Sertorius began life as a rowdy, energetic, and extraordinarily gifted young Roman politician. In later life, he would become a guerrilla leader, leading the many tribes of Iberia against Rome. During his lifetime, he was both Rome’s greatest champion and worst enemy.

A Young Firebrand

Sertorius began life in a family of equites. Although prosperous, Sertorius was unable to reach the social level of the senatorial classes. As a young man, he moved to Rome and immediately made a reputation for himself as a skilled but undisciplined orator. Cicero, the greatest orator of the age, named Sertorius as one of his generation’s ‘coarse and rustic ranters’ but at the same time, admitted that of all Rome’s young men, Sertorius was among the ‘readiest and keenest.’

While fighting against the Cimbri and Teutones tribes in the north of Italy in 105 BCE, Sertorius burnished his reputation further. The historian Plutarch reports how Sertorius grew his hair long and learned the language of the invaders in order to act as a spy. Sadly, we know no details of Sertorius’ time with the enemy, but he certainly risked capture and torture, and must have needed all his considerable wits to emerge safely with the information the Romans required.

Later, Sertorius traveled to the Roman province of Hispania. At the time, Hispania would have been among the most brutally repressed region of Rome’s empire. Private Roman investors, hungry for profits and unsupervised by the central government, ruthlessly exploited the local population of Iberians. Taxes bled the Iberians white, and many were enslaved and forced to work in the hellish silver mines.

Greek pottery depiction of mining in the ancient Mediterranean

When Sertorius arrived, the province was on the brink of rebellion. One night, the town Sertorius garrisoned rose up in revolt, trapping the Romans within the city walls. Sertorius acted fast and slipped out of the city with a few soldiers. He blocked the gates and brutally put down the rebellion, saving the Roman garrison. For his deed, Sertorius received the Siege Crown (corona obsidionalis) the highest military award of the Roman Republic. In the entire history of the Republic, fewer than a dozen individuals received the honor. One Roman historian wrote, “It was never conferred except at a crisis of extreme desperation, never voted except by the acclamation of the whole army, and never to anyone but to him who had been its preserver.”

Now a hero, Sertorius began to rise through the Senate, advocating for forgiving debts and addressing the plight of Rome’s poor. He also continued to serve in Rome’s armies, one one occasion losing his eye in combat. Eventually, he became embroiled in an escalating series of civil wars that would in time cripple the Roman Republic. When the Roman general Cornelius Sulla took the unthinkable option of marching on Rome with an army and seizing dictatorial control of the Senate, Sertorius joined with other politicians to oppose him.

The fighting that followed was vicious, full of looting, greed, and murder. Yet our sources agree that Sertorius did his best to end the atrocities. When Marius, one of his allies, recruited a murderous army of mercenaries and former slaves who rampaged and pillaged their way through the city of Rome, Sertorius ordered his men to end the orgy of violence by killing Marius’ men in their sleep. The act alienated Sertorius from his fellow opponents of Sulla, but undoubtedly prevented much destruction.

The misdeeds of Sertorius’ allies, however, continued. Plutarch writes, “the cause of the popular party was being ruined and lost, partly through the cowardice and weakness of its generals, and partly by treachery; and there was no reason why Sertorius should remain to see matters go from bad to worse owing to the inferior judgement of those who had superior power.”

Alone Against the Empire

Disillusioned by his cause and facing defeat, Sertorius left Italy with a few loyal men, and eventually established himself on the Iberian peninsula. By 80 BCE, he had established himself in Iberia, the very place he had crushed a rebellion and gained his Siege Crown all those years before. There, he made alliances with local Celtic and Iberian tribes and, at the head of a mostly non-Roman army, expelled all of Sulla’s forces from Iberia.

The state Sertorius created in Spain was unlike anything ever seen during the Roman Republic. Sertorius ruled alongside a Senate made up of Roman expatriates. At the same time, however Sertorius adopted the grand feasts and sworn bodyguard of Celtic tradition. With few Italian soldiers available, Sertorius’ army relied heavily on Iberians, and combined Roman equipment and tactics with the traditional guerrilla warfare of rugged Iberia. He doubtless drew upon his own experience spying among Celtic tribes to understand and fight alongside with the Celts of Iberia. The unified Iberian-Roman state Sertorius created flew in the face of traditional Roman antipathy towards its ‘barbarous’ neighbors.

Celtiberian Soldiers

To many, Sertorius resembled not so much a Roman statesman as a reincarnation of Hannibal Barca, the great Carthaginian general. Like Hannibal, Sertorius had only one eye, and skillfully commanded a diverse army of Iberians against Rome. Sertorius also cultivated an image of divine favor. He owned a white fawn which he claimed was a gift from the goddess Diana. The white fawn proved an inspirational symbol for Sertorius’ cause.

For several years, Sertorius controlled virtually the entirety of the Iberian peninsula, using guerrilla warfare and clever use of terrain to outmaneuver the enormous armies sent by the dictator Sulla. One of the many Sullan loyalists to receive a harsh lesson at the hands of Sertorius was the young Gaius Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey the Great.

In the end, however, even Sertorius’ abilities could not keep his fledgeling Romano-Celtic state intact. Although he never lost a major battle, by 73 BCE, the strains of the war were becoming too great to bear, and Sertorius’ coalition began to splinter. In the end, it was another Roman, Marcus Perpenna, who betrayed and murdered Sertorius at a feast.

Sertorius’ Iberian state did not survive long after his death. Rome soon occupied much of Iberia, and replaced his mixture of Celtic and Roman traditions with the brutal and decisive imposition of Roman civilization. Still, it bears wondering what might have happened had Rome not destroyed Sertorius’ project in its cradle. Could Roman and Celt-Iberian groups, which for centuries had been in more or less constant conflict, have developed a durable mixed society?

Despite his remarkable story and important deeds, however, Sertorius is almost forgotten by modern historians. Tom Holland’s Rubicon, by far the most well-known book on the late Roman Republic, makes no mention of Sertorius at all. We aren’t even sure of this great individual’s appearance. Yet despite dying a traitor to Rome, Roman historians recounted his courage, honor, and ability, even at a time when the rest of the republic was sinking into greed and corruption.

I’ll close with this quote from Plutarch.

The most warlike of generals, and those who achieved most by a mixture of craft and ability, have been one-eyed men, — Philip, Antigonus, Hannibal, and the subject of this Life, Sertorius; of whom one might say that he was more continent with women than Philip, more faithful to his friends than Antigonus, more merciful towards his enemies than Hannibal, and inferior to none of them in understanding, though in fortune to them all. 

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