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Research Papers
Figure 7: Bust of Marius
Tau Sigma
Journal of Historical Studies: Vol. XXIV
Quintus Sertorius and the Rebellion in Spain:
The Combination of Roman and Guerilla Tactics
Sheldon Yeakley
The Roman Republic slowly devolved into a succession of dictatorships beginning in
the early first century B.C.E. and lasting until Octavian installed himself as the first
emperor. Throughout this time of civil war and political upheaval, various strongly
dictatorial men, backed by their military prowess or their current political favor, vied
for power. In this environment two enemies arose to challenge one another, Marius
and Sulla. Marius represented military reform and held the loyalty of a seasoned
army, while Sulla argued for the reformation and restoration of the senate’s power.
Sulla’s famous march on Rome, in 83 B.C.E., secured his power as dictator for the
next year. Sulla immediately proscribed those who had opposed him under Marius,
and Quintus Sertorius was one of these individuals. He had ascended the ranks of the
Roman political system despite his Italian, not Roman, birth, and he owed this rise
to Marius. Therefore, when Sertorius, governor of Hispania at the time, heard of his
proscription, he continued to loyally support Marius by leading a rebellion in Hispania.
Sertorius faced the Roman government at first with only the small garrison of troops
in Hispania loyal to him, but later had success by utilizing the local tribesmen. Thus,
Quintus Sertorius adapted from commanding the highly structured Roman legions to
utilizing the traditional tribal warriors to defeat the legions of Metellus and Pompey,
thereby leading to the successful continuation of the Marian rebellion as he sought to
gain freedom from his own proscription.
Sertorius’ early career allowed him to ascend to the higher echelons of Roman
government and military, giving him the experience and the influence to succeed in his
later rebellion. In 102 B.C.E. Sertorius served in Gaul fighting the Teutones, a fierce
tribal enemy.1 The large success he saw under Marius gave him a key understanding
of how to command Roman legions, and during this time he proved himself to be a
courageous soldier, earning commendations from his generals. While they faced these
enemies Marius demonstrated how to beat a tribal foe with the combination of disciplined
1. Phillip Spann, Quintus Sertorius and the Legacy of Sulla (Fayetteville: Arkansas
University Press, 1987), 216.
Quintus Sertorius
training and experienced legionnaires, who could withstand the onslaught of greater
numbered but more loosely organized tribal enemies. The knowledge he learned from
Marius was underscored by the bitter defeat he experienced under Quintus Servilius
Caepio at the Battle of Arausio, in which he lost his eye and witnessed the devastation a
well-led tribal force could deal. For Sertorius, Gaul served as his classroom, and became
the base experience for him to draw on in his unique combination of two types of
warfare. Sertorius went on in 97 B.C.E. to serve with distinction under Titus Didius
as Military Tribune in Hispania. Progressing upward during the Social War, Sertorius
served as Quaestor in 91 B.C.E. Yet in the upheaval of politics between Sulla, Cinna,
and Marius, Sertorius was forced to seek election under the Populares faction and by
doing so won the Consulship in 86 B.C.E.2 As Governor of Hispania Sertorius treated
his subjects civilly and gained the respect of the local tribesmen, who would benefit
his political goals in the future. Thus after running with both the Populares and with
Marius, Sertorius faced a grim political future when Sulla returned from the East and
marched on Rome in 83 B.C.E.
After his proscription in 82 B.C.E. Sertorius faced a hard decision, and due to
his choice to rebel, fled, hoping to find a way to further his political goals. After hearing
of the demise of Marius and his own proscription in 82 B.C.E., Sertorius began to
make preparations for any attempt by Rome to seize Hispania from his control. Appian
states, “Sertorius, who had been for some time previously chosen Praetor for Spain”
was able to cause “a great deal of trouble for the Romans there.”3 Despite his ability to
harass the existing Roman presence, he led only a small force, which had been divided
by the political turmoil. Therefore Sertorius had little chance to defend himself against
the now invading Annius. Forced to flee the Iberian Peninsula, Sertorius and his now
even smaller force made a living as mercenaries for the next two years in the greater
Mediterranean. One of the Spanish tribes, the Lusitanians, tired of the oppression
of the Roman government, sent envoys that pleaded with him to come back to Spain
2. Phillip Matyszak, Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain (Barnsley: Pen, Sword Military,
2013), 72.
3. Appian of Alexandria, Appian’s Roman History: Vol. III, trans. Horace White
(London: Heinemann, 1913), 157.
Tau Sigma
Journal of Historical Studies: Vol. XXIV
to help them resist Rome.4 Seizing this opportunity to advance his own situation and
political desires, he arrived in Hispania in 80 B.C.E. with a force of his legions and
his allied Sicilian pirates. Sertorius quickly organized the tribes and his own forces to
surprise and defeat the standing Roman presence of Lucius Fufidius and his hastily
gathered force of one legion in the province of Baetica.5 After this rapid shift in power
the Senate appointed Quintus Caecilius Metellus as governor of Hispania and gave
him enough legions to crush Sertorius.
As governor of Hispania, Sertorius had treated his subjects civilly, and by
doing so he opened up political possibilities that made his goal of continuing the
Marian movement possible. Sertorius acted atypically for a Roman governor at the
time because he showed unusual amounts of respect, allowing the people certain
liberties uncommon for this time.6 His good treatment of his subjects in the province
of Hispania gave him a political tool to stage the uprising. Sertorius’ need for these
tribesmen became obvious early in his rebellion, and the success of this conflict was
only possible due to their aid. In Appian’s account Sertorius saw himself as “fighting
against Sulla’s illegal government in Rome; not against Rome itself.”7 He strove to gain
a political position with enough clout to be able to negotiate for his own arrangements
in Rome. In addition to his ambitions, the Spanish tribes wished to gain a certain level
of freedom within the Roman system, or if possible, even complete autonomy. Yet
throughout the entirety of the rebellion Sertorius recognized the unlikelihood of total
victory against the entire Roman state. Therefore in the words of historian Phillip
Matyszak, “If military victory was out of the question, Sertorius could hope to hold off
the legions until there was a chance of a political settlement.”8 Sertorius wished to make
any defeat of Hispania so costly that negotiations would be preferable to continuing
the war. This concept shaped the way that Sertorius fought in the Spanish rebellion,
as he avoided open battles, and through guerilla tactics attempted to cause significant
4. H.H. Scullard, From Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome From 133 B.C. to A.D. 68
(London: Menthuen, 1970), 90.
5. Appian, 203.
6. Ibid., 90.
7. Ibid., 90.
8. Matyszak, 73.
Quintus Sertorius
casualties to the Romans without risking his own smaller force. His motives for fighting
in the first place, combined with the resources available in the tribes, uniquely altered
his military strategy to utilize the strengths of both his legionaries and his clansmen. No
other Roman general had done this before, and his success at doing so allowed for the
initial accomplishment of his goals.
However, Sertorius’ combination of legionaries and tribesmen in Hispania
created several difficulties as it forced him to utilize two different sets of equipment
and strategies. After the reforms of Marius, the legion constituted a versatile heavy
infantry force. They fought equipped with chain mail, shields, and helmets, armed with
pilum and gladius. Complementary troops of cavalry and archers or slingers did exist,
but they were not the primary units on the battlefield. The Roman strategy of the time
focused on the legions and their ability to fight pitched battles. The soldiers especially
preferred close quarters combat as their armaments allowed them to defeat foes in
sustained head to head fighting.9 However, this type of unit would be disadvantaged
in the ambushes and hit and run attacks of the lighter equipped Lusitanni and CeltIberians. The tribesmen of the Iberian Peninsula equipped themselves with lighter and
more rudimentary weapons and armor. They had only what they could carry easily,
usually only a spear, sword, or club, combined with armor that ranged from nothing
to very light cloth or leather. These troops became renowned for their mobility and
their strategy of hitting the “line in concentrated groups and from all directions.”10
Impressively, Sertorius combined these two groups and these two strategies into a
hybrid force strong enough to defeat the onslaught of Roman forces.
Sertorius’ genius lay in his combination of two tactical approaches to warfare.
He trained the tribal soldiers to utilize their tactics effectively against the Romans.
Sertorius’ knowledge of the Roman strategies and his training of the tribes to understand
and defeat these forces eliminated the advantage in organization and numbers that the
Roman army initially had. Sertorius, in Matyszak’s opinion, sought to combine “the
best of native and Roman military tradition.”11 Initially Sertorius found the tribesmen
in disarray, unorganized and undisciplined, often scattering during and after combat.
9. Matyszak, 73.
10. Ibid., 75.
11. Ibid., 78.
Tau Sigma
Journal of Historical Studies: Vol. XXIV
He trained them in combined assaults and group movements. The success of the war
depended upon the elaborate plans that Sertorius implemented, and these relied on the
coordination of the tribesmen. The legions that had remained loyal to Sertorius fought
alongside him throughout this war and adapted their training to fit Sertorius’ new
hybrid tactical approach. Instead of steady formation approaches, open field battles,
and structured movements, they adapted to the lightning strikes of his guerilla warfare.
Sertorius succeeded in reforming the rabble and implementing his training of Roman
strategy alongside his use of their guerilla tactics.
In the late 78 B.C.E. Metellus invaded the province of Hispania in order to
capture and seize the territory from Sertorius, but he met such stiff resistance from
Sertorius that Rome was forced to send aid. Sertorius’ rebellion had already swept
across Hispania, drawing support from the tribes and some of the Romans. At this
time Plutarch stated that he “was in possession of Hispania, and was threatening the
Romans like a formidable cloud. As if a final disease of the state, that civil wars had
poured all their venom in this man.”12 Sertorius made a name for himself by defeating
Metellus for approximately two years. Metellus continually attempted to invade the
interior from the coastline that he controlled with the Roman navy, but Sertorius
always thwarted these movements. Plutarch also stated that Metellus was “outdistanced
when events swept along at high speed.”13 Metellus’ men became fearful of crossing
rivers and wooded areas, as Sertorius was prone to ambush while they moved through
these areas.14 He cut off Metellus’ supply lines and then commenced to lay siege to his
army through these ambushes. The Roman force made no significant progress into the
territory controlled by Sertorius, and they wasted substantial amounts of manpower,
provisions, and money. The strategy employed by Sertorius successfully navigated
the first years of the war against Metellus without fighting a pitched battle. Due to
Metellus’ failure in the beginning of the conflict the Senate turned to a rising young
general named Pompey. Hungry for power and glory, he would charge headfirst into
Hispania to meet Sertorius.
12. Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, trans. Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press), 155.
13. Ibid, 157.
14. Christopher F. Konrad, Plutarch’s Sertorius: A Historical Commentary (Chapel Hill:
North Carolina University Press, 1994), 137.
Quintus Sertorius
Pompey arrived in 76 B.C.E. to begin the next phase of the Sertorian war,
ushering in a time of mass movements and conflicts. Once Pompey arrived, the
campaign altered in multiple ways. First, Pompey recognized the great skill of Sertorius,
and his respect for Sertorius influenced his military movements. Second, the number of
Romans at least doubled upon the arrival of Pompey, with fresh troops eager for battle,
unlike the now wearied rebel troops. Yet Sertorius persevered under these odds. Appian
stated, “Directly Pompey arrived in Spain Sertorius cut in pieces a whole legion of his
army.”15 The altered situation led to various pitched battles, which Pompey realized
would sway in his favor. Sertorius also knew this fact and attempted to steer his army
away from such conflicts.
In 75 B.C.E. Pompey and Metellus sought to gain the areas along the coast
in order to maintain supply lines while they sought to entrap Sertorius in open battle.
H.H. Scullard stated, “Pompey’s first objective was to win the control of the eastern
coastal roads, especially around Valentia.”16 With his back to the sea and the Roman
navy controlling the eastern coast of Hispania, supply lines ceased to be a problem. By
positioning himself in this way Pompey eliminated one of Sertorius’ guerilla tactics of
cutting off the supply lines. However, early in the year Sertorius still outmaneuvered
his opponents by using his speed and night attacks. Plutarch states, “For the most
part they encamped apart, for their versatile enemy (Sertorius) used to cut off their
communications and separate them, and showed great skill in appearing in many places
within a short time, and in drawing them from one contest into another.”17 Sertorius’
tactics successfully disrupted the movements of Pompey and Metellus, despite the
rebels’ being at a disadvantage due to the Roman navy’s control of the sea. Sertorius’
ability to do this allowed him to gain an upper hand at Sucro.
In 75 B.C.E. Sertorius came close to defeating the entirety of Pompey’s army
a few miles inland at Sucro. Pompey held greater numbers and the overall advantage
for open battles, yet Sertorius chose to fight at this time because he saw his opportunity
to deal a devastating blow to Pompey while Metellus was too far away to aid his fellow
general. Sertorius attacked the flank of Pompey’s force, in the midst of whom Pompey
15. Appian, 203.
16. Scullard, 91.
17. Plutarch, 163.
Tau Sigma
Journal of Historical Studies: Vol. XXIV
himself saw direct combat and received a wound. Appian stated, “Sertorius defeated
Pompey, who received a dangerous wound.”18 The numbers of Pompey’s force won
out in the end and drove the attackers into retreat, but the damage the rebels dealt was
greater. Sertorius’ inability to defeat the whole army in one assault led to an eventual
draw, but the honor of the battle went to his side in the eyes of Plutarch.19 Sertorius
negotiated with Pompey after this conflict, which had even further impressed the young
general of the rebel’s talents, and these talks drew Sertorius even closer to achieving his
political goals.
The draw at Sucro forced Pompey to negotiate with Sertorius and even led him
to send threats to the Senate. The Roman army was drained at this point in the war.
Sustaining a wound to the hand at Sucro, Pompey felt the sting of the war physically.
In addition, he felt the tightening of his monetary reserves, forcing him to pay the
troops, the locals, and others involved in the constant re-supplying of the army. Due to
these factors Pompey made a very serious threat to the Senate and implied that if he
did not receive more money he would either join Sertorius or march on Rome himself.
Plutarch stated, “He asked for money from the senate, threatening to come back to
Italy with his army if they did not send it.”20 Sertorius had been so effective in fighting
his guerilla war that Pompey felt pressure to switch sides, even if the chances of success
were slim. The genuine nature of the threat is evidence of the success that Sertorius
was having at the time in accomplishing his goals for his political future.
After the Senate yielded to the demands of Pompey, the newly supplied army
of Metellus and Pompey set out in late 75 B.C.E. to finally end the Sertorian rebellion
at Saguntum. Sertorius’ defeat would not completely destroy him, but would force
him to be on the defensive until his death. Also located along the coast, not far from
Sucro, Saguntum became the first and only instance in which Sertorius faced both
Roman generals in pitched battle. The combined forces had all major advantages in the
conflict. They had the numerical, positional, and tactical advantages as they managed
to force Sertorius into open battle against both of them. They did this by separating
and focusing Metellus’ contingent on Sertorius’ lieutenant Perperna’s troops, delaying
18. Appian, 205.
19. Plutarch, 160.
20. Ibid., 160.
Quintus Sertorius
Sertorius enough that they could entrap him at Saguntum. The battle occurred on a
relatively flat field, which favored the legionaries. Sertorius thus suffered his greatest
defeat since his expulsion from Hispania in the 80s. He found the continuation of
any open field conflict impossible and would never again face the Roman army in
open battle, but used only defensive guerilla tactics.21 However, Sertorius was far from
being defeated. From this time at the end of 75 B.C.E. up to his death in 72 B.C.E.,
he maintained a good level of control over the territory and kept up the continual
harassment of the Roman forces. Appian states that the Senate sent “another army of
two legions into Spain.”22 With these forces Pompey and Metellus repeatedly invaded
the areas Sertorius controlled in the years following 75 B.C.E. However, Sertorius
continued to repel these attacks with the same intensity that he had previously. The
need for the Senate to send more aid and the presence of so many other conflicts at the
time (including the wars with Mithradates, in Crete, and against pirates) cemented the
lack of total success for Pompey and his forces during this period.
In 72 B.C.E. one of Sertorius’ own men defeated him and ended the rebellion
by succumbing to his own greed and political desires. Sertorius’ forces experienced
low morale, especially in their time away from families, yet his army seemed intact
except for one disgruntled lieutenant and a few Roman legionaries. Marcus Perperna
Vento assassinated Sertorius, after getting him and his bodyguard drunk at a feast, in
order to try and gain position with Pompey.23 This act effectively killed the rebellion,
and Pompey easily dealt with the remaining forces. Perperna claimed that Sertorius
had gone mad and carried out the deed himself, yet afterwards he pleaded the virtues
of Sertorius and claimed command of the rebellion himself. The result of his short
command was a pitched battle only ten days after the assassination. Pompey did
not respect Perperna and even in the words of Appian “despised the generalship of
Perperna,” and Perperna himself did not believe that his army “would long remain
faithful to him.”24 The battle lasted only a short time and Pompey won on all fronts;
21. Phillip Spann, “Saguntum vs. Segontia: A Note on the Topography of the
Sertorian War,” Zeitschrift Fur Alte Geschichite 33, no. 1 (January-March 1984): 116-119.
22. Appian, 207.
23. Ibid., 211.
24. Ibid., 215.
Tau Sigma
Journal of Historical Studies: Vol. XXIV
seizing Perperna in a thicket he promptly executed him, and the Sertorian war ended.
Had Perperna not acted out of political greed, the war would have lasted even longer,
perhaps long enough for Sertorius to gain his own political goals.
Sertorius displayed significant military genius, as he was pitted against two of the
foremost Roman generals at that time. In the words of Konrad, he “proved their equal;
he faced the military resources of Rome as a stranger leading barbarians and almost
prevailed.”25 He attempted to accomplish his goals by utilizing the resources he had on
hand: groups of tribal guerilla warriors. Coming from a strictly Roman background,
his adeptness at commanding these troops proved his military genius. However, despite
withstanding the full might of the Roman military machine commanded by the great
Pompey and Metellus, he succumbed to a common fate of the period: assassination.
Therefore, despite his valiant effort, he failed in his quest for freedom from proscription
and consequently contributed to the rise of one of the military and political giants
of the age, Pompey. Desperate to quell Sertorius’ rebellion, the Senate ignored the
law and gave Pompey the power and influence that would make him a threat to the
25. Konrad, 33.