Return to Roman Spain

The Celtiberian War

"The war between the Romans and the Celtiberians was called the 'fiery war,' so remarkable was the uninterrupted character of the engagements....The engagements as a rule were only stopped by darkness, the combatants refusing either to let their courage flag or to yield to bodily fatigue, and ever rallying, recovering confidence and beginning afresh. Winter indeed alone put a certain check on the progress of the whole war and on the continuous character of the regular battles, so that on the whole if we can conceive a war to be fiery it would be this and no other one."

Polybius, The Histories (XXXV.1)

Scipio Africanus had wrested Spain away from Carthage at the Battle of Ilipa in 206 BC and ended the Second Punic War four years later at the Battle of Zama. But subjugation of the Iberian Peninsula would require another two hundred years of intermittent and often savage warfare, in which Rome, at least in Cicero's estimation, struggled "as with deadly enemies, not to determine which should be supreme, but which should survive" (De Officiis, I.38). The most complete account of this war is provided by the Greek historian Appian in Iberike, the sixth book of his Roman History. There, in Chapters 44-98, he discusses the Celtiberian War and, inserted in that section, the Lusitanian War and its hero Viriathus.

There had been peace for almost a quarter of a century when, in 155 BC, a raid into Hispania Ulterior (Farther Spain) by the Lusitani and the defeat of two successive Roman praetors encouraged the town of Segeda in Hispania Citerior (Nearer Spain) to rebel. The following year, it refused to pay tribute or provide a military contingent to Rome but formed instead a confederacy with neighboring towns and began the construction of a defensive wall. Quintus Fulvius Nobilior (the son of Marcus Fulvius Nobilior) was sent against the Celtiberians in 153 BC, with nearly thirty thousand men. But the consul was late in arriving and ambushed soon after, with six thousand Romans slain.

(Nobilior had been designated consul for the following year but could not assume office until the Ides of March. Given the military situation, the Senate decreed January 1 to be the start of the new civil year, which permitted him to depart with his legions that much sooner. His defeat on August 23 was so disastrous that the day on which it occurred was declared a dies aster and subsequently considered unlucky. Indeed, Appian relates that no Roman general would willingly initiate a battle on that day.)

A siege of Numantia (Numancia) several days later, where the Segedans had taken refuge, was no more successful. Three elephants were brought up against the town walls but became frightened and turned on the Romans, who retreated in confusion. There were other setbacks, and the hapless Nobilior was obliged to withdraw to camp, where more men suffered frostbite and died of the winter cold.

He was succeeded the next year by Claudius Marcellus, who convinced the native tribes to come to terms, taking hostages and imposing a fine but granting them pardon. Resentful of such magnanimity, the Senate demanded, as it would throughout the war, deditio or unconditional surrender. It rejected the peace proposal and, in 151 BC, sent Licinius Lucullus with another army. But, before the new consul could arrive, Marcellus, who "desired that the war should be brought to an end by himself, thinking that he should gain glory from this too," persuaded the coalition to give themselves up. Agreeably light terms were imposed, and the chagrined Lucullus was deprived of a war.

Indeed, sending consuls rather than praetors to Spain, especially given the relatively insignificant events in Segeda, suggests that Hispania had become the new theater for military conquest, where an endemic state of war provided an opportunity for personal and political advancement. Eleven of the thirteen commanders sent to Hispania Citerior were consuls, many of whom, as Appian remarks, "took the command, not for the advantage of the city [Rome], but for glory, or gain, or the honour of a triumph." During the next twenty years, the inability of successive Roman consuls to bring the war to a conclusion also made eventual victory that much more desirable, as each thought he could succeed where his predecessors had failed.

Certainly Lucullus was such a man. "Being greedy of fame and needing money," he engaged in a series of unwarranted attacks on a neighboring tribe, which offered hostages and tribute and the admission of a Roman garrison into town. Lucullus then had all the adult males massacred and the town sacked, a betrayal, says Appian, that "brought infamy upon the Roman name." Another tribe, hearing of such treachery, accepted a treaty only when Scipio Aemilianus, the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus and military tribune under Lucullus, personally negotiated for food and winter clothing. "As for the gold and silver which Lucullus demanded, and for the sake of which he had waged this war, thinking that all Spain abounded with gold and silver, he got none."

In 150 BC, Lucullus joined forces with Sulpicius Galba, praetor for Hispania Ulterior, who already had been defeated by the Lusitanians the year before. Now caught between the two armies, the tribe was obliged to seek peace. Feigning sympathy and offering to resettle them on fertile land, Galba enticed the Lusitanians out of their towns and divided them into three groups, each some distance apart. The Romans then massacred them all in turn. Thousands were slaughtered, the rest sold as slaves. Galba, "being even more greedy than Lucullus, distributed a little of the plunder to the army and a little to his friends, but kept the rest himself, although he was already one of the richest of the Romans." Galba later was called to account for this treachery but avoided trial. (Although Lucullus had not even been reprimanded for his earlier atrocity and Galba escaped punishment by pleading for his children's sake, the Senate was to become increasingly stringent in its oversight of the war.)

One survivor of the massacre was Viriathus, who emerged as the leader of the Lusitanians in a sustained guerrilla war against Rome (significantly, guerrilla, itself, is Spanish in origin, from the diminutive of guerra, war). He first gained fame when he managed to save his countrymen just as they were about to surrender. Reminding them of Rome's perfidy, he promised deliverance if they would obey him. "Excited by the new hopes with which he inspired them, they chose him as their leader." With a select band of men on horseback, attacking and retreating, he harassed the Romans in the field for two days, giving the others a chance to scatter and escape. In 147 BC, the praetor of Ulterior and ten thousand Romans were ambushed and killed. The next year, his successor was defeated as well, and Viriathus overran the province.

In 142 BC, having trapped the Romans, Viriathus proposed a treaty which recognized him as "a friend of the Roman nation." But it, too, soon was broken, and the Lusitanians were forced to continue fighting until, finally, in 139 BC, the envoys sent to negotiate peace were bribed to assassinate Viriathus instead. With his death, "a man who, for a barbarian, had the highest qualities of a commander, and was always foremost in facing danger and most exact in dividing the spoils," the Lusitanian war came to an end. But other guerrilla bands continued to resist, "the women bore arms with the men, who died with a will, not a man of them showing his back, or uttering a cry. Of the women who were captured some killed themselves, others slew their children also with their own hands, considering death preferable to captivity."

Even as the Lusitanians were resettled, war had begun on another front. An unexpected defeat had prompted Viriathus to incite the Celtiberians to renounce their treaty with Rome, and in 143 BC they renewed their own hostilities. This was the beginning of the Third Celtiberian War or, as Appian characterizes it, the Numantine War. In 141 BC Pompeius Aulus was sent to Citerior with thirty thousand men. The campaign was a series of blundering misadventures and Pompeius was compelled in 139 BC to negotiate a covert settlement. It is likely that the consul had misrepresented his campaign to the Senate, because, after hostages, prisoners, and deserters had been turned over, and indemnity paid, Pompeius reneged and denied ever having made any agreement. His successor was obliged to refer the entire matter to the Senate, which decreed that the war should continue.

Hostilius Mancinus, the next consul, fared no better. In 137 BC, while besieging Numantia (Numancia), he panicked at the rumor that reinforcements were being sent and surrendered his entire army, pledging peace between Rome and the Numantines as equals (foedus). So ignominious was this treaty to the Senate, having been made without its authorization, that Mancinus was recalled and Aemilius Lepidus, the other consul for the year, sent to Spain in his place. Impatient at having to await the outcome of the debate over the treaty, which eventually was repudiated, he began to ravage the countryside. The Senate was incredulous at this unprovoked renewal of hostilities and demanded to know why "after so many disasters had befallen them in Spain, Aemilius should be seeking a new war." Suffering from a lack of food, the Romans were compelled to retreat and desperately tried to decamp under cover of darkness. "Such was the confusion that they left behind everything, and even the sick and wounded, who clung to them and besought them not to abandon them." Only a lunar eclipse saved the Romans from being pursued. Lepidus was deprived of his command while still in the field (the first time that such an abrogation ever had occurred) and recalled to Rome in disgrace.

There was debate in the Senate. Mancinus argued that Pompeius was to blame, having made a similar treaty, himself, and bequeathed to him an unprepared army. Pompeius contended that he already had been subjected to an inquiry. Exasperated with both consuls, it was decreed that Mancinus would be returned to Spain and symbolically delivered naked and bound to the Numantines, in repudiation of the treaty, but he was refused.

Clearly, the situation was becoming intolerable. There was more indecisive fighting until, in 134 BC, "the Roman people being tired of this Numantine war, which was protracted and severe beyond expectation," elected Scipio Aemilianus to end the war, the law being waived to allow him the consulship for a second time. Scipio had destroyed Carthage a dozen years before and, having learned from the mistakes of his predecessors, took with him only friends and volunteers, including (possibly) the Greek historian Polybius, whose lost account of the Numantine war was utilized by Appian in his own history. This was just as well, for the valor of the Celtiberians, relates Polybius, was such that "young men avoided enrolment, finding such excuses as it was disgraceful to allege, unseemly to examine, and impossible to check" (XXXV.4).

Mindful, says Florus (I.34.11), of the adage that a general has the army which he deserves, Scipio expelled the prostitutes and fortune tellers from camp and dispensed with the use of beds, as well as unnecessary wagons and pack animals. Camps were fortified and then demolished, trenches were dug and then filled in again. Men were given allotted tasks and assigned a particular place while on the march, the army never being divided or separated. "When he judged that the army was alert, obedient to himself, and patient in labour, he moved his camp near to Numantia."

Refusing to engage the Numantines, who had fought so desperately in the past, Scipio sought to defeat them through starvation. Nearby fields were laid waste and what was not used burned. The stronghold of Numantia then was circumvallated with a ditch and palisade, behind which was a wall ten feet high. Towers were placed every hundred feet and mounted with catapults and ballistae. To blockade the nearby river, logs were placed in the water, moored by ropes on the shore. Swords and spear heads were embedded in the wood, which rotated in the strong current. Allied tribes were ordered to send reinforcements. Even Jugurtha, who later would revolt from Rome, himself, was sent from Numidia with twelve war elephants. The Roman forces now numbered sixty-thousand men and were arrayed around the besieged town in seven camps. The Numantines, "ready though they were to die, no opportunity was given them of fighting" (Florus, I.34.13).

There were several desperate attempts to break out but they were repulsed. Nor could there be any help from neighboring towns. Eventually, as their hunger increased, envoys were sent to Scipio, asking if they would be treated with moderation if they surrendered, pleading that they had fought for their women and children, and the freedom of their country. But Scipio would accept only deditio. Hearing this demand for absolute submission, the Numantines, "who were previously savage in temper because of their absolute freedom and quite unaccustomed to obey the orders of others, and were now wilder than ever and beside themselves by reason of their hardships," slew their own ambassadors.

In 133 BC, after eight months of siege, the starving population was reduced to cannibalism and, filthy and foul smelling, compelled to surrender. But, "such was the love of liberty and of valour which existed in this small barbarian town," relates Appian, that many chose to kill themselves rather than capitulate. Families poisoned themselves, weapons were burned, and the beleaguered town set ablaze. There had been only about eight-thousand fighting men when the war began; half that number survived to garrison Numantia. Some of the pitiable survivors were chosen for Scipio's triumph, the others were sold as slaves and the town razed to the ground, the territory divided among its neighbors.

Still, there was resistance. In 26-25 BC, the Cantabrian War was fought in the mountains of northern Spain, the first year of the campaign led by Augustus, himself. In celebration of victory, the doors of the Temple of Janus, traditionally kept open in times of war, were closed for only the fourth time in the long history of Rome. But the gesture was premature. The Cantabrians revolted again in 22 BC and, although they were defeated,

"Not many of the Cantabri were taken prisoner, for when they saw they had lost all hope of freedom, they lost all desire to preserve their lives either. Some set fire to their forts and cut their own throats, others willingly remained with their companions and died in the flames, while others took poison in the sight of all. In this way the great majority and the fiercest among the tribesmen were wiped out."

Cassius Dio, Roman History (XLIV.5)

There was one last rebellion in 19 BC, when many of the Cantabrians, having been sold into slavery after their earlier defeat, murdered their masters and returned home. Subdued by Agrippa, who killed almost all those of military age and disarmed the others, the tribe was forced from its strongholds and compelled to live in the plains. After almost two centuries, the wars in Spain had come to an end.


On the return of Augustus from Spain and Gaul in 13 BC, the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) was consecrated by the Senate to commemorate peace in the empire. Livy suggests why it had taken so long.

"...Spain by the nature of the country and the character of its people, was better adapted than any other place in the world to making losses good for a renewal of hostilities. This is the reason why Spain, though it was the first mainland province to be entered by the Romans, was the last to be completely subdued, and held out till our own times, when it was finally conquered under the leadership and auspices of Augustus Caesar."

The History of Rome (XXVIII.12)

It is difficult not to remember what another rebel leader, in the highlands of Scotland, is to have said about the Romans before he, too, was defeated: "They rob, kill and rape and this they call Roman rule. They make a desert and call it peace."


References: Appian: Wars of the Romans in Iberia (2000) by J. S. Richardson; Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation (1991) by Leonard A. Curchin; The Romans in Spain (1996) by J. S. Richardson; Hispaniae: Spain and the Development of Roman Imperialism, 218-82 BC (1986) by J. S. Richardson; Roman Spain (1988) by S. J. Keay; Spain: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (1998) by Roger Collins.

Appian's Roman History (Vol I: The Wars in Spain) (1912) translated by Horace White (Loeb Classical Library); Polybius: The Histories (Vol VI) (1927) translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library); Dio Cassius: Roman History (Vol II) (1914) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library); Lucius Annaeus Florus: Epitome of Roman History (1929) translated by Edward Seymour Forster (Loeb Classical Library); Livy: The War with Hannibal (1965) translated by Aubrey de SÚlincourt (Penguin Classics); Cassius Dio: The Roman History (1987) translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (Penguin Classics); Tacitus on Britain and Germany (1948) translated by H. Mattingly (Penguin Classics).

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