Sertorian War

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The Sertorian War was a conflict of the Roman civil wars in which a coalition of Iberians and Romans fought against the representatives of the regime established by Sulla. It takes its name from Quintus Sertorius, the main leader of the opposition to Sulla. The war lasted from 80 BC to 72 BC. The war is notable for Sertorius' successful use of guerrilla warfare. The war ended after Sertorius was assassinated by Marcus Perperna, who was then promptly defeated by Pompey.[1]

Origin of the war[edit]

Discontented Lusitanians decided to send envoys to the Roman rebel Sertorius who at the time was at Tingis in North Africa. The Lusitanians chose Sertorius because of the mild policy he had pursued while governor in 82 BC.[2] The Lusitani had a long history of resistance to Rome.[3] Some historians have concluded that the Lusitani were seeking independence and by taking over the leadership of the movement Sertorius was opposing Rome itself.[4] Philip Spann considers this unlikely, as for Sertorius to accept such a treasonable offer would be to destroy any hope of returning to Rome. More likely the offer grew out of an acceptance by the Lusitani that they would not be able to defeat Rome and that their best hope was to assist the establishment in Rome of a regime sympathetic to them.[5] Spann suggests that a major reason for Sertorius' acceptance was that it was becoming clearer that there would be no amnesty for him and his followers nor reconciliation with the regime set up by Sulla.[6]

Sertorius returns to Iberia[edit]

In 80 BC Sertorius, after defeating a naval force under Aurelius Cotta, landed in the Iberian Peninsula at Baelo, near the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar).[7] Plutarch's account implies that Sertorius first went to Lusitania, organized the tribes and only then returned to the Baetis valley to defeat a Roman force. Spann suggests that a more probable sequence is that the battle of the Baetis River occurred during Sertorius' initial march to Lusitania.[8]

Appointment of Metellus[edit]

Concerned at the growing threat, the authorities in Rome upgraded Hispania from a propraetorian to a proconsular province[9], and appointed Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius as governor of Hispania Ulterior.[10] Metellus entered Spain in late 80 or early 79 BC, basing himself at Metellinum (modern Medellin), made several thrusts into the interior,[10] but was thwarted by Sertorius who used guerrilla tactics so effectively that after two years Metellus was exhausted.[11] Meanwhile Sertorius' legate, Lucius Hirtuleius, was able to defeat Marcus Domitius Calvinus the propraetor (governor) of Hispania Citerior.[10] In 76 BC the government in Rome decided to send Metellus help in the form of Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) and a large Roman army. In the same year Sertorius was joined by Marcus Perpenna, who brought the remnant of the army of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus from Sardinia via Liguria.[10] However Perperna had only reluctantly agreed to put himself under Sertorius' command; when his men heard that Pompey was coming to deal with them, they demanded that Perpenna join up with Sertorius.[12][13] Perpenna brought a substantial force of fifty-three cohorts (almost five-and-a-half legions)with him to Spain. Thus reinforced Sertorius decided to take on the eastern cities who supported the Sullan faction. His first target was Lauron. Meanwhile Pompey had arrived in Spain and was marching against him.

Metellus and Pompey versus Sertorius[edit]

Pompey's first aim, on arrival in Iberia, was to clear the coastal road. Initially successful he suffered a defeat when he faced Sertorius at the city of Lauron.[14] At the city of Lauron (which had defected to Pompey) Sertorius decided to teach Pompey a lesson. The battle of Lauron was a brilliant tactical victory for the Sertorians and proved to Pompey this was not going to be a cakewalk.[15] Meanwhile, Metellus fought his way past Perpenna and came to Pompey's rescue.[15]

The next year, 75 BC, there were several major battles. Pompey defeated the legates Perpenna and Herennius in a battle near Valentia (see: the battle of Valentia), Metellus defeated Hirtuleius in a battle near the Roman colony of Italica (see: the battle of Italica). Sertorius, on hearing of Hirtuleius' defeat, seemed to have decided to attempt to defeat Pompey before Metellus and Pompey could join forces. At the battle of Sucro, Sertorius met Pompey's army and, though he defeated one wing, forcing Pompey to flee, his other wing was defeated in the meantime, so the end result was a draw.[16] The fourth major battle, a battle in which Sertorius faced the combined forces of Pompey and Metellus, is normally taken to be near Saguntum.[17] Philip Spann considers this to be a misreading of the sources arguing that an inland site must be intended, arguing for one or other of the two cities named Segontia.[18] It is probable that the battle of Saguntum was forced on Sertorius by his own troops, who were fed up with Sertorius' guerrilla tactics.[19] In the event, in the battle, the largest of the war, Sertorius was defeated and had to withdraw further inland.[20]

The war during the year 74 BC is poorly documented. Pompey and Metellus concentrated their efforts on the lands of the Celtiberians and the Vaccaei.[21] Overall, however, it seems that Sertorius' position was somewhat eroded.[22]

Division in the Sertorian camp[edit]

During 73 BC there was a growing division between the Roman and Iberian elements of the Sertorian coalition.[23] Plutarch tells how the Romans meted out harsh treatment to the Iberians, blaming their actions on Sertorius' orders.[24] It is normally assumed that Perperna made his move to assassinate Sertorius in 72 BC.[25] However there are strong arguments in favor of 73 BC.[23] After the assassination, Perperna, with his army, was lured into an ambush defeated and captured by Pompey.[26]


In the view of Scullard, Pompey's treatment of Hispania was humane, relative to the normal Roman treatment for traitors and rebels. Citizenship was given to many supporters and a group of fanatical opponents were resettled to Lugdunum Convenarum in southern Gaul.[25]


  1. ^ Dupuy and Dupuy, The Encyclopaedia of Military History, p. 93
  2. ^ Philip Spann, Quintus Sertorius and the Legacy of Sulla, p. 54
  3. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 58–9
  4. ^ H. Berve, "Sertorius", Hermes 64 (1929) p. 221
  5. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 59–60
  6. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 55
  7. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 56–7
  8. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 57–8; Philip Matyszak, Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain, p.64
  9. ^ Philip Matyszak, Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain, p.68
  10. ^ a b c d H. H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero,p. 90
  11. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 69–71
  12. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 86
  13. ^ Plutarc, Life of Sertorius, 15
  14. ^ Frontinus, Stratagems, 2.5.31; Plutarch, Life of Pompey, 18.3; Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, 18; John Leach, Pompey the Great, pp.226-227; Philip Matyszak, Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain, pp.96-101; Scullard, Gracchi to Nero, p. 91.
  15. ^ a b Philip Matyszak, Sertorius and the struggle for Spain, pp. 96-105
  16. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 111–2
  17. ^ Scullard, Gracchi to Nero, p. 91.
  18. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 114–5
  19. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 114
  20. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 113–5
  21. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 124–5
  22. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, pp. 127
  23. ^ a b Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 128
  24. ^ Plutarch, Lives, Sertorius, 25, University of Chicago
  25. ^ a b Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero, p. 92
  26. ^ Spann, Quintus Sertorius, p. 135


  • Philip Matysak, Sertorius and the struggle for Spain, Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley (2013) ISBN 978-1848847873
  • Philip Spann, Quintus Sertorius and the Legacy of Sulla