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Quintus Sertorius

Biography of Quintus Sertorius

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Quintus Sertorius was from the Sabine town of Nussa. His father died while Sertorius was still quite young, and he was brought up by his mother, Rhea, who, apparently, he adored. In 105 BC the Cimbri and Teutones tribes invaded Roman Gaul (at that time Northern Italy, and Provence in France). The first Roman army sent against them was heavily defeated. Sertorius lost his horse and was wounded but he managed to swim to safety over the Rhone. When another army was sent out under Marius (102), Sertorius volunteered to go in disguise to mingle with the enemy as a spy. His mission was successful and he returned to report to Marius.

In 97, Sertorius served as military tribune in Spain. He gained public recognition when he recaptured the city of Castulo the same night as it was taken from a negligent Roman garrison, and then went on to capture the neighbouring city of Oritana, which had helped in the initial defeat of the Roman garrison.

When Sertorius returned to Rome he was elected quaestor and served in Cisalpine Gaul (i.e., Northern Italy). Matters were coming to a head over the Romans' refusal to extend citizenship rights to their Italian allies, and it was during the war over this (90-88) that Sertorius received the wound which cost him one of his eyes.

Sertorius Allies With Marius

Sertorius stood for election as tribune but failed to win, and he blamed Sulla for this, so he naturally allied himself with the Marians in the dispute over whether Sulla or Marius should be sent out to fight against Mithridates in the East. After Sulla had successfully gained the command and Marius had gone into exile, the two consuls [see Table of Roman Consuls.], Octavius, who was pro-Sulla, and Cinna, who was pro-Marius, fell out. Sertorius followed Cinna when he was driven out of Rome by Octavius, who had Merula appointed as consul to replace Cinna (87).

Reign of Terror

Marius came back from exile in Africa to join the forces Cinna was raising in Italy. They divided their army into three parts commanded by Marius, Cinna, and Sertorius, and laid siege to Rome. In the reign of terror Marius and Cinna instigated after they won their way into the city, Sertorius is said to have done his best to moderate their lust for vengeance. Marius had enrolled slaves among his forces, and they were particularly known for their brutality, which no-one dared do anything to counter until Sertorius defeated and killed them in their camp (86).

When Sulla arrived back from the East (82), another round of fighting ensued. During a truce for negotiations between Lucius Scipio (one of the commanders opposing Sulla now that Marius and Cinna were dead) and Sulla, Sertorius was sent on a mission to apprise the consul Norbanus of what was happening. On the way he captured the pro-Sullan town of Suessa, which meant Scipio had to return the hostages Sulla had provided for the truce.

The negotiations were actually a ploy, and Sulla used the opportunity to persuade Scipio's army to come over to him. Sertorius decided the position of the anti-Sullan forces in Italy was hopeless, and made his way to Spain to take up his propraetorship and form an alternative power base.

Once he had gained control of Rome, Sulla sent Caius Annius to dislodge Sertorius from Spain. The commander of the advance guard Sertorius had posted at the Pyrenees was assassinated, thus leaving Sertorius vulnerable to Annius' advance. Sertorius abandoned Spain and sailed over to N. Africa but after the men from his fleet were attacked and defeated while they were replenishing their water supplies, Sertorius tried to return to Spain. After a sea battle against Annius, Sertorius retreated to the 'Atlantic Islands', which may be Madeira or the Canaries.

Sertorius would have been quite happy to settle in the Atlantic Islands but the Cilician pirates who had been helping him sailed off to Mauretania, now Morocco, to help restore Ascalis, a local prince, to the throne. Sertorius sent some of his followers to help those fighting against Ascalis. Ascalis also received help from Roman troops sent by Sulla under Paccianus, who Sertorius defeated. Paccianus was killed in the battle, and his men joined Sertorius. The city of Tingis (now Tangier), where Ascalis had taken refuge, surrendered.

After Sertorius captured Tingis, the Lusitanians asked him to lead them in their struggle against the occupying Roman forces in Spain. He crossed over into Spain with 2600 Romans and 700 soldiers from North Africa. Some 4000 foot-soldiers and 700 horsemen from the locals joined Sertorius' forces. One of Sertorius' attractions for them was his pet white fawn, which he claimed was a gift from the goddess Diana, saying that the information he actually received from spies was revealed to him by the fawn.

By introducing Roman weapons and military methods to these forces, Sertorius held off 120,000 Roman foot-soldiers, 600 horsemen and 2000 archers and slingshot fighters. He demonstrated his reasoning with two horses, one a fine warhorse and the other a broken-down old nag, and two men, one a fine figure of a warrior and the other a small puny-looking man. He ordered the strong man to pull out the old nag's tail. When he couldn't do it, Sertorius ordered the weak man to pull out the warhorse's tail one hair at a time, which he easily managed. However, although he had come at the invitation of the Lusitanians and was training them in Roman military techniques, he was careful to keep power in his own hands and those of the Romans with him (who he called his Senate), insisting that his fight was against the regime and not against Rome itself.

Quintus Caecilius Metellus

The Roman part of Spain was divided into two provinces and Sertorius defeated the governors of both. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius was sent out from Rome against Sertorius (79), but Metellus' conventional tactics proved useless against the guerrilla tactics Sertorius used. When, for example, Metellus laid siege to a city of the Langobritae tribe, Sertorius had water smuggled into the city and then forced Metellus to retreat by harassing his foraging parties.

After his initial successes Sertorius was joined by more Romans unhappy with the new order of things. They were led by Perpenna Vento, but threatened to desert to Sertorius when they heard that Pompey was on his way(77). Perpenna had no choice but to acquiesce in his men's decision and join Sertorius.

Pompey

Hitherto, Sertorius' success had been ascribed to Metellus' age and weakness, but he soon proved to be a match even for Pompey. Although when Pompey first arrived some amongst the locals were tempted to change sides, Sertorius' resounding victory at Lauron changed their minds back again. Sertorius was besieging Lauron when Pompey arrived and demanded that Sertorius surrender. Sertorius pointed out the troops he'd left in reserve who were in a good position to surround Pompey and trap him between Sertorius' forces. Lauron surrendered. Sertorius let the people go but burnt down the city, and Pompey was unable to stop him. In one incident during the seige, one of Sertorius' men tried to rape one of the inhabitants but she managed to blind him. When Sertorius heard what had happened he had the whole cohort executed to punish their brutality.

It soon became evident that any defeats Sertorius' men suffered were when other generals were in command. In a battle at Sucro for example, Sertorius first took command of his right wing, and then switched to his left wing when Pompey put it to flight. Sertorius rallied his men and they turned on the pursuing forces under Pompey. Pompey himself only escaped capture because Sertorius' North African troops started fighting amongst themselves over the gold ornaments worn by Pompey's horse. It was now Sertorius' right wing that needed help, so Sertorius changed back to lead them and defeated Pompey's left.

When fighting stopped for winter, Pompey was forced to send back to Rome for more money and supplies, threatening to come and get them with his army if none were forthcoming. Metellus in the meantime offered a reward for anyone who killed Sertorius, which was taken as an admission that he could not defeat Sertorius by more conventional means.

Sertorius, on the other hand, offered to lay down his arms and return home if he would be allowed to live out his life unmolested, but this proposal was rejected. When Mithridates sent envoys suggesting they join forces against Rome, Sertorius agreed provided Mithridates gave up the province of Asia which he'd recently taken. Mithridates agreed to those terms and so Sertorius sent him a general, Marcus Marius, and some troops. Mithridates held to his side of the bargain, following Marcus Marius as the leader when in the province of Asia.

The Romans in Sertorius' 'Senate' grew jealous and afraid of Sertorius, who in turn trusted them less and less. Egged on by Perpenna, they plotted to kill him. They invited him to a banquet where the deed was done while Sertorius was off his guard (72). Most of the locals immediately sought terms from Pompey and Metellus. Perpenna was captured in battle and brought to Pompey. He offered Pompey letters from leading citizens back home in Rome, proving them to be supporters of Sertorius but Pompey had them burnt unread and Perpenna killed.

Sertorius Sources

Original Sources:
Plutarch's Life of Sertorius
Plutarch's Comparison between Sertorius and Eumenes
Appian is the source for the incident at Suessa

Secondary Sources:
(www.ancientcoinmarket.com/mt/mtarticle1/1.html) This numismatic site has a good account of Sertorius illustrated with a map and drawings of coins issued by Sertorius in Spain.
This Spanish language site has a good account of Sertorius' time in Spain, though I'm not sure what point the pictures are meant to be illustrating.

The above article is a slightly adapted version of two articles that first appeared at www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/ancient_biographies on 6 April 2004 and 20 April 2004.

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