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Quintus Sertorius

Quintus Sertorius (; c. 123 – 72 BC)[1] was a Roman statesman and general, born in Nursia, in Sabine territory. His brilliance as a military commander was shown most clearly in his battles against Rome for control of Hispania. His family, the gens Sertoria, was probably of Sabine origin, and was previously undistinguished.[2]


  • Early political career 1
    • Proconsul in Hispania 1.1
  • Sertorian War 2
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5

Early political career

After acquiring some reputation in Rome as a jurist and an orator, he began a military career. His first recorded campaign was under Quintus Servilius Caepio at the Battle of Arausio, where he showed unusual courage. Serving under Gaius Marius in 102 BC, Sertorius succeeded in spying on the wandering tribes that had defeated Caepio. After this success, he fought at the great Battle of Aquae Sextiae (now Aix-en-Provence, France) in which the Teutones were decisively defeated. In 97 BC, he served in Hispania as a military tribune under Titus Didius, winning the Grass Crown.

In 91 he was quaestor in Cisalpine Gaul, where he was in charge of recruiting and training legions for the Social War. During this time he sustained a wound that cost him the use of one of his eyes. Upon his return to Rome he ran for tribune, but Lucius Cornelius Sulla thwarted his efforts (for reasons unknown), causing Sertorius to oppose him.

After Sulla forced Marius into exile, and Sulla left Rome to fight Mithridates, violence erupted between the Optimates, led by the consul Gnaeus Octavius, and the Populares, led by the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna. Sertorius now declared for Cinna and the Populares. Though he had a very bad opinion of Marius, he consented to Marius' return upon understanding that Marius came at Cinna's request and not of his own accord. After Octavius surrendered Rome to the forces of Marius, Cinna, and Sertorius in 87, Sertorius abstained from the proscriptions his fellow commanders engaged in. Sertorius went so far as to rebuke Marius, and move Cinna to moderation, while annihilating Marius' slave army that had partaken in his atrocities.

Proconsul in Hispania

On Sulla's return from the East in 83, and following the subsequent collapse of the Populares power, Sertorius retreated to Hispania as proconsul, representing the Populares. The Roman officials in Hispania did not recognize his authority, but Sertorius assumed control as he had an army. Sertorius sought to hold Hispania by sending an army, under Julius Salinator, to fortify the pass through the Pyrenees; however, Sulla's forces, under the command of Gaius Annius, broke through after Salinator was killed by treachery.

Having been obliged to withdraw to North Africa, Sertorius carried on a campaign in Mauretania, in which he defeated one of Sulla's generals and captured Tingis (Tangier).

Sertorian War

Quintus Sertorius and the horse tail. by Gerard van der Kuijl, 1638

The North Africa success won him the fame and admiration of the people of Hispania, particularly that of the Lusitanians in the west (in modern Portugal and western Spain), whom Roman generals and proconsuls of Sulla's party had plundered and oppressed. The Lusitanians then asked Sertorius to be their general and, arriving on their lands with additional forces from Africa, he assumed supreme authority and began to conquer the neighbouring territories of Hispania (modern Spain).

Brave, noble, and gifted with eloquence, Sertorius was just the man to impress them favourably, and the native warriors, whom he organized, spoke of him as the "new Hannibal". His skill as a general was extraordinary, as he repeatedly defeated forces many times his own size. Many Roman refugees and deserters joined him, and with these and his Hispanian volunteers he completely defeated several of Sulla's generals (Fufidius, Domitius Calvinus and to some less-direct extent Thoranius) and drove Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, who had been specifically sent against him from Rome, out of Lusitania, or Hispania Ulterior as the Romans called it at the time.

Sertorius owed some of his success to his prodigious ability as a statesman. His goal was to build a stable government in Hispania with the consent and co-operation of the people, whom he wished to civilize along the lines of the Roman model. He established a senate of 300 members, drawn from Roman emigrants (probably including some from the highest nobles of Hispania) and kept a Hispanian bodyguard. For the children of the chief native families he provided a school at Osca (Huesca), where they received a Roman education and even adopted the dress and education of Roman youths. This followed the Roman practice of taking hostages and, late in his campaigns, a revolt of the native people arose and Sertorius killed several of the children that he had sent to school at Osca, selling many others into slavery.[3]

Sertorius and the Example of the Horses, after Hans Holbein the Younger. The drawing illustrates the example Sertorius gave to his followers that in the same way a horse's tail can be picked out hair by hair but not pulled out all at once, so smaller forces could defeat the Roman armies.[4]

Although he was strict and severe with his soldiers, he was particularly considerate to the people in general, and made their burdens as light as possible. It seems clear that he had a peculiar gift for evoking the enthusiasm of the native tribes, and we can understand well how he was able to use the famous white fawn, a present from one of the natives that was supposed to communicate to him the advice of the goddess Diana, to his advantage.

Sertorius claimed to receive messages from Diana via a white fawn.[1]

For six years he held sway over Hispania. In 77, he was joined—at the insistence of the forces he brought with him—by Marcus Perpenna Vento from Rome, with a following of Roman nobles and a sizeable Roman army (fifty-three cohorts[3]). Also that year, Pompey was sent to help Metellus conquer Hispania and finish Sertorius off. Contemptuously calling Pompey Sulla's pupil, Sertorius proved himself more than a match for his adversaries: he razed Lauron, a city allied to Rome, after a battle in which Pompey's forces were ambushed and defeated. He nearly captured Pompey at the battle of Sucro, when Pompey decided to fight him without waiting for Metellus Pius, but was indecisively beaten at Saguntum. However, Pompey wrote to Rome for reinforcements, without which, he said, he and Metellus Pius would be driven out of Hispania. But from 74 on, Pompey was gaining the upper hand, and he and Metellus began to capture city after city. Though he was still able to win some victories, Sertorius was losing the war, and his authority over his men had declined. He himself lost much of his acumen and authority, descending into alcoholism and debauchery.

Sertorius was in league with the Cilician pirates, who had bases all across the Mediterranean, was negotiating with the formidable Mithridates VI of Pontus, and was in communication with the insurgent slaves in Italy. But due to jealousies among the Roman officers who served under him and the Hispanians of higher rank, who began to weaken his influence with the Lusitanian tribes, he was assassinated by Marcus Perpenna Vento at a banquet at Perpenna Vento's instigation in 72 BC. Appian notes Sulla's consistent elimination of enemy commanders by means of treachery . At the time of his death, he was on the verge of successfully establishing an independent Roman republic in Hispania, which crumbled with the renewed onslaught of Pompey and Metellus, who crushed Perpenna's army and eliminated the remaining opposition.

See Plutarch's lives of Sertorius and Pompey; Appian, Bell. civ. and Hispanica; the fragments of Sallust; Dio Cassius xxxvi.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Quintus Sertorius". Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  2. ^ Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft
  3. ^ a b Sertorius, by Plutarch
  4. ^ Christian Müller in Hans Holbein the Younger: The Basel Years, 1515–1532, Christian Müller; Stephan Kemperdick; Maryan Ainsworth; et al, Munich: Prestel, 2006, ISBN 978-3-7913-3580-3, pp. 263–64.


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