Sertorian War, 80-72 BC

The Sertorian War (80-72 BC) was the last stand of the Marian faction after their defeat in Italy during Sulla’s Second Civil War and saw Quintus Sertorius hold out in Spain for over a decade before finally being defeated by Pompey and Metellus Pius.

Sadly no good complete narrative of the war has survived. Our longest accounts come from Plutarch’s lives of Sertorius and of Pompey, but these miss out significant events. Other historians provide snippets, mentions of individual battles and anecdotes, which have to be carefully placed within our limited framework.


Sertorius was one of the more able leaders on the Marian side during Sulla’s civil wars. He had served under Marius during the Cimbric Wars, where he made quite a name for himself, starting as one of the few Romans to escape from the disaster at Arausio. During the wars the wandering tribes had invaded Spain, and large parts of the country probably slipped out of Roman control. Sertorius served in Spain in 97-93 BC, where he further enhanced his reputation fighting against the Celtiberians. He was elected as Quaestor in 90 BC, the lowest ranked of the Roman magistrates. He fought with bravery and skill during the Social War, and in 88 BC was so popular in Rome that he was greeted with a standing ovation during his first visit to the theatre after returning from the field. He attempted to stand for election as tribune, but he was blocked by Sulla, possibly because of his connection to Marius or possibly because of his relatively low social standing. After achieving an apparent victory over his opponents, Sulla then departed for the east to deal with Mithridates VI of Pontus, but the political settlement Sulla had established at the end of his First Civil War soon collapsed. Sertorius sided with Sulla’s opponent Cinna, one of the consuls for 87 BC, and took part his successful siege of Rome of 87 BC. In the aftermath of Cinna’s victory Rome was subjected to a violent purge, but Sertorius refused to take part, and even attempted to moderate the violence. Marius’s last act was to unleash his bodyguard on the city, initiating a reign of terror. Soon afterwards Marius died, and Sertorius was able to round up his killers.

For the next few years Cinna dominated in Italy, but Sulla was still active in the east, with a sizable army. Just as Sulla was on the verge of returning to Italy, in a move that triggered his Second Civil War, Cinna was killed during an attempt to move his army across the Adriatic to avoid fighting in Italy. Power passed to his co-consul Carbo, although by the time Sulla actually returned in 83 BC the consuls were Gaius Norbanus and Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus, while Sertorius was serving as Praetor. Even so Carbo, along with Marius’s son Marius the Younger, were the real powers behind the Marian cause. The fight against Sulla didn’t go well. Sertorius served under Scipio Asiaticus, who managed to lose control of his entire army at Teanum (83 BC), despite Sertorius’s warnings. Things didn’t get better during the rest of the year, and towards the end of 83 BC Sertorius decided to leave Italy and take up his post as Governor of Nearer Spain, already allocated to him by the Marian establishment in Rome.

Sertorius travelled to Spain through southern Gaul, crossing the Pyrenees in the winter of 83-82 BC. He was quickly able to establish himself in his new province, and began to raise an army of Celtiberians and Romans to defend Spain against the inevitable counterattack from Sulla in Italy. He quickly gained popularity by removing the requirement for the locals to provide quarter for soldiers, instead getting them to build their own winter quarters, by remitting taxes, and by demonstrating that he was unusually incorruptible.

In 81 BC Sulla sent two armies under C. Annius Luscus to retake Spain. At this stage Sertorius was unable to defend his province, despite an attempt to defend the Pyrenees. Sertorius sent Julius Salinator with 6,000 men to defend the Pyrenees. At first Annius was unable to cross the mountains, but Salinator was then assassinated, and his troops retreated, allowing Annius to cross into Spain. Sertorius was forced to retreat to New Carthage, and from there escaped to Mauritanian in North Africa, taking 3,000 men with him.

This was the start of a period of adventurous but dangerous wanderings. Soon after landing in Africa his men were attacked by the locals, so he decided to return to Spain. He was repulsed from Spain, but captured the island of Pityussa (probably Ibiza) with the help of some Cilician pirates. Annius then approached with a fleet and 5,000 men. Sertorius prepared for a naval battle, but his fleet was then scattered by a west wind. Sertorius managed to escape from the disaster, and eventually managed to land near the mouth of the River Baetis (in the Gulf of Cadiz). There he met some sailors who had just returned from the ‘Atlantic Islands’, also known as the Islands of the Blest (perhaps Madeira and Porto Santo or the Canary Islands).

Sertorius briefly considered retiring to those islands, but he was then distracted by his Cilician allies, who decided to return to Africa to take part in a Mauritanian civil war, fighting on the side of Ascalis son of Iphtha, the deposed king. Sertorius decided to fight on the opposite side, and soon defeated Ascalis. Sulla sent a Roman army under Paccianus to support Ascalis, but Sertorius defeated this army and then captured Tingis, where Ascalis had taken refuge.

80 BC

Sertorius returned to Spain in 80 BC, after the Lusitanians, a tribe based in the west of Spain, asked him to lead them in a revolt against Rome. Sertorius agreed to lead them, but only if they acknowledged him as the legitimate Roman governor of the province. The Lusitanians agreed to these terms, and Sertorius landed at Baelo, to the west of Tarifa, close to the southern tip of Spain. He was met by a small force of 4,700 men, with which he was able to defeat L. Fufidius, governor of Hispania Ulterior, on the Baetis River (the modern Guadalquivir).

After this victory Sertorius began to build up his excellent army. He recruited Lusitanians, and later Celiberians, as well as the Roman colonists of the area. He treated his Iberian troops very well, and for many years was able to rely on their loyalty. He created a flexible army that was able to more than hold it’s own in conventional battles (allowing Sertorius to remain undefeated between 79 and 72 BC),  and was also very able in guerrilla warfare.

79 BC

The war stepped up a level in 79 BC. Sulla retired after his final term as Consul in 80 BC, but his co-consul for the year, Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius, was allocated the province of Hispania Ulterior (on the south coast), with the task of defeating Sertorius.

Metellus’s plan was to crush Sertorius between his own army in the south and that of his colleague M. Domitius Calvinus in Hispania Citeroir (on the east coast).

By now Sertorius was strong enough to field two armies. His quaestor L. Hirtuleius was sent to deal with Calvinus, while Sertorius concentrated against Metellus. Hirtuleius won a major victory on the River Ana, defeating and killing Calvinus. He was then free to invade Calvinus’s former province.  

In the south Sertorius defeated Metellus’s legate L. Thorius Balbus at Segovia in central Spain. Metellus remained active, operating along the Guadiana.

78 BC

In 78 BC Metellus besieged Lacobriga (modern Lagos), on the south-west coast of modern Portugal, expecting an easy victory. He was outwitted by Sertorius and forced to withdraw.

In the north L. Manlius, the governor of Transalpine Gaul, crossed the Pyrenees to support Metellus, but was defeated by Hirtuleius and forced to return to his own province.

As a result Metellus was forced to ask for reinforcements after two years of failure

77 BC

During 77 BC Metellus retreated to the Baetis, abandoning the area between that river and the Guadiana. Hirtuleius was left to defend the Lusitanians against Metellus, while Sertorius marched north to the Ebro to enforce his authority over the Celtiberians. During his march he besieged Contrebia (modern Botorrita), in the north-east of Spain, before sparing the garrison after they surrendered. 

By the end of the year Sertorius was at the height of his power. He controlled most of the east coast between the Ebro and Nova Carthago, apart from Saguntum and Lauro. His capital was at Osca (modern Huesca), in northern Aragon, close to the central Pyrenees, where he founded a school for the children of the Celtiberian chieftains and a senate of 300 Roman exiles. He had a naval base at Dianium (modern Denia, on the coast south-east of Valentia). Towards the end of the year he also gained powerful reinforcements - 20,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry commanded by Perperna, forced out of Sardinia after the failure of Lepidus’s revolt.

Perperna is said to have wanted to remain independent at first, but was forced to serve under Sertorius by his men.

There was one cloud on the horizon. The Senate had appointed the young but very capable Pompey the Great to serve as governor of Hispania (after both of the consuls for the year refused the post). Pompey set off in 77 BC, but was held up in southern Gaul, and wasn’t active in Spain until the campaign of 76 BC.

76 BC

Pompey’s plan was to carry out a two pronged invasion of eastern Spain. He would advance overland from the Pyrenees south towards Valentia, while a second army under the quaestor C. Memmius was to land further south at Nova Carthago and advance north.

Sertorius had expected the Romans to concentrate on the east coast in 76 BC, and split his army accordingly. Hirtuleius was left in the south to watch Metellus, while Perperna was given the task of stopping Pompey from crossing the Ebro. Sertorius remained on the upper Ebro, ready to support whichever of his subordinates most needed help.

The first to need help was Perperna, whose military abilities were consistently poor. He failed to defend the Ebro, and retreated to Valentia. Pompey advanced to Saguntum, just to the north, leaving Perperna and Herennius dangerously isolated. Sertorius’s response was to besiege nearby Lauro, distracting Pompey from the pursuit of Perperna. Pompey attempted to intervene and lift the siege, but instead suffered a humiliating defeat and was forced to watch as the city surrendered. Pompey lost 10,000 men and his legate D. Laelius during the disastrous campaign and was forced to retreat to the north of the Ebro.  

Pompey’s defeat was counterbalanced by Metellus’s victory over Hirtuleius at Italica (to the north-west of Seville). After his victory Metellus ignored the east coast, and moved up to the eastern Pyrenees to overwinter.

75 BC

At the start of the campaign of 75 BC Pompey and Metellus operated independently, and both won victories. Pompey made a second attempt to take Valentia, while Metellus advanced across central Spain heading back towards his province.

The most important of the victories came at Segovia (north-west of modern Madrid), where Hirtuleius was defeated and killed, along with his brother. Metellus was wounded, but not badly, and was free to move east to assist Pompey.

Pompey’s own campaign began well. He advanced on Valentia, where he was attacked by Perperna and Herennius and defeated them, inflicting heavy losses on their army. In the aftermath of this victory, he was able to capture Valentia.

Perperna and Herennius retreated north-west into the Sucro valley to join up with Sertorius. Pompey was now confident of success, and attacked Sertorius’s larger army on the Sucro. The first day of the battle was inconclusive, but Metellus arrived before the fighting resumed on the following day, and Sertorius was forced to retreat. He was said to have claimed ‘If that old woman (Metellus) had not come up, I would have trashed the youngster and sent him back to Rome’.

Despite this show of confidence, the defeat at Segovia and draw at Segontia shock the morale of Sertorius’s army, which briefly disbanded. Sertorius moved to Saguntum, where he came close to victory before his opponents rallied, forcing him to retreat.

Sertorius took refuge in an inland city, probably Clunia. Pompey and Metellus moved up to besiege him, but let out any of the Spanish who wanted to flee, in the hope that they would spread despondency amongst Sertorius’s supporters. In fact they were messengers arranging the formation of a new army, and once it had mustered Sertorius was able to break out from Clunia and join his new army.

Sertorius was eventually able to force his opponents to retreat north into winter quarters, with Metellus going all the way to Gaul while Pompey remained active into the autumn, besieging a series of Celtiberian towns including Clunia. He then overwintered in the western Pyrenees, from where he sent a letter to the Senate asking for reinforcements. The Senate, motivated partly by Pompey’s threat that the war might move to Italy, agreed to send him money and two fresh legions.

At some point, possibly over the winter of 75-74 BC Sertorius entered into negotiations with Mithridates VI of Pontus, Rome’s arch enemy in this period. Mithridates agreed to send ships and money to Spain in return for Roman military advisors.

74 BC

Pompey and Metellus now adopted a new tactic, focusing on a series of sieges of Celtiberian strongholds. Metellus was able to take Bilbilis and Segobriga. Pompey besieged Pallantia, but Sertorius forced him to lift the siege. Metellus and Pompey then concentrated against Calgurris on the upper Ebro, where they were defeated by Sertorius. Despite these successes, Sertorius’s powerbase amongst the Celtiberians was fading away.

73 BC

By 73 BC Pompey was left to operate alone against the Celtiberians, as Metellus believed the war was already won. Some support arrived from Mithridates, but it was too late for Sertorius.

According to Florus the cities of Osca, Termes, Ulia, Valentia, Auxuma and Calagurris held out to the end, but Sertorius lost control of most of Celtiberia, the Ebro valley and the eastern seaboard.

Sertorius was also losing the support of his Spanish allies. The prolonged war had eroded his character, and he began to act in a suspicious and tyrannical manner.

72 BC

Sertorius’s brave resistance finally came to an end in 72 BC. According to Plutarch his downfall was orchestrated by Perperna, who wanted the supreme command for himself. Over time Sertorius’s Roman supporters became jealous of his authority, and began to treat his Spanish allies badly. This triggered a series of revolts, which slowly eroded Sertorius’s own behaviour and he began to act harshly, even acting against the Spanish youngsters who were being educated at Osca, killing some and selling others into slavery. Eventually Perperna put in place a conspiracy to murder Sertorius. This plan was almost uncovered, and the plotters moved quickly. A false message was sent to Sertorius, announcing a great victory for one of his generals. Perperna suggested that they should hold a banquet to celebrate the victory. Sertorius agreed to this, and was assassinated at the feast.

This effectively ended the war. Perperna almost immediately lost control of the Spanish allies, but managed to retain the support of the Romans. However he was unable to put up much of a fight, and was quickly defeated and captured by Pompey. Perperna attempted to buy his life using Sertorius’s papers, which he claimed included letters from senior figures in Rome, but Pompey avoided causing any more trouble in Rome by having Perperna killed without meeting him and having the letters burnt.

The war ended with the siege of Calagurris, which fell after a tale of horrors. Sertorius had held out against a series of very capable Roman generals for over a decade, including Pompey the Great, one of the most successful generals of his era. Even so his chances of winning any permanent victory were always slim, at least as long as the Sullan establishment survived at Rome.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 April 2018), Sertorian War, 80-72 BC ,

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