This is episode 7 called Roman Conquest of Hispania: Native Resistance and in this episode you will learn:
- Why Rome took so much time conquering Hispania
- What interests did Rome have in the Iberian Peninsula
- What happened in the Iberian Revolt of 197-195 BC and why did Iberians revolt multiple times
- What happened in the First and Second Celtiberian Wars
- Which were the two major wars that were the turning point in the Roman conquest of Hispania: the pacification of Lusitania with the defeat of Viriathus and the Numantine War
- The internal tensions in Italy and the causes of the fall of the Roman Republic
- Why did Sertorius fled for Hispania
- A brief talk about the civil wars that ended the Republican system
- Why and how did Augustus completed the conquest of Hispania with the Cantabrian Wars in northern Spain
- Reflections on the importance of the devotio
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 7, called Roman Conquest of Hispania: Native Resistance. In this episode you will learn that the Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula was a long and arduous process that involved different rebellions and wars. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
We left the previous episode with the Romans winning the Second Punic War and Rome becoming the most powerful state of the Mediterranean. But the Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula was a process that spanned two centuries, being by far the region that took them the longest to conquer. Why was that the case? Well, first of all Rome didn’t even control the entire Italian Peninsula when the Second Punic War started, in the south there were Greek colonies and Italian cities that betrayed Rome when the city showed weakness during the war, and in the north the Gauls threatened the Roman borders. Then you have to consider the size of the Iberian Peninsula, if you look at a map of Europe it may not seem that way, but the Iberian Peninsula doubles the size of the Italian Peninsula! The last reason is that, as you know if you listened to episode 5, the Iberian Peninsula was extremely politically divided.
I answered the question of why, but that brings up another question. What interests did Rome have in the Iberian Peninsula? Truth is, the Roman Republic didn’t show any special interest of conquest before the Second Punic War. Yes, they made alliances with the Greek city-states of Iberia, but the Romans didn’t even actively seek those alliances, the Greek city-states were the ones that asked for Roman aid because they were afraid of Carthage. Therefore, Rome only became interested in Hispania because Carthage used it as a power base to attack Rome. With Hispania in Roman hands, Rome deprived Carthage from a fundamental base to recruit troops and extract natural resources. The Carthaginians weren’t a threat now that the Romans had part of Hispania, but the Romans realized that the Iberian Peninsula could be exploited not only for geostrategic reasons, but also economic.
As Rome didn’t plan the annexation of the Carthaginian possessions of Spain, there were constitutional irregularities and hesitations at first. Even the command of Scipio Africanus in Hispania was irregular, but who would dare to speak up against the hero of Rome? What Hispania needed was a strong leadership, and that was made very clear when a revolt in modern Catalonia started during the Second Punic War. Scipio Africanus rightly stated that continuous military presence was needed, and he established permanent garrisons at Tarragona, Cartagena and Cádiz.
To better administer the newly conquered territory, Scipio Africanus divided Hispania in two provinces, Hispania Citerior or Nearer Spain with the capital in Tarragona, and Hispania Ulterior or Farther Spain with its capital in Córdoba. Roman administration was almost non-existent in the first decades, as they were mainly interested in the natural resources and economic exploitation through trade and taxes that the Peninsula could offer. Rome relied heavily on pacts with the natives and continuous military presence to keep Hispania in their hands. However, this control soon showed its weaknesses.
A new war started in Greece, a territory more important at the time that Rome wanted to control. Because of that and because the Second Punic War was over, the Republic decided to reduce the Roman legions in Hispania from 4 to 2. But the reduction of Roman military presence in Hispania proved fatal. The first proconsuls were changed every two years and lacked experience and interest to know the local population. That led to abuses of power, and soon the Iberians had enough. In 197 BC the peoples of the two Spanish provinces revolted simultaneously against the new power that conquered them. The uprising was general and massive, and with less than 20,000 Roman soldiers to face it, the praetor of Hispania Citerior was killed, and his army crushed.
Things didn’t look good for the Romans during 197 and 196 BC, but that year they won their war against Macedonia and the Senate was now able to focus its attention on what was happening in the West. Cato the Elder was sent to Hispania in 195 BC to solve the situation. For those who don’t know him, Cato the Elder was a traditionalist Roman who opposed the Greek ideas, and he represented the new landowner class that was ruthlessly exploiting the agricultural lands with slaves, something that would cause a social crisis during the last century of the Roman Republic. The situation was critical, so a total of between 50,000 and 70,000 Roman troops were gathered to put down the revolt. Cato entered the Iberian Peninsula through Emporion. There he achieved a major victory over the coalition of tribes, and because of that some tribes of the Ebro surrendered, gave hostages and freed the Roman prisoners of war. Then the praetors of Hispania Ulterior asked the urgent help of Cato the Elder and he used diplomacy to convince the Celtiberian mercenaries to not help the Turdetani of Ulterior in their revolt. The Iberian people were pacified at least, but Cato still had some time to send his army in unexplored Celtiberian territory to show the power of Rome.
A new revolt started in modern Catalonia, but he quickly put it down before leaving for Rome. There Cato the Elder received a triumph, as he had single-handedly finished the Iberian revolt and brought with him the greatest amount of gold and silver seen up to that moment. Cato is glorified in Roman historiography, and it’s not strange, since the path he opened was the one used in the future of Roman imperialism: Rome would use its military power to conquer new territories and systematically and brutally repress any resistance.
You may remember from episode 5 that Lusitanians and Vettones, as well as other natives of the interior and northern parts of Spain, were poor and had very unequal societies, something that encouraged brigandage. That’s a problem that the Romans faced early after their initial conquest, with constant attacks over the Guadalquivir and Ebro Valleys. Between 194 and 179 BC Roman legions pacified the conquered territories and made incursions into the Meseta and the homeland of the Celtiberians. Rome captured Toledo and advanced northwards along the Ebro Valley, making for the first time direct contact with the Vascones.
Eventually, the bellicose Celtiberians raised a confederate army of 35,000 men to oppose Roman expansionism, and the clash started the short First Celtiberian War. Even though this time the Celtiberians gathered an organized army of a considerable size, it wasn’t enough to stop Rome and they were continuously defeated. Tiberius Gracchus the Elder ended the war signing a series of treaties. Gracchus regulated for the first time tax collection to prevent abuse and established that the Celtiberian allies had to provide auxiliary troops and that they could not set up new fortified cities. You know, Rome was still organized as a city-state, and most expansionist actions were brought by the initiative and ambition of Roman generals. Generals administrated the territory in an authoritarian way, which allowed them to abuse the local population and that led to revolts. This continuous state of unrest in the Iberian Peninsula worried the Senate, but in this very same Senate praetors had friends and relatives that protected them. And not only praetors abused the locals, patricians and equites abused them as well. In case you didn’t know, patricians based their power on the ownership of land and equites, or knights, based their power on trade and taxation. Luckily for the Romans, the natives were very divided politically and exhausted after years of constant warfare, so most of the revolts against Roman power and abuses weren’t a threat to their interests.
After years of wars, it was time to stop expanding and focus on exploiting the two provinces of Hispania. Things were quiet for the next 30 years. Many natives started following the agrarian and urbanized lifestyle of the Romans. The Romanization of the Iberian Peninsula was on, and the presence of Italian soldiers and the arrival of settlers from Italy only accelerated the process. The Roman policy in Hispania in those peaceful decades focused on stabilizing the borders, preventing attacks from the tribes of the periphery to exploit economically the provinces. It’s paradoxical, because although the argument is defensive, you always have people that is bordering you, so by using this argument the militaristic and oligarchical Republic could expand indefinitely.
Peace didn’t last long though. In 154 BC the Second Celtiberian War broke out, because a city of modern Aragon, Segeda, grew demographically and decided to expand their existing walls. Rome considered that Segeda was breaking the treaty arranged with Gracchus the Elder, even though that’s not what the treaty said. Why did the Roman Senate oppose that? The thing is that at the same time the Lusitanians and Vettones made an alliance to raze modern Western Andalusia, so the Romans feared a new widespread rebellion in Hispania. Before that could happen, Rome decided to declare war and fight a two-front war. Results were mixed at first, the Lusitanian coalition defeated the Romans in Hispania Ulterior and the Celtiberians effectively repelled the Romans in the first siege of Numantia. The praetor of Hispania Citerior decided to end the war, promising to return to the conditions of the previous treaty. The Celtiberians agreed, but the Senate refused to accept peace, as the Roman oligarchy wanted the total submission of the natives. Nonetheless, praetors and soldiers weren’t very happy to be sent to Hispania, as the land was famous for being dangerous. The new consul, Lucullus, was sent to Hispania to continue the war. He attacked the Celtic tribe next to the Celtiberians, a tribe that had never caused problems to Rome, that’s why Roman historiography qualifies his war as illegal and driven by greed for fame and money. And while he got nothing of that, he was never called to account for his illegal war either.
The Second Celtiberian War ended then, but what about the Lusitanians and Vettones? The war there got really, really crude, as praetor Servius Sulpicius Galba, after being defeated, promised the Lusitanians peace and lands to make a living. With that proposal the Lusitanians agreed to meet Galba, but that son of a bitch ordered them to put down their weapons, surrounded the Lusitanians and massacred them. Very few survived, but among those who survived there was a man named Viriathus. In 147 BC Lusitanians attacked again but were defeated and sued for peace. But when the treaty was about to be sealed, Viriathus spoke to his people and reminded them that the word of a Roman was meaningless. The Lusitanians saw in him the leader they needed and elected Viriathus as their leader. Viriathus waged a long guerrilla war against Rome that proved extremely effective. But by 140 BC the Lusitanian peoples were exhausted and tried to make peace, a peace accepted by the praetor but not the Senate. Therefore, the war continued and in 139 BC the Roman praetor bribed three of Viriathus’ men to kill his leader while asleep. The action was considered shameful by the Senate, but the Lusitanian War soon ended after that. The pacification of Lusitania was a major step in the Roman conquest of Hispania, which allowed the Republic to advance towards Galicia. In 137 BC Rome achieved a major victory over the Galicians at the river Douro or Duero, although the Celtic region wasn’t totally conquered until the Cantabrian Wars under Emperor Augustus. With most of Galicia in their hands, many important mines of the Spanish Atlantic were now under Roman control.
But let’s go back to 143 BC. In that year Viriathus’ resistance was still strong and Celtiberians decided to rebel too. Therefore, the Third Celtiberian War, also known as the Numantine War, started. The consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus, who recently earned the title Macedonicus for his victories in Greece, was sent to Hispania with a 32,000-strong army. On paper, a large army led by a competent leader like him should have earned a quick victory over the Celtiberians, but the war was very different from the one in Greece. In Greece the consul fought cohesive states, but in Hispania tribes and chiefdoms were politically divided, so there wouldn’t be a decisive battle, but a series of battles and skirmishes. The consul attacked the region of the Vaccaei to cut the possible aid that they could bring to the Celtiberians. His successor attacked Numantia, the most important Celtiberian city that had around 10,000 inhabitants. Numantia was strategically located in a hill to control the region nearby as well as a crossing of the river Douro, in the Castilian region of modern Soria next to modern Aragon. After the Romans were repelled in Numantia, they tried to take the second most important city of the region, Termantia, but they weren’t able to do that either. Again, the new incompetent praetor had the idea to divert the river to starve the city to death, but the men who had this job were attacked by the Numantines. Things didn’t look well, as the cold winter approached, and many men caught dysentery. The end of the annual term of the praetor was approaching, so the praetor decided to make peace with the Numantines. When the new praetor arrived, the previous one denied having made peace without the consent of the Senate, therefore hostilities restarted.
The next two years were more quiet, Roman attacks on Numantia failed so again Rome attacked the poor Vaccaei. Attacking this tribe became a habit when attacking Numantia was failing. In 137 BC consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus took charge of the situation. His leadership was a disaster, he lost multiple battles against the Numantines, then false rumors reached him saying that the Cantabri and Vaccaei were coming to aid the Numantines… And how did Mancinus react? Doing what Strategy 101 teaches not to do: panic. He ordered a retreat and the Roman army ended up surrounded by the Numantines. Luckily for the Romans, the Numantines were too noble and naïve, and offered the Romans peace when it was the perfect moment to destroy their army. Every treaty had to recognize the Roman supremacy, and in this one the Numantines stipulated that they had equal rights in relation to the Romans. The Senate couldn’t recognize such a humiliating treaty, even though the common people were unhappy and exhausted at home. The Senate ordered the new consul to hand Mancinus over the Numantines completely naked and with his hands tied behind his back. The Numantines refused to let him in and Mancinus returned to Rome and lost his citizenship.
The next three consuls didn’t attack Numantia and again they attacked the surrounding areas, without much success. The Roman army was undisciplined and discontented, and Rome needed a competent man to end the campaign. The man chosen for that mission was Scipio Aemilianus, a relative of Scipio Africanus. Scipio Aemilianus had already commanded the Roman Army in the Third Punic War and destroyed Carthage, and he had also participated in campaigns in Celtiberia, therefore he was the only possible choice in 134 BC. Nonetheless, the Senate was envious of the growing popularity of Scipio Aemilianus just as it happened with Scipio Africanus, and they didn’t give him the army he needed. Volunteers could join him though, and many prominent men did so: Gaius Marius who would become a very important consul, the future king of Numidia Jugurtha, historian Polybius or satirist Gaius Lucilius. The first thing Scipio did was restore discipline by strictly enforcing rules of austerity and by organizing though exercises. Once the army had the moral renewed, the Roman army attacked the Vaccaei tribes again to then build a circuit of fortifications to surround completely Numantia. The walls were three meters high and more than 2 meters wide, and while they were building that the Numantines of course attacked, but the Romans repelled their attacks thanks to a witty system of communications. Furthermore, Scipio Aemilianus ordered to close the affluent of the Douro. All the actions had one objective: to starve Numantia to death.
A brave warrior called Rhetogenes was able to escape and ask the towns nearby for help, but all the major cities refused out of fear. Only one town offered to help, but the elders of the village warned Scipio and he ordered the amputation of the hands of the young people of that village. Yep, the Romans were brutal. After years of constant attacks and months under siege, Numantia was starving. The majority of the Numantines killed themselves, refusing to be enslaved as the few that didn’t commit suicide were. As I talked in earlier episodes, that can be seen as an act of patriotism, but it also could be explained by the social institution that was the devotio. In any case, the heroic last stand inspired both Roman and Spanish people for generations and even Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, wrote a playwright about the siege. The destruction of Numantia in 133 BC, together with the victory over the Lusitanians, were a turning point in the Roman conquest of Hispania. Now that all the major focuses of resistance were controlled, only the few northern tribes of Spain could offer resistance.
For the next 50 years, Hispania enjoyed relative peace. There were a few rebellions here and there, problems with Lusitanian brigandage, but nothing too serious. The only notable conquest was that of the Balearic Islands in 123 BC, under the pretext of fighting the pirates that used the islands as their base. Meanwhile, the Roman Republic had many social problems and other wars to fight, like the Servile Wars, the Social War between Roman and Italic cities or the Cimbrian War against the Germanic tribes that were migrating in allied Roman territories. With the populist policies of the Gracchus brothers of giving away grain to the plebeians, Sicily and Hispania became the breadbaskets of Rome. Apart from grain and mineral resources, Hispania provided a constant flux of slaves to the slave agrarian economy of Rome. A senatorial commission was sent during this period to reorganize Hispania, because the constant warfare caused the migration of peoples and devastation of many areas. The commission had to deal with very important matters like how to redistribute lands, delimiting the borders of the Roman provinces or how to tax fairly and efficiently. We have very little information about what was happening during those 50 years, but it’s clear that there were areas, especially the most economically important, that were very Romanized at this point.
As I mentioned earlier, social tensions skyrocketed after the Numantine War in Rome, social inequality was very high, and the patricians and equites were enriching themselves while the lower and middle classes were suffering the consequences of the Roman slave economy and expansion. The Marian reforms issued by Gaius Marius improved the military capability of the Roman Army and accelerated the process of Romanization by giving lands to retired legionaries in conquered lands. At the same time, this helped shift the loyalty of the soldiers more towards their general than towards the Roman Republic, something that would ultimately lead to the transformation of Rome from a republic to an empire. The crisis of the Republic allowed someone like Sulla to march on Rome and become dictator. The political tensions were on a scale never seen before, that’s why many political leaders went into exile in Hispania. Why Hispania? Well, the Iberian Peninsula is relatively close to Italy, some parts of Hispania were very Romanized already and the provinces had enough manpower to raise an army if needed.
Quintus Sertorius was the most notable politician to flee for Hispania. He fled first to North Africa in the region of Mauritania, modern-day Morocco, as he was persecuted for being a politician of the Populares faction which favored the plebeians. His victories there earned him fame in Hispania, especially among the Lusitanians. The Lusitanians were tired of being plundered and oppressed, and they asked Sertorius to become the supreme general of their forces. Sertorius accepted, probably not because he cared about the Lusitanians, but because it was his chance to grow his power and challenge Sulla with a power base in Hispania. I highlight that because nationalists have sometimes presented Sertorius as an anti-Roman separatist, while that’s for sure not the case since he was Roman and he wanted to defeat Sulla to control Rome. As I said, for him Hispania was his power base but nothing more, just like the Peninsula was the power base used by Carthage in the Second Punic War to combat Rome.
In Hispania he created a parallel political structure in imitation to that of Rome, challenging the legitimacy of the aristocratic government of Sulla. Populist politicians, victims of the dictator and Spanish oppressed natives felt that it was in their best interests to support Sertorius. Sertorius used guerrilla tactics to defeat forces larger than his, and everyone quickly noticed his great military skills. Soon he was known as the new Hannibal, and he went from victory after victory until he conquered most of Hispania Citerior. Lusitanians, Celtiberians and Iberians followed him, and Sertorius sealed their loyalty with pacts of devotio. Sulla died, but the aristocratic party remained in power by adopting some populist policies. A young and skilled Pompey assumed the mission to crush Sertorius, but it wasn’t as easy as he initially thought. The war was one of exhaustion for both sides, but after several years of war the followers of Sertorius were more exhausted than the other side and a general betrayed and assassinated Sertorius in 72 BC. Thus, the long nightmare of the Roman government ended.
Pompey put down many rebellions and pacified entire provinces of the Roman Republic. He was a caudillo that wanted to earn the admiration of both the Republic and the plebeians to gain power. But after fighting against pirates in the Mediterranean and conquering multiple areas of the Near East, the oligarchical Senate refused to recognize his victories. He was a hero, much like Scipio Africanus or Scipio Aemilianus, that’s why he was a threat to the Roman political system. What’s paradoxical here is that the opposition of his former patrons brought the ambitious Julius Caesar and Pompey together. The end of the Republic was coming. Not only Pompey had many important friends and the support of the common people and the army, he had also developed strong personal loyalties in Hispania. Nonetheless Julius Caesar was appointed propraetor of Hispania Ulterior in 62 BC, and he also created a network of loyalties by being generous to his soldiers. But going back to the point, Julius Caesar, Pompey and the richest man of Rome were the members of the so-called first triumvirate. During this period Julius Caesar conquered Gaul and Pompey became worried about the growing popularity of Caesar. Despite that, Pompey decided to stay in Rome because he took for granted his network of loyalties in Hispania. Fatal mistake.
There were too many cooks in the kitchen and only one could be the leader of the Republic. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, starting a civil war. Pompey and the Senate fled to Greece, Caesar marched to Hispania and the Pompeian legions of Hispania were defeated or switched sides. The decision of Caesar proved correct, he marched against a leaderless army before attacking a general without army. The victory of Julius Caesar benefited greatly Hispania, but more on that in the next episode. After the famous assassination of Caesar in 44 BC, Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus formed a triumvirate. There was a civil war later between Octavian and Mark Antony, but that civil war didn’t affect Hispania at all since there was complete loyalty to the heir of Julius Caesar, Octavian. Octavian won the civil war, he founded the Roman Empire in 27 BC and the rest is history.
But wait there, don’t leave, because the Roman conquest of Hispania had yet to finish. The north of the Iberian Peninsula had to be conquered, and Octavian Augustus had many plans for Hispania. The conquest of the Peninsula had to be completed, if Julius Caesar conquered in less than a decade Gaul, Augustus needed to achieve something greater than Caesar. He already did something great, he incorporated a rich country like Egypt into the new-born Roman Empire. But the conquest of all Hispania would end two centuries of continuous war and problems. How great was that? In addition to that, the northern region was rich in mineral resources, that were indispensable for the exhausted finances of the empire. He had to be the one achieving that.
Much like the Lusitanians or Celtiberians earlier, the Astures and Cantabrians razzed their neighbors because they were poor. They attacked tribes under the protection of Rome and that gave Augustus the perfect pretext to start a war. The Cantabrian Wars started in 29 BC, and the war there was going to be long and complicated, because the region is mountainous and the locals had the important advantage of knowing the terrain. Since that region doesn’t have many suitable agricultural lands, it was a complicated campaign in terms of logistics. Augustus personally led the campaign in 26 BC, and more than 70k soldiers loyal to the Emperor joined him. The Cantabrians used guerrilla tactics that irritated Augustus, and he left ill the campaign. For two years Tarragona, in Hispania Citerior, became de facto the administrative capital of the empire. That widely benefited the city and to thank the Emperor it was the first city to erect a temple in his honor, starting the imperial cult. In 24 BC Augustus considered Hispania pacified and held a triumph march in Rome. Despite that, the war continued, or at least local resistance existed. In 22 BC thousands of Cantabrians were surrounded and many killed themselves while others were captured and sold into slavery. Resistance and attacks continued, and Augustus said enough is enough and decided to send Agrippa, his close friend and general, to end the resistance. Agrippa exterminated the Cantabrians in military age, and the Astures surrendered. The conquest of Hispania was completed in 19 BC. It was time to reorganize Hispania and triple down on the integration of the region into the Roman Empire.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to highlight the importance of the devotio both in the wars of native resistance and in wars side by side with Romans. Large networks of patronage explain last stands like Numantia or Calagurris, a town that was loyal to Sertorius until Pompey completely destroyed it. The massive suicides of the Cantabrians can also be explained by the devotio, probably some patrons were killed or decided that it was better to commit suicide than to be enslaved, so the devoti had to kill themselves too. Roman generals realized how useful Spanish soldiers were for that and many employed devoti as personal guards. Romans used that social institution to their benefit in other ways, by convincing a patron to swear allegiance to Rome Romans could gain hundreds of allies with little effort, and imperial cult was very strong in Hispania because of devotio. Better to have a loyal and devoted soldier than thousands that can abandon you any time. And with that, The Verdict ends.
As I said, the next episode will be focused on the Romanization of Hispania and the political and economic evolution of Hispania during the Principate, the imperial period before the Crisis of the Third Century. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. VOLUMEN 1. HISPANIA ANTIGUA. Domingo Plácido
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA ANTIGUA. TOMO II. HISPANIA ROMANA. José María Blázquez and others
NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license