Iberians: Appian of Alexandria on Viriathus and resistance by Lusitanians (second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Iberians: Appian of Alexandria on Viriathus and resistance by Lusitanians (second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 4, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=11493.

Ancient author: Appian of Alexandria, Roman Matters: Iberian Book 6.56-75 (link)

Comments: We know very little about Appian beyond that he was a Greek from Alexandria, spent time as a lawyer in Rome, belonged to the equestrian order, and likely took a position as procurator under emperor Antoninus Pius in the mid-second century. Appian’s work on Roman Matters is an important source not only for the Roman civil wars but also for Rome’s engagements with other peoples (the so-called “Foreign Wars” section of the work), including the Iberians or Celtiberians in what is now Spain. Appian sketches out some ethnographic information about Iberians in parts of this work (link). But what interests us most in this post is his depiction of Lusitanians (on the western coast of Iberia) via his narrative about native resistance primarily under the leadership of a person known by the Roman nickname of Viriathus.

Unlike Tacitus’ narrative about Tacfarinas’ leadership in resistance in northern Africa (link), which is quite firmly negative not only about the leader but also about the “bandit” peoples he led, Appian’s approach to Viriathus is more ambivalent. On the one hand, Appian or Appian’s sources (e.g. Polybios, Poseidonios) still emphasize that the actions of conquered peoples like the Lusitanians are the actions of “bandits” or criminals. So a story about native resistance or a native “revolt” (as the hegemonic power would have it) ends up providing indirect, negative ethnographic representations of the peoples involved.

On the other hand, Appian portrays several Roman generals of the mid-second century BCE in a very negative light, even equating their behaviour with that of “barbarians,” and he tends to present Viriathus or other Lusitantians in a more neutral or even somewhat heroic light. The entire story of Viriathus’ motivation is framed by the Roman mass-slaughter of his own Lusitanian people under the Roman praetor Servius Galba (ca. 151 BCE), with Viriathus being among the very few who survived the massacre. These latter elements paint a picture of Viriathus not so much as a bandit-leader (as some of Appian’s sources may have emphasized) but as a relatively successful popular leader of a subjugated and poorly treated population under Roman domination.

For an earlier account of Viriathus and the Lusitanians, see Diodoros’ narrative (link).

Source of the translation: H. White, Appian’s Roman History, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1912-13), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[Lusitanians and Vettonians engaging Romans, including Mummius]

(56) At this time [ca. 155 BCE] another segment of the self-governing Iberians called the Lusitanians (Lysitanoi) [located on the western coast of what is now Spain] – under the leadership of Punicus – was plundering the fields of the Roman subjects, had caused their praetors (Manilius and Calpurnius Piso) to retreat, and killed six thousand Romans, including Terentius Varro the quaestor. Delighted with this success, Punicus swept the country as far as the ocean. Joining the Vettonians (Ouettonai) to his army, he laid siege to the Blastophoenicians, who were Roman subjects. It is said that Hannibal the Carthaginian brought among these people settlers from Libya, from which they derived their name. Here Punicus was struck on the head with a stone and killed.

He was succeeded by a man named Caesarus. The latter joined battle with Mummius, who came from Rome with another army, was defeated and caused to retreat, but as Mummius was pursuing him in a disorderly way, he rallied and killed about nine thousand Romans, recaptured the plunder they had taken from him as well as his own camp, and took the plunder of the Romans as well, together with many weapons and standards which the barbarians in derision carried throughout all Celtiberia. (57) Mummius took his five thousand remaining soldiers and drilled them in camp, not daring to go out into the plain until they should have recovered their courage. While he was watching his opportunity the barbarians passed by, carrying a part of the plunder they had captured. He attacked them suddenly, killed a large number, and recaptured the plunder and the standards.

Some of the Lusitanians on the other side of the Tagus, under the leadership of Kaukenos, being incensed against the Romans, invaded the Cunei, who were Roman subjects, and captured their large city, Conistorgis. Near the Pillars of Herakles, they crossed over the straits and some of them overran part of Libya while others laid siege to the city of Ocile.

Mummius followed them with nine thousand foot soldiers and five hundred cavalry, and killed about fifteen thousand of them who were engaged in plundering and a few of the others, and raised the siege of Ocile. Falling in with a party who were carrying off plundered goods, he killed all of them, so that not one was left to bear news of the disaster. All the plunder that it was possible to carry he divided among the soldiers. The rest he devoted to the gods of war and burned. Having accomplished these results, Mummius returned to Rome and was awarded a triumph.

(58) He was succeeded in the command by Marcus Atilius, who made an incursion among the Lusitanians and killed about seven hundred of them and took their largest city, called Oxthrakai. This so terrified the neighboring peoples that they all made terms of surrender. Among these were some of the Vettonians, a people adjoining the Lusitanians. But when he went away into winter quarters they all promptly revolted and besieged some of the Roman subjects.

[Galba’s actions against Lusitanians and Viriathus as a survivor]

Servius Galba, the successor of Atilius, hurried to relieve them. Having marched ninety kilometers in one day and night, he came in sight of the Lusitanians and sent his tired army into battle instantly [ca. 151 BCE]. Fortunately he broke the enemy’s ranks, but he imprudently followed the fugitives. The pursuit was feeble and disorderly on account of the fatigue of his men. When the barbarians saw them scattered, and by turns stopping to rest, they rallied and attacked them and killed about seven thousand. Galba fled to the city of Carmo with the cavalry on hand. There he received the fugitives, and having collected allies to the number of twenty thousand he moved to the territory of the Cunei, and wintered at Conistorgis.

(59) Lucullus, who had made war on the Vaccaeans without authority, was wintering in Turditania. When he discovered that the Lusitanians were making incursions in his neighbourhood he sent out some of his best lieutenants and killed about four thousand of them. He killed one thousand five hundred others while they were crossing the straits near Gades. The remainder took refuge on a hill and he drew a line of circumvallation around it and captured an immense number of them.

Then he invaded Lusitania and gradually depopulated it. Galba did the same on the other side. When some of their ambassadors came to him desiring to renew the treaty made with Atilius, his predecessor in the command. Even though they had transgressed this treaty, he received them favourably, and made a truce and pretended to sympathize with them because they had been compelled by poverty to rob, make war, and break their engagements. “For, of course,” he said , “poorness of soil and destitution forced you to do these things. If you wish to be friendly, I will give you good land for your poor people and settle them in three divisions, in a fertile country.”

(60) Drawn by these promises, they left their own habitations and came together at the place where Galba directed. He divided them into three parts, and showing to each division a certain plain, he commanded them to remain in this open country until he should assign them their places. Then he came to the first division and told them as friends to lay down their weapons. When they had done so, he surrounded them with a ditch and sent in soldiers with swords who killed them all while they were crying aloud and invoking the names and faith of the gods. In a similar way, he hurried to the second and third divisions and destroyed them while they were still ignorant of the fate of the first group. In this way he avenged treachery with treachery in a manner unworthy of a Roman, but imitating barbarians.

A few escaped but Viriathus was among them. Not long afterward Viriathus became the leader of the Lusitanians and killed many Romans and performed the greatest exploits, which I shall relate soon.

Galba, being even more greedy than Lucullus, distributed a little of the plunder to the army and a little to his friends and kept the rest himself, although he was already one of the richest of the Romans. Not even in time of peace, they say, did he abstain from lying and perjury in order to profit. Although generally hated and accused, he escaped punishment by means of his wealth.

[Viriathus as new leader of the resistance]

(61) Not long afterward those who had escaped the lawlessness of Lucullus and Galba, having collected together to the number of ten thousand, overran Turditania [ca. 148 BCE]. Gaius Vetilius marched against them, bringing a new army from Rome and taking also the soldiers already in Iberia, so that he had about ten thousand men. He attacked their foragers, killed many of them, and forced the rest into a place where, if they stayed, they were in danger of famine, and if they came out would fall into the hands of the Romans. Being in these straits they sent messengers to Vetilius with olive-branches asking land for a dwelling place, and agreeing from that time on to obey the Romans in all things.

Vetilius promised to give them the land, and an agreement was nearly made to that effect. Then Viriathus, who had escaped the lawlessness of Galba and was then among them, reminded them that the Romans were untrustworthy, told them how the latter had often attacked them in violation of oaths, and how this whole army was composed of men who had escaped from the lies of Galba and Lucullus. If they would obey him, Viriathus said, he would show them a safe retreat from this place.

(62) Excited by the new hopes with which Viriathus inspired them, they chose him as their leader. He drew them up in line of battle as though he intended to fight, but gave them orders that when he should mount his horse they should scatter in every direction and make their way by different routes to the city of Tribola and wait for him there. He chose one thousand only whom he commanded to stay with him. These arrangements having been made, they all fled as soon as Viriathus mounted his horse. Vetilius was afraid to pursue those who had scattered in so many different ways, but turning towards Viriathus who was standing there and apparently waiting a chance to attack, joined battle with him. The latter, having very swift horses, harassed the Romans by attacking, then retreating, again standing still and again attacking, and thus consumed the whole of that day and the next dashing around on the same field. As soon as he conjectured that the others had made good their escape, he hurried away in the night by devious paths and arrived at Tribola with his nimble steeds. The Romans were not able to follow him at an equal pace because of the weight of their armour, their ignorance of the roads, and the inferiority of their horses. In this way Viriathus unexpectedly rescued his army from a desperate situation. This achievement, coming to the knowledge of the barbarians nearby, brought him fame and many reinforcements from different quarters, and enabled him to wage war against the Romans for eight years.

[Roman military engagements with Viriathus and his supporters]

(63) It is my intention here to relate this war with Viriathus, so very harassing to the Romans and so badly managed by them, and then to turn to other events that happened in Iberia at the same time. Vetilius pursued him till he came to Tribola [ca. 147 BCE]. Viriathus, having first laid an ambush in a dense woods, retreated until Vetilius was passing through the place, when he turned, and those who were in ambush sprang up. On all sides they began killing the Romans, driving them over the cliffs and taking prisoners. Vetilius himself was taken prisoner. The man who captured Vetilius, not knowing who he was but seeing that he was old and fat and considering him worthless, killed him. Of the ten thousand Romans, six thousand with difficulty made their way to the city of Karpessos on the seashore (which I think was formerly called by the Greeks Tartessos, and was ruled by king Arganthonios, who is said to have lived one hundred and fifty years).

The soldiers, who made their escape to Karpessos, were stationed on the walls of the town by the quaestor who accompanied Vetilius, badly demoralized. Having asked and obtained five thousand allies from the Belli and Titthi, he sent them against Viriathus, who killed them all, so that there was not one left to tell the tale. After that the quaestor remained quietly in the town waiting for help from Rome.

(64) Viriathus overran the fruitful country of Carpetania without hindrance, and ravaged it until Gaius Plautius came from Rome bringing ten thousand foot soldiers and one thousand and three hundred cavalry. Then Viriathus again pretended to retreat and Plautius sent four thousand men to pursue him but Viriathus turned upon them and killed everyone except a few. Then he crossed the river Tagus and encamped on a mountain covered with olive trees, called Venus’ mountain. There Plautius caught up to him and (eager to retrieve his misfortune) engaged in battle with him. But Plautius was defeated with a large number of casualties, and retreated in disorder to the towns. He went into winter quarters in midsummer not daring to show himself anywhere. Accordingly, Viriathus overran the whole country without check and required the owners of the growing crops to pay him the value of that; if they would not pay, he destroyed them.

(65) When these facts became known at Rome, they sent Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, the son of Aemilius Paullus (who had conquered Perseus, the king of Macedonia), to Iberia, having given him power to levy an army. As Carthage and Greece had only recently been conquered, and the third Macedonian war brought to a successful end, in order that he might spare the soldiers who had just returned from those places, he chose young men who had never been engaged in war before, to the number of two legions. He obtained additional forces from the allies and arrived at Urso, a city of Iberia, having altogether fifteen thousand foot soldiers and about two thousand cavalry. As he did not wish to engage the enemy until his forces were well disciplined, he made a voyage through the straits to Gades in order to sacrifice to Herakles.

In the meantime, Viriathus attacked Maximus’ wood-cutters, killed many, and struck terror into the rest. His lieutenant coming out to fight, Viriathus defeated him also and captured a great plunder. When Maximus returned, Viriathus drew out his forces repeatedly and offered battle. But Maximus declined an engagement with the whole army and continued to exercise his men, frequently sending out skirmishing parties, making trial of the enemy’s strength, and inspiring his own men with courage. When he sent out foragers he always placed a cordon of legionaries around the unarmed men and himself rode around the region with his cavalry. He had seen his father Paullus do this in the Macedonian war.

Winter being ended, and his army well disciplined, he attacked Viriathus and was the second Roman general to put him to flight (although he fought valiantly), capturing two of his cities, one of which he plundered and the other burned. He pursued Viriathus to a place called Baecor, and killed many of his men, after which he wintered at Corduba, this being already the second year of his command in this war. Having performed these labours, Aemilianus returned to Rome and was succeeded in the command by Quintus Pompeius Aulus.

(66) Having less confidence than before, Viriathus detached the Arevakians, Titthians, and Bellians, very warlike peoples (ethnē), from their allegiance to the Romans, and these began to wage another war on their own account which was long and tedious to the Romans, and which was called the Numantine war from one of their cities. I shall give an account of this after finishing the war with Viriathus.

The latter coming to an engagement in another part of Iberia with Quintus, another Roman general, and being overcome, returned to the Venus mountain. From this mountain he attacked and killed one thousand of Quintus’ men and captured some standards from them and drove the rest into their camp. He also drove out the garrison of Itucca and ravaged the country of the Bastitanians. Quintus was unable to render them aid by reason of his timidity and inexperience, but went into winter quarters at Corduba in the middle of autumn, and frequently sent Gaius Marcius, an Iberian from the city of Italica, against him.

(67) At the end of the year, Fabius Maximus Servilianus, the brother of Aemilianus, came to succeed Quintus in the command, bringing two new legions from Rome and some allies, so that his forces altogether amounted to about eighteen thousand foot soldiers and one thousand and six hundred cavalry. He wrote to Micipsa, king of the Numidians, to send him some elephants as speedily as possible. As he was hastening to Itucca with his army in divisions, Viriathus attacked Servilianus with six thousand troops with great noise and barbaric clamour, and wearing the long hair which in battles they are accustomed to shake in order to terrify their enemies, but he was not dismayed. He stood his ground bravely, and the enemy was driven off without accomplishing anything.

When the rest of Servilianus’ army arrived, together with ten elephants and three hundred cavalry from Libya, he established a large camp, advanced against Viriathus, defeated and pursued him. The pursuit became disorderly. When Viriathus observed this as he retreated, he turned around, killed about three thousand Romans, and drove the rest to their camp. He attacked the camp also where only a few made a stand about the gates, the greater part hiding under their tents from fear, and being with difficulty brought back to their duty by the general and the tribunes. Here Fannius, the brother-in-law of Laelius, showed splendid bravery. The Romans were saved by the approach of darkness.

But Viriathus continued to make incursions by night or in the heat of the day, appearing at every unexpected time with his light-armed troops and his swift horses to annoy the enemy, until he forced Servilianus back to Itucca.

(68) Then at length Viriathus, being in need of provisions and his army much reduced, burned his camp in the night and returned to Lusitania. Servilianus did not overtake him, but attacked the country of Baeturia and plundered five towns that had sided with Viriathus. After this he marched against the Cunaeans, and from there to Lusitania once more, against Viriathus. While he was on the march, two bandit-leaders (lēstarchai), Curius and Apuleius, with ten thousand men attacked the Romans, threw them into confusion, and captured some plunder. Curius was killed in the fight, and Servilianus not long afterward recovered the plunder and took the towns of Escadia, Gemella, and Obolcola, which had been garrisoned by Viriathus. Others he plundered and still others he spared. Having captured about ten thousand prisoners, Servelianus beheaded five hundred of them and sold the rest as slaves.

Then Servilianus went into winter quarters, having already been two years in the command. Having performed these labours, Servilianus returned to Rome and was succeeded in the command by Quintus Pompeius Aulus. The brother of the former, Maximus Aemilianus, having received the surrender of a bandit-leader named Connoba, released him but cut off the hands of all of his men.

(69) While following Viriathus, Servilianus laid siege to Erisana, one of his towns. Viriathus entered the town by night, and at daybreak fell upon those who were working in the trenches, forcing them to throw away their spades and run. In a similar way he defeated the rest of the army, which was drawn up in order of battle by Servilianus, pursued it, and drove the Romans among some cliffs from which there was no chance of escape.

[Agreement between Viriathus and the Romans]

Viriathus was not arrogant in the hour of victory, but considering this a favourable opportunity to bring the war to an end and win the great gratitude of the Romans, he made an agreement with them, and this agreement was ratified at Rome. Viriathus was declared to be a friend of the Roman people, and it was decreed that all of his followers should have the land which they then occupied. So the Viriathic war, which had been so extremely tedious to the Romans, seemed to have been settled satisfactorily and brought to an end.

[War breaks out again]

(70) Peace did not last long, for Quintus Servilius Caepio, brother of the Servilianus who had concluded it and his successor in the command, complained about the treaty and wrote home that it was most unworthy of the dignity of the Roman people. The Senate at first authorized him to annoy Viriathus according to his own discretion, provided it were done secretly. By persisting and continually sending letters he procured the breaking of the treaty and a renewal of open hostilities against Viriathus.

When war was publicly declared, Caepio took the town of Arsa, which Viriathus abandoned, and followed Viriathus himself (who fled and destroyed everything in his path) as far as Carpetania, the Roman forces being much stronger than his. Considering it unwise to engage in battle due to the smallness of his army, Viriathus ordered the greater part of his army to retreat through a hidden defile, while he drew up the remainder on a hill as though he intended to fight. When he judged that those who had been sent before had reached a place of safety, he darted after them with such disregard of the enemy and such swiftness that his pursuers did not know where he had gone. Caepio turned against the Vettonians and the Kallaikians and wasted their fields.

[Other groups of “bandits” engage in resistance with Brutus leading the Romans]

(71) Emulating the example of Viriathus, many other groups of bandits (lēstēria) made incursions into Lusitania and ravaged it. Sextus Junius Brutus, who was sent against them, despaired of following them through the extensive country bounded by the navigable rivers Tagus, Lethe, Durius, and Baetis, because he considered it extremely difficult to overtake them while flying from place to place after the manner of bandits (lēstai), and yet disgraceful not to do so, and a task not very glorious even if he should conquer them. He therefore turned against their towns, thinking that in this way he should take vengeance on them, and at the same time secure a quantity of plunder for his army, and that the bandits would scatter, each to his own place, when their homes were threatened. With this design he began destroying everything that came in his way. Here he found the women fighting and perishing in company with the men with such bravery that they uttered no cry even in the midst of slaughter. Some of the inhabitants fled to the mountains with what they could carry, and to these, when they asked pardon, Brutus granted it, taking their goods as a fine.

(72) He then crossed the river Durius, carrying war far and wide and taking hostages from those who surrendered, until he came to the river Lethe, being the first of the Romans to think of crossing that stream. Passing over this he advanced to another river called the Nimis, where he attacked the Brakarians because they had plundered his provision train. They were a very warlike people, the women bearing arms with the men, who fought never turning, never showing their backs, or uttering a cry. Of the women who were captured some killed themselves, others slew their children with their own hands, considering death preferable to captivity. There were some towns that surrendered to Brutus and soon afterwards revolted. These he reduced to subjection again.

(73) One of the towns that often submitted and as often rebelled was Talabriga [modern Tavira]. When Brutus moved against it the inhabitants begged pardon and offered to surrender at discretion. He first demanded of them all the deserters, the prisoners, and the weapons they had, and hostages in addition, and then he ordered them to vacate the town with their wives and children. When they had obeyed these orders, he surrounded them with his army and made a speech to them, telling them how often they had revolted and renewed the war against him. Having inspired them with fear and with the belief that he was about to inflict some terrible punishment on them, he ceased his reproaches. Having deprived them of their horses, provisions, public money, and other general resources, he gave them back their town to dwell in, contrary to their expectation. Having accomplished these results, Brutus returned to Rome. I have united these events with the history of Viriathus, because they were undertaken by other groups of bandits at the same time, and in emulation of him.

[Caepio’s planned assassination of Viriathus]

(74) Viriathus sent his most trusted friends Audax, Ditalco, and Minurus to Caepio to negotiate terms of peace. The latter bribed them by large gifts and promises to assassinate Viriathus, which they did in this way. On account of his excessive cares and labours, Viriathus slept very little and for the most part took rest in his armour so that, when aroused, he should be prepared for every emergency. For this reason it was permitted to his friends to visit him by night. Taking advantage of this custom, those who were associated with Audax in guarding him entered his tent as if on pressing business, just as he had fallen asleep, and killed him by stabbing him in the throat. This was the only part of his body not protected by armour. The nature of the wound was such that nobody suspected what had been done.

The murderers fled to Caepio and asked for the rest of their pay. For the present he gave them permission to enjoy safely what they had already received. As for the rest of their demands, he referred them to Rome.

When daylight came the attendants of Viriathus and the remainder of the army thought he was still resting and wondered at his unusually long repose, until some of them discovered that he was lying dead in his armour. Immediately there was grief and lamentation throughout the camp, all of them mourning for him, fearing for their own safety, thinking what dangers they were in, and of what a general they had been deprived. Most of all were they grieved that they could not find the perpetrators of the crime.

(75) They arrayed the body of Viriathus in splendid garments and burned it on a lofty funeral pile. Many sacrifices were offered for him. Foot-soldiers and cavalry in armour marched around him singing his praises in barbarian fashion. Nor did they depart from the funeral pile until the fire had gone out. When the obsequies were ended, they had gladiatorial contests at his tomb. So great was the longing for Viriathus after his death. He was a man who had the highest qualities of a commander as reckoned among barbarians, always foremost in facing danger and most exact in dividing the spoils. He never consented to take most of the plunder, even when friends begged him to. Instead, whatever he got he divided among the bravest fighters. This is the way it came about – a most difficult task and one never before achieved by any other commander so easily – that in the eight years of this war, in an army composed of mixed peoples, there never was any sedition and the soldiers were always obedient and fearless in the presence of danger.

[Tantalos succeeds as leader]

After his death they chose a general named Tantalos and made an expedition against Saguntum, the city which Hannibal had overthrown and reestablished and named New Carthage, after his own country. When they had been repulsed from that place and were crossing the river Baetis, Caepio pressed them so hard that Tantalos became exhausted and surrendered his army to Caepio on condition that they should be treated as subjects. The latter took from them all their weapons and gave them sufficient land, so that they should not be driven to banditry by want. In this way the Viriathic war came to an end.

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