Iberians: Diodoros on Viriathus and the Lusitanians’ resistance to Roman rule (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Iberians: Diodoros on Viriathus and the Lusitanians’ resistance to Roman rule (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 25, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=18664.

Ancient authors: Diodoros, Library of History 33.1; 33.7; 33.21-21a, as summarized by Photios, Bibliotheke, or Collection of Books, codex 244 and extracted for Constantine Porphyrogennetos (link).

Comments: In this ninth century summary by Photios of a lost book of Diodoros, Diodoros provides an account of the rise and fall of Viriathus among the Lusitanians in Iberia (placed ca. 140s BCE). Viriathus is pictured leading resistance against Roman rule. Diodoros deploys a common criminalizing label for undesirable foreigners who resist Roman rule, namely “bandits.”

Despite that categorization, Viriathus is pictured as a noble and well-liked leader who is fair to his own people. The extracts of now lost books done for Constantine Porphyrogennetos portray Viriathus as a wise barbarian who lives a simple yet superior lifestyle.

For further discussion and a later but much longer account of Viriathus and the Lusitanians, see Appian’s narrative (link).


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of the Thracians and the wise king Kotys, go to this link]

(33.1 = Photios) The Lusitanians at first, not having a skilled general, were easily defeated by the Romans. However, after Viriathus became their general, they did the Romans much harm. Viriathus was one of the inhabitants of the sea-coasts, a shepherd on the mountains from his childhood. He was by nature of a healthy person who was also strong and agile beyond all the Iberians, because he was accustomed to a basic diet, much labour and toil, and to no more sleep than was absolutely necessary. He always carried weapons, and was famous for his conflicts both with wild animals and bandits (lēstai).

He was chosen to be leader of the people, and soon a whole group of bandits came to join him. Being very successful in many battles, he was admired not only for his other excellent qualities, but also for his prowess as a general. Furthermore, he was very just in distributing the plunder, allotting to every man in proportion to his merits and what he deserved. Still proceeding and prospering, he established himself as a dynast, rather than a bandit.

Viriathus fought several battles with the Romans and was victorious, considering he utterly routed Vitellius the Roman general and his army. After taking the general prisoner, he put him to death. And he performed many other brave actions, until Fabius was appointed to go out as general against him, and from that time he began to decline. But not long afterwards he rallied his men, and fought bravely against Fabius, who was forced to accept terms dishonourable to the Roman name. But Caepio, who was afterwards general against Viriathus, disregarded the former treaty as invalid, and often defeated Viriathus. Now that Viriathus was reduced to such straits and seeking terms of peace, Caepio caused Viriathus to be treacherously assassinated by some of his own relatives. Striking terror into Tautamus his successor and all of Tautamus’ army, Caepio imposed what terms and conditions he pleased upon them, and in the end granted them the city and land nearby for their residence.

Viriathus, the bandit-leader of the Lusitanians, was just and exact in distributing the plunder, and he would liberally reward those who had conducted themselves bravely in battle according to their numerous merits. Viriathus never appropriated any of the public property to his own private use. Therefore the Lusitanians never shrank or drew back from any hazardous undertaking when he commanded them and was their leader, honouring him as the common benefactor and saviour of their country.


(33.7 = extracts for Constantine Porphyrogennetos) At the wedding of Viriathus many gold and silver cups and all sorts of rich carpets of exquisite workmanship were set out to grace the ceremony. But Viriathus, supporting himself on a lance, regarded them not with admiration of such a rich and splendid display, but rather in scorn and contempt. On this occasion he spoke many things with much wisdom and prudence, and concluded with many emphatic remarks, on the subject of ingratitude towards benefactors and of the folly . . . trusting in the gifts of fortune, which are so uncertain. This was especially the case since it was apparent that all those highly esteemed riches of his father-in-law were liable to be a prey to whoever could them away upon his spear’s point. He further added that his father-in-law should thank him instead, because he had not needed to give anything of his own to Viriathus who was lord and owner of everything. Viriathus therefore at that time, neither washed nor sat down, although he was earnestly entreated so to do. And although the table was plentifully furnished with rich dishes of meat, he only distributed some bread and flesh amongst them that came along with him. After he had little more than tasted the food himself, he ordered his bride to be brought to him, and having sacrificed after the manner of the Iberians, he mounted her on horseback, and forthwith carried her away to his residence in the mountains.

Viriathus regarded sobriety and self-control the greatest of riches, freedom as his homeland, and outstanding courage as the surest possession. In conversation he spoke plainly and sincerely what he thought. His own unblemished character led him (without any formal education) to express himself faultlessly.

[alternative extract] At the wedding of Viriathus, a lot of wealth was displayed. After casting his eyes over this, Viriathus asked Astolpas: “How have the Romans, seeing so much wealth spread in feasts, declined to take possession of the things, although they had the power?” Astolpas replied that many Romans had seen them, but no one had thought to take nor to ask for them. “Why then have you forsaken those that let you enjoy your property quietly, to join me, who am poor and ignoble?”

Viriathus was direct in his manner of speech, drawing on a self-taught and unspoiled nature. The people of Tucca gave their support inconsistently, sometimes to the Romans, sometimes to Viriathus. As they continued in this manner, Viriathus taunted their inconsistency and lack of judgment, reciting a fable: “A middle-aged man took two wives, of which the younger, wanting her husband to be the same age as her, pulled out his grey hair, while the older one pulled out his black hair. Finally, thanks these two women pulling at it, his head became completely bald. A similar fate awaits the people of Tucca: the Romans kill their enemies, the Lusitanians kill theirs, so that your city will soon be deserted.”

There are a lot of other pithy sayings attributed to this man, who had no formal education, but was tutored by common sense. A man who lives according to the principles of nature has concise speech, strengthened by the practice of virtue. By a brief and simple saying, this speaker can utter a maxim, which the hearer will readily recall.


(32.21) Audas, Ditalkes and Nikorontes were relatives and friends of each other from Orson [modern Osuna, Spain]. When they observed that the authority of Viriathus had been weakened by the Romans, they started to fear for themselves and decided to win some favour with the Romans, which would ensure their own safety . . . since they saw that Viriathus was keen to end the war, they announced that they would persuade Caepio to agree to peace terms, if he sent them as envoys about a truce. The dynast readily agreed to this, and they promptly went to Caepio, who was easily persuaded to promise them safety, when they told him that they would assassinate Viriathus. After giving and receiving pledges about this, they quickly returned to their camp. In order to divert Viriathus’ thoughts as far as possible away from their true intentions, they told him that they had persuaded the Romans to agree to peace, which put him in good spirits. Then, taking advantage of the trust he had in them because of their friendship, they crept into his tent by night. After killing Viriathus with some well-aimed blows of the sword, they immediately escaped from the camp and, travelling by a remote route over the mountains, came safely to Caepio.

(32.21a) Viriathus was buried by the Lusitanians with great pomp and state. Two hundred pairs of gladiators were matched against each other, and fought duels at his tomb, in honour of the remarkable courage of this man. He was, as is agreed by all, valiant in dangers, prudent and careful in providing whatever was necessary. What was most noteworthy of all is that, while he commanded, he was more beloved than ever any was before him. For in dividing the spoil he never served himself with any thing above any of the rest, and out of those things which fell to his share, he often rewarded those that had fought most valiantly, and relieved those soldiers that were most in need. He acted with incredible sobriety and vigilance, not sparing any labour, or drawing back from any hazard. Viriathus was not in the least overcome by ease or pleasures. His virtuous qualities are evident and easy to prove, because he was general of the Lusitanians for the space of eleven years, during which time his soldiers were not only well-disciplined without any mutinies, but also nearly unconquerable. But after his death the forces of the Lusitanians were soon broken and dispersed, being deprived of such a general.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Thracians and the cruel king Diegylis, go to this link]


Source of translation: Andrew Smith of Attalus.org, public domain, adapted.

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