A misty history of Roman Portugal

in Curiosità · 30-06-2021 17:49:00 · 0 Commmenti

by Roberto Knight Cavaleiro

Part 2 – Consolidation

Following his Triumph of 137 BC Consul Decius Junius Brutus was faced with the formidable task of ruling the entire Atlantic seaboard of Hispania Ulterior which extended 400 km. from the Ocean to the boundary of Hispania Citerior . The territory south of the river Tagus was relatively peaceful being populated largely by the Conii and Celtici tribes who had accepted the occupation and made contributions of militia and tribute to the Roman cause. But to the north-east of the Tagus valley the province was the domain of the fiercely independent Lusitanian people who defended vigorously their wild and often inaccessible land.

Although the troops of Brutus were led by Roman officers , they had largely been recruited from conquered nations and included mercenaries who were there for plunder rather than glory. Their number was quite inadequate to police such a vast area which lacked roads and bridges to facilitate manoeuvres. The best that Brutus could do was to build forts at strategic points each of which could be garrisoned by sufficient cohorts to control the immediate vicinity. One of these , Brutobriga, was large enough to mint its own coins from year 133 onwards ; another was located near Scalabis (Santarem). As his administrative capital he chose the small port of Olissipo (present day Lisbon) which was expanded to include “civilised” Roman comforts within its walls .

In the ensuing years Brutus and his successors had to combat not only tribal insurrections and defections among the auxiliary troops but a wavering political support from Rome where rival patrician factions in the Senate caused civil unrest which depleted State resources . The only policy which united these quarrelling families was the desire to receive the spoils of conquest without financing the cost of the expeditionary forces necessary to obtain them . During fifty years no less than twelve praetors were appointed and dismissed but their endeavours to govern and develop their “colony” were frustrated due to the depletion of military forces and to the transformation of the Lusitanians from a horde of disorganised tribal warriors into an army whose tactics were modelled on those of their oppressors. In fact, most of the skirmishes (there was never a full scale battle) were won by the Lusitanians by sheer force of numbers including their womenfolk who willingly donned armour to hold defensive positions and, sword in hand, also joined the infantry in attack .

Around 100 BC the internecine strife in Rome fermented into civil war conducted by several aristocratic families of which the dictators Sulla and Marius were the principal antagonists. The power struggle swayed between them but in year 88 Sulla gained the upper hand and Marius was forced to take refuge abroad. Among his lieutenants was Quintus Sertorius , a distinguished Roman soldier and senator, who organised a resistance to Sulla but eventually was forced to retreat with several loyal legions to Hispania where the Marian faction held sway. He appointed himself as governor of both provinces and became popular with tribal chieftains by reducing taxes and restoring their political prowess. But Sulla sent an army from Rome which defeated Sertorius and forced him to flee to Mauretania in year 83 . However, three year later the Lusitanians sent a delegation to Sertorius asking him to bring his troops and assume the position of general in their army which by then was in serious conflict with the military of Sulla. By a series of daring guerrilla raids , reminiscent of Viriatus, and a fierce battle fought at the river Baetis, Sertorius gained territory, consolidated his power and in 77 BC he succeeded in taking control of all of Hispania Ulterior.

By all accounts, Sertorius was a remarkable leader who , by sheer force of character gained great popularity among all who served his cause. His superior military training , astute judgement and humanity in the treatment of his opponents brought much success. In battle he was always accompanied by a hind which he had tamed and claimed to have been a gift from the goddess Diana who through the beast directed him how to defeat his enemies. But, like Viriatus, in the end he succumbed to the treachery of trusted allies who assassinated him and his Lusitanian bodyguard by stabbing . His story serves to show how complicated were those times when Romans fought Romans assisted by tribal warriors and mercenaries who changed sides in response to the prospects of reward.

Part three . Pompey Magno, Julius Caesar and the mighty Emperor Augustus



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