Sertorius: One Man Against an Empire

The Massacre of the Triumvirate, by Antoine Caron, 1566 / Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Roman eyes were fixed on Hispania in 75 BCE.

By Tristan Hughes / 07.24.2017
Ancient Historian

75 BC and Roman eyes are fixed on Hispania. For the past five years one man has lead a bloody resistance in defiance of the current political situation in Rome. His name is Quintus Sertorius, a Roman. Achieving countless victories and legendary status among his followers, this man has already risen far. Yet his continued success now hangs on a knife-edge. On the banks of the Sucro River, facing his greatest challenge yet, his fate is to be decided: One of either a tragic demise or of reaching even greater glory.

Background: Rome in 88 BCE

The Roman Empire in 88 BC. By this time its lands stretched from Western Spain all the way through to Asia Minor.

By this time, Rome could cherish having one of the most glorious histories in antiquity. From small beginnings in central Italy, its Empire had risen to become dominant throughout almost all the Mediterranean. Power and splendour duly followed.

Pyrrhus, Hannibal, Antiochus III – all worthy opponents that the Roman nation could boast of having overcome. By 88 BC, however, those past glory days seemed a distant memory.

In that year, Rome once again found itself on the verge of war. Yet this war would be nowhere near as glorious or rewarding as those past conflicts with renowned foes. Instead, the Romans now found themselves dealing with a type of warfare unlike any they had previously experienced: A war that put countryman against countryman.

Civil War

Stemming from the political rivalry of two ambitious generals – Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla – open hostilities had broken out between them. Roman vs Roman, the fighting between the two respective forces would be brutal and merciless. Rivals would be slaughtered, families split and betrayal rife. As the Empire suffered from this internal conflict and these individuals became more and more powerful, one fact was notably clear: The idea of Rome as a Republic was fading.

Although this political system was now waning, not everyone would be troubled by the changing times. For many ambitious individuals, this upheaval was a great opportunity to gain power and prestige. Quickly they would take a side, staking everything on success. Sertorius was no different.

Sertorius: A New Man

Coming from a modest background, Sertorius was a man of his own making. Having joined the army at an early age, he would first make a name for himself in that critical war against the Germanic tribes some 20 years before. From then on, his reputation spiralled.

By the time civil war broke out, Sertorius had risen high; no longer was he just a mere legionary. Now – as reward for his courage and previous heroics – he had become a well-known and respected general. Indeed, he even had the scars to show for it, having lost an eye in one of his many past battles (a disfigurement he would take great pride in). Yet more fights were still to come.

Seeing Rome in internal strife, this general now had a decision to make. Would he side with Marius’ party (the Populares) and defy the oligarchic elite? Or would he fight for Sulla and the traditional aristocracy (the Optimates / ‘best ones’)?

For him, however, that choice was an easy one. Not being from the aristocracy himself and having served under that same Marius during the Cimbric War, Sertorius quickly aligned himself with his former commander. Such a choice, however, would have consequences.

82 BCE: On the Losing Side

The Entrance of Lucius Cornelius Sulla into Rome, 82 BCE

Things did not go as planned for Marius and his supporters. Marius died as far back as 86 BC and – although the civil war continued as Sertorius and his surviving supporters fought on – victory for their cause became an uphill struggle. In one final great battle Sulla finally made the decisive breakthrough, vanquishing his opponents in Italy and retaking control of Rome itself. Support for the Marian faction duly crumbled – their supporters purged and resistance removed. The war looked to be over, Sulla had won. Sertorius, however, had other ideas.

Fleeing Italy, the one-eyed Marian headed west to continue the fight elsewhere. First in Hispania and then Mauretania would he actively oppose the newly-instated Sullan Regime. Yet everywhere he went that Regime pursued him, determined to eradicate his defiance. A hunted man, constantly he moved from place to place searching for new opportunities. Finally, after much travelling, his persistence paid off.

A New Opportunity

At that time, unrest was brewing in a far part of Roman Hispania. In the region of Lusitania (modern-day Portugal), the locals had been suffering at the hands of an oppressive Roman governor. Having a colourful history of challenging Roman rule, dissent quickly emerged among them; enough was enough. Now, they sought a man that could lead them in the fight – a second-coming Viriathus or Hannibal. Sertorius was the obvious choice.

When Sertorius heard of the Lusitanian call for aid (80 BC), he had been fighting with great success in Mauretania. Hastily he crossed the sea with a small army to grasp this new opportunity with both hands. What would follow would be one of the greatest rises in antiquity.

Having landed, Sertorius rapidly proved his worth to the Lusitanians. Quickly, he defeated the governor and took control of the whole province. This was the base he had been looking for; a base from where he could build and strike back. The resistance had started.

80 BCE: The Sertorian War Commences

The task Sertorius initially faced was a daunting one; indeed perhaps even that would be an understatement.

At the outset, the amount of Sullan forces that then resided throughout Hispania exceeded his own by more than 15-1. Being so severely outnumbered you would be forgiven for thinking his resistance was a doomed cause; he was after all also going head to head with the strongest military force of the time! Yet Sertorius was no ordinary challenger. Having served for years in his foe’s army, he knew both their strengths and weaknesses. Such knowledge he would make sure to take full advantage of.

Using the overconfidence of his opposing generals to his benefit, Sertorius cleverly managed to lure each out to battle one by one. At first, these commanders were only too happy to oblige – each wanting the fame for himself of defeating this notorious general. Yet such contempt for their foe would prove their downfall.

Divide and Conquer

With an army of legionaries, light-armed Lusitanians and Africans, Sertorius defeated numerous opponents and conquered many cities.

Employing such a tactic, army after army would fall to Sertorius and his men; their generals – rather than gaining fame and victory – suffering shame and crushing defeats. Gradually, as the amount of his enemies lessened and more Spanish cities started to realign themselves with this resistance leader, the tide of war began to turn.

A map of Roman Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) in 80 BC and its two main provinces: Ulterior in the West and Citerior in the East. Famed for its gold mines, marble, oil and wine, this region was one of the wealthiest in the entire Empire. By 75 BC, however, much of this very valuable land now belonged to Sertorius.

No longer did Sertorius command a small army in a far region of Hispania. Now, within five years of landing in Lusitania, almost all the Iberian Peninsula served his command. From such small beginnings, that man’s persistence had resulted in one of the most unprecedented rises to power in world history. Yet such a rise presented a newer, even greater challenge. Now, he had to maintain it.


For the Sullan Regime, the Iberian situation had – almost unbelievably – become drastic. Only their most prestigious commander in the region, Metellus Pius, remained with a sizeable force to combat Sertorius. Yet even he now struggled to contain the growing threat – his army suffering countless setbacks to the rebel general. Enough was enough, action had to be taken.

Agreeing to send a new army to deal with the threat, the Optimates selected one of their most ambitious commanders to lead the force. A man who was still very young for leadership yet who’s previous military victories had already gained him much fame: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus.


Illustration of a Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, usually known in English as Pompey or Pompey the Great

Coming from a distinguished family, this man was one who had profited significantly from the preceding Civil War. Although first siding with Marius and his supporters, he realigned with Sulla when that man’s final victory was near at hand. It proved a wise move. From then on, his reputation would only increase, winning victories in Italy, Sicily and Africa (earning the title ‘Magnus’ or ‘The Great’ in the process). By the time of Sertorius’ great rise in Hispania, many would view Pompey as the greatest military talent of the time. Such a gleaming reputation however, would now be put to its greatest test.

When he reached Hispania, Pompey arrived to face a foe that many viewed as more than just a mere man. To almost all that followed Sertorius, his rise against all odds had transformed him into a living legend: A romanticised resistance leader openly defying a new political system in his homeland (Rome’s very own Hereward the Wake you might say). 

To some, Quintus Sertorius’ character was so legendary that they believed he was beloved by the Gods. Owning a domesticated hind, Sertorius would claim he received from it divine advice from the Goddess Diana.

No longer did Sertorius’ foes mock him as commanding a ‘ragtag’ army of Populares, Spaniards and Africans. By now, his force had become one of the most battle-hardened, well-trained and disciplined armies of the time. Perhaps only after hearing these things did Pompey truly realise how great a task he faced.

‘The Great’ vs. ‘The One-Eyed’

If Pompey did not realise how powerful an enemy he was facing initially, then he quickly learned the hard way. On multiple occasions, he would fall victim to Sertorius’ cunning and military expertise, suffering personal humiliation and demoralising defeats. The ‘Roman Alexander,’ who prided himself as one of the greatest generals of the time, had met his match.

Yet despite these setbacks, gradually Sertorius’ forces began to lose steam. Whenever that leader gained a victory over either Pompey or Metellus, his subordinates lost a battle against the other somewhere else. Sertorius, unable to afford to lose as many men as his counterparts, quickly realised he had to change tactics. A decisive battle had to be fought: One where he could crush the two opposing generals in turn.

The Need for Speed

Soon enough that chance came. Knowing Pompey would prefer to not have to share a victory with Metellus, convincing him to an open battle proved easy enough. The window of opportunity however, was short; Metellus and his army were not far away. Both sides therefore hoped for a quick, decisive victory before his arrival – Sertorius on the one hand hoping to continue his worthy tactic of divide and conquer, Pompey on the other, to seize all the glory that came with victory for himself. With both forces likely numbering around 30 – 40,000 men, they formed up against each other somewhere along the River Sucro. Battle was imminent.

Although our knowledge of the battle is vague at best, certain key moments do survive. It would be these moments that would decide the direction of Roman politics for the next 80 years. With neither side wanting to delay, battle quickly commenced.

The Battle of the River Sucro, 75 BCE

A map of Roman Hispania in 75 BC highlighting the River Sucro. We now know it as the Júcar River. It would be here that the most important battle of Sertorius’ resistance was fought.

At first, everything appeared to be going well for Pompey. Commanding the right side of his force himself, gradually his men – inspired by their general’s presence – began to push back the opposing Sertorians. Pompey had gained first blood. Yet such early progress almost proved his undoing.

Hearing that his left flank was crumbling to Pompey’s onslaught, Sertorius quickly relocated himself to that side of the battle. There, rallying his troops, the tide then began to turn against Pompey. Now facing a force inspired by their legendary general and determined to crush their foes, gradually his troops gave ground.

Pompey now found himself in a perilous position. His troops becoming overwhelmed all around him, ‘Sulla’s Pupil’ now found himself fighting for his life in the heat of battle. Eventually he too would succumb to the fierce counter-attack. Suffering a wound, he fell from his horse. His fate looked sealed.

The Critical Moment

Vintage engraving of Pompey’s flight from Pharsalus 48 BC. Although his flight from this famed battle is more well-known, Pompey’s escape from danger at the River Sucro was just as important

Injured, dismounted and on the front lines; capture or death now looked almost certain for Pompey. In doing so, Sertorius would remove one of his greatest adversaries from the war completely. The decisive victory he had been needing was now within reach – Pompey’s forces likely crumbling when they heard of their beloved general’s demise. Remove Pompey from the fight and win the battle; now was the opportunity.

Yet that glorious opportunity was not taken. Plutarch recalls,

For after being wounded and losing his horse, he (Pompey) escaped unexpectedly. For the Africans with Sertorius, who took Pompey’s horse, set out with gold, and covered with rich trappings, fell out with one another; and upon dividing of the spoil, gave over the pursuit.

(Plut. Sert. 19.4)

Due to greed and thoughts of plunder, Sertorius’ troops had knowingly let one of their greatest opponents escape from their grasp. Such a blunder would become pivotal to Roman history for years to come.

An Indecisive End

Following Pompey’s unlikely escape, the battle would fizzle out – neither side making the decisive breakthrough by nightfall. Overall Sertorius had got the better of his opponent, yet a final blow still needed to be struck the next day. By then however, it was too late.

Early the next morning, Sertorius awoke to hear the news he had been dreading: Metellus and his fresh legions were near. From having Pompey within his grasp, Sertorius now found himself in trouble of facing not one but two Roman armies. Not wanting to risk his force against such odds, the one-eyed general retreated to fight another day reportedly saying as he marched,

If this old woman (Metellus) had not come up, I would have whipped that boy (Pompey) soundly and sent him to Rome.

(Plut. Sert. 19.6 )

Pompey was saved – ironically by the man he had tried to steal victory from. For Sertorius, however, it would mark the beginning of the end.

The Result

Slowly but surely, Sertorius’ inability to gain that elusive, decisive victory proved telling. Unable to completely crush his opponents in Hispania, a new feeling developed among his supporters: A sense that his cause was becoming more futile every day. Many sympathetic to his cause back in Rome too, on seeing his momentum stagnating in Hispania following Sucro, gradually began to lose hope. No longer would they truly believe he would ever be strong enough to return to Italy and overthrow Sulla’s legacy. Sertorius’ portrayal as the heroic resistance fighter was crumbling fast.

Vintage engraving of Lucius Cornelius Sulla ‘Felix’ in his prime. Although he had died in 78 BC his rule as dictator of Rome ensured his legacy lived on. By 75 BC, his supporters now had a firm, legitimate grip on the senate partly due to Sertorius’ inability to make sufficient headway in Hispania

As Pompey and Metellus learnt from their mistakes and Sertorius’ cause became visibly more futile, the one-eyed general’s end became inevitable. Although he would continue to be a huge threat in Hispania for a couple of years longer, gradually defeats and infighting became more regular occurrences. His failure to completely vanquish his opponents at the Sucro river was now coming back to haunt him; no longer could he match the power of his enemy. Seeing this and Sertorius’ legendary character crumbling, the Marian’s forces gradually began to fall apart. For Sertorius himself, however, his end came quicker than expected.

The Last Supper

Being invited to a dinner party by some of his closest generals, there – hoping to reverse their current plight – they murdered the once-legendary leader. One of the greatest figures of the period, killed in cold blood by trusted friends for their own personal desires.

The Murder of Quintus Sertorius by some of his closest generals

Soon after Sertorius’ murder Pompey would capture what remained of the resistance, executing Sertorius’ killers in the process. The war was at an end and Pompey would be sure to take the credit.


After many hardships and setbacks, this Roman Alexander could celebrate ending the resistance of one of the greatest commanders of the age. Yes, he had already achieved much in his career, but to boast such an achievement skyrocketed his military reputation to even greater heights. From then on, he would continue his rise to power, eventually culminating in his greatest legacy: His leading role in that famed civil war between himself and Julius Caesar.

Regarding Sertorius, to some Romans he would go on to represent no more than a mere rebel, doomed to always eventually fail. To others, however, he became a romanticised resistance fighter – successfully defying the most powerful regime of the time for far longer than any other. To this day scholars differ when considering in what light we should remember this man.

What If

Pompey’s defeating of Sertorius and his followers would propel that man further into the limelight, making him one of the most iconic men in antiquity. Yet his lucky escape from the forces of his chrismatic foe at the River Sucro in 75 BC was so critical to his future success. Imagine therefore, how different antiquity would look if he had not been so lucky. What if he had not unexpectedly escaped the heat of battle? What if Sertorius’ African soldiers had not been distracted by that generals’ bejewelled horse?

The Breakthrough

In such a world, the outcome of the battle would likely have been very different. Rather than being an indecisive stalemate, Pompey’s demise would have quickly ended the fight – his men rapidly losing heart on hearing the news. Sertorius would have the victory. More importantly, however, he would have gained the decisive breakthrough that he so desperately needed.

No longer would Metellus’ forces arrive to save the day. Instead, they would reach the site to engage an enemy upbeat and battle-hardened from a very recent success – Pompey’s forces either broken or lying dead on the field. Given Metellus’ previous failures fighting his one-eyed opponent, defeat for him and his army could easily have followed.

In such a world, Sertorius would have faced against the best those in Rome could throw at him and triumphed!

Sertorius’ victory would not shock just the Roman world, however. He would now find himself the undisputed ruler of almost all Hispania, a kingdom bountiful in wealth and manpower. With such strength would come new opportunities. Seeing his rise, many other kingdoms, hostile to Rome, would rapidly see him as a very valuable ally; a man who had proved his ability to withstand the best that eternal city could offer. Numerous leaders would therefore desperately desire treaties and pacts with that Marian. For one man more than most would such an alliance have likely changed antiquity greatly.


That man was Mithridates IV – ruler of one of the most powerful Kingdoms in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cyrus, Alexander, Seleucus and Antigonus; all men that this King claimed he descended from. By 90 BC, he too now desired to reach a similar greatness as those famed ancestors. Whether he could achieve such a goal, however, would prove a different story.

Mithridates’ Pontic Kingdom controlled lands north and south of the Black Sea in 90 BC. For him, however, that was not enough. Having allied himself with the Kingdom of Armenia in the East, conflict between Mithridates and Rome became inevitable

Ever hungry to expand his power in Anatolia, Mithridates found conflict with a powerful foe easily enough; fighting the ever-growing power of Rome was a straightforward choice. Yet things did not go as planned for this ambitious Eastern King. By 75 BC, he had already suffered one disastrous campaign against his enemy; a huge setback to achieving his great goals. Mithridates, however, would not give up his ambitions that easily.

To try and make amends for his recent failure the Pontic Dynast now tried a different strategy. Hoping to divert his enemy’s full attention, he sought allies also hostile to Rome. Sertorius looked the obvious choice.

The Pact with Sertorius

Quickly the two leaders agreed to co-operate. Yet it would prove too little too late. Following the indecisive outcome of that battle at the Sucro River, Sertorius’ cause had already started to crumble; no longer was he the great resistance fighter that he had been previously. The alliance proved ineffective.

Yet if Sertorius had emerged victorious at the River Sucro that day in 75 BC, then we would likely now remember this pact as one of the most important in the Classical Era.

Having secured Hispania in such an alternate reality, Sertorius’ next goal would likely have been Italy itself. His aim: To remove any of Sulla’s surviving partisans from power in the Senate and eradicate the legacy of his personal rival completely. A pact with Mithridates would prove invaluable to this.

War on Two Fronts

Pyrrhus, King of Molossia. Artwork by © Johnny Shumate

With Mithridates’ forces attacking from the East and Sertorius’ men from the West, Sulla’s supporters would find themselves surrounded by two formidable opponents. Indeed, some would go so far as to compare Mithridates to Pyrrhus and Sertorius to Hannibal, stating in such a scenario that,

… the Romans would never be able to make any considerable resistance against such great forces, and such admirable commanders, when set upon on both sides at once.

(Plut. Sert. 23.2)

Such a comparison, albeit bold, does raise a great point. Finding itself surrounded by two talented military leaders, the Roman Empire could well have buckled. A fascinating thought to think if Pompey had not evaded Sertorius’ grasp that day in 85 BC.


As for that Pompey, his losing to Sertorius at the River Sucro would have dramatically changed the man’s legacy in antiquity. It was his final victory against Sertorius that became another vital step paving the way to his future greatness. Julius Caesar, Marcus Crassus, Marcus Cicero, Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII; just a few key individuals that Pompey’s career would directly affect the lives of. Defeat, however, would have brought such future prestige to an abrupt halt.

No longer would we view this general as a man so critical in the final fight for the Republic. Instead we would remember him as an aspiring commander humiliated by a cunning insurgent. Rather than Sertorius suffering a tragic demise, in such a world, Pompey would take his place.


To this day, Sertorius represents one of the greatest Roman insurgents in antiquity. Fighting for a cause many believed lost, he would stand alone, defying nigh-impossible odds for years. His end however – as with many of Rome’s most famous resistance leaders (think of Boudicca, Viriathus or Tacfarinas) was a tragic one. Yet it did not have to be.

If his soldiers had not let Pompey slip from their grasp that day in 75 BC, then perhaps that man’s fate would have been very different. Emerging victorious, this could easily have been the springboard from which his resistance reached even greater heights. Securing Hispania as his own independent kingdom, it is fascinating to think what could have happened next.  Would the combined strength of Sertorius and Mithridates destroy the power of the Optimates in Rome? How severely would this change Sulla’s legacy? And of course, how different would Roman history look without the great rise of Pompey Magnus? All enthralling questions to ask in a world where Sertorius’ soldiers had not succumbed to greed that day.

Originally published by Battles of the Ancients under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.



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