The First Celtiberian war.
In the north of Iberia, the Celtiberian tribes were no match for the superpowers of Rome and Carthage, and could only look on as they fought each other for control of the Mediterranean. They allied themselves to whoever held the whip at the time, but when it was over, and Rome began to extend its territories into their lands, they were not entirely content to be under Rome’s heel. Their resentment began to take the form of rebellions.
There were now five tribes of Celtiberians, the Pellendones, the Arevaci, the Lusones, the Titti and the Belli. The Romans had divided the lands under their control into Hispania Citerior, (Modern Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia.) and Hispania Ulterior, (Modern Andalucia.) The unrest festered and grew for about a hundred years after the Punic Wars until it erupted into the First Celtiberian War in 179 BCE.
The Roman garrison in Iberia had been reinforced at the request of their praetor, Flintus Fluvios Flaccus, who had been expecting trouble. The Celtiberians had raised an army of 35,000 men. A daunting foe, but one that Flavius knew were unschooled in warfare. Flaccus was outnumbered, but he drew his army up outside the camp of the Celtiberians, and for four days there was a stalemate when neither side would commit to battle. Under cover of night, Flaccus arranged his troops into tactical displacements and at dawn he engaged the Celtiberians with a frontal attack followed by a feint retreat. He drew them away from their camp and Roman troops then attacked from behind the camp and killed the unsuspecting defenders. The Celtiberian army was now trapped between two Roman forces and mercilessly cut down. The Celtiberians lost 23,000 dead and 4,700 were taken prisoner. They had reinforcements on the way to help, but a spate of bad weather hindered their efforts to gather enough forces to challenge the Romans.
Flaccus was shortly to be relieved and take half his men back to Rome. He was recalled to disband his army and divide them up. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a grandson of the famous Scipio Africanus was Flaccus’s replacement, and had new orders from the senate. The two Roman provinces of Hispania Ulterior and Hispania Citerior were to unite their armies and pursue a war against the Celt tribes together. Flaccus stayed on in command of a mix of his own veterans and new troops from Rome and they continued their march into Celtiberian territory. The Celts had seen Flaccus leave, and thought that he had retreated, so they reinforced and prepared a trap in a narrow pass.
When the unsuspecting Romans arrived, the Celts fell upon them. At first the Celts had the upper hand, but superior Roman tactics and inspired leadership won the invaders the day.
The Celts lost 17,000 men with 4,000 captured to the loss of 4,500 Roman troops. The rebel tribes had caught the attention of Rome now, and the two provinces were reinforced with 8,000 infantry soldiers and 7,000 cavalry.
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus
Gracchus now pressed north into the heartlands of the Celtiberians, taking the city of Munda by surprise at night and burning the countryside around it. They left a garrison, and pressed on to the fortified town of Certima, where the Celts had withdrawn inside the walls. Gracchus began to assemble his siege engines and a delegation from the town asked to speak with the praetor. A surreal episode unraveled before Gracchus as the elders of the city asked the praetor if he would allow them to send for the elders from a neighboring city called Alce. They made it clear that they were prepared to fight to the death, but they wanted a second opinion from their friends. A bemused Gracchus agreed, and a few days later the enlarged group of elders returned. They sat before him and asked for a drink, which he supplied. They asked for a second drink and the Romans around Gracchus burst out laughing. Undeterred, the Celt leaders solemnly asked Gracchus by what means did he intend to take their towns. Gracchus ordered his army to don their armour and parade past the gates of Alce.
The painting is of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus fighting against the Arevaci tribe whom he defeated in 143 BCE. It was painted by Armand-Charles Caraffe and now hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Metallus fought in Iberia, though his main claim to fame was his victories in the Macedonian Wars.
To the amusement of the Romans, the elders surrendered their city and were obliged to give forty of their nobles to serve with the Roman troops. The praetor pressed on to Alce where Thurru, the greatest Celtiberian leader, had decided to make a stand. Gracchus ordered the building of a fortified camp for his men near to Alce and sent out skirmishing parties to harass the Celts. It took days of taunting attacks before they were drawn out to battle and Gracchus ordered his men to fall back to their camp and let the Celts follow them. His legions surged out from their camp and slaughtered over 9,000 Celts. The city of Alce firmly closed its gates once more.
Gracchus toured the surrounding lands, capturing over a hundred villages before he returned to Alce and began assembling his siege engines. Thurru wisely asked for surrender terms and offered to work with the Romans to control his lands. From then, on many of the Celt towns and cities offered to work with Gracchus, and he began a period of establishing reasonable laws and treaties with the Celtiberians. By 170 BCE, Gracchus had formed good relations with the tribes and he negotiated deals that were beneficial to both Rome and the Celts.
The Numantine war
The peace was fragile however, and frequent uprisings kept the Roman occupiers of Iberia busy. In 153 BCE the overseers of northern Spain became suspicious of further dissent when Segada, home to the Belli tribe, persuaded neighbouring towns to move into their walled city. The Belli were the strongest tribe in the area around modern Zaragoza, and when the whole of the neighbouring Titti tribe also joined them in adding to the fortifications of their city, the Romans became alarmed. Twenty years earlier, Gracchus had forged agreements with all the tribes that forbade the establishment of new towns. The Romans raised objections to the new fortifications
In what started off sounding like an entirely reasonable modern planning application, the Belli argued that Gracchus had not forbidden the enlargement of old towns, only the building of new ones, and therefore they were within the law. Letters went to Rome with the tribe’s request to build a fortified wall seventeen miles long around their town’s perimeter.
The answer came back that the building of a fortified wall was forbidden, and that the Belli would have to incorporate barracks for a contingent of the Roman army within their new enlarged town. They also were required to pay a tribute to Rome for the bigger city.
The elders of the tribes dictated another letter, pointing out that their treaty with Gracchus had released them from needing to have a Roman barracks in their city and paying tribute. They even had the paperwork to prove it.
Rome responded by the next post. Yes, they admitted, the senate had agreed to suspend the paying of tribute to Rome, but the suspension was at the discretion of Rome, and could be revoked at any time. Whilst the Belli and Titti considered their response, the exasperated senate dispatched a new praetor, Quintus Fabius Nobilitor, who arrived in Hispania with a force of nearly 30,000 men to discuss their planning application in person.
Segada’s defending wall had not been finished when Nobilitor arrived, and the population of the city wisely fled to the neighbouring Arevachi tribe. Nobilitor followed them with his army and was led into a prepared ambush in a thick forest where the Celts had hidden a force of 20,000 foot-soldiers and 500 cavalry. The Romans lost 6,000 men in a single day.
The Arevachi and their allied tribes fell back and re-formed near a town called Numantia, (Seven kilometers north of today’s Soria, on a hill known as Cerro de la Muela, near Garray.) Nobilitor arrived three days later, and encamped four kilometres from the town. He was joined by 300 cavalry and ten elephants sent by Masinissa, the king of Numidia, a Roman ally in Africa. The sight of the elephants frightened the Celts, who had never seen these animals before. They fled inside the town, but after watching the huge beasts from a distance, they realised that they were just a domesticated animal like a horse or cow. Nobilitor planned his attack and drew his forces into battle formation. The Numantines had catapults and began firing rocks into the Roman ranks as they advanced with their elephants in the lead. One of the missiles hit one of the poor beasts, which bellowed and reared out of control, trampling the close ranks of soldiers around it. The other elephants saw their companion run amok and panicked, too, scattering the Roman army. The attack had turned into a rout, and the Numantines rode out and killed 4,000 Romans and three elephants. Nobilitor reeled and fell back. Having lost a third of his army within a few weeks, he decided that a frontal attack on Numantia was too dangerous. His spies told him that the Numantine grain and food supplies were stored nearby in the town of Axinium. He attacked in force, but the Celtiberians had anticipated his attack, and were ready. He lost thousands more men and gained nothing. He returned to his camp to re-group his depleted army.The successes of the Arevachi had infected the surrounding subjugated tribes, and their towns began to defect to their Celtiberian brothers. One of them was, Ocilis, (Now known as Medinaceli in the modern province of Soria). This was the Roman provisions centre for the district, and Nobilitor found himself isolated without provisions. He was forced to withdraw to his winter camp, where lack of food and heavy frosts followed by snowstorms killed thousands more of his men.
Rome was now very alarmed. They had lost more than half of the force that they had sent to put down a rebellion caused by a dispute that could have been avoided by discussion. A year after they had sent Nobilitor and his army, the Roman senate was forced to send another army to take back control of northern Iberia.In 152 BCE Marcus Claudius Marcellus, consul for the third time, took over the command, bringing 8,000 infantry and 500 cavalry to Hispania. Marcellus encamped his army before the gates of Ocilis. The townspeople surrendered and asked for leniency, and Marcellus wisely pardoned them. This encouraged Nertobriga (a town of the Belli, in the modern province of Zaragoza) to also sue for peace. Marcellus asked for the gift of 100 of the town’s cavalry and hostages and they agreed. However, a raid on the rear guard of the Romans by one of the other tribes led to Marcellus besieging the town once more. The town elders again begged for mercy, but Marcellus refused to talk with them unless all the tribes agreed to talk with him together.
The Nertobriges sent ambassadors to the rebel tribes who united asked Marcellus for leniency and for the renewal of the treaty made with Tiberius Gracchus. Marcellus sent envoys from each party to Rome to carry on their dispute there. With them, he sent private letters to the senate urging Rome to accept their peace proposals. The senate were having none of it, and the sent word back that Marcellus was to be relieved of his command and replaced by Lucius Licinius Lucullus. Marcellus called the tribes together and told them that their haggling with the senate had angered Rome and brought war down on themselves. He gave them back their hostages and in an effort to end the war before Lucullus arrived, he drove the Numantines back within their own city walls. The Belli, Titti and Arevaci put themselves at his mercy and Marcellus asked for hostages and money. Effectively the Celts were now at peace.
In Rome, recruiting for the army had reached crisis point, and nobody wanted to go to Iberia. There was talk of terrible conditions, no booty and bloodthirsty, ferocious tribesmen to fight. The list of Roman losses in this campaign was growing longer every year. Young men avoided enrollment as soldiers, and men eligible to be legion commanders or military tribunes found a multitude of excuses why they could not go.
The man they were replacing Marcellus with was bankrupt as a soldier, and was desperate to make some money by looting and robbery disguised as defending Rome’s assets.
When Lucullus did arrive, he was not happy that the war was seemingly over. He promptly attacked the Vaccaei, (a tribe who lived to the east of the Arevaci and who had never rebelled against Rome.) on the pretext that that they were supplying the Celtiberians with food and arms.
He led his men across the Rivere Tagus and made his camp near the town of Cauca (Coca in the province of Segovia). His excuse for going there was that the Caucaei had attacked the Carpetani and that he had come to their aid. The Caucaei lost the first skirmish and sued for peace and Lucullus demanded hostages and 100 talents of silver. He next demanded that from now on the town would be garrisoned by Romans and he left a contingent of his men in charge and left. He did not go far. The garrison opened the gates at night and let in the rest of the army, who slaughtered every Celt male in the town. The defenders fled and fired the city to deprive Lucullus and his men of booty.
Lucullus next marched on the town of Itercatia, where more than 20,000 Celtiberian infantry and 2,000 cavalry had taken refuge. He encamped his men outside the city walls and called for peace talks. The Celts knew about the slaughter of the Caucaei and sent their reply saying that they did not trust his word. Lucullus flew into a rage and sent his men to burn the surrounding land and villages.
The Romans erected their siege engines and breached the wall, but the Celts swarmed out of the city, overwhelmed them and drove them away. Lucullus lost control of his army who scattered and became lost. Many perished from hunger and dysentery and the many bogs and marshes in the area demoralised the troops as they floundered in knee deep mud and freezing water.
With whatever troops he could muster, Lucullus marched to Pallantia (Pelencia) where many of the Celtiberians had taken refuge. He set up his camp outside the walls, but the Pallantian cavalry harassed his men and prevented them finding food in the surrounding countryside. Finally, beaten and starving, Lucullus led his men to Hispania Ulterior across the river Duro. He was pursued all the way to the river by the Celtiberian tribes, who picked off the remainder of his men. He never came back.
For the next ten years, Rome lost legion after legion against the Celtiberians, and its similar policies in the Hispania Ulterior began to lose them battles there, too. Ragged armies of raw conscripts, led by unscrupulous greedy generals were thrown against the Celtiberians, and the Roman losses grew month by month.
In 137 BCE consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus was surrounded by Numantine Celts, and surrendered his entire army to them. He was called to Rome to face charges of dereliction of duty.
Rome was outraged, and sent Aemilius Lepidus to replace him. Lepidus ran amok with his army, seeking glory and gold. He ravaged the countryside and started a siege of Pallantia. He dragged his brother in law, Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus, into the war with him. The senate sent messages telling them to stop instigating more war and make peace.
Aemilius carried on regardless. The siege of Pallantia dragged on, and Roman supplies failed. Thousands of men and all the pack animals died. The siege collapsed and the Romans withdrew at night. The following morning the Pallantine cavalry attacked, and the withdrawal turned into a rout in which thousands more Roman troops were lost. Aemilius Lepidus was stripped of this consulship, and when he returned to Rome he was fined.
Rome was sick of this war, but was at a loss for how to end it.
Asterix and Obelix
We can’t read the story of the Roman occupation of Celtiberia without a look at two characters who don’t always acknowledge the Empire’s serious side. Their story is set in Gaul, but the same audacious French spirit was carried by the Celtiberians into Spain. It concerns a small village that defied the might of the Romans, and at the same time entertained thousands of adults and children. The two main characters are called Asterix and Obelix.
René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo first wrote and drew stories about the two heroes in 1959 in the Franco-Belgian comic magazine Pilote, and their antics were translated into English ten years later. Since then they have been translated into over a hundred languages and as of 2017 thirty seven volumes of their comics have been released, thirteen of which have been made into films.
As of October 2009, 325 million copies of 34 Asterix books had been sold worldwide, making René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo France's bestselling authors abroad.