Viriathus vs Rome

Viriathus is a name I had not come across before, but reading about him in The Enemies of Rome by Philip Matyzsak, he is certainly someone I won’t forget.

Viriathus was perhaps one of Iberia’a greatest military leaders. He succeeded in defeating the Roman army on several occassions, until he was eventually betrayed. The story of how he came to hate the Romans is an interesting one.

The time is circa 151 BC. The Romans have successfully occupied much of present-day Spain. To the west is a region called Lusitania, between the Guadiana and Douro rivers, taking in much of present day Portugal. The Romans had never succeeded in occupying Lusitania, but the Lusitanians, due in part to lack of good arable land, constantly preyed on neighbouring tribes for food and materials. Rome did manage to take control of these neighbouring tribes, the Vettones and Celtici, but the Lusitanians continued the raids regardless.


After a period of frequent clashes when the Lusitanians repeatedly agreed to and then violated peace accords, Rome lost patience in 151 BC and launched a full-scale attack under Servius Sulpicius Galba.

Again the Lusitanians sued for peace. Galba replied that the poverty of the Lusitanians’ native soil made it impossible for them to desist from raiding for long, so he proposed a whole-scale resettlement on three fertile plains. On an agreed date in 150 BC the Lusitanians gathered in three seperate groups to await resettlement. Galba insisited on disarming them, weapons being superfluous for an agrarian way of life. Then, with the nation in three seperate, unarmed groups, Galba ordered the Roman army to surround each group in turn and massacre everyone there – men, women and children. It was an atrocity that sickened even the brutal Romans. ‘He avenged treachery with treachery – an unworthy Roman imitating barbarians.’ (Appian, Hispania10 [60].)

One of those to escape was a shepherd by the name of Viriathus, and he had something of a grudge againt Rome.

4 years later and Lusitanian guerilla raids on Roman forces were growing more frequent. Eventually in 147 BC they invaded Turdetania, run by the Roman propraertor Vettius. The Lusitanians were no match for the Roman legions and were pushed back to a fortified town where they were besieged. It was here they were given terms for surrender, with terms that looked alot like Galba’s terms 3 years previous. Viriathus suggested a plan for escape, and was duly elected leader. The plan was basic enough, bring out everyone, line up for battle, let the Romans line up for battle, and then run like hell. It worked, the Romans were unable to catch them. His army met at a rendezvous point in Tribola, and the Romans followed. Viriathus set up an ambush and it worked – the Romans got caught between a cliff edge and the Lusitanians. 4,000 of Vettius’ army of 10,000 were killed, including Vettius.

The new Roman commander then bribed the neighbouring Celtibrerians to fight the Lusitanians. But short work was made of the Celti, they were all slaughtered. Viriathus then went on to plunder modern-day Toledo. As you can imagine, all this seriously pissed off the Romans.

There then followed a series of defeats for the Romans.

In 146 BC the Romans sent another army, commanded by C. Plautius. Viriathus ambushed and destroyed this army while they setup camp. He then went on to pillage and then destroy large parts of Segobriga.

In 145 BC the Romans sent another army, 15,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalry, commanded by Quintus Fabius Aemilianus. They also sent an army commanded by Claudius Unimanus, which Viriathus duly slaughtered. On hearing of that army being destroyed, Fabius decided on a different tactic. The Romans refused to face the Lusitanians in open battle. By 144 BC Fabius decided to do battle, and drove the Lusitanians back, but the damage to Roman prestige for not doing battle earlier was done. The Celtibrerians rose against Rome, and thus began the long and bitter Numantine War.

Q. Pompeius was the next general to try againt Viriathus, he failed miserably, returning to camp after losing 1,000 men.

By 142 BC another Roman army had arrived, commanded by Fabius Servilianus. Rome was getting really pissed off, so this time they sent two full legions, 16,000 men, 1,600 cavalry and elephants.

Servilianus was successful, he besieged Viriathus in Erisone and retook several cities that had been under Lusitanian control. But Viriathus managed to smuggle himself and a large number of forces into the city. The following morning they attacked the Romans, and drove them towards a valley that Viriathus had earlier fortified. Servilianus was thus surrounded, and faced annihilation. He duly surrendered unconditionally, but Viriathus accepted, and demanded Roman forces withdraw from Lusitania, and recognise their independence, Viriathus was to be considered a friend and ally of the Roman people. No one knows why Viriathus let them off so lightly, but it is thought that if he had killed the whole army, Rome would never forget, and would keep sending armies until he was destroyed. So the Roman senate ratified the settlement.

The Romans did send a new governer to the region, Servilius Caepio, brother of the defeated general. Caepio was astute, but hated by the men who served under him. He tried to provoke Viriathus into war, but Viriathus resisted. Instead, some hot-headed tribesmen did get provoked, and in 140 BC the war resumed. Viriathus was reluctant to resume war, so he sent 3 trusted advisors to Caepio, Caepio lavished the 3 advisors with luxuries, and told them if they killed Viriathus they would obtain a huge reward. They went back to camp and stabbed Viriathus in the throat, fleeing to Caepio. Caepio then betrayed the deal, saying he had not meant for them to kill their leader. They were escorted from the city without a penny, though some other students of this era say that the three were killed by Caepio.

To end the hostilities, Caepio did as Galba has promised in the beginning, he resettled the Lusitanians to fertile lands. It worked and peace reigned.

14 thoughts on “Viriathus vs Rome”

  1. Thanks for this rattling good yarn, Gavin! I especially like Viriathus’ siege escape tactic of lining up for battle and then running like hell. What imagination.

  2. Excellent job Gavin!
    All of the written records of Viriato’s century come from the victors(the Romans), so much for the “yarns”.
    See my site for more about Viriato.

  3. Haha, this gave me a few good laughs. Viriathus is indeed one of the more terrible enemies a Roman Army ever faced. Unconventianal tactics, with skillfull use of the lands to his advantage. Also helped that he always took the romans by surprise and induced fear in the most highly discliplined armies of the era. Even more impressive is the fact that Viriathus men were all scattered untrained men from across the land from different villiages who came to fight for him under charismatic and skillfull leadership, when ever they fought rome, they were always outnumbered, poorly equiped, and much less orginized. A perfect example of Gurilla warfare. There are other legends about him, such as how on his wedding day, he rodeoff with his wife before even the cerimonies and celebrations were complete. Oddly, he’s only remembered well by the Iberians, especialy the Portuguese. Thanks for the topic post, good to see people learning of incredible figures in history.

  4. Thank you for the article. Very interesting indeed.
    The romans use to say about the Lusitans: Savage people, they dont govern themsleves and they dont let no one to do it for them.

    Very interesting are also the Celtic legends about those times. Portugal has a lot of them which ended in tragedy over and over again when the Romans were trying to force the Lusitanians to settle on the plains to be better controlled.

    It took to the Romans more than 200 years to settle in the Iberian Peninsula at last.

    Another people was in the north of Europe waiting for the time to kick the Romans out of Potugal which was done in the year 409. The Suebi. But that it’s another story…

  5. Oh the Suebi, they were there for only a few decades, the Visigoths were much more dangerous. In fact, the Visigoths managed to eventually take over the entire peninsula, but it was short lived, they were kicked out by the moors just after settling for a 100 years, the Moors in turn would be routed out by reconquista some 80 years later.

    As a result, modern Spain and Portugal as a large diversity genetic origins, mostly Roman, mixed with plenty of the old tribe’s makeup, and followed by German makeup, and a very limited amount of Moorish contributions. Yet, all of this created a very unique group of people. The Lusitanian spirit is especially evident in the Portuguese through out history. I recall the Duke of Wellington once proudly naming them “The Fighting Cocks of the Allied Army” in other words, small like a rooster, a definately great fighters despite their size.

  6. what annoys me most about history is the general and constant ignoring of iberian history and its tribes me being portuguese of course call myself lusitanian, its funny how historians prefer to talk about the gallic wars rather than the iberian the gauls put up a fight nodoubt, and other celts across europe but the iberian tribes proved to be a bigger pain in the ass to romans yet maybe its the anglo saxonic racist bullshit dominance of todays world that would rather talk about how much they sucked against romans then us short iberians. its like when you go open a history book on the age of discovery most books ignore the huge portuguese contribution but would rather talk about everybody else most books dont even talk about my people. if the portuguese hadnt started thed iscoveries history wouldnt be quite the same. another thing thats annoying is books about great medieval battles they talk about agincourt, 100 years war etc but go look on in iberia in general they dont speak about it portugal had a major vitory against castille in aljubarrota outnumbered 3 to 1 and used a brilliant tactic. most books dont refer us iberians even though i dont think we were an island far from europe to be ignored and racially our gene pool hardly has evidence of roman moorish and germanic blood only like 10% show traces like me being blond and blue eyed the population of atlantic europeans has remained pretty much stable over the last 6000 years meaning we are practically the same people we were before these invasions

  7. nice website about viriathus so which comes the question?
    i am writing a book (the first English one ever) so far i have two chapter completed. the third is about the Lusitanians– so if any can help me find information please sent it to this email address and i will give credit where credit is do. but i also will need the reference from where you got this info. luis

  8. In response to alexandre the reason historians fail to analyse this period so much is firstly the lack of literary evidence. It is a topic that only one person – Appian of Alexandria – writes about. Archaeological sources are also particularly lacking with some of the only survey (except for digging up graves) having been done in the 1920’s on the siegeworks of Numantia by a German archaeologist – Adolf Schulten. There is a lot of writing regarding the weaponry of the Iberians however, for which I recommend the writings of Fernando Quesada Sanz.

    In response to Luis Silva I am currently writing my dissertation on this topic. I will happily send it to you when I have had it marked and I have completed my degree – around the end of June this year. What is your book regarding in particular? I can point you in the direction of sources if you specify it. In the meantime I was wondering if you have come across anything useful regarding Lusitanian weaponry, preferably in English?

    I hope that this blog is still checked.


  9. Wow! I just found this site and noticed Harry’s comment. I’m really sorry, but you seem to have very limited knowledge of the literary evidence available on this period of time. For one, Appian of Alexandria is certainly NOT the only person who wrote about this period. In fact, Pliny and Strabo are just two off the top of my head, contemporaries of the time who wrote about Viriathus and the Lusitanians, including details on culture, diet, manner of dress, and Pliny even provides a physical descripton of Viriathus. By the way, not a small man at all!

    Here’s a website you may be interested in … it’ll give you a more accurate, factual, perspective on this subject

    Luis, you may also be interested as it has very interesting information on the Celtiberians and Lusitanian peoples.

    Furthermore, the reason why the English speaking world is so ignorant about the history of the Iberian peninsula, and in particular Portugal, is because they seem incapable of deciphering the Portuguese language for one, secondly, since the Portuguese finally imposed a duty on Port wine in the 17th century, England went on a rampage to discredit and marginalize Portuguese accomplishments, writtten history and literature, etc., thirdly, the English are so busy pumping up their considerably inferior accomplishments, in comparison to Portugal, in order to bolster their justification for the atrocities they’ve committed against other world nations and cultures.

    Lastly, to Alexandre, don’t worry. It’s only England, America and Canada that are so historically illiterate as to ignore the major accomplishments of the Portuguese people – namely, the discovery of all continents, except Antarctica and Europe! – just speak to any Chinese, Japanese, Indian, African, Middle Easter, South American, Central American, and yes, even some Australians, to know this.

    And for anyone who is questioning the above statement and is therefore, unaware of recent research pointing towards the Portuguese having discovered North America, I encourage you to look up the following website

    as well as the book entitled “O Misterio Colombo Revelado” (The Mystery of Columbus Revealed). For info on this book, see:

    We really must pity the average English and North American for their sad, sad, lack of knowledge, because the old adage is very true and repeatedly proven … you cannot see your future or understand your present, with out KNOWING your history.

  10. Im Portuguese, and Viriato (Viriathus) is a forgotten icon that I won’t forget. The running like hell scenario was awesome, though there is more to it. Viriathus, with about 2k men, lined up against 10k men and 2k cavalry. The idea for this was to allow all the villagers to run away from being slaughtered. When all escaped successfully, Viriathus and his troops did run like hell, for their armor was not nearly as heavy as the romans.

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