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Campaigns of Romans in Spain 197-179 BCE

(197-179 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Iberians from the late 2nd century BCE
Iberians from the late 2nd century BCE

Iberian Peninsula played a key geopolitical role before and during the Second Punic War. Prior to his trip to Italy, Hannibal, following the example of his relatives, was spreading Punic rule in this area, abundant in resources and providing a large recruit for his army.

During the Second Punic War, the position of both sides in Spain changed like a kaleidoscope. Tribal chiefs in these areas, depending on the economic situation, sided with either Carthage or the Roman republic. Ultimately, it was the Romans who dragged the Spanish tribes to their side, which was one of the reasons for Carthage’s defeat in this war. Appreciating the importance of Spain in the possible revival of the Carthaginian danger, the senate decided to subjugate its lands. This could be done by creating strong satellite states, led by pro-Roman Spanish chieftains. However, due to the unstable attitude of the local elite during the struggle with Hannibal, it was decided to create two provinces in these areas. Moreover, the creation of the province was profitable for economic reasons – after all, Spain was rich in raw materials.

A drawing showing Roman soldiers during the Second Punic War

In 197 BCE the senate decided to create Nearer Spain (Hispania Citerior), encompassing the eastern coast of the peninsula with New Carthage and Spain’s Outlying (Hispania Ulterior), coinciding with what is now Andalusia. Each of these provinces was to be headed by an annually elected praetor. For now, the armed forces in each of them have been limited to 8,000 soldiers of the Italian auxiliary forces. However, it was far from stabilized, and the situation of the Romans on the Iberian Peninsula was hampered by the independent nature of the tribes, unaccustomed to the new administrative order. Moreover, with the departure of the legions Scipio to Italy, the conciliatory and pragmatic politics of this commander disappeared. The rule of Roman officials became a nuisance to the natives. Even Phoenician cities, which had previously concluded favourable treaties with Rome, sent complaints to the Tiber about the failure of Roman officials to respect their municipal autonomy.

The situation was complicated by the fact that the militant peoples of the Lusitans and the Celtybers were beyond the reach of Roman power. To protect themselves against their attacks, the Romans had to campaign outside the provinces, venturing further and further into the peninsula. Not knowing the terrain, they often got into ambushes set on the plateau, in deep ravines of rivers and in the wooded area. The actions of the Spaniards were therefore a guerrilla war – they avoided major battles, deciding to do it only in a situation of certainty of victory. The legionaries had to make long marches over the vast expanses of the Iberian Peninsula, covered with dry grass, and this meant the danger of starvation for them. In the south, the Turdetans, supported by Phoenician cities, started a revolt. At the same time, in the north, inhabitants of the lands between the Ebro River and the Pyrenees took up arms. The glue connecting these two foci of the uprising were the Celtybers, for whom the Turdetans served as mercenaries.

Weak Roman troops could not cope with the warlike Spanish tribes until 195 BCE when the senate assembled an army of 50,000 men under the command of M. Portius Cato, known for his hatred of Carthage. The future censor became famous in the battle near the city of Emporion fought with the main army of the Iberians. His column at night, unnoticed by the enemy, took the hill between the enemy camp and their positions. This was to put the soldiers before a choice – death or victory. First, his troops fought the main Iberian army. Cato sent two cohorts of extraordinarii (his bodyguard) to the rear. During the fight, he skillfully sent new reinforcements to fight the enemy; at the end, he led the 2nd legion, which had so far remained in reserve for the Roman camp. During this battle, Cato kept his soldiers in position, personally catching and arresting the retreating subordinates. During the attack on the Iber camp, he rode in front of the legions, taking care that his people would not get too carried away and that they would not break their ranks. He personally struck the spear of the legionaries who did not hold the battle line and ordered the nearest tribunes and centurions to point them to punishment.

After suppressing the resistance of the tribes in the north, he made his way along the Salo River towards the sources of the Tagus. In 194 BCE another leader, Scipion Nazyka finally defeated the Turdetans. The Celtybers, supported by the Lusitans, continued to resist. For the next 12 years, Rome’s only major success was its capture in 193-192 BCE. the lands of Karpetan and Oretans with a strike of two armies: one marching from the Ebro Valley and the other coming from the south. Later, the armies of the praetors of both provinces defeated the combined forces of the Celtybers and Lusitans in a major battle, outflanking the enemy with two groups of troops at the same time. In this clash, the auxiliary troops made up of the Spaniards contributed mainly to the success of the Romans.

Four years later, praetor Fulvius Flakkus defeated the Celtybers in a similar way when they invaded the lands of New Castile. In 179 BCE a concentric attack on this tribe was made by the forces of the army of the prime ministers Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Sp. Postumius Albinus. Gracchus marched from the southeast through the lands of what is now New Castile, and Postumius from the Guadiana River to the north. In this way, the Celtybers were attacked from two sides, which contributed to the surrender of these people. The Celtybers themselves asked for peace and had to pay tribute to the republic. This event became a prelude to reassuring all of Spain, thanks to which the Republic took control of the entire peninsula beyond the Atlantic coast.

The pacification of Spain was mainly due to the trust Gracchus secured among the local tribes. He himself founded a town called Grakchuris in the upper reaches of the Ebro, which was to become the centre of the romanization of this area.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Carry M., Scullard H.H., Dzieje Rzymu. Od czasów najdawniejszych do Konstantyna, Warszawa 1992
  • Goldsworthy A., In the Name of Rome. The men, who won the Roman Empire, London 2006

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