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Conquest of Asturias and Cantabras

(27-25 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Iberian infantry

As early as 27 BCE Octavian Augustus relinquished some power to the Senate. The long conquered and Romanized provinces were placed under patres, and the frontier provinces were henceforth to be supervised by a new Caesar, who vowed to bring order to the borders of the Empire.

Part of this policy was to complete the conquest of those lands that still resisted Rome. Such areas were the northern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, where the fighting tribes of Asturians and Cantabras remained beyond the reach of Roman authority.

Fights against them took place in 27-25 BCE. The Roman army was divided into three groups that followed different routes through the Cantabrian mountains. August himself writes about these fights at the end of his autobiography. Archaeology also provides some information. Excavations in the north of Spain have shown the existence of Roman camps dated to this period and confirmed the fact that tribal centres were heavily damaged and fought intensely around them. The goal of the Roman campaign was to capture the main mountain passages and fortify tribal headquarters. The campaign was marked by sieges and ambushes appropriate to mountainous terrain. Sources provide information about the legions surrounding one tribal centre by a 15-mile-long embankment.

The Asturians and Cantabras fought with determination – some stories describe besieged tribesmen who would rather commit suicide than capitulate. We also read about a case of informing the allies of the Romans about an unexpected attack by the enemy, which made it possible to send reinforcements to the threatened Roman troops and defeat the enemy. As before in Illyria, the Roman army, while marching through the passes and valleys, tried to occupy the adjacent hills. The transport of legions by sea was also used in the fighting – ships from Aquitaine with the landing of legionaries moored at the northern shores of the peninsula, and the soldiers, after disembarking, attacked the enemy already engaged in combat. The campaign was therefore a good opportunity to obtain promotions and awards by Roman officers and soldiers. As a reward for their standing on the battlefield, I and II Legion were given the nickname Augusta, and the mentioned II Legion was adopted as his combat sign the image of Capricorn, which is Octavian’s astrological symbol. However, the sources do not describe the fate of the latter during the fighting. It is known that an attack of disease that struck him in the first year of the campaign caused his headquarters to be moved to Tarragona, from where he watched the course of the fighting until its end.

After the victorious campaign, Octavian was greeted as emperor. However, he did not accept the triumph, because, as he himself said, he did not need it due to the many successes he had already achieved. The Roman losses in the campaign were large, as even an attack on a small but fortified village was associated with a high risk, and not every clash ended in a Roman victory. The end of the fighting in 25 BCE however, did not mean the end of the struggle with the Asturias and the Cantabras – war campaigns were still waged against them, only ended with a brutal and effective campaign of Agrippa in 19 BCE.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
Sources
  • Goldsworthy A. Augustus. From Revolutionary to Emperor, London 2015

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