Plutarch’s life of Sertorius

When Penguin Books published Rex Warner’s translation of six of Plautus’s biographies of Roman Republicans they titled the volume Fall of the Roman Republic. The six military and political leaders chosen were Marius (b.157 BC), Sulla (b.138 BC), Crassus (b.115 BC), Pompey (b.106 BC), Julius Caesar  (b.100 BC) and Cicero (b. 106 BC).

However, Plutarch wrote lives of several other key figures from the last century of the Roman Republic who I’m just as interested in as the Penguin six and, fortunately, a good translation of all the lives is available online. Hence this blog post devoted to Plutarch’s life of Quintus Sertorius (b.126 BC) and the following one about Lucius Licinius Lucullus (b.118 BC), neither of whom appear in the Penguin edition but, chronologically speaking, come between Sulla (b. 138) and Crassus (b.115).

Quintus Sertorius (126 to 73 BC)


Quintus Sertorius was a Roman general and statesman, famous to history because he led a large-scale and sustained rebellion against the Roman Senate on the Iberian peninsula.

Sertorius had been a prominent member of the populist faction of Cinna and Marius. During the later years of the civil war of 83 to 81 BC he was sent to recover the Iberian Peninsula but when his faction lost the war he was proscribed (outlawed) by the winner of the civil war, the dictator Sulla.

Supported by a majority of the native Iberian tribes, Sertorius skillfully used irregular warfare to repeatedly defeat a succession of commanders sent by Rome to subdue him. He was never decisively beaten on the battlefield and remained a thorn in the Senate’s side for nearly a decade until he was murdered by one of his own officers in 73 BC.

The life

This is one of the shorter lives, consisting of just 27 chapters. It starts with a relaxed bit of ruminative philosophising:

If the multitude of elements is unlimited, fortune has in the abundance of her material an ample provider of coincidences; but if, on the other hand, there is a limited number of elements from which events are interwoven, the same things must happen many times, being brought to pass by the same agencies. (1)

This is one iteration of the many, many classical and medieval expressions of the idea that time cycles through a fixed series of ages, or that the same events are repeated over and over.

Plutarch tells us how Sertorius served under Marius in the war against the Cimbria and Teutones in 105. He almost certainly fought at the great Battle of Aquae Sextiae in 102 in which the Teutones and the Ambrones were decisively defeated and at the Battle of Vercellae in 101 where the Cimbri were vanquished, thus ending the threat of a German invasion of Italy.

Sertorius had proved himself such a brave and resourceful officer that he was sent out as military tribune by Didius the praetor to Spain in 97. He was back in Rome when the Social War broke out in 91, was elected quaestor and served in Cisalpine Gaul, where he was in charge of recruiting and training legionaries. During this war he sustained a wound that cost him one of his eyes, a war wound he was forever proud of.

The conflict between Sulla and Marius reached a climax when Sulla marched on Rome in 88 BC and forced Marius and his supporters into exile, establishing his rule in Rome before setting off to war with Mithridates IV of Pontus. Cinna and Sertorius had been raising troops in the provinces and now, joined by Marius who had returned from exile in Libya, they promptly retook power in Rome in 87. Sertorius commanded one of Cinna’s divisions and fought a battle with troops loyal to Sulla commanded by Pompeius Strabo.

(5) Once in power Marius went mad with revenge, wreaking a bloodbath of his enemies. Sertorius abstained from the bloodshed and urged Marius and Cinna to moderation. After Marius’s death  in 86 BC Sertorius was instrumental in annihilating Marius’s slave army which had been terrorising Rome.

Marius’s death left Cinna in charge and he would rule for three years. Sulla knew all about this but pursued his was in the East and bided his time. In 84 he wound up his campaign in Greece and prepared to return to Italy. When Cinna travelled from Rome to a garrison on the eastern coast he was murdered by his own troops, who mutinied rather than cross the Adriatic to fight Sulla in Greece.

Sulla proceeded to land his army in Italy and open civil war broke out between him and the army sent by the Senate to stop him. This was led by the consul Scipio Asiaticus and Sertorius served in it, but was powerless to stop a) Scipio opening negotiations with Sulla rather than fighting him and then b) most of Scipio’s army going over to Sulla without a fight (6).

Sertorius survived the establishment of Sulla’s rule and was sent back to Spain. However, despiter their defeat, he remained loyal to the remnants of the Cinna-Marian party and their cause.

Roman Spain was divided into two provinces, Hispania Ulterior and Hispania Citerior. The sitting governor Gaius Valerius Flaccus didn’t at first recognise Sertorius’s authority but he had come with an army and soon assumed command. He won popularity with the natives by reducing taxes but the authorities in Rome realised they had a rebel on their hands.

Here the narrative turns into a boy’s own adventure, with much shipwrecking and sailing to and from, first the Balearic islands, then North Africa, fighting minor wars (7 to 9).

The Lusitanians, who lived west of Roman province, impressed by Sertorius’s victories in Africa, asked him to be their leader and he agreed (10). Sertorius slowly recruited a mishmash of Lusitanians, Celtiberian and north African warriors who he moulded into a fighting force and took back to mainland Spain to resist the series of armies Rome sent against him.

Sertorius held the initiative as long as Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, the proconsul Rome had sent to defeat him, was his main adversary, for Metellus was trained in traditional warfare and tactics and was driven to his wits’ end by Sertorius’s unconventional guerrilla warfare (12).

But in 76 BC Rome sent young Pompey, aged 30 (15). Initially, to everyone’s surprise, Sertorius defeated him at the battle of Lauron (18). In 75 Pompey defeated Sertorius’ legates Herrenius and Perpenna in the Battle of Valentia and Metellus defeated Hirtuleius at the Battle of Italica. Sertorius counter-attacked by defeating and nearly capturing Pompey at the Battle of Sucro (19).

Sertorius then contacted Metellus and Pompey and said he would relinquish his command if he could be guaranteed safe passage back to Rome to live as a simple citizen (22).

Sertorius was in touch with King Mithridates, who was resuming an aggressive policy in Asia, now that Sulla had left. Plutarch devotes two chapters to a detailed description of their negotiations in which, basically, Sertorius agreed to send a general and troops to help Mithridates, in return for ships and silver, but only so long as Mithridates attacked other kingdoms and not the provinces rightfully belonging to Rome. I.e. even in his rebellion against the Roman authorities, Sertorius remained a Roman patriot.

But conspiracy was spreading among his high-ranking Roman supporters. Sertorius was assassinated at a feast given by Marcus Perpenna Veiento in autumn 73 BC (26). Perpenna planned to take over Sertorius’s army and bargain with Rome from a position of power but many of the patchwork of allies melted away or made a separate peace with Pompey.

Perpenna led the remnants of Sertorius’s army against Pompey in a final battle where it was massacred. Perpernna pleaded for his life, offering to give Pompey all of Sertorius’ correspondence, which would document contacts with the highest levels of Roman government and society. Pompey indicated he would accept the papers and, when they had all been gathered together, he burned them to avert another civil war. (Pompey made a number of decisions like this which earn him your respect.) He then executed Perpernna and all of the men who had murdered Sertorius (27).

Two anecdotes

Plutarch tells a vivid anecdote which is more characteristic of his own way of thinking and prioritising anecdote over morality. His undisciplined barbarians were gagging to have a crack at the latest Roman army to arrive but Sertorius knew they’d take a hammering. Eventually he let some of them make an attack which was swiftly crushed by the Romans, and he helped the survivors straggle back to his camp. Here he set them a lesson for the illiterate:

So after a few days he called a general assembly and introduced before it two horses, one utterly weak and already quite old, the other large-sized and strong, with a tail that was astonishing for the thickness and beauty of its hair. By the side of the feeble horse stood a man who was tall and robust, and by the side of the power­ful horse another man, small and of a contemptible appearance. At a signal given them, the strong man seized the tail of his horse with both hands and tried to pull it towards him with all his might, as though he would tear it off; but the weak man began to pluck out the hairs in the tail of the strong horse one by one. The strong man gave himself no end of trouble to no purpose, made the spectators laugh a good deal, and then gave up his attempt; but the weak man, in a trice and with no trouble, stripped his horse’s tail of its hair. Then Sertorius rose up and said: “Ye see, men of my allies, that perseverance is more efficacious than violence, and that many things which cannot be mastered when they stand together yield when one masters them little by little. For irresistible is the force of continuity, by virtue of which advancing Time subdues and captures every power; and Time is a kindly ally for all who act as diligent attendants upon opportunity, but a most bitter enemy for all who urge matters on unseasonably.”​ By contriving from time to time such exhortations for the Barbarians, Sertorius taught them to watch for their opportunities. (16)

This story became very well known and was the subject of paintings by great Renaissance artists including Hans Holbein the Younger and Gerard van der Kuijl.

The other one concerns Sertorius’s love for and use of a white doe. A local named Spanus came across a doe trying to escape from hunters. He caught it and took it to Sertorius who was known to reward gifts of game. Sertorius kept it, tamed it and realised he could use it as a propaganda tool. He announced that the white doe had been sent by the goddess Diana who revealed secret information through it. When he heard intelligence about nearby Roman troop movements he would claim the goddess had told him via the doe. When his commanders sent him messages of victory, he would hide the messenger and bring out the white fawn wearing celebratory garlands (11).

These are vivid anecdotes and images which have stuck in the minds of readers and inspired later artists. Compare and contrast with a typical slice of the characterological analysis which Warner and others claim as Plutarch’s main achievement:

It is said that Sertorius was no easy victim either of pleasure or of fear, but that he was naturally unterrified in the face of danger, and bore prosperity with moderation; in straightforward fighting he was as bold as any commander of his time, while in all military activities demanding stealth and the power to seize an advantage in securing strong positions or in crossing rivers, where speed, deceit, and, if necessary, falsehood are required, he was an expert of the highest ability.

Moreover, while he showed himself generous in rewarding deeds of valour, he used moderation in punishing transgressions. And yet, in the last part of his life, the savage and vindictive treatment which he bestowed upon his hostages​ would seem to show that his mildness was not natural to him, but was worn as a garment, from calculation, as necessity required.

In my opinion, however, a virtue that is sincere and based upon reason can never by any fortune be converted into its opposite, although it is true that excellent principles and natures, when impaired by great and undeserved calamities, may possibly change their character as the guiding genius changes. And this, I think, was the case with Sertorius when fortune at last began to forsake him; as his cause grew hopeless he became harsh toward those who did him wrong.

Not untrue, maybe, but boring.

The overall impression left by the life of Sertorius is a world of quite horrifying violence: first, the bloody civil wars in Rome; then the flurry of complex little conflicts in the Balearic islands and North Africa; then six years of sustained guerrilla warfare in Spain, with massacres, burning towns to the ground and selling entire populations into slavery (as happened to the town of Castulo, 3: ‘Therefore most of the inhabitants were slaughtered by the Romans at the gate; the rest surrendered and were sold into slavery.’)

Tempting though it is to be charmed by Plutarch’s relaxed narrative voice and vivid anecdotes, I think a sensitive reader ought to be horrified by a world dominated by universal insecurity, extreme violence and the arbitrary power of military rulers in which human life isn’t even cheap, it barely has any value at all.

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