Modern reconstruction of the fortifications of Numantia, Spain (source:  Wikipedia commons).

By Periklis Deligiannis




Scipio realized that the Roman war effort should focus on Numantia, the center of the resistance. When he observed her strong walls, made of stone and plinths and supported by wooden towers and defensive obstacles in front of them, he understood that the fortress-city (rather a town according to the Greco-Roman standarts) which had repelled four Roman armies, could not be conquered by assaults and generally by an energetic siege. For this reason, he decided to cut her of the rest of Spain, surrounding her with a powerful ring of fortifications extending 10 km around the city. The Roman siege wall consisted of a wooden wall with towers in which ballistae and catapults were installed. There were also six legion camps embedded in the siege wall. In overall, 60-70,000 Romans would face a few thousands of Numantine defenders who were inside the town together with a few more thousands of non-combatants. The neighboring Celtiberian tribes did not help Numantia because of fear for the huge Roman army and mainly their envy for her growing power and influence. Once again, the typical Celtic discord was the strongest “weapon” of the Romans in their wars against any Celtic enemy.

The few Noumantine warriors tried on their own, with “suicide outputs” to burst the Roman wall and flee in the hinterland. They used flaming spears to burn the siege fortifications, but without success. Soon their food supplies were exhausted and the besieged faced despair. It was then that Retogenes, a brave warlord, managed with a few companions of his to cross the siege wall in the night by killing some Roman guards, and to reach the neighboring Arevaci kinsmen of Numantia. But the Arevaci refused to help the besieged, terrified by the presence of 60-70,000 Romans in their territory.
The famine and epidemics were ‘reaping’ the Numantini who were forced to cannibalism, eating their dead in order to survive. When they understood that there would be no salvation, the survivors opened the gates of their city and surrendered to the Romans. Fifty Numantine leaders were sent to Rome, where they graced Scipio’s Triumph and then were executed. The rest of the people were sold to slavery in order to cover some of the expenses of the campaign, and the city was burned (133 BC). It was the end of the war, although Thermantia, the other major Arevacian city, continued to resist for many years before capitulating. Finally Thermantia was destroyed as well by the Romans around 92 BC.
The statistics of the Roman losses demonstrate the ferocity of the 2nd Celtiberian war. Calculations based on Roman citizens censuses and to analogous estimates for the Italian allies (socii), denote that in the years 154-133 BC took place the largest loss of soldiers for Rome (Romans and socii) because of death, capture, desertion and other causes, in the long Roman history. Around 250-300,000 men perished in various fronts, of which most – more than 200,000 – were lost in the Iberian Peninsula. Of the latter, 150-200,000 are estimated to have been lost during the Second Celtiberian war, while the rest were lost simultaneously while fighting the Iberian and Turdetanian revolutionaries. By comparison, according to calculations of the author of this article, the Romans and their Italian allies had approximately 250,000 casualties during the First Punic War (264-241 BC), most of them drowned in shipwrecks, and about 200,000 casualties in the Second Punic war (218-201) mainly due to the overwhelming victories of Hannibal.
The peoples of Iberia succeeded in causing tremendous casualties to the Romans because they did not give any pitched battles against them: their strategic plan was to harass the invaders until exhaustion with continuous guerrilla warfare. The Spaniards were renowned mercenaries throughout the Mediterranean and were well aware of the capabilities of the armies of the region. Thus they understood that they had no chance against the legionaries who were excellently trained for pitched battles. But at the same time they knew how vulnerable their enemies were to guerilla warfare, not being accustomed to it. The Romans were trying to force their opponents to offer battle, but to no avail. The legions were confronting a “phantom enemy”.

Thereby the Roman senators and generally politico-military leaders had to use one of their usual tactics against undefeatable peoples or states: they were ‘squashing’ them using the unbearable weight of their numerous armies, unscrupulously ‘expending’ their own military manpower. But the price was higher for the peoples of the Iberian peninsula: in my point of view, their victims (dead, sold to slavery, and other) can be estimated at twice the Roman casualties, approximately around 400,000 people: men, women and children (about 10% of the population of the Peninsula which numbered 3-5,000,000 people). Most of these casualties were Celtiberians and Lusitani in which peoples the proportion of losses would obviously exceeded 20% of their population. Especially the Arevaci who lost both their large cities (Numantia and Thermantia) due to destruction by the Romans, but also several smaller towns, would had suffered an even greater bloodshed. Especially the destruction of Numantia proved to be the key event for the final Roman victory.

Iberian warriors

Warriors of Iberia in the era of the Celtiberian Wars. Each one of them carries a spear, a javelin, a falcata sword, an Iberian dagger and the larger version of the caetra, the characteristic Iberian shield. The first warrior (probably a Celtiberian) bears a local Spanish type of a Late Chalcidic/Attic helmet of Greek origin with an Italian-type plume. The second warrior (possibly an Iberian) bears a Celtic Montefortino helmet. Artwork by Sandra Delgado.

Some modern historians have rightly called the Iberian Peninsula as the “Vietnam of the Romans”. Another parallelism must be made in order to demonstrate the ‘eternal devotion’ of the Spanish and the Portuguese to guerilla warfare strategies, 2,000 years later. In 1808 the Spanish people began an epic struggle against the French, German and other soldiers of Napoleon I, when he made the mistake to behave as their conqueror and not as their ally as it was supposed that he was. In six years (1808-1814) the Spaniards and Portuguese, using the same ruthless guerrilla tactics as their Celtiberian, Lusitani and Iberian ancestors, caused 300,000 casualties to the Imperial French army of occupation. Moreover the Spanish terms guerilla (‘small war’) and guerillero were contrived in those stormy years and immediately passed to the English military vocabulary. In addition, Napoleon had to keep at different times in Spain between 200,000 and 350,000 of his valuable soldiers , an unstoppable “bleeding” for his now limited available military manpower in those difficult years for him. For these reasons, the French Napoleonic military involvement in Iberia is known as the “Spanish curse” or the “Spanish wound”. Analogically, during the Second Celtiberian war the Romans had to permanently keep 100,000 men in Iberia not counting the replacement of their casualties.
In 114 BC the Lusitani attempted to invade the territory of the Celtiberians but they were repulsed by them. In 99 BC the Celtiberians revolted against Rome and thus the Third Celtiberian war started, being actually just a series of limited conflicts and not a real war.
In 83 BC the Roman official Sertorius, a fanatic supporter of the Republican regime was sent to Spain as prefect. When he learned that Sulla (the leader of the patrician aristocracy) became dictator of Rome, he rebelled against his authority. Sertorius’ revolution united in its ranks Celtiberians, Lusitani and Iberians together with Oscan, Etruscan and Republican Roman colonists in Iberia. He managed to keep under his control much of the Peninsula, repelling the armies that Rome was ruthlessly sending against him; until 73 BC when he was murdered by an Romano-Etruscan comrade of his. Without their leader, the last Celtiberian and Lusitani rebels capitulated. The last free region of the Iberian Peninsula was her northwest corner, dwelled by the Vasconian, Cantabrian, Asturian and Callaecian (Gallaecian) tribes. The Emperor Augustus (Octavian) personally took on their subjugation in the years 26 to 18 BC, thus making the entire Peninsula Roman territory.
Periklis Deligiannis

(1) Polybius: HISTORIES
(2) CAMBRIDGE ANCIENT HISTORY, First edition, Cambridge, 1925-1930
(3) CAMBRIDGE ANCIENT HISTORY, vol. VI, New edition, Cambridge, 1994
(4) Dixon P.: THE IBERIANS OF SPAIN, Oxford University Press, London, 1940
(5) Trevino R. and McBride An.: ROME’S ENEMIES 4: SPANISH ARMIES, Osprey Publishing, London, 1986
(6) Hubert Henry: THE GREATNESS AND DECLINE OF THE CELTS, Constable, London, 1987