Α Republican Roman centurion leads his legionaries through a storm of arrows. Artwork by Radu Oltean.
By Periklis Deligiannis
In the 4th century BC, the ethno-linguistic situation in the Iberian Peninsula (or simply called Iberia) was settled. Most likely, her area was shared by at least five ethno-linguistic groups. The three of them consisted of indigenous peoples of the Pre-Indo-European Mediterranean substrate: the Vasconian or Aquitanian group dwelled in the northern area, being the ancestors of the modern Basques. The Vascones belonged to the same group with the pre-Celtic Aquitani of southern Gaul. The southern part of the Peninsula belonged to the Tartessian group, with the Turdetani being its principal tribe and the River Ana (today Guadiana) being its northern border. The eastern Mediterranean coast of Spain was dwelled by the Iberian group. Some decades ago it was believed that the Vascones and the Tartessians were branches of the Iberians, but today it is almost certain that they were independent ethno-linguistic groups. This ‘misunderstanding’ was due to the Greek and Italian navigators/explorers who first came into contact with the Iberians. Because of this meeting they called “Iberia” the whole peninsula when in fact the Iberians were a rather limited part of the total population. In the mentioned period, the original Tartessian group was already divided to a Paleo-Tartessian and a Turdetanian subgroup.
The other two ethno-linguistic groups of the Peninsula were Indo-European: the Lusitani who were linguistically an Indo-European population but probably pre-Celtic, and the Celtiberians who were linguistically Celts. Some researchers believe that the Lusitani spoke proto-Celtic dialects originating from the local Urnfield Culture, older than the Celtiberian dialects (being q-Celtic, rather originating from the Hallstatt Era) but there are many objections to this view.
The Celtiberians (or to be more accurate, the Celtic populations) were dwelling in the central hinterland of the Peninsula (the Meseta), from the Guadiana River to the north Spanish coast. The Lusitani territory was in modern central Portuguese hinterland. The Celtiberians consisted of many independent tribes: the Celtiberians proper, the Carpetani, the Astures, the Cantabri, the Vaccaei and others. The Vettones who sometimes are considered to be a Celtiberian tribe, were rather close relatives of the Lusitani and spoke a language closely akin to Lusitanian. Even the Lusitani themselves are sometimes classified as Celtiberians (including their mention in the Latin sources) although ethnically they were much different from them, as it was stated. Indeed, Viriathus, the warlord of the Lusitani (see below) is also mentioned as the leader of the Celtiberians but he rather joined under his leadership the two peoples in an alliance against Rome. For this reason the 2nd Celtiberian War also includes the simultaneous conflicts between the Romans and the Lusitani. In fact, the war was fought in two fronts: the Lusitanian one and the Celtiberian one, not counting the other two fronts against the Iberian and the Turdetani rebels.
The Celtiberians proper were a confederation of four tribes, of which the Arevaci were the strongest. The capital of the confederacy was the Arevacian city of Numantia and after her destruction it was the city of Thermantia. It has been estimated that in the 3rd century BC, the entire Iberian peninsula had between 3,000,000 and 5,000,000 inhabitants (Cavaignac and others), but the regions of the Iberians and the Tartessians-Turdetani had a higher population density.
From the earlier times the Phoenicians and the Greeks had founded colonies on the Mediterranean coasts of Spain. The Carthaginians used the old Phoenician colonies as military bases to bring under their influence a number of indigenous tribes but the Celts and Lusitani of the hinterland remained outside that sphere. The peoples of Iberia had repeatedly sent many of their warriors as mercenaries in the Greek and Carthaginian armies of the 5th-3rd centuries BC and in the Roman armies of the 2nd-1st centuries BC. During the period 237-219 BC, the Carthaginian generals of the great Barca aristocratic family, namely Hamilcar, his son-in-law Hasdrubal, and his son Hannibal, brought the southern Celtiberian tribes under the family’s influence. Hannibal recruited tens of thousands of Iberians and Celtiberians for his renowned campaign in Italy. By 202 BC the Romans managed to expel the Carthaginians from the Peninsula, founding there two provinces: Hispania Citerior (Inner province, corresponding approximately to the territory of the Iberians) and Hispania Ulterior (Outer province, the old territory of Tartessus/Turdetani). The Celtic, Lusitani and Vasconian populations remained outside the Roman borders for the time being. Finally, the name Hispania (Spain) seems to have Canaanite (Phoenician) origins and meaning (maybe ‘the land of many rabbits’).
During the period 194-178 BC the Celtiberians helped the subdued Spaniards in their revolts against Rome, battling hard against her (First Celtiberian war). After a period of relative peace, the Second Celtiberian War broke out (154-133 BC), being one of the deadliest in Roman History. The Lusitani responded to the Roman aggression with raids on the Outer province, dragging with them a number of allied Celtiberian tribes. In the following year, the Romans besieged Numantia, already the center of the Celtiberian resistance. The city was strongly fortified, lying in the upper reaches of the Douro River. The Romans even used elephants for the siege which eventually resulted to a disaster for them. At the same time the Lusitani defeated the army of the proconsul Sulpicius Galba. Desperate by his defeat he used a shameful way in order to gain a success over them.
Galba promised the Lusitani that if they lay down their arms, he would resettle them in another fertile area of his province. Ten thousand Lusitani together with their families accepted the proposal falling into a fatal error: when they were disarmed, Galba ordered their slaughter. The proconsul was called back to the Roman Senate in order to account for his “crime” as the famous Cato correctly called it, but there he succeeded to be acquitted possibly bribing several Senators. Shortly before this incident, the Roman commander Lucullus attacked by surprise the town Cauca of the Vaccaei butchering all of its inhabitants. The Second Celtiberian war was evolving into a fight to the bitter end. The historian Polybius notes that the Romans marked this war as “merciless” because while the ordinary wars were judged by two or three pitched battles, the battles in Spain were going on throughout the day and stopped only with the sunset, to start at dawn again. Neither of the two rival sides allowed itself to fall behind or to retreat, and rarely the captives were kept alive.
Viriathus, the new leader of the Lusitani, brought the Romans to a condition of despair using guerrilla tactics. In 148 BC he crushed the Roman army of Outer Hispania, killing additionally the province’s prefect. For eight years he used the same strategy and tactics continuing to cause huge losses to the Romans, who were unable to cope with him until they chose the method that they used against their undefeated foes. They bribed some Lusitani traitors who murdered Viriathus (140 BC). In 138 the dispirited Lusitani laid down their arms although they remained rebellious for many years to come. In the front against the Celtiberians of the Meseta, the Romans suffered two more defeats under the walls of Numantia (141-140 BC). They were also defeated when they attacked Termantia (or Thermantia), the other strong Arevacian fortress-city. In 137 they suffered their fourth defeat by the Numantini and when they besieged Pallantia, the capital of the Vaccaei (in 136 BC) they experienced a military shatter. It has been quoted that the Vaccaei captured 20,000 legionaries while the Roman general Mancinus who lost the battle, was deposed by a wrathful Senate. However in my point of view, the figure of 20,000 Roman prisoners of war is rather excessive and it probably represents the original strength of Mancinus’ army. But actually, most of his men rather had been killed or captured. When Cornelius Scipio arrived in Spain to take over the leadership of the Roman troops, he found their men in a miserable condition, exhausted and desperate due to the constant failures. Many of them had deserted while the remaining had become unruly. Before Scipio started his campaigns against the Celtiberians, he reorganized and retrained his army for a year. He was really distinguished for his patience and methodicalness.
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