How Rome Crushed Numantia: 4 Crucial Events In the Numantine War
How Rome Crushed Numantia: 4 Crucial Events In the Numantine War

How Rome Crushed Numantia: 4 Crucial Events In the Numantine War

Patrick Lynch - June 11, 2017

Also known as the Third Celtiberian War, the Numantine War (143 – 133 BC) was a 10-year long conflict between Rome and the tribes near the River Ebro. Their enemies included the Lusones, Vettones, Vaccaei and the Arevaci. Technically speaking, the war began in 154 BC as the Second Celtiberian War, but this phase ended in 151 BC only to flare up again in 143 BC.

The aforementioned tribes were collectively known as the Celtiberians, and their first rebellion against Rome began in 181 BC and ended two years later. After the end of the Second Punic War in 201 BC, the Carthaginians had to cede control of its Spanish territories to Rome. This new province shared its border with the Celtiberians and confrontations between the two groups led to the First Celtiberian War in 181 BC.

Rome was victorious and signed various peace treaties to keep the region quiet for almost quarter of a century. However, in 154 BC, a Belli town called Segeda built a circuit of walls which angered the Romans and led to the Second Celtiberian War. Rome won again, but it didn’t take long for trouble to return. In 147 BC, the Lusitanian’s rebelled in the Virathic War and their leader, Viriathus, incited the Celtiberians to rebel once again in 143 BC.

How Rome Crushed Numantia: 4 Crucial Events In the Numantine War
Iberian Warriors. Pinterest

1 – Rome Is Almost Defeated (143 – 138 BC)

Viriathus was easily able to convince the Celtiberians to rebel because he enjoyed initial success in his own war. They broke into rebellion in 143 BC in a war that lasted for a decade and was mainly centered on Numantia. The location of the city made it difficult to penetrate as it was located on a hill at the junction of two rivers and surrounded by forest. The population of Numantia spread beyond its walls, and while their civilization was backward compared to the Romans, they did possess excellent iron weapons.

Rome was clearly intent on suppressing the enemy as soon as possible and sent several generals of varying degrees to competence to Numantia. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus was one of the better quality generals although he failed in his attempt to take the city by siege. He managed to conquer the Jalon Valley tribes and advanced north against the Vaccaei. It was a clever ploy as it helped cut off the enemy’s source of supplies in 142 BC.

However, all of his good work was undone by the ineptitude of his successor, Quintus Pompeius, who brought an army of 30,000 men to the walls of Numantia. Even though the city was only defended by 8,000 men, Pompeius failed miserably in the siege and was forced to retreat. After seeing his army dwindle by the day, the commander decided that Termantia was an easier target. Again, he failed in his mission to take the town and lost an estimated 700 men in the process according to Appian.

Pompeius turned his attention to the small town of Malia which he managed to take with the help of treachery. He then devised a plan to take Numantia; he wanted to change the course of the nearest river to the city to starve the population. Although it was a good idea, in theory, it didn’t work in practice as the Numantines harassed the Romans as they worked and killed hundreds of men as they dug trenches.

If Pompeius thought things couldn’t get any worse, he was mistaken. Counselors arrived from Rome with a group of raw, inexperienced recruits and ordered Pompeius to train and use them over the winter. The new recruits were unused to the climate and water of a new country. Add in the lack of shelter, and you had a recipe for disaster which came in the form of dysentery. The outbreak of the disease killed hundreds of men and weakened many more. The Romans endured further misery when a Numantine ambush killed hundreds of soldiers.

By now, Pompeius was fed up with the situation and expected to be replaced in spring. He feared punishment for his failures and attempted to make peace with the enemy to bring the war to a swift conclusion in 139 BC. The Numantines were open to the suggestion as they too had lost thousands of people to war and famine. Publicly, Pompeius ordered the Numantines to surrender, but privately, he negotiated entirely different terms. Eventually, they came to an agreement whereby the Numantines paid 30 talents of silver, hostages, deserters and prisoners. It appeared as if Pompeius would emerge with his reputation intact, but his plan was foiled at the last minute.

How Rome Crushed Numantia: 4 Crucial Events In the Numantine War
Roman Empire by 100 BC. Wikimedia Commons

2 – The War Resumes

The Numantines had just brought the last installment of silver when Pompeius’ successor, Marcus Popillius Laenus, arrived on the scene. Pompeius knew he would be in trouble if word of his secret deal got out, so he pretended to know nothing about any arrangement when Popillius arrived. The case was ultimately brought before the Roman Senate who decided that the war should continue. Pompeius kept the money paid by the Numantines although he would later face a court martial for his treachery. However, he escaped punishment for his actions.

Popillius attacked the Lusones, neighbors of the Numantines, soon after his arrival but failed to make any impact whatsoever during his year in command. In 138 BC, he was replaced by Hostilius Mancinus. Mancinus’ spell in charge was an utter disaster as he suffered a number of embarrassing defeats. After early setbacks, he panicked after hearing a false rumor that the Vaccaei and the Cantabri were about to join the war in favor of the Numantines. Mancinus ordered his men to flee the camp and they ended up in a desert at Nobilior.

The Numantines gleefully pounced on this blunder and surrounded the Roman camp. Mancinus agreed to terms of surrender and bound himself to the agreement by oath. The Roman Senate was understandably infuriated by yet more disgrace and sent Aemilius Lepidus to Spain to replace the incompetent Mancinus who returned to Rome to stand trial. He was followed to Italy by Numantine ambassadors.

Rather than wait for the Senate’s decision, Aemilius made a false accusation against the Vaccaei. He claimed they supplied the Numantines with provisions during the war and used the lie as a pretext to invade the tribe’s territory. Aemilius laid siege to the Vaccaei capital of Pallantia, and when messengers from Rome ordered him to stop, he refused. According to the commander, abandoning the war would be a signal to the rest of Spain to rise against Rome.

His siege ended in failure as the army ran out of provisions. Aemilius was stripped of command and received a financial penalty when he returned home. This disgrace is nothing compared to what happened to the unfortunate Mancinus. The Senate refused to ratify the terms outlined by Mancinus and sent the commander back to Numantia naked and with his hands tied behind his back. The Numantines refused to receive him. Calpurnius Piso was the next general sent to Spain, but instead of attacking Numantia, he plundered Pallantia and spent winter in a camp in Carpetanin. By now, the Roman people were sick of the war, so the Senate was compelled to act.

How Rome Crushed Numantia: 4 Crucial Events In the Numantine War
Numancia, by Alejo Vera Estaca, 1880. Zeteo Journal

3 – Rome Finally Gains a Foothold

Once again, it was the turn of Scipio Aemilianus to come to Rome’s rescue. He had previously commanded the Roman army with distinction and played a pivotal role in the victory over Carthage in the Third Punic War. The people elected him to the role of consul in 135 BC, and he was tasked with finally ending the carnage in Numantia. As was the case when he first became consul, Scipio was technically too young, but they waived the age limit for the second time.

As was his way, Scipio did things differently to the commanders before him. First of all, he didn’t take any army by levy since Rome was already exhausted by numerous wars in the previous decade. Instead, he took volunteers sent by Rome’s allies and added 500 men he handpicked. In total, Scipio brought 4,000 men to Spain and planned to supplement them with the existing Roman army in the region. The men Scipio had handpicked were trusted friends with total loyalty to him. In many ways, it was one of the first examples of a Praetorian Guard.

Scipio learned that the army in Spain had the same problem as it did during the Third Punic War; it suffered from a lack of discipline. Once he arrived, he removed soothsayers, traders, and harlots from the camp and whipped his men into fighting shape. He limited the army’s food choices to make it easier to transport goods and forbade his men from sleeping on beds. Always one to lead by example, Scipio was the first to sleep on straw. Finally, he forced his men to walk when marching and didn’t allow anyone to ride on mules.

Now that he had the trust and respect of the men, Scipio knew he had to weaken Numantia by blockade as he would be unable to take the city otherwise. He cut off the city’s supplies and succeeded where his predecessors had failed by taking Pallantia and Cauca for good measure. Scipio approached Numantia from the west and took supplies from the fields as he marched. He created a defensive palisade with seven camps strategically placed around the city. The 4,000 defenders at Numantia were surrounded by 60,000 enemies. Scipio was close to becoming Rome’s hero once again.

How Rome Crushed Numantia: 4 Crucial Events In the Numantine War
Ruins of Numantia. Great Names in History

4 – Scipio Closes the Show

Although Numantia was all but defeated, its inhabitants refused to surrender and so began a siege that lasted eight months in 134 BC. The defenders launched attacks on the Romans, but Scipio obsessively patrolled the perimeter of the blockade personally to ensure that no supplies or people could get in or out. Despite facing an iron ring, the Numantines continually sent small parties to try and break free. Meanwhile, people were dying in the city and supplies were practically non-existent. They were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive.

Eventually, a Numantine named Caraunius managed to kill Roman guards and break out of the city with five others. They rode to the towns of the Arevaci and begged for assistance against the Romans. Sadly for the Numantines, the Arevaci chiefs feared the Romans and sent the men away without giving their request a second thought. The wealthy town of Lutia, located around 55km from Numantia, had young inhabitants who sympathized with the besieged city but Lutia’s elders informed Scipio. He rode to the city, demanded that it gave up its traitors and Lutia complied. Around 400 men were sent to Scipio, so he cut off their hands and rode back to Numantia.

By now, the leader of Numantia, Avarus, realized the people would die if they did not surrender, so he requested an audience with Scipio and was accompanied by five ambassadors. He asked the Roman leader to show mercy and leniency if they surrendered. Scipio informed them that the city would have to surrender their weapons and place the city in his hands. Avarus returned with the news to the city, but the angry inhabitants accused him of collusion with the Romans and executed him and the five ambassadors.

Eventually, the city surrendered, but the majority of the survivors committed suicide rather than surrender to Rome. Without consulting the Senate, Scipio sold the rest of the Numantines into slavery after keeping 50 for himself and proceeded to burn the city to the ground in August 133 BC. It was remarkable that Numantia managed to keep Rome at bay for so long and it inflicted a number of embarrassing defeats on its much larger enemy. It took Rome’s best general and an army of 60,000 men to bring the conflict to an end finally. While it established Roman superiority in Spain, it also outlined the many weaknesses in the Roman army.

The Numantine War also showed that the Senate had failed to acknowledge the character of Spain. Attempting to conquer it with the sword proved a long and arduous process. The likes of Scipio Africanus, the Elder, Gracchus the Elder and Sertorius showed that sympathy and diplomacy was a better option. It wasn’t until the beginning of the First Century BC that the Roman army became a professional fighting unit with admirable discipline.