Ancient History & Civilisation


The Romans had not fought the Hannibalic War to win Spain, but once having stepped into the shoes of Carthage, they intended to keep the spoils of victory. They had won only a small, but the most valuable, part of the whole Peninsula: the lower Ebro valley, the east coast and the Baetis valley. They then had to decide whether to disregard or to conquer the highland tribes of the interior, who had remained untouched by the Carthaginians apart from Hannibal’s lightning campaign; though the Romans ended by conquering them, they did not necessarily start with that intention. The desire for law and order on the frontiers and the need for further conquests to protect previous ones partly explains the long series of wars waged in Spain. But the rich resources of the land excited Rome’s cupidity at a time of exhaustion when she had to rally her strength to meet the demands of the eastern wars. So she began to exploit her new province, which naturally evoked increasing discontent among, and ultimate conflict with, the natives of the interior. These wars, which continued till 133 BC, were waged by both sides with much cruelty and treachery, albeit often with great courage, and brought to the surface many of the baser elements of the Roman character.8

Scipio Africanus had conquered Spain, not as a regular magistrate, but merely as a privatus on whom the Roman people had conferred proconsular imperium. His successors were nominated in a similar way (205–198). But Rome soon adapted her machinery of government and from 197 BC the annual number of praetors was raised from four to six; two were sent to Spain with proconsular rank, with twelve lictors in place of the six granted to their colleagues. Each administered one of the two separate provinces (Hispania Citerior and Ulterior) into which Spain was now divided in order to surmount the difficulty of maintaining communications throughout the land. Nearer Spain comprised the valley of the Ebro and the east coast to a point south of Cartagena; in the northern part the natives were unused to foreign rule. Further Spain consisted of the far richer Baetis valley south of the Sierra Morena, where the inhabitants had long been accustomed to a foreign yoke.

In general Rome took over the reins of government from Carthage, and the Spaniards who had at first welcomed the Romans as protectors soon found that they had merely exchanged masters. Special treaties were granted only to larger communities and to certain Phoenician and Greek towns such as Gades and Emporiae. The colony of Italica, founded by Scipio Africanus, retained its Roman citizenship, and in 171 a Latin colony was founded at Carteia. Communes and towns were encouraged at the expense of larger tribal units, while native chiefs were no doubt controlled. The Romans levied auxiliaries and imposed tribute in the form of a fixed tax (stipendium), not a tithe; this was paid partly in natural products, such as corn, but mostly in bullion or in coined money; to this end the natives were encouraged to mint silver and copper on a Roman monetary standard. But it was the extortion of the Roman governors, rather than the tribute itself, which galled the natives most and which opened a shameful page in the history of Roman provincial administration. As the Spaniards themselves in the sixteenth century fell on the riches of Mexico and Peru, so with like avarice and cruelty the Romans exploited their new Eldorado. Scipio Aemilianus at Numantia is reported to have levied 40,000 auxiliaries, while in ten years (206–197) 130,000 lb of silver and 4,000 lb of gold were transported to Rome. The result of this continued maladministration was that in 171 the first court to try cases of extortion (repetundae) was set up and in 149 it was established on a permanent basis.9

As a protest against Roman policy a vast insurrection swept through Spain in 197, starting in the south among the Turdetani; it included the Phoenician cities of Malaca and Sexi, which doubtless had suffered from Roman governors since even Rome’s ally, Gades, had to endure a Roman praefectus. The revolt spread rapidly over the central highlands to the north, where a praetor Tuditanus was defeated. In 196 Rome herself was too busy in Greece and Cisalpine Gaul to reinforce the Spanish praetors, who nevertheless won a success in Turdetania and probably brought the Phoenician coast towns to heel. In the following year it was decided to raise the legions in Spain to four (about 50,000 men, excluding native allies), by despatching a consular army under Cato. Though welcomed by the Greek settlement at Emporiae, he had to face a grave situation: in the north only the Ilergetes remained loyal. He took care to support his army from the land, remarking to the army contractors that ‘war feeds itself’, and then advanced against the enemy whom he defeated in battle. Consequently the rebellion in the north subsided enough to allow the praetor at Tarraco to join his colleague in the south where together they checked the less warlike Turdetani. When this tribe was strengthened by 10,000 Celtiberian mercenaries Cato himself marched south. Here he tried to buy over the Celtiberians and achieved little: a signal failure considering the size of his army. Marching back through the highlands he unsuccessfully attacked Segontia and Numantia, although he was not technically at war with the Celtiberians.10 This campaign consequently thus destroyed all hope of peace and ushered in the Celtiberian wars which lasted intermittently till 133; but perhaps open war was better than a state of peace under cover of which the Celtiberians could ravage Roman territory by serving other tribes as mercenaries. Returning down the Ebro, Cato pacified the restless mountain tribes of Catalonia, and after reorganizing the working of the mines there he led his army back to Rome to receive a triumph. His campaign benefited the treasury, but it did not crush the spirit of revolt; indeed the interest which attaches to his personality has led to the magnifying of his exploit. Valuable geographical knowledge of the Celtiberian theatre of war may have been gained, but what might not a Hannibal or a Scipio have accomplished with Cato’s forces?

The war continued, and even spread to the Lusitani (in southern Portugal) who were defeated by Scipio Nasica near Ilipa in 194. Then the Romans advanced from the south against the central highlands of Old Castile, subjugating the Oretani and Carpetani and capturing Toledo (193–192). Indecisive hostilities dragged on: for instance, Aemilius Paullus, who was defeated by the Lusitani in the Saltus Castulonensis in 190, retrieved the situation the next year. In 186 the Senate supplemented the inadequate forces by raising the number of legions in Spain to four, and maintained this strength till 179. Although the Roman praetors defeated the Lusitani, who were aided by the Celtiberi, in Carpetania in 185, they were reluctant to risk penetrating into the heart of the little-known districts of Lusitania and Celtiberia, notwithstanding their 40,000–50,000 men.

In 181 the Lusones, a Celtiberian tribe, tried to migrate into Carpetania. Their southward advance was checked at Aebura by Fulvius Flaccus, who after severely trouncing them in battle marched northwards, captured their capital, Contrebia, and took the district which the Romans called Celtiberia Citerior (i.e. south and east of the plateau of Almazan and the Sierra del Moncayo). The following year he started to attack Celtiberia Ulterior, but was recalled by the arrival of his successor, Ti. Sempronius Gracchus; while returning to the coast he was assailed in the Saltus Manlianus (Jalon valley) but turned the tables by winning a fresh victory. Meanwhile Gracchus advanced up the Ebro and snatched Caravis (north-west of Saragossa) from the clutches of the Celtiberians, against whom he planned a converging attack. His colleague, Postumius, assailed the Vaccaei in the west and then advanced along the upper Douro towards Celtiberia, while Gracchus himself penetrated up the Jalon valley from the east. After a victory near Contrebia Gracchus made a treaty with the southern Celtiberians, by which they furnished auxiliaries and tribute, while in Further Celtiberia the warlike Arevaci concluded a favourable alliance. Like the elder Scipio and Hasdrubal, but unlike so many other generals, Gracchus sought to win over the natives by sympathy rather than by force; and his name was long honoured in Spain for fair dealing and wise moderation. He even made some attempt to Romanize the conquered country by founding Graccuris on the Upper Ebro; later another town, Corduba, was established in southern Spain as a centre of Roman civilization (168 or 151). This First Celtiberian War (181–179) had resulted in the subjugation of the southern tribes and alliance with the northern. Comparative peace reigned for twenty-five years, so that Rome could devote herself to the Istri (178–177), the Sardinians (177–176) and above all to Perseus (172–168).

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