Quintus Sertorius: Rome’s Forgotten Rebel and the Sertorian War

Tenacious and courageous, Quintus Sertorius was a loyal Roman statesman and famed military strategist who bravely defied the Senate and ended up fighting the very Republic he swore to uphold. All but forgotten, this is the astonishing story of the most famous Roman rebel.

History Rulers
15 May 2023

Quintus Sertorius, an enigmatic and relentless figure, defied the odds and etched his name into Roman history as a champion of the oppressed and an exemplar of resistance against tyrannical rule. Rising from the equestrian ranks, he became an influential and pioneering military commander, statesman, and leader of a vast territory in opposition to the Roman Republic, rather than as part of it.

Overshadowed by the might of the Republic, General Sertorius carved out a vision of Rome and commanded an army which was victorious against the Roman troops sent to conquer him. Ultimately betrayed, Sertorius remains an inspiring figure in Roman history.

Rome During the Time of Quintus Sertorius

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Photo by: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

During Sertorius’ lifetime, the Roman Republic faced many political and social challenges. The government’s power was divided among the Senate, officials, and various groups. The Populares aimed to support everyday people’s concerns, while the Optimates wanted to preserve the upper class’s traditional benefits.

Military reforms were underway that shifted loyalty from the state to the generals. The rise of powerful and influential soldiers vying for supremacy – such as Lucius Sulla, Gaius Marius and later Julius Caesar – frequently resulted in civil wars and political upheaval.

It was this turbulent backdrop that influenced Sertorius’ life and career, setting the stage for his own rebellion against the Roman establishment.

The Early Life of Quintus Sertorius

Plutarch, Greek biographer and essayist (Photo by The Print Collector via Getty Images)

Like many of the historical figures from the second and first century BC, verified facts about the early life of Sertorius are hard to come by. Indeed much of what we know of Sertorius comes from the writings of Plutarch, who was born over half a century after the famous Roman rebel died.

Sertorius was born somewhere between 125 BC and 123 BC in the Sabine region of central Italy. He belonged to Equites Romani, an equestrian family, which was a social class just below the senatorial aristocracy. It’s believed his father died when he was a small boy and he was raised by his mother.

While he was still a teenager, he moved to Rome in an attempt to forge a career as a jurist and orator.

Sertorius the Soldier

Quintus Sertorius, Roman statesman and general (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

As with many Romans of his background at the time, Sertorius sought to distinguish himself with a military career. His first campaign was probably at the Battle of Arausio in 105 BC against the Germanic Cimbri and Teuton tribes. In 102 BC, he served under legendary Roman general Gaius Marius at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae. A year later, it’s likely he fought at the Battle of Vercellae, helping to once again defeat the Cimbri. Sertorius was reputed to have been a capable and courageous soldier.

In around 97 BC, Quintus Sertorius served as a military tribune in Hispania Ulterior covering much of modern-day southern Spain. In 91 BC he was elected as quaestor, an entry-level administrative role, in a region of northern Italy between the Apennines and the Alps known as Cisalpine Gaul.

The Social War: 91 BC – 88 BC

Fought between the Roman Republic and its Italian allies, who were fighting for Roman citizenship, the Social War ended with a compromise. During the conflict, Sertorius successfully defended the Roman colony of Suessa against rebel forces but lost an eye, an injury that earned him respect and sympathy.

The Civil War: 88 BC – 87 BC

Around 88 BC, General Sertorius (siding with Marius, a supporter of the Populares) ran for the position of Tribune of the Plebs, but was blocked by Sulla who was a supporter of the Optimates.

With Sulla away on campaign in the east, Marius seized control of Rome in 87 BC but died just a year later. After years of intense fighting, Sulla, fresh from victory against Pontic king Mithridates VI, returned to Rome and regained control of the city. He declared himself dictator in 82 BC.

Sertorius, a staunch opponent of Sulla, had been sent with an army to Spain, and now sought to fortify his control there against any Sullan forces.

Sertorius in Spain: The Famous Roman Rebel

Map of Hispania / Iberian Peninsula (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In Hispania, Sertorius was declared propraetor in around 82 BC. His time in Spain can be described as a period of rebellion, military success, and innovative governance that solidified his reputation as perhaps the most famous Roman rebel.

Having spent time in Spain the decade before as governor, Quintus Sertorius leveraged his previous experience and cultivated alliances with the native tribes, who saw him as a champion against the oppression of Rome.

He formed a de facto government, creating a parallel power structure imitating that of Rome in opposition to Sulla’s regime. Indeed he used his physical and political distance from Rome to begin what was supposed to be the concept of a viable and incredibly ambitious alternative. He set up a Roman-style Senate complete with elected officials, and the territory he ruled quickly became a welcome haven for those who opposed the dictatorial regime of Sulla. By many in the region he was considered a just and fair ruler.

Sertorius managed to hold and govern a vast territory, incorporating both Roman and local customs, however Sulla wasted no time in pursuing Sertorius. In 81 BC, Sulla’s army temporarily took control of Hispania and Sertorius fled to the north African state of Mauretania, parts of modern-day Algeria and Morocco.

Return From Exile

His self-imposed exile lasted around a year and he returned in 80 BC. His supporters included the Lusitani tribe, who were tired of the rule of Sulla’s legates, as well as a large number of Roman expatriates, deserters and refugees.

From a rag-tag militia, General Sertorius created a disciplined, organised army who were ready for what became known as the Sertorian War. Using first-class battlefield acumen and innovative guerilla warfare that capitalised on the region’s mountainous terrain, he put down several Roman incursions. Indeed it was reputed that the warriors under his command referred to him as ‘the new Hannibal.’

He even allied himself with Mithridates VI, king of Pontus, one of Rome’s most persistent enemies. This alliance further cemented his status as a famous Roman rebel and bolstered his resources in the ongoing conflict.

The Fall of Quintus Sertorius

The assassination of Quintus Sertorius (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

By the end of 77 BC, Sertorius was the de facto ruler of Hispania Ulterior. The Romans now sent Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius and the great general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey the Great, to quell the rebellion. Their initial brute force tactics failed, leading them to opt for a strategy of attrition. Over time, they sought to gradually wear down Sertorius’ forces and erode his territorial control.

For at least two years Sertorius kept the marauding Roman army at bay. However, by 74 BC, the army of General Sertorius were lacking morale after such a long and drawn-out campaign. They became more and more despondent, with internal divisions, the general’s brutality, and conspiracies adding to the overall decline. Sertorius resorted to increasingly harsh methods to maintain order. As he lost territory and the loyalty of his men, his popularity went with it.

In 72 BC, with the upper echelons of Sertorius’ domain growing jealous of his authority, he was invited to a banquet in his honour. There, he was murdered by his own soldiers, led by an aristocrat named Marcus Perperna Veiento, who was himself killed soon after by Pompey.

The murder of Sertorius not only ended his life but also ended the rebellion. Rome quickly regained control of Hispania.

The Legacy of Quintus Sertorius

Quintus Sertorius (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The abiding legacy of Quintus Sertorius is multi-faceted. He was an innovative military commander, a skilled diplomat, and a symbol of resistance against tyranny.

His influence facilitated the eventual integration of Hispania into the Roman Empire, shaping the region’s history for centuries, and he arguably inspired other rebels within the Roman Empire to challenge regimes and rise up against overbearing authorities.


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