|"He carried on the war not for the sake of personal gain or power nor through anger, but for the sake of warlike deeds in themselves; hence he was accounted at once a lover of war and a master of war."
– Cassius Dio
Even before they were an ever-expanding empire hell-bent on world domination and the unconditional submission of anything they even remotely perceived as an enemy, the Romans were still pretty colossal jackasses. While this statement can confidently be broadly applied to almost every single dealing between the time that Romulus first suckled a she-wolf and when Mehmet the Conqueror's Turkish forces overran the last bastion of Constantinople nearly two millennia later, the Iberian peninsula is as good a place as any to focus on the good people of Latium and their crush-tastic propensity for violently ruining the lives of everyone in their general vicinity.
The whole mess started with a charming little African city called Carthage, and the fact that it's mere existence was enough to send the Roman senate into hysterical bouts of implacable, over-the-top Lou Ferrigno-style blood rages. Much like people didn't like Lou when he was angry, so was it with Rome, and over the years Rome and Carthage ended up embarking on some pretty epic murder-fests that left a large part of the Mediterranean either plundered, appendageless, or otherwise seriously jacked up beyond all recognition. The people of Rome were particularly upset when a Carthaginian general named Hannibal put together a huge army, stomped his way around southern Italy, and nearly demolished their entire civilization beneath the heels of a few thousand rampaging elephants, and when you're a classical-age warrior culture you tend to have a little bit of trouble getting over a little thing like that.
Carthage was eventually crushed, burned down, and urinated on, and the earth was salted so that no crops could ever grow there again, which more or less took care of that problem. After handling diplomatic relations with North Africa in a thoroughly Roman way, the powerful Latin consuls still hadn't satiated their kill-boners, so they decided to march into Hispania and extend their domination to the native peoples of the Iberian Peninsula – many of whom had lent their services to the afore-mentioned Hannibal and his murdergasmic marauding death force.
Well Spain and Portugal, and particularly a region known as Lusitania, weren't really down with getting their necks stomped on by the sandaled foot of Roman-style totalitarian domination, so they decided to pick up a bunch of shiv-tastic weapons and stab anybody foolish enough to get within appropriate kidney-shanking distance. The Roman commander Sulpicus Galba wasn't particularly interested in going toe-to-toe with these indigenous hardasses, so he approached the good people of Lusitania and offered them a deal – if they handed over their weapons and agreed to play nice, he would listen to their demands and try to work out a deal with them.
It doesn't take a political nuclear scientist to figure out what happened next. The Lusitanians, pumped up about the possibility of getting a sweet deal, showed up looking for a peace treaty, were immediately surrounded, and somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 men of military age were double-crossed the hell out of and executed on the spot in one giant horrific stab-fest of a bloodbath. The women and children who had come along for moral support were sold into slavery in Gaul and never heard from again. Uh, whoops. That's what you get for trying to deal with Rome, dumbasses.
Well you'd assume that having the entire core of the Lusitanian military exterminated in the time it takes a race horse to piss would have been a rather effective way of winning the war in one fell swoop, but the Romans didn't count on one thing – a particularly-intense assbeater named Viriathus had somehow escaped the ridiculous slaughter, retreated to the mountains of Iberia, and began plotting his ultra-bloody, Tarantino-style revenge.
Viriathus had started his life as a humble shepherd doing shepherdly things in backwoods Lusitania, but seeing that this career path wasn't a particularly vicious undertaking, he shifted gears and fell into a more exciting life consistint of copious amounts of good old-fashioned hardcore violent crime. For a while he was the leader of a gang of brigands and rogues who pillaged and plundered the countryside like a cross between Braveheart and Boyz in the Hood, but when he eventually got sick of harassing the good people of Iberia with fireballs and face-impalement he decided instead to start fashioning himself as a hardcore army general instead. This was significantly more in line with his career aspirations, most of which involved leading his soldiers to military victory and then moonwalking across battlefields strewn with the corpses of slain warriors - a strategy that everybody thought this was dope as hell.
In terms of being awesome, Viriathus was like the Ultimate Warrior circa the early days of Wrestlemania, back before he became crazy and super-religious for some reason. This phenomenal asskicker had grown up living off the land, traversing the wilderness, and doing other Bear Grylls-style shiz, and had become so hardcore that he rarely needed to eat or sleep or do pretty much any of the things that nowadays we consider basic life functions. He didn't suffer from extreme heat, cold, exhaustion, or hunger, always carried his weapons with him, slept in his armor, and never backed down from a fight, no matter how insane-o-matic it may be. As a war leader for the Lusitanians he had cleansed the land of robbers and rogues, and on more than one occasion he was credited as murdering "wild beasts" by choking them out with his bare hands like the bitches they were. In short, he kicked ass.
So when the Lusitanians decided they were going to seek inevitable vengeance for the wanton slaughter of their greatest warriors, you can be pretty damn sure Viriathus was in on the party. The small cadre of men who had escaped the murder-fest regrouped, cobbled together a makeshift army presumably comprised of every living man in Lusitania, and captured the town of Turditania. Why the hell you would want to conquer a place called Turditania is beyond me, but there you have it. Despite what he unfortunate name of the town would indicate regarding the overall quality of the municipality itself, the armies of Rome counter-attacked, fought the Lusitanians to a stalemate, and then offered peace. The Lusitanian leaders, dumbasses that they were, decided to accept the Roman offer, but Viriathus knew better. He got up in front of the army, reminded them of the double-cross that had happened just months before, and told the men that if they gave him a chance to lead he would shove the Legions directly up the consuls' collective assholes. This sounded like a much better plan than being murdered, and Viriathus was placed in charge of the assembled army.
Viriathus, assuming command of the Lusitanian force in their hour of most dire need, knew that he was kind of boned in the position he was in. So, like any good genius, he came up with a plan. Viriathus' forces lined up against the Romans, as though they were going to fight to the death in a battle they had no chance of winning, but as soon as Viriathus gave the signal the Lusitanians all started running off into the woods in every direction screaming like maniacs. The Romans, too disciplined to break ranks, watched as a couple thousand warriors dispersed every which way until all that was left was the Lusitanian commander and a battle-hardened force of 1,000 cavalrymen staring down a disproportionately-large assault force of 10,000 Roman legionaries.
The Romans let the Lusitanians escape, but decided they may as well wipe out Viriathus and his bodyguards while they still outnumbered him ten-to-one. The Roman commander ordered his men ahead, but in a battle that lasted the entire day Viriathus used hit-and-run tactics to outpace his assailants, drawing out the Roman army and single-handedly occupying them while his main body of soldiers escaped and regrouped to fight another day. When darkness fell, Viriathus and his men took off through an uncharted forest and rejoined the army at a pre-determined meeting point a few miles away. Sure, "you guys run for it while I cover you by getting the Romans to chase me around a field for eight hours" doesn't necessarily sound like the most badass tactic ever devised, but this single action would end up giving Viriathus a cadre of troops that would allow him to conduct a guerilla war against Rome that would last for nearly a decade.
From here on out, Viriathus would pretty much excel at making the armies of Rome look like a clusterhump of inept bumbling morons who gave themselves brain aneurysms while trying to remember how to tie on their own togas. When the Roman commander Vetilius came after Viriathus with an army of 10,000 men, the Lusitanian commander ambushed him while he was marching along a ravine, pushed half of the legionaries off the cliff onto some rocks, and executed Vetilius on the spot (they didn't realize who he was – they saw they'd captured some "fat old man", decided he was "worthless" and tossed him off the ledge with the rest of the chumps). The other half of Vetilius' army retreated to the city of Carpessus, reinforced themselves back to full strength, and marched out to avenge themselves against Viriathus, but we honestly have no idea what happened to this 10,000 man assault force, because they were never heard from again.
After working Vetilius over, Viriathus went on the offensive. He overran Carpetania, burned and looted Roman settlements, and pushed his armies deep into enemy territory. The Roman commander Caius Plautius came after him with two full legions and 1,300 horsemen, but was lured into a fake retreat, surrounded, and annihiliated by the Lusitanians. Viriathus took control of the region, ordered local farmers and ranchers to help him sustain the rebellion, and bitch-slapped anybody who didn't like it right in their face with an axe.
For the next eight years, the Romans tried everything the could possibly do to quell Viriathus' uncontrollable rage, but the "War of Fire" (as it came to be known) was little more than a parade of Roman commanders lining up waiting to be cold-cocked into mouth by the iron fist of Viriathus. Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, Claudius Unimanus, Quintus, Caius Marcius, and Servilanius all came out, one by one, fell for the "fake retreat" tactic, charged into traps where their armies were crushed, and ended up being either killed, demoted, or arrested for incompetence. When he wasn't making the highest-ranking officers in the Roman legions look like mouth-breathing retards, Viriathus enjoyed posting captured legionary battle standards outside his evil genius-style mountain fortress as a testament to his strength. The Romans eventually had enough of getting their heads cracked together like the Three Stooges and agreed to a peace treaty with the Lusitanians, formally declaring Viriathus an "ally of the Roman people". This title would be rescinded a year later, but hey, it was great while it lasted.
Now the Romans, who weren't exactly known for heaping praise on their enemies, had nothing but nice stuff to say about the Big V. Not only did this guy strike fear in the hearts of his enemies and establish the foundations for guerilla war as we know it today, but he always treated his men fairly, divided plunder according to merit and bravery rather than station, and commanded the respect and dedication of everyone who followed him. This guy was so selfless that even at his own wedding he refused presents of gold and silver, saying that wealth was worthless if you were being dominated by your enemies. All he wanted was to eat a huge hock of beef, drink some wine, and ride back to his mountain fortress with his new bride.
Well, I guess when I'm talking about "commanding the loyalty of his men", I should mention three notable exceptions. You see, eventually a Roman jacknut named Caepio took control of the legions in Hispania, and being somewhat less of a dumbass than his predecessors, this guy realized he had no chance to survive against Viriathus and his insanely-dedicated soldiers. So, being the good back-stabbing jackass that he was, Caepio just paid three of Viriathus' own men to stab the Lusitanian commander in the neck while he was sleeping. Of course, selling out your buddy rarely pays – Viriathus' friends had been promised riches and wealth in exchange for the throat-stabbing, but when they arrived at the Roman camp to collect their reward they were told point-blank, "Rome does not pay traitors who kill their chief." Burn! Caepio then returned home and received a Triumph for being a hero to his people and overwhelming Viriathus in what is apparently the only manner by which the Iberian leader could possibly have been defeated. Viriathus, the great hero of the Hispanian resistance, was burned on an awesome funeral pyre while mighty warriors sung songs and dirges in his honor. His successors wouldn't achieve nearly the same kind of success, and after an unsuccessful war the Lusitanians would eventually surrender to Roman rule.
Appian of Alexandria. The Roman History of Appian of Alexandria. Trans. Horace White. Loeb Classical Library, 1972.
Cassius Dio. Dio's Rome. Echo, 2008.
Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Trans. C.H. Oldfather. Loeb Classical Library, 1933.
Leighton, Robert Fowler. A History of Rome. Maynard, Merrill, & Co., 1901.
Long, George. Decline of the Roman Republic. Bell, 1864.
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