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A lesson for the powerful bullies in the world.
10 July 2020 @ 23:07

They say that the victor writes history, and that is certainly true with the Romans. The Celtiberian War, which began in 179 BCE, is seldom mentioned in the stories of noble Rome. That’s because there is nothing noble about it. In fact, it reads more like one of the adventures of Asterix the Gaul. There are few paintings of this occupation until the last chapter, when everybody jumped on the bandwagon and painted heroic pictures. But let’s take it one war at a time.

Around 200 BCE, Iberia was populated by the Celtiberians, who had divided themselves into numerous tribes. The Romans had invaded and controlled the eastern side of Iberia, leaving the majority of the country to rule itself. After the Punic wars against Carthage, and Hannibal and his sons in particular, Iberia was considered an easy posting. In fact, Scipio Africanus, the general who defeated Hannibal, built a city for his troops which in modern times would be considered a retirement complex.  The city, called Italica, was near to the city of Hispalis. (Seville) and boasted the third largest amphitheatre in the Roman world, seating 25,000 people. Italica is more famous for two of its sons, but we will come to them later on in the story.

For Roman convenience, the east of Iberia was divided into two costal slices; Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior. The trouble began at the northern end of Hispania Citerior, when the local tribes took offence at their Roman overlords. The five tribes involved were the Pellendones, the Arevaci, the Lusones, the Titti and the Belli, though the Tittis and the Bellis seem to have been more predominant than the rest.

I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not making this up.

Anyway, the Praetor for Hispania Citerior, Flintus Fluvious Flaccus, had seen the warning signs early, and asked Rome for reinforcements. The Celtiberians had raised an army of 35,000 men. A daunting foe, but one that Flavius knew were unschooled in warfare. Even after he had toured neighbouring tribes to gain support, Flaccus was still outnumbered. Nevertheless, Flaccus drew his army up outside the camp of the Celtiberians, and for four days they stood and looked at each other. Neither side would commit to battle.

This was not how Rome conducted its affairs, so under cover of night, Flaccus arranged his troops into tactical displacements and at dawn he engaged the Celtiberians with a frontal attack followed by a feint retreat. He drew the Celts away from their camp and Roman troops then attacked from behind the camp, killing the unsuspecting defenders. The Celtiberian army was now trapped between two Roman forces, and with the efficiency that is normally associated with the Romans, they mercilessly cut them down. Twenty three thousand died with 4,700 taken prisoner. Despite this setback, the Celtiberians were not done with Flaccus and they made plans to lure the praetor into a narrow pass where they had set a trap.

  Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus

Unknown to the Celts, Flaccus was shortly to be relieved and take half his men back to Rome. He was called in to disband his army and divide them up. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a grandson of the famous Scipio Africanus, who had defeated Hannibal, was Flaccus’s replacement and had new orders from the senate. The two Roman provinces of Hispania Ulterior and Hispania Citerior were to unite their armies and pursue a war against the Celt tribes together. Flaccus was to stay on and command of a mix of his own veterans and new troops from Rome.

The Celts had seen Flaccus leave, and assumed that he had discovered the trap and retreated, so they reinforced the troops controlling the pass, and increased their attacks on Roman outposts and sympathisers. When the unsuspecting Flaccus returned to continue his original mission, he entered the pass and the Celts fell upon his column. It was a very close run battle, but The Celts lost 17,000 men with 4,000 captured to the loss of 4,500 Roman troops. The Celts were outclassed in battle tactics, and were learning their lessons the hard way, but the rebel tribes had caught the attention of Rome now, and the two provinces had been reinforced with 8,000 infantry plus 7,000 cavalry. Lucius Postumius Albinus was praetor of the southern province, which had seen little trouble, and Gracchus had been given the freedom to draw upon the troops of Albinus should he need them in the north.

Gracchus now pressed north into the heartlands of the Celtiberians, taking the city of Munda in a surprise night attack, and burning the countryside around it. He left a garrison, and pressed on to the fortified town of Certima, where the Celts had withdrawn inside the walls. Graccus encircled the town and began to assemble his siege engines when a delegation from the town asked to speak with the praetor.

The elders of Certima explained that they were prepared to fight to the death, but before they made such a final decision they wanted a second opinion from their friends in the neighbouring city called Alce. A bemused Gracchus agreed, and a few days later the enlarged group of elders returned. They sat before him and asked for a drink, which he supplied. They asked for a second drink and the Roman soldiers around Gracchus burst out laughing. Undeterred, the Celt leaders solemnly asked Gracchus by what means did he intend to take their towns. Gracchus ordered his army to don their armour and parade past the gates of Alce.

To the amusement of the Romans, the elders of Certima surrendered their city and were obliged to give forty of their nobles to serve with the Roman troops. The praetor pressed on to Alce where Thurru, the greatest Celtiberian leader, had decided to make a stand. Gracchus ordered the building of a fortified camp for his men near to Alce and sent out skirmishing parties to harass the Celts. It took days of taunting attacks before they were drawn out to battle and Gracchus ordered his men to fall back to their camp and let the Celts follow them. His legions surged out from their camp and slaughtered over 9,000 Celts. The city of Alce firmly closed its gates once more.

Gracchus toured the surrounding lands, capturing over a hundred villages before he returned to Alce and began assembling his siege engines once more. Thurru wisely asked for surrender terms and offered to work with the Romans to control his lands. From then, on many of the Celt towns and cities offered to work with Gracchus, and he began a period of establishing reasonable laws and treaties with the Celtiberians. By 170 BCE, Gracchus had formed good relations with the tribes and he negotiated deals that were beneficial to both Rome and the Celts. 

The peace was fragile however, and frequent uprisings kept the Roman occupiers of Iberia busy. In 153 BCE the overseers of northern Spain became suspicious of further dissent when Segada, home to the Belli tribe, persuaded neighbouring towns to move into their walled city. The Belli were the strongest tribe in the area around modern Zaragoza, and when the whole of the neighbouring Titti tribe also joined them in adding to the fortifications of their city, the Romans became alarmed. Twenty years earlier, Gracchus had forged agreements with all the tribes that forbade the establishment of new towns. The Romans raised objections to the new fortifications

In what started off sounding like an entirely reasonable planning application, the Belli argued that Gracchus had not forbidden the enlargement of old towns, only the building of new ones, and therefore they were within the law. Letters went to Rome with the tribe’s request to build a fortified wall seventeen miles long around their town’s perimeter.

The answer came back that the building of a fortified wall was forbidden, and that the Belli would have to incorporate barracks for a contingent of the Roman army within their new enlarged town. They also were required to pay a tribute to Rome for the bigger city.

The elders of the tribes dictated another letter, pointing out that their treaty with Gracchus had released them from needing to have a Roman barracks in their city and paying tribute. They even had the paperwork to prove it. 

Rome responded by the next post. Yes, they admitted, the senate had agreed to suspend the paying of tribute to Rome, but the suspension was at the discretion of Rome, and could be revoked at any time. Whilst the Belli and Titti considered their response, the exasperated senate dispatched a new praetor, Quintus Fabius Nobilitor, who arrived in Hispania with a force of nearly 30,000 men to discuss their planning application in person.

Segada’s defending wall had not been finished when Nobilitor arrived, and the population of the city wisely fled to the neighbouring Arevachi tribe. Nobilitor followed them with his army and was led into a prepared ambush in a thick forest where the Celts had hidden a force of 20,000 foot-soldiers and 500 cavalry. The Romans lost 6,000 men in a single day.

The Arevachi and their allied tribes fell back and re-formed near a town called Numantia, (Seven kilometers north of today’s Soria, on a hill known as Cerro de la Muela, near Garray.) Nobilitor arrived three days later, and encamped four kilometres from the town. He was joined by 300 cavalry and ten elephants sent by Masinissa, the king of Numidia, a Roman ally in Africa. The sight of the elephants frightened the Celts, who had never seen these animals before. They fled inside the town, but after watching the huge beasts from a distance, they realised that they were just a domesticated animal like a horse or cow. Nobilitor planned his attack and drew his forces into battle formation.

The Numantines had catapults and began firing rocks into the Roman ranks as they advanced with their elephants in the lead. One of the missiles hit one of the poor beasts, which bellowed and reared out of control, trampling the close ranks of soldiers around it. The other elephants saw their companion run amok and panicked, too, scattering the Roman army. The attack had turned into a rout, and the Numantines rode out and killed 4,000 Romans and three elephants. Nobilitor reeled and fell back. Having lost a third of his army within a few weeks, he decided that a frontal attack on Numantia was too dangerous.

His spies told him that the Numantine grain and food supplies were stored nearby in the town of Axinium. He attacked in force, but the Celtiberians had anticipated his attack, and were ready. He lost thousands more men and gained nothing. He returned to his camp to re-group his depleted army. The successes of the Arevachi had infected the surrounding subjugated tribes, and their towns began to defect to their Celtiberian brothers. One of them was, Ocilis, (Now known as Medinaceli in the modern province of Soria). This was the Roman provisions centre for the district, and Nobilitor found himself isolated without provisions. He was forced to withdraw to his winter camp, where lack of food and heavy frosts followed by snowstorms killed thousands more of his men.

Rome suddenly realised that it had a real problem in Iberia.

I know that I have treated the history of the Roman occupation of Iberia a little lightly, but you have to admit that this doesn’t read like the usual epic of Roman conquest. Later on it becomes much more serious. This blog as about writing and art, and both are combined in the comics of the Asterix series, one of the most popular Franco-Belgian comics in the world, with the series being translated into 111 languages and dialects as of 2009.

The success of the series has led to the adaptation of its books into 13 films: nine animated, and four live action, one of which, Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, was a major box office success in France. There have also been a number of games based on the characters, and a theme park near Paris, Parc Astérix. The very first French satellite, Astérix, launched in 1965, was also named after the comic character. As of 2017, 370 million copies of Asterix books have been sold worldwide, with co-creators René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo being France's best-selling authors abroad.

To see the whole picture of Spain’s many invaders go to   


Like 0


Flynnysnr said:
18 July 2020 @ 12:01

Wow that was fascinating please tell us more.

animate said:
19 July 2020 @ 00:44

Thank you, Flynnysnr.
It just get's worse 'till the final verse. That's when all the poets and artists glorify both Rome and Numantia with equal relish.

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