From the Archives - The Curious Fate of Gaius Vetilius
A Roman army first campaigned in the Iberian Peninsula during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.), to destroy the base that the Carthaginians had developed. This strategy worked, for the Romans ultimately triumphed over Carthage. But the Iberians were never quiet for long. It would take nearly two centuries before the last resistance was finally overcome, after numerous campaigns, enormous casualties, and many shattered reputations.
Although by the mid-second century B.C. the eastern and southern regions of Iberia had gradually come under Roman rule, the western region, Lusitania – modern Portugal – remained beyond Roman domination. And the Lusitanians liked to raid into Roman territory. So in 151 B.C., the Romans began a series of campaigns to subdue the region.
Of course, due to their peculiar military institutions, the Romans frequently changed commanders, often every year. In 147 B.C., it was the turn of the Praetor Gaius Vetilius to command in southern Spain, and to campaign against the Lusitanians.
In his Bellum Hispanicum the Greek historian Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165) tells of the humiliating fate that awaited Vetilius at the hands of the Lusitanians under their great Prince Viriathus.
Gaius Vetilius marched against them, bringing a new army from Rome and taking also the soldiers already in Spain, so that he had about 10,000 men. He fell upon their foragers, killed many of them, and forced the rest into a place where, if they stayed, they were in danger of famine, and if they came out would fall into the hands of the Romans. Being in these straits they sent messengers to Vetilius with olive-branches asking land for a dwelling place, and agreeing from that time on to obey the Romans in all things.
Vetilius promised to give them the land, and an agreement was nearly made to that effect when Viriathus . . . reminded them of the bad faith of the Romans, told them how the latter had often set upon them in violation of oaths, and how the Lusitanian army was composed of men who had escaped from the perjuries of [the previous Roman commanders] Galba and Lucullus. If they would obey him, Viriathus said, he would show them a safe retreat from this place.
Excited by the new hopes with which Viriathus inspired them, the Lusitanian chose him as their leader. He drew them up in line of battle as though he intended to fight, but gave them orders that when he should mount his horse they should scatter in every direction and make their way by different routes to the city of Tribola and there wait for him. Viriathus meanwhile ordered 1,000 select men to stay with him. These arrangements having been made, the warriors all fled as soon as Viriathus mounted his horse.
Seeing this, Vetilius was afraid to pursue the fugitives, who had scattered in so many different ways, but decided to join battle with Viriathus, who was standing there and apparently waiting a chance to attack. Viriathus, having very swift horses, harassed the Romans by attacking, then retreating, again standing still and again attacking, and thus consumed the whole of that day and the next dashing around on the same field. When Viriathus decided that the others had made good their escape, he too fled in the night, taking devious paths and arrived at Tribola with his nimble steeds, the Romans being unable to keep up with him due to the weight of their equipment, their ignorance of the roads, and the inferiority of their horses. Thus did Viriathus, in an unexpected way, rescue his army from a desperate situation. This feat, coming to the knowledge of the various tribes of that vicinity, brought him fame and many reinforcements from different quarters, and enabled him to wage war against the Romans for eight years. . . . .
Vetilius pursued Viriathus till he too arrived at Tribola. But Viriathus had laid an ambush in a dense thicket, and retreated until Vetilius was passing through the place, whereupon Viriathus turned, and those who were in ambush sprang up. On all sides they began killing the Romans, driving them over the cliffs and taking prisoners. Vetilius himself was taken prisoner, but the warrior who captured him, not knowing who his prisoner was, seeing only a fat, old man, and [thus worthless as a hostage or slave], slew him. Of the 10,000 Romans, 6,000 with difficulty made their way to the city of Tartessos [near Cadiz] on the seashore.