Sertorius: The Greatest Roman Rebel

Alex Petkas

I once invited a senior colleague to come sit in on a lecture I was doing about Athenian democracy. I was new on the job and wanted some criticism. This was one of those large ‘Ancient History in 1 Semester’ courses, at a public university. I spent a fair bit of time telling a story about the Athenian reformer Cleisthenes, and the problems he was facing. I tried to make it spicy. I told of the gay lovers who assassinated one of Cleisthenes’ main competitors. A few students paused their online shoe shopping and looked up. Then I got to my favorite part – I put a map of the demes and tribes of Athens on a screen, and explained the different political interests of the men of the sea, hills, and plains, and Cleisthenes’ brilliant gerrymandering solution to bind them all together.

Shopping resumed.

My colleague gave me a lot of great helpful feedback and suggestions, among which was “too much narrative”. At the time, I heartily agreed. I think it was because I understood that Real Historians are supposed to focus on larger systems, groups, structures, institutions, and so on. Those are the actual objects of inquiry. Narratives are mainly there to be deconstructed. Right?

The Chronological Star of the World, launched in 1818 as “An Entertaining Game” for exploring world history according to fixed ideas of progression and regression (the final tile being the abolition of slavery at the centre) (J. Marshall, London).

I love systems and structures. But this approach to history partly explains why most Classicists could barely give you more than a sentence on Sertorius if you ambushed them at the water cooler. That’s how I used to be once, too. Then I read Plutarch’s Life of Sertorius – almost by accident, I should add, and only because someone decided to stuff this story into a perfectly good Penguin Classics edition I was using for another class.

I was frankly kind of annoyed to find this side character in there. He was taking up valuable real estate. “Makers of Rome”? Shouldn’t that volume have included other, more important Romans instead, Romans I could use to ‘teach’ my students something about, say, the plebians and patricians, or cultural appropriation, or some structure or other? People like Aemilius Paulus, or Poplicola, or even Flamininus?

The main virtue of Plutarch’s Life of Sertorius is that it is an amazing story. But it’s not “good to teach with”, and people rarely use it to “illustrate themes” in Roman History. Sertorius’ neglect by modern historians is so complete that it even infects Dan Carlin, a man who is usually game for thrilling digressions. He doesn’t even mention Sertorius in Death Throes of the Republic.

But Sertorius impressed me when I read his biography. And he also helped me to perceive some of the blind spots of our usual modern approaches to ancient history.

An eye-popping story for 1930s readers.

Sertorius (126–72 BC) came of age at the height of the Cimbrian Wars: as a young man he fought in one of the greatest Roman military disasters, the Battle of Arausio, in 105 BC. He swam across the Rhône with his armor and shield after the barbarians annihilated the Roman lines.

It was a time of conspicuous corruption and incompetence among the Roman elite. One talented general rose to power by promising to ‘drain the swamp’, as it were – Gaius Marius (157–86 BC). Marius was a ‘New Man’ (novus homo), the first in his family to enter the Senate. He cleaned up the Cimbri mess. Sertorius befriended Marius in the Cimbrian wars, became a mentee of his. They were both political outsiders – Sertorius was a Sabine from Nursia, the future birthplace of St Benedict.

As his influence increased, Marius encountered growing resistance from the entrenched elite, the so called optimates faction in the Senate. He built his career on provoking them. Marius ended up falling from grace after some of his followers were involved in a riot at the Capitol. (I’m not making this up). Some years later, he did return to influence, and fought with some success against rebellious Italian allies in the Social Wars (91–88 BC), as did Sertorius. After the Social Wars, Marius came at odds with Sulla (138–78 BC), the leading man in the optimates faction. Their quarrel provoked the first Roman Civil War.

The basic story is familiar to most students of Roman history: Sulla is elected consul, then given charge of a war with Mithridates of Pontus (135–63 BC). Through political alchemy, Marius gets Sulla stripped of his command, and tries to take charge of the war himself. Sulla marches against the city with his army, chases Marius shamefully out of town, and goes off to fight Mithridates; Marius returns to Rome to wreak bloody vengeance in Sulla’s absence, dying of old age soon afterwards.

The ‘head of Sulla’, maybe, not: a late-Augustan replica of an earlier prominent Roman, perhaps of the 2nd cent. BC (Glyptothek, Munich, Germany).

Sertorius was caught up in all this, rather unwillingly at times; nonetheless he fought with vigor on Marius’ side, on the so-called populares side. He believed in the principle of citizenship inclusivity, and in promoting men of merit over men of birth.

When Sulla came back from his war seeking personal revenge on Marius’ supporters, all hell broke loose in Italy. Rome faced a war on the scale of the contest with Hannibal 130 years earlier, only this time its own sons were fighting each other. The Marius faction lost. Sulla’s reprisals were brutal.

Sertorius escaped to Spain with a small force of new recruits. He was denied any hope of reconciliation. He decided that, instead of surrendering to face certain exile or execution, or else simply committing suicide the way some of his friends had done, he would mount a resistance. And so he built up and trained a network of native Spaniard allies. He trained them to fight in the Roman style, as well as with very un-Roman guerilla style tactics which proved devastating against regular Roman commanders sent to destroy him. Other Romans joined him.

Sertorius set up a rival senate, held elections for Quaestors and Praetors, and ended up holding out for ten years, from 82–72 BC, defeating general after general sent to destroy him – including Metellus Pius (128–63 BC), and a young Pompey the Great (106–48 BC).

Temple of Diana – a goddess dear to Sertorius – at Mérida, capital of the later Roman province of Lusitania (roughly occupying the area of modern Portugal).

Sertorius’ brilliant military exploits were celebrated by people like Frontinus (AD 40–103), the Roman imperial strategist, and much later Machiavelli (1469–1527). He was loved and feared by the natives and his Roman troops alike, and at several moments there seemed to be a good chance that he would take back Rome itself. But Sertorius was eventually assassinated by resentful aristocrat lieutenants within his own regime.

Sertorius was demonized by the senatorial historians who controlled the narrative at Rome after his death, until the historian Sallust (86–35 BC), a friend of Julius Caesar’s, decided to revive his legacy in his now fragmentary Histories. It is to Sallust that we owe the bulk of the material that Plutarch drew on in writing his Life of Sertorius, one of the most interesting and exciting – and tragic – biographies in the whole collection. Plutarch clearly inherited Sallust’s admiration for the man.

There is certainly a way to tell the story of Sertorius’ deeds in which the personality and choices of the man fade into the background – a systems-and-structures approach in which it seems like any number of people could and probably would have stepped up and done it. It might go like this:

Two Roman political factions came into conflict over the question of popular sovereignty. As in any ancient faction, ideology was far less important in determining membership than were economic interests and patronage networks. One faction was composed of elites who were better at mobilizing the support of recently enfranchised outsiders, and generally more willing to leverage the tribunician power to disrupt longer-standing patterns of elite influence and patronage. This faction lost the conflict. Its members rallied resistance in Spain, raising military support by exploiting discontent with the existing administrative system among formerly marginalized provincial elites. Race was a factor.

And so on.

It could be done better of course, and at greater length, with more footnotes. It might be a true story, and I daresay an interesting one – to a certain audience, in which I might include myself.

Quintus Sertorius and the horse tail, Gerard van Kuijl, 1683 (Gorcums Museum, Stadhuis Gorinchem, Netherlands). What cannot be mastered when it stands together, falls when it is taken little by little.

But Plutarch has given us a story that is more human and thus has wider appeal. It is more human not simply because it is more entertaining to hear about how Sertorius allied with pirates, tamed wild animals, and dug up giants’ bones in Africa. It is more human because it processes events through the perspective and interests of an individual who faces other individuals. The actors are highly personalized, they are courageous or cowardly, fight hard, make stupid choices, lie, cheat, and steal. Even the groups (the Senate, the Lusitanians) have a certain character to them.

Like any history undergrad, so too even this blog-writing robot could probably crank out a paper explaining to you how Plutarch is writing in the long-discredited style of ‘Great Man History’. And truth be known, I ended up not including Sertorius on the syllabus of my Roman History class. He didn’t fit the ‘narrative’ of the class I was putting together. (Now, that was just laziness on my part, because Sertorius can actually illustrate many interesting ‘structures’. He also did inspire me to start a new podcast, retelling Plutarch’s lives.)

The fight of Heracles and Antaeus, August Couder, 1819 (Rotonde d’Apollon, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France). Sertorius encountered the grave of Antaeus in Libya, and dug up his bones.

Exceptional individuals do exist, and with their free choices they drive history forward and backward. We all inhabit phenomenal worlds in which we are free to make choices, and those choices have consequences (read Immanuel Kant if you haven’t encountered this idea yet).

When an amazing story, of an individual of exceptional talent and character who kept fighting against all odds, rivets us to our seats – whether it is Sertorius, his parallel Greek counterpart Eumenes, or some other compelling ‘side character’ – then perhaps we should pay more attention to that very fact.

Why do we seem almost biologically inclined to focus on a compelling, person-driven narrative rather than a clear exposition of structures and systems? Could it be that our ancient brains instinctively perceive that such a narrative is somehow more useful?

Alex Petkas is a former professor of Classics. He is the host of The Cost of Glory, a new podcast retelling the Lives of Plutarch, with selections from the Moralia as well. Links to his work can be found at His previous essay for Antigone, on Homer’s Odyssey, can be read here.