The Roman Conquest of Portugal

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Lusitani Scortamareva

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Lusitani Gestikapoinann

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Lusitani Ambakaro Epones

In the late third century BC, it must have seemed that if present-day Portugal was to be absorbed into a Mediterranean empire it would not be that of Rome, but Carthage. Already the Carthaginians had established control over much of the country’s south, and they had constructed at Carthago Nova (Cartagena) on the nearby coast of Murcia a major military centre. Rome was suspiciously watchful; but it made no effort to obstruct the Carthaginian moves, apparently accepting that Iberia fell within its arch-rival’s sphere of influence.

Rome was unwise to react so passively – for in 218 BC the Carthaginian general Hannibal used Carthago Nova as the base for an unprecedented surprise invasion across the Pyrenees and Alps into the plains of northern Italy, igniting the Second Punic War. His expedition recruited many Lusitanian and other peninsular mercenaries. The details of the epic struggle that followed do not particularly concern us here, except insofar as Rome’s response included a counter-invasion of Carthaginian Spain. After a hard-fought struggle, with many changes of fortune, Carthago Nova fell in 209 BC. Three years later, the Romans had expelled the Carthaginians from all their peninsular possessions.

Up till that point Roman involvement in the Iberian peninsula had been slight. But now, finding itself in occupation of the former Carthaginian conquests, Rome simply decided to stay, perhaps enticed by the rich mineral and agricultural resources of the region and the access it provided to cheap labour. By 197 BC, two Roman provinces had been created in Spain – Hispania Citerior (Nearer Spain), which consisted roughly of the Ebro valley, Valencia and Murcia, and Hispania Ulterior (Further Spain) comprising essentially Andalusia, but later extending west to the River Guadiana. Early Roman administration of these provinces was predatory: gold, silver and copper; wheat, wine and olives; recruits and slaves – all were siphoned off to Rome. The inevitable result was widespread discontent, then open revolt. Unsubdued peoples from western Iberia soon became involved, raiding Roman territory and in turn provoking punitive reaction. Gradually the Romans came to realise they could only enforce their authority by incorporating the rest of the peninsula into their empire.

Southern Portugal was then rather easily occupied sometime during the first half of the second century BC. This seems to have been achieved more by peaceful persuasion than military conquest, though the details remain obscure; for no contemporary accounts survive, and the archaeology is largely unexplored. The Conii in particular became Roman allies, while both the Algarve and Alentejo were effectively placed under Roman control probably well before 150 BC. However, the rugged interior between the Rivers Tagus and Mondego, and the mountain regions of the north, proved a very different proposition. Here the Romans met determined and prolonged resistance from the Lusitani, Callaeci and other people, and it took about 175 years before the whole country was subdued. Part of the struggle against the Lusitani is quite well known because it is described by Strabo and Appian. It probably began as early as 194-193 BC when a Roman army clashed with Lusitanian raiders returning home with booty after a pillaging expedition into Hispania Ulterior.

The Beiras, bisected by the forbidding granite massif of the Serra da Estrela, formed the inner homeland of the Lusitani. A hardy people living in fortified hilltop villages in the castro tradition, the Lusitani were primarily shepherds who also practised some small-scale agriculture. Their’s was a poor country, and so they had grown accustomed to raiding the more prosperous plains that surrounded them, as far afield as Andalusia. Mounted on nimble mountain horses, their wild and unkempt hair flowing, their round shields attached to their shoulders by thongs, and armed with dirk, javelin or bronze-tipped spear, they made an extraordinarily elusive and effective fighting force. Their leaders won respect from the Romans and forced their way into the Classical histories. The first individuals in Portugal whose names were recorded, and preserved for posterity albeit in Romanised form, are Lusitanian war-leaders of the mid- to late second century BC who appear in the pages of Strabo and Appian. Among them are Punicus who raided deep into Roman territory in 155 BC destroying and looting, Caesarus who inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman general Mummius in 153 BC, and Caucaenus who raided the Roman Algarve, captured Conistorgis (as yet unidentified) and even crossed the straits to pillage North Africa in 151 BC. Frustrated by his inability to subdue the Lusitanians by conventional campaigning, the Roman general Servius Galba tricked and massacred a large group of them under cover of negotiations in 150 BC. One of the few survivors of this killing-field was a young warrior named Viriatus. Embittered by Roman treachery, he would subsequently become the outstanding leader of Lusitanian resistance.

Viriatus is traditionally portrayed as a highland shepherd from the Serra da Estrela, but may have been a native of the Estremaduran lowlands. In any event, he was a guerrilla leader of exceptional ability who possessed the kind of charisma needed to inspire the Lusitani. For seven years, between 146 and 139 BC, he waged a bold and relentless war inflicting a series of humiliating defeats on the Romans, often with heavy casualties – until they finally procured his assassination through bribery. Viriatus has long been hailed as the first truly heroic figure in proto-Portuguese history. It is an image to which the highland peoples of his time may well have subscribed; but those living in the more settled and Romanised parts of southern Portugal and Andalusia, the frequent victims of Lusitanian raids, could hardly have shared it.

After the death of Viriatus, the determination of the Lusitani to take the war deep into enemy territory diminished, and their tactics became more defensive. In 138-137 BC, the Romans occupied the Tagus valley and campaigned along the coast as far north as Galicia. Little is known of events over the next half century, but it seems the Lusitani were contained rather than subdued, until in 80 BC the outbreak of civil war between rival Roman forces in Spain gave them an opportunity to reassert themselves. Quintus Sertorius, the governor of Hispania Citerior and a more than competent soldier, was associated with a group that had recently been ousted from power at Rome. He decided to attempt a comeback using his province as a base, and duly rebelled. Official armies were soon sent from Rome to deal with Sertorius; but many of the local natives, including the Lusitani, flocked to his standard. Fighting continued for eight years, much of it in Portugal; but gradually the rebel forces were worn down. Sertorius himself was murdered in 72 BC, after which his movement quickly collapsed.

The death of Sertorius marked the beginning of the end of serious resistance to Rome. Over the next few decades, especially during the successive governorships in Hispania Ulterior of Julius Caesar and Gnaius Pompeius (61-44 BC), most territory between the Tagus and the Douro was successfully occupied. Although intermittent resistance continued, the majority of the Lusitani submitted at this time, and in the war between Caesar and Pompeius that followed some of them served as mercenaries in the rival Roman armies. In the end persistent close contact with Roman affairs seems gradually to have brought the remaining Lusitani into the empire less by force of arms than by gradual acculturation. After that the only part of Portugal still outside the Roman fold was the mountainous north. This was dealt with by Augustus who arrived fresh from victory in the Roman civil wars and oversaw a series of systematic campaigns in the area in 24-19 BC. By the latter date Rome considered the conquest complete.

The extraordinary length of time it took the Romans to pacify northern Portugal can be attributed partly to its remote location at the far outer fringe of the then known world. Long and difficult communications confronted Roman armies operating in the more rugged parts of the country, and only when Roman bases had been constructed in or close to these areas, and permanent garrisons established, did the situation become manageable. The skill and determination of the Lusitani and other mountain peoples in conducting guerrilla-type warfare, and the outstanding qualities of some of their leaders, such as Viriatus, helped slow the conquest. Moreover, the Lusitani were sometimes able to take advantage of divisions and conflicts among the Roman invaders themselves. However, when the period of Rome’s civil wars eventually came to an end, and Augustus established his principate, the resistance of peoples like the Lusitani and Callaeci was quickly crushed.

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