Cato in Spain: The Year 195 BCE

(photo: Uploadalt/British Museum).


  • The consul Marcus Porcius Cato is sent to Nearer Spain to quell the rebellion there;
  • The Lex Oppia, a sumptuary law from the Second Punic War, is abolished;
  • The consul Lucius Valerius Flaccus defeats the Boii;
  • Cato wins a hard-fought, but decisive victory over an Iberian army at the Battle of Emporiae;
  • Cato subjugates all of Spain north of the river Ebro;
  • Cato aids the praetors Publius Manlius and Appius Claudius Nero in Further Spain;
  • Cato defeats the last opposition in Nearer Spain and begins organising the iron and silver mines;
  • Hannibal Barcas is shophet in Carthage; the Romans accuse him of conspiring with King Antiochos III against Rome;
  • Hannibal flees to Tyre and later joins King Antiochos;
  • After the Romans declare war on the Spartan tyrant Nabis, the proconsul Titus Quinctius Flamininus marches into Spartan territory; the Achaean League and King Philippos of Macedonia send troops to aid him;
  • Lucius Quinctius forces the Spartan port of Gytheion to surrender;
  • Flamininus lays siege to Sparta; the Spartans ultimately accept the harsh Roman peace terms.

When new consuls had been elected, the Senate decided that one of them had to be sent to Hispania Citerior, where a major rebellion had erupted. The new consuls, Lucius Valerius Flaccus and Marcus Porcius Cato drew lots, and Nearer Spain was allotted to Cato, while Flaccus was given Italy as his province. It is probably wrong to assume that the situation in Spain was dire and that Roman rule there was on the verge of collapse. The defeat and death of the propraetor Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus the previous year and the annihilation of his army had been a shock for Rome, but other commanders had won a steady stream of victories. Marcus Helvius (praetor of Further Spain in 197 BCE) and Quintus Minucius (praetor of Nearer Spain in 196 BCE) had both been successful on the battlefield, and upon their return to Rome they were granted an ovatio and a full triumph respectively.

The biggest problem seems to have been that these victories did not end the rebellions, nor stopped them from spreading. Foreign rule in Spain had always relied on strong personal relationships between the tribes and individual generals. The Scipios had fostered these ties, and so had the Carthaginian Barcids before them. Roman rule as such was, however, not accepted by many of the tribes of the peninsula. The praetors sent to Spain could defeat tribal armies, but their numbers – a typical army led by a praetor was just 10.000 men strong – were not large enough to control all of Further and Nearer Spain and be everywhere at the same time to protect the tribes loyal to Rome. It was against this background that the Senate decided that a consul needed to take charge of affairs in Spain and use both force and diplomacy. This consul was Cato, the best man for the job. The praetor Publius Manlius was sent with him to Hispania Citerior as an aid (adiutor), while the praetor Appius Claudius Nero was given Hispania Ulterior as his province.

The Lex Oppia abolished

The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

But before he set sail for Spain, the consul Cato actively participated in a heated debate about the repeal of a statute from the darkest days of the Second Punic War, the Lex Oppia. This statute had been adopted in 215 BCE. It was a sumptuary law specifically directed at women. The Lex Oppia prohibited women from possessing more than half an ounce of gold, wearing colourful dresses or travelling in a horse-drawn cart, unless it was for some sort of religious ceremony. Two tribunes of the people, Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius, now proposed to abolish the law, since they considered it to be obsolete. Two other tribunes disagreed and threatened to use their right of veto. A debate was held on the Capitoline Hill, and even though women could not participate in the discussion and did not hold the franchise, many of them were present and actively supported Fundanius’ and Valerius’ proposal. Cato, a staunch social conservative who felt that women should know their place in society, argued against the proposal, but to no avail. The proposal to abolish the Lex Oppia was carried unanimously by the 35 tribus.


The successful campaigns against the Insubres and the Boii of the previous year ensured that the consul Lucius Valerius Flaccus had a fairly easy time in Gallia Cisalpina during his term of office. The consul did fight one important battle against a band of Boii and killed some 8.000 of them. The site of the battle was very significant, for it was fought close to the same Litana forest where a Roman army had been annihilated in 215 BCE. The Romans had lost thousands of men and a consul-elect on that occasion. Now, exactly twenty years later, they had their revenge. Flaccus spent most of the rest of the year in the vicinity of the Po river, helping to restore the war damage in the Latin colonies of Placentia and Cremona.


Iberian warrior (photo: Luis García (Zaqarbal)).

Our principal source for Cato’s campaign in Spain is Livius, who presumably had access to Cato’s Origines, a history of Rome written in Latin which is now lost. Cato boarded his army in the port of Luna (now Luni in Liguria) and sailed to Portus Veneris (Port-Vendres) in the Pyrenees. The consul landed his forces at a town called Rhode in Northern Spain (modern Roses), where he used brute force to expel a Spanish garrison. Cato then sailed to Emporiae, which was to become his first base of operations. Emporiae (also known as Emporion or Ampurias) was an important city. It had been founded by Greek colonists from Massilia and was divided into two quarters separated by a wall. The smaller Greek quarter was by the sea, while a much larger Iberian quarter was located more inland.[1] Not trusting their native neighbours, the Greeks had allowed only one gate in the wall separating the two parts of the city, and they kept a permanent guard there. Iberians were not allowed into the Greek quarter, but Greek merchants did go into the Spanish quarter in groups to trade.

The Greeks of Emporiae were glad at the arrival of the consul and gave him a cordial welcome. Cato sent out scouts to locate the position of the enemy forces and at the same time devoted time to training his army. Then he set out on a pillaging expedition. He was soon joined by envoys from the Ilergetes. This Iberian tribe had given the Romans trouble in the past, but for the moment they were still loyal. However, their loyalty hung by a thread, as their villages were under attack from other Spanish tribes. Cato could not spare any men, but he also could not risk losing any allies. He therefore pretended to send one third of his army to aid the Ilergetes. The men were embarked onto ships and Cato made sure the envoys saw it. These now believed help was on the way and departed. As soon as they were gone, Cato recalled his soldiers and continued his campaign. The Romans at first confined themselves to raiding and looting, but Cato was eager for a pitched battle and a decisive victory over his opponents.

It soon became clear that the consul was not afraid of taking risks. The enemy field army, perhaps comprising some 40.000 men[2], was in the vicinity of Emporiae. Cato decided to march past the enemy camp and deploy his army in battle order there. The Romans now had the enemy camp in front of them and vast enemy territories behind. They would have to fight or die. Cato sent a few maniples to the enemy camp to lure the Iberians out. These took the bait and stormed out of the gates. While they were still busy deploying their own forces, the consul attacked with his army. His aim was to overwhelm the Iberians, but the Roman cavalry on the right wing was almost immediately repulsed. The retreating horsemen then caused confusion in the Roman right ala. Cato sent in some of the extraordinarii to flank the Iberians, but the right ala was still wavering and the consul had to personally grab some of the men and turn them around to face the enemy again.

Some of the equipment of a triarius. His spear (hasta) is missing. He would have used the large shield at the back, not the small round shield. His sword is on the wrong side. It was worn on the right.

The Romans had more success on the left flank and in the centre and ultimately broke through the enemy lines, causing a rout everywhere. The consul kept tight control of his men as they stormed the enemy camp. The tribesmen put up some fierce resistance and pelted the Romans with stones and stakes, but in the end these managed to break into the camp anyway. Many Iberians were killed and Cato had won a decisive victory. After the victory, the consul marched through Nearer Spain and forced the remaining tribes to capitulate. By the time he had reached Tarraco, Scipio’s old base of operations, all of Spain north of the river Ebro was back under Roman control. A small tribe known as the Bergistani or Bargusi rebelled, but Cato reduced their strongholds without much trouble. When they rebelled again, the consul was not inclined to show mercy and sold all of them into slavery. Cato then started disarming the tribes and ordered their magistrates to demolish the walls of their towns, threatening them with slavery if they refused to cooperate.

The praetors Publius Manlius and Appius Claudius Nero had meanwhile joined forces in Further Spain, where they successfully campaigned against the Turdetani and Turduli. These tribes then hired some 10.000 Celtiberian mercenaries and the praetors sent a letter to Cato with a request for help. Having pacified his province, the consul marched south with his legions. There were some light skirmishes with the Turdetani, but the Celtiberians did not participate in the fighting. The consul tried to convince them to defect, but in the end they simply did nothing (and it is more than likely that they had actually been bribed by the consul to do nothing). Cato quickly concluded that the praetors could handle the situation quite well, left most of his army with Manlius and Claudius and returned to the north with just a small force of perhaps 3.000 men. There he won over the Sedetani, the Ausetani and the Suessetani and campaigned against the Lacetani who were still raiding the territories of Roman allies. After forcing them to surrender, he reduced the stronghold of Bergium (now Berga in Catalonia), which was used by brigands and was presumably the last town of the aforementioned Bergistani.

Cato had rendered the Romans invaluable services. Now that peace had been restored, he devoted himself to organising the iron and silver mines for which the Spanish peninsula was so famous. These soon yielded a considerable revenue. It was hardly surprising that the Senate ordered three days of public thanksgiving when news of Cato’s achievements reached Rome. He was later also awarded a triumph.


Hannibal Barcas.

This year, Hannibal Barcas – now in his early fifties – entered the stage again. He had been elected shophet (or suffete) in Carthage and immediately clashed with members of the oligarchy that were in charge of the city. It seems that there was widespread popular dissatisfaction with oligarchic rule and that Hannibal was not afraid to use popular sentiments to achieve his goals. He set about reforming a political body that Livius calls the Order of Judges (iudicum ordo) and that was probably the Council of 104, the body that supervised the activities of the Council of Thirty Elders, the Carthaginian Senate. Hannibal made sure that legislation was enacted that reduced the terms of office of Council members. He also harangued the oligarchs for their corruption, claiming that without their criminal behaviour, the Carthaginians could easily pay the indemnity that they owed to the Romans, and that no new taxes were necessary.

His honesty and incorruptibility made Hannibal popular with the people, but there was still a powerful anti-Barcid faction active in Carthage. Hannibal’s opponents contacted their relations in Rome and accused the shophet of being in league with King Antiochos III of the Seleucid Empire against Rome. They called upon the Romans to intervene, but received serious opposition from Hannibal’s old enemy Scipio Africanus. Scipio, now the princeps senatus, felt that the Romans should not meddle in internal Carthaginian affairs. But although he was the foremost senator of the Republic, Scipio seems to have wielded little authority. The Senate ultimately decided to send a delegation of three men[3] to Carthage to accuse Hannibal of conspiring against Rome. They were to feign that they had come to settle a dispute between Carthage and King Masinissa of the Numidians, but Hannibal immediately understood that they had come for him. The great general decided to flee.

Hannibal boarded a ship near Thapsus and sailed to the island of Cercina. There he was recognised by Phoenician merchants and had to resort to one of his famous ruses. He claimed that he had been sent as an envoy to Tyre, the Carthaginian metropolis in Phoenicia. Fearing that some of the merchants would report him to the authorities, he invited them for a feast and banquet on the beach. Since it was high summer, the merchants were requested to bring their sails and yards to provide some protection against the scorching sun. Hannibal managed to leave the banquet unseen while the others drank heavily. The merchants awoke late the next day  and many had a hangover. It took them hours to get the sails and yards back onto their ships. By the time they were ready, Hannibal was already well on his way to Tyre.

After a speedy and successful journey, Hannibal reached the mother city of all Carthaginians, where he was given a warm welcome. He then travelled to Antiocheia to meet with Antiochos, but the king turned out to be in Asia Minor. Hannibal continued his journey and caught up with the king in Ephesos. He soon became one of his principal advisors. The accusations levelled against him in Carthage had probably been false and there is no evidence that Hannibal had indeed collaborated with the king prior to his escape to Asia. But now these accusations worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Coin of Titus Quinctius Flamininus (photo: PHGCOM/British Museum).

Titus Quinctius Flamininus’ command in Greece had again been prolonged by the Senate. Even though the war against King Philippos had ended and the Greek cities had been declared free at last year’s Isthmian Games, the Senate was still wary of King Antiochos’ intentions and also feared a rebellion among the Aetolians. Flamininus was furthermore given free rein to deal with Nabis, the tyrant of Sparta. To be honest, there was not much reason to attack him. The tyrant had occupied Argos two years previously, but that had not bothered the Romans or Flamininus at all. The latter had been more than willing to admit Nabis into the anti-Macedonian alliance and to integrate the Cretan mercenaries sent by the tyrant into his own army. But now the continued occupation of Argos was used as a pretext for declaring war on Sparta. Flamininus’ decision to attack Nabis was warmly welcomed by the Achaeans, who desperately wanted Argos to rejoin their League. They happily provided the proconsul with 10.000 infantry and 1.000 horsemen.

Flamininus ordered his tribunes to bring up the army from its winter quarters near Elateia in Phokis. He then marched on Argos, where an attempt to throw off the Spartan yoke had failed miserably. The Spartans sent out some troops to meet him, and there was a brief skirmish not far from the city that ended in a simple Roman victory. Flamininus decided not to storm the city, as the Argives were not the enemy. The enemy was Nabis, and Nabis was in Sparta, so Sparta was the next Roman target. In those days, the proconsul received troops from King Philippos of Macedonia, who sent 1.500 Macedonians and 400 Thessalian horsemen as reinforcements. In the previous war, Sparta had aided the Romans against Philippos. Now Philippos aided the Romans against Sparta. Alliances were temporary affairs in Antiquity…

Map of Greece (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

The war against Nabis was made much easier by the fact that the Romans controlled the seas. The Roman fleet was still commanded by the proconsul’s brother, Lucius Quinctius, who once again received aid from the Rhodians and from King Eumenes II of Pergamum. Several Spartan exiles joined the proconsul’s army. Among them was Agesipolis III, a former king of Sparta (219-215 BCE) from the Agiad dynasty.[4] Flamininus soon reached the city of Sellasia in Lakonia, the site of a decisive Macedonian-Achaean victory against Sparta in 222 BCE.[5] Here the proconsul’s vanguard was attacked by Nabis’ forces, but these were quickly repelled. When Flamininus marched past the city the next day, the Spartans tried to attack the rear of the Roman column. But the Romans had anticipated such an attack and immediately turned around to confront the danger. They easily fought off the attackers, and the Achaean allies, who knew the terrain well, slaughtered many of the fleeing Spartans.

Lucius Quinctius had by this time reached Gytheion (or Gythium), the ancient port of Sparta. The city was well defended, but Lucius attacked it from all sides and managed to bring down parts of the walls. The Rhodians and Pergamenians provided useful aid during the siege, but it was not until the arrival of 4.000 picked men sent by Titus Flamininus that the defenders chose to surrender. After the fall of Gytheion, Nabis decided to try his hand at diplomacy. Negotiations were started and the tyrant offered to withdraw his troops from Argos and return prisoners of war and defectors. He asked the Romans to put further demands on paper if they had any. Flamininus was eager to make peace. He felt that a long siege of a city like Sparta was not in the Roman interest and that it was necessary to focus on King Antiochos instead, who posed a much greater threat. But the proconsul also feared that a new commander would be sent from Rome, take over the army and defeat Nabis, taking away all the glory.

The Siege of Sparta

Corinthian Greek helmet (Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam).

The Spartans rejected the peace terms that had been sent to them in writing and the war continued. Flamininus now marched on Sparta itself. After four days of skirmishing, there was a confrontation that almost amounted to a pitched battle and the Spartans were driven back into their city. Originally Sparta had not been defended by any walls. The Spartans were said to have preferred to defend their city with arms rather than walls, but a more practical reason may have been the fact that Sparta was originally a collection of villages rather than a proper city. Nevertheless, city walls and other fortifications had been erected in the late fourth and early third century BCE, and these had recently been strengthened by Nabis. The Romans would by no means be able to simply walk in. Flamininus quickly began surrounding the city. He had some 50.000 men at his disposal, including the marines from his brother’s fleet and the Greek allies. Still, a siege would not be easy.

The Romans attacked from three sides and managed to get over the walls. They fought the Spartans in the narrow streets and gradually pushed them back. Some Spartans then climbed onto the roofs of houses and pelted the Romans with tiles. The Roman soldiers quickly formed testudo and continued to advance under the cover of their shields. Sparta seemed to be lost and Nabis was already planning his escape. However, his son-in-law Pythagoras, the former commander of the Spartan garrison in Argos, kept his cool and ordered to set fire to some of the buildings in the city. The flames and smoke caused much confusion among the advancing Romans, and Flamininus decided to sound the retreat. After three more days of fighting, the tyrant sent Pythagoras to the Roman camp to negotiate. A truce was agreed and the harsh Roman terms that had been rejected only days ago were now accepted. Nabis had to send his son Armenas and some others to Rome as hostages.

The Siege of Sparta was over. Although news travelled slowly in the Ancient World, the Argives learned quickly of the Spartan defeat. When Flamininus appeared in Argos later this year, the Argives had already expelled the Spartan garrison. Now was the time of the Nemean Games and during these games, the proconsul had a herald declare that the Argives, like the other Greeks, were to be free as well. The Achaeans were happy that the city could rejoin their League, but they deplored the fact that Nabis had not been deposed. The sulky Aetolians even complained that the Romans had become allies of a tyrant and had left the rightful king Agesipolis III to rot. Flamininus chose to ignore these complaints and withdrew to his camp at Elateia. He would winter in Greece one last time.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 326-327.


[1] After his victory at Munda in 45 BCE, Gaius Julius Caesar would settle many of his veterans in Emporiae.

[2] According to Appianus.

[3] One of them was the former consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Another was Quintus Terentius Culleo, perhaps the senator rescued from slavery at the end of the Second Punic War. The third was one Gnaeus Servilius.

[4] Sparta had originally had a dual monarchy, with kings from the Agiad and Eurypontid dynasties. After the defeat of King Kleomenes III in 222 BCE, the monarchy had been replaced with a republican system of government, but it had been restored in 219 BCE. Agesipolis had been expelled by the other king, Lykourgos. Lykourgos’ son Pelops was too young to rule, so a guardian named Machanidas ruled in his stead. Machanidas soon became the sole ruler and tyrant of Sparta, and after his death in 207 BCE, he was succeeded by Nabis.

[5] The Macedonian king Antigonos III Doson and his Achaean allies defeated the Spartan king Kleomenes III. See the previous footnote.


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