Lusitanian and Celtiberian Wars: The Year 151 BCE


  • The Senate decides to continue the war against the Celtiberians, but there are serious problems with the levy of soldiers;
  • The consuls are arrested by people’s tribunes who had been unable to obtain exemption from military service for their friends;
  • Scipio Aemilianus volunteers to fight in Spain;
  • Marcus Claudius Marcellus forces the Arevaci, the Belli and the Titti to offer a deditio;
  • The new consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus provokes a war with the Vaccaei, during which he achieves very little;
  • The praetor Servius Sulpicius Galba is heavily defeated by the Lusitanians;
  • Carthage pays the final instalment of the indemnity of 10.000 talents to Rome;
  • A conflict between Carthage and King Masinissa of Numidia escalates.

Now that the Senate had decided to continue the war against the Celtiberian tribes, the new consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus and his colleague Aulus Postumius Albinus began levying new soldiers. Although the Roman army was  a conscript army and all the male citizens were required by law to serve the Republic if it called upon them, the Romans had usually relied on volunteers to fill the ranks. But in the case of the war in Spain, there were few volunteers to be found. Serving in the Iberian peninsula was anything but popular. The enemy was brave and numerous, while opportunities for pillaging were limited. Who would want to leave his farm only to die in a ditch near Numantia? Not only were there not enough recruits to serve as ordinary soldiers and centurions, very few candidates stepped forward to serve as military tribunes or legates, positions that were usually highly sought-after.

Equipment of a Republican military tribune.

It was clear that Lucullus could not leave for Spain without reinforcements, and therefore the consuls resorted to drastic measures. A draft was organised, and new recruits were selected by lot. Many young Romans now began feigning all sorts of embarrassing illnesses to prevent being drafted into the legions. At one point the consuls were even arrested by some people’s tribunes who had been unable to obtain exemptions from military service for their friends (and possibly their clients). This was all exemplary for the poor state that the Roman army was in. These were no longer the invincible citizen-legions that had smashed the armies of Carthage, Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire. The problems with the levy also demonstrate that the Roman army was still anything but a professional standing army. It was an impermanent army of volunteers and conscripts that would only perform well if the soldiers had the opportunity to train and gain battle experience. In the case of the wars in Spain, its performance was hardly impressive.

Polybius claims that ultimately his good friend Scipio Aemilianus could not take it any longer and stepped forward, declaring that he was ready to go to Spain as either a tribune or a legatus. Scipio was now in his early thirties and had seen battle in Macedonia in 168 BCE. According to Polybius, his friend’s example caused many others to report for duty as well. The historian no doubt exaggerated the role that his friend played, but there can be no doubt that the consul Lucullus was ultimately able to levy enough soldiers and officers for his campaign in Spain.

Lusitanian and Celtiberian War

Now that peace talks in Rome had broken down, the consul of last year Marcus Claudius Marcellus did everything within his means to end the Celtiberian War before his successor Lucullus arrived to relieve him. Marcellus advanced on Numantia and shut the Arevaci up behind their walls. Even though his people could probably have held out for months or even years, the Arevaci chieftain decided to negotiate with the Roman general. In the end the Arevaci, Belli and Titti offered an unconditional surrender, a deditio. Marcellus had won the war before his rival arrived, and Lucullus was none too pleased about it.

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

Appianus claims that the new consul had financial problems, perhaps because he had borrowed a lot of money to finance his electoral campaign. Lucullus now provoked a war with the Vaccaei, neighbours of the Arevaci. He accused them of having attacked the Carpetani, who were Roman allies (they had been defeated in 185 BCE). The accusation was presumably spurious, but the Roman commander needed a casus belli and was more than willing to fabricate one. The Romans had fought against the Vaccaei before, in 193 BCE and 179 BCE, so they had some knowledge of the region. Lucullus marched into the Douro valley and attacked the city of Cauca. After a few skirmishes with successes on both sides, the Caucaei surrendered. Lucullus demanded hostages, a unit of cavalry for the army and 100 talents of silver. He also forced the Caucaei to admit a Roman garrison of 2.000 men. These men had been given secret orders to occupy the walls and then let in the rest of the army. After a trumpet had been sounded, the Roman soldiers, eager for booty, surged forward, killed the men of the town and sacked Cauca.

The consul’s behaviour had been both perfidious and outrageous. The Celtiberian tribes in the region responded by resorting to a scorched earth policy. Lucullus’ next target was the town of Intercatia, which was put under siege after it understandably refused to surrender. The Romans surrounded the town with siege works and destroyed the fields in the vicinity. It was here, at Intercatia, that Scipio Aemilianus fought and defeated a Celtiberian warrior in single combat, a feat reported by a plethora of classical sources. The next night, a party of Celtiberian horsemen suddenly returned to Intercatia. The horsemen had been sent out to forage and had now returned to their home town, only to find it surrounded by the Romans. The horsemen began shouting to the people in the town, who responded by shouting back. This caused a panic in the Roman camp, another good example of the lack of professionalism and discipline in the Roman armies of the 150s. It seems unlikely that there were more than a handful of enemy horsemen outside the Roman camp, so they never really posed a threat. The Romans quickly recovered their senses, but a much more serious matter was the fact that they were rapidly running out of provisions. They desperately needed to end this siege.

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.

By now the soldiers had completed a ramp (agger) so that they could move a ram to the walls of Intercatia. A section of the wall was battered down and an assault party fought its way into the town. It seems likely that it was led by Scipio, as our sources tell us that he was later awarded the corona muralis, the crown for the first soldier over the wall of an enemy city. However, after some initial success, the Romans were repulsed and forced out of the town again. The Intercatians repaired their wall and the siege continued. Appianus claims that it was Scipio who convinced the besieged to sign a treaty of peace and friendship with the Romans, personally guaranteeing them that it would not be broken. Clothes for the army, some cattle and 50 hostages were handed over to the Romans, and the siege of Intercatia was raised.

Lucullus had been eager for gold and silver, but so far had gathered very little of the precious metal. He now advanced on Pallantia, rumoured to be a rich town. The expedition ended in failure: the Pallantian horsemen constantly harassed the consul’s foragers and the Romans quickly ran out of supplies again. Lucullus then decided to break off the campaign and sent his army to its winter quarters in Turdetania, in the south of the peninsula. His behaviour had been despicable, but although the Romans considered good faith (bona fides) to be of great importance when dealing with other peoples, they never seem to have brought the consul to trial for acting contrary to it during his campaign. Perhaps they were simply happy that the Celtiberian War was over. For now at least.

The praetor of Hispania Ulterior, Marcus Atilius Serranus had in the meantime be replaced by Servius Sulpicius Galba. Galba had won some notoriety by trying to prevent Lucius Aemilius Paullus’ triumph in 168 BCE and he was known for being a skilled orator. His campaign against the Lusitanians was, however, a genuine disaster. After force-marching his men into enemy territory, he immediately ordered them to engage the enemy. The Lusitanians were defeated, but then the praetor pursued them too carelessly and was himself heavily defeated. Appianus claims that 7.000 Romans were killed, and these are immense casualties indeed for a standard praetorian army of perhaps 10-12.000 men. Galba fled to the town of Carmo with the survivors, recruited fresh troops among the allied tribes and then wintered at Conistorgis in the territory of the Conii. He would be back next year, and with a terrible vengeance.


Coin with the image of Masinissa or his son Micipsa (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.).

This year, the Carthaginians paid the final instalment of the indemnity of 10.000 talents that they owed Rome under the treaty made in 201 BCE. They were free at last. As historian Adrian Goldsworthy correctly states, “[t]he completion of the fifty-year war debt in 151 removed the annual reminder of Carthage’s defeat and the city’s current subordinate status”.[1] And it was exactly this loss of subordinate status which was not to the Romans’ liking. They now began looking for a pretext to start a new war, even though Carthage could hardly be considered a threat to them. One loyal ally who could provide them with a casus belli was King Masinissa of Numidia, who was now about 88 years old, but reportedly still in excellent health. Masinissa had been encroaching on Carthaginian territories ever since the treaty of 201 BCE had been signed, and although Rome had not completely given him free rein, she had done little to stop him either.

The Carthaginians had generally kept their calm and had not resorted to violence to repel Numidian attempts at annexation. But around the time that the war debt had been completed, the Carthaginians changed their military policy. Appianus tells us that there were three parties in the city. These were not political parties in the modern sense of the word, but rather loose alliances or factions of politicians who shared certain ideals. Carthage had a faction that was openly pro-Roman, a faction that was pro-Numidian and a ‘democratic faction’ that apparently relied on support from the poorer elements of Carthaginian society. In 151 BCE, the democratic faction had come to dominate Carthaginian politics and it had brought about the expulsion of Masinissa’s supporters from the city. The king sent his sons Gulussa and Micipsa to Carthage to complain, but they were not even admitted and some of their attendants were killed. Both sides now started to prepare for war. The Carthaginians raised an army of 25.000 infantry and 400 cavalry led by Hasdrubal. The cavalry were apparently raised in the city itself, for Appianus uses the word πολιτικός when discussing the horsemen. Only in times of extreme need did the Carthaginians rely on their own citizens to fight their wars. This was such a time. Soon Carthage would be fighting for her very survival.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome, p. 114-116;
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, Pax Romana, p. 40 and p. 48;
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 332.


[1] Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 332.


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