Lusitanian and Celtiberian Wars: The Year 152 BCE


  • Death of the pontifex maximus and princeps senatus Marcus Aemilius Lepidus;
  • The praetor Marcus Atilius Serranus defeats the Lusitanians and captures the city of Oxthraca;
  • The consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus recaptures Ocilis and orders the Arevaci, Belli and Titti to send envoys to Rome to ask for peace;
  • Marcellus also captures the Lusitanian city of Nerkobriga;
  • The Senate decides to continue the Celtiberian War;
  • The Senate allows Alexander Balas to return to Syria to claim the throne of the Seleucid Empire.

The year discussed here saw the death of the great statesman Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. He had served as pontifex maximus since 180 BCE, and had been nominated princeps senatus an unprecedented six times in a row. According to the Periochae of Livius’ work, his funeral was nevertheless sober. Before he died, Lepidus had:

“ordered his sons that they should carry his bier to the pyre covered with linens without purple, and they were not to spend more than a million for the remainder: the images [of ancestors] and not the expenditure should enhance the funerals of great men.”[1]

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

The most important events of the year took place in Spain, where the Lusitanian War and the Second Celtiberian War were raging. Once again, the Senate decided to send a praetor to Hispania Ulterior and one of the consuls to Hispania Citerior. This is an indication that the senators believed the war against the Celtiberian tribes to be the more serious of the two and also the conflict where the bulk of the Roman troops in Spain were needed. The Celtiberian War was very challenging for the Romans indeed. The terrain was difficult, the enemies were fierce and brave, and little booty was to be won here. Polybius called the conflict a purinos polemos, a ‘war like fire’, indicating that the Romans could defeat one tribe and put out one fire, only to discover that in the meantime other tribes had rebelled in other parts of the province.[2]

Lusitanian and Celtiberian War

The praetor Marcus Atilius Serranus took command of the army in Hispania Ulterior and launched a raid deep into Lusitanian territory. The raid was a complete success, as the Lusitanians were defeated and their principal city of Oxthraca in what is now Portugal was captured. The raid forced the other tribes in the region, including the Vettones, to come to terms. However, as soon as the Roman army had left again, the tribes once again revolted and launched a counter raid.

Meanwhile, the consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus had arrived in Nearer Spain. It was his third consulship.[3] The consul had brought reinforcements with him and immediately advanced on Ocilis, a city that had revolted the previous year. The defenders quickly surrendered and received a pardon from the consul, who also demanded hostages and imposed a hefty fine of 30 talents. The Roman success at Ocilis caused the rebellious Arevaci, Belli and Titti to ask the consul for a truce. Marcellus decided to grant it and charged the tribes to send envoys to the Senate in Rome to end the conflict.

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

Believing that sitting idle would be detrimental to the morale of his men, the consul then decided to give his colleague in Further Spain a hand and launched an attack on the city of Nerkobriga (or Nertobriga). It is believed that this city was close to modern Fregenal de la Sierra in the Badajoz province, Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. This is a good indication of how far the consul was operating outside his own province. The consul took Nerkobriga by force and then made his winter camp at Corduba, a city he is said to have founded himself.

Towards the end of the year, the Celtiberian delegations must have reached Rome. The Belli and Titti were treated as friends and allowed to enter the pomerium. The Arevaci, however, were told not to cross the sacred boundary and to pitch their tents on the other side of the Tiber. In the end the Senate allowed all tribes to present their case to the senators. The Belli and Titti urged the Romans to send a consul to Spain each year to protect them, but the Arevaci made it clear that they had not been defeated yet. They were, however, prepared to renew the friendship with the Romans under the same terms as had been agreed with Tiberius Gracchus in 179 BCE. The consul Marcellus had also sent envoys to Rome, who pleaded for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. By now it was early 151 BCE, and new consuls had already been elected. The Senate decided that now was not the time to make peace yet. The Arevaci needed to be soundly defeated first. The senators therefore ordered the new consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus to continue the war.

Roman foreign policy

Coin of Alexander Balas (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.)

The Senate this year gave a warm welcome to King Eumenes’ son Attalos, the future King Attalos III of Pergamum. The young man was now about 17 or 18 years old. The Senate subsequently received young Demetrios, son of King Demetrios I Soter of the Seleucid Empire. Demetrios was just a boy of perhaps 8 or 9, but he would one day rule what was left of the Seleucid Empire as Demetrios II Nikator. His father had ruled the Seleucid Empire since 161 BCE, but sources hostile to him claimed that the king had degenerated into a heavy drinker who was intoxicated most of the time. His position was furthermore under pressure, as the Senate had allowed one Alexander Balas to return to Syria. Alexander claimed to be a son of the late Antiochos IV (175164 BCE) and may indeed have been one of his bastard sons.

Always inclined to prevent the Seleucid Empire from regaining its former strength, the Senate decided to support the usurper, who promptly raised an army of mercenaries and landed at Ptolemais in Phoenicia (modern Akko or Acre). The city was quickly captured and the citizens hailed Alexander as their new king. King Demetrios, upon hearing of the landing of his rival, immediately mobilised his army to confront him. He also tried to win support from the Maccabees of Judea and their leader, Jonatan Apphus. Jewish hostages were released as a sign of goodwill, but Jonatan decided to support Alexander instead. The latter had offered him the office of High Priest, and this was an offer the Maccabean leader could not refuse.

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


Primary sources


[1] Livius, Periochae of Book 48.

[2] See Polybius 35.1. In Greek the ‘war like fire’ is called a πύρινος πόλεμος.

[3] His grandfather Marcus Claudius Marcellus had held the consulship five times.


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