Lusitanian and Celtiberian Wars: The Year 153 BCE


  • Because of the wars in Spain, the Romans decide to move the start of the consular year forward from 15 March to 1 January;
  • The praetor Lucius Mummius defeats the Lusitanians and is awarded a triumph;
  • The consul Quintus Fulvius Nobilior suffers several defeats against the Arevaci;
  • The Senate once again refuses to release the Achaean hostages;
  • King Attalos of Pergamum introduces one Alexander Balas to the Senate, a man who claims to be a son of King Antiochos IV of the Seleucid Empire;
  • Marcus Porcius Cato begins a tradition of ending each speech in the Senate with the opinion that, in his view, Carthage should be destroyed.

This year, the Romans instigated an important constitutional reform. The Roman consular year traditionally started on 15 March, the ides of the month of Mars. This was the day on which the consuls and the praetors took up their respective offices. Then, and only then, could they depart for their provinces. But now much of Spain was up in arms. Because of the seriousness of the Lusitanian and Celtiberian Wars, it was decided to bring the start of the new consular year forward to 1 January. If the magistrates assumed their offices on that date, there would be more time to travel to their provinces – Spain was far away – and much of the war season would still be available for military campaigns.

Lusitanian and Celtiberian War

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

The new praetor of Hispania Ulterior was Lucius Mummius while the army in Hispania Citerior would be commanded by the consul Quintus Fulvius Nobilior. The fact that the Senate had decided to send a consul to the region is a clear indication of the gravity of the situation. Mummius seems to have arrived in province first. He defeated the Lusitanians under Caesarus, but pursued them too hastily and was then himself defeated, losing all his booty, his camp and many military standards. Mummius retreated with the survivors, submitted them to an intensive training program and then surprised the Lusitanians as they were trying to get away with the Roman loot. The standards were recaptured and Rome’s honour was saved.

But now other Lusitanian tribes, living on the other side of the Tagus, invaded the territory of the Conii, a tribe allied to Rome, and advanced as far as the city of Conistorgis (the location is unknown, but it must have been in the Algarve, Portugal). Their leader was one Caucenus. Conistorgis was captured, and some of the tribesmen subsequently crossed over to Africa and continued their campaign against the city of Ocile (possibly modern Asilah in Morocco). Mummius followed them with an army of 9.000 infantry and 500 horsemen. He first defeated the scattered parties that were looting the countryside and then raised the siege of Ocile. Lusitanians that were trying to get away with booty were rounded up and killed, their loot confiscated. If Ocile can indeed be identified as Asilah in Morocco, this was the first Roman military operation in that part of Africa. Back in Rome, Mummius was awarded a triumph for his victories.

Helmet of a centurion.

Things did not go so well for his colleague Quintus Fulvius Nobilior in the other Spanish province. He advanced on Segeda with a force that – according to Appianus – comprised nearly 30.000 men, basically a beefed-up consular army. The Belli had not yet completed their city walls, so they fled to their neighbours the Arevaci, who had their principal town at Numantia. The Arevaci decided to join the war against the Romans and, in August, ambushed Nobilior’s column as it was marching through a dense forest. 6.000 Romans and allies were killed before the attackers were repulsed. In spite of this setback, the consul continued his advance and now marched towards Numantia. The two armies met in the vicinity of the city, and at first the battle seemed to go very much the Romans’ way. In Nobilior’s army were ten battle elephants provided by Rome’s faithful ally King Masinissa of Numidia. The Arevaci, and especially their horses, were not used to the sight and smell of these fearsome animals. They panicked and fled back to Numantia.

The consul decided to give chase, and then everything went wrong. A large stone hurled from the city walls hit one of the elephants on the head. The poor animal panicked, turned around and began stampeding through the Roman lines. The other elephants now also ran amok and caused mayhem among the Roman soldiers. Nobilior sounded the retreat, and many more Romans were killed as the Arevaci mercilessly pursued them. After another failed Roman attack on the town of Axinium, the consul returned to his camp and instructed his cavalry commander[1] Biesius to recruit more cavalrymen among the allied tribes. This Biesius was subsequently ambushed and killed, along with dozens of his men. When the town of Ocilis – not to be confused with the Ocile mentioned above – revolted to the Celtiberians and the Romans lost all their supplies and money stored there, Nobilior decided to give up and retired to his winter quarters where his men suffered badly from the bitter cold.

Domestic affairs

The Roman theatre at Fiesole (ancient Faesulae).

The censors Marcus Valerius Messalla and Gaius Cassius Longinus completed the census and performed the lustrum, the ritual purification of the Roman people. A rather strange incident occurred with regard to a theatre for which they had let a contract. Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica was fervently opposed to the project and convinced the Senate to pass a decree ordering to tear it down. The theatre was apparently considered both useless and a danger to public morals. The Periochae of Livius’ work snidely remark that “for some time, the people had to stand to watch theatrical performances”[2], indicating that these shows continued regardless of the presence of a proper theatre.

The Senate was once again a centre of diplomatic activity. It first again decided not to release the Achaean hostages. They had been held in custody since 167 BCE and quite a few of them had presumably already died. At the height of summer, King Attalos of Pergamum introduced one Alexander Balas to the senators, a man who claimed to be a son of King Antiochos IV of the Seleucid Empire, who had died in 164 BCE. Attalos was no friend of the current Seleucid king, Demetrios I Soter, who had been responsible for the expulsion of his ally, King Ariarathes of Cappadocia (see 159-154 BCE). He hoped that Alexander would be able to win favour with the Romans, so that he could one day expel Demetrios from his kingdom.

Baal Hammon, one of the chief deities in Carthage.


Although it had been thoroughly defeated and humiliated in the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), Carthage had recovered extremely well economically. The city had lost some territory to King Masinissa of Numidia, but it still controlled the bulk of the highly fertile lands in what is now Tunesia.[3] Soon agricultural production had been restored to pre-war levels and Carthaginian trade in the Mediterranean had been completely revived. Carthage’s economy was in fact so strong that already in 191 BCE the city offered the Romans to pay the remaining instalments of the indemnity of 10.000 talents of silver all at once. The Romans had unkindly turned down this offer, preferring to keep the Carthaginians in a dependent position. All in all, Carthage proved to be consistently loyal to the Romans after the Second Punic War. It never posed a threat to Rome, and instead supported the Roman campaigns in the East with grain and with the few warships it had been allowed to keep.

The Numidians, on the other hand, had constantly been encroaching on Carthaginian territories. Under the terms of the treaty signed in 201 BCE, the Carthaginians had to return to King Masinissa those lands that had been rightfully his or his ancestors’, and the king’s interpretation of these terms was far from objective. Numidian invasions of Carthaginian territories had led to several conflicts, in which Rome had been asked to arbitrate (see 195 BCE, 193 BCE, 182 BCE/181 BCE and 172 BCE for examples). Rather than acting as impartial arbitrators, the Romans had generally favoured their ally the king. New delegations were sent to Africa in 157 BCE and 153 BCE to investigate new border disputes, and it is likely that the aging Marcus Porcius Cato – now in his early eighties – was part of the last of the two missions. Impressed by the economic recovery and wealth of Rome’s former archenemy, Cato returned to Rome with just one thought on his mind: Delenda est Carthago, Carthage must be destroyed.

Carthaginian pendant.

Once again it must be stressed that there is no objective evidence that Carthage posed a threat to Rome once again. If the Roman envoys had indeed seen large quantities of timber in Carthage, it seems quite plausible that this material was intended to construct trade vessels, not warships as the Romans claimed. The theory that Carthage intended to build an invasion fleet and sail to Italy is ludicrous. According to Plutarchus, Cato on one occasion dropped some particularly large and very fresh figs from the fold of his toga and told his impressed audience that these had been grown in a country – i.e. Africa – that was just three days away from Rome by sea.[4] It was a blatant piece of propaganda, but many Romans were more than willing to believe it. Cato would henceforth end each speech in the Senate with the opinion that, in his view, Carthage should be destroyed. Cato was opposed by Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, the consul of 162 and 155 BCE, who believed that Carthage should not be destroyed. His motivation seems to have been the notion that only the presence of a strong opponent would keep traditional Roman values, which were already under pressure, intact.

For now, the Romans saw no grounds for declaring war on Carthage. They were occupied in Spain anyway. Nevertheless, the seeds of the Third Punic War had been planted, a war that would lead to the destruction of Carthage.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome, p. 114;
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, Pax Romana, p. 40-41;
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 327.


[1] Appianus (The Spanish Wars 47) uses the Greek term ‘hipparchon’.

[2] Periochae, Book 48.

[3] Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 327.

[4] Plutarchus, The Life of Cato the Elder 27.1.

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