The Numantine War: The Years 138-136 BCE


  • The consuls Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio and Decimus Junius Brutus punish deserters from the war in Spain (138 BCE);
  • Two tribunes arrest the consuls during the levy and throw them into prison (138 BCE);
  • The consul Brutus is sent to Spain, where he reaches the Atlantic Ocean in the west and subjugates much of Lusitania and Gallaecia (138-137 BCE);
  • The consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus – “the most unfortunate of the Romans” – is defeated near Numantia, and then surrounded and forced to make a humiliating peace deal (137 BCE);
  • The consul Marcus Aemilius Lepidus besieges Pallantia, but is unsuccessful (137 BCE);
  • The Lex Cassia de suffragiis introduces the secret ballot for non-capital trials (137 BCE);
  • The Senate refuses to ratify Mancinus’ treaty with the Numantines (136 BCE);
  • The popular assembly orders Mancinus to be turned over to the Numantines, naked and in chains; the Numantines, however, do not want him (136 BCE);
  • Appius Claudius Pulcher and Quintus Fulvius Nobilior serve as censors (136 BCE).

The new consuls for 138 BCE were Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio (the pontifex maximus) and Decimus Junius Brutus. Since the former was under a religious obligation to stay in Italy, the Senate had decided to send the latter to Hispania Ulterior. Although the war against Viriathus had been won the previous year, there were still plenty of marauding tribes to fight there, Lusitanian and non-Lusitanian. Fresh troops were levied for Brutus’ army and for the army fighting against the Numantines in Nearer Spain. The war there was not going well and many young Romans were loath to serve. The consuls first decided to set an example by punishing a deserter named Gaius Matienus. The man was tried and convicted, then sent under the yoke (which indicated the loss of warrior status), scourged with rods and sold for one sestertius. Other deserters were punished in a similar way.

The Mamertine Prison or Tullianum (beneath the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami).

The consuls’ action did not have the desired effect. Resistance to the levy was still strong, and two people’s tribunes even arrested and imprisoned Scipio and Brutus for a while when they could not get exemptions for some of their friends and clients. Cicero, who had not even been born yet, was apparently horrified by this action. He called the tribune Gaius Curiatius “the meanest and vilest of mankind” and believed that his action was “absolutely without precedent”.[1] Now it should be noted that problems with the levy were not entirely new. They had occurred before in 193 and 169 BCE, and in 151 BCE the consuls had even been arrested by the tribunes, so there was in fact a precedent, although Cicero may have been referring to the imprisonment rather than the arrest. We do not know whether the action by Curiatius and his colleague Sextus Licinius had the desired effect, but we can conclude that it was perfectly legal. People’s tribunes could use their sacrosanctity to arrest other magistrates.

Spain: Brutus’ campaign

Whatever the outcome of the levy, Decimus Junius Brutus left for Spain and went on the offensive there. The Lusitanians had never been a unified nation, but rather a collection of independent tribes that shared a common language and culture. The defeat of one tribe did not necessarily entail the subjugation of the other. The murder of Viriathus and the defeat of his successor may have formally ended the Lusitanian War, but it did not end the raids into the province of Hispania Ulterior. Brutus invaded Lusitania and began a scorched earth policy, destroying everything that he managed to capture. The Lusitanians and the Celtic tribes living to the north of Lusitania resisted fiercely, with Appianus remarking that even the women fought alongside the men with exceptional bravery.

The war in Spain, 147-133 BCE (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

It was probably 137 BCE when Brutus crossed the Limia river in what is now Portugal. The river was known as the Lethe in Greek and the Oblivio in Latin. It had the same name as a mythical river in the Underworld where the dead lost all their memories if they drank from it. Brutus’ men were reluctant to cross it, believing the same would happen to them. The Roman general therefore snatched a legionary standard from a signifer and crossed the Lethe first, bidding the soldiers to follow him. It was a tactic that worked. Brutus next invaded Gallaecia (modern Galicia), where he fought against the Bracari, a fierce Celtic tribe that employed female warriors as well. Later in the year, Brutus swung south again. One of the towns he forced into submission was Talabriga. After the inhabitants had surrendered, the proconsul rounded them up and made a speech in which he severely harangued them for their rebellious nature. However, unlike Galba in 150 BCE, Brutus did not massacre these people. Combining brute force with diplomacy, the Roman commander spared them and gave them back their town.

Atlantic coast of Portugal.

Brutus’ campaign was a huge success. No Roman commander had gone this far west before. Florus poetically relates how Brutus marched along the Atlantic coast and “did not turn back until, not without a certain dread of impiety and a feeling of awe, he beheld the sun sinking into the sea and its fires quenched in the waters”.[2] Brutus is also credited with founding the city of Valentia, just south of Saguntum. Here Lusitanians who had fought for Viriathus were resettled. Valentia is now known as València, one of the largest cities in Spain. Brutus was given the nickname ‘Callaicus’ for his victories.

Spain: the Numantine War

Marcus Popilius Laenas’ campaigns in Nearer Spain had been largely unsuccessful. Numantia was still firmly in the hands of the Arevaci and the Roman commander’s actions against the neighbouring Lusones had not achieved anything. Laenas was now succeeded by the consul of 137 BCE, Gaius Hostilius Mancinus. Livius claims that Mancinus left for Spain under bad omens. The sacred chickens had escaped from the coop and a voice had been heard that had ordered the consul not to leave. No doubt these omens were made up later to account for the total disaster that befell the consul and his army.

Roman triarius (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Hastatus (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Mancinus arrived in the vicinity of Numantia and fought several smaller battles here, in which his army was defeated time after time. When a false rumour began to circulate that the Cantabri and Vaccaei were marching to the aid of the Numantines, the consul quickly broke camp during the night and fled. His men marched past the site where consul Quintus Fulvius Nobilior had once had his camp. Since Nobilior’s campaign in 153 BCE had ended in disaster, camping here made Mancinus’ soldiers very nervous. They had good reason to be nervous, for at daybreak they found themselves surrounded by the Numantines. The Romans were camping in the open air, since they had not been able to construct a proper fortified camp (Nobilior’s camp must have been burned to the ground). Livius claims that 4.000 Numantines had surrounded 40.000 Romans and their allies. This is no doubt an exaggeration, and Plutarchus gives the size of the Roman army as 20.000 (a standard consular army), plus servants and camp followers. Still, we cannot doubt that the surrounded Romans outnumbered their besiegers by a large margin. This was obviously just a small comfort, for their situation was hopeless.

Fortunately, a Roman nobleman in his late twenties was serving in the Roman army as a quaestor. His name was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Gracchus had served on Scipio Aemilianus’ staff during the Third Punic War and taken part in the final assault on Carthage in 146 BCE. More importantly, he was the son of the Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus who had subjugated this part of Spain with a subtle mix of force and diplomacy. The elders among the Numantines remembered how Gracchus’ treaties of 179 BCE had brought peace to the region for 25 years. Since the elder Gracchus was remembered as a man of great moral integrity who held Roman fides in high regard, the Numantines were willing to make a deal with his son as well. The two parties reached an armistice and a peace deal, thus saving thousands of Roman and Italian lives. As the commander in chief, Mancinus bound himself to the agreement by an oath. The fact that the Roman army had to leave behind all its baggage as booty for the Numantines seemed like a small price to pay.

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

But that is not how the Senate chose to see it. The peace treaty was considered humiliating. This was not how a Roman war was supposed to end! Mancinus was summoned back to Rome to face trial and his colleague Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was sent to Spain instead. Lepidus provoked a war with the Vaccaei, whom he falsely accused of having sent provisions, money and reinforcements to the Numantines. The consul besieged Pallantia and called upon his brother-in-law Decimus Junius Brutus (see above) to come to his aid. The two commanders received an order from the Senate to cease their attack, which they blissfully ignored. But the siege of Pallantia (which the Romans had previously failed to take in 151 BCE) came to nothing. They soon ran out of food and had to withdraw in a disorderly night march. The sick and wounded had to be left behind. The Pallantines could probably have destroyed the Roman army as it marched back to friendly territory, but – content that it had left – they let it go.

Back in Rome, in 136 BCE, Lepidus was fined for his conduct. Mancinus’ fate was far worse. First of all, the Senate decided not to ratify the peace treaty that he had made with the Numantines. The former consul was then tried before the popular assembly. Since Mancinus had sworn an oath to uphold the treaty, the people voted in favour of stripping him naked, clapping him in chains and sending him back to Numantia. The new consul Lucius Furius Philus was ordered to take Mancinus – dubbed “the most unfortunate of the Romans” by Plutarchus” – back to Spain. The Numantines, however, refused to receive him. Mancinus returned to Rome, where he lived out his life in infamy (an attempt was even made to remove him from the Senate). The war against the Numantines would continue, but Furius was no more successful than his predecessors.


Voting scene from Ancient Rome (113-112 BCE). A voter receives a ballot from an official (left), a second voter drops it into the ballot box (source: Münzkabinett Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

In 137 BCE, the concilium plebis passed the Lex Cassia de suffragiis, the second in a series of ballot laws. The new law introduced the principle of a secret ballot for non-capital trials in the popular assembly. Cicero was not happy about it, and more than willing to level a personal attack on the man who had proposed it, the people’s tribune Lucius Cassius. In a fictionalised dialogue with his brother Quintus, he has the latter claim that Cassius, although a nobleman, was “always seeking the fickle applause of the mob”.[3]

In 136 BCE, the former consuls Appius Claudius Pulcher and Quintus Fulvius Nobilior (the man whose campaign in Spain ended in disaster; see above) were elected censors. 317.933 Roman citizens were registered. Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum seems to have acted as princeps senatus until his death in about 141 BCE, and it is plausible that he was now succeeded by one of the censors, Appius Claudius.


Primary sources


[1] Cicero, De Legibus III.20.

[2] Florus, The Epitome of Roman History, Book 1.33.17;

[3] Cicero, De Legibus III.35.



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