Viriathus: The Years 145-143 BCE


  • The consul Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus successfully campaigns against Viriathus, but fails to end the war against the Lusitanians (145-144 BCE);
  • King Ptolemaios VI Philometor of Egypt defeats Alexander Balas, ruler of the Seleucid Empire; the latter is succeeded by Demetrios II Nikator; Ptolemaios himself succumbs to his injuries just days after his victory (145 BCE);
  • Construction of the Aqua Marcia in Rome (144 BCE);
  • Trouble in Hispania Citerior as the Arevaci, Belli and Titti rebel again (143 BCE);
  • Successful actions by Viriathus and the Lusitanians in Hispania Ulterior (143 BCE);
  • The consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus defeats the Arevaci and captures Contrebia (143 BCE);
  • The consul Appius Claudius Pulcher defeats the Salassi (143 BCE);
  • The Jewish High Priest Jonatan Apphus renews the treaty of friendship with the Romans (ca. 143 BCE).

In 145 BCE the Romans had plenty of cause for celebration. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus had already held a triumph for his victories over Andriskos in 148 BCE, and now Scipio Aemilianus Africanus held his for his destruction of Carthage. A third triumph was held by Lucius Mummius Achaicus, the ‘new man’ who had defeated the Achaean League and had burned Corinth to the ground. At the moment Rome seemed to lack any real enemies: Carthage had been destroyed, and so had Macedonia and the Achaean League. The Parthians were creeping ever closer, further weakening the already tottering Seleucid Empire. Ptolemaic Egypt tried to bolster its position in the region at the cost of the Seleucids, and failed spectacularly. But Rome still had a war to fight in Spain and things were not getting any easier there.


Hercules-Melqart, one of the chief deities in Carthage (Musée du Louvre).

The Lusitanian War was entrusted to the consul Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus. Fabius was the son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, the man who had conquered the Macedonians at Pydna in 168 BCE. As praetor and governor of Sicily, he had received the 300 Carthaginian hostages there in 149 BCE. Fabius was experienced, but the 15.000 foot soldiers and 2.000 horsemen that he brought with him to Spain were not. He made his camp at Urso (near modern Osuna) in Hispania Ulterior and instructed his officers to start training the men. While his army was slowly getting into shape, Fabius himself visited the temple of Herakles-Melqart in Gades. The Lusitanian leader Viriathus in the meantime did not sit still. He ambushed several of the Roman woodcutters and then defeated one of Fabius’ legates. When Fabius returned to his camp, he decided not to risk a pitched battle with the Lusitanians yet. For the moment he resorted to skirmishes and always made sure his foraging parties were well protected. This strategy paid off, as early in 144 BCE, the Roman consul managed to defeat his opponent in a formal battle. Two Lusitanian cities were captured and Viriathus lost many men.

Viriathus had suffered a setback, but was still far from defeated. Moreover, the battle against Fabius’ consular army demonstrates that by this time he was willing to fight pitched battles against the legions instead of just resorting to raids and ambushes. The war against the Lusitanian leader could now have been entrusted to one of the new consuls for 144 BCE. Servius Sulpicius Galba and Lucius Aurelius Cotta had been elected, but Scipio Aemilianus had argued in the Senate that neither of the two men was fit to command the Roman army in Spain.[1] Galba would indeed have been a poor choice. He certainly knew the region well, but his involvement in a massacre in 150 BCE had been controversial, and he narrowly escaped a conviction for it the next year. Fabius could therefore continue his campaign against the Lusitanians, but he achieved little and at the end of the year retired to his winter camp at Corduba.

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

Viriathus now caused the war to spill over into the neighbouring province of Hispania Citerior. In 143 BCE, he incited the Arevaci, Belli and Titti to renege on their surrender to Rome in 151 BCE. The ‘War like Fire’ in Spain was now getting out of hand. Viriathus then turned south again and initially suffered a defeat against a Roman army. Appianus claimed that it was led by a certain “Quintus, another Roman general”, so perhaps it was one of Fabius’ legates. This Quintus pursued his opponent to the Venus Mountain where Viriathus had his hideout and there suffered a sharp defeat in which 1.000 of his men were killed and some legionary standards were captured. Energetic as ever, Viriathus then immediately hurried south again, expelled a Roman garrison from Itucca and ravaged the territories of the Bastetani. Fabius was nowhere to be seen and the aforementioned Quintus was powerless to intervene. In the end, the latter shut himself up in his winter quarters at Corduba and delegated command in the war to one Gaius Marcius, a native of the Roman colony of Italica.

Hastatus (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Veles (source: Europa Barbarorum)

Things were going much better in Nearer Spain. The Roman troops here were commanded by a veteran, the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus (see above). He took the Arevaci by surprise when they were harvesting their crops and brought many of the clans back under Roman dominion. There was more success when the consul managed to capture the town of Contrebia after a difficult siege. Two more cities were still in rebel hands: Termantia and Numantia. Especially the latter city would prove to be a very tough nut to crack. Metellus would in any case not assault it. That he would leave to his successor.


In 144 BCE, the Senate took important measures with regard to Rome’s water supply. For a city the size of Rome, fresh water was essential. The water of the river Tiber was dirty and unhealthy, so people relied on clean water brought from afar by aqueducts. The two most important were the Aqua Appia – attributed to the famous censor Appius Claudius Caecus – and the Aqua Anio Vetus. These aqueducts had fallen into disrepair, and the Senate now ordered the praetor urbanus Quintus Marcius to repair them and to construct a third one. This aqueduct would be named after the man that built it: the Aqua Marcia.

At the same time, the Romans continued their northward expansion in Italy. In 143 BCE, the consul Appius Claudius Pulcher fought against the Celtic tribe of the Salassi, who were living close to the Alps. Although details of his campaign have not been preserved, the campaign seems to have been a success.


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

In 145 BCE, there was once again a regime change in the Seleucid Empire, and strangely enough, it led to a regime change in Ptolemaic Egypt as well. Alexander Balas, on the throne of Syria since 150 BCE, had proven to be a weak and unpopular ruler. Already in 147 BCE, a certain Demetrios had sailed from Crete with a band of mercenaries and landed in Cilicia. He was the son of Demetrios I Soter, the man whom Alexander had deposed and killed. The young Demetrios seems to have made little headway, but Alexander had other problems as well. His governor of Koile Syria had foolishly attacked Jonatan, the Jewish High Priest and formally a Seleucid ally. Not only had this Apollonios suffered a defeat, the action had also led to severe tensions between the Maccabees and the Seleucid king. Alexander pretended that Apollonios had acted on his own accord, but this defence was hardly credible. The most important development was, however, that Alexander lost the support of his father-in-law, King Ptolemaios VI Philometor of Egypt. Claiming that Alexander had tried to have him murdered – which may or may not have been true – Ptolemy ordered his daughter Cleopatra Thea to divorce her husband. He subsequently allied himself to Demetrios and gave him Cleopatra in marriage.

Ptolemaios then invaded the Seleucid Empire. Jonatan the High Priest could have blocked his passage, but decided not to intervene. The Egyptian king quickly reached Antiocheia. Since Alexander was off fighting insurgents in Cilicia (perhaps Demetrios’ supporters), he happened to be absent. Just twenty-three years previously, a Seleucid army had stood on the outskirts of Alexandria, the Egyptian capital. Now the roles had been reversed and Ptolemaios had actually captured the Seleucid capital. The Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Seleucid Empire could now have been formally united, with Ptolemaios as the ruler of both. However, if we are to trust Josephus’ account, Ptolemaios was reluctant to wear both crowns, thinking it might alarm his Roman friends. He therefore set up his son-in-law Demetrios as the new Seleucid king. But Alexander was not yet defeated. He returned from Cilicia and the two armies clashed near Antiocheia. Alexander was defeated and fled to Arabia, but Ptolemaios had suffered lethal injuries in the fighting. According to Josephus, his horse had thrown him when it was frightened by the noise of an elephant. Alexander’s men had then wounded him severely. Although his bodyguards managed to extract him, Ptolemaios’ head injuries were so bad that he died a few days later. Just before his death, he had received the news that Alexander had been beheaded by an Arab chieftain.

Coin of Diodotos Tryphon (source: British Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Ptolemaios VI Philometor had just been in his early forties when he died. His brother Ptolemaios VIII Physcon (“Fatty”), the ruler of Kyrene, took advantage of his death and took the throne of Egypt for himself. Demetrios would rule the Seleucid Empire as Demetrios II Nikator. He quickly made himself unpopular with the army and with the people of Antiocheia. At the same time, the High Priest Jonatan was pondering on ways to increase his power. The Tower of David – the citadel of Jerusalem – was still held by a Seleucid garrison. Jonatan decided to besiege it, but later made a deal and a new treaty of friendship with Demetrios. This did not last long. A general called Diodotos Tryphon had already set up a rival to Demetrios: Antiochos VI, the infant son of Alexander Balas. Probably in 144 BCE, Demetrios was expelled from Antiocheia, a city where his popularity had plummeted after a massacre committed by his mercenaries. Demetrios was, however, not ready to give up yet and continued to resist Tryphon and his puppet Antiochos from other parts of Syria.

Jonatan had in the meantime already switched his allegiance to Antiochos. Probably in 143 BCE, he renewed the treaty of friendship with the Romans, which had been concluded in 160 BCE under his brother Judas Maccabeus. But then he was outsmarted by Tryphon, who invited him to come to Ptolemais for talks and then treacherously had him arrested. Believing that the Maccabees were now leaderless, the de facto Seleucid ruler prepared for an invasion of Judea.


Primary sources


[1] According to Valerius Maximus 6.4.2.


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