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Pompey the Great and the Battle for Spain: A Pivotal Moment in the Roman Civil War

Bust of Pompey the Great


In the year 75 BC, the Roman Republic was in the midst of a devastating civil war that had divided the nation and pitted two of its most brilliant military commanders against each other. On one side stood Quintus Sertorius, a former supporter of Gaius Marius who had refused to accept defeat and had established a formidable resistance movement in the Iberian Peninsula. On the other side was Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey the Great, a young and ambitious general who had been tasked with crushing Sertorius‘ rebellion and restoring order to the region.

The conflict between Sertorius and Pompey would come to a head at the Battle of Sucro River, a pivotal moment in the civil war that would have far-reaching consequences for both men and for the future of the Roman Republic. In this article, we will explore the background of the conflict, the military strategies employed by both sides, and the key turning points of the battle itself. We will also analyze the short-term and long-term consequences of Pompey‘s victory and consider the legacy of Sertorius and his resistance movement.

The Road to War

To understand the significance of the Battle of Sucro River, it is necessary to first examine the broader context of the Roman Civil War and the events that led to the conflict in Spain. The war had its origins in the long-standing rivalry between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, two powerful generals who had clashed over the command of the war against Mithridates VI of Pontus in 88 BC.

Marius, who had been elected consul a record seven times, represented the populares faction in Roman politics, which sought to champion the interests of the common people and challenge the power of the aristocratic elite. Sulla, on the other hand, was a member of the optimates faction, which sought to defend the traditional privileges of the Senate and the nobility.

The rivalry between Marius and Sulla erupted into open warfare in 88 BC, when Sulla marched on Rome with his army and forced Marius into exile. Marius eventually returned to Rome and took control of the city, but he died soon afterward, leaving his supporters leaderless and vulnerable. Sulla, who had been fighting in the East, returned to Italy in 83 BC and launched a brutal campaign of repression against the populares, executing thousands of his political opponents and confiscating their property.

One of the few populares leaders to escape Sulla‘s wrath was Quintus Sertorius, a gifted military commander who had served under Marius in the war against the Cimbri and Teutones. Sertorius fled to Spain, where he quickly established himself as the leader of a powerful resistance movement that sought to overthrow Sulla‘s regime and restore the populares to power.

The Rise of Sertorius

Sertorius was a charismatic and cunning leader who quickly won the loyalty of the local Spanish tribes and built a formidable army of Romans, Spaniards, and Africans. He was known for his military genius and his ability to inspire his troops with his personal bravery and leadership.

According to Plutarch, Sertorius was also a master of psychological warfare, using unconventional tactics to unsettle his enemies and boost the morale of his own men. One of his most famous tricks was to keep a white fawn as a pet, which he claimed was a gift from the goddess Diana and could predict the future. Sertorius would often consult with the fawn before battle, and his troops came to believe that he had divine guidance on his side.

Under Sertorius‘ leadership, the resistance movement in Spain quickly grew in strength and influence. By 77 BC, he had taken control of most of the Iberian Peninsula and was threatening to invade Italy itself. The Senate, alarmed by the growing threat posed by Sertorius, dispatched Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, a respected general and former consul, to Spain with a large army to crush the rebellion.

Metellus, however, proved to be no match for Sertorius‘ military genius. Despite having a larger and better-equipped army, he was repeatedly outmaneuvered and defeated by Sertorius, who used his knowledge of the terrain and his ability to win the support of the local population to his advantage. By 76 BC, Metellus had been forced to retreat to the far north of Spain, leaving Sertorius in control of most of the peninsula.

The Arrival of Pompey

With Metellus struggling to contain Sertorius‘ rebellion, the Senate decided to send reinforcements to Spain in the form of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey the Great. Pompey was a young and ambitious general who had already made a name for himself as a skilled military commander, having played a key role in Sulla‘s victory over the populares in Italy.

Pompey arrived in Spain in 76 BC with a large army of his own, determined to succeed where Metellus had failed. However, he quickly discovered that Sertorius was a formidable opponent who would not be easily defeated. In their first encounter, at the Battle of Lauron, Sertorius outmaneuvered Pompey and forced him to retreat, inflicting heavy casualties on his army.

Undeterred by this setback, Pompey regrouped his forces and launched a new offensive against Sertorius. However, he soon found himself struggling to make headway against his wily and elusive opponent. Sertorius, who had an intimate knowledge of the terrain and the support of the local population, proved to be a master of guerrilla warfare, launching hit-and-run attacks on Pompey‘s supply lines and forcing him to spread his forces thin in order to protect his flanks.

Despite these challenges, Pompey remained determined to defeat Sertorius and restore order to the region. He began to adopt a more cautious and methodical approach, focusing on securing key strategic positions and gradually wearing down Sertorius‘ forces through a series of small-scale engagements.

The Battle of Sucro River

The turning point in the conflict came in 75 BC, when Pompey and Sertorius finally met in a pitched battle on the banks of the Sucro River. The exact location of the battle is unknown, but it is believed to have taken place somewhere in the province of Valencia, on the eastern coast of Spain.

According to the ancient historian Appian, the battle began with a fierce exchange of missile fire between the two armies, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. Sertorius, who had positioned his troops on a hill overlooking the river, had the advantage of the high ground and was able to rain down arrows and javelins on Pompey‘s men as they attempted to cross the river.

Pompey, however, was not to be deterred. He ordered his men to form a testudo formation, with their shields locked together to create a protective shell, and began to advance slowly across the river. Sertorius, seeing the danger, ordered his own men to charge down the hill and engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.

The fighting was fierce and bloody, with both sides suffering heavy losses. Pompey himself was wounded in the thigh by a javelin, but he refused to leave the battlefield and continued to lead his men from the front. Sertorius, meanwhile, was in the thick of the fighting, inspiring his troops with his personal bravery and leadership.

As the battle wore on, it became clear that Sertorius had the upper hand. His troops, who were more experienced and better adapted to the terrain, began to push back Pompey‘s men and threaten to overwhelm them entirely. Pompey, realizing the danger, ordered a tactical retreat and began to fall back towards his camp.

It was at this critical moment that fate intervened on Pompey‘s behalf. As Sertorius‘ troops pursued the retreating Romans, they became separated from their commander and began to break formation in their eagerness to plunder the enemy camp. Pompey, seeing his opportunity, rallied his men and launched a devastating counterattack that caught the Sertorians completely by surprise.

The result was a complete rout. Sertorius‘ army was scattered and fled in disarray, leaving thousands of dead and wounded on the battlefield. Sertorius himself narrowly escaped capture and fled north with a small band of loyal followers, but his days as a major threat to Roman rule in Spain were effectively over.

The Aftermath

The Battle of Sucro River was a turning point in the Roman Civil War and a major victory for Pompey and the optimates faction. Although Sertorius would continue to resist for another two years, his power and influence had been greatly diminished, and he was eventually betrayed and murdered by his own officers in 73 BC.

For Pompey, the victory at Sucro River was a major boost to his reputation and his political ambitions. He was hailed as a hero in Rome and given the title of "Magnus" (the Great) by his troops, a title that would stick with him for the rest of his life. The victory also helped to cement his position as one of the most powerful and influential figures in Roman politics, a position he would use to great effect in the years to come.

However, the victory at Sucro River also had wider implications for the future of the Roman Republic. The civil war had exposed deep divisions within Roman society and had undermined the traditional institutions of government. The rise of powerful individual generals like Pompey and Sertorius, who commanded the loyalty of their own private armies, posed a serious threat to the stability and integrity of the Republic.

In the years following the civil war, these tensions would continue to simmer and eventually erupt into open conflict once again. Pompey himself would become embroiled in a bitter power struggle with his former ally and rival, Julius Caesar, a struggle that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.


The Battle of Sucro River was a pivotal moment in the history of the Roman Republic, a moment that helped to shape the course of events for generations to come. It was a battle that pitted two of the most brilliant military minds of the age against each other, a battle that tested the limits of human endurance and resolve.

For Quintus Sertorius, the battle was a tragic end to a remarkable career. He had risen from humble origins to become one of the most powerful and influential figures in the Roman world, a man who had dared to challenge the might of Sulla and the optimates faction. Although he was ultimately defeated, his legacy would live on as a symbol of resistance and defiance against tyranny and oppression.

For Pompey the Great, the battle was a defining moment in his life and career. It was a moment that helped to establish him as one of the most brilliant military commanders of his generation, a man who would go on to play a pivotal role in the final years of the Roman Republic. Although his own ambitions would eventually lead him to a tragic end, his victory at Sucro River remains a testament to his skill, courage, and determination as a leader and a soldier.

In the end, the Battle of Sucro River serves as a reminder of the complex and often turbulent nature of Roman politics and society, a reminder of the powerful forces that shaped the course of history in the ancient world. It is a battle that continues to fascinate and inspire historians and scholars to this day, a battle that offers valuable insights into the nature of power, ambition, and the human spirit.


  • Appian. (1912). The Civil Wars. Harvard University Press.
  • Plutarch. (1919). Life of Sertorius. Harvard University Press.
  • Sallust. (1921). The War with Jugurtha. Harvard University Press.
  • Konrad, C. F. (1994). Plutarch‘s Sertorius: A Historical Commentary. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Spann, P. O. (1987). Quintus Sertorius and the Legacy of Sulla. University of Arkansas Press.

Further Reading

  • Katz, B. R. (1983). Sertorius, Caesar, and the Consulship of 78 BC. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 32(2), 168-173.
  • Seager, R. (2002). Pompey the Great: A Political Biography. Blackwell Publishing.
  • Wylie, G. J. (1992). The Genius of Sertorius. Acta Classica, 35, 19-29.