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Barbarian Europe

Iberian Mercenaries

by Trish Wilson, 26 December 2023

Iberian Mercenaries
Part 1: Overview
Part 2: History
Part 3: Infantry
Part 4: Cavalry
Part 5: Women Warriors

According to ancient writers the mercenary way of life, particularly where it was located in central Iberia and the Balearic Islands in the Iron Age of the first millennium BC, had been long established.

Over several centuries the act of leaving one's own tribe and becoming a soldier of fortune for others was a way of escaping poverty and finding opportunities to exercise long-established warrior traditions.

From the fifth century BC onwards, the mercenary way of life became a true social phenomenon in Iberia, resulting in many from the Iberian peninsula seeking their fortune elsewhere, often by enlisting in the armies of Carthage, Sicily, Greece, and Rome, as well as in the more affluent areas of Iberia.

The reasons for this were mainly economic, as departing from the native tribe and serving in another, wealthier faction was a way for an economically disadvantaged youth to escape poverty within their homeland where there could be both economic and social inequality.

The main examples were to be found in Lusitania and amongst the Celtiberians, where cultivable terrain was concentrated in the hands of a few landowners, leaving a mercenary life as the only alternative to banditry.

However, the long history of tribal warfare and the warrior culture in Iberia cannot be discarded as another factor in their choice. Natives from the Balearic Islands and mountain folk such as the Cantabrians were also recognised to possess a strong mercenary tradition.

Mention of them is made time and time again by contemporary writers. Strabo and Thucydides considered them to be amongst the best fighting forces in the Mediterranean, while Livy describes them in reference to Hannibal as 'the flower of his army' (in roboris in omni exercitu), and Polybius was of the opinion that Iberian mercenaries had been the reason behind several Carthaginian victories during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC).

They provided cavalry as well as infantry, with Iberian mercenaries being known for their equestrian skills.

Who were the mercenaries?

So who were these mercenaries who could command respect from those who were more cultured than they, and who at times were able to keep their heads when all around were losing theirs?

Map of Iberian Tribes 300 BC
The Iberian peninsula prior to the Carthaginian invasion and partial conquest was a melange of different tribal influences (click or tap on map to view full sized)

They were the same soldiers who, for two hundred years, kept the Romans at bay, an ongoing struggle which led Cicero to describe Roman efforts as not so much fighting for gain but survival, partially due to the weather, and also the terrain which the Iberians used to their advantage.

Perhaps not too many modern Iberian holidaymakers realise just how mountainous is Iberia? One of those ranges is known as the Cantabrian Mountains, running from east to west, and forming quite an obstacle for anyone moving in from the south. The northern side has weather which is not so much Mediterranean as Atlantic, and very wet at that.

Even today the act of traversing those mountains can be quite an undertaking, with mist all the way from Santander to Burgos and, on the return by way of sunny Palencia, persistent rain in the foothills.

When it came to the people of Iberia, they combined challenging, evolved military skills and tactics in a form which would later be known as guerrilla warfare. They also possessed a mindset which consisted of bellicose determination and defiance. For instant, when defeated, the Cantabri cheerfully sang from the crosses upon which the Romans were executing them.

Mountains of the Picos de Europa in Spain
The 'Picos de Europa' is the oldest and most spectacular national park in Spain, encompassing as it does a stretch of the Cantabrian mountain range which proved so important to the resistance effort against Rome

The Romans only succeeded against the Cantabri by way of sending naval forces from an already-conquered Gaul, something Caesar had already used in Gaul after having served as governor of the western province of Hispania Ulterior. He knew what he was up against when it came to Iberian warriors.

Neither was Caesar the only Roman to learn the hard way when fighting Iberians. Others included Scipio Africanus during the Second Punic War, his adopted grandson, Scipio Aemilianus, in the matter of the Numantine War, Gnaeus Pompeius during the Sertorian War, and later the emperors Augustus and Tiberius, the latter of whom started his military career in Iberia by way of Cantabria.

And the hardy Iberians later provided important figures in Rome's own history, such as Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius, all of whom had Iberian origins, along with Roman authors such as Seneca and Martial.

In a strange way, Iberians who had been challenging various powers in the Mediterranean for the better part of eight hundred years had come out on top. Their emperors in Rome are regarded as amongst the city's best and wisest, and very much a contrast to earlier emperors such as Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero.

Another who became governor of Hispania Ulterior - like Caesar - was his uncle, Gaius Marius, who had served as one of the junior officers under Scipio Aemilianus at the siege of Numantia.

Marius' most famous victories were those over the Cimbri and Teutones, the first at the Battle of Aqua Sextiae (102 BC), followed by the Battle of Vercellae (101 BC). Both tribes were of another stock which had been giving the Romans a good deal of grief, no more literally than at the Battle of Arausio (105 BC) in which eighty thousand Romans died.

Following this rout, the tribes had headed for Iberia, but it wasn't long before they were heading back. The ancient historians have little comment about this turn of events but, according to the map of Cimbri travels, they roamed across northern Spain - in Cantabria - where the main livelihood of the Cantabri left them with little to spare in their mountainous region.

Cantabri had already gained a reputation for raiding others, particularly when the harvest had been bad, and they were the last tribe in Iberia to be quelled by the Romans.

As Livy later opined, such was the situation in Iberia that the Romans had little time for rest, even in their winter headquarters.

In the matter of Iberian warfare, this became a constant feature in ancient texts. Roman and Greek historians both agreed that the culture of the Iberian tribes was that of the warrior, constantly fighting each other before the Carthaginians had moved in.

Carpetani warriors
This artist's impression depicts a selection of Carpetani warriors in various designs of armour and costume, some bearing influences which are Carthaginian or Roman

Iberian mercenary

An Iberian warrior with a Greek helmet and the traditional circular cardiophylax stands, ready to release his javelin. This warrior is from a type of fighter which was widely known as a scutarii

Then poverty in some regions along with oppressive control from regional oligarchs drove them to seek their fortune elsewhere. The Iberians are described as men who loved war, who preferred death before capitulation, and who professed a strong loyalty (devotio) to whomever they perceived as their war leaders.

Weapons were considered sacred, often being dedicated to this or that deity prior to battle. To their owners, being killed in battle was preferable to capitulation and simply handing over their sacred weapons to the enemy. Their cultural values about war have been compared to those of Germanics, pre-Roman-period Greek warriors, and also the Celtic tribes at their strongest.

Throughout their military history there are numerous examples of besieged Iberian cities whose inhabitants chose to die of starvation, mass suicide, or through out-and-out battle rather than capitulate.

Iberian warriors kept the Romans on their toes for years. It was not until almost the end of the first century BC that Rome could finally draw breath, at least in the matter of Iberia.

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: History
Part 3: Infantry
Part 4: Cavalry
Part 5: Women Warriors


Main Sources

Martin Amalgro Gorbea - War and Society in Celtiberia (E-Keltoi UWM)

Franciso Burillo Mozota - Los Celtiberos, etnias y estados

Alberto Lorrio Alvarado - Los Celtiberos

Ángel Montenegro et allii - Historia de España 2 - colonizaciones y formación de los pueblos prerromanos (1200-218 a.C (BC))



Images and text copyright © Trish Wilson except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.