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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

While there are no written records prior to the fifth century BC which relate to Iberian mercenaries, it is certain that they were already in service prior to that period.

Such records provide certain problems for modern historians, given their constant reference to the term iberus or iberi, a term which was used for all the people and tribes in Iberia, whereas more properly it should refer only to the actual Iberians themselves, those tribes which occupied a broad swathe of the eastern coast of today's Spain and the immediate hinterland.

The mercenaries themselves did not enlist individually but in small units which were made up of friends, relatives, and neighbours, under the leadership of their own commanders and retaining their own weapons, tactics, and traditions.

The main centres of recruitment were Gadir (Cadiz), Empuries (a Greek colony in Spain), Cástulo (a mining town near Linares), Baria, and the Balearic Islands. Once there the recruitment process would be undertaken by special emissaries from Carthage, Syracuse (Sicily), or whichever Mediterranean power was doing the recruiting, as the fame of these mercenaries was known across the Mediterranean.

They were known for their toughness, discipline, and skill, as well as for the quality of their weapons, and no less for their ferocity, to the point that there were regions in which it was believed that those mercenaries who were in the service of Hannibal were so depraved as to practise cannibalism.

To begin with, their contractors were either Carthaginians or those in Sicily who were known as the tyrants, but service later extended to Greece and, by way of auxiliary units, Rome and the Roman empire.

Archaeological evidence suggested other areas of operation such as southern Italy (amongst the Greek colonies) and Epirus and Macedonia to the north of the older Greek states.

Even wealthier tribes such as the Turdetani and Bastetani were willing to become mercenaries, with Cástulo and Baria respectively being within their territory. In the case of their Iberian and Sicilian employers, they were often employed as guards or, in the case of the Sicilian tyrants, bodyguards.

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)

There are also records which mention their service and their post-service period. Many chose not to return home but instead to settle where they had served, along the lines of later settled mercenaries who were referred to as foederati.

In the case of Balearic slingers, they soon obtained a somewhat notorious reputation for living day-to-day and not so much spending their money as squandering it.

Those who did return home came back to full tribal recognition and prestige as one who had upheld tribal tradition as the greatest exponents of warrior culture, and some of those returning mercenaries may have had their role to play in the struggle against the Romans.

Fifth century BC

The first mention of Iberian mercenaries is in connection with the Sicilian wars of 580-265 BC which matched Carthaginians against Greek colonies, mainly Syracuse.

At the beginning Rome was a very minor player, still being ruled by kings, but at the end it was very much able to take on the Carthaginians, replacing Greeks as the main threat.

Carthaginian empire-building saw them quite early on taking control of Ibossim (Ibiza) and Sardinia. The first recorded involvement of Iberians is at the First Battle of Himera in 480 BC, by which time the Carthaginians had already moved into the north-western corner of Sicily.

Early Rome
Early Rome would have looked more like a large, walled village than the collection of grand stone edifices which are more familiar from the imperial period

Those Greeks who had already settled the island were behaving pretty much the same way as mainland Greeks, expanding their political and commercial domain at the expense of their neighbours whilst keeping alive the feud between Ionians and Dorians.

In Sicily, Ionian Greeks on the whole had friendly relations with the native Sicilians and Phoenicians, but the Dorian Greek colonies were comparatively more aggressive, expanding inland from the coast at the expense of the natives.

Conflicts had erupted between individual Greek colonies and between the natives and Greeks, though these were mostly localised affairs. Trade also flourished between the natives, the Greeks, and the Phoenicians, with the Greek colonies becoming prosperous. This prosperity enabled some of the Greek cities to start extending their power, ultimately leading to the First Sicilian War.

By 480 BC, the Dorians had become the dominant Greek power in Sicily, notably through people like Gelon who had taken over Syracuse using terror tactics such as enslavement, deportation, and even ethnic cleansing to enforce his rule, and also through Theron, ruler of Akragas (Agrigento) with both having married into each other's families, thereby creating a united front against the native Sicilians and Ionian Greeks of Sicily, with the latter seeking alliances with the Carthaginians.

By 483 BC Sicily was already split three ways, with the Ionians in the north, the Carthaginians in the west, and the Dorians in the south and east.

Greek pottery from Sicily
By the time of Ducetius' short-lived fifth century BC Sicilian empire, the native Sicani pottery was virtually indistinguishable from the Greek forms which had influenced it

Matters came to a head when Thelon deposed Terillus, then ruler of Himera, and Terillus, backed by Ionian allies, appealed to Carthage for help, which was then ruled by Hamilcar I of the Magonid dynasty.

In the event it was another three years before Hamilcar made his move, and that coincided with the arrival of Xerxes of Persia in mainland Greece - the battles of Himera and Thermopylae were fought in the same year. There was talk at the time of collusion between the Carthaginians and the Persians.

For the Carthaginians, whose forces included Iberian mercenaries, the expedition to Sicily turned out to be a complete disaster, with Hamilcar dying during or just after the battle. Their rout at Himera was to cripple them militarily for the next few decades.

This was not before the Iberians had made their mark though, standing their ground when Gelon and his forces moved into the Carthaginian camp, inflicting heavy losses on the Greeks until Thelon returned to attack the Iberians from the rear.

The next mention of the Iberians is towards the end of the fifth century BC, again from Sicily and during the Second Sicilian War and the subsequent four wars, all in rapid succession with mixed fortunes for both Carthaginians and Sicilian-based Greeks.

The wars were more positive for the Iberians who had been instrumental in the capture of the Sicilian cities of Selinunte and Himera, where they headed the assault, and the battles of Akragas, Gela, Camarina and, last but not least, Syracuse, by which time they had come to the attention of the mainland Greeks who were already embroiled in the Peloponnesian War.

One of those mainland Greeks was Alcibiades, whose recruitment efforts in Sicily saw the Iberians moving into mainland Greece and becoming involved in local conflicts there, such as the Athenian coup of 411 BC.

Fourth century BC

This century saw the involvement of Iberians who became prominent both in mainland Greece and in their continued involvement in Sicily.

In the case of mainland Greece, Iberians were involved in the Corinthian War (397-385 BC) on the side of Sparta and opposed by an alliance of Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos, supported by the Achaemenid empire. That war ended with the Persians finally gaining control of Ionia on the east side of the Aegean and the Spartans coming out on top.

That was followed by the Theban-Sparta War (378-382 BC), with Thebes against an Athens-Sparta alliance in which Celtiberian horsemen made their mark. The Celtiberians came to mainland Greece at the behest of Dionysius of Syracuse. Xenophon of Athens wrote the following about them:

But the horsemen sent by Dionysius, few though they were, scattering themselves here and there, would ride along the enemy's line, charge upon them and throw javelins at them, and when the enemy began to move forth against them, would retreat... if any pursued them far from the Theban army, they would press upon these men when they were retiring, and by throwing javelins work havoc with them, and thus they compelled the entire army, according to their own will...

What Xenophon was not to know was that these were the very same military tactics which would later be employed against both Carthaginians and Romans.

The Greek colony of Motya
The colony of Motya (modern San Pantaleo), just off the western coast of Sciliy and close to Syracuse, changed hands twice during the revolt, with Ducetius of the Siculi at the centre of the fighting in his attempts to oppose Greek dominance

An example of the Greek phalanx
The phalanx

The Greek phalanx was a column formation of heavy infantry armed with long spears, or pikes, 1.8 to 3.7 metres long and much longer than spears of the past, and swords. The men carried a round shield called a hoplon, from which the infantry took their name; hoplites. They wore metal armour on their chests, forearms, and shins at least, plus a metal helmet which covered the head down to the neck. A typical phalanx unit was ten men wide by ten men deep, but many such units could be combined into one larger unit.

As for Sicily, they continued to make their presence felt in more ways than one, starting with the Third Sicilian War (398-393 BC). The main contenders here were Himilico of Carthage and Dionysius I of Syracuse, another case of interchangeable fortune which ended with a peace treaty between Carthage and Syracuse.

When, in 396 BC, Himilico pulled out, abandoning his mercenaries, it was the Iberians who survived the subsequent massacre by grouping together and marching to Syracuse where they offered Dionysius their services.

Not that it was plain sailing for this Mediterranean power as Plato discovered when he visited Dionysius around 361 BC. The Iberians were undertaking what today would be termed 'industrial action', brought about by Dionysius' attempt to reduce their pay. The Iberians first marched to the local acropolis, singing their own war paean, and then the palace, frightening Dionysius II to such an extent that he not only failed to reduce their pay but increased it.

In 361 BC, Dionysius 'the Younger' forced Plato to live with the Iberian mercenary troops. Years later he would recall that they drank wine without mixing it with water. Even Iberian mercenaries in Carthage were not afraidto make their voices heard.

Ruins of Carthage
The city of Carthage existed in its original glory for at least four hundred and twenty-eight years before it was destroyed by the Romans - and possibly another two centuries before that as a developing colony which was founded by Phoenicians

The Mercenary War followed the fall-out from the aftermath of the First Punic War (264-241 BC), which was only settled before the outbreak of the Second Punic War (218-202 BC).

It has to be wondered, when the Carthaginians finally moved into Iberia, whether it was to extend their rule there or simply to keep the Iberians on their side, including the Balearics mercenaries whose involvement in the Third Battle of Himera (311 BC) resulted in victory for the Carthaginians.

Third century BC

In 274 BC Hiero II brought an end to the Iberian presence in Syracuse. Following the arrival of the Carthaginians in Iberia around 237 BC, under the aegis of Hamilcar Barca, many Iberians moved in to support the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War.

It was not long, however, before some Iberians began to defect to the Roman cause, when some of the mercenaries took up service with Rome and then also following subsequent Carthaginian defeats not in Italy but Iberia. Forces here involved not only mercenaries but leading Iberian tribes such as the Turdetani.

By 206 BC Scipio, later Scipio Africanus, had become the latest general to discover that it was better to have the Iberians on one's own side rather than someone else's side. Even then the Iberians had some nasty surprises in store.

Those who had remained with Hannibal found themselves taking part in the Battle of the Great Plains (203 BC). Following the Carthaginian rout, the Iberians stood their ground, choosing to die rather face than the inevitable consequences of defeat and capitulation.

Second and first centuries BC

Despite the arrival of the Romans in Iberia, their mercenaries remained employed with them. They were present in 197 BC, the year of the 'Great Revolt', when the Turdetani brought in thirty thousand Celtiberians to take on the Romans.

While the Romans finally succeeded in quelling that revolt, from then on it was a continuous battle with the defiant Iberians for the next two hundred years, through the Celtiberian Wars, the Lusitani Wars, the Sertorian War and, finally, the Cantabrian Wars which did not end until 17 BC. There were also other campaigns such as those in the Alpines and Magna Germania which had to be put on hold until Iberia could be brought under control.

Roman empire

Despite the complete takeover of Iberia by the Romans, Iberian mercenaries continued to serve, perhaps in a case of 'if you can't beat them, join them', They enlisted as auxiliaries in the Roman imperial army, starting under Augustus in one of three units.

There were three basic types of auxiliary regiment:

  • alae, which contained only cavalry and consisted nominally of 480 soldiers
  • cohortes peditatae or simply cohortes, which contained only infantry and consisted nominally of 480 soldiers
  • cohortes equitatae, which contained infantry with an attached cavalry contingent and consisted nominally of 600 soldiers, of which 480 were infantry and 120 were cavalry

Originally these units were named either after the tribe or the province they came from but, during the Flavian era, entrance was opened to anyone who was not a Roman citizen.

A bust of King Leonidas of Sparta
  If you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for foreign things. For me it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots.

King Leonidas  
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.