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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

Iberian cavalry was renowned for its equestrian skills. Much of this reputation was due to the horses which Iberians bred, trained, and rode.

Contemporary writers continually extol Iberian horses, describing them as fast, strong, and well-tamed, and able to move up mountainous routes, leaving their Italic counterparts well behind.

They were also trained to remain in place should their rider dismount in the middle of a battlefield, something which was customary with Ilergetae and Celtiberian cavalry as warriors often dismounted to fight on their feet should that be a tactical necessity, and yet also have their mounts close by so that they could make a swift exit if required.

Iberian mounted warriors first served as mercenaries with the Carthaginians and later with the Romans. In the course of the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), riders from Celtiberia, Lusitania, and Vettonia were used by Hannibal as heavy cavalry in stark contrast to the more famed Numidian skirmishing cavalry.

Livy compared them favourably against the Numidians, stating that Hispanic riders were 'their equals in speed and their superior in strength and daring'. Amongst other mentions a note was made of a Celtiberian unit from the city of Uxam, one of the civitates of the Arevaci, whose riders wore helmets with jaws of beasts to scare their enemies away.

Due to their performance at the battles of Trebia and Cannae in the Second Punic War, Livy would even state that the Iberian cavalry was superior to any other in the war. It is worth noting that during the course of the war the Numidians changed sides and their charge behind the backs of the Carthaginians during the Battle of Zama (202 BC) - arriving like General Blucher during the Battle of Waterloo in the nick of time - provided Scipio with victory.

On the side of the Carthaginians were Celtiberian mercenaries who, a year before at the Battle of the Great Plains, had shown extraordinary behaviour according to Livy. Although stripped of the support of both wings of the army, the Celtiberian line stood its ground. Not that it had much choice. Its troops had no hope of safety by flight as they were ignorant of the country, and neither could they expect a pardon from the enemy commander, Scipio.

Hamilcar on Sicily
The Carthaginians and Greeks seemed pretty evenly matched in their struggle for dominance of the western Mediterranean - this time around, in 480 BC, Hamilcar's defeat on Sicily (shown here in a Victorian print of the event) merely triggered a series of conflicts

Surrounded, therefore, on all sides by the enemy, they died with obstinate resolution, falling amongst their own dead and gaining time for the Carthaginian commanders to escape.

This was not a singular event - quite the opposite. A later historian, Diodorus Siculas, explains that the Celtiberians were famed for their warfare, and it was they who stymied the Roman advance in Iberia for quite a while during the course of the second century BC, not only in one war but in three, and with the third only being brought to an end by Scipio Aemilianus through the siege of Numantia.

It was not just the Celtiberians. In the same war but farther to the west the Lusitani under their leader Viriathus - who was famed for his guerrilla tactics - and the Gallaeci in the north-west were also striking out against the Romans. All of this no doubt serves to account for Cicero's later acerbic comment that in Iberia the Roman battle had become one of survival.

The Iberians had due cause too, given the rapacious behaviour of some of Roman governors and their callous treatment of the local population. As it is, following the Roman conquest, Iberian mounted mercenaries went on to serve as auxiliaries, in auxiliary cavalry units known as 'ala', with the specific ala taking its name from the unit's parent tribe or home locality.

Such units included Ala Avaracorum (Arevaci), Ala Asturum (Astures), Ala Callaecorum (Gallaeci), and Ala Cantabrorum (Cantabri), all of which served the empire as far afield as Britain, Dacia, and Egypt.

Guerrilla and battlefield tactics

The Iberian style of warfare was very much tied to how the tribes conducted it. In the case of more developed tribes such as the Iberians of the east coast and the Celtiberians this came in the form of the conventional pitched battle, in close formation, often in a wedge.

Others such as the Lusitani and Cantabri preferred guerrilla tactics: surprise attacks and ambushes. There are tales of the Cantabri sliding down the mountains in the dead of night, in the middle of winter, to give the Romans what might be termed 'a very unpleasant wake-up call'.

As the Iberians soon discovered, in the matter of pitched battle they needed to rethink tactics given how badly they had fared against the better organised and disciplined armies of the Carthaginians and Romans.

However, when it came to these two major Mediterranean powers and their quest to extend their empires into Iberia it became a different matter. Both were subjected to the aforementioned guerrilla tactics, particularly the Romans.

Roman consuls
Rome's republic was usually headed by two consuls and the Senate, but on a very few occasions the post was replaced, usually by military appointments

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

Viriathis of the Lusitani elevated the guerrilla approach to its maximum measure of success against the invading forces, prompting its idealisation in modern times and extending it to virtually all peninsular peoples. Today Viriathus is hailed by the Portuguese as their first national hero.

Hounds into hares

Even ancient authors had much to say about this form of warfare, citing in one instance the tactic which was employed by Viriathus which was known as the concursare ('bustling'), where his forces would charge against the enemy lines, only to stop and retreat after a brief clash or without engaging at all.

This technique would be repeated as many times as was required in order to goad the opposing force into giving chase, which would then be capitalised upon, lead the chasing troops into ambushes and new sudden attacks.

The method of turning the hounds into hares which began with the feigned retreat was a speciality of the Lusitani, who used it even when their retreat was genuine.

In the case of Celtic and Iberian mounted warriors who were in the service of Dyonisius, the tyrant of Syracuse, when he sent them against the Thebans, they are recorded as conducting scattered charges into the enemy line, retreating when the enemy started to move forward, and dismounting to rest between assaults.

Samnite soldiers
Roman military tactics may have owed something to the Samnites, with this efficient and seasoned warrior force matching the Romans and bettering them in the fourth century BC

Another tactic which was sometimes used by these mercenaries was to carry a second warrior on their horse into the thick of the fray, from which point they would become part of the infantry before being extracted from the battlefield in the same way.

Rotating circles

In the case of the Cantabri, they also had tactic which became known as the circulus cantabricus, the Cantabrian circle which was also later used in medieval warfare.

This circle was composed of cavalrymen who carried javelins, moving in a single file rotating circle. When they finally faced the enemy they would let their missiles fly, the effect being a continuous stream of javelins being hurled into the enemy formation, usually infantry which was less mobile against mobile horsemen and which found it difficult to respond in kind.

This tactic was employed to harass and taunt the enemy, disrupt close formations, and often drawing the enemy into a disorganised or premature charge, a tactic which was often used against enemy infantry, especially the heavily armed and armoured slow moving forces such as the legions of the late Roman republic and early Roman empire. The Romans adopted this very tactic for their cavalry and also in their public games.

Yet another tactic was to use the local fauna as a weapon. There are records which relate to Orissus, a chieftain of the Oretani who used bulls with burning horns to scare the Carthaginian war elephants. In addition the locals would release bulls and wolves into the Roman camps to cause chaos.

A third way of causing the enemy discomfort was the last resort: suicide through poison. Warriors would carry a phial of poison about them, possibly hemlock, which would produced a pronounced and horrifying effect which had a psychological effect thanks to the post-mortem contraction of the facial muscles, a medical condition which is known as risus sardonicus. This made it look as though a warrior was supernaturally laughing at the Romans, effectively having the last laugh.

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.