June 16, 2024


Viriatus’ life & Legacy Lusitania

The Life of Viriatus

Very little is known about Viriatus (also known as Viriathus). The name Viriatus was not his real name but was a name bestowed upon him later by the Romans. It is believed that he was born between 179 BC and 170 BC in Herminius Mons (Sierra Estrela in Portugal). This has not been proven, however.

In his early years. We do know that he was a shepherd living in the mountains, and later became a brigand. This was not that unusual in those lawless years and is a route that many young men would have taken. He was described as being a strong man who was agile and possessed high levels of combat skills. Diodorus also reports that he was a plain speaker and got straight to the point.


He appears to have favoured a Celtic appearance but there are so many myths about his origins that it has become almost impossible to establish his true background.

Having moved from his early career in crime he became a warrior and eventually the greatest general that Rome ever faced. In 146 BC this man of humble origins became the leader of the Lusitanian people. A leader determined to avenge the wrongs that Rome had inflicted on his people. He managed to form a coalition of several neighbouring tribes (Vettones, the Gallaecians, and the Celtiberians). The Romans referred to him as King of the lusitanian peoples.

As a leader, he still lived humbly and shared all the spoils of war with his troops. Those that were most heroic got the biggest share. There were no uprisings against him during his entire time in power.

Not only did Viriatus fight traditional battles very successfully (Rome only came out on top once in all the battles they fought against him); he was also the leader of a guerilla army that harassed and attacked the Romans and then faded away into the night.

Knowing that they would never defeat the Lusitanians while Viriatus was leading them, Rome eventually resorted to paying some of the Lusitanians to assassinate him, in return for freedom and riches (which incidentally, Rome never gave them). This was in 139 BC.

The legacy of Viriatus

The funeral of Viriatus is described by Appian. Viriatus was dressed in splendid garments and set on a pyre which was then burned. Infantry and Cavalry marched around the pyre while it burned and his ashes were placed in an urn. Once again many legends abound about where the funeral took place and the eventual fate of the urn containing his ashes. The most accepted of these tales is that the funeral took place at Cabeço das Fráguas, Portugal, where the urn was also buried.

The death of Viriatus was the beginning of the end of resistance by the Lusitanians but his memory served to unite the people of what was later to be Portugal and parts of Spain,.

During the Peninsular War, the Portugues auxiliaries serving with the British were referred to as the Lusitanian legions. Later the Portuguese volunteers that went to fight for Franco in the civil war were called Viriatos. There is still a statue of Viriatus in Zamora (in the western part of Spain).

Viriatus’ life & Legacy Lusitania is an amazing story that has been televised both inside and outside Portugal. He will forever be a symbol fo resistance for the Iberian peninsula.

The War of Fire

The Lusitanian war had been a long struggle by the Lusitanian people against the might of Rome. The first phase of the war ended in 150 BC with the massacre of 10,000 Lusitanians who had been peacefully awaiting peace talks. One of the survivors was Viriatus who was deeply affected by Rome’s treachery and began a vendetta to avenge the Lusitanian people.

In response to the massacre, the Lusitanians entered into a new phase of the war of liberation “The War of Fire”, so named by the Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis.

Viriatus becomes leader

Viriatus was amongst an army of ten thousand men that had invaded southern Turdetania, a land to the south of the Lusitanian homeland in 149 BC. Rome had sent the Praetor Caius Vetilius to put down the rebellion. One day his forces came upon a group of Lusitanian warriors who were out searching for food. Taken by surprise the Lusitanians were taking casualties and took refuge. This refuge was surrounded by Roman troops. The leadership was on the point of negotiating an agreement with the Romans when Viriatus stepped forward and made an inspiring speech which proposed that instead of submitting to the Romans that they escape. The speech was so inspiring that Viriatus was appointed the leader. His first act as the new leader was to rescue the warriors that had been surrounded and then by spiriting away most of his army as the Romans attacked. He remained with a corp of 1,000 elite warriors which held of 10,000 Romans. He eventually led his troops away and his victory (saving virtually the whole Lusitanian army) firmly entrenched his position as leader.

Spirited Fight

The war against the Romans was fought in two modes bellum when he fought a conventional war, and latrocinium, which as a guerilla war. The success of this guerilla war is demonstrated when Viriatus killed 4,000 out of 10,000 troops led by Caius Vetilius in Trobola, including the leader himself. Following this defeat, Rome hired mercenaries from the neighbouring Celtiberian tribe. This army was also destroyed by the Lusitanians. As were the subsequent attacks by Gaius Plautius, Claudius Inimanus, and Gaius Negidius.

Viriatus’ success inspired the Numantine people and some Gauls to rebel against the Romans. Viriatus was certainly a thorn in the side of Rome so they sent a new expedition to defeat him led by Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus. This force comprised of 15,000 troops and 2,000 cavalries. The plan was to reinforce the forces of Gaius Laelius Sapiens. The initial results were quite good for the Romans and the Lusitanians were forced to retreat. After this initial victory, the Romans led by Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus.returned to Rome. The result of this error was that the Lusitanians were able to press forward again and access lands in modern-day Spain.

These successes together with the success that the Celtiberian tribes of Hispania Citerior were also enjoying had become a major concern for Rome. Their response was to send Quintus Fabius Maximus Servilianus ( one of the top generals) to Iberia. However, he led his troops into an ambush and was forced to agree on a deal giving the Lusitanians rule over the lands that they had control of. This agreement secured the lives of the Roman troops. The agreement was ratified by the Roman senate and Viriatus was declared to be “amicus Populi Romani”, or an ally of the Roman people.

Roman betrayal

Despite this declaration of Viriatus being an ally, Rome once again was dishonest in their dealings and Quintus Servilius Caepio, who was appointed as commander of Roman forces in Iberia was unhappy at this and after campaigning at the Senate, he was given permission to secretly harass the Lusitanians.

The result was that the treaty was short-lived and eventually Rome declared war again. The Romans knowing that the heart of the Lusitanian resistance was Viriatus had him assassinated by traitors with the Lusitanian hierarchy. As a final twist, the assassins when asking for their payment were sent away with nothing.

The war did not end with the death of Viriatus and Tantalus. Later the Romans were to give the Lusitanians the original lands they had asked for before the massacre. Eventually, by the rule of Augustus, the Lusitanians had to all intents become Romans, using the Roman language and adopting their culture.

The legacy of Viriatus

Viriatus is acknowledged as the greatest leader of any that had fought against Rome. In the entire periods of his leadership, the Romans only defeated him once and it was the only treachery that eventually destroyed him. Viriatus became a symbol of Portuguese nationality and has an enduring legacy.

Conquest of Lusitania by Rome, Death of Lusitania

Lusitania was an ancient Roman province on the Iberian peninsula, approximately located where modern Portugal is now. During the second Punic war, Rome sent troops to the Iberian peninsula to block Carthaginian reinforcements from supporting Hannibal in the Italian peninsula.

This began a Roman interest in Iberia and was the start of 250 years of fighting. The Lusitanian war is one of the most written about episodes of the Roman conquest. A conquest that was marked by the fierce opposition from local tribes.

Lusitania possessed rich farming lands that were very productive and Rome imposed heavy taxes. The Romans also directly exploited minerals from the area. During the period 209 BC and 169 BC the Romans looted 4 tons of gold and 800 tons of silver from the local tribes. Towns were forced to hand over (and deliver) their treasures to Rome and also to send large amounts of cereals.

This exploitation was sure to lead to a revolt and in 194 BC the Lusitanians revolted against Rome and the peninsula was divided between areas which supported Roman rule and those which did not. During this period the “peace” was shattered on numerous occasions by either Romans or Iberians breaking the treaty.

In 152 BC Marcus Atilius conquered Oxthracae, which was Lucitania’s largest town. As soon as Marcus Atilius had returned to Rome the Lusitanians rebelled once again and broke the treaty. Part of this rebellion was the attack on tribes that remained Roman subjects and had supported the Romans.

In 151 BC Celtiberians, who had become allies to Rome pleaded with Rome to punish the rebels and to maintain a permanent military presence in Iberia to protect them. Later in the year, the Romans made a treaty with the Caucaei tribe, and then immediately ordered his men to massacre all the adult males of the tribe. Very few of the 30,000 males survived. This began a campaign to depopulate Lusitania with a two-pronged attack from the east and south. With a war on two fronts, the Lusitanian troops were suffering heavy casualties and sent a delegation to negotiate a peace treaty. Part of the terms of the treaty was for the Lusitanians to go out into the open country and leave their towns.

It proved to be yet another Roman trap and the unarmed Lusitanians were attacked and the massacre of all the males of military age was commenced. Just a few survived and these were sold as slaves in Gaul.

Of course, this sparked off yet another revolt when the entire Lusitanian people gathering and waging war against Rome. This rebellion did not fare to well and just as it was on the point of defeat Viriatus took over leadership of his people and was successful in continuing this war of attrition against Rome.