The Battle of Tribola, 147 BCE

The Romans meet their match in Spanish guerrilla warfare

Viriathus was one of the most famous leaders of Ancient Spain who fought against the Romans in the 2nd Century BCE. We recreated his most famous victory – the Battle of Tribola in 147 BCE – at the Hereward Wargames Show in Peterborough in September 2016. Myself, Matt, Tom WD and Martin were assisted by Simon Miller, the author of the To The Strongest! rules that we were using for the game.

Following the expulsion of the Carthaginians from Hispania after the Second Punic War, the Romans ruled the parts of Spain under their control with a pair of governors.  One such was Praetor Gaius Vetilius, who was in charge of Hispania Ulterior (‘farther Spain’, roughly Andalucia and bordering on Portugal) in 147 BC. 

As soon as he arrived in Hispania, Praetor Vetilius took his army of 10,000 men straight into action to attack a Lusitanian foraging party inside his territory.  He surprised it and, despite the Lusitanians’ fearsome reputation as warriors, managed to kill many and trap the others.  The tribesmen were offered land and their lives if they surrendered themselves and their weapons. 

Close to an agreement with the Romans, a junior chieftain named Viriathus (or Viriato as he is remembered in modern Portugal) reminded the Lusitanians of the Romans’ history of bad faith and broken promises.  Indeed, Viriathus himself was a survivor of ‘Galba’s massacre’ of three years earlier, in which 9,000 unarmed Lusitanians had been slaughtered under a ruse by the Roman governor.  Instead of agreeing to terms with the Romans, Viriathus had himself elected as the Lusitanians’ war chief and led a daring escape in which he used feigned flights to keep the Romans busy while his entire army retreated in small groups.

Embarrassed and enraged at this change of fortune, Praetor Vetilius led his Roman forces in pursuit, but Viriathus now held the initiative.  He prepared a large scale ambush in a valley near Tribola in the pass of the Sierra de Ronda, concealing his forces on all sides.  A diversionary attack on the fast-approaching Romans brought the legions into the valley, then the Lusitanians leapt out on all sides.

It is estimated that around 4,000 of the 10,000 Romans engaged were killed, amongst them Praetor Vetilius; the story goes that he was initially captured, but then cut down when his Lusitianian captor refused to believe that an old, fat man could be the Romans’ warleader. (Another version has him being simply executed on Viriathus’ orders.)

The Battle of Tribola launched Viriathus in his career as the heroic commander of the Lusitanians.  He remained supreme leader of the tribes and fought many successful guerrilla campaigns against the Romans until he was assassinated by traitors in 139 BC.  Today he is remembered as a freedom fighter and one of the earliest ‘barbarians’ to resist and temporarily defeat the growing might of Rome.

Figures for this game were by myself and Martin, with some baggage lent by Simon.

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