TOP 100 REVIEWERon 7 October 2013
This is a mostly good and entertaining overview of Sertorius', his career, and, in particular, of the long war he fought in Iberia against the Sullan Roman commanders. The book is easy to read. The style is clear, accessible and "geared" to the so-called "general reader". Even the maps are quite good, with one of them clearly showing the geography of Iberia. One of them, in particular, shows rather well how mountainous it was, and therefore what a challenge and how dangerous it was for legionary formations made up of heavy infantry to march through them, and to pursue more lightly and more mobile enemies across terrain that they knew so much better. The author also clearly knows his topic and seems to have researched it in-depth.
The first fifty pages of the book set the scene in three chapters. The first presents the youth, of which we know very little, and the early years of Sertorius as a young officer serving under Marius against the Cimbri and the Teutones and then serving as a military tribune in Spain, where he ruthlessly ensured "Roman order", that is with "generous helpings of brutality and massacre", to use the author's own words. The second chapter deals with Sertorius' role during both the so-called "Social War" and then, on the side of Marius, in the first Civil War against Sulla. The third chapter is a short but quite comprehensive summary of the state of Iberia in the First century BC and what had happened to it since the end of the Second Punic War, after Rome had taken over Carthage's possessions.
As in the rest of the book, the main points are rather well made, but the "popular" and entertaining way of presenting them sometimes comes at a price which is paid in several ways. One is a tendency to sometimes oversimplify or to "cut corners", most likely because the author want to cut a long story short. One example, among others, is the somewhat simplistic presentation of the outcome of the "Social War" that Rome had to wage against its Italian allies which the author resumes by stating that "Rome won her war by surrendering." In fact, after a series of defeats which are well presented in the book, Rome divided the Italians by coming to terms with some of them, offering them Roman citizenships, and therefore isolating the "diehards", which is something rather different.
Another little issue is the author's tendency to exaggerate, at times. Sertorius is therefore presented as "having had enough" of the Civil War and almost moving to Iberia whereas in reality he was appointed governor and in semi-disgrace after having blatantly disobeyed orders and attempting to sabotage negotiations with Sulla whom he distrusted. That he happened to have been correct in his judgment did not really help his case. Also, the author tends to portray Sertorius as a "hero", at times, and just like Plutarch, and qualifies him as a "genius". While certainly a talented general and politician who took risks and was ready to physically expose himself, he was neither one nor the other, as the author also shows through his narrative, and during his more sober moments. Another lack of consistency arises when the author repeatedly presents Sertorius as walloping Pompey the "little boy", before stating that the adversaries respected each other.
The main points that made Sertorius quite outstanding among Roman commanders are clearly made, however, with a detailed account of each campaign, although, as the author acknowledges, some reconstructions are quite speculative, given the gaps in the sources. He managed to harness a large portion of both the Celtiberians and the Lusitanians to his cause and have them fight against the Sullan faction which controlled Rome, although he was himself a Roman and his officers were Roman exiles that had lost out during the previous round of the Civil War. He was no "freedom fighter" whatsoever and was not fighting to free the peninsula from Roman rule. He also, as the author shows rather well, promoted Romanisation as a tool to control his followers. In military terms, he associated the use of heavy infantry, whether legionaries, of which he only had a limited supply, with Iberian forces of lighter infantry and cavalry and the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics inherited from Iberian war-leaders before him, Viriathus in particular.
Another point, which is not entirely clear in the book, is whether he could reasonably expect to win, or, at least, force the Senate to pardon him and his fellow exiles so that they could return and be rehabilitated. The book does clearly show that, at one point after the death of Sulla, he might have hoped for a regime change in Rome. However, the relentlessness of both the Senate and of the two army commanders opposed against him - Pompey, but, above all, the much more experienced Metellus Pius - ensured that overtime they would grind down his resistance, even if it took years (eight of them were needed), even if the whole peninsula was devastated as a consequence, and despite his opportunistic alliance with both Cilician pirates and Mithridates. At the end, with his troops starting to desert and Sertorius turning into a paranoid tyrant, some of his own companions - the Roman exiles - murdered him and, as the author states, "the Sertorian war basically ended with the death of Sertorius."
This is a good and entertaining overview of Sertorius and his times which makes almost all the main points. It is accordingly worth a solid four stars, although not five, given the "glitches" mentioned above.