A new man
Quintus Sertorius was born around 125 BC in a family from Nursia, a town from the nowadays province of Perugia. Coming from an undistinguished family, he manages to study well enough to become a reputed orator and jurist, a first step on the Cursus Honorum towards greater achievements.
However, his first military experience turns rather sour: in 105 BC, he is at the battle of Arausio, where an alliance of Germanic tribes which has devastated Gaul and threatens to enter Italy mercilessly crushes the army sent to repulse it. Sertorius is one of the few of the 80.000 men to manage to escape, in the words of Plutarch:
and after the Romans had been defeated and put to flight, though he had lost his horse and had been wounded in the body, he made his way across the Rhone, swimming, shield and breastplate and all, against a strongly adverse current; so sturdy was his body and so inured to hardships by training.
The defeat at Arausio had no immediate consequence for the Romans other than stoking the fire of discontentment the plebs were feeling for the corrupt and inefficient elites. So, in order to shake things up, the Romans elected consul for a second time Gaius Marius, the conqueror of Jugurtha, and a “new man” to whom Sertorius could relate to and someone to whom his fate would be linked forever from now on.
When the Germanic tribes came back from their expedition in Spain and tried to invade Italy, Marius’ army was ready and annihilates them in two battles at Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae (102 BC).
Far from Rome and Back
Basking in the glory of these victories, Marius is elected Consul 6 times on a row. He is adored by the plebs and despised by the old money Senate, so much so that Rome is on the brink of a civil war between the optimates and the populares.
The Civil War
This is where everything went terribly wrong for Marius and his cause and his legend. Most of the men he had raised in Africa were former slaves and he let them loose in the capital with the mission to kill all of Sulla’s supporters. After a few days of this bloodbath, Sertorius, in command of the more disciplined and experienced troops of the army, eventually ordered his men to execute the executioners. Sertorius seems to have been properly appalled by the ruthlessness of Marius and made his best to try to reason with Marius and his friend Cinna.
When the war had been brought to an end, Cinna and Marius were filled with insolence and all bitterness, and made the evils of war appear as gold to the Romans; Sertorius alone, as we are told, neither killed any one to gratify his anger, nor waxed insolent with victory, but actually rebuked Marius, and by private interviews and entreaties made Cinna more moderate.
Away for good
The mixture of incompetence, cruelty and inefficiency of the popular regime was too much for the war hero Sertorius, who saw the writing on the wall and got himself elected as pro-consul of Spain in 83 BC because:
there was no reason why Sertorius should remain to see matters go from bad to worse owing to the inferior judgement of those who had superior power. At last, therefore, altogether despairing of the city, he set out for Spain, in order that, in case he should succeed in firmly establishing his power there, he might afford a refuge to those of his friends who were worsted at Rome.
By 82 BC, Sulla retakes Rome, wipes out the popular party. Sertorius is now the last man standing in the opposition, which is to say: a fugitive and a marked man.
To be continued...