Quintus Sertorius was born of a noble family in the country of the Sabines. His father died when he was very young, but his mother, whose name was Rhea, took excellent care of him and had him well educated. He was fond of oratory, and gained a reputation for his eloquence even in his youth; but his attention was early turned to war, and he met with success as a soldier.
He served first under Cæpio when the Cimbri and Teutones invaded Gaul. The Romans were put to flight, and Sertorius received several wounds, besides losing his horse; but he swam across the river Rhone in his armor and saved himself. The second time the Cimbri and Teutones came with their hundreds of thousands of men, threatening death and destruction on all sides, Sertorius volunteered to act as a spy in the enemy's camp, while Marius led the army. This required no little courage, for the enemy was a strange one to the Romans and a ferocious-looking race that might have terrified even the bravest.
Sertorius disguised himself as one of them so well that he was not discovered, and thus he was enabled to mingle with their troops and find out not only what they proposed doing, but their method of fighting and their habits. The report he carried to Marius was of the greatest importance, and in the war which followed he was so brave and able that he was advanced by his general to a position of honor and trust.
After the war with the Cimbri and Teutones was over, he was sent to Spain under Didius, the Roman general, in command of a thousand men, and took up his winter quarters at Castulo, a town of New Castile; but his soldiers behaved in such a disorderly manner and were so offensive on account of frequent drunkenness that the inhabitants lost all respect for them. They therefore called in the aid of the Gyriscenians, their neighbors, and attacked the Roman soldiers in their lodgings, slaying a great number of them.
Sertorius escaped with several hundred of his men and marched around Castulo to the gate by which the Gyriscenians had entered. It happened, fortunately for him, to be open; so, placing a guard there, he took possession of the city and killed all the inhabitants who were able to bear arms. Then he ordered his own men to put on the clothing and take the arms of those they had slain, and, thus disguised, to follow him to the city of the Gyriscenians.
The gates were thrown open at the approach of the supposed friends, but the Gyriscenians were soon undeceived, for many were killed; the rest surrendered and were sold as slaves. This manœuvre made Sertorius famous in Spain; and when he returned to Rome he was appointed quæstor to a part of Gaul. As the Marian war was on the point of breaking out, Sertorius's duties were to raise soldiers and provide arms, and a more active or diligent officer could scarcely have been found. Unlike most commanders, he continued to be a soldier at the same time, and exposed himself in the ranks so freely that in one of the engagements he lost an eye. But he gloried in this, for he always said that it was a badge of bravery of which he was more proud than a king of his coronet. Everybody treated him with the greatest respect, and when he entered the theatre he was always received with applause.
After Marius fled to Africa, at the time of the civil war in Rome, Sertorius joined Cinna's party, so when Octavius, the other consul, was victorious, Cinna and Sertorius left the city. They did not remain away long, however, but collected troops in other parts of Italy, and, being joined by Marius on his return, went back to Rome. The horrible scenes that ensued are recounted in the life of Marius, and need not be repeated. The conduct of his band of ruffians became so intolerable that Sertorius attacked them with his soldiers, as they lay encamped, and killed the whole body, consisting of four thousand. This was done for the relief of the city and for the good of his countrymen, after all argument and persuasion with Cinna and Marius had failed; for Sertorius never put any man to death to gratify personal revenge.
Not long after, Sertorius returned to Spain; but Sylla, who became consul at Rome after the defeat of the Marian party, sent a powerful force to oppose him, and he was obliged to fly to Africa for safety. He landed on the coast of Mauritania, but so many of his men were killed by the natives when they went ashore to get water that he was forced to make his way back to Spain.
On the journey he fell in with some Cilician pirates, whom he persuaded to join him, and together they forced themselves through a guard belonging to Sylla, and landed on the island of Ivica. Soon after, Annius, who was in command of Sylla's troops, appeared in the harbor with a numerous fleet and five thousand men. A battle ensued, and many of Sertorius's ships were driven on the rocks by a violent storm. Then Sertorius was in a dreadful plight. He could not go out to sea because of the storm, his vessel being a light one, and the enemy prevented his landing; so after being tossed about on the waves for ten days he escaped at last, and ran into a harbor on the Atlantic coast of Spain. There he met some seamen who had just arrived from the Canary Islands, and they gave such a glowing account of the wonderful climate, inhabitants, and productions of those "Islands of the Blest," as they were called, that, worn out with fatigue and disappointment, Sertorius longed to go there to rest, at a distance from the turmoil of war.
But the Cilician pirates wanted neither peace nor repose, so they refused to accompany him, and sailed back to the coast of Africa. Sertorius followed, and fought a battle with Paccianus, who had been sent by Sylla to assist a Moorish king to recover his throne. Sertorius defeated and killed him, and took nearly all his army prisoners; but he very wisely restored to the natives all their possessions and government, taking nothing for himself but what they offered him, and thus making himself exceedingly popular.
While he was considering where to turn next, the Lusitanians sent ambassadors to invite him to command their army against Sylla's troops, for they felt that Sertorius was to be trusted both for courage and judgment. He accepted the invitation, and left Africa for their country at once.
On his arrival he was appointed general of an immense army, many of the troops having volunteered because they wished to serve under so active and humane a leader. Sertorius carried on the war against four Roman generals, and fought with such skill and activity, appearing now here, now there, at most unexpected moments, that he won brilliant victories at every turn.
The Spaniards admired and loved him, but in order to gain their confidence before he began to fight their battles, he had made use of an interesting bit of artifice. He had been presented by a countryman with a milk-white fawn, of which he soon became very fond. It was so tame and gentle that it would follow him about wherever he went, and come to him when he called. Knowing that uncivilized people are apt to be superstitious, Sertorius decided to make use of this quality to gain favor with them, so he told them that the fawn had been presented to him by the goddess Diana, who was a huntress, and that it told him many secrets. If perchance he received private news that the enemy were giving trouble in any part of the country under his command, he gave out that the fawn had informed him of it in his sleep, and had charged him to keep the troops prepared. When he got notice of a victory gained by any commander under him, the messenger was kept out of sight, and the fawn was led forth crowned with flowers, while the people were told to rejoice at the good news which was to come. A few hours later the messenger was produced, and made to announce the victory which the fawn was supposed to have whispered to the general beforehand.
Sertorius did more for the Spaniards than merely fight their battles; for he taught them to keep their ranks and use their arms as the Romans did, instead of imitating savages in their mode of fighting. He founded schools, where the children of the nobility were instructed in Grecian and Roman literature, rewarded those who studied diligently, and he also introduced among the citizens the attire of his own countrymen. The soldiers were delighted with their gold and silver helmets, embroidered vests and coats, and the noble citizens were no less so when they saw their sons walking to school in fine gowns bordered with purple, particularly as Sertorius bore the whole expense of these, as well as of the instruction and rewards. Everybody loved Sertorius, and the boys who won the rewards, which consisted of golden balls worn suspended from the neck, were very proud of them. It was Sertorius himself who made the examinations and awarded the prizes.
Metellus was one of the Roman generals whom Sertorius had defeated in Spain, and after that happened Pompey was sent with fresh troops. When the soldiers that Sertorius had placed in a certain part of the country under Perpenna Vento heard that Pompey was coming, they took up their arms and demanded to be led against him at once, threatening otherwise to go to Sertorius, who, they declared, was able to defend himself and those that served him. So Perpenna, who feared to oppose Pompey, was obliged to yield, though he was jealous of Sertorius and objected to adding to his army.
Such a tremendous force was thus gathered together that it was almost impossible to control them, particularly as the larger part had been thieves and bandits, who knew nothing of discipline. They had several engagements of their own accord with the enemy, but were defeated each time and rescued, by Sertorius, until their confidence in him increased, and they became willing to listen to his advice. One day, in order to illustrate his plan, he caused two horses to be led into the field in the presence of his army. One was a poor, old, feeble animal, the other a strong, large one, with a remarkably thick, long tail. By the weak horse stood a robust, able-bodied man, by the strong one a weak little man. At a given signal, the strong man began to pull the weak horse by the tail, as though he would pull it out by the root, while the other man pulled out the hairs of the long, flowing tail one by one. The spectator, laughed heartily at the efforts of the strong man, who tugged and tugged without any result, and was forced at last to give up by the time the little man had stripped the large horse of every hair.
Then Sertorius said, "You see, my friends and fellow-soldiers how much more can be accomplished by perseverance than by force, and that things separated are not so strong as when united. Time is the friend of those who use their judgment and wait, and the enemy of those who rush forward on improper occasions." It was with such examples and speeches that Sertorius taught the barbarians to be less fierce, and to watch for favorable opportunities, rather than rush forward blindly, and so his influence grew.
Now the great Pompey was coming,—Pompey, the noble Roman general who had been honored with a triumph before he was old enough to have a beard. He passed over the mountains and pitched his camp near that of Sertorius. In every attack Sertorius had the advantage, and proved himself such a wonderful general that his fame reached even to Rome.
It was increased by the siege of Lauron. As soon as Pompey heard that Sertorius intended to besiege that place, he marched with his whole army to the foot of a hill a short distance off, and sent word to the citizens "to rest perfectly easy and watch him from their walls while he besieged Sertorius." When that general heard of it he laughed, and said, "I will teach that scholar of Sylla," so he called Pompey in ridicule, "that a general ought to look behind him rather than before;" he was then on the top of the hill, and pointed towards a body of six thousand soldiers in the camp, left there to seize Pompey in the rear as soon as he should begin the attack.
But Pompey dared not begin, so he had the mortification of seeing Lauron burned, while the inhabitants surrendered to his enemy, and said, tauntingly, "Pompey was at hand and could almost warm himself at the flames, but could offer no assistance."
At the end of a battle which took place between Pompey and Sertorius afterwards, the white fawn was missing, and its master was sorely grieved. However, during the night it was found wandering at some distance from the camp and brought back. Sertorius promised a large reward to the finder if he would tell no one of it, and immediately hid the fawn. A few days later he appeared in public with a cheerful countenance, and said that he had had a dream in which the gods had promised a piece of great good fortune. He then took his seat and began to speak to those who had brought petitions. Suddenly the fawn, that had been let loose by its keeper, came leaping towards Sertorius, laid its head upon his knee, and licked his right hand as it had been taught to do. Sertorius stroked the animal, and received it as though he had not seen it before, while tears filled his eyes, and the people gazed at him with wonder as a creature beloved of the gods.
Sertorius fought several more battles both with Pompey and Metellus, and won nearly all of them, so that it began to be generally believed in Rome that he would be back there before many months. Metellus was one of the greatest of Roman commanders, but he was getting old, and felt the superiority of Sertorius so keenly that he was anxious to get him out of the way; he therefore publicly offered a large reward to any Roman who should kill him.
Meanwhile, Sertorius gathered about him the senators who had fled from Rome to him, and established a government with Roman laws and institutions, giving all the offices to his own countrymen in order that he might prove that it was his purpose to restore liberty to them, not to make the Spaniards powerful against them. Thus he showed himself a true patriot, for he loved his country and wanted to return to it. When he was at the height of his power he sent word to Metellus and Pompey that he was ready to lay down his arms and go into private life if only he might be permitted to return home, declaring that he would rather live as the meanest of citizens in Rome than as commander of all other cities out of it. One reason for this was the deep affection he bore his mother, but he was not gratified by seeing her again, for she died while he was in exile. When he heard the sad news he was overwhelmed with grief, and would not leave his tent for seven days. He was prevailed upon to do so at last by his principal officers and other persons of note, who begged him to continue the management of public affairs.
Sertorius had created a powerful kingdom among strangers, which he had defended for more than ten years against the army of Rome under her ablest commanders. At last Perpenna, whose jealousy had grown year by year, and who was ambitious to command the army himself, began to conspire against his life, and went among the Romans trying to rouse their discontent. They dared not attack Sertorius openly, but did what they could to injure him in the eyes of the Spaniards until the conspiracy gained strength.
Letters were sent to the general announcing a great victory gained by one of his officers. The news was false, but Sertorius was deceived, and offered a sacrifice in honor of the joyful tidings. Afterwards, Perpenna invited all who were present to a supper, and while it was going on some of the conspirators pretended to be drunk and quarrelled among themselves. This displeased Sertorius so much, for he always insisted upon good behavior when he was present, that he threw himself back upon his couch, as though he wished not to see or hear what was going on. As he did so, Perpenna upset a glass of wine, which had been agreed upon as a signal. Thereupon the man who sat next to Sertorius struck him with his sword, and before he could recover from the blow threw himself upon his breast, and held both his arms while others killed him.
Perpenna then declared himself general of the army, but soon, proving himself unfit for the position, he was taken prisoner by Pompey, and executed as an enemy to his country. This ended the war in Spain; for all the men who had sided with the traitor were put to death also.