Cantabrian War

How Octavian Became Augustus Caesar

[Spain] Hispania
[Spain] Hispania. From A Classical Atlas of Ancient Geography by Alexander G. Findlay. 1849.

Dates: 29/28-19 B.C.

Rome won the Cantabrian War, in Spain, during the rule of the first emperor, Octavian, who had recently earned the title by which we know him, Augustus.

Although Augustus brought troops from Rome to the battlefront and unintentionally brought about victory, he had retired from battle when victory was achieved. Augustus left a stepson and a nephew, the aediles Tiberius and Marcellus, to hold the victory celebration.

He also left Lucius Aemilius to serve as governor when he returned home. The victory celebration was premature. So was Augustus' closing of the Janus gates of peace.

While I may have aroused your curiosity, this war is not one of the more popular ones for study. As the great 20th century, Oxford-based, Roman historian Ronald Syme wrote:

It is in no way surprising that the Spanish War of Augustus should have commanded so little attention in modern times; and it might well be asked how far such a subject can repay study. In comparison with the wars in Germany and Illyricum, with the momentous vicissitudes of the frontier policy of Augustus, the subjugation of Northwestern Spain seems dull and tedious.
"The Spanish War of Augustus (26-25 B. C.)"
Ronald Syme
The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 55, No. 4 (1934), pp. 293-317

The 4th-5th-century Christian historian Paulus Orosius [The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans] says that in 27 B.C., when Augustus and his right-hand man Agrippa were consuls, Augustus decided it was time to subdue the border-raiding Cantabri and Astures.

These tribes lived in the northern part of Spain, by the Pyrenees, in the province of Gallacia.

In his 2010 Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion, Australian writer Stephen Dando-Collins says when Augustus headed from Rome to Spain, he took some of his Praetorian Guard with him, members of which he later gave land from the conquered territory.

Augustus was embarrassed by his inability to clinch the battle, became ill, and retired to Taracco. The legates left in charge of the Roman legions in the area, Antistius and Firmius, won surrender through a combination of their skill and the enemy's treachery -- the Astures betrayed their own people.

Dando-Collins says the Cantabrian forces had resisted the type of battle formation Rome preferred because their strength lay in fighting from a distance so they could hurl their weapon of choice, the javelin:

But these peoples would neither yield to him, because they were confident on account of their strongholds, nor would they come to close quarters, owing to their inferior numbers and the circumstance that most of them were javelin-throwers....
Cassisus Dio

For extended passages from Cassius Dio and others on the Cantabrian War, see Sources.

Augustus' Departure Leads to Over-Confidence

The tribes successfully avoided being roped into other types of engagements until Augustus retired to Taracco. Then, believing Augustus had given up, they felt superior to the legates. So they allowed themselves to be drawn into the Roman-preferred, set-piece battle, with consequences disastrous to them:

Accordingly Augustus found himself in very great embarrassment, and having fallen ill from over-exertion and anxiety, he retired to Tarraco and there remained in poor health. Meanwhile Gaius Antistius fought against them and accomplished a good deal, not because he was a better general than Augustus, but because the barbarians felt contempt for him and so joined battle with the Romans and were defeated.
Cassisus Dio

Victorious, Augustus gave two of the legions the honorary title of Augusta, becoming the 1st and 2nd Augusta, according to Dando-Collins. Augustus left Spain to return home, where he closed the Janus gates for the second time in his reign, but the fourth time in Roman history, according to Orosius.

Caesar carried away this reward from his Cantabrian victory: he could now order the gates of war to be barred fast. Thus for a second time in these days, through Caesar's efforts, Janus was closed; this was the fourth time that this had happened since the founding of the City.
Orosius Book 6

Cantabrian Treachery and Punishment

Meanwhile... the surviving Cantabrians and Asturians, according to Dando-Collins, acted as they had done repeatedly before, with trickery. They told governor Lucius Aemilius they wished to give the Romans gifts in token of their acceptance of the Romans and asked him to send a sizable number of soldiers to transport the gifts.

Foolishly (or without the advantage of hindsight), Aemilius obliged. The tribes executed the soldiers, starting a new round. Aemilius renewed the fighting, won a devastating victory, and then removed the hands of the soldiers he defeated.

Even this wasn't the end of it.

Again, according to Dando-Collins, Agrippa faced rebel Cantabrians -- slaves who had escaped and returned to their mountainous homes and those of their countrymen they could persuade to join them. Although Florus says Agrippa was in Spain at an earlier date, Syme says he didn't get there until 19 B.C. Agrippa's own troops were getting on and were tired of fighting. Although Agrippa won the round of anti-Cantabrian fighting, he wasn't happy about the way the campaign had gone and so declined the honor of a triumph. To punish his less than competent troops, he demoted a legion, probably the 1st Augusta (Syme), by stripping it of its honorary title. He captured all the Cantabrians, executed the military aged men and forced all the mountain folk to live down on the plains. Rome experienced only minor difficulties afterward.

It was only in 19 B.C. that Rome could finally say it had subjugated Spain (Hispania), ending the conflict that had started about 200 years earlier during the conflict with Carthage.

Roman Legions Involved (Source: Dando-Collins):

  • 1st Legion
  • 2nd Legion (later the 2nd Augusta)
  • 4th Macedonia
  • 5th Alaudae
  • 6th Legion (later the 6th Victrix)
  • 9th Hispana
  • 10th Gemina
  • 20th Legion

Governors of the Spanish Provinces (Source: Syme)

Tarraconensis (Hispania Citerior)

Lusitania (Hispania Ulterior)

  • 27-24 C. Antistius Vetus
  • 24-22 L. Aemilius
    or L. (Aelius) Lamia
  • 22-19 C. Furnius
  • 19-17 P. Silius Nerva
  • 26-22 P. Carisius
  • 19 ? L. Sestius

Next: Ancient Sources on the Cantabrian War

The sources on this war are confusing. I have followed Syme, Dando-Collins and then the sources, as much as possible, but if you have corrections to make, please let me know. Thanks in advance.