Numantia–or Don’t Mess with Rome

The Roman Empire was a nice package of countries and peoples. But what happened if you didn’t want to become part of it?

The native Spaniards of a little town called Numantia decided that they were damned if they would be bullied by Rome.

They were not damned, as it turned out, but they were annihilated. Rome itself admired them for generations.

Numancia, a painting by Alejo Vera.   The Numantinos kill themselves rather than surrender to Rome. (public domain photo)

A Visit to the Old Town

Now from the top of a pretty hill the guide (also pretty) tells you to look one mile out.

The ruins of Numantia today (public domain photo by Txo)

“See that red marker?” she says.  “That was where one of General Scipio’s camps were, with its tower.” Then she points a little to the left. “And that post marks Camp Two. If you look around you will see the other five.
“The camps were connected with a wall twelve feet high and a ditch ten feet deep. There were watchtowers every fifteen or twenty meters and something like 50,000 soldiers. Numancia was completely surrounded.”
Your imagination builds the wall up again and appreciates the neatness of it all. Then you remember where you are standing and that you are now a Numantino, and some of the old scare creeps in. You don’t stand a chance.

They must have told you that General Scipio, who commanded the army out there, didn’t horse around. He was the general who had wiped Carthage off the map. When he was done with it, the great city was just a charred, bumpy field. His plan for the subjection of your little burg was to reduce her by starvation. He wouldn’t even give you the chance to fight and die a warrior’s glorious death.

Some Brave Soldiers Broke out

There was a weak point in Scipio’s wall where it had to jump over the stream at the foot of the hill. He had tried to block the stream but a commando of brave Numantinos slipped under the wall undetected one foggy night and ran to the Celtiberian towns around to ask for help. They were able to collect a band of patriots and prepared to attack the Romans from the rear and break the siege. But some old Celtiberians who were afraid of what would happen to their people if Rome wasn’t defeated, warned the Romans. What was Scipio’s punishment for the hundred brave Celtiberian youths who had promised to take part in the action?
“Cut their hands off” was his order.

Cervantes’ Play

Miguel de Cervantes himself wrote a play about the heroic Numantinos. The legend was that they refused to surrender and that after first eating wood and leather, they ate their own dead. The few that were left when the Roman soldiers stormed into the town killed themselves.  Skeptical historians think they were simply made slaves—the usual fate of defeated warriors.

Of course Scipio saved the most presentable of them to take back to Rome for his triumph parade.
Needless to say, he razed the town. (See my comment below with the Polybius quote on the usual Roman treatment of conquered towns.)

What do you see today?

Numancia is just outside the city of Soria.

The modern province of Soria, Spain. The ruins of Numantia are just five kilometers from the city of Soria (map from file)

Archaeologists have brilliantly restored some of the old town and its walls and houses. There you can learn better than in any book or museum about those old times.

A modern reconstruction of the  city wall (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license photo by Multitud)

This is a postage stamp commemorating the Numantinos’ stubborn defiance of Rome.

(photo from file)

Read more about Numantia here.

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This entry was posted in archaeology, books, Numancia, Romans, Spain, travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Numantia–or Don’t Mess with Rome

  1. CHECK THAT says:

    Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s
    the blog. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Pingback: What Rome Learned from Hispania | Great Names in History

  3. 100swallows says:

    I left this passage out of my post because it was getting long. It was written in about 130BC by a Greek who admired the Romans. He was present at the destruction of both Carthage and Numantia. The Scipio he is writing about here is the one who beat Hannibal—not the one who attacked Numantia—and the city is (was!) New Carthage, Spain.

    “Scipio, when he judged that a large enough number of troops had entered the town, let loose the majority of them against the inhabitants, according to the Roman custom; their orders were to exterminate every form of life they encountered, sparing none, but not to start pillaging until the word was given to do so. This practice is adopted to inspire terror, and so when cities are taken by the Romans you may often see not only the corpses of human beings but dogs cut in half and the dismembered limbs of other animals, and on this occasion the carnage was especially frightful because of the large size of the population.”
    From The Rise of the Roman Empire, by Polybius (p. 415 of my Penguin Classics translation).

  4. Pingback: Don’t Mess with Rome « Western Paradigm

  5. wpm1955 says:

    Wow, this reminds me of the story of Masada!

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine
    winewriter.wordpress.com

  6. 100swallows says:

    Very interesting, Danu. I knew about Dacia but not about its king Decebal and the people of Sarmizegetusa. Now I’ll go read up on them. Yes, Trajan was from Italica, a city near Seville (so was Hadrian). I’ll put in a post about it and him sometime. I once showed a Romanian around Madrid and the first thing he asked me was where was Italica, could he visit it! The Romans were brutal with anyone who stood in their way. Polybius, who was present at the destruction of both Carthage and Numancia, says that after taking a stubborn city the Romans killed every living thing in it. Though Caesar sounds humane in his Commentaries, a little reading between the lines shows the same thing.
    I’m glad you like the blog. I hope you’ll find other posts you like too.

  7. iondanu says:

    Interesting story,G! I can assume Cervantes was especially trilled by the “cut hands” part, being himself a one hand man? and the siege and the end of the Numantinos is very VERY similar with the story of Decebal, the king of Dacians (the equivalent of the Iberians? in the ancient Romania, called at the time, DACIA) and of the defenders of his capital, Sarmizegetusa, whom, not to be taken prisoners, after a heavy siege, no more water and food, drunk poison (cucuta – the same stuff as Socrates!) and died. All Trajan (an hispanic emperor, was it?) could bring to Rome was the head of the great worrior Decebal… and what you say about Spain, “an archeologic heaven? history’s laboratory” is also true fro my native country, Romania… Good blog, anyway!

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