This past week I read the story of Sertorius, surely one of the best of Plutarch’s lives. Although it seems likely that I’ve read mention of Sertorius before, I don’t remember hearing of him and didn’t know anything about him. And yet Plutarch says he was the greatest military commander of his time: the time of the Roman Civil War just before Julius Caesar’s day, a period I have read about several times.
Sertorius rose through the ranks of the Roman army because of his brave and clever maneuvers, and his future seemed bright (well, as bright as the crimson light of a warrior’s glory can shine, in any case). But then he had to pick sides when Sulla and Marius broke up the Romans along class lines. His choice to follow Marius worked fine until Sulla gained ascendancy and banished Marius. So Sertorius, too, had to flee for his life. He took his private army – such entourages were possible in Roman times – to Spain. While he took control of several towns, Plutarch tells us that they were glad to be controlled and enjoyed Sertorius’ wise and benevolent rule. So his private army grew. Successful campaigns in Africa brought even more devoted followers.
With all this accumulating success, Sertorius started looking pretty dangerous to the folks in power back in the capital city. It’s not that Sertorius actively threatened Rome. To hear Plutarch tell it, he just wanted to gather a little bodyguard of fifteen thousand or so and hide out south of the Pyrenees running a few Iberian towns. He just wanted a little peace. It could well have been that Sertorius’ designs for peace were like those of the Hitler of Mel Brooks’s To Be or Not to Be: I just want a little peace – a little piece of Czechoslovakia, a little piece of Poland, a little piece of France . . . . Whatever Sertorius actually intended, the Romans saw him as a threat, so they started sending forces against him. And yet time after time, Sertorius beat them back, often with smaller numbers.
Plutarch explains that while the Romans assumed war should be fought in open battles, Sertorius preferred those clever, daring raids on the wings, supply lines, detached forces, and so on. He also made a point of surveying the mountainous land around him and knowing every pass; then he could lure his enemy into an enclosed valley, do some damage with a surprise attack through the trees, and then flee, leaving the official legions with no knowledge of how big Sertorius’ army was or where it had gone. Essentially, Sertorius discovered guerilla warfare.
But a big part of his success seems to have come from several object lessons he gave to his troops. To convince the men of the value of striking and running, he had to convince them that the power of that strategy far outweighed any moral victory gained from a Romanesque display of courage on the open battlefield. So he gathered his group together and chose from among them both the biggest, strongest man he could find and the scrawniest, and then both the biggest and most scraggly horse, as well. Then with some special instructions to the two men, he announced to the army that the two would attempt to pull the tails off the horses. Placing the stronger man behind the smaller horse, and the smaller man behind the larger horse, he told them to begin. The strong man seized his little horse’s entire tail and pulled as hard as he could, while the small man started plucking hairs one by one. In a while Sertorius had the men stop and then showed the results to his fascinated troops: the strong man had accomplished nothing with his full-on attack except for angering the tiny horse, while the weak man had nearly eliminated the powerful steed’s tail. The lesson could almost be a fable by Aesop: slow and steady wins the race. The idea also reminds me of the Sun Tzu I read earlier this year: the feinting movement is the attack, and the frontal movement is the feint.
Plutarch spends quite a while on one other vivid method Sertorius had of keeping his army’s attention. Thinking all Spaniards and Moors highly superstitious (something Romans would never be), he figured he could better keep them in line if they thought he had direct access to the wisdom of the gods. One day his hunters brought him a white goat, kept alive because they considered the color unusual. Sertorius kept the goat as a pet and dressed its head in a garland of flowers. The men quickly grew to love the pampered goat and saw it as something of a mascot, so Sertorius decided to use it as an omen. He told his troops that his pet was a prophetic goat, and anytime he secretly received reconnaissance intel about the size or location of an opposing force, he would announce the news at assembly the next morning, explaining that the goat had told him the information in the night. When his army, during the next encounter, found the information invariably true, they began to believe in the goat.
Numerous conclusions can be drawn from all these stories about Sertorius. But today’s observation is that Sertorius’ vivid object lessons captured the attention of one twenty-first century reader just as well as they captured that of a band of mercenaries two-thousand years ago. I mean, really, who doesn’t like a white goat with a wreath of flowers on its head?