Elite Iberian Warriors and the Falcata

 
 
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Iberian horseman wielding a falcata
Iberian horseman wielding a falcata

The Iberians were also known for their skill in horse breeding and riding. Though they weren’t as naturally skilled as the Numidians, their use of the lance and the falcata on horseback allowed them to serve as heavy infantry as the falcata was more than able to pierce or crush through most armored cavalrymen at the time.

Iberians served with distinction through the Punic Wars though each tribe had different loyalties. They anchored Hannibal’s Italian infantry. When the deserted the elder Scipio brothers during their Iberian campaign against Carthage, it depleted the Roman’s so much that the brothers’ army was destroyed and they were killed. When the younger Scipio, soon to be Africanus, took over the Iberian campaign he secured the loyalty of many Iberian tribes. He was so impressed by the falcata that he had Iberian smiths teach his smiths how to make the blades and equipped his entire army with a version known as the gladius hispanicus. It is unclear if Scipio completely copied the falcata or if he tweaked the design to head towards the later Roman gladius. Regardless, Scipio’s troops had a huge degree of success when they invaded Africa in 204 and were able to beat Hannibal’s troops head on at the battle of Zama.

After the second Punic War the Romans viewed Iberia as theirs and sought to occupy parts of it. This was hardly accepted by the bulk of the tribes and fierce wars ensued. As the peninsula was comprised of multiple independent tribes, the conquest was broken up into several separate wars. The fighting in Iberia was incredibly fierce; women often took up the sword and fought alongside men, and many times talks of peace led to open betrayals. When faced with certain death the Iberian warriors took a poison which after killing them, contorted the muscles of their face to form a sinister smile; needless to say this caused quite a lot of disquiet among the Romans.

modern reconstruction of an Iberian warrior. a good example of some of the armor they might wear that would still allow high mobility
modern reconstruction of an Iberian warrior. a good example of some of the armor they might wear that would still allow high mobility

During the wars the Iberians often employed guerrilla warfare, waiting for Roman supply lines or a foraging party to become vulnerable before attacking. Due to their superior one-on-one fighting skills these ambushes were often huge success for the Iberians. The Numantine tribe in central Iberia would put up the fiercest fights with a series of six different generals failing to subdue the mighty city of Numantia. Finally the Romans sent Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, the adopted grandson of the original Scipio Africanus. Aemilianus gained fame through the destruction of Carthage to end the Punic Wars and once in Iberia he set to work. By building several forts around Numantia he limited opportunities for Iberians to ambush his men while keeping the Numantines bottled up until they pled for peace, though most ultimately committed suicide.

The capture of Numantia subdued the region until the reign of Sulla when they again rebelled and employed guerrilla tactics to great effect. A young Pompey gained a great deal of experience fighting in Spain and the campaigns would prove to be his most challenging before his war with Caesar. The Iberians were a strong and fierce people who wielded a most impressive weapon with unmatched skill, leading them to have an impact greater than the heaviest of infantry. Their allegiances drove the successes and failures of the second Punic War and they defiantly fought for their independence for several centuries before succumbing to the power of Rome.

By William McLaughlin for War History Online