Of all defiant characters who took up arms against Rome during her rise to dominate the ancient world, few have left such an admirable and virtuous impression on the history books as the Lusitanian guerrilla leader named Viriathus. As Theodor Mommsen so fittingly put it:
“It seemed as if, in that thoroughly prosaic age, one of the Homeric heroes had reappeared”
What is primarily know of Viriathus and the conflict he lead his fellow Lusitanians in is through Appian’s treatment of the Spanish Wars and a few scattered fragments left of Cassius Dio’s treatment of the same subject. Though Polybius no doubt covered the topic in his history, the extant version is heavily fragmented for this period. Therefore, all that seems to be left is Polybius’ famous application of the term Purinos Polemos or “Fiery War”, also used much later by Appian, to describe the series of Iberian conflicts that Viriathus’ exploits were so important a part.
Through Dio we learn that Viriathus was from humble origins; a shepherd who like most Lusitanian men turned to the life of a brigand; which is what Strabo indeed tersely calls him when making a passing, disparaging remark about the Iberian people’s innate inability to ever form a true confederacy. Dio’s fragment goes on to paint a glowing portrait of Viriathus’ virtuously austere character which is also the tone used buy Appian in his account.
It is commonly supposed that Viriathus may not have been the name by which he was known to his fellow countrymen but more of a descriptive name bestowed on him by the Romans or other contemporaries. Using a passage from Pliny as a clue (33.12), it would seem the name Viriathus described him as wearing bracelets in the Celtic manor:
”Yet men even, at the present day, wear gold upon the arms in form of bracelets--known as "dardania," because the practice first originated in Dardania, and called "viriolæ" in the language of the Celts, "viriæ" in that of Celtiberia.”
Nonetheless, it would appear that Viriathus may have participated in the Lusitanian raids that precipitated Praetor Servius Sulpicius Galba & Proconsul Lucius Licinius Lucullus’ excursions into his country in 151 BC & 150 BC. Alarmed at the combined movements of the Romans, the Lusitanians sent offers of submission which Galba used as a pretext for enticing these men out of their mountain stronghold with promises of peace and land to settle. Once down in the plains to negotiate, Galba split them up in three groups, had them each surrounded in turn and apparently slaughtered upwards 7000 men.
Appian places Viriathus among the survivors of Galba’s treachery but whether this was an actuality or a literary embellishment is not of much consequence. Three years later, Viriathus was among a war band of Lusitanians who, while ravaging Turditania were attacked and then trammeled by Roman Propraetor Caius Vetilius. Seeing no recourse but submission, Viriathus’ companions sent the symbolic olive branch to Vetilius requesting peace in exchange for land to settle as subjects of Rome
According to the classical account, it seems that Vetilius accepted their submission and was prepared to resettle the members of the war band when Viriathus stepped forward and reminded his companions of Rome’s previous treachery. Though almost completely hemmed in, Viriathus promised his companions that if they followed his orders, he would lead them all to safety so they could face the Romans again on more favorable terms.