Only last week I read about a new TV series that will begin tomorrow on History Channel, called “Barbarians rising” – it tells the story of nine “barbarian” warriors who contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire – and one of the episodes will feature Viriato, a Lusitanian warrior that we Portuguese consider to be the first of our national heroes, long before our first king Afonso Henriques, also a revered figure in our history. Both men had at least one thing in common: they fought for independence against a foreign oppressor.
Viriato’s people lived in Lusitania, a land between the rivers Douro and Tagus, in the west and north-west of Portugal, so we feel we are the descendants of the Lusitanian. Even today, it is common to hear expressions like “the Lusitanian pride” or “the Lusitanian”, when referring to us Portuguese.
Naturally, Viriato is the first national hero mentioned in our History books. I remember how, as a child, I loved reading stories of the way he fought the Romans when they tried to subdue Lusitania, and how bravely he led his people in revolt against the invaders.
We know about him through Roman chroniclers who first mention him in 147 BC when he strongly opposed the surrender of the Lusitanian army to Rome. After that he became the undisputed leader of the Lusitanian tribes, that longer made war on each other but now united against a common enemy.
Some say Viriato was a shepherd who became a hunter and then a fighter. Some say this was the usual path in life for Lusitanian young men. Others say he was an aristocrat – but the most common version is that he was a shepherd, born in the Herminian Mountains (today called Serra da Estrela). Most versions of History are unanimous in saying he lived by principles of honesty and justice, and that he was always fair and true to his word, and a strong leader beloved by his followers.
Shepherd or not, the fact is that he became a fearsome fighter and led his tribe against the invaders in victory after victory. They very much used guerrilla tactics that confounded the Romans – legend has it that once, in the dark of night, he and his companions painted themselves in black so that they would not be seen and then attacked the Roman camp where most of the soldiers were sleeping and of course did not notice them in the dark. The Lusitanian killed many Romans and created havoc in their camp, leaving as swiftly as they had arrived and leaving the terrified Romans without knowing for sure what had befallen them…
For a time it seemed Viriato was invincible. But even he must break under Roman power, and at a time he was forced to send his three best friends to negotiate a truce with the enemy. As for the Roman generals, they were under enormous pressure from Rome to put an end to these fights, so they resorted to treachery and bribed the three Lusitanian by promising them riches if they killed their leader. The three warriors came back to the Lusitanian camp and, entering Viriato’s tent, treacherously murdered him in his sleep. But their expectations were not met: when they came back to the Romans asking for payment, they were told Rome did not pay traitors and they were executed instead.
Viriato is seen as a hero by the Portuguese, and he has a statue in Viseu, a city not far from the mountains where it is said he was born. He embodies the spirit of independence of the Portuguese, many centuries later again present in our first king Afonso Henriques who declared Portugal as an independent country in 1139. And all through our history, whenever our independence was threatened, a new warrior would step in and fight for freedom, and be victorious in the end. But Viriato is also seen as a hero in Spain, having a statue there, in Zamora, with the curious inscription : “Terror romanorum” (meaning the terror of the Romans, in Latin).
Because of all the above said, because he is a figure so dear to us, much admired, and one whose adventures we are told in our childhood, I’m really looking forward to watching this new TV series; it will be great to know more about the “barbarians” who defied Rome, but most of all to learn this new version of the story of Viriato, the Lusitanian warrior who became immortal. And how happy I am that his story will finally be told beyond the boundaries of his beloved native land, so that the whole world knows there was once a “barbarian” called Viriato who helped bring down one of the most powerful empires in History.