Numantia, Cervantes, Vicksburg, Terrorists

Photo of third suicide bomber behind Stade de France blasts - photo released by French police, 22 Nov 2015 - AFP; Getty Images

. . . though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

— U.S. Grant, writing, years later, about the Confederate surrender at Appomattox[1]


Ellos con duros estatutos fieros
y con su extraña condición avara
pusieron tan gran yugo a nuestros cuellos
que forzados salimos de él y de ellos

By harsh law and regulation,
By such an alien greed driven;
On our necks the hard yoke was laid;
Orders and outrage we betrayed.[2]

— A Numantine ambassador to the Roman general in a version of Cervantes’ “Numancia”



The following, discommodious piece shall move between the Roman general Scipio’s siege of Numantia, in northern Spain, to Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, to twenty-first century Moslem terrorists. We may, with help from Cervantes, see connections, while seeking to avoid endorsing either war, terrorism, or imperialism (or slavery).

Over the centuries, the expression es defensa numantina has come in Spain to refer to any desperate, suicidal, last-ditch resistance to invading forces. A pause to note the Jewish “Numantia”: Masada, the plateau-top fortification where, besieged by the Romans, the Sicarii are said to have committed suicide with their families. Sicarii, from the Latin seccor (to slice). In the decades before the destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE), the Sicarii opposed the Roman occupation of Judea. At public gatherings, they pulled small daggers (sicae) out of their cloaks, stabbing both Romans and Jewish Roman sympathizers, before slipping away through the crowd.


In his Roman History, Appian (c. CE 95 – c. CE 165) tells how, some centuries earlier, the Celtiberian people of Numantia, a fort on a hill along the Douro river, held off the legions for close to a decade. Among the problems for the Romans in Lusitania (the northern Iberian peninsula): never-ending war provided their military leaders and soldiers opportunities for advancement. (One day, in a history of the United States’ post-World-War-II military engagements, this may be reprised. Frequent conflicts and the trumpeting of threats to national security may be described as providing defense contractors opportunities for making lots of money. And this phenomenon may be seen as having hamstrung US government efforts to advance the international interests of a broader section of the population or of other major corporations.)

As regards the invasion of Lusitania, rumors of the incessant battles and heavy Roman losses, among other things, led to young Roman men avoiding enrollment as soldiers and potential officers not volunteering. Some in Rome began urging peace. In 134 BCE, however, the Senate named to lead the campaign Scipio, who in his youth had taken and destroyed Carthage, and who was, additionally, a statesman and patron of Roman writers and thinkers, as well as being one of the promoters of the Numantine war. (A bust of Scipio appears below.)

Through their texts, historians, playwrights, and ethicists alert us to our or another regime’s values, to include ideas about how to triumph and how to surrender.

While not overlooking Scipio’s ruthlessness and his and his colleagues’ imperial ambitions, I find it hard to read of him, either in the histories or in Cervantes’ play Numancia, without admiring his tactics, discipline, and effectiveness. His appointment to lead the Roman invaders rallied the troops, and Scipio whipped them into fighting form. Prostitutes and traders were driven from the Romans’ camp. Beds were forbidden, with Scipio himself sleeping on straw. There were all-day marches through lands in which there was little potable water. Scipio had the soldiers build and then destroy fortifications, just for the exercise. While marching the soldiers were not allowed to shift from their assigned places in the ranks. Etc.

We may think of the Roman histories as less a description of realities than as mythology, a way of transmitting to the citizenry the regime’s values, to include ideas about how to triumph and how to surrender, should it come to that. Of course the same may be said of many plays, of the writings of many ethicists, and of histories of the United States and its leaders. In Appian’s History, Scipio says, “‘He must be considered a reckless general who would fight before there is any need, while a good one takes risks only in cases of necessity.’ He added by way of simile that physicians do not cut and burn their patients till they have first tried drugs.”[3]

In a version of Cervantes’ verse play, Scipio tells his troops:

No quiero yo que sangre de romanos
colore más el suelo de esta tierra;
basta la que han vertido estos hispanos
en tan larga reñida y cruda guerra.

I don’t want more Roman blood coloring the surface of this land. In crude, undisciplined warfare, these Spaniards have spilled enough.

(As regards Vicksburg, Grant’s way of putting this, in his Memoirs, was: “I now determined upon a regular siege . . . and to incur no more losses.”)

On his way to Numantia, Scipio took a detour, going through the land that was supplying food to the Numantines. Along the way, the Numantines tried to ambush his troops, but the Romans fought the Numantines off. Scipio got wind that young men from a rich town not far away wanted to come to Numantia’s defense. So—this being well before the invention of drones—Scipio surrounded that town, demanded that the young men be turned over to him, cut off their hands.

Ready though the Numantines were to die, the historian Florus writes, they were given no opportunity to fight. Around the town the Romans built a four-mile-long wall, ten feet high and eight feet wide. To keep the Numantines from escaping down the river, Scipio had his men build towers on either side, to which were attached timbers with ropes full of knives and spear heads, these blades kept constantly in motion by the current.

Ulysses S. Grant, detail from famous picture of Grant at Cold Harbor, 1864 

I do not know if Grant (pictured at right) ever read of Scipio’s Numantia campaign or appreciated the parallels. Vicksburg, Mississippi—a city of a hundred hills, it has been called—is on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River from the east. From this vantage, the Confederate army, like the Numantines long before, were able to fend off a series of attacks, from Grant’s predecessors and from Grant himself. Finally, Grant decided to send his troops through the swamp land, across the Mississippi, and all the way around Vicksburg to its south. In what was, before the invasion of Normandy, the largest amphibious operation in American history, Grant’s forces—guided, it is said, by a former slave—were able to re-cross the river and establish a beachhead forty miles south of Vicksburg. They did not proceed directly north to Vicksburg, but fought their way northeast to Jackson, the state capital and railhead, and from there west.[4]

In this way, Grant cut off the Confederates’ supplies and was able to starve them into submission. And more than that. It was during the Vicksburg campaign that Grant—and one of his generals, William Sherman—learned how a large army might feed itself off the farm animals and produce of the local people. In his Memoirs Grant reports that he told the people living in this part of Mississippi that he had sent troops and wagons to collect all the food and forage for fifteen miles on either side of their route.

What are we to eat? the people asked him. Grant recalls:

My response was that we had endeavored to feed ourselves from our own northern resources while visiting them; but their friends in gray had been uncivil enough to destroy what we had brought along, and it could not be expected that men, with arms in their hands, would starve in the midst of plenty. I advised them to emigrate east, or west, fifteen miles and assist in eating up what we left.

. . . the heart turned with throbs of added pity to the worn men in gray, who were being blindly dashed against this embodiment of modern power. Dora Miller

The federal troops constructed elaborate entrenchments that surrounded the city and moved closer and closer to the Confederate fortifications. With their backs against the Mississippi and Union gunboats firing from the river, Confederate soldiers and citizens alike were more or less trapped.[5] On July 3, 1863, Dora Miller, a Vicksburg resident (and Union supporter), entered in her diary:

Provisions so nearly gone, except the hogshead of sugar, that a few more days will bring us to starvation indeed. Martha says rats are hanging dressed in the market for sale with mule meat, — there is nothing else. The officer at the battery told me he had eaten one yesterday.[6]

The day after, the Confederate general surrendered himself and his 30,000 famished men.[7] Mrs. Miller wrote that toward 5 that afternoon, she was told to keep on the lookout; the “army of occupation” was coming along. And—

in a few minutes the head of the column appeared. What a contrast to the suffering creatures we had seen so long were these stalwart, well-fed men, so splendidly set up and accountered. Sleek horses, polished arms, bright plumes, — this was the pride and panoply of war. Civilization, discipline, and order seemed to enter with the measured tramp of those marching columns; and the heart turned with throbs of added pity to the worn men in gray, who were being blindly dashed against this embodiment of modern power.

Numancia, Teatro Español, Madrid, April 2016 - poster; ultimas dias 

Cervantes wrote his play in the late sixteenth century.[8] Some scholars have labelled Numancia the first real stage tragedy to appear in Europe since the demise of classical Greece and Rome. Indeed, the style of the play suggests that Cervantes picked up where Aeschylus left off. As the play’s first English translator, James Y. Gibson, put it, “Each speech is uttered as it were to the beat of the drum, or to the prolonged wailings of the Dead March.”[9] The speakers—who, in addition to Scipio and his lieutenants and several Numantines, include Spain, War, Hunger, and Fame—talk us through the event rather than catching us up in a plot.

But what plot can there be? Scipio, the Roman legions, history long ago sealed the Numantines’ fate. They are not to be defeated, like the Trojans, in heroic hand-to-hand combat or by trickery, but by discipline, engineering, starvation, overwhelming force. Against the 30-60,000 Roman soldiers, it is thought the Numantines were able to muster 8,000 fighters, if not fewer.

The Numantines are not to be defeated, like the Trojans, in heroic hand-to-hand combat or by trickery, but by discipline, engineering, starvation, overwhelming force.

What human beings can escape the machine of history (or fate) or the machinations and brute forces that rule their age? Not the powerless, nor the powerful. Witnessing the first atomic bomb explosion, Robert Oppenheimer, a director of the Manhattan Project, famously recalled a line from the Bhagavad-Gita. “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” is the Oppenheimer rendition. Standing over the ruins of Numantia, Scipio might have said as much, and Sherman, too, on his March to the Sea, and even if the slave-holding world he was destroying had come to seem to many—to the slaves first and foremost!—as worse than cruel and unjust. In the Bhagavad-Gita passage, Krishna is urging war on Arjuna. Whether they are killed in battle or not, the people will be overwhelmed by the force of time (the destroyer of worlds).[10]

A question then becomes—or seems to become? perhaps they’re a diversion, such questions?—how to respond to overwhelmng force, to time and morality, to the force of history and the force of the Romans or other imperialist powers. “A people which was supported by the resources of the whole world” is a phrase used by the historian Florus.[11] In our twenty-first century, an unemployed Arab youth might feel similarly about the United States and its allies.

From Florus we learn:

Eventually, as [the Numantines’] hunger increased, envoys were sent to Scipio, asking if they would be treated with moderation if they surrendered, pleading that they had fought for their women and children, and the freedom of their country. But Scipio would accept only deditio [complete surrender].[12]

Appian adds:

Soon after this, all their eatables being consumed, having neither grain, nor flocks, nor grass, they began, as is frequently necessary in wars, to lick boiled hides. When these also failed, they boiled and ate the bodies of human beings, first of those who had died a natural death, chopping them in small bits for cooking.[13] Afterwards being nauseated by the flesh of the sick, the stronger laid violent hands upon the weaker. No form of misery was absent. They were rendered savage in mind by their food, and their bodies were reduced to the semblance of wild beasts by famine, plague, long hair, and neglect. . . . [T]here was something fearful to the beholders in the expression of their eyes—an expression of anger, grief, toil, and the consciousness of having eaten human flesh. Having reserved fifty of them for his triumph, Scipio sold the rest and razed the city to the ground.

As Tacitus writes of the Romans in ancient Britain: “They rob, kill, and rape, and this they call Roman rule. They make a desert and call it peace.”[14] This was well before carpet bombing, though not before violent battling related to scarce water supplies.

Bust of Scipio Africanus the Elder from Pushkin Museum, Moscow 

In Cervantes’ play, and in the version of this play offered this past April by el Teatro Español in Madrid, in honor of the four hundredth anniversary of Cervantes’ death, the people of Numantia are presented as triumphing. Imprisoned in their own homes, lacking food and water, the men of Numantia opted for what we might call an ancient version of suicide bombing. They would have rushed at the Roman palisades and knives, perhaps killing not just themselves but a few Romans, too, and at least earning the honor of having been killed in battle, rather than the eternal shame of surrender.

The Numantine women begged them not to go. The women did not want to be left, the spoils of war, the Romans’ chattel. It becomes, in Cervantes’ play, the young men’s task to kill their lovers, the parents’ task to kill their children.

Hijo: Madre, ¿por qué lloráis? ¿Adónde vamos?
Teneos, que andar no puedo de cansado.
Mejor será, mi madre, que comamos,
que el hambre me tiene fatigado.

Mujer: Ven en mis brazos, hijo de mi vida,
do te daré la muerte por comida.

From Gordon’s translation:

Son: Why weepest, mother? Whither do we go?
Stay, stay, I am so faint, I have no breath!
My mother, let us eat, ’tis better so,
For me this bitter hunger wearyeth.

Mother: Come to my arms, my darling sweet and good,
And I to thee will give thy death for food!

Being free does not involve being able to do what one wants, Sartre proposed, but wanting to do what one can.[15] I wonder if he ever reflected on what a gruesome proposition this can be. One of Cervantes’ Numantines asks a compatriot: “¿Qué nuevo modo de morir procuras?” (What new way of dying do you seek?)

But in his program notes, Juan Carlos Pérez de la Fuente, director of el Teatro Español, wrote that Cervantes had dramatized how people in power, especially political power: “podrán arrebatarnos casi todo: el pan, la casa, el trabajo, la libertad . . . incluso la vida; pero la dignidad, nunca.” The powerful can take most everything from us: our bread, our homes, our work, our freedom, even our lives; but our dignity, never.

Fame—or history, we might call it—gets the last word in the Cervantes’ text.

La fuerza no vencida, el valor tanto,
digno de prosa y verso celebrarse;
mas, pues de esto se encarga la memoria,
demos feliz remate a nuestra historia.

Such awesome courage, no force can defeat;
It finds its proper place in myths and verse.
And since of this feat our words resound,
In Numancia, a happy end is found.

In the introduction to his translation Gibson presents a view of the play that seems yet milder still. And, if we bring this view to the actions of the Moslem terrorists of our times, it will seem too mild. Gibson writes:

To do what the enthusiasm of the soul prompts and compels; to do it with single-hearted unselfishness; without regard to the adequacy or inadequacy of means; without regard even to eventual success or non-success, but with simple regard to the inspired voice of duty within, come what may: that is Quixotism in supreme degree.


Numantia perhaps, Celtiberian ruins, Spain

Concluding, I come back to a point made earlier. What human beings can escape the machine of history (or fate) or the machinations and brute forces that rule their age? This fact alone, or the possibility of its truth, can make human beings crazed. (And perhaps our crazed behaviors include such things as devoting a life to trying to build an Internet superstore or to writing intellectual essays. This is hardly the first time I have admired Pascal’s note about how, driven by their predicament, some human beings turn to games and gambling, some to trying to solve mathematics problems. Some run great risks in pursuit of celebrity, and some beat their brains out describing and analyzing human behavior such as this.[16] Of course most of us would elevate all such activities above violent attack and seeking to enslave others, and this even as we are willing to share in the spoils of war and of wage slavery.)

As regards the Moslem terrorists, Cervantes’ play has helped me appreciate the desperate position in which they find themselves. I have in mind not those who, whether they are aware of their role or not, might better be described as soldiers for this or that regime. I have in mind those who are besieged by one or more regimes, and who, desperate to find some measure of dignity and autonomy, have chosen what may seem to them like the only option, or the only honorable one.

— Wm. Eaton

William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, was published by Serving House Books in 2015. For more, see Surviving the website. The present text is one in an emerging series of postmodern juxtapositions. In this regard, see from the Literary Explorer Paris, Madrid, Florence, New York—Novel Collage and from Zeteo O que é felicidade (Corcovado, Kalamazoo).


Notes on Images

Celtiberian ruins, of Numantia perhaps, appear just above. The photograph at the very top of this piece was released by French police in November 2015. It is credited to AFP and Getty Images. The person pictured, who the police were seeking to identify, was said to be the third suicide bomber behind the Stade de France blasts. From a Daily Mirror news story, 22 November 2015. A copy of the police Appel à Témoins (call for information) appears at the very end of the present post.


The Shirley House and the encampment of the Fifth Illinois during the siege of Vicksburg, reproduction of a wartime photograph


[1] Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs, edited with notes by E.B. Long (De Capo Press, 1982). Photograph at right is of a Union army encampment just below Vicksburg, during the siege.

[2] History has left two distinct versions of Cervantes’ play, and neither of these is considered to be close to the original. There are also several titles, including El cerco de Numancia (The Siege of Numantia), La destruición de Numancia, and simply Numancia.

In an effort to keep this epigraph to four lines and to have it represent Numancia, Cervantes’ play, as a whole, I have inserted into my translation information that comes from earlier and later in a Cervantes’ text. Below the entire stanza from the Cervantes text and from James Young Gibson’s translation (which scrupulously duplicates in English Cervantes’ Spanish verse forms).

Dice que nunca de la ley y fueros
del senado romano se apartara
si el insufrible mando y desafueros
de un cónsul y otro no le fatigara.
Ellos con duros estatutos fieros
y con su extraña condición avara
pusieron tan gran yugo a nuestros cuellos
que forzados salimos de él y de ellos

She [Numancia] says, that from the Roman Senate’s law
And rule she never would have turned aside,
Had not some brutal Consuls, with their raw
And ruthless hands, done outrage to her pride.
With fiercer statutes than the world e’er saw,
With greedy lust, extending far and wide,
They placed upon our necks such grievous yoke,
As might the meekest citizens provoke.

Copies of both Gibson’s translation and this version of Cervantes’ text, in Spanish, have been available online. I have been working on cleaning up the translation text available online and adding to it a few footnotes giving key passages from the Spanish text. This work is incomplete, but available here.

[3] A translation by Horace White of Appian’s writing on the Spanish wars may be found online.

[4] For an overview, one might see Michael B. Ballard, Vicksburg, The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[5] The Confederate general, John C. Pemberton, might have tried to fight his way out—the city was not as thoroughly encircled as Numantia had been. But Pemberton was hoping for relief, which never came, from General Joseph E. Johnston and his sizable army, and he did not want to give up the city, which was key to the Confederates maintaining control of the lower Mississippi and to the eastern Confederate states not being cut off from those west of the river and from those states’ horses, cattle, and potential soldiers.

A Confederate version of the story might stress that Pemberton was from Pennsylvania; there were many at the time who thought he was a saboteur, sent, as if by the devil, to lose the war for the South. Johnston was almost equally vilified, for his cautiousness.

Dora Richards Miller, Civil War (Vicksburg) diarist[6] Dora Miller, A Woman’s Diary of the Siege of Vicksburg, originally published in The Century, Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. XXX, May 1885 to October 1885. In the first entry of the diary as a whole—an entry written in New Orleans on December 1, 1860—Miller (picture at right) identifies her allegiance and begins:

I understand it now. Keeping journals is for those who can not, or dare not, speak out. So I shall set up a journal, being only a rather lonely young girl in a very small and hated minority. . . . Surely no native-born woman loves her country better than I love America. The blood of one of its revolutionary patriots flows in my veins, and it is the Union for which he pledged his “life, fortune, and sacred honor” that I love, not any divided or special section of it. Living from birth in slave countries, both foreign and American, and passing through one slave insurrection in early childhood, the saddest and also the pleasantest features of slavery have been familiar. If the South goes to war for slavery, slavery is doomed in this country. To say so is like opposing one drop to a roaring torrent. This is a good time to follow St. Paul’s advice that women should refrain from speaking, but they are speaking more than usual and forcing others to speak against their will.

[7] Grant’s victory, together with the defeat of General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg the day before, has traditionally marked the turning point in the Civil War, the moment, as Bob Zeller has put it, when “the Confederate States of America went from a viable political enterprise to a lost cause.” And, as such, the Confederacy lives on as a mindset or collection of mindsets.

Zeller has been, inter alia, cofounder and president of The Center for Civil War Photography. Quotation is from The Long, Gruesome Fight to Capture Vicksburg (from Hallowed Ground Magazine, Summer 2013).

Numancia, by Alejo Vera Estaca, 1880, in the Prado Museum's collection[8] Again, history has left two distinct versions of Cervantes’ play, neither considered to be close to the original. Picture at right reproduces Numancia, by Alejo Vera y Estaca, 1880; in the collection of el Museo del Prado, Madrid.

[9] Gibson also quotes from a translation of the German scholar Augustus W. Schlegel’s “History of Dramatic Literature”:

The Destruction of Numantia has altogether the elevation of the tragical cothurnus; and, from its unconscious and unlaboured approximation to antique grandeur and purity, forms a remarkable phenomenon in the history of modern poetry . . . . There is, if I may so speak, a sort of Spartan pathos in the piece; every single and personal consideration is swallowed up in the feeling of patriotism, . . .

[10] It is said that Scipio, when he looked Carthage as it was in the last throes of its complete destruction (by the forces under his command), wept openly for his enemies and recited (not in English, of course) a couplet from The Iliad:

A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish
And Priam and his people shall be slain.

We enter here upon quite another history—of how generals (and after them scientists and athletes) have learned, over time, to speak publicly of their triumphs. (The lines from The Iliad are translated from Latin, from Plutarch and Polybius.)

[11] Quotations from Florus are from his Epitome of Roman History, I.34. Appian, Roman History, section on the Spanish wars.

map, Grant's Vicksburg campaign[12] General Grant first became famous throughout the North and South for the victory of his Union armies at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, in 1862, and for his reply to his Confederate counterpart when this latter wrote him to explore the possibility of a surrender. Grant’s reply: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”

[13] It has been proposed that, to steel their courage or dull their taste, the Numantines drugged themselves with a liquor called Celia, which was a kind of beer, I believe.

[14] Tacitus, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae (On the life and character of Julius Agricola).

[15] « Etre libre, ce n’est pas pouvoir faire ce que l’on veut, mais c’est vouloir ce que l’on peut. » Sartre, Situations I.

Police nationale, France, Appel à Témoins[16] This from a footnote in published editions of Les Pensées: The original French for the full passage:

L’homme est si malheureux qu’il s’ennuierait même sans aucune cause d’ennui par l’état propre de sa complexion. Et il est si vain qu’étant plein de mille causes essentielles d’ennui, la moindre chose comme un billard et une balle qu’il pousse suffisent pour le divertir.

Mais, direz-vous, quel objet a-t-il en tout cela? Celui de se vanter demain entre ses amis de ce qu’il a mieux joué qu’un autre. Ainsi les autres suent dans leur cabinet pour montrer aux savants qu’ils ont résolu une question d’algèbre qu’on aurait pu trouver jusqu’ici, et tant d’autres s’exposent aux dernier périls pour se vanter ensuite d’une place qu’ils auront prise aussi sottement à mon gré. Et enfin les autres se tuent pour remarquer toutes ces choses, non point pour en devenir plus sages, mais seulement pour montrer qu’ils les savent. Et ceux-là sont les plus sots de la bande, puisqu’ils le sont avec connaissance, au lieu qu’on peut penser des autres qu’ils ne le seraient plus s’ils avaient cette connaissance.


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Numantia, Cervantes, Vicksburg, Terrorists

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