Following the Roman trail through the Iberian south
We have all heard about the mighty Romans. At its prime, the Roman Empire covered more than five million square kilometres, from Egypt in the south to England in the north, and from Iraq in the east to Portugal in the west. Even today, it is virtually impossible to travel around Hispania without coming upon evidence of the Roman presence here some two thousand years ago.
The Romans called our Andalusian hometown of Ronda for Munda. Though it was never a major outpost, one can still see remnants of aqueducts and Roman grain towers around town. Two centuries before the birth of Christ, Roman soldiers defeated the Carthaginian army in a battle said to have been fought in what is today our downtown centre. In 45 BC, no other than Julius Caesar had a temple built here to commemorate his victory against the rebellious forces of Pompeii, Cneo, and Sexto in what became later known as ‘the battle of Munda’. Though this temple no longer exists, Ronda is full of history, and there is rarely a construction dig without unearthing at least one Roman column base.
ACINIPO (RONDA LA VIEJA)
Our first real meeting with los romanos was at the archaeological site of Acinipo. Also called Ronda la vieja (old Ronda), Acinipo is located a twenty-minute drive outside Ronda. In the first century AD, this was the home of 5000 mostly off-duty Roman legionnaires. They had Roman baths or termas and temples, as well as an amphitheatre seating 2000, which partly stands until this day. Acinipo minted its own coin engraved with grapes, indicating that wine was already being produced in the region.
Unfortunately, the ruins at Acinipo have not been given the attention needed to protect such an important historic site. There is a gatekeeper, when one can find the gate open, though the site is sorely lacking in information, guides, access, signage, and most importantly, protection of the partially excavated sites and continued exploration of the entire area.
However, apart from the missing infrastructure, Acinipo is a stunning place. The theatre sits on an impressive mesa-like plateau at 999 meters over sea level with sweeping vistas to the surrounding countryside. The rowdy Romans are long gone, leaving a breezy stillness and sacred peace that one rarely finds in this day and age. In fact, you are almost guaranteed to have the entire archaeological site to yourself, save a few grazing horses and sheep.
Talking of theatres, if you are exploring the old town of Málaga (or Malaca in Roman times), just around the bend from the Picasso Museum, directly below the 11th century Arab Alcazaba fort, you will run into yet another Roman amphitheatre. Discovered in 1951, this theatre was built under the command of Emperor Augustus in the first century BC and was in use for at least four centuries. According to the architectural model, it was designed by the known Roman architect Vitruvio. The theatre is well worth a visit, where the sleek contemporary visitation centre will give you an introduction to the city’s distant past. And if you happen to park in one of the underground parking lots by the harbour, you might also see newly discovered remnants of Roman mosaics when backing up into your parking stall.
The fact that history is found underground became clear when the town of Cádiz (known as Gades by the Romans) renovated an old theatre in 2012. Not only did they discover Roman streets and houses under the existing building foundation, but nine meters beneath the present day street level, they discovered remnants of Gadir, a Phoenician settlement from 900 BC!
Visiting the theatre is a mind-blowing journey, literally over history, as you walk on glass-bottom catwalks looking down at the past. Cádiz also had its own Roman theatre, built in 70 BC, but there are still more Roman ruins underfoot. During a storm just this past spring, segments of an until-then unknown aqueduct and a Roman road were uncovered.
BAELO CLAUDIA (BOLONIA)
At the southernmost tip of Europe, a few kilometres west of the Spanish kite-boarding capital of Tarifa are the remnants of a very different kind of Roman settlement. Surrounded by beautiful white beaches (some nudist, they say) the sleepy village of Bolonia was once the busy Roman fishing town of Baelo Claudia. Named after the stuttering sovereign, Emperor Claudius also gave the town its status as a municipium. The close proximity to North Africa made the town an important trade link between the two continents. Baelo Claudia specialized in making a foul-smelling fish sauce used in Roman cooking called garum. In fact the enormous stone wads used to cure and age the fish to perfection can still be seen today.
Standing at the centre of the site facing the ocean, one can easily visualize the town spread out in front of one – forum, temples, baths, a market place, perfectly paved Roman streets, a busy harbour and a two millennia old fish processing plant. And if all this history gets too much, one can always leave the site for a moment and leap into the teal-coloured water where the Straight of Gibraltar meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Baelo Claudia was abandoned around the 6th century AD, after a massive earthquake and frequent pirate attacks made the town unliveable.
VOLUBILIS (near present-day MEKNES in MOROCCO)
Though we had come to expect the Roman presence in the Spanish south, nothing could prepare us for the sight of the expansive Roman ruins in Volubilis, about 200 kilometres south of Tánger in northern Morocco. Situated among fertile grasslands near the foothills of Jebel Zerhoun, this was Rome’s shortest lasting and most remote outpost, established in 42 AD. Aside from administrators and armed defenders, the town’s 20 000 residents were mostly dedicated to olive oil- and wheat production, possibly to feed the occupying forces?
Though I would recommend having a local guide give one a tour, it is also worth taking a lonely stroll around the enormous archaeological site, where wild flowers, towering ruins and stork families coexist, side by side.
Due to the fact that the site lay abandoned for almost a thousand years, Volubilis presents a historic authenticity and unique cultural blend that granted it a UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1997. It is unfathomable that this town was ruled all the way from Rome, literally thousands of kilometres away, in a time when horses were the fastest means of transportation.
EMERITA AUGUSTA (MÉRIDA)
We thought we had seen all things Roman, until we recently paid a visit to Mérida in the province of Extremadura. If it weren’t for the signs indicating that we were entering a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we could have thought we were driving into any run of the mill medium-sized Spanish towns. Only when we started exploring the centre did we realize that we had come to a very unique place.
Mérida has more Roman archaeological sites than anywhere else in Spain. Just like walking around the modern-day Italian capital, ancient ruins pop up everywhere. A block from our hotel, we stumbled upon a plaza where one of the town’s Forums had been located. Known as the Temple of Diana, this first century BC edifice once served as a tribune to address the populus. Today it sits amongst contemporary buildings, surrounded by bars and cafés. I suppose it is a sign of our times.
Mérida was decidedly more strategically important during the Roman Era than it is today. Situated halfway between Madrid and Lisbon, it was a natural stopping point for travellers and invading armies. It was also about midway on the Roman trade route that crossed western Spain from the Asturica Augusta gold mines in the north to the Mediterranean coast in the south. The name, Vía de la Plata (Silver Way) is derived from Arabic and means paved road. So, there you have Spain in a nutshell – a route through Iberia, built by the Romans, used by the Visigoths and later named by the Moors, until finally the title was adopted for a national freeway.
But lets get back to the Romans, the protagonists of this historical travel tale.
Mérida was a perfect launching point for the imperial army, possessing the natural resources to support the constriction of a Roman civitas or city. In 25 BC, Emperor Augustus founded Emerita Augusta. Eméritus in Latin means retired, indicating that the Emperor was loyal to his troupes beyond their years of active duty, allowing Roman veterans to retire here.
The first thing the Emperor ordered was to build a bridge to protect the passage over the Guadiana River. Extending for half a mile, it is still the longest of all existing Roman bridges in the world today. The town became the capital of Lucitania, one three Roman provinces dividing ancient Hispania Romana. Lucitania included large parts of western Spain and most of modern day Portugal, making its capital one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire outside of Italy.
A testament to the Emerita Augusta’s past grandeur is its theatres, which form part of the Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida. First, there is the smaller version of a Roman Colosseum. (Believe me, there is nothing miniature about it!) Inaugurated in 8 BC, the circular arena was an audience favourite. Hidden traps in the sand-covered staging area would release wild animals upon the combatants, and while gladiators fought for their life, some in full armour, others scantly clad and lightly armed, an audience of up to 16 000 people would have cheered. Inugula! (Kill him!) Verbera! (Beat him!), or Missus! (Pardon him!)
The second theatre is an equally impressive partly restored enormous Amphitheatre. Its construction, promoted by the Roman consul Agrippa, was started in 16 BC. After the Empire’s demise, it was abandoned, until excavations began in the early 20. century. The theatre has been the host of a classical theatre festival since 1933 and still presents performances at night during the summer months.
Mérida has countless other Roman sites worth visiting, one more jaw dropping than the other; the Arch of Trajan, the Aqueduct of Miracles, Roman dams and water reservoirs still in use, and stately Roman homes (domus) with mosaic floors and painted walls throughout, many of which can be admired, complete, in the National Museum of Roman Art. The latter is a must when visiting Mérida, and has become our favourite museum of all time (even surpassing the opium museum in northern Thailand).
But we must not forget Circus Maximus. Though less visually spectacular, it is no less deserving of ones attention. Actually, it is one of the largest ruins of the Roman era in all of Spain. The circus held extremely popular Ben Hur type chariot races for as many as 30 000 seated spectators! No strange Mérida has been nicknamed ‘Little Rome’!
WHY THE ROMANS?
To really understand the might of the Romans, one has to look to the settlements beyond Italy’s borders. Controlling such a large empire must have taken tremendous coordination, unlimited funds, in addition to a very disciplined army. So, what was the secret of the Romans success?
Though the Romans arrived waggling weapons, in contrast to other invading armies, the new subjects could become socii, or allies of Rome. This gave them a limited Roman citizenship. The conquered territories also enjoyed Roman protection from other invading forces, even if they were heavily taxed for this privilege. Provinces like Lucitania were governed from Rome, but each province was composed of partly self-administering smaller communities, or civitates. Roman governors called the shots, but locals could be given other administrative tasks.
Rome shaped Spain in numerous ways and brought unparalleled development to the Iberian Peninsula, be it the provisions of fresh water through aqueducts, urban sewage systems, paved roads, a law and order society, industrial scale wine production, or bread and circus for the masses. The road networks built to move the imperial troops around opened for communication and trade. Though the Roman and the indigenous cultures blended, the territories shared the common Roman ideals of government and citizenry, which to some extent have lasted to this day.
Our journey through Hispania will continue, as there are many other sites to explore. When it comes to the Romans in Spain, we are still just scratching the surface of time.