Roman Towns in Hispania
Roman civilisation was essentially urban, with Rome itself linked to its colonies by an extensive artery of roads that also served as umbilical links joining towns within its territories. Roman settlement in Hispania was not on a large scale during the period of conquest, although as early as 206 BC, a scarce dozen years after Rome’s arrival in the peninsula, the town of Itálica (near Seville) was founded by Scipio Africanus as a home for his wounded soldiers.
The policy of founding coloniae (colonies) for war veterans or settling them in existing towns increased significantly in the first century BC when both Julius Caesar and Augustus conducted a colonisation strategy that saw 21 colonies established, most in the south west and the east. Some have seen in this an attempt to reduce social pressures in Rome itself; for others it was a means of establishing permanent Roman presence by discharging large numbers of troops and rewarding them with grants of land on foreign soil (the reward also came with a high level of legal privilege).
Whatever the reason, this ongoing colonisation ensured the loyalty of the settlers to those who had rewarded them and guaranteed the constant revitalising of Rome’s presence. The towns formed by the colonies were in effect the repositories of Roman values and as such were fundamental in assimilating native culture with their constant reminders of the attractions and superiority of Roman civilisation. Intermarriage between Roman soldiers and native women also helped consolidate Roman values.
Later, during the first century AD, many towns acquired added prestige when their inhabitants were granted a degree of legal status as Roman citizens, which meant that they could participate in the public life of Rome as consuls or even senators. By the end of the century, the whole peninsula enjoyed the privileges of Roman citizenship
Every Roman town of consequence was provided with certain basics that reflected Roman culture. The bigger the city, the more the amenities: temples, theatre, amphitheatre, a circus, triumphal arch, a market, baths, an aqueduct, bridges.
The centre of urban life revolved around the forum, a rectangular enclosure that initially served as the market place but gradually became the centre of political and social activities as well. The Spanish attachment to the plaza mayor (main square) as the market and focal point of social activities may well be indebted to the Roman forum.
For travelers to Spain nowadays, the most visible signs of Rome’s legacy are the architectural and archeological treasures that dot the country. Of present-day cities that were prominent during the Roman period, most were grafted on earlier settlements or towns (e.g. Gadir/Gades- Cádiz, Corduba- Córdoba, Tarraco-Tarragona, Caesar Augustus-Zaragoza, Pompeiopolis-Pamplona) and a few were founded by the Romans (Emerita Augusta-Mérida, Asturica-Astorga, both border cities in the west and west). Of some others founded by the Romans, such as the coastal town of Bolonia (between Cádiz and Gibraltar), Ronda la Vieja, Itálica (near Seville), Segóbriga (near Cuenca) only the silent remains –columns, walls, foundations, perhaps an amphitheatre or baths– speak of the passage of a great civilisation.
What is most noticeable about Roman architecture, even in its remains, is its monumentality. It is imperial; it gives the impression of permanence, of something built for the greater glory of the civilisation that created it. Little surprise that when Spain itself became an empire in the 16th century, it should look to Rome for inspiration (e.g. Charles V’s palace in the Alhambra, Philip II’s monumental Escorial).
One of the most notable examples of a Roman city in Spain, thanks to the excellent remains that have survived, is Mérida (Emerita Augusta) founded in 23 BC as a reward for the veterans of the 5th and 10th legions who had participated in the Cantabrian wars. As capital of Roman Lusitania, it was also strategically located –on the northern bank of the Guadiana river– at the junction of a series of major roads and in the centre of a fertile region, the land of which became the source of considerable agricultural wealth. It was a city built, at the same time, on a grand scale as a kind of showpiece of Roman power in the west of the peninsula, and an example to neighbouring tribes of the attractions and benefits of Roman culture.
Mérida soon grew to become the ninth largest city in the whole empire and capital of the province of Lusitania. After the collapse of Rome, it retained some pre-eminence under the Visigoths, but then fell into decay and suffered centuries of neglect. Only recently, when it was selected capital of the autonomous community of Extremadura, has it begun to recover something of its former lustre.
The glories of the past are best captured by the theatre, a spectacular open air building with a semi circular auditorium capable of accommodating around 6.000 patrons.
The stage is some 60 feet wide and backed by a two-storied wall adorned with marble columns and statues. It is hard to believe now, when classical drama, dance and concerts are put on during the summer, that the building escaped as well as it did the debris of centuries that completely covered it until the beginning of this century, when excavations began.
Adjacent to the theatre is the almost equally impressive amphitheatre, the scene of gladiatorial battles and animal fights, with a capacity of some 14.000 spectators. The area could also be flooded to hold mock naval battles.
Not far away is a Roman Circus, the scene of chariots races where some 25.000 to 30.000 could cheer their favourite heroes as they hurtled around the arena.
Still spanning the sluggish Guadiana, just below the original Roman (and later Visigothic and Moorish) castle is the impressive Roman bridge. Possibly constructed during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), possibly earlier, it is 792 metres long and stands on 64 granite arches. It has always been a heavily traversed construction and its strategic location has endangered its existence on more than one occasion (Wellington was one who ordered it blown up during the Spanish Peninsular War at the beginning of the 18th century). Up until only a few years ago, El Puente (“The Bridge”), as it is simply known in Mérida, was still used for most traffic entering the city from the south. Now, with the opening of an ultra modern bridge a little down river, El Puente is used only for pedestrians.
Other Roman vestiges include an elegant three-tiered aqueduct (a favourite haunt of the local stork community) to carry water from a nearby Roman dam, temples, a triumphal arch, a necropolis and thermal baths.
Scattered throughout the country are other treasures that tell of Roman presence. The aqueducts of Segovia and Tarragona, for example, are more impressive even than Mérida’s. That of Segovia, said according to medieval legend to have been built overnight by the devil, was begun probably during the reign of Augustus (27BC-AD14) and largely restored by Trajan (98-117). Its gray two-tiered silhouette –supported on some 165 arches rising to a height of almost 30 metres– majestically spans the depression separating the old city from its more modern suburbs. It is constructed of huge granite blocks hewn out of the nearby Sierra Guadarrama; on the blocks, joined carefully together without mortar, it is still possible to see the slots used by construction grapples to hoist them into place. Some arches were destroyed by the Muslims in the 11th C, but were repaired 400 years later under the orders of Queen Isabel. The aqueduct then continued to transport water to the city until a few decades ago, but it remains an eloquent testimony to the engineering genius of its creators.
The Romans, of course, were noted for their skills as engineers and their undertaking of tasks on a grand scale. Even their statues frequently convey the grandeur of gods in human form, or humans –especially emperors– invested with divine dimensions. Ordinary humans could be portrayed, however, with a remarkably realistic touch, as may be seen in several busts in the recently constructed National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida.
But there is too another side, less commonly seen, in the delicate ceramic artefacts and exquisite glass objects that can be viewed in Mérida’s Museum.
The patterned ceramic cups and vases, the decorated glass drinking goblets and bowls, the beautiful rings, pendants, bracelets of precious metals (below right) clearly belonged to a privileged minority. But whether made locally or imported, these objects show craftsmanship of the highest quality and impeccable taste on the part of the owners!
Visitors to the Museum can also enjoy several impressive mosaics rescued from various sources in the country. Thematically they include scenes from mythology, hunting, chariot racing, all surrounded by exquisite abstract designs, floral configurations, squares, rhomboids and triangles.
These architectural and artistic treasures were produced largely during the pax romana and reflect the consolidation of Roman culture at a time of prosperity. The building and statues bear the stamp of Roman uniformity and although they might contain some local features, they could, by and large, be transplanted from Italy or almost any other region where Rome had a strong presence and their Roman provenance would be recognised.
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Image of Roman Jewelry: Museo de Arte Romano Mérida: Ministerio de Cultura, Madrid 1991