Rome and Hispania
Following their defeat of the Carthagininans, the Romans remained in Iberia for some 600 years, during which time numerous changes occurred which attest to their profound impact on the native population. Even those natives who resisted Roman domination could not ignore Roman pressure, and as time went on no group, with the exception perhaps of the Basques, was able to avoid assimilation to a greater or lesser degree. Not surprisingly, conquest and assimilation was most rapid and complete along the eastern and southern coasts, those areas in closest proximity to Rome, and where Phoenician, Greek, and Carthaginian activities had already acclimatised the inhabitants to a common Mediterranean heritage; the transition to Roman culture was therefore more easily bridged in these areas. Assimilation in the north –Galicia and Asturias– was relatively light, as the lack of Roman towns will testify. Most towns in the north were primarily military bases established to keep an eye on the volatile tribes of the area and to safeguard Rome’s mining interests in León, Galicia and Asturias (e.g. the large gold mines of Las Médulas, south west of Ponferrada (León).
Unfortunately the tribal groups that populated the peninsula (e.g. Celts, Iberians, Celtiberians, Lusitanians) left no written testaments about themselves nor about their attitudes to the Romans. As a result all our information of what took place in the peninsula during this period is filtered through Roman eyes. Even Hispania,the name that eventually evolved into España, came from Rome, and Rome took a proprietary interest in what was its first and longest held possession.
Rome succeeded in uniting the peninsula for the first time, but that unity was externally and not internally driven. That is, Hispania –whether divided into two provinces, as it was initially, or five as it was at the end of the Empire– was governed in the name of Rome and looked to Rome for direction. Rome was the model, the cultural as well as political magnet, and those wishing to make a name for themselves headed for the capital.
And so it is that writers such as Seneca (4 BC- 65 Ad), Lucan (39-65 AD), Martial (40-103 AD), Quintilian (35-100 AD), or emperors such as Trajan (53-117 AD), Hadrian (76-138 AD), and Theodosius (347-395 AD) all born in Hispania during the pax romana (roughly 27 BC to 180 AD), are generally considered as adding to Rome’s glory; in fact their use of Roman names suggests that they considered themselves more as Romans born in Spain rather than as Spaniards. Hispania was, to all intents and purposes, an extension of Rome.
Hispania’s contributions, and the ways they are viewed even nowadays as part of the Roman cultural mosaic only emphasise the closeness between the capital and colony, and the latter’s lack of separate identity. And yet, in the same way that the proverb “All roads lead to Rome” must infer that they also lead from Rome, so too Rome gave at the same time that it took. There was an interchangeability that explains the ease with which writers and politicians from Hispania could blend into Rome’s cultural and political environment and contribute significantly to Rome’s fame. They were helped in feeling “at home” in the capital by the fact that from about 73 AD the peninsula was granted a large degree of Roman civil rights. It was a privileged status that allowed for equality before the law, and provided a degree of unity and sense of belonging that allowed all citizens to identify what they had in common. That identity, however, was not yet Spanish but Roman.
The commonality of legal status, however, would have had little impact had it not been backed by an instrument that is a corner stone of national identity: language, in this case Latin, that came to be understood by all to a greater or lesser degree. This is, perhaps, the greatest legacy of the Romans to Spain. All the languages that are part of the cultural mosaic of modern Iberia –Castilian, Portuguese, Catalan, Galician– are descendants of the Latin that was spoken in the peninsula during the period of Roman domination (the exception being Basque, or Euskera). The peninsula became, then, a largely unilingual region. The advantages of unilingualism for the Romans were simple: as natives acquired knowledge of Latin, communication between them and the Romans improved. An added bonus was that it also became the lingua franca between tribes. Its implantation, then, became a primary means of undermining local tradition and a vital vehicle of cultural assimilation. Language, Queen Isabel was to be informed when Spain was about to embark on its own imperial adventure in the 16th century, was the means to empire. The widespread use of English, French, Portuguese, as well as Spanish, is proof that linguistic monopoly can cause grave if not irreparable damage to local traditions. The sword may prepare the way, but it is language that delivers the coup de grace.
What is left in the Iberian peninsula of pre-Roman languages are some lexical curiosities (e.g. Iberian inscriptions in Alcoy, Mogente, Castellon) and some place-names (e.g Segovia derives from the Celtic sego, “victory,” Berdún, Navardún from dunum, “fort or settlement”). Latin, too, is dead (except in the Vatican), but its death was the result of evolution as the political bond that bound Rome and its territories disintegrated and the separated areas started to develop their own identity. The fact that four different languages evolved in the Iberian Peninsula out of this root language underlines how difficult it was to impose a single language in a country where geography made communications exceedingly difficult. The fact that the Romans did manage to impose linguistic unity in such diversity says much about their tenacity and the attraction of their civilisation. But the fact that that unity eventually fragmented and that each part evolved separately once Rome declined is the first real instance of the tendency towards centrifugalism (separation) that forms part of Hispanic tradition to the present day. Nowadays we are more likely to call it a struggle between centralism and regionalism.
Six hundred years of Roman presence in the Iberian Peninsula inevitably left indelible traces. The ruins found in towns or scattered in the countryside, the sculptures, jewelry and artifacts in the museums are palpable witnesses to the passage of a great civilisation. Roman language, law and Christian-Roman religion have permeated Spanish life, albeit modified by subsequent generations.
In return for cereal, wines, olive oil, minerals, soldiers for the army, writers and emperors, Spain was left with a rich Roman legacy, the building blocks for its own identity. The great architectural ruins are a visible reminder of Rome’s contributions; the main languages of the peninsula are built on the ruins of Latin. Even the Roman Catholic predilection for images of saints may echo the Roman pantheon of gods represented in stone.
However, when the Empire collapsed at the beginning of the 5th century, Hispania was wrenched from those political and cultural ties that had kept it attached to another power’s destiny. It was cut adrift. And left without an internal political or cultural “infrastructure” of its own, a focus around which it could organise itself, it was as vulnerable as enfeebled Rome itself to the incursions of new invaders, even though these were numerically far inferior.
Some places to visit:
Mérida: bridge, theatre, amphitheatre, circus, triumphal arch, aqueduct, temples, museum
Tarragona: theatre, amphitheatre, circus, aqueduct
Alcántara (Extremadura): bridge
Ruins of Itálica (near Seville): walls, amphitheatre, houses, temples
Ruins of Bolonia (between Gibraltar and Cádiz): theatre, temples,forum, basilica, baths, garum vats
Ruins of Segóbriga (about 100 kilometres S/E of Madrid): theatre, baths, amphitheatre, wall, necropolis
James M Anderson Spain 1001 Sights: An Archeological and Historical Guide London 1992
Roger Collins Spain: An Oxford Archeological Guide Oxford 1998
Leonard Curchin Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation London 1991
J. S. Richardson The Romans in Spain Oxford 1996
José Manuel Roldán La España romana Madrid 1989
A Tovar and J.M.Blázquez Historia de la Hispania Romana Madrid 1976
Mary Vincent & R.A. Stradling Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal Oxford 1994
Roman theatre in Mérida: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merida,_Spain