Category Archives: Spanish History

Spanish Civil War (1936-39): Objective Madrid.

Note: Several names are used to designate the two broad, polarised forces embroiled in the Spanish Civil War. Those on the side of the legitimately elected left-wing coalition government are called Republicans, loyalists, socialists, or simply government forces/ supporters. On the other side, we have anti-Republicans, rebels, insurgents, insurrectionists, Fascists or, most commonly, Nationalists.

 From the outset of the Civil War, the main military objective of the rebellious anti-Republican forces was to take Madrid. Clearly, as capital and seat of the Republican government Madrid was extremely important, but its situation in the geographical centre of the country also carried significant psychological implications.
It symbolised the centralist vision espoused by the rebels and carried with it both moral and political authority. 

The Opening Salvo.
The opening salvo of the Civil War was fired on July 17th, 1936, when garrisons rebelled in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco and in mainland Spain. On the following day, General Francisco Franco declared a state of war and arrived in Morocco from the Canary Islands where he had been stationed. However, the insurgents failed to inspire a country-wide insurrection on the mainland, and the burden of victory fell on the Army of Africa (consisting of legionnaires and mercenary Moroccans) commanded by Franco. Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar from the Spanish protectorate of Morocco, Franco planned to head north to Extremadura before turning east to Madrid.

Fortunately for him, by the time he crossed the Straits in the first week of August 1936, the major cities of Western Andalusia (Seville, Cordoba, Granada) had already fallen to the rebels, but not the countryside.

Spanish Civil War Map: End of July 1936. Nationalist zone in red.

So, before heading north, the Nationalists (the term was first coined on August 7 as part of the insurgents’ patriotic propaganda) first had to secure western Andalusia, a task that was completed by a thorough village-by-village “cleansing” of rural opposition. Then, supported by German and Italian air cover and applying tactics of terror learned in the Moroccan wars of the 1920s, Franco’s troops swept northwards into Extremadura purging all pockets of opposition as they went.

The battle for Badajoz (Aug 14) was especially bloody and savage and made international headlines. Cut off from all help, government forces fought desperately and managed to inflict heavy damage on the insurgents before succumbing.

What followed became known as the “massacre of Badajoz.” Under the direct command of one of Franco’s most callous commanders, Lieutenant-Colonel Juan Yagüe Blanco, almost 2,000 civilians were herded into the town’s bullring and slaughtered.  It was a bloody message of what to expect for those who dared oppose the Nationalist advance.

By September 3, 1936, the insurgents had crossed the River Tagus and taken the town of Talavera de la Reina, just over 100 kilometres (60 miles) south west of Madrid. From this point, fierce Republican resistance slowed the Nationalist advance to the capital and it took over two weeks to reach Maqueda (September 21), only 33 kilometres (20 miles) east of Talavera.

It was here, however, that Franco made an unexpected decision. Instead of pressing on to Madrid, he turned his army south to Toledo where about 2,000 Nationalist soldiers and supporters were besieged in the giant fortress (alcázar) by Republicans.

Military strategists have questioned the decision, especially since the time spent “liberating” Toledo allowed the capital precious time to shore up its defences. But there were extenuating factors at work here, which take us away from the military front for a moment.

On September 21, 1936, the day Franco ordered his soldiers to Toledo, he headed for a meeting he had requested with Nationalist military leaders in Salamanca. The time had come to choose one leader with a clear chain of command, not only for the unity of the rebels but also for crucial ongoing negotiations with Hitler and Mussolini for aid.

The only two real candidates for supreme leadership were Franco and General Emilio Mola, commander of the Northern Army heading south towards Madrid. Mola was older and had been the main organiser of the coup; Franco, however, was senior in rank, had a higher military profile, and already enjoyed the confidence of Hitler and Mussolini.

The choice was never really in doubt: with only one abstention among the generals, Franco was elected Commander-in-Chief (Generalísimo) of the Nationalist armed forces. (And as it happened, any subsequent challenge from Mola was eliminated when he died in a plane crash on June 3, 1937.)

Franco was now in complete charge of the war effort, but there was more to come for the 43-year old Galician. Despite doubts expressed by some of his military colleagues, by the end of September Franco’s supporters had succeeded in getting him elected Head of State, effectively concentrating in his hands both military and political power.

It was a provisional arrangement “as long as the war lasts” the agreement said (Preston Franco 183), but the die was cast. It was but a short step from absolute authority to dictatorship, and the “provisional” title of Head of State, Caudillo, was one that Franco was to enjoy for the rest of his life, “by the grace of God.”

In November 1936, both Germany and Italy officially recognised Franco as Head of the Spanish State, a move that gave some international legitimacy to his position.

And finally, there was the church. The rebels were traditionalists and overwhelmingly devout Catholics and predictably protected the church. The church’s support, in turn, gave legitimacy to the Nationalists from the beginning and provided ideological cohesion to the war.  This sense of cohesion marked a major difference between the Nationalists and the Republicans in the running of the war.

Later, in April, 1937, Franco added the final trappings of an alternate government to oppose the legitimately elected Popular Front when he took command of the two major civilian branches of the Nationalist uprising (the fascist Falange and the Carlist** militias/ “requetes“) and united them into a single political party, the cumbersomely-named Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las JONS (Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista).The importance attached to unity by the Nationalists is neatly wrapped up in the slogan adopted from the Falange and repeated ad nauseam by Franco and his followers: España una, grande, libre: Spain one, great, free.
**The Carlists were reactionary Catholics who supported the claims to the throne of the descendants of the 19th-century pretender, Don Carlos de Borbón. Their strongest presence was in Navarre.

Franco’s decision to take Toledo rather than proceed to Madrid now acquires better focus. Better-organised Republican resistance had increased as his troops approached Madrid, so any failure to take the capital could undermine confidence in Franco during those crucial meetings in Salamanca.

On the other hand, the besieged Alcázar of Toledo (the siege had been going on since at least Aug 24, 1936) highlighted Nationalist valour against all-out Republican efforts and to lift the siege would be a feather in Franco’s hat. Of the two cities, Toledo was an easier target, but there was in addition another important reason: Toledo’s historic significance.

Toledo was the religious and spiritual capital of the country and the seat of its most important Catholic diocese. Toledo’s history was indelibly linked –since the times of the Visigoths— with Spain’s Catholic soul.

To deliver it, then, from the “godless hordes” would convey a powerful symbol to the Nationalists and, among the inner circle of generals, enhance Franco’s reputation and consolidate his position in a decisive moment of his career.  Franco might not have thought about it then, but the deliverance of Toledo from an alien “heresy” had echoes of the triumphant conquest of the city by Alfonso VI back in 1085.

And if he did not think about it then, certainly by the time he made his state entry into Madrid in May of 1939 he followed –according to the official Nationalist press release– “the ritual observed when Alfonso VI, accompanied by the Cid, captured Toledo in the Middle Ages (Preston Franco, 329).

The battle for Toledo was bloody and ferocious, with no prisoners taken. On September 28, 1936, the Alcázar was relieved and Toledo was back in Nationalist hands. On October 1, following a much-hyped trip to Toledo –which cinema audiences throughout the world witnessed– Franco was officially invested as Chief of State in a lavish ceremony in the ancient city of Burgos, the Nationalist headquarters (and resting place of the Cid!).

With Toledo taken, could Madrid be far behind?
 General Mola had boasted that success was assured by the four rebel columns approaching the capital, and from a fifth column within the city (it is now that the term “fifth column” enters our common idiom). His expectations, however, were frustrated.

On October 7, 1936, the Nationalists, attacking in an arc from the north and west, managed to make it to the university campus on the northern outskirts of the city. On November 6, fearing the imminent fall of Madrid, the Republican government withdrew to Valencia, ostensibly to conduct the war from there. They left the defence of the capital to General Jose Miaja, an undistinguished commander but popular with the troops.

The Nationalists were euphoric at the prospects of victory. Newspapers predicted the triumphal entry of Franco, military bands prepared for a glorious parade, victory speeches were penned, banners painted. But the defenders of Madrid had something to say about that.

Despite the brave words of the banner above: “They shall not pass…. Madrid will be the tomb of fascism,” Madrid did fall. Franco’s troops entered Madrid on March 27, 1939.
1937. The decision was to encircle Madrid and cut off its supply lines to the east. Reinforced by German aircraft and Italian soldiers, the Nationalists launched attack after attack in some of the bitterest fighting of the war, made worse by wintry conditions.
By March 1937 it had become clear that although the Nationalists had made some territorial gain, they had lost many lives and not succeeded isolating the capital. In the battle for the River Jarama valley (February 1937), the Nationalists failed to gain control of the Madrid-Valencia road, while in the Battle of the of the Guadalajara (March 1937)–on the Madrid-Zaragoza road– the Italians were routed, much to the embarrassment of a furious Mussolini.

In the face of such determined opposition with a high cost of life, Franco had little choice but to change tactics again. His major consolation was that although the battle for Madrid had not gone as planned, in other parts of the country there was success, perhaps the main conquest being the city of Málaga (February 1937). As for Madrid, it would become an increasing obsession of his and he would return to it, but only after dealing with less stubborn resistance.

After failing to capture Madrid, Franco’s first move was against the northern coast, a loyalist strip that was cut off from the rest of the Republic. It made perfect sense, and would at the same time provide the Nationalists with important access to the coal of Asturias and to the industrial resources of the Basque Provinces: iron ore, steel, shipyards.

But the terrain is also wooded and mountainous and Basque opposition, especially around Bilbao was determined. However, once the city fell (June 19, 1937) the advance westward was methodical, if slow.

Altogether, the campaign took almost seven months (March to October 1937) and might have been no more than a detail in the history of the Civil War but for one notorious event that immediately leapt onto the international stage and left an indelible mark on the history of warfare.

In the late afternoon of April 26, 1937, the centre of the sleepy, Basque market town of Guernica (Gernika in Basque) was obliterated and its inhabitants strafed by waves of German planes over a period of almost three hours.

For the German commanders of the Condor Legion who masterminded the assault, it was an experiment in bombing methods. The rest of the world now recognises it as the first case of blitzkrieg, the tactic that was to terrify civilians in the Second World War, 1939-45.

Guernica/Gernika after the blitzkrieg.
The widespread destruction of buildings and appalling rain of death on the inhabitants** was a graphic, gruesome demonstration that civilian safety could no longer be protected from air attack.
**Figures for the numbers of victims vary widely, from about 300 to 1654. The latter figure –based on information provided by the Basque government of the time— was long accepted but the former approximate number is now more widely recognised. Neither figure takes in the injured, estimated in the hundreds. For a very interesting piece on propaganda –or fake news– see

Public awareness of the attack was heightened when Picasso’s painting “Guernica” was shown at the Paris World’s Fair in June 1937.

Picasso’s Guernica. In the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.

During the summer of 1937, the Republicans tried diversionary tactics to relieve pressure on the north. In July, a bloody, three week offensive against the Nationalist held village of Brunete, 15 miles west of Madrid proved costly in men and material. It did force Franco to bring reserves temporarily from the north, but the territorial gain for the Republicans was negligible, and Brunete remained in Nationalist hands!

Another offensive in Belchite (Aragón, about 43 kilometres south west of Zaragoza) in August came to nothing. It was a grim period for the Republicans whose lack of success on the front for more than a year was beginning to create a defeatist mentality in many.

Ruins of Belchite, left untouched as a memorial of the Civil War. A new community has since been built alongside the ghost village.

Once the northern war was won (October 1937), Franco again turned his attention to Madrid and preparations were made in November 1937 for another assault on the capital. By some good fortune or astute spying, the Republicans obtained information of Franco’s plans and quickly organised a pre-emptive, diversionary strike on the Nationalist-held, provincial capital of Teruel in the southern tip of Aragón.

Republican soldiers in Teruel, 1938

The town, lightly defended and almost surrounded by Republican columns was attacked in mid-December 1937. The Republican strategy succeeded as Franco –ignoring the advice of his German and Italian allies– diverted troops from Madrid to Teruel. It wasn’t enough to prevent the town falling to the Republicans on January 8, 1938.

However, Republican success was short lived as Nationalist forces launched a massive counterattack. In appalling conditions –snow, ice, temperatures that plunged to -20C and caused soldiers to die from exposure– the battle raged back and forth, from street to street, house to house.

Both sides suffered massive losses in what was one of the bitterest battles of the war, with estimates of casualties running as high as 40,000 for the Nationalists and 60,000 for the Republicans. It was a morale sapping experience for both sides, but the air and artillery superiority of the rebels eventually won out. On February 22 the Republicans retreated and Teruel was back in the Nationalist fold.

1938. The Battle of Teruel was a defining moment of the Civil War. Following quickly on their advantage, the Nationalists undertook what is called the Aragon Offensive, swallowing more territory in a massive push into western Catalonia (Catalunya) and down the Ebro valley to the Mediterranean.

When they reached the Catalan fishing village of Vinaroz (Vinaròs) on April 15, 1938, they effectively split the Republican zone, leaving Catalonia and Valencia isolated from each other. The Nationalist camp now seemed invincible; the Republicans, demoralised and suffering from a serious shortage of food, were on the run.

Republican soldiers crossing the Ebro, 1938

It seemed only a matter of time before the end. “The Civil War has entered upon its last lap” was the verdict of The Times of London (Carr Spanish Tragedy... 217). Still, the war dragged on for almost another year, in part owing to Franco’s refusal to accept offers of a compromise peace from the Republican government and in part owing to his decision to attack Valencia instead of Catalonia.

Having reached the Mediterranean, the logical choice for Franco–and the one urged by his advisers– was to finish the conquest of Catalonia, the only remaining source of the Republic’s industrial base, and also by now the seat of its government.

To the astonishment of his advisers, however, he opted for a much longer journey south to take Valencia. What this did was to stretch Nationalist lines and allow the Republicans to amass troops for one massive effort to restore contact between the two Republican zones.

In July 1938 –as Nationalist forces approached Valencia– a huge concentration of some 80.000 to 100.000 men using small boats and pontoon bridges crossed a bend in the lower Ebro river and attacked Nationalist positions.

The battle raged for four months and turned out to be the climactic battle of the Civil War. It was a case of survival for the Republican forces, but their desperate action was also fuelled by hope that came from what was happening elsewhere in Europe.

The Spanish Civil War was fought against a background of increasing tensions in Europe, and both Nationalists and Republicans were heavily indebted to aid from interested European powers. Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union were the main foreign players in the Spanish Civil War, but others, in particular Britain and France, followed events very closely.

What gave the Republican leadership hope in the summer and fall of 1938 were the actions of Adolf Hitler. In March 1938 Hitler had annexed Austria, and by late summer he had his eyes on Czechoslovakia. Republican optimism rested on the hope that Britain, France and the Soviet Union would resist Hitler’s belligerence.

This would precipitate a European war, whereby the Spanish Civil War would be absorbed into a larger conflict and the Republic would acquire allies whose interests would include the defeat of Franco. And for exactly the same reason that the Republicans hoped for a European war, Franco feared one, and hastened to assure Britain and France that should hostilities break out north of the border, he would remain neutral.

As it turned out, Britain and France capitulated to Hitler and surrendered Czechoslovakia on September 29, 1938. Indirectly it condemned the last Republican effort to defeat. The Ebro campaign continued until mid-November when the Republicans were finally pushed back across the river.

By now the heart of Catalonia was exposed and the Nationalists pushed on methodically.  Their troops entered Barcelona on January 26, 1939, as thousands –including most Republican politicians– fled to exile in France. By February 10 Catalonia had fallen.

1939. Madrid and Valencia still held out, but the outcome was never in doubt. Internal dissension weakened Republican defences, and efforts to negotiate an honourable peace were coldly rejected. In the confusion there was no effective resistance. There was a mass exodus to the Mediterranean ports as Republicans sought any means of evacuation.

The end came on March 27 when Nationalist troops entered Madrid. It had taken almost three years, but Franco had finally achieved his objective of taking the capital. On April 1, 1939, he issued a hand-written communique: Today, with the Red Army captive and disarmed, our victorious troops have achieved their final military objectives. The war is over. (Preston Franco 322).

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd.  ed. 2009
Carr, Raymond Spain 1808-1939 Oxford 1966
Carr, Raymond  The Spanish Tragedy: The Civil War in Perspective London 1993 (first pub. 1977)
Casanova Julian & Andres, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014
Ellwood, Sheelagh Franco London & New York 1994
Hodges, Gabrielle Ashford Franco: A Concise Biography London 2000
Jackson, Gabriel A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1974
Preston, Paul  Franco: A Biography  London 1995
—————-   A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War
 London 1996

Banner in Madrid: “¡No pasarán! Madrid” by Mikhail Koltsov – Оригинал (1936) сделан фотоаппаратом “ФЭД”. Own work photo. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –!_Madrid.jpg#/media/File:%C2%A1No_pasar%C3%A1n!_Madrid.jpg
Picasso’s Guernica:
Image of Belchite:  By ecelan – Own work, CC BY 2.5,
For a series of excellent graphic photos of Belchite, see NB Belchite is not in the south of Spain, as the article states, but in Aragon, in the north east.
Destruction of Guernica: Guernica “Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H25224, Guernica, Ruinen” by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons –,_Guernica,_Ruinen.jpg#/media/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-H25224,_Guernica,_Ruinen.jpg
Republican soldiers in Teruel: “Reemplazo republicano” by Senior 2009 – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –  
Wikimedia Commons –

Spain in the Palaeolithic Age: 2.5 million years – 10,000 years ago.

For a long time it was argued that the climatic conditions in Europe were too hostile for any form of human habitation over 500.000 years ago.

But the discovery in 1982 of fragments of human-like bones and flint pieces near the village of Orce (north east of Granada) dated at between 1.8 to 1.4 million years old, and the finding of hominid remains dating back some 1.2 million years at the Victoria Cave (Murcia) have caused archaeologists and palaeontologists to revise their views. Suddenly we are faced with the possibility of some form of human life existing in Europe over an age span three times longer than earlier calculated!

Another conventional thought was that the earliest hominid arrivals reached the Iberian peninsula having travelled out of Africa through the Middle East and then westward in an arc over central and southern Europe.

The findings in these two sites in southern Spain of animal fossils of African origin suggest that the earliest Europeans may in fact have followed these animals across the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa, a feat that could have been achieved if –as has been argued– there was a decline in sea levels between 2.4 and 1.6 million years ago.

In 1994 the bones of six individuals dating back to between 780.000 and 850.000 years ago were found in the north, in the Gran Dolina Cave in the Sierra de Atapuerca region (a World Heritage site), just east of Burgos. Whether this signifies a northward migration of those hominids found at Orce and the Victoria Cave or whether they arrived through the Pyrenees is open to question. But they do seem to confirm that the settlement of Europe did occur prior to 500.000 years ago. 

Nearby, another site, the Sima de los Huesos (the Pit of Bones) has yielded some bone fragments of at least 32 individuals that go back some 400.000 years, not as far back as the above examples but still a long way from modern humans! It has been thought that because of the ordered placement of the bones, the site may be a burial place which, if true, would make the Sima de los Huesos one of our earliest pieces of evidence of a deliberately selected burial site. This in turn suggests the possibility of either ancestor worship or even belief in an afterlife.

[December 4, 2013: For more recent observations about the Sima de los Huesos, see]

The last generally recognised hominid group, Neanderthal man, brings us much closer to Homo sapiens.  Neanderthal man is calculated to have flourished in Europe between 400.000 and 30.000 years ago and may indeed have coexisted briefly with early humans, who appear on the scene about 40.000 years ago.

Conventional thinking is that Neanderthal man reached the Iberian Peninsula via the Pyrenees and gradually spread southwards. Much later, about 40 to 35,000 years ago, early humans first appeared in the peninsula having probably followed a similar route through southern Europe and the Pyrenees.

The discovery in 1994 at El Sidron cave near the village of Vallobal in Asturias of Neanderthal remains dating to 43,000 years ago, and another discovery in 1995 in the area of Zafarraya in the south of Spain (mid way between Malaga and Granada) of Neanderthal fragments going back 30,000 years have highlighted some interesting possibilities.

The dates suggest that Neanderthals existed longer than previously calculated and that they coexisted with early humans longer than earlier thought. Recently (2006) it has been argued that Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar was the last refuge of the Neanderthals; they were still using the cave until approximately 28,000 years ago.

However, the evidence is tentative and based not on Neanderthal fossils but on the types of artefacts associated with them: charcoal, stone knives and tools. September 1, 2014: Recent investigations now suggest that the Neanderthals did indeed inhabit Gorham’s Cave leaving evidence, too, of early cave art; See:

The fact that the youngest Neanderthal remains are found in the south of the Iberian peninsula suggests, for many, that the Neanderthals had been driven out of central Europe by the overwhelming superiority of the early humans and pushed towards the extremities of the continent.  The Iberian Peninsula became for the Neanderthals the “end of the road,” as it were.

It is tempting to think that during a relatively brief overlapping period both groups crossbred but that is a controversial and unresolved matter; DNA tests in the 1990s show no evidence of cross breeding. Latest research supports this view, although there is now some speculation that Neanderthals may have had some form of speech (see   Search Neanderthals, Feb 12 and 13, 2009).

December 23, 2013: AN article in argues in favour of the possibility of crossbreeding: The sequencing results, published today in the journal Nature, also reveal Neanderthals, early modern humans and a sister group to Neanderthals, Denisovans, met and reproduced in the Late Pleistocene between 12,000 and 126,000 years ago (Quoted from article).

An article on Neanderthal Man in the National Geographic  (October 2008) has a lengthy discussion of the remains found in El Sidron Cave as well as observations on the artefacts found in Gorham’s Cave.

November 2, 2011: Teeth and jaw bones found respectively in caves in Apulia (Italy) and Devon (England) “have been confirmed as the earliest known remains of Homo sapiens in Europe.”  The baby teeth from the Grotta del Cavallo have been dated from 43,000 to 45,000 years old; the jawbone from Kents Cavern are calculated to be about 41,000 years old. The jawbone was unearthed in 1927 and the baby teeth in 1964, but only now –thanks to the precision of modern technology– has their age been more accurately calculated. An interesting article can be found in

For a more detailed description of the Atapuerca region, see

Spanish Civil War (1936-39). A Vicious “Uncivil” War.
In early June 1937, Pablo Picasso completed his painting Guernica, a savage indictment of the ruthless destruction of the small Basque market town of Guernica (Gernika in Basque). 

This historical cradle of Basque nationalism was devastated by waves of aircraft from the German Condor Legion.  German (and Italian) airmen and soldiers were in Spain to assist General Francisco Franco, leader of the rebel Nationalist forces in their battle to overthrow the legitimately elected Popular Front government of the Second Republic.

Picasso’s Guernica.

Guernica is a painting like no other. It stripped away any historic notion of the nobility of war even more so than Francisco de Goya’s horrific paintings The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May 1808. It has become the iconic depiction of the complete dehumanisation of war; its anguished cry uncovers the bestiality of “human” actions and tears away of any sense of humanity and civility.

Goya’s Third of May 1808. Painted 1814.

The Spanish Civil War (July 18, 1936-April 1, 1939) was in no way “civil,” in the everyday sense of “polite” or “courteous.” Nor was it, as might be expected, a war exclusively between citizens of the same country.  In many ways, it was an international war, with Germany and Italy supporting the rebellious Nationalists, and the Soviet Union and volunteer International Brigades backing the Popular Front government.

However, despite foreign intervention it was very much a national war pitting Spaniards against each other from the opening salvos. It tore apart cities, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and families. The verbal sparring and violent outbursts of the Republican years (1931-36) gave way now to all-out, vicious bloodletting.

The violence that erupted, especially during the summer months of 1936, reflected the deep felt hatred and contempt that each side held for the other.  Gruesome stories of atrocities circulated quickly and added to the terror: for example, of heretical reds running amok in Málaga and crushing naked nuns with steamrollers or of walls made of children’s’ bodies in Barcelona. But reality needed no embroidering.

On the Republican side, the military uprising unleashed an explosion of hatred fuelled by centuries of rural exploitation, religious authoritarianism and regional repression.

These were historic, internal matters which survived the convulsions of the 19th century and, mixed with the political and social signs of modernity –political parties, workers’ unions, professional soldiers–, produced the volatile combination that ultimately lead to the war.

Opposed to these radical political and social forces were the entrenched privileged, buttressed by traditions and a deeply ingrained fear and hate of anything that threatened their authority. 

These included the Catholic Church, monarchists, latifundio (large estate) landowners, bankers, industrialists, and disaffected generals.  At the same time, their cause also enjoyed the support of a substantial number of ordinary people, from the urban bourgeoisie to conservative peasant farmers in Old Castile and León, Galicia, and Navarre.

Both sides were capable of committing bestial acts of violence in the name of ideology, but often it was no more than local venom or vengeance, a vicious settling of accounts (ajuste de cuentas).

For example, in the village of Palma del Río (in the province of Córdoba), the local cacique** –with the help of the Civil Guards and the right-wing Falangists**– exacted revenge for the death of his fighting bulls by lining up the villagers and hand picking those who were to die.

**Cacique, a hold-over term from the 19th century: a
local boss involved in political corruption and
electoral fraud whereby he ensured that those in his
area voted in elections according to orders received
from Madrid.
**Falange: the closest Spanish equivalent to a fascist party.

Over two hundred were then herded together and massacred by machine guns!

There were macabre scenes of Nationalist sympathisers beaten to death with crucifixes, or rebellious peasants ordered to dig their own graves and then buried alive with a mocking farewell alluding to peasant push for agrarian reform: “Here is the piece of land you wanted, you son of a bitch” (Williams 198). Bodies of nuns were disinterred and mockingly displayed in areas of the Republic.

Neither friendship nor blood guaranteed safety as villages were split and families torn apart. At the highest level, for example, Franco refused to stop the execution of a cousin, Major Ricardo de la Puente Bahamonde, who had tried to hold the airport of Tetuán for the Republic at the outbreak of the war.

Although they were very close childhood friends, Franco and de la Puente had grown apart ideologically much to Franco’s disgust. In an argument between them, Franco was once heard to shout: “One day I’m going to have you shot” (Preston Franco 151). Prophetic words!

Social status or party affiliation could condemn an individual out of hand. In the Republican zone, for example, the highly visible clergy were hated symbols of oppression and suffered accordingly.

It is estimated that about 7,000 priests and members of the religious orders (monks and nuns) were murdered, many cruelly tortured in the process. In one instance, rosary beads were stuffed into a monk’s ears until the drums perforated; in another, priests were mowed down by gunfire as they fled from a church set ablaze by a furious mob.

In Nationalist territory, members of the coalition Popular Front or trades unions, anarchists, socialists and communists were routinely taken out on paseos (“walks”), lined up, shot and dumped in ditches, mines, rivers etc. Freemasons were regularly murdered as were left wing intellectuals or teachers.

Women sympathisers of the Republic or wives of Republicans were particularly subjected to horrific treatment. Viewed as whores or “free” women, they were regularly humiliated: They had their heads shaved or their breasts branded or were force-fed castor oil and paraded in public where they were mocked as they soiled themselves. 

Gang rape followed by murder was common, after which soldiers might troop through towns waving their victims’ underwear like trophies on their rifles. In one reported case, two teen age girls were handed over to forty Nationalist soldiers. “They’ll not live more than four hours,” a Francoist officer is reported to have said (Tremlett Review 3).

Rank and fame meant nothing. Perhaps the most celebrated victim of the Nationalist rebels was the Andalusian poet from Granada, Federico García Lorca, killed in August of 1936. Although the Franco regime was later to seize upon the theory that his murder was the result of homosexual rivalry, it is now commonly accepted that Lorca was one of up to 5,000 political victims killed in Granada during the war years.

Although born into a well-off, middle-class family, Lorca was a social maverick who –perhaps because of his homosexuality– sympathised with the socially marginalised and the poor (e.g. the gypsies).

Federico Garcia Lorca

Intellectually he was left wing, and infuriated Nationalists and many granadinos with his subversive views of Spanish history: e.g. he believed the conquest of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs was a disaster which had produced the worst bourgeoisie in Spain.

Strong words in the political context of the day! But to add fuel to the fire, he also angered the church with writings and comments that it perceived as undermining its authority. For example, in his rural tragedy Yerma (first staged in Madrid in December 1934), the Old Woman advises the infertile Yerma not to ask God for help. “When are people going to realise that there’s no such person?” she concludes.

The reaction in the right-wing press following the work’s debut was vitriolic, condemning the work as homosexual filth, full of repellent scenes “incompatible with human dignity … an offence against public decency” (Gibson 213). Any author capable of provoking such deep feelings of hatred ran considerable risks in the heated climate of those times.

Lorca paid for it with his life. According to his most authoritative biographer, Lorca was “victim … to the hatred of the Catholic Church and those whom he had termed ‘the worst bourgeoisie in Spain’” (Gibson 182).

José Antonio Primo de Rivera

On the Nationalist side, the rebels were to find plenty of ammunition in the execution of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator, and founder of the Spanish Falange.

Arrested by the Popular Front in March of 1936 in Madrid, the charismatic José Antonio was later transferred to Alicante where he was executed by local officials on November 20, 1936. Franco –whose support of attempts to liberate José Antonio was tepid at best– was later to exploit cynically the death of a potential rival for the leadership of the Nationalists by subscribing to the cult of the fallen hero.

The name of José Antonio ausente (“absent”) became ritually intoned at all roll calls and José Antonio, presente (“here“) was painted or carved prominently on church walls and other public areas.**

**Even after the passing of a controversial law, the Ley de la Memoria Histórica (Historical Memory Law) in 2007 –aimed at removing such propaganda from churches and public areas— the exaltation of Nationalist“martyrs” can still be seen widely.

The viciousness of the war did not allow for delicate sentiments or generosity of spirit. Prisoners were rarely exchanged but summarily shot or hanged. In perhaps the first celebrated reprisal of the war to reach an international audience, in August 1936 Nationalist soldiers rounded up about 2,000 Republican militiamen and civilians in the bullring of Badajoz and slaughtered them in a hail of machine gun fire.

When questioned about the massacre, Colonel Yagüe, the officer in charge, bluntly retorted “Of course we shot them…. Was I supposed to take 4,000 reds with me…? Was I supposed to turn them loose in my rear and let them make Badajoz red again?” (Preston Franco 89).

It was a cleansing, terrorist tactic deliberately adopted as policy and meant to instil fear in any who might oppose the Nationalist forces. It was, furthermore sanctioned at the highest level as necessary to overcome the so-called forces of evil.

For the Republicans, their lack of expansion into insurgent territory meant that they did not commit that kind of “captured-territory” cleansing. But within Republican zones, a breakdown of order and loss of governmental control often gave way to revolutionary violence that targeted conservatives of all stripes (politicians, monarchists, farmers, landowners, shopkeepers, bankers, industrialists) and Catholics.

Perhaps the most egregious was the systematic killing of Nationalist sympathisers during the siege of Madrid in the fall of 1936. Seen as potential fifth columnists (the term was coined during this period) thousands were imprisoned and then taken on what were euphemistically called sacas (“removals“).

Between November 7 and December 3, thousands (disputed numbers range between 2,000 and 12,000) were bussed or trucked to the villages of Paracuellos de Jarama and Torrejón de Ardoz, just east of Madrid, then shot and buried in communal graves. Nationalist propaganda seized on this massacre and inflicted serious damage to the Republic’s reputation on the international stage.

What differentiated the atrocities committed by both sides was the deliberate policy of elimination of the enemy articulated and pursued by the Nationalists and the scale of their brutality, “perfected” in many ways by Spain’s military actions in Morocco in the 1920s.

Almost immediately following the Nationalist uprising, the army declared martial law which meant that all those who opposed the military insurgents were effectively deemed to be the “rebels!” With sweeping powers, law and order were now in the hands of the army. General Emilio Mola, joint leader of the rebellion initially with Franco, was clear about Nationalist intentions: “We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do ….All those who oppose the victory of the movement will be shot” (Preston Spanish Holocaust xiii). 

“Saving” or “cleansing” la patria (“fatherland”) from republicanism, liberalism, Marxism, freemasonry, socialism, communism or any reformist idea was the overriding goal of the Nationalists. General Queipo de Llano, whose troops terrorised Seville and the south-western Spain in the early days of the insurrection, called it “the purification of the Spanish people” (Graham review 3).

It was, in essence, a return to the past, and fundamentalist in its simplistic view of good versus evil, us against them. For the Nationalists, the priorities were loaded with traditional values: together with la patria (a unified Spain) were religion (Catholic, of course), family (the family unit headed by the father), order (subservience to social hierarchy, with no protests), work (dutiful obedience by the workers), and property (reaffirmation of the rights of the landowners) (Preston Spanish Holocaust xv).

Unlike the Nationalists, the Republican government did not subscribe to a deliberate policy of elimination. Most Republican atrocities were the result of mob violence, triggered by historical suppression and exploitation, class hatred and in many cases as responses to news of Nationalist brutality.

The anarchists and communists were particularly savage in their killings, and news of their atrocities had serious repercussions for the Republic when it sought international help. Although European democracies (principally Britain and France) feared the spread of German and Italian fascism, communism was also a major threat and the prospect of Spain falling under Soviet control was equally unappealing.

The extermination of right-wing sympathisers in Madrid (as in the Paracuellos massacre, above) was instigated by the communists, and received wide circulation by the Nationalist propaganda machine. Nevertheless, even under war conditions, the Republican government did save as many as “10,000 business men, priests and other right-wingers thought to be at particular risk;” no similar action came from the Nationalist side (Hochschild Review 3).

By the time the war was over, about 200,000 had died in combat and perhaps another 200,000 civilians murdered or executed. About 20,000 Republicans were executed immediately following the end of the war (April 1, 1939).

According to perhaps the most authoritative historian of the Spanish Civil War, Paul Preston, “it is possible to state that, broadly speaking, the repression by the rebels was about three times greater than that which took place in the Republican zone” (Preston Spanish Holocaust xvii-xviii).

Post Script.
The Civil War still casts its shadow in the 21st century. After Franco’s death in 1975, there was a transitional period during which political parties maintained a tacit silence over the war in order to avoid inflaming passions and igniting long suppressed anger.

The silence was legally sanctioned in 1977 when a Ley de amnistía (Amnesty Law, also known as the Pact of Silence) was passed protecting individuals from crimes committed during the war or during Franco’s. In 2007, another law, the Ley de la Memoria Histórica (Law of Historical Memory) opened a chink in the Amnesty Law. The Law of Historical Memory dealt specifically with the Franco regime and amongst its provisions sought to remove all public symbols and statues of that regime as well as giving all grandchildren of Spaniards exiled during the Civil War or Franco’s time the right to Spanish nationality.

In addition, the government offered to provide maps of mass graves so that the remains of the victims might be exhumed and reburied if relatives wished.

A mass grave of 26 Republicans discovered at Estépar (Burgos). See note in Source below.

In 2008, Judge Baltasar Garzón, a champion of human rights, opened enquiries into the disappearance of thousands of victims of the Franco regime. A year later, a right-wing group ironically named Manos Limpias” (“Clean Hands“) brought charges against Garzón for disregarding the Amnesty Law. Garzón was finally acquitted in February 2012. In the same month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights weighed in, arguing that the Amnesty Law should be repealed.

The exhumation of numerous mass burial sites in the past few years has kept the issue very much in the public eye. In May 2011, the Spanish government published an on-line map of 2,000 mass graves from the civil war 

Nevertheless, getting permission to exhume bodies is still difficult within Spain, and descendants of victims have recently turned to lawyers in Argentina to apply pressure on Spanish courts. In February 2016, a mass grave in Guadalajara unearthed twenty-two skeletons, victims of a Francoist purge in the months after the end of the war. See 

June 8, 2018: The Civil War and the Franco years still resonate and there are still those who search for the graves of victims killed by the Franco regime. There are many, too, who search for “stolen babies” removed immediately after birth and placed with “decent” families.

A new documentary The Silence of Others argues that it is no longer good to forget but that it is time for the voices, so long silent, to be heard. See the article:

January 2019. Recently a hornests’ nest has been opened following government approval for the exhumation and removal of General Franco’s body  from The Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos), a massive mausoleum cum basilica built about 55 kilometres (34 miles) north west of Madrid. For more, see:

An immense amount has been written about the Spanish Civil War by both pro-Republic and pro-Nationalist sympathisers. The following authors belong largely to the former group.
Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd.  ed. 2009
Casanova Julian & Andres, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014. See especially “The faces of terror” pp. 168-75.
Gibson, Ian The Death of Lorca Chicago: J.Philip O’Hara 1973
Preston, Paul Franco: A Biography London 1995
”              ”  A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War
 London 1996

   ”              ” The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain London 2012 For those who might find the 500+ detailed pages daunting, the Prologue, pp. xi-xx, offers a succinct summary of the brutality of the war.
NB The argument that the Nationalists adopted a deliberate policy of extermination as opposed to the Republic’s spontaneous acts of atrocities has long been promoted by Republican sympathisers and is a basic argument in The Spanish Holocaust…. For a critique questioning this assertion, see Stanley G Payne’s review of Preston’s book in the Wall Street Journal 
For those who might find the 500+ detailed text pages daunting, the Prologue, pp. xi-xx, offers a succinct summary of the brutality of the war. There are also many reviews of the book that give a good idea of its content. Here are three: Giles Tremlett 
Adam Hochschild: 
Helen Graham: 
A somewhat more critical review can be found in Jeremy Treglown:
Williams, Mark The Story of Spain Fuengirola, Malaga, Spain 1990

Image of Picasso’s Guernica:
Photo of Federico García Lorca: :
Photo of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera: By Fondo Marín. Pascual Marín –, CC BY-SA 3.0, 
Image of mass grave: By Mario Modesto Mata – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 
According to an accompanying note in English, the photo shows a mass grave of twenty-six Republicans killed by Nationalists at Estépar (Burgos) in August-September 1936. The grave was discovered in July 2014.

Seville to 1500.
Quien no ha visto Sevilla, no ha visto maravilla (Loosely, “If you haven’t seen Seville, you haven’t seen a marvel”).

Residents of Córdoba and Granada might have something to say about that (in fact Granada has its own turn of phrase: Quien no ha visto Granada, no ha visto nada-“If you haven’t seen Granada, you haven’t seen anything“), but there’s little doubt that it is Seville that evokes the most recognized images of Andalusia and indeed, for many, of Spain: sun, orange groves, carnations, jasmines, olives, tapas, flamenco, guitars, bullfighting, siestas and fiestas, mantillas, religious processions, black haired señoritas whose eyes flash provocatively behind deftly handled fans…  Love and passion, too.

This is the city that gave us the iconic seducer, Don Juan Tenorio, and the fiery gypsy Carmen. Both flirt with love, violence and death, and both die violently.

Is there a grain of truth in these evocative generalizations?  You have to decide for yourself, but so many swear that Seville seduces with its charm, its atmosphere, its alegría (joie de vivre) that it’s hard not to believe it.

Even the famous 16th-century saint, Teresa of Avila, recognized the city’s dangerous enchantment and warned against the crimes committed there against God. She herself wasn’t immune, and admits having fallen under the city’s charms: Never did I find myself as weak as I did there; truly, I didn’t recognize myself.  So, beware!
Early History.
The beginnings of Seville are lost in obscurity. According to one legend, it was founded by Hercules, another claims that Tartessus is buried beneath it, and yet another maintains that it is the site of Atlantis. It was settled by IberiansPhoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans.  Under the Carthaginians, it was eclipsed by the city of Gadir (Cádiz), and under the Romans by neighbouring Itálica (now in ruins), and by Córdoba, the capital of the Roman province of Baetica.

Although an important city under the Visigoths, Seville again played second fiddle, this time to Toledo, named capital of the Visigothic kingdom in the 6th century AD.  Loss of political clout was compensated, however, by Seville’s intellectual pre-eminence thanks to the voluminous works of the 6th-century scholar and archbishop, St Isidore (San Isidro).

Known as Hispalis to both Romans and Visigoths, Seville was called Ishbiliya by the Muslims (Moors) when they occupied it shortly after defeating the Visigoths in 711.  It missed being capital of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) when Córdoba was chosen as seat of power in 756.

But when Córdoba’s power collapsed in 1031, al-Andalus broke up into a number of mini states called taifas.  The taifa of Seville then quickly established itself as the most powerful state of al-Andalus; by 1080 its control stretched from the Algarve (in Portugal) to Murcia.

Nevertheless, constant threats from the expanding Christian kingdoms to the north placed enormous pressure on the taifas.   The fall of the taifa of Toledo in 1085 precipitated the arrival of a fundamentalist Berber sect from Morocco, the Almoravids

Invited by the ruler of the taifa of Seville and some of his fellow taifa rulers to help stop Christian advances, the Almoravids actually conquered the taifa kingdoms and united al-Andalus under their rule.  Although they selected Seville as their centre of power in al-Andalus, they ruled Islamic Spain from their capital, Marrakesh, in Morocco. Their rule, however, was short lived and they were replaced in 1145 by a yet more fundamentalist sect, the Almohads.

Unlike the Almoravids, the Almohads made Seville co-capital (with Marrakesh) of their empire, which included Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. They built a large mosque where the present cathedral stands and a magnificent minaret which now serves as the cathedral bell tower.

The tower, better known as La Giralda, is one of the two striking architectural gems left by the Almohads in Seville.
La Giralda. The tower takes its name from the bronze weather vane representing La Fe (Faith). It was added in 1568

Nearby, on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, stands the other jewel, the Torre del Oro, a 12-sided watchtower originally linked to the Reales Alcázares (Royal Residences).

Ancient and modern: to the left the ultra modern Pelli tower; to the left the Torre del Oro.

Reconquest of Seville.
Almohad rule was short lived as Christians pressed further south. Following the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, just south of the Sierra Morena, in 1212, Muslim cities fell quickly: Córdoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Murcia in 1243, and Seville in 1248. Only the taifa of Granada remained in Muslim hands.

Seville Alcázar. Entry to the Salón de Embajadores.

Seville was a favourite city of successive Castilian kings, especially of Pedro el Cruel (Peter the Cruel, ruled 1350-69). To him we owe the most beautiful parts of the Reales Alcázares: the Palacio de don Pedro, also known as the Palacio Mudéjar, built by craftsmen from Granada and Toledo.

Pedro’s decision to build a Moorish style palace reflects an attachment to Spain’s Islamic architectural tradition at a time when Gothic architecture was the norm in Christian lands*.  Indeed in 1254, soon after the conquest of Seville, Alfonso X had built an early Gothic Palace in the Reales Alcázares. 

Of that Palace, only the curiously named Salones de Carlos/ Charles V remain, so called probably because of alterations carried out under Charles in the 16th century.

* Already in the 13th century in Spain, three major Gothic cathedrals were under construction, the cathedral of Burgos, begun in 1221, Toledo in 1227,  and León in 1258.

If Pedro’s Mudéjar Palace represents an attachment to Spain’s Islamic architectural tradition, another building rose shortly after that pointed to Spain’s Christian heritage: the cathedral.

Begun in 1401 where the Great Mosque had once stood, Seville’s massive cathedral was a statement of Christian presence, power and confidence when the frontier with the remaining piece of al-Andalus, the taifa of Granada, was not far away.

Seville Cathedral. The top of the Giralda can be seen in the background.

Said to be the largest Gothic church in the world (and the 3rd largest Christian temple after St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome), it retained the slender Almohad minaret, converted into a bell tower. 

Seen together, cathedral and minaret offer a similar –although not as dramatic contrast between Islamic and Christian architecture that we see in Córdoba’s cathedral within a mosque, and Granada’s Renaissance palace within the Alhambra.

The building of Seville’s cathedral follows shortly after probably the most unpleasant event in Seville’s history. In 1391, following vitriolic sermons by a relatively obscure deacon, Ferrant Martínez, thousands of Jews were massacred, thousands converted to Christianity out of fear, and thousands fled.  The flames of hate soon spread like a disease from Seville throughout most of Spain, completely devastating Jewish communities.

The completion of the cathedral in 1504-6 coincided with an event that changed completely the course of Spain and Seville’s history: the “discovery” of America (1492). But that takes us to the 16th century.

Seville from the 17th century
Fletcher, Richard   Moorish Spain London, 1994
Fletcher, Richard  The Cross and the Crescent  London, 2003
Gilmour, David   Cities of Spain London, 1994
Herrero Garcia, Miguel  Ideas de los españoles del siglo XVII Madrid, 1966
Jacobs, Michael   A Guide to Andalusia  London 1990
Nash, Elizabeth  Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History  Oxford, 2005
Image of entry to Salon de Ambajadores by Luckyz:

Seville from 1700.
Seville had enjoyed a Golden Age during the 16th and 17th centuries, thanks largely to its trading monopoly with America (or Las Indias). However, one of the unfortunate consequences of Seville’s dependence on that trading monopoly was that it failed to take advantage of its position to become an industrial or commercial centre.

Most trade was carried out by foreigners who imported goods which were then shipped to America, and native products –with the exception of soap and olive oil– never really developed beyond the artisan level. Although it is common to blame aristocratic scorn for trade and commerce, Sevillian nobility did not adopt the extreme contempt that Castilian aristocrats did. 

What happened was that merchants in Seville, once they had acquired wealth, sought and bought titles of nobility and then abandoned commerce and invested in land and government bonds.  The penchant for this type of investment was something that the economist (arbitrista) Gonzalo de Cellórigo attacked at the beginning of the 17th century.

With the transfer of the administrative control of trade with America to Cádiz in 1717, Seville saw its last grip on its transatlantic monopoly disappear (ships had already started to load and unload their goods in Cádiz in 1680). After the glitter of its Golden Age, 18th and 19th-century Seville was bound to suffer in comparison. 

Like Spain generally, Seville seemed to have lost its vitality.  It was not a cultural wasteland, but its creative juices seemed to have dried up and it borrowed rather than produced, mostly from France.

The influence of the Age of Enlightenment from France was felt in the founding of several academies in Seville: of Philosophy and Medicine (1700), of Letters (1751), the Society of the Friends of the Country (1775).  In 1758, Seville had its first newspaper (the first in the country outside Madrid), and a second at the end of the century.

Popular spectacles, which had been a feature of Seville in the 16th and 17th centuries, were still in demand. When the court was temporarily transferred to Seville from 1729-33 there were plenty of processions, masquerades, dances etc. to entertain the melancholic Philip V.  The magnificent bullring (the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza) that stands on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, not far from the Cathedral or the Torre del Oro, was built in 1763.

Seville La Maestranza Bullring.

It’s the oldest surviving plaza de toros** in Spain, and second only in importance to the ring in Ronda in transforming bullfighting on horseback into bullfighting on foot.  Bullfighting on horseback had been an aristocratic pursuit, on foot it became the domain of the ordinary people.

It was outside the Maestranza that the fictional Carmen of opera fame was stabbed to death by her rejected suitor, Don José, while her lover, Escamillo, was celebrating his victory in the ring!

**Both Seville and Ronda claim to have the oldest surviving bullrings in Spin. The Maestranza of Seville, however, was begun in 1759 and that of Ronda in 1785.

Before her death, Carmen had worked in the Fábrica de Tabacos, a massive and impressive Neoclassical structure that was finally completed in 1763.  Reputed to be the largest industrial building in Europe at the time, it employed thousands of women (cigarreras) more famous for their impertinence than their modesty, according to the 19th-century British traveller Richard Ford.

Seville. Fábrica de tobacos.

To accommodate the women’s babies, the factory also housed a nursery.  The fábrica was a state monopoly and continued to serve its original purpose until the mid 20th century.  In the early 1950s it was renovated and became part of the University of Seville.

Seville’s lot did not improve during the 19th century, which began inauspiciously in 1800 with a plague.  From 1808 to 1812, the city was occupied by Napoleon’s French troops during the War of Independence (better known elsewhere as the Spanish Peninsular War). As was the case in other parts of Spain, the French soldiers took with them valuable works of art when they retreated.

Most of the old city walls were torn down to allow for expansion in 1869, but there were no memorable new buildings. The city did finally construct its first permanent bridge across the Guadalquivir in 1852, the Puente de Isabel II or more popularly de Triana (pontoon bridges were the only means of crossing the river until that date). Two more bridges were added before the end of the century.

The city’s upper classes followed a now well ingrained life of leisure, living for the most part off their huge country estates, which they rarely visited.  Meanwhile, the lower classes continued in poverty, living in slum conditions. Still, both groups enjoyed spectacles, and an additional one was added in 1848 when the city authorities established a site for an annual horse fair.  The April  feria quickly became a social event, a place to dress up and party… and so it has remained to this day.

Although Seville’s population recovered over the course of the century (to about 150,000), it was no larger than it had been in 1600.  Compared to its vitality during its Golden Age, however, Seville was very much a provincial town at the turn of the 20th century. 

Nothing much changed in the next 50 years except for the shanty towns thrown up around the city by impoverished rural immigrants.  It did get to hold an international exhibition, the Exposición Iberoamericana, in 1929, but extreme political instability during the Second Republic (1933-36) followed by the Civil War from 1936 to 1939 quashed any hopes of improvement.

Urban development under the Franco regime was by and large a disaster.  Most visitors see only the core around the cathedral, protected by its historic significance.  Beyond that core, however, large numbers of historic buildings were demolished to make way for soul-less glass and concrete structures.

In 1982 Seville received a boost when it was selected the capital of the new, autonomous region of Andalusia.  Then in 1992 it hosted Expo 92, the world fair that celebrated at the same time Columbus’s first voyage to the New World.

Huge amounts of money were invested in constructing the fairground on La Cartuja Island (on the Guadalquivir River), and in sprucing up the city. There was a new opera house, an international airport, new bridges connecting La Cartuja to the city, a bus station and a railway station for the first high speed train connecting Seville to Madrid.

January 2012: Since 2007, Seville has been undergoing a “green” revolution, drastically reducing traffic emissions by making the city centre pedestrian-friendly, inaugurating a bike-sharing scheme, introducing a new public tram system, and facilitating the rental of electric cars.  For a good article on Seville’s “revolution,” see: Seville to 1500.
January 2015: For the latest on cycling in Seville, see

Gilmour, David   Cities of Spain London 1994

Jacobs, Michael   A Guide to Andalusia  London 1990                                  
Nash, Elizabeth  Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History  Oxford 2005
Shubert, Adrian    Death and Money in the Afternoon: A History of the Spanish Bullfight Oxford 1999
Image of La Maestranza: By E Corbero
Fábrica de Tobacos: By Anual – Own work, CC BY 3.0,
For the latest on cycling in Seville, see:
For some personal comments on Seville, see Travel Seville
Very helpful site: 

Seville. 16th and 17th Centuries.
The 16th century and some of the 17th were Seville’s golden years, much as they were Spain’s.  But if Spain’s Golden Age was in many ways contradictory, so too was Seville’s.

It expanded rapidly and accumulated enormous wealth but was ravaged by extreme poverty.  It glittered with opulently dressed nobles but was plagued by pícaros (rogues), vagabonds, beggars, prostitutes drawn to the city like flies to meat. It was an exciting city, the city Don Quixote was invited to visit because “it was just the place to find adventure, for in every street and on every street corner there were more adventures than in any other place” (Don Quixote, Part I, Chptr. 14. Don Quixote does not take up the invitation).

Seville’s religious fervour was famous throughout Spain, so too was its sensuality, it boasted  luxurious palaces but it was bedevilled by squalor, it practiced charity like no other city in the country but it was riddled with crime and corruption.

People flocked to Seville from all parts of Spain and abroad with hopes of better days, making it one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Traders from Genoa were already established there, to be joined now by merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans from Flanders, Portugal, France, Germany, Italy and England.

There were slaves from Africa, Morisco craftsmen (Muslim converts to Christianity), sailors, soldiers of fortune and emigrants to the New World. The streets throbbed with activity, whether public festivities or great rejoicings at the return of the transatlantic fleets.  By the 17th century, Seville was already famous for the magnificence of its Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions and the activities of its cofradías (religious brotherhoods).
Seville’s spectacular growth into Spain’s largest and most dynamic city in the 16th and early 17th centuries was built on its trading monopoly with the newly discovered America (or Las Indias to Spaniards).  It retained this privilege, bestowed on it in 1503, until the beginning of the 18th century. In the same year (1503), a Casa de Contratación (equivalent to a Chamber of Commerce) was set up in the Reales Alcázares, close to the cathedral, to regulate all goods exported and imported.
The rhythm of life was dominated by the departure and arrival of the great transatlantic fleets. The waterfront held not only the great Spanish galleons.  There were small boats ferrying local goods for the transatlantic crossing (wine, cereal, salt fish, dried meat, biscuits, clothes), and large ships from France, Italy, Germany, Britain, bringing goods and luxury items that Spain was unable to provide for its American settlers. 

It was a hive of activity as stevedores loaded food and munitions on board, officials checked the cargoes, and sailors, emigrants, missionaries prepared for the trip.  There were two departures, one in Spring, the other in late August. The city turned out en masse to watch: anxious merchants, finely dressed nobles, members of the church, not to mention rogues and pickpockets hoping for a good haul.

But it was the arrival of the fleet that really set the pulse of the city racing. After a crossing that could take anything from 3 to 6 months, it was always a huge relief when news came that the fleet had been sighted.
The departure and arrival of the fleet was always an occasion.

Crowds gathered to watch, and church services were held to celebrate the event. Huge expectations and fortunes rested on the safe arrival of the fleet, and the loss of a ship could spell disaster for many.

The crossing was fraught with danger from storms, enemy ships and pirates, and even the presence of armed galleons to protect the bullion-loaded vessels was no guarantee of safety.  And finally, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, there remained a notorious sand bar that caused grief to several ships.

Officers from the Casa de Contratación first inspected the cargoes before the ships were unloaded.  Gold and silver of course were the most important items, although most of these precious metals were sent to other destinations: 1/5th went automatically to the king’s coffers, and large amounts passed through Spain to bankers in Genoa and Germany in repayment for the loans to underwrite Spain’s imperial adventures in Europe and the Mediterranean.

With these precious metals came new and exotic goods: e.g. cocoa, potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, vanilla, chilli peppers, cochineal, skins… Some of these products were viewed suspiciously because of their unfamiliarity, and were at first not eaten.  For example, for a long time tomatoes and chilli peppers were used as ornamental plants and potatoes were cultivated in botanical gardens.

The prosperity experienced by Seville was accompanied by an explosion of new buildings: great palaces (e.g. the Casa de Pilatos), imposing houses, convents, churches… and miserable slums.

Aristocrats and wealthy merchants built their palaces and houses with a view to impress, even though they were often located next to wretched hovels in foul-smelling streets which were little more than dung heaps.  Unlike the Moors who had kept the exterior of their houses blank, and favoured family life around the patio, the new style called for plenty of windows and ornate facades.**

**A 16th-century historian observes the following: “The inhabitants now build their houses with an eye to the exterior. Formerly all the attention was focused on the construction of the interior of houses and no one bothered about the outside, as had been done in the days of the Moors. But today, people are concerned to make their houses more splendid outwardly, with plenty of windows giving on to the streets, which set off and beautify the appearance of the many ladies, distinguished and noble, who look out from them.” Defourneaux, 85.

The patios –with their fragrant flowers and citrus trees etc.– were retained, but the outer windows allowed ladies, dressed in fine silks, or satin or velvet to see and be seen.

But if Seville was famous for its lavish wealth and high living, it was equally well known for its criminal underground. One famous figure who was well acquainted with this world of ruffians, cutthroats, thieves, gamblers, false beggars, prostitutes, mercenaries and murderers, was Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), who lived for a period in the city and was even imprisoned there. 

In one of his short stories, Rinconete y Cortadillo, Cervantes gives a wonderfully satiric portrayal of an underworld gang as seen through the eyes of two young delinquents, Rinconete and Cortadillo, who have just arrived in Seville. There are rites of passage to be observed, rules to be obeyed, and a new underworld language to be learned before the two are accepted into the syndicate.

Then they perfect their respective speciality, card sharping and pick pocketing, before being allowed to practice their trade, with some of the profits going to the group. Their experience in many ways reflected that of many criminals who were born in different parts of the country and who came to Seville to “graduate” in their particular “field.” Echoes of the street gangs in cities nowadays?

In a society where poverty was widespread, corruption was rife, as Rinconete and Cortadillo learned.  Contemporary observers commented on the scale of complicity reaching the highest level, with money and favours being exchanged for lenient sentences or freedom from jail.  As one canon from the cathedral commented: Here they only punish those who haven’t got a deep purse.

It wasn’t only criminals who flocked to Seville, so too did beggars, spongers and landless peasants because the city was famous for its charitable organisations. With a rapidly expanding population (from about 50,000 in 1530 to 150,000 by 1600), there was a constant threat of social unrest.

Inflation and higher food prices, caused by anything from natural disasters –droughts, floods— to manipulation of food costs by speculators only made things worse. The numerous convents, churches, guilds and religious fraternities which competed in providing food attest to the important function of these bodies in helping to keep the peace.

Even individuals could play a role, the most famous being Don Miguel de Mañara (1626-79), a 17th-century libertine who, after apparently seeing a vision of his own funeral, repented and spent his fortune on charitable works.  Just a short distance from the cathedral in the direction of the river is the large Hospital de la Caridad founded by Mañara and still used, now as a hospital for the elderly.

Probably Don Miguel de Mañara would be no more than a historical footnote but for the fact that he is frequently cited as the inspiration for the original Don Juan Tenorio by the dramatist Tirso de Molina. This is most unlikely, however, since the play was written before 1630 when Mañara was a still young child…3 to 4 years old!   In fact the reverse has been argued: that Mañara saw the play when he was a young man and was determined to outdo Don Juan in seducing women. Only when he saw a vision of his funeral did he repent.

The explosion of new buildings experienced by Seville during its Golden Age provided much needed work as nobility, merchants, churches and convents vied for builders, artisans, woodcarvers, carpenters, sculptors, stonemasons, ceramicists, goldsmiths, painters etc. 

For example, the interior of the Cathedral was a hive of activity as craftsmen worked constantly on the numerous side chapels, the elaborate chancel (capilla mayor), and the choir and its beautiful stalls.  The immense gold-covered altarpiece of the capilla mayor (said to be the largest in the world), contains over 1,000 carved biblical figures and took 76 years to complete (1482-1564).

Cultural life flourished under the patronage of the aristocracy and the church. Wealthy religious institutions were particularly active in commissioning sculptors and artists to fill their buildings with works meant to move viewers to contemplation or spiritual wonder.

Seville was not unique in this; such commissions were part of the Catholic Church’s response (as outlined in the Councils of Trent, 1545-63) to the puritanism associated with Protestantism. But Seville outdid all other Spanish cities in the quantity and exuberance of its displays, and in its increased religiosity.  In the 17th century, monasteries and convents doubled in number, and the cult of the Virgin Mary increased as debates about her Immaculate Conception intensified.

Sculptors such as the prolific Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649) and Juan de Mesa (1583-1627), and artists of the calibre of Francisco de Zurburán (1598-1664), Bartolomé Murillo (1617-82) and Juan Valdés Leal (1622-90) were outstanding proponents of the religious art that so captured the imagination of the people. Another artist, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) –who was to make his name in Madrid as a court painter– cut his teeth in Seville with paintings that included religious themes of noteworthy originality for so young an artist. By the age of 20, he had painted at least four canvases with religious figures, including the remarkable Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618).

Velázquez. Christ in the House of Marta and Mary. 1618.

It was during the 17th century that the Semana Santa processions began to take on the form by which we know them today. Some of the sculptures that are paraded nowadays are from this period, two of the most popular being Jesús del Gran Poder (Jesus the Almighty, by Juan de Mesa in 1620) and Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza (Our Lady of Hope), popularly known as La Macarena (attributed to Luisa Roldán, late 17th century). La Macarena is a favourite with the poor and the gypsies, and is the patroness of bullfighters.

La Macarena. © M A Sullivan

Although Seville’s cultural wealth in the 16th and 17th centuries expressed itself primarily in architecture, sculpture and art, it also enjoyed a vibrant period of literary fame.

For example, it was at his palace that the Conde de Gelves, great-grandson of Christopher Columbus, entertained the cream of Seville’s literary and artistic world regularly from 1559 to 1581.  The most famous figure was the poet scholar Fernando de Herrera (1534?-1597), whose verse set the tone for the so-called Sevillian school of poetry marked by erudition (knowledge of classical literature, pagan mythology), linguistic dexterity, rhetorical devices (Latinisms, intense use of metaphors), and musicality. Herrera had two great loves, his country and the Count’s wife, Leonor, with whom he maintained a Platonic relationship over many years.  She is considered the source of inspiration for his love poetry.

Seville’s fame as home of the iconic seducer, Don Juan Tenorio, and the fiery gypsy, Carmen, has eclipsed its claim to being arguably the birthplace of the picaresque novel. 

An earlier work,  Lazarillo de Tormes (anonymous, 1554), had captured some of the characteristics of the genre, but it was the Sevillian Mateo Alemán (1547-after 1613) who first gave voice to the pícaro in his two-part Guzmán de Alfarache (1599, 1604). It’s a long book, with numerous moral digressions as the first-person narrator, Guzmán, traces his life from his birth in Seville to his position as galley slave on a Spanish ship.

As a text, Guzmán de Alfarache is fundamental not only in the history of the picaresque novel but of the novel in general.  It was a best seller in 17th-century Spain (more so than Don Quixote), and immensely popular in translation in England, Germany, France, Italy.

Seville’s privileged position as port to the Americas and its very well-being took some serious hits during the course of the 17th century.  Larger transatlantic vessels found it increasingly difficult to navigate the Guadalquivir, and by 1680 most Atlantic ships were loading and unloading at Cádiz.

The administration of the trade through the Casa de Contratación, however, continued from Seville until 1717 when the cumbersome arrangement was finally brought to an end, although not without strenuous protests from Seville.

Seville’s cause wasn’t helped by several natural disasters. The Guadalquivir was frequently prone to floods, and in 1627 and 1683 the city was inundated, and thousands of houses ruined. But even worse were the plagues whose virulence was helped by the unhygienic conditions everywhere. Of the many outbreaks during the 16th and 17th centuries, the worst was that of 1649 which wiped out almost half the population and left the city demoralised.

Seville to 1500
Seville from 1700

Defourneaux, Marcelin  Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age  Stanford  1970

Gilmour, David   Cities of Spain  1994
Herrero García, Miguel  Ideas de los españoles del siglo XVII Madrid 1966
Jacobs, Michael   A Guide to Andalusia  London 1990
Nash, Elizabeth  Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History  Oxford 2005
Pike, Ruth   Aristocrats and Traders: Sevillian Society in the Sixteenth Century Ithaca 1972
Image of Seville in 16th century by Alonso Sánchez Coello:
Image of Velázquez’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary: National Gallery, London – online collection, Public Domain,

Image of La Macarena

Roman Spain/Hispania and Christianity.
Rome controlled the Iberian Peninsula for some 600 years, and left a rich linguistic, legal, and architectural legacy. It also left a particular cultural phenomenon that outlived both its laws and its language: Christianity.

Christianity, of course, was not a Roman product; it was a transplant into Roman life and achieved its fullest impact when it abandoned Greek for Latin as its language, and chose Rome as its headquarters.

Latin preceded Christianity, and Christianity launched itself throughout Europe on the back of its linguistic host, until it eventually replaced it as the bond that held together a new religious “empire” when linguistic (and political) uniformity broke down. It formed the basis of what became known as the Holy Roman Empire, the formation of which is generally attributed to the French king, Charlemagne (crowned emperor in Rome in 800).

It was only during the Second Vatican
Council –1962-65—that the use of local
languages was permitted at mass. The use
of Latin was still encouraged as a unifying
factor for all Catholics worldwide, but
there was a widespread move to use the
vernacular.  Nevertheless, there is now
(2009) a strong move to restore Latin by
traditionalists within the church.

Significantly, Latin is still the official language of Vatican and the Catholic Church, and Rome is still the centre of Roman Catholicism.

We know little about the early years of Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula. According to legend the apostle James –at Christ’s urging–carried the gospel to the country in 40 AD, but the early church writers have nothing to say about it. We know that St Paul intended to visit in Spain (Epistle to the Romans, XV, 24 and 28), which would suggest that there were organised groups for him to preach to. But there is no evidence that he made the trip, nor does any church in Spain popularly claim to have been founded by Paul.

By the second century, however, some Christian communities were probably established in the peninsula. We know that St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (France), writing around 180 AD, alludes to Christian churches amongst the Celts and Iberians.  We also know from a letter by St Cyprian of Carthage (?-258?) that by 254 AD there were Christian communities in Astorga, Mérida, León and Zaragoza.

Persecution by the Romans was at first sporadic since the fledgling church was not important, and the polytheistic tradition of the Romans made them fairly tolerant of other beliefs as long as these did not conflict with the state.

However, the insistence of the Christians on serving one omnipotent God set them apart and increasingly undermined the divine status that the Emperors –beginning with Augustus (63 BC–14 AD)– had taken upon themselves.

One of the first known of the martyrs to have died for the Christian cause is the 13-year old Santa Eulalia of Mérida. Santa Eulalia died around 304 (during the rule of the emperor Diocletian, 284-305), by which time Christianity was quite firmly entrenched in the empire. A few years later –in 312– the emperor Constantine I (ruled 307-337) himself was converted and Christianity was on the road to becoming the official religion of the Empire.  (It became so in 380, when the Spanish-born emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the religion of the Empire.)

But the end of the 4th century, Roman hegemony was close to collapsing and even the new “official” religion was an insufficient bond to hold the whole political artifact together. The Empire was decaying at the centre. Bread and circuses and holidays (which had increased from 159 days of holidays including 93 of sports in Rome in the time of Claudius 41-54 AD to 200 days of holidays including 175 days of games by the 4th century) left the Romans unable to withstand the advance of Gothic tribes eager to tear apart the imperial cloak and sack the disintegrating body.

James M Anderson     Spain 1001 Sights: An Archeological and Historical Guide London 1992

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: Historia 16 1989

Roman Legacy in Spain/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, where PhoenicianGreek,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, IberiansCeltiberians, 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.

The etymology of Hispania is much disputed, ranging from the Carthaginian word tsepan meaning “rabbit” to a Phoenician source span meaning “to forge metals”.  For fuller discussion, see

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.

Roman theatre in Mérida.
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:
Astorga: and Lugo walls
Mérida: bridge, theatre, amphitheatre, circus, triumphal arch, aqueduct, temples, museum
Tarragona: theatre, amphitheatre, circus, aqueduct
Alcántara (Extremadura): bridge
Segovia: aqueduct
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:,_Spain

Roman Towns in Spain/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.

Mérida: Temple of Diana.

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 themselves (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.

Roman theatre in Merida.

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.

Remains of aqueduct at Mérida. Notice storks on top.

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.

Roman aqueduct in Segovia.
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!

Roman jewelry in the Museo Nacional, Mérida.

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.

Anderson, James M     Spain 1001 Sights: An Archeological and Historical Guide London 1992,
Collins, Roger          Spain: An Oxford Archeological Guide Oxford 1998
Curchin, Leonard      Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation London 1991
Richardson, J. S.     The Romans in Spain Oxford 1996
Roldán, José Manuel     La España romana Madrid 1989
Tovar, A  and Blázquez, J.M.     Historia de la Hispania Romana Madrid 1976
Tunon de Lara et al     Introduccion, primeras culturas e Hispania romana 3rd ed. Barcelona 1992
Vincent, Mary and Stradling, R.A.     Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal Oxford 1994
Image of Roman Jewelry: Museo de Arte Romano Mérida: Ministerio de Cultura, Madrid 1991
Image of Temple of Diana:,_Spain

Roman Roads in Spain/Hispania

Network of Roman roads in Hispania.

To maintain control of their empire and ensure themselves of a regular supply of agricultural and mineral goods, the Romans learned very early on the importance of having their troops at the ready.

As it expanded and annexed or defeated its rivals, Rome became increasingly dependent on its communications system. Linking together the increasingly unwieldy bulk was a remarkable network of roads and bridges that spread out like the nerve system from the capital to all of its conquered territories.

Major roads (generally 6 to 8 metres wide) served as links not only between the capital and its provinces (the basis of the proverbial “All roads lead to Rome”), they were also vital within a country, permitting the rapid deployment of troops from one region to another.

It should be remembered that the Roman legions, which comprised of some 4.000 to 6.000 foot soldiers and cavalry, moved in large formation and required the best possible roadways to accommodate the numbers, (contrary to popular belief, the Romans did not use chariots in battle). And these famous, straight, paved roads, and powerful bridges, once built were virtually indestructible, since gunpowder and explosives were as yet unknown.

Mérida: Roman Bridge. Now used only for pedestrians

A case in point is the bridge of Alcántara (below), on the Portuguese border. Built of uncemented granite in 105 AD, it is 8 metres wide, 64 metres high and 204 long and, although restored in parts, has survived floods and several attempts at blowing it up. Nowadays it is still in daily use and strong enough to take heavy trucks.

Alcántara bridge.

These major roads –and numerous local ones– also made possible the transfer of merchandise and the speedy dispatching of courier services throughout all parts of a country. It was a sophisticated system.

For the major routes, travellers could consult maps and itineraries, stay overnight at lodgings located approximately every 50 kilometres (30 miles) along the road, and calculate distances from the milestones erected on the way (at every 1000 Roman paces, or 1,479 metres (1617 yards). More than one historian has pointed out that communications were easier during the Roman domination of Europe than any other period up to the 20th century!

The network  of roads in Iberia totalled some 10,500 kilometres (6,524 miles).

Roman road in Cantabria. Bárcena de pie de Concha

A major route (the Via Herculea, later Augusta) ran some 1,500 kilometres (933 miles) from the Pyrenees along the Mediterranean coast to Cartagena (Cartago Nova) and then inland through GranadaCórdoba, Ecija and Seville (Hispalis) to Cádiz (Gades).

Later an additional road branched west of Cartagena and followed the coast through Almería and Málaga (Malaca) to Cádiz . A remarkable discovery of four vases in Vicarello (Tuscany) shows a list of the towns and stopping stations along the road from Gades (Cádiz) to Vicarello.

Another major thoroughfare, the Vía de la Plata, ran north from Cádiz, via Seville (Hispalis) and Mérida (Emerita Augusta) to the gold mines of Las Médulas (Asturias), where it joined another road that came west from the Mediterranean via Zaragoza (Caesaraugusta). Inland another main road branched from Zaragoza via Toledo (Toletum) to Mérida. Within this framework many other local routes ensured rapid access to all quarters of the peninsula.

Another Roman road map of Hispania.
Although visible signs of the Roman roads have largely disappeared (often because they have been built upon by modern thoroughfares; the best sample still to be seen is at Puerto del Pico in Avila), there are still many bridges to admire. These range from modest, humpback, single-span arches on isolated rural routes to the impressive structures at Alcántara, Mérida, Córdoba and Salamanca, all of which have withstood floods and attempts, during times of conflict, to destroy them.
Anderson, James M      Spain 1001 Sights: An Archeological and Historical Guide London 1992
Collins, Roger     Spain: An Oxford Archeological Guide Oxford 199
Curchin, Leonard      Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation London 1991
Richardson, J. S.     The Romans in Spain Oxford 1996
Roldán, José Manuel     La España romana  Madrid: Historia 16 1989
Tovar, A and Blázquez, J.M.     Historia de la Hispania Romana Madrid 1976
Merida: Roman bridge:
Roman road in Cantabria:
Alcantara bridge: http:
Roman roads in Hispania:

Second Roman road map of HIspania:
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