Category: Tarragona.

Tarragona: Hispania’s perfect city

It seems amazing that Tarragona, once the capital of the Roman empire, could lie virtually undiscovered until just 20 years ago

Bibi van der Zee,

The Roman amphitheatre in Tarragona. Photograph: Getty

The Roman amphitheatre in Tarragona. Photograph: Getty

It’s hard to believe that just a couple of decades ago the Roman remains in the city of Tarragona lay neglected and ignored. The Italians used to be famous for their casual attitude to the architectural treasures they have inherited, but we usually think of the Spanish as more careful.

But even in the 90s, when the city council began to contemplate cleaning up the ruins and applying for world heritage status, the local newspapers were full of letters complaining that Tarragona would be a laughing stock. When Unesco agreed that the ruins were world-class, however, the complaints abruptly stopped.

Nearly 20 years later the city now makes the most of its extraordinary past, which dates back some 2,000 years. The propitious spot, poised on hills overlooking the Mediterranean, was first settled by Iberian tribes such as the Kessetani, and then by the Carthaginians, with their empire rolling slowly upwards from north Africa.

But as the Carthaginian general Hannibal carried on up the coast in 218BC on his way to invading Rome through the Alps (accompanied, famously, by war elephants), a new set of inhabitants arrived. The Romans, the one-time friend and now mortal enemy of the Carthaginian empire, had heard that Hannibal was on his way to pay them a visit. Rather than wait for him to arrive, they’d decided to sneak up behind him.

The army that was sent over to tap Hannibal on the shoulder made their base at Tarraco, as they called it. They didn’t succeed in catching up with Hannibal, but their presence was to prove pivotal in the second of the three Punic wars between the Carthaginians and the Romans that followed, and Tarraco helped Rome, in time, to a thorough victory.

The Romans stayed on in Tarragona after their victory. The power of the republic of Rome was beginning to blossom; Hispania would be the first overseas conquest after the whole of Italy had been brought to heel, but after that would follow North Africa, Gaul, and, in time, the entire rim of the Mediterranean. And Tarraco – not too far from Rome, at the gates of Hispania – offered the increasingly wealthy Romans the chance to build a perfect city, with a port, a temple from which to worship their gods, and a circus and an amphitheatre for the games that were becoming such an important feature of Roman life.

Over the next few hundred years, although the Romans progressed far, far beyond their first tentative conquests, Tarraco remained a vital focus for power, with the emperor Augustus even briefly making it the capital of the Roman empire in 27BC.

And then over the next five hundred years the Roman empire slowly, agonisingly, disintegrated. The Visigoths came, and then left, the Moors never really made it this far north, imperial Spain had other centres of power, and slowly Tarragona became once again a small town, living in the shadow of the enormous Barcelona a little northwards.

These days the modern Tarragona is set on the same strict grid system as its Catalan neighbour; it even has the same long ramblas along which flow cafes, flower shops, portrait artists. But rising from its heart is still the rocky promontory on which the Romans built their city, and around it soar the massive Roman walls.

Once through the walls into the old town, you are in the heart of medieval Spain. On top of the Roman ruins now run narrow streets too small for cars or trucks, ancient wooden doorways, and a cathedral of mellow stone.

But through certain gateways or shop windows you glimpse the arches of ancient Roman buildings. In the heart of one building you can find the remains of the corridors of the Roman forum. And from beneath the archaeological museum you can penetrate the heart of the old Roman circus, walking through the entrance through which the inhabitants of the city, 2,000 years ago, would have come in. You can stand at the top of the steeply stacked seats, and from here you can see out to the amphitheatre, still perfectly preserved, and over and beyond, to the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean.

Every year now, the Tarragonese celebrate the Roman presence as part of their Tarraco Viva festival. People come from all over Europe to take part in the re-enactments of the circus, the games, of day-to-day life in a Roman town. They may have neglected it once, but now Rome has truly come back to life in this city.
Roman Spain

The Romans first invaded the Iberian peninsula in the third century BC, conquering two provinces: Hispania Citerior (the east coast) and Hispania Ulterior (the south). The inhabitants gave as good as they got, however, and the far west – which became Lusitania – wasn’t entirely subdued by the Romans until 27BC. Once there, however, the Romans ruled for around seven centuries.

Lusitania – named after the Lusitani people who were the previous inhabitants – encompassed Extremadura and some of Salamanca province, as well as modern-day Portugal.

Founded in 25BC, Mérida soon became the most important city on the Iberian peninsula, its political and cultural centre, and the capital of Lusitania. Mérida was also the centre of communications for the western Iberian peninsula, as the silver route and the roads to Lisbon, Córdoba, and between Toledo and Zaragoza, all crossed there.

The Iberian peninsula had a lot to offer the Romans – from precious metals to fierce Celtic warriors. The Romans in turn developed the road system and left a great cultural and architectural heritage in their wake. Modern-day Spain was a very prosperous part of the Roman empire.

By the 6th century, though, the Roman empire was disintegrating, and the Visigoths took over Lusitania. They, too, left their mark in cities such as Mérida. Sue George

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Category: Tarragona