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Hispania Tarraconensis

posted Aug 4, 2014, 11:42 AM by sarah barron   [ updated Jan 27, 2015, 3:18 AM by Gordon Doherty ]
1st century AD Roman Hispania, with the province of Tarraconensis dominating the north and east of what is modern-day Spain. The cities of Tarraco and Barcino lie on the north-eastern coast.

This summer's research trip whisked me away from the usual haunts of Greece and Turkey and to Hispania Tarraconensis - once a great province in the western-most region of the Roman Empire.
Before setting off, I spent many nights compiling a list of where to visit, and grumping about the fact that a week there would barely allow me to cover a fraction of the places on that lineup. The majority of the locations ended up being shifted onto my semi-mythical 'camper-van tour of the world' itinerary. But for this week of escapism, there were two gems of this part of the world that simply had to be explored: the ancient cities of Tarraco and Barcino . . . 



The Modern-day port-city of Tarragona plays a distant second-fiddle to Barcelona, the jewel of Catalonia, but back in the 1st century AD this place was the star of the show. Tarraco, as the Romans called it, was an artery linking Hispania with the heart of the empire. It is quickly apparent why the site was swiftly adopted by the Romans - perfectly placed to serve as a defensible and sustainable settlement, set upon a sun-baked, rocky hinterland that overlooks a natural harbour in the Mediterranean to the west and commands a fine view of the countryside in every other direction.

While the legions would have first arrived in these lands clad in mail, clutching shield and gladius, Sarah and I turned up armed with cameras, notepads and factor 50 sun cream. And while the Romans would have rolled over the horizon on a fleet of majestic triremes, we turned up on . . . er . . . a somewhat camp miniature tourist train (only kidding - 'Tarraco Tren' actually a brilliant way to get around the city). 

I had read that, two thousand years ago, the native Iberians were swift to side with the Romans who arrived to fight in the Punic Wars. We too were helped by a local fellow, eager to give us directions and advice when we were staring blankly at our upside-down map, already suffering under the thirty degree plus sun (and it was still early morning at this point). Generally, the people of Tarragona seemed extremely laid back and welcoming, and this set a pleasant tone for our visit. 

We wandered uphill, intent on starting our tour at the city's highest point and working our way down. The further we climbed, the more beautiful Tarragona became. The historic quarter in particular has a very relaxed feel about it - enjoying a quiet, lazy old-town feel around the cobbled, sloping streets and winding alleys, with just the gentle pealing of church bells, chirruping of birds and the scent of spices and fresh baking in the air. Sarah did have one gripe though: not enough cats - not even the type that lurk in shady doorways, look at you askance and offer you mere toleration.

Whilst Sarah muttered about cats, I was flicking through books and listening to the audio guides I had downloaded in an attempt to understand the layout of all I saw before me and how it correlated with ancient Tarraco. It seems that (rather unsurprisingly) the Romans manipulated the sloping coastal terrain to establish three terraced levels upon the hillside. There was the Colonial Forum near sea-level, the Provincial Forum a little higher, then the Temple Forum at the apex of the hill - where we were headed. We found a small museum (near the Rosero gate at the city walls) that houses an excellent model of Roman Tarraco during its 1st century AD high period, and really helps you to get your bearings with how the ruins weave through the modern city. 

The Scale Model of Roman Tarraco, seen from the north-west, looking west and downhill to the Mediterranean. The Temple Forum stands at the apex of the hill, the Provincial Forum just below it and the Colonial Forum meets with the harbour area. Notice the amphitheatre (to the left) just outside of the city walls. You can compare this to the aerial photo of modern Tarragona (in the previous set of photos) taken from a similar-ish angle.

Of course, Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was Roman Tarraco. The site's pre-Roman origins are unclear, but the thinking is that a fortified Iberian or Phonecian town preceded the coming of the Scipios and their legions during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). After its Romanisation, Tarraco existed for the remainder of the Republican era as a functional port-town, legionary wintering quarters and a supply base for the various other wars of conquest that carried on around Hispania long after the dust had settled on the Punic Wars. Notably, in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey in the 1st century BC, Tarraco proved to be an essential resource of food and fodder for the armies of Caesar in the lead-up to the battle of Munda in 45 BC. It was following his crushing victory at Munda that Caesar granted Tarraco the status of colony. 

So Tarraco was on the rise. Still though, only hints of the majesty shown in the model, above, existed by this point. It was not until the 1st century AD, when Rome had embraced the concept of empire, that Tarraco truly spread its wings. Around 73 AD, Emperor Vespasian commissioned the transformation of the settlement from a colony into a fully fledged provincial capital (of Hispania Tarraconensis). At the same time, he granted Roman citizenship to all of the Hispanic provinces. Revolutionary times indeed. Work began on the three forums of Tarraco during his reign and the last piece of the plan was realised with the completion of the circus on the lowest terrace around a decade later - although further embellishment would continue for years to come. Indeed, Tarraco spent the next century or so as a flourishing, trade-rich city, enjoying visits from emperors such as Hadrian, who commissioned further construction projects, including the rebuilding of the Temple of Augustus. 

The city knew leaner times later in the 2nd century AD, when civil war somewhat inevitably reared its ugly head again after the death of Pertinax and the Year of the Five Emperors in 193 AD. Tarraco's wealth and status recovered from this troubled time, but never quite to the same degree as its heyday, especially when the administrative reforms of Diocletian in the 280s and 290s AD, which rendered the city capital of a much smaller province (1 of 6 in the Diocese of Hispania). Then, some two hundred years later in the dark days of the late 4th century AD, Tarraco, Roman Hispania - and the western Roman empire itself - fell into the hands of the barbarians. Of these numerous tribes, it was the Visigoths that claimed most of Hispania, and ended the story of Roman Tarraco . . . 

Republican armies of conquest, civil wars, invading barbarian hordes? I don't know about you, but reading up on this history had already filled my head with story ideas, and I had yet to clap eyes upon the ruins in earnest! But that was about to be remedied, as we reached the top of the hill and came out onto the Temple Forum. 

This wide and leafy (and blessedly shaded) square once housed the Imperial cult complex, and now the Cathedral of Tarragona stands in its place. The strata of history are plain to see, with original, dark and worn sections of Romanesque masonry in the lower levels of the structure (dating to the 11th century AD), and lighter Gothic style marble architecture forming the upper sections. More, there are many fragments of the original Roman temple dotted around, including the side of the Betheseda Sarcophogus - a 4th century piece - fitted above the right-hand entrance, and pieces of the temple structure itself (see pics, below).

Left to right: a) The cathedral's main entrance. b) A view of the heterogeneous Romanesque/Gothic stonework. c) The side of the Betheseda sarcophogus, embedded above the right-hand entrance. This piece was sculpted in the 4th century Theosodian (Christian, staunchly Nicean) era, and shows on the left side, the healing of the blind and on the right, the entry into Jerusalem. d) A fragment of the Imperial Temple, embedded inside one of the cathedral's cloisters. e) A christogram carved into one of the lower masonry sections.

We trekked around the north side of the cathedral in search of the city walls only to pause near a small cafe in a quiet, cobbled square that beckoned us with the clink of chilled drinks and the pleasant sight of more shade. We ordered what we thought was a light tapas lunch, but were served up with an entire loaf of bread, drenched in tomato pulp and olive oil and a tray laden with enough Spanish meats and cheeses to feed a cohort. Still, we ate the lot and drained several glasses of juice. So, we were fuelled up, ready to march to the Danubian Limes if necessary . . . but the city walls turned out to be just round the corner. And I had to ask myself how we had missed them. A UNESCO World Heritage Organisation protected site, Tarraco's city walls absolutely deserve the overused adjective 'awesome'. Take a look:

Left to right: a) The 'Arzobispo Tower'. b) A view of the walls just inside the ancient city. c) The walls from outside the city (with the smaller, 16th-18th century outer gun-bearing walls visible on the left). d) The Rosero gate, cut into the western wall in medieval times to allow access to the citadel from the west.

And, if that wasn't enough, here's my slightly drunk-looking panoramic shot of the walls. New camera, new toy . . . what can I say?

The walls once ran some 3.5 Km, wrapping Tarraco securely from external threat. Only a third of that length still stands - but that alone is still hugely impressive. Indeed, these walls claim to be the oldest and largest Roman construction preserved outside of Italy and Rome itself. It's worth noting that, starting in the 16th century, a small, squat outer wall was added in order to bear cannon, and some of the towers (notably the Arzobispo tower) and sections of wall have been repaired/modified in and since medieval times. I was in my element, buzzing up and down the walkway at the foot of the walls taking snaps on my shiny new camera . . . when disaster struck! The camera informed me that it had ran out of space on my only memory card. It seems the unnecessary number of panoramic shots I was taking were swallowing up a Terrabyte each (<- possible exaggeration), and, alas, I was force to resort to my phone camera. I was rather nervous switching on my phone because a) I had sworn to take a week-long Twitter/Email/Facebook/AllTheRest break and b) I was still traumatised about the last time I tried to bring my phone to the rescue whilst abroad. This time however, it behaved itself, and I ignored all the email updates. But the pictures were rubbish in comparison, I grumbled more than once.

We headed back downhill to find the provincial forum, passing shops that seemed to sell everything but memory cards. Seriously. Knitted giraffes? Yep, no problem. T-shirts with witty declarations like 'I Love Sex' written on them - no bother at all. Roman-style iPhone covers - 3 for 20 euros. But memory cards? No chance. Not until we stopped for a lemon fanta (always tastes better abroad) and another seat in the shade. Only then did I spot the most covert of all shops, with a tiny, seemingly hand-written sign almost apologetically announcing 'memory cards'. 20 notes lighter and one 16Gb memory card up, I was back in business with my garishly unnecessary panoramic shots of everything.
We strolled through the remains of the Provincial Forum, which exist mainly as islands of antiquity set into the modern settlement. There are only fragments here and there, and a good narrative is needed to pull all the remains together. Fortunately, the Archaeological and Praetorium Tower museums are there to perform just such a task, with a bounty of mosaics, pottery, sculptures, narratives and more in the former and a stunning vista from the rooftop of the latter.

Left to right: a) A section of wall from the Provincial Forum. b) A Roman archway incorporated into a block of houses. c) The 'Praetorian Tower' (built to its current height in Norman times). d) A statue of Emperor Augustus, gazing out to sea. Taken from the mid-level of the Praetorian Tower. e) A willy!

Ahem . . . another panoramic shot - from the top of the Praetorian Tower. The amphitheatre is visible near the shore, and the circus is on the right of the shot.

The Praetorian Tower was pretty impressive from the outside, and offers magnificent views from the roof (for some reason the woman operating the lift thought we wanted to get off the floor before - which was completely empty?). But below, in its cellars, lies a vast and impressive honeycomb of Roman vaults and antechambers. these tunnels and chambers sit under Tarragona's streets, supporting the mid-level city like stilts as they once supported the Provincial Forum. Exploring these tunnels is rather atmospheric, with every footstep echoing and dying, the tang of dust and damp in the air and the spooky lighting revealing seemingly endless corridors and myriad antechambers along the way, not to mention the 3rd century Hyppolytus sarcophagus (recovered from the sea in 1948).

The vaulted corridors that criss-cross beneath Tarragona's streets. The pic on the left shows a section of the Hyppolytus sarcophagus.

We came through one towering corridor known as the 'Porta Triumphalis', which led us to the remains of the Circo Romano on the third and lowest level of the tiered city. I did have a bit of a Gladiator* moment ascending the steep stairs and emerging into the circus, staring off into the middle-distance, hearing the crowd chanting my name. However, the moment was spoiled somewhat when Sarah pointed out that my flies were open. Moving swiftly on . . .

Unfortunately, there is not enough of the circus left to get a good feel for how it would have looked, but there is plenty of pictorial support on adjacent buildings (see photos, below). Also, there were plaques containing some succinct and interesting detail on the tradition of chariot racing, telling how the arena, the races and the competitors all had deep religious connotations and served as a metaphor for the passing of time and the circle of life and death. The arena symbolised the Earth and the Chariots the Sun; the seven laps of the track represented the seven days of the week; the four colours of the participating teams - green, blue, red and white - personified the four seasons. This particular racing venue held 25,000 spectators (compared to the 125,000 capacity of the Circus Maximus in Rome).

*Yes, I know gladiators would not have fought on the racetrack.

The corridor and end gateway of the 'Porta Triumphalis', leading to the eastern end of the Circo Romano (with the right-hand photo showing an illustration of the circus-end on the side of the overlooking modern building)

By this point, we were pretty tired, but there was no way we were missing out on the amphitheatre down by the coast. The added bonus was that it was all downhill as well.
On the way down, we passed through a tidy garden area, planted with a variety of Roman-era shrubs, herbs and flowers, complete with plaques detailing how each would have been used in Roman cooking, decoration and religion. So if my next book has a chapter and a half painstakingly describing Tribunus Gallus preparing a cheeky little wormwood, ginger, marjoram, oregano jus to go with his pheasant, then please direct your complaints to the head gardener.

The site of the amphitheatre is stunning, and I felt no shame in clicking onto panoramic mode with the camera once more. I even insisted on a Gladiator-style marching into the arena shot (flies in good order this time). I could have spent a day here penning a short story, so evocative was the setting. But the thing that really ticked all of my boxes was supporting detail in the little antechambers around the arena. The plaques detailing the Roman era were excellent, describing the reservation system where certain seats would be held for families and nobles (with their names carved into the seats), and of Valerian and Galieno's burning of Fructuoso, Bishop of Tarraco, along with his deacons Augurio and Eulogio (on 21st Jan 259AD at 10am - how's that for detail?) - an act that would dictate the future of the arena. 

A series of illustrations (very reminiscent of the work of the excellent Osprey artists) showed the arena in late antiquity and beyond, and really helped portray the layers of history I was walking upon. Following the Gothic conquest, it seems that a Gothic Basilica dominated one end (on the site of Fructuoso's martyrdom) through to the 9th century. This basilica might well have been Roman originally - built as a form of penance for Fructuoso's death. In the 12th century, the 'Church del Santa Maria del Miracle' was built over the Gothic ruins and then became a convent in the 16th century before reinventing itself as the 'Prison Del Milagro' in the 19th century.

By the time we had circled the arena thoroughly, our shadows were stretching across the sand and our bellies were rumbling once more. It was time to head off back to our accommodation further down the coast. 

I came to Tarragona expecting to find a gem. Instead, I uncovered a treasure trove.

The Amphitheatre of Tarraco, with the site of the Basilica/Church/Convent/Prison on the left (the golden/yellowed stonework).

Left, a shot of the arena from the southern end, looking onto the basilica site. Right, a shot of the author thinking he is cool.


A few days later, we travelled to the modern capital of the region, the jewel that is Barcelona. I had visited this sprawling metropolis once before, but that was in a previous incarnation as a young lad on holiday with his mates, and my focus then was on beer as opposed to the bounty of antiquity nestled at the heart of this magnificent city. This time, it would be different, I affirmed. I would see modern and ancient Barcelona, drinking in history instead of questionable lager ( that would come later on in the evening ;) ). We actually spent the early part of the day travelling around the modern part of the city but, truth be told, as wide and pleasant as the grid-system of streets and walkways are, as exquisite as the Gaudi and Gaudi-esque architecture is, I simply couldn't wait to get to the site of the old town, the original Roman city of Barcino.

What remains of Barcino is a mix of imperious 4th century Roman walls, towers, gates and aqueducts along with dark and distinctive Gothic architecture (not least the cathedral at Barcino's centre - which partly incorporates the Roman walls and whose original structure is likely to have been 4th century Roman). 

Map of central Barcelona - showing the stark contrast between the old town layout of Barcino and the modern grid system that surrounds it

An illustration of 4th century Barcino, seen from the north-west with the Mediterranean in the background.

4th century AD Roman Barcino. From left to right: a) the south-eastern walls and towers b) the north-east gate-tower and a section of the aqueduct c) another view of the north-east gate d) south western corner-tower. Notice how the towers are all projecting from the walls themselves - typical of 4th century AD fortifications - to provide staunch defensive capabilities. Unfortunately, these would not keep the Visigoths out!

The Temple of Augustus, flanked by modern apartments, and the old Roman tombs, overlooked by busy city streets

Left: The Gothic Cathedral and the Roman Walls. Right: The wonderfully named Gothic-style structure, 'The Bridge of Sighs' (an early 20th century work modelled on the one in Venice).

As the history goes, it seems likely that Barcino was founded by the Carthaginian Barca family, and possibly even by Hamilcar Barca - Hannibal's father - in the 3rd century BC. It was in the 1st century BC that the Romans reinvented the settlement as a military camp named Colonia Julia Augusta Faventia Paterna Barcino. The city's importance grew and threatened that of Tarraco for a time. Much later, Barcino also shared Tarraco's fate, the Visigoths seizing it too in the aftermath of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire and making it their capital of all Gothic Hispania.

We spent the late afternoon and evening strolling round this maze. Much like Tarragona, the pace of life in Barcelona is generally quite relaxed given the sheer size of the place, but in the Gothic Quarter (the name given to the area that roughly corresponds to Barcino), it is so laid back it is nearly horizontal. Perhaps we were caught up too much in this mindset though, as we missed the last entry into the Museum of History! Well, the sign said last entry was 7pm, but we were turned away when we arrived there at 6.30pm...grrr. Still, a cold drink and a couple of chorizo-based nibbles later and I was fine with it all.

We were in no rush to leave this tranquil old place, and it was nearly midnight when we hopped on the bus back to our hotel. I fell asleep despite the bumpy ride, and enjoyed/endured a bizarre Romans vs aliens dream - too much chorizo, perhaps? Or maybe the dodgy beer?

I spent the last day of our trip jotting down notes and thoughts and talking them over with Sarah. I was trying to summarise our to Tarraco and Barcino: what had I gained? Well, cracking days out and a blizzard of ideas for a start. Now, a week later, I already have an embryonic story plan involving Tarraco and Barcino. A couple of characters have emerged from that blizzard of ideas, bringing with them a devilish plot . . .