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The History of Spain - The Roman Era

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The shield of the History, Philosophy and Spirituality faculty of the h2g2 University. The History of Spain
First Inhabitants | The Roman Era | Visigoths | Moorish Conquest | Christian Reconquest | 1250 to 1450 | Fernando and Isabel
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The Roman amphitheatre in Malaga, Spain.

We left the Carthaginians and Romans facing off against each other - where would these two ancient powers end up? Which would have the most profound influence on Spain's future? Well, we all know what damn good warriors the Romans were...

The End of the Carthaginians

In 219 BC, an uneasy truce existed in Spain between the Romans and the Carthaginians, the two pre-eminent powers in southern Europe. The river Iberus (now known as the Ebro) marked the boundary between the two civilisations, with Romans to the north and the Carthaginians to the south. The exception was Saguntum, now Sagunto1, 30 miles north of Valencia. It lay in Carthaginian land, but under the terms of a treaty was regarded as an independent city under Roman protection. When the inhabitants entered into skirmishes with local tribes, the Carthaginian leader Hannibal took the opportunity to raise tensions. He laid a successful eight-month siege to the city and when it fell to him Rome demanded Hannibal be handed over for this outrage. Carthage refused, beginning the Second Punic War in 218 BC.

It would be ancient history's clash of the titans. The Romans had more soldiers, but Carthage was bigger and, despite having lost wealth and territory to Rome in the First Punic War, was in a better financial position to conduct a long campaign. Whoever won would rule huge swathes of the European continent and control Mediterranean trade absolutely.

So began the most famous trek of all. By the time two Roman legions landed at Emperion, Hannibal had already left Iberia. School children still read of the journey with awe. With 50,000 - 100,000 foot soldiers - sources disagree wildly - 10,000 cavalry and 36 elephants, Hannibal crossed the Alps, won battles at Trebia and Lake Trasimene, and annihilated a Roman army at Cannae in southern Italy.

Rome was now teetering on the brink of collapse. The Macedonians and Syracrusani of Sicily, smelling blood, threw in their lot with Carthage. Rome's second city, Tarentum, revolted and became Hannibal's base in Italy. Hannibal's generals urged him to march on Rome.

In one of the most disputed decisions of military history, Hannibal stayed put. Over the winter of 217 - 216 BC, the Romans regrouped. The lull turned the tide. Hannibal would never enjoy complete victory over his sworn enemies.

Hannibal's brother, Hasdrubal, had been tied down back in Iberia by Roman skirmishes, and by the time he got to Italy it was too late. The Romans, so far subdued on the second front in Spain, decided to re-open hostilities in 210 BC under a new leader, Publius Cornelius Scipio. Like Hannibal, Scipio lost his father and uncle to the enemy. His arrival proved decisive. Rather than take land piece by piece, he daringly went to the heart of Carthaginian territory, surprising the city of Cartagena and taking it after a short siege.

Further victories came before Scipio took on the last Carthaginian army at the Battle of Ilipa in 206 BC. It would be Scipio's finest hour. In the days before the battle, the two armies tested each other out. Scipio always waited until the opposing army had formed up before leading his troops into position, and always placed his legionaries in the centre of his formation, with Spanish mercenary troops on the flanks. But all this was just posturing, setting up Scipio's grand deception. His troops breakfasted before dawn and advanced on the Carthaginian camp. Hasdrubal, believing the Romans would line up in the same formation as usual, hurried his troops into position.

By the time the Carthaginians realised Scipio's men were in a different formation it was too late. The powerful legions tore into the weak flanks of Hasdrubal's army and, despite being outnumbered, quickly surrounded them. The carnage was only ended by a sudden thunderstorm. This was indeed a different era. Overnight, the remnants of the Carthaginian army tried to escape, but the Romans were alerted and gave chase. There was little mercy: less than a tenth of the Carthaginians' 70,000-strong force survived. Its leaders fled and Iberia belonged to Rome. Hispanica was born.


The bloodshed was far from over. The Celtiberians, never particularly enamoured with the Carthaginians, were likewise not impressed by the Romans. Although the people of the coast, having got used to a succession of colonial rulers, adapted to their new masters readily, the Celtiberians of the interior were an altogether different proposition. They were a tough and warlike people who threw their criminals off cliffs and carried poisonous plants into battle, preferring suicide to surrender. They would not be easily subdued. Even when facing overwhelming odds, their warriors would shake their long hair, scream and perform war dances. One can only imagine what the well-disciplined Roman armies made of this.

The legionaries frequently refused point-blank to be sent to Hispanica. Their job was made even more difficult by the tribal nature of the Celtiberians; there was never a single enemy to face, but a whole host of powder kegs ready to explode at any time. While Gaul was conquered by the Romans in 10 years, and Carthage beaten in 17, it took two centuries for Iberia to be subdued. The Spanish still use the expression 'very Iberian' to describe an exceptionally stubborn person.

First, there was an eight-year revolt by the Lusitanians in response to a Roman massacre of 8,000 unarmed Celtiberians. The Romans demanded prohibitive taxes, to which the locals often took exception. The Roman army would respond with force. In Lusitania, the Romans offered to meet the rebels to 'discuss' the matter, dug a trench around their camp to make escape difficult, and attacked. A shepherd named Viriathus was one of the few to escape and he became the rebels' leader - and both Spain and Portugal's first national hero. He was only killed when the Romans bribed three of his aides to murder him.

The Celtiberian War began when several tribes of the meseta plains revolted at once; it lasted 20 years. But the most legendary resistance of all came from the inhabitants of Numantia, a small town overlooking the river Duero in northern Spain. The events would later be immortalised in the play considered to be Cervantes' finest, La Numancia.

Having forced the Romans into a treaty in a previous war between 153 and 151 BC, the Numantines became a bit of a thorn in their side. In 143 BC, the Romans decided to renew their offensive. While the tribes around them fell fairly swiftly, Numantia remained undefeated. Surrounded by barren hills, they were in excellent country for guerrilla warfare, but the 6,000 men, women and children stayed in their town, resolute against their fate, seeking safety in numbers rather than scattering into the hills. Despite a long siege they remained unbroken, and even forced an army of 20,000 attacking Romans to surrender. Disgraced and furious after nine years of hostilities, the Roman senate sent its finest general, Scipio Aemilianus, to put down the Numantians once and for all.

Scipio the Younger, the grandson of the Carthaginians' conqueror, was not a man to play softball. He forbade his troops hot baths, made them eat breakfast standing up, and encircled the town with a series of fortresses and blockades. Suffering from famine and disease, the Numantians held out for nine months before accepting there was no hope. Rather than surrender, they drank the last of their beer, set fire to the town and threw themselves onto the flames in mass suicide.

It had taken the Romans a decade and an army of 60,000 troops led by their finest general to put down the revolt.

The Romans Cometh

After the fall of Numantia there was an uneasy peace for about half a century. Skirmishes took place instead of full-scale revolts, and slowly the Roman way of life took hold. Baetica, in the area of modern-day Andalucía, was the most readily assimilated; Roman historians wrote of its 'clusters of small dwellings of whitened adobe', a description modern readers will easily recognise. They also described girls from Gadiz dancing with castanets2, accompanied by a 'deep and emotional' style of singing; perhaps the first record of flamenco.

The Romans brought with them considerable technological improvements. They built 15,000 miles of roads, enthusiastically mined the country's mineral wealth, and introduced revelations such as irrigation and aqueducts. Latin and a code of laws were introduced. Slowly, the Iberians were brought round to Roman ways.

It was not all sweetness and light, though. Caesar and Pompey played out much of their power struggle in Hispania, with significant battles at Lérida and near Córdoba. Revolts continued in Cantabria - where mothers would kill their own children rather than let them be captured - and the Basque country. But by 38 BC, Rome was confident enough to officially declare Hispanica to be in its possession. As the years counted down to zero, the empire entered its golden age - 200 years of peace, known as the Pax Romana.

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

As conquerors go, the Romans were excellent overlords. If the vanquished agreed to tolerate Roman rule, they would be treated as subjects rather than slaves, and could become Roman citizens. A city which paid its taxes and was generally well-behaved could even be granted the ultimate prize, becoming civitas - towns where citizenship for individuals was presumed rather than granted.

The economy was, however, reliant upon slaves - 40,000 were reputed to work in a mine near Cartagena - and there was little quarter given to dissenters.

Citizenship was highly prized and rarely given, but had a range of benefits. A Roman citizen, for example, had the right to vote and hold civic office, a right to a public trial, and could not be tortured or sentenced to death3.

Under Roman rule, 50 Spanish cities became civitas. Foremost among them was Mérida, Rome's ninth largest city. It had a 25,000-seater circus maximus for chariot races, an amphitheatre which could be flooded for naval scenes, and a 64-arch bridge over the river Guadiana which is still standing two millennia later. It remains Spain's most impressive Roman archaeological site. Elsewhere, Segovia has an iconic 30m-high aqueduct with 166 arches and 120 pillars, while at Tarragona part of the 24km-long aqueduct that served the town still remains. The Romans built their structures to impress and to last.

Spiritually, the Romans didn't inspire. Their religion was polytheistic and didn't really catch on, although it replaced the existing religions in some coastal areas. Even here, though, only the names of the gods were changed.

More exciting cults did arise, however. One was the cult of Mithraism, which originated in Persia and took hold among many soldiers. Mithras' image was an athletic youth stabbing a bull, and the scene became an initiation ritual. It was believed that being anointed with the bull's blood would make you invincible in battle. In Mérida, the site of a temple dedicated to Mithras is now a bullring. The origins of bullfighting need no further explanation.

Of all the religions competing for attention, one stood out. Christianity had mass appeal; it promised an afterlife and had a moral code lacking in other Iberian religions of the time. Great stories sprung up. According to tradition, St James, the patron saint of Spain, visited Zaragoza and spread the faith for seven years. It is said that after his death in Palestine his body was returned to Spain for burial near Santiago de Compostela - a city that bears not just his name but a shrine containing his supposed remains. He probably never visited, although St Paul may have, but this didn't stop a good story, and soon tales of martyrdom were rife.

The martyrs endured pain with a kind of beatific happiness, perhaps inspired by stories of St Vincent, who taunted his torturers from the rack, and St Engracia, a 13-year-old martyr who sang as her breasts were ripped off with hot pincers. It could be argued that they made a rod for their own back; the Romans, happy to be entertained by torture and death, flocked to the arenas4 to witness Christians running over hot coals and plunging into flames with indoctrinated fervour.

The Jews suffered, too. Under Hadrian, they were slaughtered and scattered following a revolt in Israel in 135 AD. Many chose Spain for their exile, forming new communities in the suburbs of established towns. They would play their part in Spain's future.

The Pax Romana couldn't last. By the 3rd century, Iberian cities were building huge city walls to keep out raiders. The economy suffered as the Christians, with their new-fangled moral code, questioned the use of slaves. And the Hispanican administration had become hopelessly corrupt and apathetic. An overstretched Rome just couldn't keep all of its subjects in line.

Christianity was legalised by Constantine in 313 AD, and later became the state religion. In Iberia at least this was more of an acknowledgment than an edict. Heretics were now hunted down and fervently dealt with. Flavius Theodosius took this a step further, burning temples and banning all pagan beliefs. He banned the Vestal Virgins, the Olympic Games, and even banned people from looking at pagan idols. On his deathbed in 395, he bequeathed half of the Roman Empire to his one son and half to the other, splitting it in two permanently. In terms of power, there was little left to split.

Hispanica would survive for just 14 more years.

1Some may be amused by the fact that the city was also known at the time as Arse.2A simple percussion instrument made by attaching two shells or carved pieces of wood together. The castanets are held in the palm of the hand and clicked.3The exception to the latter was treason, but even in this instance citizens were privileged. St Paul, who was a Roman citizen, was beheaded for treason; St Peter, who was not, was crucified for the same crime.4The Latin word arena means 'sand', which was imported in large quantities to soak up the blood.

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