For 600 years, Spain played a central role in the Roman empire. Many stunning ancient roads and monuments remain to this day.
By the year 300 BC, the Mediterranean region had two growing powers, so it was somewhat inevitable that the Romans and Carthage would come to blows.
Rome was a city-state with land armies that had unified the Italian peninsular, while Carthage was the largely North African lands and controlled by the Phoenician traders, who also dominated much of the Mediterranean Sea.
The first Punic War
In 264 BC, the two city-states clashed over control of Messana on Sicily, the island located just west of Italy’s ‘boot’. For the following 23 years, the powers battled for supremacy primarily on the island and its surrounding waters.
The longest continuous conflict and greatest naval war of antiquity ended with Roman victory in 241 BC, but it would become just the first in three Punic Wars over the years to come.
Rome won control of Sicily but the larger question of control of the western Mediterranean remained open, especially as control of Spain was split between Rome in the north, and Carthage in the south.
Carthage needed Spain’s silver mines to fund future conflicts and so they sent men and ships to Spain to shore up control, and build a new port, New Carthage, at what is today Cartagena. Archaeological digs have uncovered remains of the walls built by the Carthaginians to protect this new port.
The second Punic War
The split of Spain wasn’t to everyone’s satisfaction and in particular the Carthaginians took exception were worried about Saguntum, close to the modern town of Sagunto near Valencia. The prosperous, independent, highly-fortified Celt-Iberian town had traditionally aligned with Rome.
In 219 BC, the Carthaginians lay siege to the city and when it eventually fell eight years later, the second war began. The Carthaginians travelled overland to Italy and caused havoc, but Roman leaders took advantage of the lack of defence in Spain to attack New Carthage.
In 206 BC, a decisive victory was struck on the plains near Sevilla. The Romans took the major cities of the south, including Cádiz and the mines. In 202 BC the war was finally over.
Roman control of Spain
This victory led Spain into a new era, which some people say shaped the country’s history more than any other. The Romans were quick to recognise the resources and strategic importance of the peninsular and quickly made it part of their empire. They renamed the peninsular Hispania, which is where the modern name comes from.
The Latin-speaking Romans soon spread their language all across the peninsular, which would over the decades to come morph into modern Spanish. The local languages died out, with the notable exception of Basque, although some Celtic words remain in the Galician dialect of modern Spanish.
One key to Roman rule lay in the towns that linked the provinces together. Rome joined them physically by new Roman roads, which helped linked them through trade and politics. By seeing themselves as part of something bigger, cities worked together.
Roman towns in Spain
New Roman towns were created and many interesting remains can be seen today. The most notable example is Tarragona in the south of Catalonia, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site such is the magnificence of its Roman ruins. The hilltop town was only five days from Rome by sea, so formed an important strategic link between Spain and Italy.
Romans also established a colony of veterans near Sevilla, which prospered for hundreds of years. It had a huge amphitheatre holding thousands, along with many temples and markets. Some colonies were established near existing cities, such as Mérida, which became a provincial capital.
Today, Mérida has some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Spain including a triumphal arch and a theatre, and is by far the biggest tourist attraction is west-central Spain.
A fortune built on fish sauce
Rome took over Cádiz and expanded its fishing industry and silver mines. The Romans salted freshly-caught fish to grow a substantial export industry. But the real wealth came from the wildly popular Garum, a fermented sauce made from fish guts, blood, and salt. The resulting liquid was skimmed off and mixed with herbs, before being sold all across the Mediterranean.
In a world without chili or spices from Asia, garum was wildly popular as a way to flavour food. Ships laden with the garum-filled pottery set sail daily. The best garum fetched extraordinarily high prices and Hispania’s coastal towns grew significantly as a result.
The north resists
The Romans struggled to expand their dominance of the peninsular into the mountainous north-west populated by Celt-Iberians, who fought long and hard to resist. Known as the Cantabrian wars, a decade of brutal warfare took place from 29 to 19 BC.
A determined Rome committed many resources to the battles. Casualties numbered well into the tens of thousands, as the Roman army did not take prisoners, and the local resistance refused to be taken alive as slaves, preferring suicide.
While Rome eventually won the war in 19 BC, minor rebellions led to two Roman legions being stationed there for a further seventy years to keep the peace. Although Rome claimed and worked the mines, these north-west provinces resisted Roman culture to a certain extent.
A united land thanks to engineering
Rome divided Hispania into two provinces to unite and exploit the resources of the peninsular. Ancient maps show how 6,500 miles of efficient Roman roads joined the cities and territories to create a single Spain, facilitating the movement of goods, people and information.
The roads were built to last, so much so that some of these stone roads still remain today. The best of them had deep foundations and were graded to allow rain to run-off. Milestones – stones set into the earth every mile – were placed along the roads, and inns built every thirty miles or so for travellers to rest.
The Roman bridges still standing in Mérida and Córdoba show some of the innovations – such as arches – that allowed people to cross rivers. Meanwhile, water engineering such as aqueducts allowed the dryer plains of Spain to flourish. The Segovia aqueduct is the best preserved.
For 600 years, Spain was a vital part of the Roman empire, through to the year 400 AD. Some of Rome’s greatest emperors came from Spain, while by the third century, all citizens were granted Roman citizenship.
In addition to garum, goods such as olive oil and wine were exported across the Mediterranean, and Jewish and Greek merchants came to facilitate some of this long-distance trade. This marks the start of the Jewish presence on the Iberian peninsular, which would eventually lead to significant change.
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