September 27th, 2011
What did the Romans ever do for us? Well, when it comes to Spain, the answer to the Monty Python question is… an awful lot.
The Romans have left their mark on Spain. They had a huge impact on the culture of the country. On its food, roads, water supply and so much more.
Many of the first battles between the Romans and the Carthagnian armies took place in the Ebro Valley, today a place to holiday in for peace and tranquility. The only battle you are likely to come across on the Ebro today is that between angler and fish.
The Romans took two centuries to conquer all of the peninsular of what was then Hispania. They then spent the next seven hundred years spreading their influence. Their customs, religion, laws and lifestyle were taken on by the indigenous population. Not that they had much choice in the matter.
If you resisted the will of people such as Julius Ceasar, who went on to become Governor of Hispania (aka Spain); the best you could hope for would be a life of slavery. A bit like the choice many Spanish have today. Either follow your brother, cousin or uncle into the Guardia Civil police force; or end up running a market stall in all weathers!
The Emperor of Rome had to give permission before any public funds would be released to build new settlements, and those that were constructed were built in the image of Rome.
Lots of Rome in miniature villages and towns sprung up across Spain. Remains of the earliest survive today at Tarragona (Tarraco, as was), Mérida (previously Emerita Augusta) and the wonderfully named Santiponce, near Seville. This was the first city created by the Romans in Spain. It was, rather unimaginatively, christened Italica.
Then there are the roads. The Roman civilization is famous for its ability to create great infrastructure. Roads, bridges and the very important aqueducts. Look around you in Spain, the Romans built so many of those that are still standing.
The roads that have collapsed, and the bridges that have fallen down – they are the ones built by Paco and his six mates in flourescent jackets who spend most days staring down a hole!
The Romans put in the infrastructure that allowed Hispania to become an economic force. Roman roads ran through the peninsula. They connected Cadiz in the south of Spain to the Pyrenees. And places as far apart as Asturias and Murcia. Trade flowed into Spain thanks to the new roads criss-crossing the country.
So many of today’s modern roads and motorways in Spain run parallel with the old Roman roads; so proving the Romans always knew where to build them.
And then there was the magnificent way in which Romans built walls. I am willing to bet you have driven or walked past many a Roman wall in Spain. The remains of some magnificent walls are still standing in places such as Córdoba, Barcelona, León and Zaragoza.
The wooden bridges they created have, understandably, largely vanished. But many of those built using stone are still in use. There is a famous Roman bridge at Córdoba, a city which warrants a holiday break. There is much more to the place than the splendid La Mezquita.
A typical Roman bridge is a platform supported by arches and semi circles. The pillars of the bridge will have a wedge shaped structure called abutments. They redirect the water flow.
And speaking of water, how on earth was water first directed to the cities of Spain?
Well we have the Romans to thank for that also. Important towns needed water supply and so the Romans set about building aqueducts. The majority were built underground, rising high into the sky.
An engineering friend, who knows all there is to know about such things, tells me that the aqueducts in Spain are the most “stunning works of civil engineering I have seen anywhere in the world.” He is mystified as to how they constructed them.
He gets very excited over such things does my engineer friend, Brian. “Have you seen the first aqueduct of Segovia?” he asks me.
“I haven’t even seen Segovia”, I had to reply, rather sheepishly.
Brian: “But that is the most famous of all the constructions the Romans built in Spain. What about the aqueduct in Tarragona, or the remains of the one in Merida? You must have seen them.”
Me: “Err, sorry Brian, but no. But i do know a good bar in Tarragona.”
The down side to have an engineer friend stay with you in Spain is that he’ll talk about fountains rather than football. He’ll want to see bridges when I only have eyes for beer. He’s more interested in togas than tapas. But, hey, I’ve learned a great deal about the structures around me in Spain. Places I previously had never giving a second thought.
Then we have the culture the Romans brought to Hispania. The Romas were great theatregoers. There are the remains of at least thirteen Roman theatres across Spain. The best preserved theatre is in Merida.
As recently as the 1990′s a Roman theatre was uncovered in the often overlooked Cartagena. Why more tourists don’t visit this place is a mystery to me. It is just one location in marvellous Murcia that means this is a great area to rent a holiday property.
When we think of the Romans we immediately think of the amphitheatre. Slaves and gladiators fought out some brutal contests in these arenas. You will often hear the word circus used in regards to the Romans love for a good fight. Well the circus pre-dated the amphitheatre. There are preserved remains of amphitheatres in places such as the capital of sherry, Jerez de la Frontera, Merida, Carmona and Tarragona.
The Costa Tropical is known these days as a popular holiday destination. It is a popular coastline along which to rent property all year long and it benefits from a sub tropical climate. Winters are warm in towns such as Salobrena and Almuñecar – where there are many reminders of how long the Romans ruled the town. They wouldn’t recognise the place today, were they to watch our superb high definition video of the Costa Tropical.
The Roman influence took two centuries to make its way across the peninsula. Those people who refused to become Roman were crushed. Entire languages disappeared. Only the people of the Pyrenees managed to hold on to their Basque language. You see, some things never change. Today the Basques defend daily their right to speak in their own tongue. Good for them, i say.
For the aficionados of all things Roman, there is a route to follow through Andalusia. The Ruta Baetica Romana takes its name from the historical name for the province. Baetica comes from the name Baetis which itself is the ancient name for the always hard to pronounce river; Guadalquvir.
Today the Roman route takes you through cities such as Seville, Cadiz and Córdoba. There is much for the tourist to take in on this route.
The bay of Cadiz for one. The ruins at Tarifa, a place more normally associated today with wind and sea sports. Then there is what is left of the city of Italica at Santiponce and the fascinating museum in Ecija, both close to Seville.
This last location – nicknamed the frying pan of Spain for its record summer temperatures – has a vast central plaza over which you can walk over, and look down upon, Roman remains.
And when it comes to frying pans… well the Romans knew a thing or two about cooking.
True, they were walking into a country that already knew what to do with olive oil and wine. But the Romans brought so much more. They were big on Garum, a fermented fish sauce that they used plenty when flavouring food. Some ancient Garum factories can be seen in locations across Spain.
They knew how to ‘grow their own.’ Early Roman cookbooks include the quince, a relative of the apple and pear that can still be seen growing on trees in Andalusia today. The Romans exchanged the quince fruit as a love offering. They stewed quince with honey or ate them with leeks.
Today, in Spain, quince is known by the name of the paste created from it; Dulce de Membrillo. This is served like a marmalade or jam over breakfast. It looks like a jelly and is often eaten alongside Manchego cheese. Membrillo is marvellous. Do not leave Spain without trying it.
Delve through any Spanish cookbook and you will find ingredients and recipes that only exist because of the Romans.
It is right that so much of the credit for Spanish cooking is laid at the door of the Moors. But it is wrong that proper credit is not awarded to the Romans who first cooked up a storm in Spain.
It may be true that they were big on slavery, battles where man had to fight beast with one arm tied behind his back and – to put it mildly – they didn’t suffer fools gladly.
But without the Romans, Spain would not be the interconnected. thriving country it is today.
Some locations would still likely be inaccessible were it not for that ancient Roman bridge connecting out of the way places.
You wouldn’t be able to take a peaceful walk along an old Roman road and see the Spain they saw – while, not far away, modern day humanity is speeding along motorways trying to make sure they get to the beach first.
And, like my friend Brian, you wouldn’t be going all weak at the knees over aqueducts. Go on, admit it. You do!
You see, those Romans were many things. But they were no mugs.