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Romans in Spain

Matthew Leake

Few people associate Romans with Spain but rather with Italy. However, some of the best Roman ruins and preserved monuments of the Roman civilisation can actually be found in Spain.

For 500 years, Spain was one of the most important outposts of the Roman Empire and the Romans took advantage of the land's abundance of natural resources to provide more riches for their Empire. As with most places they occupied, the impact the Romans in Spain and the whole Iberian Peninsula was huge. In fact, many of both Spain and Portugal's principal cities were built by the Romans. It is no surprise then that there are many well preserved Roman ruins in Spain today.

"Hispania" is the term often used to describe the Iberian Peninsula during ancient times. The Romans first arrived in Hispania in 218 BCE. At this time the Peninsula was occupied by a number of different tribes and the remnants the ancient Carthaginian civilisation.

200 years later, the Romans gained full control of the Iberian Peninsula after subduing the different warring tribes and overthrowing the Cantabri, one of the more powerful groups, in 19 BCE. The Cantabri occupied Spain's northern coast and, despite being inferior in numbers, proved a difficult opponent for the Romans due to their effective use of guerrilla tactics and knowledge of the mountainous terrain. The Roman Emperor Augustus moved from Rome to Spain to personally oversee the ten year military campaign against the Cantabri, commanding from his base in Segisama, modern day Burgos.

Romanisation followed after the fall of the Cantabri and Hispania was integrated into the ever expanding Roman Empire, to which it would belong for the next 500 years. An extensive network of Roman roads was built to connect Hispania to the rest of Europe, allowing the trade that fuelled the Roman economy. The Romans also introduced their language and their laws to the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. Agriculture improved under the Romans with the construction of irrigation systems, some of which are still in use to this day.

However, the most significant mark that the Romans left on the Iberian Peninsula are undoubtedly the cities they established which are of importance today. The Romans in Spain founded the city of Caesaraugusta, modern day Zaragoza,Valentia, now Valencia, andAugusta Emerita, today known as Merida. Today, some of the most impressive Roman ruins in Spain can be found in these cities.

Merida Roman Ruins

Merida, in Spain's Extremadura region, is home to some of the most famous Roman ruins in Spain. Archaeological sites in Merida are some of the most important in the whole Iberian Peninsula, with a wide range of Roman relics and ruins.

Augusta Emerita, as it was known to the Romans, was the capital of Lusitania. Lusitania, one of the four provinces into which Hispania was subdivided, contained most of modern day Portugal. Due to the quality and range of the Roman remains in Merida, the city is rather like Rome in miniature and it is unsurprising that it has protected status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Merida's Roman ruins include a Roman theatre, amphitheatre, a huge circus used for chariot racing, numerous temples, villas, bath houses and impressive municipal structures such as the Aqueduct of Los Milagros and a vast bridge into the city that is still used to this day.

The Merida Roman theatre is one of the most impressive sites in the city. Its construction began in 16 BCE and was faithful to models according to Vitrivius, a famous Roman intellectual and architect. The theatre is made up of numerous semi-circular rows providing seating for almost 6,000 spectators. The façade of Merida's Roman theatre is a spectacle in its own right, with 30 metre tall Corinthian columns rising from the stage floor creating huge archways interspersed with statues of Roman gods and other classical figures. The Roman theatre in Merida is still in use and performances of ancient dramas take place each year throughout July and August during the Merida Festival. This provides a unique opportunity to experience the theatre as the original Romans in Spain would have done as well as a chance to see one of the most spectacular Roman ruins in Spain.

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