The Romans in Central Spain A Quick Tour


Text and Photographs by Leonard A. Curchin
copyright 1997

  History            Communications            Entertainment

Bathing            Shopping

Life on the rocks            Living in style


Central Spain is the landlocked interior of the Iberian Peninsula. Situated on a high plateau known as the Meseta ('great table'), Central Spain was part of the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis. Because the inhabitants of this region were mostly of Celtic origin, the Romans called them Celtiberians (meaning 'Celts who live in Iberia').

The Romans first encountered the Celtiberians during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), when Central Spain provided troops for the army of Rome's enemy, Hannibal of Carthage. After defeating Hannibal, Rome gradually expanded her empire into the centre of the Iberian Peninsula. The Celtiberians revolted from Rome in 153 BC, in a long and bloody war which ended with Rome's capture of the stronghold of Numantia in 133. After this, the people of Central Spain resigned themselves to the Pax Romana ('peace on Roman terms') and gradually adopted a Romanized, or at least semi-Romanized, lifestyle. The region remained in Roman hands until the fifth century AD, when it was seized by the Visigoths.

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To consolidate their conquest of Central Spain, and to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies, the Romans built a series of paved roads criss-crossing the Peninsula. The roads were straight wherever possible, and Roman engineers designed bridges to cross rivers and gullies. This three-arched bridge, near the Roman town of Segisamo in the northern Meseta, is one of the best preserved. The bridge, whose central arch is wider than the other two, carried the Roman road (still visible) across the river Brullés. The road led northward from Segisamo, and was used by the emperor Augustus for his invasion of Cantabria (the north coast of Spain) in 26 BC.

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The Celtiberians quickly adapted to Roman forms of entertainment, including blood sports. The amphitheatre was a popular place of entertainment, providing combats between gladiators and wild animals. This amphitheatre, at Segobriga in the southern Meseta, could seat about 5,000 spectators. It is elliptical in shape, 75 metres long by 65 wide, with an entrance at either end. The south half (foreground) is carved into the slope of a rocky hillside, while the north half is built of free-standing masonry. The structure dates to the first century AD.

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The inhabitants of Central Spain soon adopted the Roman custom of bathing. Indeed, there is evidence that they already had steam baths in the pre-Roman period. The intramural baths at Segobriga, dating to the late first century AD, were located between the theatre and amphitheatre. Shown here is the apodyterium (locker room) in which bathers would undress before taking hot, warm, and cold baths. There are 16 niches, arranged on three walls, in which the customers' clothing could be stored. The stone walls were originally covered in painted plaster. Early investigators wrongly interpreted this room as a columbarium (mortuary chamber), thinking the niches were intended to hold urns containing the ashes of the dead!

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The forum (market-place) was the centre of Roman life. The forum was usually a flat plaza flanked by temples, law-courts and shops, but flat space was at a premium in the hilltop towns of Central Spain. Here, at Valeria in the southern Meseta, we see the east edge of the forum (the small grassy area in front of the trees) which stood on an artificial platform, while the shops (centre of photo) were at a lower level. There were 13 tabernae (shops), each 11.6 by 3.8 metres, and each of them divided in half by large pillars. Unlike modern stores, each shop normally sold only one type of commodity. The wall-like structure separating forum from tabernae is the nymphaeum, a vaulted gallery 46 metres long, which brought water from an underground aqueduct to a series of small fountains located above the level of the tabernae.

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Life on the Rocks

For defensive purposes, the Celts of Central Spain built their towns on steep hills, with houses sometimes perched perilously close to the edge of the hilltop, or even on the slopes themselves. Contrebia Leucade, near modern Inestrillas in Logroño province, was a pre-Roman town that continued to be occupied in the Roman period. It is built on a steep hill of white limestone; indeed, its ancient name means 'white village'. Some thirty houses have been found here, carved into the natural rock like artificial caves. Each house had a small porch of field stone outside the 'cave', fronting on a very narrow street that connected the houses. The rock-cut drain in the foreground carried rain water from each 'street' down to the base of the slope.

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 Living in Style (glorious mud!)

The town of Numantia, razed by Scipio Aemilianus in 133 BC, was rebuilt in the time of Augustus. The winding Celtiberian streets were straightened, and the spartan Celtiberian houses were rebuilt in the Roman fashion, with rooms grouped around an atrium and peristyle. Stone columns, unknown in the pre-Roman period, were a frequent feature in these houses, and the roofs were tiled. However, the builders continued the Celtiberian practice of building the walls out of tapial (mud poured between wooden moulds), with only the base of the walls made of stone. The houses had mosaic floors and painted wall-plaster, though of modest design. The inhabitants enjoyed a Romanized lifestyle, with table ceramics imported from Italy and southern Gaul, and wine from central Italy.

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