A City of Ancient Treasures.
When history buffs wish to retrace the steps of the ancient Romans and marvel at the splendours of that lost empire, usually they head to Rome or other Italian cities. Outside of Spain, few would think of saying, “Hey, let’s go to Merida!” which is why this little-known gem deserves its place on these pages. For anyone happening upon this city with no idea of its history, they would be surprised, to say the least, to find themselves in front of a beautifully preserved temple of Diana or a majestic theatre complete with marble pillars and statues of gods and goddesses. If they kept walking, they’d also come across a 1st century amphitheatre, circus, aqueduct, and forum. And if that wasn’t enough, the National Museum of Roman Art continues the exploration through corridors and rooms of mosaics, busts, sculptures and reliefs, murals, scale models of the city, roman roads, art and artefacts, jewellery, coins, excavations, and so much more.
All Roads Lead (out of) Rome
So what were the Romans doing in Spain? The ancient Romans were all about territory and expanding their empire, as opposed to the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Greeks before them who focused primarily on trade and commerce among the Mediterranean cities. The Romans seized Iberian territories from the Carthaginians and native populations in the 3rd century BC during the Punic Wars. Over the course of the next two centuries of subsequent wars, Rome gained control over the entire peninsular. The final rebellion took place during the Cantabrian Wars in the mountains of present-day Cantabria and Asturias, ensuring victory to Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus, in 19 BC.
Augustus, (also known as Octavian), ruled between 27 BC to 14 AD and is considered one of Rome’s greatest leaders, though helping to kick off the dubious concept of an Imperial Cult and transforming the Republican system to a divinely sanctioned monarchy. But it also marked the beginning of 200 years of relative peace, known as the Pax Romana.
One of the first things Augustus did in a united Hispania was to rearrange the territories into three major kingdoms – Baetica (in the south), Tarraconensis (in the north and east) and Lusitania (in the west). And it’s to Lusitania where we head today to the best-preserved Roman city on the peninsula. Founded in 25 BC by the General Publius Carisio by order of Augustus, Augusta Emerita - now known as Merida - was to be a civil colony for veteran soldiers (emeritus) who had fought in the Cantabrian Wars in the north. Before the 14th century BC, veteran soldiers were given land as payment until they made it clear that they preferred money which they could spend rather than land they had to work. The land was divided up according to the soldier’s status or rank and organised as an example of an ideal provincial Roman capital.
The Land of Gold and Silver.
The indigenous Lusitanian population had been fighting the Romans since 193 BC but over the course of the next 170 years, they gradually became Romanised until eventually gaining the status of ‘Citizens of Rome’. Merida was chosen for their lack of resistance as well as for its land, river and other water sources and probably most of all, for its minerals. The Iberian Peninsula had long been valued and exploited for its rich abundance of gold, silver, lead, iron and copper. The Romans re-opened the Phoenician mines, and conquering Asturias had given Rome control over the largest, richest gold mine in the Empire – Las Medullas, as well as the iron mines in Cantabria. And they weren’t subtle about it either. To get to the minerals, entire mountains were split apart by forcing water through excavated galleries and channels until the pressure caused the mountain to collapse. The next step was to sift through the mud left behind and extract the gold. Many workers were buried as a result – a dangerous messy business, but silver was needed to pay the soldiers. And soldiers were needed to maintain the empire.
A Provincial Capital.
Creating a city from scratch was no easy task. The layout had to strictly follow the Roman model; important civil structures had to be built and manpower in the form of captured prisoners and slaves had to be organised. But if there were two things the Romans were really good at, they were organisation and civil engineering. Wandering around Merida today, the beautifully hewn granite blocks that made up their bridges, roads, aqueducts, monuments, etc, are still very much evident and will no doubt continue to be around for the next 2000 years.
The bridge that spans the Guadiana River was one of the first things they built. It is the longest Roman bridge in the world still standing and measured 755m in length with 62 spans. Now it is 721m long with 60 spans and amazingly wasn’t pedestrianised till 1991 which means it was also withstanding the wear and tear of traffic for several decades.
The Forum and Temple of ‘Diana’
There are more than 30 archaeological sites in and around the city of Merida that make up the ancient Roman ensemble and have been part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. Taking a tour around the city, we’ll start at the municipal Forum – the main public square specifically made for political and social functions, usually with porticos where citizens could shelter from rain and sun. Public announcements and debates, business dealings, criminal trials, elections, and trade were some of the activities held in a forum, as well as the all-important religious ceremonies. On the site of the Forum is the Temple of ‘Diana’ – previously thought to be in honour of the goddess huntress. It was misnamed in the 17th century by a local historian, but excavations have since uncovered inscriptions and statues dedicated to the Imperial Cult.
The Temple was open to the Forum and included fountains and ponds and 8-metre-high Corinthian columns of granite. A part of the Forum’s portico has been reconstructed with statues, however, the originals are on display at the National Museum of Roman Art.
The Roman Theatre
The glorious centrepiece of Roman Merida has to be the Theatre. Built between 15-16 BC, it is one of the most visited landmarks in Spain and one of the “12 Treasures of Spain”, keeping esteemed company with the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the Seville Cathedral, the Alhambra and the Sagrada Familia. The Corinthian columns are made of blue-veined marble, as is the back wall of the stage. The statues are of the god and goddesses Pluto, Ceres, and Proserpina, though the originals (the statues, that is, not the gods...) are now in the Museum. The Theatre held 6000 people with the wealthiest seated on the lowest caveas (groups of seats) and the poorest further back, with part of the seating built into a hill. From the 4th century on, the seats were gradually covered with earth until only the upper seats could be seen. These became known as The Seven Chairs where, according to tradition, several Moorish kings used to sit while discussing important matters. It wasn’t until the late 19th century when excavations began, and the first staged play was finally performed in 1933. Since then, the Classical Theatre Festival puts on a performance every summer.
Bread and Circuses
While the Roman Theatre was often used more as a form of propaganda, glorifying the Empire’s leaders and gods through comedies and dramas, the Amphitheatre and the Circus, capable of holding up to 15,000 and 30,000 people respectively, were to keep the citizens entertained through gladiatorial and animal fights and chariot racing. The phrase panem et circenses (bread and circuses) meant keeping the public appeased through distraction. As long as they’re fed and entertained, the masses will be satisfied.
The Amphitheatre was completed in 8 BC and is 126m long. The fossa bestiaria is a sand and wood-covered pit where they kept the animals before the fights. There are long corridors and tunnels under the seating connecting different parts of the structure and you get an inkling of what it was like for the gladiators and slaves who were confined in these spaces before they became expendable beast fodder.
The Aqueduct of Miracles.
Los Milagros (the miracles) Aqueduct is so called because it’s a miracle it’s still standing! And maybe also because later generations found the thing impressive. It’s not quite as spectacular as the one in Segovia as there’s only a
comparatively short section left, but at 25 metres high and 830 metres of red brick arched pillars, it’s still a sight to behold. The aqueduct was built in the first century AD to supply the city with water from the Proserpina Dam 5km away. The water went to public fountains, baths and latrines as well as to private households, gardens, and industries such as milling, mining, agriculture and dyeing.
These are some of the best-preserved monuments of Roman Merida though there are many more to visit while you’re in the city. The Arch of Trajan, remains of several houses, what’s left of the Rabo de Buey-San Lázaro aqueduct, the necropolis, baths, gates and other bridges are all reminders of the importance this provincial capital held 2000 years ago. A great place to finish up is in the National Museum of Roman Art with its original design and artwork by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo – a perfect location for such remarkable treasures.