Monthly Archives: June 2013

The roman architecture

Romanesque architecture in Spain is the architectural style reflective of Romanesque architecture, with peculiar influences both from architectural styles outside the Iberian peninsula via Italy and France as well as traditional architectural patterns from within the peninsula. Romanesque architecture was developed in and propagated throughout Europe for more than two centuries, ranging approximately from the late tenth century until well into the thirteenth century.

During the eighth century, though Carolingian Renaissance extended its influence to Christian Western Europe, Christian Spain remained attached to the traditional Hispano-Roman and Gothic culture, without being influenced by European cultural movements, until the arrival of the Romanesque.

Romanesque architecture spread throughout the entire northern half of Spain, reaching as far as the Tagus river, at the height of the Reconquista and Repoblación, movements which greatly favoured the Romanesque development. The Romanesque style arrived first in the Catalan region in the area of the Marca Hispánica where it was developed and from where it spread to the rest of the peninsula with the help of the Camino de Santiago and the Benedictine monasteries. Its mark was left especially on religious buildings (cathedrals, churches, monasteries, cloisters, chapels …) which have survived into the twenty-first century, some better preserved than others. Civil monuments (bridges, palaces, castles, walls and towers) were also built in this style, although few have survived.



Socyety in Spain

In the 15th century, there were five kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula: Castile, Aragón (which included Catalonia, Valencia, the kingdom of Naples, Sardinia and Sicily), Granada, Navarre and Portugal. By early in the 16th century they had been reduced to two: Castile/Aragón and Portugal.

Portugal had been an independent kingdom since the 12th century; Castile and Aragón were united in the late 15th century through the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón, and tiny Navarre was swallowed by Aragón in 1513.  Insofar as Castile and Aragón were concerned, Castile was more densely populated and more powerful than its neighbour, and it was Castile that took the initiative in subsequent political developments both in and beyond the peninsula.

The marriage between Isabel and Ferdinand took place in 1469; she was 18 and he was 17! Isabel succeeded to the throne of Castile in 1474, and Ferdinand to that of Aragón in 1479. Their marriage was essentially an alliance of two royal houses, with the two monarchs being simply consorts in the other’s kingdom. Each kingdom retained its own institutions, coinage and customs etc.  To complicate matters even further, within Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia had their own laws and parliaments!

Granada, being the last Muslim kingdom/emirate of the once powerful al-Andalus, was an anomaly, and an early target for Isabella and Ferdinand who saw its conquest as a necessary step for consolidating their political power and for religious uniformity in the peninsula. By January 1492, Granada was in their hands.  The terms of surrender were generous and included freedom of religion. Religious conformity, however, was still the overall objective of the Christians. Already on March 31, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabel signed an edict giving Jews four months to accept baptism or go into exile; by 1501 the Muslims faced the same choice.

Christianity was now the common bond that held Spaniards together. Nevertheless, the religious conformity of baptized Jews (Conversos) and converted Muslims (Moriscos) was frequently tested and there was widespread suspicion that their conversion was not genuine.

Only the Muslims of Aragón escaped the
forcible baptisms of 1501, but they too were
obliged to convert in 1525 owing to civil
conflicts in Aragon.

This was not a new phenomenon; the 15th century had seen an explosion of Jews accepting baptism.  Many were sincere in their new faith, many others continued to practice their Judaic faith in secret. It was to investigate the suspicion of heresy amongst Conversos that the infamous Inquisition was introduced into Castile in 1478. Long dormant in Aragón, the Inquisition was established in Castile at the request of Ferdinand and Isabel. What distinguished the Castilian Inquisition was that although it was an ecclesiastical institution, control over appointments to it and over its finances was granted to the Crown, a secular body. This meant that its function overlapped both political and religious spheres, and its impact on Spanish society was felt for centuries as its power quickly extended beyond Castile into all areas of the country.

At the beginning of the 16th century, there was a general feeling of pride and self confidence in the political and religious accomplishments of the Catholic Monarchs.

 This pride extended also to other fields. For example, new universities were founded, reflecting the fresh air of humanism from Italy. Queen Isabel encouraged the study of Latin, which opened up new avenues of thought. There was pride in the achievements of the Castilian language as evidenced in the publication of the first Spanish grammar book and Spanish-Latin dictionary (both in 1492) and in collections of popular poetry.

Further impetus to the general air of confidence was given by two far-reaching events: the fortuitous “discovery” of America (Las Indias) by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and the accession in 1516 to the Spanish throne of the powerful Hapsburg family of central Europe. With the discovery of Las Indias and the acquisition of vast new lands, Spain embarked on its transatlantic imperial adventures.  With the accession of the Hapsburg Charles (Carlos) to the Spanish throne, Spain suddenly acquired large swathes of land in central and northern Europe (Austria, the Netherlands, Burgundy and chunks of Germany).  These were heady times, the beginning of the so-called Golden Age, both politically and culturally. From the modest marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1469, then, there grew within about 55 years an imperial power –more properly called monarquía española— whose possessions encompassed large areas in Europe and America, and even stretched across the Pacific (under Spanish auspices, the first voyage around the world was completed in 1522).

Internationally, too, Spain was making its mark in Europe, with Ferdinand being particularly active in this field. Spain’s main rival was France, and much of Ferdinand’s efforts went into political alliances to contain French ambitions on Spanish territory (along the Pyrenees and in Italy). Marriage was one expedient way of creating alliances. Probably the best known in the English-speaking world is the marriage of Catherine (of Aragón) to Henry VIII of England,

Actually, Catherine was first betrothed to
Arthur, Prince of Wales and Henry’s older
brother.  It was only after Arthur’s death
that Catherine married Henry.

but for the future of Spain the most significant of the several arranged marriages was that of Ferdinand and Isabel`s youngest daughter, Juana, to the son of the Hapsburg emperor, Maximilian I. It was their son, Charles, who established the Hapsburg dynasty in Spain.

Carthaginians in Spain

Carthage was founded as a North African trading outpost by the Phoenicians about 800 BC.  Located on a peninsula close to present day Tunis, Carthage rose to prominence following the fall of Phoenicia in 575 BC. Soon the Carthaginians established colonies along the south coast of Spain, the north coast of Africa, and in Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, and the Balearic island of Ibiza.

For about three centuries the interests of the Carthaginians was restricted to trade in the same goods that had been the hallmark of Phoenician activity: silver, salt, fish, olive oil and wine.

The situation changed dramatically and assumed a much more militaristic tone after Carthage’s defeat at the hands of Rome in the first of the Punic Wars, 265-241 BC. Carthage not only lost Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, but was also encumbered by having to pay Rome financial compensation.

The clash between the two rivals was inevitable in view of the expansionist mood of the Romans. Three earlier treaties between the two nations (348, 306 and 279 BC) had intended to establish their spheres of influence in a civilised manner. But the presence of Carthage in Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, and its influence along the eastern coast of Spain threatened to abort Roman progress in the Mediterranean.

After the loss of Sicily and, shortly after, of Sardinia and Corsica , Carthage called on its most experienced general, Hamilcar Barca, to establish a military presence in Spain to compensate for those humiliating losses.  Accompanied by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, and his son Hannibal, Hamilcar landed at Gadir (Cádiz) in 237 BC.  Immediately the centuries of commercial exchange were transformed into military occupation, as Hamilcar ruthlessly subjugated the coastal and inland towns. Spanish silver was now used to pay for soldiers and mercenaries, and conquest of local tribes signified a rebuilding of Carthage’s power in preparation for another confrontation with the Romans.

Hamilcar’s ambitions ended in the winter of 229-28 when he drowned as he fled a counterattack. He was succeeded by Hasdrubal who promptly founded a new naval base and capital at Cartago Nova (Cartagena), and set about moving inland. Such blatant expansionism alarmed the Romans who negotiated a treaty with Hasdrubal in 226 BC, limiting Carthaginian activities to the south of the  River Ebro.  Hasdrubal’s plans came to a violent end when he was assassinated in 221 BC and command passed to the most famous of Carthaginian leaders, Hannibal.

Only 25 years old and apparently indoctrinated by his father to hate the Romans, Hannibal quickly moved to bring as much of the peninsula under his control as possible, advancing inland as far as Salamanca.  Nevertheless, the real trigger that was to unleash the Second Punic War was the siege and conquest of Sagunto 219-18 BC. Although Sagunto was situated south of the Ebro and technically under Carthaginian command, it had placed itself under Roman protection sometime between 225 and 220. An attack on Sagunto was, therefore, a sign that Hannibal was ready to confront Rome directly. Only after the fall of the city, following a siege of some 8 months, did Rome declare war on Carthage, by which time Hannibal’s plans to cross the Ebro and invade Italy via the Alps were well under way.

Rome’s reaction following the fall of Sagunto was immediate.  At the same time that Hannibal was crossing the Alps, Roman soldiers landed near Emporion (Ampurias, Catalan Empúries), north east of Gerona (Girona) thereby cutting Hannibal’s line of communications before moving down the Mediterranean coast. The struggle for Iberia lasted some 12 years (218-206 BC).

The Romans claimed to come as liberators, but local tribes fought on both sides. By 209 the Carthaginian stronghold of Cartagena had fallen and three years later Gadir (Cádiz) was in Roman hands.  Carthage was now finished in Iberia, but the Romans, ever suspicious of their long time rivals, were bent on completing the job. With the defeat of its armies in Italy and Iberia, the city of Carthage itself was exposed; it did not take long for the Roman legions to land on the north shores of Africa and defeat Hannibal who had returned to North Africa. Hannibal was exiled and shortly after committed suicide.

By 201 the Second Punic War was over and the power of Carthage was no more.  That was not the end of the story.   The Romans, needled constantly by the senator Cato the Elder (who apparently ended every debate regardless of its subject with the words “Delenda est Carthago“ “Carthage must fall”) finally besieged the city and razed it to the ground.

With the Carthaginians gone, a new and significant chapter in the history of Iberia was about to begin. The Romans had come, and seen, and decided to stay!


Anderson, James   Spain: 1001 Sights Calgary 1991
Collins, Roger   Spain: An Oxford Archaeological GuideOxford 1998
Curchin, Leonard   Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation  London 1991
Domínguez Ortiz, Antonio ed., Historia de España: Desde la prehistoria hasta la conquista romana  Madrid1990                                                                                                                                                          Harrison, Richard   Spain at the Dawn of History,  London 1988
Vincent, Mary and Stradling, R.A   Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal Andromeda

The Romans Hispania

The conquest of Spain:

The arrival of the Romans in Iberia in 219/8 BC was no accident. They landed there as a military force determined to defeat their rivals, the Carthaginians, from whom they had already conquered the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. The Carthaginians were already well established in the Iberian Peninsula, and as long as they controlled it they were a threat to Roman expansion.   The war in Iberia lasted some 12 years, after which Carthage was finished as a Mediterranean power.

The Romans claimed to be liberators of the tribes under Carthagininan dominance, but once in Iberia, they soon realised the economic potential of the territory, and the principle of liberating the natives from their Carthaginian overlords was soon replaced by that of permanent residence.

           Hispania circa 197 BC.  Wikimedia.

As early as 197 BC, Rome signalled its intentions, dividing its conquered possessions into two provinces, Hispania Citerior (running down the east coast and inland) and Hispania Ulterior (roughly modern Andalusia). However, whether expansion from the south and east to the rest of the peninsula was planned or was the result of ensuring safe boundaries, or even the result of personal initiative by ambitious governors is not clear, but the final result was that for the first time virtually the whole area (the exception being perhaps the Basque lands) was controlled by one power.

What we now call Spain (and Portugal) consisted, at the time the Romans arrived, of tribal groups –often isolated by geographical barriers– that paradoxically made conquest easier and harder.  Harder because Rome had to conquer or come to terms with each tribe in turn; easier because these tribes could offer no cohesive opposition to the newcomers. Nevertheless, the Romans met enormous resistance, especially from the Celts of the north and north west, and the struggle for the peninsula lasted almost 200 years, significantly longer than the 10 years it took Julius Caesar to conquer neighbouring Gaul (modern France), or the 50 required to overcome British resistance. In all, the Romans controlled the Iberian Peninsula for roughly six hundred years, more than enough time to leave a lasting impression.


We can divide the conquest into two general periods, the first following the defeat of the Carthagininans (205 BC) and ending with the fall of the town of Numancia/Numantia 133 BC, and the second extending from 29 to 18 BC.

The first period is the one of greatest expansion and greatest resistance. The methods employed by the Romans varied according to the circumstances; they knew how to take advantage of disputes between tribes. Some tribes conspired with the Romans to defeat their neighbours, some were frightened into submission, some were enticed, some deceived, and others defeated in battle.      

Main opposition ran roughly along an arc stretching from the head of the Duero valley to the present Portuguese-Spanish border and southward to the head of the Guadiana River. The first phase of Roman domination climaxes with two individual and collective exploits of defiance that now figure in all Spanish manuals, often exaggerated by myth. 

For 10 years or so (from ca. 147 BC to 138 BC. ) the Lusitanians in the west put up a spirited fight under a leader called Viriatus.

         Zamora: Statue of Viriatus.
                   © Vicmael.

The Lusitanians, pastoral by tradition, had seen their liberty reduced by the encroachment of the Romans. Their response was to harass the newcomers with raids.   Legend has it that Viriatus was a shepherd, but his organisational and military skills were second to none. He became leader after escaping the treacherous massacre of some 8.000 unarmed Lusitanians who had been promised peaceful terms by the Romans in 150 BC, following an embarrassing defeat for the Roman governor of Hispania Citerior, Sulpicus Galba. The duplicity carried out by Galba was such that it even provoked angry condemnation in Rome, and calls that he be handed over to the Lusitanians.

Employing guerrilla tactics, Viriatus caused a lot of damage as he moved his troops swiftly over large areas of the south and south-west of the peninsula. He was defeated finally in 138 BC after two aides –bribed by the Romans– murdered him when he was asleep.

Viriatus’s fighting tactics have since been described as the first example of the Spanish guerrilla fighter, and for many Spaniards and Portuguese, he has become an early instance of a “national” hero. A bronze statue now stands in the main square of Zamora (western Spain, on the river Duero) to celebrate his exploits.

The second centre of resistance takes us to the northern part of the Meseta, to Numancia, close to the town of Soria, on the upper stretches of the river Duero. Popular attention tends to focus on the lengthy resistance of the town, although the region itself was in internal turmoil for some 20 years (beginning around 154 and ending with the fall of Numancia in 133).

Numancia has become a legend, according to which –after a siege of more than a year– its inhabitants, rather than surrender unconditionally, chose to set their city and themselves on fire. History, however, is a little less blind. Although there was a long siege and some of the enfeebled Numancians did die by their own hands, most surrendered. Some fifty were sent to Rome for the triumphal procession, the rest were sold as slaves and the town razed to the ground so that –like Carthage– its memory might be obliterated.

The conquest of Numancia proved to be very difficult. In Rome, the senators were so angry with their army’s lack of success that they sent one of their best generals –Scipio Aemilianus– to take charge. Scipio came with the highest credentials: an iron disciplinarian, he was already famous for demolishing Carthage in 146 BC. He also came with a huge force,  300 catapults and even 12 elephants.

Scipio quickly moved to impose his will on the soldiers. Merchants and prostitutes were expelled from the camps, and comforts such as beds  and hot baths were prohibited. Breakfast was eaten on foot, daily marches in full kit became the norm, ditches were dug and stockades constructed. Only when he was satisfied did Scipio turn his attention to Numancia.

The Romans succeeded materially, but legend has preserved the name of Numancia endowing it with the defiant gesture of mass suicide that has come down as an example of collective will and pride. It is this version that Cervantes adopts in his play, El cerco de Numancia (The Siege of Numancia), the climax of which interestingly features a young child, Viriatus, who steals fame from the Romans at the end when he commits suicide.

Although Cervantes’s play might be interpreted as a case of national, i.e. Spanish resistance to a foreign power, it would be a mistake to adopt that view for the Numancians. On the contrary, it could be argued that it is an example of what has been seen as one of the weaknesses of the Spanish character, its centrifugal or separatist tendency in regional terms. It bears keeping in mind that more than half of the soldiers participating in the siege were natives from neighbouring tribes.

The fall of Numancia represents the culmination of the first period of Roman conquest of the peninsula, but it does not mean the end of hostilities. The various tribes, especially the Lusitani and the Celtiberians, proved difficult to control and rebelled several times. Perhaps Rome would have moved more decisively to conquer the rest of the peninsula following the defeat of Numancia, but two major civil wars within the Republic during the first century BC spilled across the Mediterranean onto Spanish soil, embroiling the tribes in battles that were not strictly directed at them. The details of those wars needn’t concern to us other than to remind us of how closely bound Hispania had become to events in Rome. The result of those conflicts was the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire under Octavian, better known as Augustus, the first emperor (27 BC-14 AD).

The rise of Augustus coincides with the second and final general phase of conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, directed now against the recalcitrant Celtic tribes of the north west. The decision responded perhaps to a wish to complete control of the peninsula, but equally persuasive was the rich gold deposit located just south of the Cantabrian Mountains. As long as the aggressive Celts of Asturias remained unconquered nearby, they posed a danger to the extraction of the mineral.

The Cantabrian Wars, as they are usually called, started around 29 BC, and for the next 10 years the Romans were engaged in hard battle in one of the most difficult areas of the peninsula, made up of steep hills and narrow valleys, frequently wet in summer and snowbound in winter.

           Hispania ca 29 BC.  Wikimedia. 

On top of that, the Celts also adopted guerrilla methods which were difficult for the Romans, accustomed to fighting in formation. The fighting was so savage and resistance so fierce that seven legions were called into duty. There was such a high loss of life that many Roman soldiers refused to fight or mutinied; soldiers of one of the legions, the I Augusta, even suffered the humiliation of being forbidden to use their legion name as a punishment for their incompetence. Roman persistence, however, eventually prevailed, but not before Augustus himself had to leave for Asturias to command the army in 26 BC.

The stubborn and savage resistance of the Asturians
against the Romans might have been reduced to a
mere blip in Spanish history had it been the only
occasion that the area was to prove itself fiercely
resistant to foreign intrusion.  But later invaders,
notably the Moors, were also to find Asturias
impregnable,and with time it was to implant itself
into popular imagination as one of the principal
symbols of Spanish values and tradition, embodied
even today in the official title of the heir to the
throne: the Prince of Asturias.

The final conquest of Hispania and the transition of the Roman political system from Republic to Empire both coincide with the rule of Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD). After conflicts lasting some two hundred years, the peninsula settled down to enjoy two hundred years of peace and prosperity under the famous pax romana (roughly 27 BC to 180 AD). It was now when Roman values were consolidated as towns and cities flourished, trade thrived and Hispania moved fully into the orbit