Roman Spain: Hispania

The Romans in Spain

Barcelona, Spain
Kasper Christiansen
Text & photos: Kasper Christiansen
November 17th, 2020 (revised version)

When the Romans took on the Iberian Peninsula, they conquered an area that was one of the most fertile throughout the Roman Empire and what in many ways was to be the most important of all the roman provinces. It was rich in minerals and the soil was fertile. A part of the Roman wine production was sold in Rome

See where the Romans produced wine 2000 years ago - Visit the Penedès Wine Region on a private tour

The reason why the Romans got to Spain in the first place, was Hannibal’s trip over the French Alps and therefore a direct threat of an attack on Rome itself. Thus, the Second Punic War started and the arrival of the Romans in 218 BC to the Peninsula.

The beginning: the arrival of the Romans
Long before the Romans, descendants of the Cro-Magnon-man went from the Iberian Peninsula into northern Europe. In the 7. and 5. Century BC Celts and other people populated the peninsula.

Roman graveyard in Barcelona
Roman graveyard in Barcelona - Barcelona has many remains from Roman times

Catalonia and Saint George

The Phoenicians had originally arrived to Spain several centuries before this. Probably they come to the peninsula already around 1100 BC founding several cities in the South and South East of Spain, among them Gadir (modern Cadiz). Under Hamilcar Barca, who came to the peninsula in 236 BC, the Phoenicians founded Carthago Nova (modern Cartagena).

Hamilcar Barca is also supposed to have founded Barcelona and given his name to the city (another popular explanation tells that the name Barcelona comes from the tale about Hercules and his loss of the “Barca Nona” (the ninth boat). Hamilcar died in 228 BC during a fight with local tribes and his son-in-law Hasdrubal followed him.

The Romans made Hasdrubal sign a peace treatise promising that the Phoenicians would stay south of the Rio Ebro. When Hasdrubal was assassinated in 221 BC the son of Hamilcar Barca, who was now 26 years old, took control over the Phoenician army. He threatened taking Sagunto and even though the Romans sent ambassadors to Spain warning Hannibal, he took the city after 8 months of siege.

This started the Second punic war and in 218 BC the Romans embarked in Spain to confront Hannibal. But instead of fighting the Romans he started abandoning Spain moving towards Rome crossing the French Alps with a huge army and many elephants (since Alexander the Great’s elephants were used in war in Hellenistic times).

The war was to take 17 years until Hannibal finally gave up. This did not happen until Escipion the African cut his supply lines coming from Spain and forced his brother Hasdrubal to come to Italy with his army where he was killed.  

Pax Romana
After the Second Punic War had finished, it took the Romans almost 200 years to gain control over the Iberian Peninsula, and with the Emperor Augustus started the peace period that goes under the name Pax Romana.

In later centuries Hispania (as the Romans called Spain) became a very important province. Emperor Trajan and Hadrian were both born in Hispania (in the city of Italica, North of the modern Seville), as it also applies to the later Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the poet Seneca (born in Córdoba, the Roman Corduba). Trajan and Hadrian were emperors when the Roman Empire reached its largest geographical size.

Spain also came to play a leading role in the Roman Empire for farming. Hispania exported gold, silver, tin, lead, wool, olive oil, wheat, wine, fish and Garum (salted and seasoned fish that could be mixed up with water, wine, or oil, considered aphrodisiac).

The Roman Aqueduct in Segovia
The Roman Aqueduct in Segovia - the impressive sight of the aqueduct going straight through the city

The name Hispania

The Romans called Spain, “Hispania”. There is disagreement about where this word comes from. The origins of the word Hispania have, among others the following explanations: the word may derive from the Phoenician "ishafania", which means Hare island or Rabbit island. Another explanation is that the word comes from the Iberian or Celtic word for Seville, Hispalis, which in turn might descend from “Heliopolis” (Greek Sun City).

Several cities in modern Spain take their name after the original cities, founded by the Romans. This applies to cities such as Zaragoza (named after the Emperor Augustus, Caesaraugusta), Mérida (Augusta Emerita) and Valencia (Valentia, latin for courage).

From two to nine provinces in the Roman empire
Spain was divided into two provinces in 197 BC, Hispania Ulterior and Hispania Citerior. When Augustus came to power, the peninsula was divided into three provinces: Tarraconensis, Baetica and Lusitania. Finally, Hispania was divided into 9 provinces in the beginning of the 4th century.
Roman graveyard in Barcelona
Roman columns in the modern city of Córdoba

Guided tours to Roman Barcelona and Tarragona

With City Tours Barcelona you can get a guided visit to Barcelona's historical museum with a superb archaeological collection.

Visit to Roman Tarragona (Tarraco) with a group (the groups should consist of at least 10 people).

Top 10 monuments of Roman Legacy around Spain

  • Archaeological Ensemble of Merida listed in UNESCO’s Heritage List,
  • Roman Tarragona the oldest Roman settlement in Spain
  • Roman aqueduct of Segovia, still in use
  • Roman Wall in the city of Lugo listed in UNESCO’s Heritage List
  • Roman city of Italica ‘’birthplace of great Roman emperors” (Hadrian and Trajan)
  • Roman Bridge of Cordoba
  • Roman legacy of Barcelona (Barcino)/ Museum of History of Barcelona
  • Baelo Claudio, the Roman city situated in the Southernmost part of Spain
  • Alcantara bridge and Roman Circus of Toledo
  • Intact Roman “Port of Segunto” in Valencia
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