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A Short History of Spain- Part 2: The Roman Project

In over my head........

As I start­ed to col­lect my notes for this post, I real­ized that I might have got­ten in over my head. How can I pro­duce almost 600 years of Roman his­to­ry in two or three pages? I real­ized quick­ly that I was going to have to cheat….kind of. If you recall from the intro­duc­tion to this series, and then sub­se­quent­ly in my post on pre-Roman Iberia, I laid out an objec­tive. That objec­tive is to help us in inter­pret­ing mod­ern Spain and then per­haps gain­ing a bet­ter under­stand­ing of our own world. So to this end, I have cher­ry-picked some of the aspects of Spain’s Roman past that con­tribute to the long-term themes that will help us to gain context. 

Most peo­ple (myself includ­ed at times) tend to con­sid­er Rome’s impact on the Penin­su­la main­ly from an infra­struc­ture per­spec­tive. Why? Because we can still see it. We can vis­it the amphithe­ater in Meri­da, the aque­duct in Segovia, or the bridge over the Guadalquivir in Cor­do­ba. We can dri­ve along mod­ern Span­ish high­ways know­ing that the under­ly­ing stone were laid two mil­len­nia ago. That being said, it is not the infra­struc­ture itself that caused the roots of Spain to emerge. It’s more com­pli­cat­ed than that. The bridges, roads, and oth­er remains are just a reflec­tion of often invis­i­ble but liv­ing impacts.

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The massive bridge in Cordoba formed part of the Via Augusta connecting Rome and Cadiz

Resistance as Legacy

Let’s start with the fact that the Romans suf­fered. Unlike the Phoeni­cians, the Greeks, and the Carthagini­ans, the Romans were not sat­is­fied with the coastal areas. They want­ed to con­trol the min­ing and agri­cul­tur­al wealth of the vast Iber­ian inte­ri­or, occu­pied for cen­turies by war­rior Celtic tribes. Their ambi­tion would indeed result in their even­tu­al hege­mo­ny but at a ter­ri­ble cost. Fur­ther­more, this 200-year process of con­quest, although forg­ing a some­what uni­fied set of penin­su­lar provinces, would also form the seeds of myth that would cre­ate the idea” of a uni­fied Spain over the next 2000 years. 

Per­haps the most poignant nation­al mem­o­ry” of the Roman peri­od was immor­tal­ized in the 16thCen­tu­ry by Miguel Cer­vantes in his tragedy, The Siege of Numan­tia. Numan­tia was a for­ti­fied com­mu­ni­ty in the inte­ri­or hills of Spain near present-day Soria and it was here that about 3000 Celts held out against Scipio’s legions. Although their defeat was inevitable, in the same way that the Spar­tans had to per­ish at the Hot Springs, it even­tu­al­ly cre­at­ed an anchor point in myth and his­to­ry that could be relied upon in the future to fight the typ­i­cal­ly cen­trifu­gal char­ac­ter­is­tic of penin­su­lar pol­i­tics. Cer­vantes’ work implied a Hebrew-like pact with God that would lat­er man­i­fest itself in the pow­er of the Span­ish Empire. Numan­tia would be a bat­tle cry for all sides two thou­sand years lat­er dur­ing the Span­ish Civ­il War, manip­u­lat­ed for what­ev­er pur­pose need­ed to be served at the moment. In any case, from an his­tor­i­cal point of view, Numan­tia did put an end to the first phase of the Roman con­quest (133 BCE). 

There are many oth­er sto­ries to be told about the Span­ish resis­tance. The legions faced a new type of war­fare in the Cantabri­an moun­tains of the north. Rather than set-piece bat­tles in the open or tra­di­tion­al sieges, the Romans faced the lit­tle war” (guer­ril­lain Span­ish) for the first time. The Cantabri­an cam­paign (2919 BCE) became so com­plex and chal­leng­ing that Augus­tus him­self made the long jour­ney from Rome to per­son­al­ly take com­mand. This gueril­la-style war­fare facil­i­tat­ed by Spain’s geog­ra­phy would plague invaders of the Penin­su­la for cen­turies to come. Napoleon him­self could not over­come this uncon­ven­tion­al harass­ment facil­i­tat­ed by moun­tain­ous ter­rain and evolv­ing small unit tac­tics. Fran­co was also was bur­dened with gueril­la fight­ing that last­ed for over 20 years beyond the for­mal end of the Civ­il War (1939). Although the Penin­su­la would final­ly suc­cumb to Rome and become an inte­gral com­po­nent of the Empire for cen­turies, it can be argued that this spir­it of resis­tance was a cen­tral lega­cy. To argue that this lega­cy reflect­ed a nation­al uni­ty would be an extreme inter­pre­ta­tion. Rather, I believe, it con­tin­ues to reflect a sense of inher­ent inde­pen­dence that has impact­ed Spain in both help­ful and destruc­tive ways. 

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Typical Cantabrian Terrain

Hispania: The Crown Jewel of the Empire

Although the spir­it of resis­tance is an impor­tant lega­cy of the Roman peri­od, it is hard­ly the end of the sto­ry. Iberia would go on to be a crown jew­el of Rome’s impe­r­i­al sys­tem. At least polit­i­cal­ly, the Iberi­ans became Romans. In fact, His­pania (as the Romans called Iberia) would pro­duce a num­ber of native sons that are still known to us today and rec­og­nized among the first Spaniards” to make his­to­ry out­side of the Penin­su­la. These include the Emper­ors Tra­jan, Hadri­an, and Mar­cus Aure­lius, as well as great thinkers such as the Sto­ic states­man-philoso­pher Seneca. 

Rome’s Latin would slow­ly replace the var­i­ous Celt and Ibero trib­al tongues. That being said, once Rome’s tide reced­ed and the Penin­su­la began to frac­ture again polit­i­cal­ly, Vul­gar Latin began to frac­ture as well result­ing in Gal­lae­cian, Por­tuguese, Cata­lan, Castil­ian, and dozens of dis­tinct dialects that today fall into the Romance fam­i­ly of lan­guages. One of the themes of Span­ish his­to­ry will be the pow­er of lan­guage. Accord­ing to the great Span­ish gram­mar­i­an Anto­nio de Nebri­ja, lan­guage, as it was for the Romans, would even­tu­al­ly become Spain’s per­fect instru­ment of Empire”. Even today, the pow­er of lan­guage often shapes the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al dia­logues of the Span­ish nation-state. 

Anoth­er cul­tur­al-eco­nom­ic fea­ture that Rome intro­duced to the Penin­su­la was the Lat­i­fun­dia, a sys­tem through which Rome grant­ed and exploit­ed huge agri­cul­tur­al estates, pow­ered by both slave and peas­ant labor. While these estates cre­at­ed great wealth for their own­ers and the state, their insid­i­ous suc­cess would see them sur­vive into the post-Roman feu­dal sys­tem and beyond. In fact, we will return to this sys­tem of land man­age­ment when we dis­cuss the caus­es of the Span­ish Civ­il War in the 20thCen­tu­ry.

Rome is every­where in Spain. The lan­guage, the infra­struc­ture, the lin­ger­ing ves­tiges of the land-based econ­o­my. For many cities in Spain, new con­struc­tion is almost sure to result in a work-stop­page as new ruins are uncov­ered, requir­ing time for archae­ol­o­gists to review what has been unearthed and deter­mine its val­ue. This will not end any­time soon, because Spain is indeed built upon the great Roman project. 

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The Aqueduct of Segovia as a backdrop to modern life