Valencia and Saguntum

Valencia's Hyper-modern "City of Arts and Sciences"
Valencia’s Hyper-modern “City of Arts and Sciences”

Valencia, Spain’s 3rd largest city, is one that is often overlooked by tourists in the rush to Madrid and Barcelona. In spite of this, Valencia arguably has a richer past and heritage than either of its two larger counterparts. Originally a Roman settlement of no great import, Valencia thrived under Moorish control for many centuries, but perhaps its greatest claim to fame is in its brief 11th century break from Muslim rule when the legendary Spanish knight and folk hero, Rodrigo Diaz “El Cid,” seized it from Berber control and ruled over its mixed Christian and Muslim population peacefully for nearly a decade. It would ultimately return to Spanish control permanently over the course of the Reconquista, and has remained a sizable city since that point.

Valencia's Cathedral Square
Valencia’s Cathedral Square

Valencia today provides much to fascinate the modern visitor. It is not overflowing with tourists like Madrid, but rather is a city that maintains its own distinctive spirit. Even in the city center, many restaurants offer only Spanish menus and servers. Its old quarter has begun to be blended into its modern, with the buildings of Valencia’s historic past being subsumed into the city’s thriving modernist movement. The great river which once ran through the city has been transformed into a massive park, the cathedral stands almost adjacent to a museum of modern art, and the audacious “i Ciudad de Las Artes Y Sciencias” – perhaps Valencia’s most well known tourist and nightlife hotspot- was only constructed in the last decade. The fact that these hyper-modern structures of twining steel and curving glass have come to supersede Valencia’s aged sites is a metaphor for the city as a whole: a city with a rich heritage, that is frenetically hurtling into the modern age.

While Valencia’s Roman past may be unremarkable, it is nevertheless a perfect stop for us in our pursuit of Hannibal, as it provides an excellent base for exploring the nearby town of Saguntum. Saguntum’s trajectory has almost been a mirror opposite of Valencia’s; once a thriving Roman metropolis, it was gradually eclipsed by Valencia in importance over the centuries, and today is little more than a small town on the outskirts of it. However, before even the Romans could colonize it, the town and its hilltop fortress already held a place in history, as the site of Hannibal’s siege that initiated the devastating Second Punic War.

In antiquity, Saguntum's natural location would have been difficult to assault.
In antiquity, Saguntum’s natural location would have been difficult to assault.

Before the Hannibalic war began, Rome and Carthage had signed an accord following the end of the First Punic War, granting Rome, the victors in that conflict, additional territories, including the land in Spain north of the Ebro river. In the accord, both states agreed not to attack the others allies wantonly, however Saguntum occupied the precarious position of being a Roman ally south of the Ebro, and had sworn allegiance to Rome after the treaty had been signed. On account of this, Hannibal asserted he had the right to seize it. Rome protested this as a violation of the treaty, and demanded the Carthaginian senate surrender Hannibal- a request which they refused, as Hannibal had been quite successful in Spain thus far, and furthermore, shortly after the treaty’s initial signing, Rome too had violated the treaty, seizing Carthaginian Sardinia before Carthage was ready to retaliate. In an enormously famous incident from the historian Livy, the Roman emissary stood before the Carthaginian Senate, and grabbed a handful of his toga, saying “In my hand I hold peace or war- choose from it which you will” to which the eager Carthaginians replied “Whichever you wish- we care not” and the ambassador let his toga fall, thus officially declaring the Second Punic War. Whether this anecdote truly occurred none can say, but Saguntum is without a doubt the spark that would ignite the war which would transform Hannibal into a legend.

Saguntum's Hilltop Remains
Saguntum’s Hilltop Remains

Atop the remains of Saguntum’s bastion, one can see for miles. The ruins of the fortresses that were built upon this site, including Roman, Moorish, and original Spanish, have blended together to the extent that one would expect they were once one and the same. The deserted fortifications, overlooking the tiny modern day village of Sagunto have a more palpable sense of history about them than any over the varied locales we have been. Standing at the summit, without another tourist in sight, one can look out over the surrounding fields and foothills and envision swarms of Carthaginians laying siege. One can place their hands on the crumbling stones, and feel the crushing blows that war machines must have dealt the walls over the months of assault. One can stare out towards the Mediterranean, and imagine the desperation that must have gripped the defenders as they prayed for Roman help that would never come. One can smell the air, fresh with sea salt, and imagine they are breathing in the same scent Hannibal once did when he stood at last triumphant over the city’s resilient inhabitants. Saguntum is an important place for understanding the Hannibalic, but it is much more than that. Listening to the soft breeze, standing atop the battlements under the summer sun, one comes to realize that Saguntum is a place where the events of times long gone feel as though they may have happened yesterday, a place where the Second Punic War feels contemporary rather than ancient, a place where Hannibal feels very much alive.

From atop Saguntum’s fallen citadel, Hannibal too would have set his eyes out across the Mediterranean, where Italy awaited.

Cartagena: New Carthage, and the beginning of the Second Punic War

The Theater of Carthago Nova

The beginning of Hannibal’s long march to Italy can be traced to Cartagena. The city on Spain’s southern coast has endured for over two millenia, undergoing periods of Carthaginian, Roman, and Moorish control before being reclaimed by Spain during its famed ‘Reconquista’ in 1245. Cartagena, often times a port city of major importance over the course of the centuries, is today a place that is steeped in the history of its many rulers. In Hannibal’s time, it was the most important Carthaginian city in all of Spain, and was appropriately dubbed Carthago Nova or ‘New Carthage.’ In the Winter of 219 BC, after the fateful siege of Saguntum, the conflict which ignited the Second Punic War (to be discussed in a later post), Hannibal wintered here. He would let his army disband, and return to their diverse homes including Spain, Libya, and Africa. It was here, too, where his army would rally again the following spring, to make ready for the war which would test Rome’s mettle like none before. Additionally, during the war, Spain was a major battleground, and it was New Carthage that served as the Carthaginian base of operations. All of these factors make it a worthy origin for our journey on Hannibal’s trail.

As we wandered Cartagena’s streets, we quickly came to realize how in tune the city was with its ties to antiquity. Posters advertising its Roman and Carthaginian past are present throughout the city, including several depicting Hannibal, saying “My treasure is my memory.” Archaeological sites, many only recently unearthed, can be found throughout the city. Remarkably, these locations are usually en situ, and are actually under the streets of modern Cartagena, giving unique perspective on how new civilizations routinely build atop the ruins and foundations of their predecessors. A temple to the deified Augustus can be found underneath a pharmacy, an ancient Roman house under a church. A large part of the local forum stands mostly intact, providing an incredible window into imperial Rome’s provincial influence. Looking out over Cartagena’s excellent natural harbor, with the undeveloped hillsides encircling it, one can almost envision the bustle of ancient ships making their way to and from this ancient port of note.

Discovering a poster of "Anibal" after stepping off the bus.
Discovering a poster of “Anibal” after stepping off the bus.

The citizens of Cartagena are deeply aware, and proud, of their resplendent past. Indeed, there is, perhaps, no modern city so deeply attuned to its Hannibalic legacy as Cartagena. Statues of the legendary Carthaginian seem to be omnipresent throughout the city, and everyone you ask is at the very least familiar with the ancient figure and his connection to their city’s heritage. However, there is perhaps no greater tribute to the city’s Carthaginian past than the 10 day festival held annually by its citizens, known as “Carthagineses y Romanos”. During the celebrations, the citizens put on massive re-enactments of major events from the Second Punic War in incredible detail, with many investing in their own complete sets of replica Roman and Carthaginian equipment. Many of Hannibal’s greatest battles, such as Cannae, Trebia, and Zama, have been performed in years prior. These festivities are emblematic of Cartagena as a whole- a modern city deeply entrenched in its past, and proud of its legacy.

Carthagineses Y Romanos- Cartagena's renowned festival
Carthagineses Y Romanos- Cartagena’s renowned festival

Madrid, Hamilcar Barca, and Carthaginian Spain


Alright, cards on the table. According to our historical sources, there is no indication that Hannibal ever went to Madrid, got near Madrid, or thought about Madrid- in large part because the land would not be settled (initially becoming the sight of a Muslim fort) until about a millennium after his fateful campaign. However, to arrive in Spain through Madrid, and spend no time in this vibrant European capital would have been an affront that we are quite sure would have caused even the stoic Hannibal to frown.


Madrid is a city that both embraces its past and thrives in its present. The city’s center is crowned equally with historic plazas and car-laden streets, illustrious art galleries and lively bars, magnificent palaces and boisterous nightclubs. It proudly recognizes and displays its rich imperial accomplishments from its famed golden age and teems with a life and vibrancy that few cities in the world can match.

Our heroes in Madrid's famed 'Plaza Mayor'
Our heroes in Madrid’s famed ‘Plaza Mayor’

During our time in Madrid, perhaps the single thing that was impressed on us again and again is the effort made by this highly modern capital to preserve the grandeur of its ‘Siglo del Oro.’ While it may have no Colosseum or Pyramids, no single, wondrous monument to its bygone glory, we came to realize exploring the streets of Madrid, that the very city itself is a love letter to Spain’s imperial past. Building after building, no matter how recent or shiny the construction, are designed in an architectural style that evokes the majesty of such an era: rooftops are studded with statues of bronze and marble, sweeping, columned terraces look out over the streets, and mighty staircases lead up to grand stone archways. Even though each structure may be quite distinctive from its neighbors in coloration, or the intricacies of its design, it is rare to see a departure from lavish and detailed ornamentation. There is virtually no trace of the modern forms that have become common place in the rest of Spain, and throughout the city one finds buildings often ostentatiously studded, standing as blatant reminders to those who view them that this is mighty Spain, and our glory days are far from over.

Though the city of Madrid would not be founded for more than a millenia after Hannibal’s death, his influence on the country of Spain can still be felt in its capital. In the Museo del Prado, Spain’s most prestigious art gallery, a number of works by some of Spain’s greatest masters focus on the events of the Second Punic War- such as a painting by the legendary Goya. These works are indicative of a fascination with Hannibal and his conquests that endured in the country for centuries, one which owes its roots, in large part, to Spain’s period under Carthaginian control.

In the third century BC, Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, an eminent Carthaginian general, set out for Spain. Infuriated at the Carthaginian loss of the First Punic War (also fought against Rome), Hamilcar intended to build Carthaginian power to once again be capable of challenging Rome, via the consolidation of Carthage’s power in the southern part of the Iberian peninsula, and the professionalization of the Carthaginian army–a diverse force of mercenaries. Hannibal, only 9 at the time, pleaded to go with his father, and in one of the most famous stories from the histories of Livy, Hamilcar had his son swear on an altar before the gods that he would never be a friend to Rome.

As the world would remember, Hannibal would live up to this oath. But the fact remains that Hannibal could never have achieved what he did were it not for his father. Hamilcar provided him with first hand war experience from an early age, secured Carthage’s dominance over many of Spain’s southern tribes, and left his son with an army that was prepared and ready to follow his orders. And though Carthage’s grip over Spain would not endure more than a century, the significance of the peninsula as a centerpiece in Hannibal’s war can still be observed today in its largest city.