Nimes and Roman Gaul

In the ancient sources, little is said about Hannibal’s passage through Gaul, now modern day France. Though he had to deal with many hostile tribes throughout the Pyrenees, the mountain range that marks the border between Spain and France, the route from the Pyrenees to the river Rhone (which lies only a few short kilometers from the Alps) seems to have been largely uneventful. The peoples he encountered were mostly willing to let his forces pass through without harassment, and the trip is described as almost leisurely in comparison to the grueling challenges that would be posed by the immense Alps. This lack of noteworthy encounters poses a considerable deal of difficulty in pinning down a route through the French countryside that would correspond precisely with the campaign trail of the Carthaginian army. While historians uses locations such as Narbonne and Nimes as probable benchmarks based on what evidence still lingers, the fact of the matter remains that tracking Hannibal’s journey from the Pyrenees to the Rhone requires a good deal of speculation. However, though Hannibal may be difficult to trace through Gaul, the region is not any less worthy of attention; simply getting a feel for the countryside provides an illuminating window into how this terrain must have felt thousands of years ago, and its easy, leisurely rolling hills and wide fertile expanses will doubtlessly provide the same contrast for us as as it would have with the Carthaginian army upon reaching the soaring Alps.

Nimes' Amphitheater is the most well preserved in the entire Roman world, due to its centuries of use as a fortress after the fall of Rome.
Nimes’ Amphitheater is the most well preserved in the entire Roman world, due to its centuries of use as a fortress after the fall of Rome.

Furthermore, though Hannibal’s activity in the region may not be particularly well documented, Rome’s impact and influence on Gaul thankfully does not suffer from any such ambiguity. Gaul, after its conquest by Julius Caesar, would become one of the most important provinces in the empire, and many of its tribes and natives would undergo exceptional ‘Romanisation’; a process in which groups, over decades of Roman control, saw the potential gain in adapting to the Roman way of life, and discarded their traditions and cultures by choice to do so. This process of organic cultural evolution, that transpired over the many centuries of stability Rome would provide to its provinces, is one of the chief reasons the Roman Empire to this day remains one of the most significant empires in human history: few states would control so wide a swathe of land, and fewer still would maintain sovereignty in those regions over the centuries it takes for its culture to supplant that of the local populace.

The ancient Roman watchtower of Nimes to this day provides fabulous views over the city.
The ancient Roman watchtower of Nimes to this day provides fabulous views over the city.

As far as Romanisation goes, there is perhaps no better example of the process than the modern day city of Nimes. Nimes, known as Nemausus in Roman times, was home to a sacred spring which the nearby Gallic tribes venerated. Vassals of the Roman empire from a relatively early stage, these tribes sent men to assist Caesar during his conquest of Gaul, and as such was quicker than most to recognize the advantages in cooperating with the Romans. Under Augustus the location was granted imperial recognition, and funds were sent to develop the town into a full fledged Roman settlement. Nimes would become one of the most important cities in Roman Gaul, and the modern day city likes to make sure no one forgets that proud Roman past. Throughout the city, from its incredibly preserved amphitheater to its refurbished Roman watchtower, one finds countless landmarks and structures reminding the onlooker of Nimes’ bygone Roman days. Referring to its culture as ‘Gallo-Roman’ the city reflects on its Roman heritage with considerably more pride and nostalgia than its Celtic (or French) roots. In fact, the city’s temple to Augustus, which has been restored to such an extent that the marble gleams white, today stands in one of Nimes’ central squares, and every 30 minutes plays a live action short film commissioned by the town celebrating its position as ‘a jewel of the Roman Empire’ and going over the towns Roman History with a little more bravado than is altogether merited.

The Pont du Gard is jaw-dropping in its scale.
The Pont du Gard is jaw-dropping in its scale.

Nimes would be worth visiting solely for the example it provides of the sweeping impact of Romanisation, and the comparison to be made between it and the other Roman settlements we’ve traveled through thus far on Hannibal’s trail, but the town still provides one other major draw: its proximity to the World Heritage listed Pont du Gard. Considered to be the most impressive Roman sight in France, the Pont du Gard is a towering aqueduct bridge, once part of the same system that provided the thousands of inhabitants of Nimes with fresh water. Today, what’s left of it is still an awesome feat of engineering, made all the more incredible due to its millennia of age. The Pont du Gard bridges the Garon river, no small stream, soars to height of nearly 50 meters with three different levels, and is as emphatic a symbol of Rome’s engineering acuity and mastery of nature as one is likely to find standing in any part of the former empire. It may not be Hannibalic, but it is something that any student of antiquity should strive to see; an impossible, imposing reminder of just what Rome, as an empire of development and construction, limited by the technology of the day, was able to achieve.

Empuries, Greek Jewel of the Costa Brava

The Beachside Town of L'escala stands less than a kilometer away from the ruins of Empuries, a port city of similar size some millenia ago
The Beachside Town of L’escala stands less than a kilometer away from the ruins of Empuries, a port city of similar size some millennia ago

The sleepy town of L’escala, a small domain of a few thousand inhabitants, is hardly on the beaten tourist track. Adorning Spain’s gorgeous Costa Brava, it is often considered by many to be simply one of dozens of little coastal villages dotting the region, so many of which are flooded by sun-seeking tourists. To get here from Barcelona, one must take a train northward to an equally unpretentious countryside village, from which point the only way to reach L’escala is to hire a taxi to take you the remaining 12 kilometers. This lack of accessible public transportation to the town makes it all the more remarkable that L’escala is not only a charming beach location, but also home to one of the most impressive sets of classical ruins in the entire Mediterranean: the remnants of the Greek trading port of Empuries.

The sprawling ruins of Empuries are very impressive: buildings of all sorts, rather than solely monumental structures, can be found intact inside the city walls.
The sprawling ruins of Empuries are very impressive: buildings of all sorts, rather than solely monumental structures, can be found intact inside the city walls.

The name of Empuries may not be spoken of in the same breath as sites such as Pompeii or Ephesus, but the ruins that stand here, along with their accompanying museum, are some of the most awe-inspiring in the Mediterranean. The bases of immense fortress walls loom around the edges of the site where the foundations of an entire city lie unearthed. Pieces of temples, aristocratic mansions, and smaller establishments are all identifiable in the incredibly intact ancient site, among the best preserved in all of Spain. In the adjoining museum, one is granted insight into how this town had an existence of many centuries, even though it would never reach the size or significance of larger maritime cities such as Tarragona and Cartagena and, unlike those other sites, was originally a colony of settlers hailing from distant Greece. Here in Empuries, gods such as Serapis and Ascelpius, who would only take on a meaningful presence in Rome during the Imperial Period, were worshiped as patron deities from an early date, and a merchant elite prospered, technically independent of Roman control until the establishment of the Spanish provinces of the Republic. This community thrived for centuries uninterrupted, even as its Hellenistic roots were gradually subsumed by Roman settlers and influence. Testament to its lengthy, if small-scale, success is evident in the wealth of artifacts that we have inherited from the site, spanning across the centuries.

Empuries' idyllic beachfront location and natural harbor make it easy to see why the site would have held such appeal to ancient colonists.
Empuries’ idyllic beachfront location and natural harbor make it easy to see why the site would have held such appeal to ancient colonists.

Bringing it back to Hannibal, in the context of the Second Punic War  Empuries played a significant role as well. In 219 BC, it is altogether likely that Hannibal passed along the Costa Brava as he headed north from Barcino toward the Pyrenees. While neither Livy nor Polybius provides us any interactions between Hannibal and the locals, it seems probable that with an army the size of Hannibal’s, those occupying the town would have been hard pressed to refuse him supplies or shelter along the way, especially given that Rome’s forces were still nowhere in sight. However, the texts state in far less uncertain terms that some months later, in 218 BC, Roman legions would clank ashore here and open the Spanish theater of operations for the Second Punic War, in order to maintain Roman control over northern Spain and prevent Hannibal from receiving any supplies or reinforcements from his brother Hadsrubal, left in charge of Carthaginian Spain in Hannibal’s absence – a critical endeavor which ultimately proved quite effective in weakening Hannibal’s position in Italy over the years.

L’escala may be off the beaten path, but that makes it no less  a place worth exploring. From gorgeous Mediterranean coast and beaches, to a remarkable set of classical remains, this unassuming town has been one of the most delightful we have had the opportunity to visit

Barcelona: City of the the Barcas.


Barcelona's Medieval Cathedral
Barcelona’s Medieval Cathedral

You could go to just about any travel blog, website, or magazine, and you would probably find something about the city of Barcelona. Spain’s second largest city may be less than half the size of Madrid, but there is no comparison as far as tourist traffic goes: Barcelona received upwards of 8 million visitors in 2013,  by far more than Spain’s capital. It is considered one of the most iconic destinations in the entire world. Walking through the city’s bustling center, one hears Spanish only about as often as any other language, indicative of the sheer quantity of foreigners milling through the streets. Home to some of Spain’s most famous monuments, such as Gaudi’s legendary Sagrada Familia, Barcelona is a city that has come to be almost defined by its bustling international community. During this time of the year, the height of the 2014 World Cup season, as chance would have it, one can walk into a sports bar on one of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares and find natives of any country rooting for their home team. Thanks to its tourist population, Barcelona is a deeply international city- enlivened as much by its own natives as the countless visitors.

Due to its status as the world’s 10th most popular tourist destination, and thereby its eternally diverse community, one might expect that the natives of Barcelona would be particularly cosmopolitan. However, such is not the case- there is perhaps no city in all of Spain that is possessed of greater local pride than Barcelona. The capital of the northeastern province of Catalonia, a part of the country often at odds with the rest of Spain, Barcelona is fiercely independent and invested in its distinct identity. This regional affinity can be seen throughout the city: from omnipresent banners and advertisements for its legendary local soccer team, FC Barcelona, to signs being transcribed in both Spanish and more localized Catalan, Barcelona is a city entrenched in its Catalan heritage. This spirit infuses many of the things that make it such a popular global destination, from its parties and festivals, to its wildly distinctive arts and architecture scene (as exemplified by its symbolic landmark the audacious ‘Sagrada Familia’) much of what makes Barcelona so popular is its unapologetic drive to break away from the constraining norms that may apply to the rest of Spain, and present itself in a manner that offers something intriguing for virtually any traveler.

However, it is this self-same vibrancy that often causes certain aspects of Barcelona to be overlooked. In the rush to see Gaudi’s architecture or stroll down the famed La Rambla, Barcelona’s roots in antiquity are often left by the wayside. In following Hannibal’s footsteps, we would be remiss to make the same error- particularly in a city that happens to have one of the most remarkable connections to the Barcid Carthaginian dynasty. While Barcelona has many origin stories, perhaps the most common and well known links the metropolis to the most renowned of Carthage’s dynasties: the family of Hannibal himself. Supposedly founded in the third century BC, presumably after the end of the First Punic War, legend holds that the settlement that would one day become Barcelona (known in Roman times as Barcino) was created by Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, who named his new town after his family. While it is impossible to verify the authenticity of this story, the etymology of the name Barcino does bear striking resemblance to the Carthaginian Barca- a name which modern scholarship believes to have something to do with a bolt of lightning. Regardless of whether or not this truly was the city of the Barcas, and though it was hardly the metropolis of import that it is today, Barcino was a clear stopping point for Hannibal’s army as it marched northward into Gaul. Furthermore, according to Livy, it would play a significant role in the conflict that would rage between Carthaginian and Roman forces up and down the Iberian peninsula as Hannibal engaged them in Italy.

The Museum dedicated to Barcelona's Regional History, home to its Roman Foundations
The Museum dedicated to Barcelona’s Regional History, home to its Roman Foundations

What is left of Roman Barcelona lies beneath the teeming streets of its historic district, a region more commonly known for its cathedral and medieval sectors than its classical remains. To the careful eye however, there is much still to be found: fragments of an aqueduct stand near the cathedral, intact portions of the ancient wall have been incorporated into other structures, and a few columns of the city”s temple to the deified Augustus still remain upright. Such traces unassumingly dot the surface level, but it is beneath these tourist trodden streets that Roman Barcino comes alive. Within what would appear to be a relatively unremarkable museum dedicated to the city’s history, one can take an elevator to descend a few dozen feet, to find the stunningly intact remains of the ancient towns clearly thriving industrial district. From fish paste makers to wine crafters, the foundations of massive workshops, oftentimes complete with ceramic tools, stretch out all around the city’s underbelly, giving a view into just how busy a community like Barcelona’s was some two millennia ago. While it may not match the imperial splendor of its counterpart Tarragona to the south, Barcelona’s Roman remains are unique by the very virtue of their humble nature: here, almost forgotten underneath the streets of one of the Mediterranean’s most important cities, one can gain insight into the moving parts of how a community would have functioned beyond its grand festivities and religious ceremonies and how an average worker may have gone about their lives.

Roman foundations of commercial and industrial sectors of Barcino sprawl beneath the city's streets.
Roman foundations of commercial and industrial sectors of Barcino sprawl beneath the city’s streets.

Ultimately, we found that Barcelona is a city that lives up to the hype, but perhaps not for the reasons the traditional guidebook may ascribe. Whilst certainly, its atmosphere is distinctive, its food is delightful, and its Modernista structures impressive, it is beneath the streets, out of sight and mind of the average tourist, where some of Barcelona’s most remarkable gems lay. In a way, it is quite fitting for the same city that has almost forgotten the Hannibalic ties that are present in its very name to have some of its most remarkable components hidden away beneath its surface.


Tarragona: Legacy of Roman Spain

The port city of Tarragona seems to be eternally sunny. Positioned at the southern end of the Costa Brava, a few hours south of modern Barcelona, it is easy to see why this town, adjacent to both a natural harbor of the Mediterranean and a river inland, held such appeal to Roman settlers in antiquity. Tarragona was a bustling port of tremendous significance, and the relics of its rich past as one of the most important cities in the Roman empire are omnipresent throughout the town today. As Cartagena was for Carthage, so would Tarragona become for the Romans. In Augustan times, this place would be the capital of the entire province of Hispania, and Augustus himself would spend two years here, helping the city to thrive and prosper as a provincial capital.

Massive passageways beneath Tarragona's streets- once a part of its enormous circus.
Massive passageways beneath Tarragona’s streets- once a part of its enormous circus.

In the era of Hannibal, Tarragona, or ‘Tarraco’ as the Romans called it, would play an integral role in the Second Punic War. Hannibal’s armies would indeed pass through the settlement, but as they continued their steady progress toward Italy, Tarraco would come to serve another important function. As mentioned previously, though Hannibal himself may never have engaged the Romans on Spanish soil, Spain was nevertheless a major battleground of the war. Thus, when Rome sent forth Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio to deal with the Carthaginian armies in Spain, and thereby prevent Hannibal from receiving reinforcements, Tarraco would serve as the Roman base of operations. From Tarragona, Rome would launch a variety of military actions by land and by sea throughout the course of the war. It, along with Cartagena, was one of the two principle locations around which the war in Spain would focus. Therefore, it is a critical locale to visit for any Hannibalic adventure.

Tarraco's Forum was apparently once one of the most sizable and splendid in the entire empire.
Tarraco’s Forum was apparently once one of the most sizable and splendid in the entire empire.

Tarragona today is a bright, sunny beach city, laden with the edifices of its Roman and medieval pasts. This far north, Moorish influence on the country, ubiquitous in its southern regions, begins to dwindle, and Spain’s Christian roots are brought ever closer to the fore. Tarragona’s medieval streets are crowned by a massive cathedral- one of the most magnificent on the entire Iberian peninsula. Wandering down avenues and tiny side streets one can get quite pleasantly lost within this city that oftentimes feels more like a small town despite its sizable population of nearly 150,000.

Sizable Roman remains occupying a busy modern square- a common sight in Tarragona
Sizable Roman remains occupying a busy modern square- a common sight in Tarragona

Though we were in Tarragona for only a few short days, the time we spent there was enough for us, like so many other visitors, to be awed by the magnificence of Tarragona’s Roman remains, indicators of the ability of Rome to leave its unmistakable mark hundreds of miles distant from the Italian peninsula. Tarragona’s massive amphitheater, circus tunnels, mighty walls, and splendid forum are all demonstrative of just the sheer level of influence and construction that Rome impressed upon its provinces. Though they are in varying states of decay, all of these sites are powerful windows into the sheer scale of Rome, and the extent to which it would forever alter the provinces it occupied. It is said that no empire before or since that of Romulus has left a greater impact on the western world’s civilization and culture, and standing in the streets of Tarrragona, seeing how a modern city seems to have grown out of the Roman monuments which still crown it today, one would be hard pressed to refute such a claim.