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 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.
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.
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.