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.┬áHannibal’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.

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