The Muddy Archaeologist's Blog

Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist


While we may be accustomed to thinking of life on Hadrian’s Wall as the Edge of Empire, the furthest reaches of Rome’s civilisation, the back end of life lived the Roman way, Hadrian had a particular influence on another ‘edge of empire’ – Spain.

The Emperor Hadrian (like the Emperor Trajan) was born in Italica, a town in southern Spain.  They both invested in their homeland and Italica boasted a truly magnificent amphitheatre (as seen in the recent Game of Thrones) that could seat 25,000 people, and a large, rich city that oozed with the fine life. Great Baths, mansion-like rich hill-top villas  were adorned with high quality mosaics.

A great temple to Trajan adorned this paved town where goods from around the Empire could be bought and sold.  A sophisticated sewer system supplemented the water management here. And marble columns and opus sectile flooring decorated homes here.

Yet it hadn’t always been like this.  Spain had become part of the Roman Empire in the late 200s BC, during the long-lasting Punic Wars with Carthage; the city of Italica was founded in 206 BC by the general Scipio following his victory against the Carthaginians.

Despite Rome’s acquisition of Southern Spain, Pliny the Elder mourned in the AD 70s that the maps of this area never agreed with each other and that even the map made by Agrippa (Augustus’ right hand man) was rather lacking for this region; this remoteness didn’t stop the locals aspiring to be part of everything Roman though.

A visit to the Roman fishing town of Baelo Claudio is a sharp contrast to the wealth of Italica and yet here, crammed into a small walled Roman town, is everything a Roman could wish for: A very grand theatre dominates the rising hillside and, below it, a colonnaded basilica with a statue of Emperor Trajan nestles up to a paved forum (surrounded by shops) with its speaker’s rostrum, closely is overlooked by the most Roman divine triad of all – the temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.  A curia (governmental meeting room) and more than adequate baths, fed by very Roman lead pipes, are part of the essentials of Roman city life.  Here, on the edge of empire, Rome flourishes.

A statue of the ‘spear thrower’ was found here – a standard copy of the original Greek art that so often revealed cultural and financial aspirations.  Fine Samian ware graced a table and that theatre was a focus of culture.

However, the columns are stone, and marble doesn’t coat the city.  This is a working town;  down towards the sea are the great pits of the fish salting industry, situated for convenience by the seaward town gate.  A sea breeze must have wafted a constant reminder of the source of this town’s money into the heart of the town …

The town’s major through-roads enabled trade to flow into the city and beyond, while imports could be sold to everyone from the roadside shops.   Wherever you were in the Roman empire, you might hope to benefit from the opportunities that the empire provided – trade, culture, smart towns with baths and so on …

Even if some towns were grander than others …

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