I’ve always been fascinated by history; more than just the historical facts, I am interested in my ancestors, the ancient peoples of the European continent In particular I’ve always loved to study the ones living on the Iberian Peninsula. Every detail fascinates me, from how they used to live, what they used to eat, and which gods they worshiped.
From an early age I tried to put myself in Roman shoes. All those amazing temples, with all the elaborate entertainment they used to host! From banquets where they used to eat more than 12 courses – full courses, it wasn’t your typical Michelin star tasting menu ;), to the circus and amphitheaters where they organised animal and Gladiator fights. That’s not even mentioning the famous Charioteer races that also drew huge crowds in ancient times.
Here in Catalonia we have a huge amount of Roman relics but the ancient history of Catalonia stretches back even further. Amazingly for us we have a lot of surviving information about the population that lived in these lands before the Romanisation.
Before the Greeks and Romans settled in the area, coastal Catalonia was home to the Iberians. Between the 7th and 2nd centuries BC, almost 2500 years ago, they settled on a small coastal hill, founding the ancient settlement of Ullastret. Some historians consider Ullastret a city due to it’s size and it remains surprisingly intact today. If you take a short hour drive from Barcelona you can see these ancient ruins in person.
The defense system of the Iberians is similar to the traditional Roman one; massive walls flanked at key points by towers surrounding the city. A main street connects the inhabitant’s houses and on the highest point of the hill stands the temple. Oddly, the Iberians buried animals under the temple entrance. I say this is odd as the Iberians cremated their dead and placed them in urns burying them outside the city walls but withing sight of the village. In the case of the deceased being an infant the family might instead bury the child below the floor in their home.
In this picture we can see how they used to stock their food, in silos. These silos were deep pits dug into the ground, lined with different materials. The remains of these silos provide us with a great record of their food. Fun fact; ancient Iberians loved their beer and it was considered a staple in their diet.
Iberian family life concentrated around the fire place situated in the middle of the home. It provided light, warmth a way to cook food, and it also allowed them to use the back of the room as a dry corner for the pantry.
The vast open inland areas around the city were used for agriculture. They had herds of domestic animals that are still found on farms in the region to this day; pigs, horses, sheep and cows. They augmented their agrarian lifestyle with game hunted in the nearby forests and as the sea is quite close, seafood was an important part of their diet.
On the lower picture we can see a cistern. Rain water was collected from the roofs in town and stored here to provide drinking water.
The historical evidence also suggests that these ancient Iberians used to trade with their nearby neighbors, the Greek colony if Emporion less than 20 kilometers away.
Emporion (or Empúries) is the only archaeological spot on the Iberian Peninsula where you can find the remains of a Greek Colony. It was founded in 6th century BC as trading post and given the name Emporion which literally means “trading place” in Greek. Later, in the first century BC, Romans also settled in the area and founded their own settlement of Emporiæ.
Empurion was the first Greek settlement, founded by Phoenician traders around 580 BC. These early settlers lived side by side with the native population and set up a major trading activity in the region. The city proper was walled and the main entrance was flanked by two large defense towers.
Just look at this view! And those eternal trees, the cypresses! I can imagine the noise of the city on a normal day; families taking their offerings to the temple, the free men attending a symposium (a sort of ancient Greek party), young Greek children running and playing along the coastline. We can still see the remains of the ancient commercial center, the agora. It served as a public square, located in the center of town where political, social and economic activity took place.
The on-site museum contains many outstanding pieces found in excavations, especially the magnificent is this 2nd century Greek Statue of Asclepius, the god of medicine. Traditionally he’s represented as mature man, The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today. The original Hippocratic oath began with the invocation “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia (daughter of Asclepius) and Panacea and by all the gods.. ”
The Greek and Roman colonies lived peacefully until the change of era, when Greek and Roman towns were joined to form Municipium Emporiæ (literally “the town on the Emporium”).
The first Romans arrived in the year 218 BC as a consequence of the Punic War against Carthage. The second Punic War saw the city take a more active role in the conflict as the great Roman general Gaius Cornelius Scipio arrived in Emporiæ with the purpose of cutting Hannibal’s supply lines as they marched on Rome. This period marked the beginning of the Romanization of the Iberian Peninsula.
At first Emporiæ was just a military camp but around the first century they built a city next to the Greek city (Empúries) and they grew together over time.
The Roman Forum was the nerve center of the city as it housed the administrative, judicial and religious buildings.
Wealthy and influential Romans owned large and opulent housing complexes called “domus”. A typical domus had a door towards the street the opened into an entrance hall that lead to a courtyard called an “atrium”. An atrium was a central hall with rooms all around it, it had no roof (or a hole in the roof) to serve as a skylight and allowing rainwater to fall through it. The rainwater was collected in a reservoir in the center of the atrium floor and used for various things in the household.
The Roman houses, especially the aristocratic ones, were paved with black and white tile mosaics in different geometrical shapes. In public place these mosaics were usually more detailed and used to match the theme of their location. For example today we can still see preserved mosaics depicting Bacchus, the god of wine, in a tavern, or in the public bathhouses mosaics with dolphins. Isn’t that so cute?
After the first century AD Emporiæ suffered a decline, caused mostly by changes in the commercial maritime route as trade shifted towards Tarraco (now Tarragona) or Barcino (now Barcelona). The decline of the city and it’s relatively isolated position left it vulnerable to attack which lead to it’s eventual abandonment.
Emporiæ’s sad fate is actually a good thing for us strangely enough. As the city’s location became unfavorable compared to other Roman population centers no new construction was built over the ruins. We’re left with pure Roman archaeological remains, lucky us!
I’ve done my best here to really highlight the importance of these three ancient cities but the beauty of this area rely defies my ability to describe them with words. You can leave the hustle and bustle of Barcelona behind, drive out into the gorgeous countryside and surround yourself with thousands of years of history. Each site has great historical importance to Catalonia and they are less than half hour’s drive from each other. An afternoon’s walk takes you back thousands of years in Catalan history. You must go, you simply must see it in person. Feel the breeze, enjoy the exceptional view, and travel through time.