Arteries of the Ancients

photo of a two-level structure of arches crossing a ravine with blue sky behind

We run our fingers along a dusty wall made of thick cubes of rock, mortared together in the 2nd century BCE by Romans to protect what would become their first provincial capital outside of Italy—now known as Tarragona. Built upon and around for millennia, the ancient wall once surrounded just a garrison, then grew to surround a town, and now lines a cobblestone street where residents and shop-owners live their lives, continuing their part in the long trail of history. 

Outside of town, a vast, three-story Roman aqueduct crosses a ravine, still sturdy enough to walk on but no longer bringing water into the town. Now it simply pays testament to the engineering feats of the time—to design and build massive structures that were angled just so in order for water to flow at the right pace into the right place so a growing community could thrive. We cannot see where the aqueduct tunneled into the city, but we know that its remnants are there, like ancient arteries connected to a still-living body. 

Later, we overlook what remains of the Roman Circus—an oval track with grandstands for watching chariot races built a couple of centuries after the first wall. We can see the stone Circus walls stretching like long fingers along streets and disappearing into the stucco walls of 19th-century buildings, now sitting where the track used to be—four city blocks wide and eight blocks long, all the way to the city hall plaza.

photo of a long tunnel with a flat path and curved, sand-colored ceiling, with yellow lights along the bottom edge and a bright light at the end.

Underground tunnels, which once housed the charioteers prior to racing, underlie everything. Recently they have been rediscovered, cleaned up (after 19th century shopkeepers drilled holes in the ground to dump their trash into the tunnels), and opened to the public. The Roman walls and tunnels are literally built into the foundations of the modern city, popping out here and there where we can view them from the street.

Of course, it’s not just 19th- and 20th-century buildings that sit atop of and intertwine with Roman ruins here. Everything builds on what came before. The Romans built on (and often used materials from) the Iberian structures that dotted this peninsula before them. The Visigoths (post-Empire invaders from Germany) built cathedrals on top of Roman construction; the Moors (Musliim invaders from North Africa) built great new mosques, forts, and palaces in the same places; the Spanish Christians (descendants of the Iberians) built cathedrals on top of the mosques after driving out the Moors. Jews, longtime residents of the peninsula, built their own more modest temples, which were transformed into cathedrals when they, too, were driven out by the Inquisition. 

And it doesn’t stop there. We stood in one stone palace in Valencia that had been a glamorous center of commerce in the 1500s and later became a dour prison and “death row” for political prisoners during Franco’s fascist dictatorship in the mid-20th century. Sometimes all of this repurposing of the past seems like spiteful desecration; other times like practical incorporation. Either way, the idea of historical preservation seems to be a very recent innovation. 

The Roman amphitheater in Tarragona is a case in point. Built in the first and second centuries AD, this circular stone grandstand structure hosted a wide range of bloody entertainment for the masses—it could hold up to 15,000 spectators at each event—during its four centuries of use. In the middle of the arena stands the remaining square walls of a Visigothian church, built in the 4th century AD on the spot where Romans had martyred an early Christian leader, in order to sanctify, claim, and dominate this previously pagan space. In the 1500s, the church would become a convent, and then in the 1700s a prison, and then the whole structure fell into ruin before being rediscovered and restored more than 200 years later. Today, the restoration continues to unveil new tunnels, inscriptions, statues, and mosaics while shoring up crumbling stones, and we are able to join a handful of tourists to watch two modern-day “gladiators” demonstrate hand-to-hand combat (with protective padding) on dirt that was, two millennia ago, soaked in blood. 

photo of a black man holding a net and a spear, crouched facing a white man in an iron helmet, holding a brown shield. A third man stands in between as judge. Behind them is a sand-colored wall of massive old bricks.

On the southern coast, in El Campello (near Alicante), we found more evidence of cultures building upon previous cultures in the form of fish farms. We think of these as modern inventions, but in fact, there’s evidence linking holding pens carved out of coastal rock to Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iberian settlements along the Mediterranean. Later, the Romans expanded on the practice they found there in order to better feed their growing population. We saw evidence of similar techniques in several places, and often these rectangular cut-outs continue to be used for fishing today.

Anyone who has visited Europe knows that the sense of historical time is vastly different than in the US. Our oldest structures are probably the Anasazi cave dwellings and Taos Pueblo (known as the oldest continuously inhabited town in the U.S.), both of which date back about 1000 years. Other than that, what do we have? Jamestown and Plymouth Plantation (facsimiles of structures from the 1600s)? The Paul Revere House (1700s)? 

Photo of a bronze replica of the famous statue depicting the myth of Rome's founding -- Romulus and Remus with a she-wolf -- standing guard by the 2nd Century BC Roman wall and a fragment of a column.
A bronze replica statue depicts the myth of Rome’s founding — Romulus and Remus with a she-wolf — and stands guard by the 2nd Century BCE Roman wall and a fragment of a column.

Being able to walk around any street corner and see a still-in-use stone church built in the 1300s, stay overnight in a castle built in the 1100s, visit a mosque built in the 700s, stand on a wall built in 200 BCE—these opportunities just don’t exist in the States. To be fair: Spain has plenty of industrial cities, strip malls, highways, and high-rise towers. Yet there are also “old towns” in nearly every city we’ve visited, where this kind of tangible history is simply part of the fabric of everyday life.

In Tarragona, we stayed in an updated AirBnB apartment overlooking a public square with chairs and tables for a couple of cafes. Across the square was a tall, sand-colored stone wall, a bit pock-marked with age but thankfully unmarked by graffiti or fire escapes. It looked old, but we didn’t know until we later toured the Roman Circus that it is, in fact, part of the city walls built by the Romans in the first couple of hundred years AD. We toured it from the other side, but on this side of “our” little courtyard, it is just a wall like any other, except it’s two thousand years old. 

One sunny afternoon, we sat on some steps in the courtyard facing the wall as an older gentleman in a cotton jacket and fedora played Spanish guitar. We gave him our change, leaned back in the sun, and soaked it all in.

photo of a sandy brick wall pointing across a courtyard to a row of buildings, overlooking red and brown rooftops with a cathedral on the horizon. A yellow arrow points to one of the buildings around a courtyard far below.
This photo was taken while standing on top of the Roman wall in Tarragona. The yellow arrow points to our apartment overlooking the courtyard. If you follow the line of the wall at the bottom, you can see how it continues, embedded in newer buildings.

9 thoughts on “Arteries of the Ancients

  1. Gisela Voss says:

    LOVE THIS: “Sometimes all of this repurposing of the past seems like spiteful desecration; other times like practical incorporation. Either way, the idea of historical preservation seems to be a very recent innovation.”

    Thank you for the tour. Our friends who live in part an Italian castle laughed when they saw our “Historical Commission” sign on our Victorian home in Newton.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Laura Esoinosa says:

    I love that you guys are so actively learning the history, not just enjoying the quaintness of the patio at the airbnb. The history is everywhere.
    We stayed in a Catalan friend’s 12 century masia, passed down through generations that had a secret room in the basement for her only a few generations back ancestors who’d hid from Franco.


    1. Al says:

      It’s been fascinating to see how different regions in Spain do or don’t talk about the Franco years. Here in Catalunya there is a lot of pride in their role in the resistance, but in some other parts of the country there is little said about those years. I’m looking forward to learning more about that period, including why the Allies did not intervene in fascism here while fighting it in Germany and Italy.


  3. Chuck Eldridge says:

    Coming from the older part of the European New World and going to the lands those adventurers and emigrants came from offers a perspective on what the cultures on either side of the Atlantic have, have had and lack. Our new neighbors, California transplants, marvel at the historic presence here in New England. Yet a cousin of mine observed while in Britain that she grew up in New London, in New Hampshire, in New England.

    Back in my days as a rock’n’roll roadie, I had the opportunity to do a show in the Roman amphitheater in Orange, France. It was built in the early 1st c. AD and is the largest, most complete still remaining. Being there to put on an electrified, amplified, 20th century rock concert in a 1st century venue was absolutely, bottom of the gut thrilling yet chilling at the same time. Above us on the stage wall, the statue of Augustus no doubt wondered why we needed all that equipment since the acoustics were still perfectly sufficient after all the years. Kids nowadays!


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