In 2009 I visited the Croatian City of Split for the second time…
Tag Archives: Roman Empire
We had charming first-floor rooms with stone walls and wooden ceiling beams, terracotta floor tiles, small window terraces with iron balcony rails and splendid views over the town. We had requested this particular room because we had stayed in it before and we liked the Brompi stove in the corner and as we moved in it was spitting fuel pellets and spewing flame even though this was absolutely not necessary as the temperature outside had by now nudged above 25°
Sigüenza is only a small town so we didn’t want to rush out and see it all straight away because we had plans to do that the next morning so instead we left the hotel and strolled casually to the centre past the imposing cathedral which seems surprisingly large for a small town but is a reminder that Sigüenza once enjoyed a great deal more importance and status than it does today.
Two thousand years ago the Romans passed this way and built a fort on the highest point of the place they called Segontia. It was built principally as a staging post on the important Roman road that ran from Mérida (Emerita Augusta) to Zaragoza (Caesar Augusta) making it the most important city between Toledo (Toletum) and Zaragoza and it was during the time of the Romans sometime in the fourth century that the city was declared a Bishopric capital which made it very important indeed.
After the withdrawal of the Legions the Roman city was systematically destroyed over the years by barbarian invaders from the north but was later re-established and rebuilt by the more civilised and enlightened Visigoths. In Siguenza as elsewhere they consolidated Catholicism and re-established the Bishopric, which provided stability and security for two centuries as the town re-established itself as one of the most important cities of central Spain.
During the early eighth century the Moors swept north out of Africa and conquered large areas of land in the peninsular and they reached as far as Sigüenza in the year 713 as the Muslims expanded from their established power base in Toledo. After four hundred years of greatness, influence and peace the Moors didn’t consider the place to be quite so important as the Romans and the Visigoths and the city was gradually reduced in status to no more than a minor frontier town and fortress that soldiers would probably have dreaded getting a posting to.
During the years of the Muslim occupation the whole area became a military buffer zone ruled and controlled by Muslim military detachments in the castles of Atienza, Guadalajara, Castejón (now Jadraque), Hita, Sigüenza and Medinaceli. The Moors had little use for this harsh land and the principal objective of occupation was to protect the great Muslim cities of Toledo and Cordoba from any threat of counter invasion from the north.
This was an occupation that lasted for almost four hundred years until the great wars of the Reconquista.
The seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 is called the Reconquest and the Spanish have organised their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become a cherished feature of the self-image of the Spanish people and it has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade to remove the Muslims from Iberia.
Interestingly the Muslim population of Spain is currently experiencing something of a resurgence. In 1990 there were one hundred thousand Muslims in Spain but now there are over a million and many of the Moriscos of North Africa who were expelled in the sixteenth century after the reconquest are supporting a claim, based on heritage and blood-line, to be able to return.
Being a frontier town Sigüenza saw fierce fighting between Christians and Moors and during the campaigns of Alfonso VI (King of Leon and Castile) was recovered by the northern powers during their southerly advance as they conquered cities and towns of Castejón, Hita, Horche and Uceda along the valley of the Rio Henares until they reached Guadalajara which legend says was besieged and recovered by Alvar Fáñez de Minaya, one of the major heroes of the Reconquista.
Fully returned to Christianity in 1090 the town recovered its importance, a new castle was built as a fortress palace of the bishop of Sigüenza and the town played an influential part in the power struggles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries retaining power and control right up to the end of the fifteenth century until the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the Catholic Monarchs, changed the political balance of power in Spain forever, the influence of the Bishops both here and in Toledo was dismantled and Sigüenza began another slow journey towards virtual obscurity.
It was difficult to imagine this today as we walked slowly around the walls of the Cathedral, pock-marked by gunfire during the Spanish Civil War, and made our inevitable way towards the Plaza Mayor and selected a table and chairs that were placed strategically in the sunshine and when the waiter arrived we ordered some beer and simply sat and soaked up the atmosphere.
The Plaza Mayor is the most important part of a Spanish town and I really cannot think of an equivalent in the United Kingdom where we have public squares of course but use them in an entirely different way.
This is the place where people meet, relax and enjoy themselves; it is generally flanked with shops and restaurants and usually has the town hall and the main church somewhere close by. When we arrive somewhere new it is usually the first place we make for because sitting with a drink and complimentary tapas it is the best place to be to get a feeling for the town and its people and so just to make sure that could accurately capture that mood we had a second beer in the sunshine before leaving.
In the evening we returned to the town to the restaurant Le Meson which we had used before and were confident that there would be something on the menu that Sue and Christine would be able to enjoy. The restaurant was closed but the staff cleared a table for us in the bar area and the first day ended with a dining success with food acceptable to everyone and a couple of juicy glasses of Rioja and by the end of the evening I was certain that Sigüenza was quickly becoming one of my favourite places in Spain and in the small town category beginning to edge above Chinchon, Almagro and Belmonte.
The Temple of Diana, Mérida, Extremadura, Spain
We were looking now for the Temple of Diana and we found it tucked away behind the main shopping street and next to a small museum. The Temple was a sacred site constructed by the Romans in the first century A.D. and remains well preserved mostly because in the sixteenth century some local big-wig built a palace inside the rectangular ring of Corinthian columns.
The Aqueduct of Segovia
It was built at the end of first to early second century AD by the Romans during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula to bring water from the Río Frío about eighteen kilometres away and requiring an elevated section in its final kilometer from the Sierra de Guadarrama to the walls of the old town. This is supported by an engineering achievement of one hundred and sixty-six arches and one hundred and twenty pillars constructed on two levels. It is twenty eight metres high and constructed with over twenty thousand large, rough-hewn granite blocks, which are joined without mortar or clamps and have remained in place for two thousand years.
After we arrived we walked along the recently improved pedestrian area next to the harbour with its rows of bars and cafes and immaculate gardens and lawns and then we retraced our steps from the previous visit and went back into Diocletian’s Palace.
Diocletian became Emperor or Rome in 284AD and set out to reorganise the huge Empire that had become unwieldy difficult to control. His solution was to split the Empire in two between east and west to make it more manageable and after governing for twenty years he became the first Emperor to resign the position and he built the massive palace for his retirement after abdicating in 305 AD. When it was built one of its four gates led directly to a quay side but the new promenade has separated the Palace from the sea and the entrance is now through the Palace basement and past a row of market stall vendors.
The palace was built as a massive structure, much like a Roman military fortress with walls two hundred metres long and twenty metres high, enclosing an area of thirty-eight thousand Square metres and it is one of the best preserved Roman palaces in existence because after the fall of the Romans it effectively became the city of Spalatum which eventually became Split and today it continues to host the old town even though there is some very recent unfortunate and rather inappropriate construction inside.
We sat for a while in the sunshine in the People’s Square just outside the Palace gates and planned the remainder of the day. After a final visit to the Palace for blue sky photographs we left the city and returned to the car stopping at a Konzum supermartket on the way for supplies.
We were staying at the Pink Inn again tonight and Iveska seemed pleased to see us. Her rooms were immaculately clean and prepared with an obsessive fussiness but this was a charming place and one that I would be most happy to return to again. All around there were big clouds but fortunately the Pink Inn was under a puddle of blue sky just perfect for sitting on the balcony and enjoying the views of the sea and the endless procession of boats and ships coming and going from the busy port of Split just a few kilometres away.
As the sun started to slide away the temperature began to drop so this was an opportunity for a final walk along the beach and the rocks and a more thorough inspection of the Hotel Meridian. This was a seriously posh hotel and we drew a few looks of disapproval as we wandered around the lobbies and bars in our best island hopping grunge clothing. I knew that we had gone too far when we arrived at the Casino with an entrance guarded by a doorman in an expensive suit and a glamorous hostess in a cocktail dress. I casually enquired about opening hours and when I had got the answer we moved off quickly and returned to the beach. I’m afraid that I’m not really all that impressed by five star hotels, they always seem so impersonal and pretentious and I was glad to get back to the charming little room at the Pink Inn.
Later we returned to the fish restaurant across the road that was busier tonight but there wasn’t a wedding in the function room to entertain us. After another fine and inexpensive fish meal, the sixth in six nights, we returned to the balcony at the room and watched an impressive light show over the island of Brač courtesy of a massive electrical storm and we were pleased that we weren’t on the islands tonight.
“Pompeii is no longer a buried city. It is a city of hundreds and hundreds of roofless houses, and a tangled maze of streets where one could easily get lost, without a guide, and have to sleep in some ghostly palace that had known no living tenant since that awful November night of eighteen centuries ago.” Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad
The next day we were back on the road, this time with a trip to the ancient city of Pompeii so after breakfast and picking up our lovingly prepared packed lunches in their brown paper bags we waited for the coach to arrive to drive us there.
The site of Pompeii is a ruined and part buried Roman city near Naples in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the commune of Pompeii. It is part of a larger Vesuvius National Park and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO twenty years after our visit in 1997.
It is the most popular and most visited tourist attraction in Italy with two and a half million visitors a year and I have now been lucky enough to visit the famous excavation twice. The first time was with dad on this visit to Italy and the second time was nearly thirty years later with my son Jonathan in 2004.
It was only a shortish drive to the historical site and we arrived in the late morning and after going through the entrance gates waited just inside by the souvenir shops to be joined by our guide for the day. It was a warm day already and when she arrived she was under the shade of an umbrella, which she subsequently used as a means of group identification and we set off into the ruined city.
At the time of the eruption the city is estimated to have had approximately twenty thousand inhabitants but Pompeii, along with nearby Herculaneum, was completely buried and destroyed, during a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two days beginning on 24th August 79.
The volcano buried the City under a layer of ash and pumice many metres deep and it was lost for nearly one thousand seven hundred years before its accidental rediscovery in 1748. Since then, its excavation has provided a detailed insight into the life of a city in an area in which many wealthy Romans had their holiday villas at the height of the Roman Empire.
Modern research suggests that it took only about fifteen minutes to kill all of the the inhabitants of Pompeii.
The study by researchers from the University of Bari in collaboration with the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology and the British Geological Survey of Edinburgh, says the pyroclastic flow – a dense, fast-moving current of solidified lava pieces, volcanic ash and hot gases engulfed Pompeii just a few minutes after the volcano erupted.
The lethal cloud had a temperature of over 100 degrees and was composed of CO2, chlorides, particles of incandescent ash and volcanic glass. Very nasty indeed!
At around one o’clock in the afternoon on August 24th, Vesuvius, which had been dormant for centuries, began spewing ash and volcanic stone thousands of meters into the sky. When it reached the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, the top of the cloud flattened leading the Roman historian Pliny the Younger, who was observing from a safe distance across the Bay of Naples to describe it as resembling a stone pine tree.
For people in Pompeii, who had no idea what was about to happen, the bad news was that the prevailing winds were blowing towards the south-east which caused the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city and the area surrounding it and the residents were covered in up to twelve different layers of ash, pumice and soil.
According to Pliny the volcano burst open with an ear splitting crack and then smoke, mud, flames and burning stones spewed from the summit of the mountain, sending a rain of ash and rock through the surrounding countryside. The mud seeped down the sides of Vesuvius, swallowing nearby farms, orchards and villas and basically anything else unfortunate enough to be in the way. Adding to the destruction were poisonous vapours that accompanied the falling debris and it was these fumes that first caused deliriousness in their victims, and then suffocated them.
There is no doubt that Pompeii is a fabulous place to visit with many marvellous houses and buildings and so big that it is impossible to do it all in one day and it is an interesting fact that today visitors can actually only see one third of the site that was open for viewing in 1976.
We saw the Roman Forum and the administrative buildings, the public baths, the brothels, the shopping centres and the outdoor theatres. Most of the priceless exhibits have been removed of course to the museum in Naples but there were some copies of the most famous and there are still wall frescoes and paintings to admire. In 1860 an archaeologist called Fontana found some of the famous erotic frescoes and, due to the strict modesty prevalent during his time, quickly reburied them in an early attempt at archaeological censorship in case anyone should be offended.
Even then there were some rooms that women visitors were not allowed to enter just in case the paintings caused offence but the men were allowed to go in and once inside the guide explained in more detail that this was actually because the impressively large penis on one particular statue had been broken off so many times by excitable female visitors that they had had to be prohibited from entering this building. I don’t know whether that was true or not!
“It was a quaint and curious pastime, wandering through this old silent city of the dead–lounging through utterly deserted streets where thousands and thousands of human beings once bought and sold, and walked and rode, and made the place resound with the noise and confusion of traffic and pleasure.”Mark Twain
For the first time ever in a foreign country this was a truly excellent experience and simply one of the best places possible to visit. I had chosen Italy for the holiday because I had studied Italian history at University, written my thesis on the nineteenth century Piedmontese Prime Minister Massimo d’Azeglio and had taught myself to read Italian to study his autobiographical notes. I had acquired a passion for the place and now at last I was here and Pompeii was just absolutely wonderful.
The breakfast was even more disappointing than the previous day so we didn’t spend to long over the meal and finished as quickly as we could before returning to the room, packing our bags in preparation for leaving and then returning to the streets of the city to see the last remaining sites.
The reason that Mérida has so many Roman antiquities is that it was a very important city in the Empire. The Roman conquest started as early as year 19 B.C. with the invasion of the Carthaginian region and ended with the last resistance being overcome in the north-west in the same year. The south soon came under the Roman Empire’s growing domination with a framework of roads connecting towns and strategic bridges and Iberian cities including Mérida, Cordoba, Seville and Cartagena passed into the hands of the Romans.
The economy flourished under Roman rule and, along with North Africa, served as a bread basket for the Roman market, and, as well as grain, it provided gold, wool, olive oil, and wine. Agricultural production increased with the introduction of irrigation projects, some of which remain in use even today and much of daily life consisted of agricultural work under which the region flourished, especially the cultivation of grapes and olives.
Silver mining within the Guadalquivir River valley became an integral part of Iberian society and some of the Empire’s most important metal resources were in Hispania where gold, iron, tin, copper and lead were also all mined in abundance and shipped back to Rome.
Spain also has historical and political significance for the Roman Empire because it was the birthplace of the Emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Theodosius I and the philosopher Seneca and in the year 306, Spanish bishops were the heads of the Council at Elivira. Luckily, when the Roman Empire fell, it didn’t create such a major crisis or havoc in Spain as it did in other western countries like Gaul, Germany and Britain and thus much of its essential infrastructure remained intact.
Next to the river there were some excavations but to be honest we found these a bit disappointing so we hurried through them and walked to the water and walked along a pedestrian walkway to the Roman bridge and then back towards the main square.
We were looking now for the Temple of Diana and we found it tucked away behind the main shopping street and next to a small museum. The Temple was a sacred site constructed by the Romans in the first century A.D. and remains well preserved mostly because in the sixteenth century some local big-wig built a palace inside the rectangular ring of Corinthian columns. There has been some recent debate about removing the palace structure but as this is over five-hundred years old as well the archaeologists and the authorities have decided that it should stay.
We were over an hour ahead of schedule so we had a last drink in the main square while we waited for the car to be returned from the out of town car park and when it was there we went back to the hotel and checked out.
Our plan now was to visit the town of Trujillo that we had missed two days ago because of changes to our itinerary on our way to Cáceres and after we had stopped for fuel we drove north skirting the Parque Naturel de Cornarvo but to be honest there was little to get excited about across the flat dusty plains of Extremadura and nothing to divert us as we drove the fifty kilometres or so towards our destination.
The flights to Pula were an irresistible bargain at only £16 return, which effectively meant that they were being subsidised by Ryanair because we didn’t even have to pay the full Government flight taxes. Sitting next to us was a couple from Kenilworth who had an impressive capacity for drinks from the sky-bar. They loaded up with beers and whiskey on its first pass down the aisle and they restocked when it returned back the other way. I like a gin and tonic to help pass the flight but I couldn’t possibly compete with these two heavyweight boozers.
We needed something to do for the afternoon so after consulting the guide book and the information available at the hotel reception we decided to drive to the Roman ruins at Segóbriga about fifty kilometres away.
I wasn’t sure that there would be a great deal to see there so I drove deliberately slowly and stopped often for photo opportunities of the fields with their attractive contours and delightful pastel hues. Along the way we looked for somewhere to eat and passed through a couple of villages but there was little chance of food and drink because the people that lived there probably think that Belmonte is exciting. Along the way we left the road to follow a track to the castle of Almenara but it too was in a state of disrepair and closed so we returned to the road and carried on. Close to our destination we spotted a hotel and a restaurant and we pulled in and took a table in the garden, but the menu prices were considerably higher than we were prepared to pay so we left abruptly before the staff had noticed us and continued on our way resigned to staying hungry.
Within a few minutes we spotted the signs to Segóbriga and as we turned into the historic site we were immediately astounded by the size of the place and it turned out that this is the most important Roman archaeological site in all of Spain. Amazing! And I had never even heard of it. There was a café on site where we had an overpriced bocadillo and a small beer before moving on to the entrance where a Spanish lady seemed genuinely pleased to see visitors from England and gave us some precise and clear instructions to make sure we enjoyed our visit to the full. First of all there was a little film about the Romans in Spain and then a considerable walk to get to the main site and the excavations.
Segóbriga was a textbook designed Roman city, there was a theater, a five thousand seater amphitheater, a chariot racetrack (circus), a basilica, a temple, public baths, a cistern and a complex system of sewers, everything in fact that you would expect to find in an important city of Rome. It was incredible to walk around the old streets, wander through the corridors of the amphitheatre, sit in the seats of the theatre and imagine that in this very place there were gladiators in its arena, actors in its theater, emperor worshippers in the temples, Roman Legionnaires swaggering through the streets, Senators and Magistrates, merchants, artisans and slaves.
Segóbriga was a mining town and the mines brought great wealth and made some of the local families very rich but they weren’t mining for precious metals or for fuel but for a very specialised commodity – plaster, or rather gypsum, which in its crystal state (selenite) is transparent and the rocks could be split into fine sheets to make windows in an age before the Romans had begun to manufacture and use glass.
In ancient Rome buildings had wind eyes, which were square or rectangular holes in walls to let in light and air but without glass panes. To let in the light had the disadvantage of letting in the weather as well so probably most of the time people kept those windows blocked with a curtain or a shutter. The idea to use the sheets of crystal gypsum for window panes came around the turn of the millennium when an architect imported some from Spain and used them as skylights to light the public baths in Rome. This caught on quickly and the rich started doing the same for their houses and villas and in time it was used as wind eye glass and the very best quality gypsum came from right here in Segóbriga.
Because we had to wait so long for uncooperative people to move so that we could take the perfect uncluttered photographs it took almost three hours to explore the site and then to visit the museum and it was a long walk round so what had started out as a planned easy day had turned out instead to be very full and very tiring.
This was our last night in Belmonte and as we packed our bags so that we could make an early start in the morning we reflected on what had been three excellent days in Castilla-La Mancha and we looked forward to a long drive in the morning to the city of Toledo and after that on to Ávila in Castilla y Leon nearly three hundred kilometres away to the west.
The reason that Mérida has so many Roman antiquities is that it was a very important city in the Empire. The Roman conquest started as early as year 19 B.C. with the invasion of the Carthaginian region and ended with the last resistance being overcome in the north-west in the same year.
The south soon came under the Roman Empire’s growing domination with a framework of roads connecting towns and strategic bridges and Iberian cities including Mérida, Cordoba, Seville and Cartagena passed into the hands of the Romans.