Last week, I was visiting sites in Roman Spain (and sites from other periods too, but those are for another blog). The first Roman site was Italica, near Seville.
Italica was the birthplace of Trajan (he of the column, Emperor 98-117 AD) and also Hadrian (he of the wall, Emperor 117-138 AD). That reminded me, vividly, that not all Roman Emperors came from Rome.
Italica was founded long before either of those famous emperors, though. It dates back to the Second Punic War, the one with Hannibal and the elephants. (You may remember learning about Rome’s decades of wars with Carthage and the latter’s eventual total destruction in 146 BC at the end of the Third Punic War. Carthago delenda est and all that, regularly declaimed by Cato the Elder?)
The Roman victor in the Second Punic War was Publius Cornelius Scipio whose victory in 206 BC at the battle of Ilipa (near modern Seville) ended the Carthaginians’ presence in Iberia. Scipio—later given the epithet Africanus for his final victory over Carthage—founded Italica for his wounded soldiers.
Well, he couldn’t easily send them back to Italy, could he?
Italica: old city and new city
There isn’t much sign of the old city, the vetus urbs founded by Scipio, as it now lies under the modern town of Santiponce. But Emperor Hadrian favoured Italica and gave it a lot of money to build a new, more splendid city. Much of that has been excavated and can be visited. EU citizens get in free. (Brits, sadly, don’t. Dontcha lurve Brexit?)
Part of the reason Italica’s new city is still there for excavation is that the Romans, for all their engineering prowess, hadn’t mastered geology. The hill site where they chose to build the new city was unstable. Buildings started to subside. It’s possible to see holes for scaffolding erected by despairing householders in the surviving mosaics. Before long, the new city was abandoned. Which is a boon for modern visitors, since so much survives.
A city of luxury
Hadrian never went back to Italica, apparently, but the new city was certainly luxurious. As you can see from the plan above, it used a wide rectangular grid system. The picture below shows the main drag, looking south, up the hill from the entrance near the amphitheatre. The figure standing on the roadway gives a sense of its huge width. Italica’s new city meant to impress. And it still does.
The paving is original and massive. The Romans built to last, even if they did get the geology wrong. On each side of the roadway, there would have been covered walkways supported by columns between the houses and the road. You can see the bases of the columns in my picture.
Compare this magnificent approach into the city with the narrow streets I found in Pompeii (below). And Pompeii (unlike Italica and also unlike Herculaneum) had no sewerage system so it would have been smelly as well as congested. Stepping stones, anyone?
Buildings and decoration in Italica
One of the largest buildings in Italica is the exedra, covering about 4000 square metres. The exedra itself was a room for meetings and banquets. The building has an open sports field, shown below left. It also had thermal baths and a communal latrine, shown below right, with a generous water channel beneath.
The mosaic in the latrine shows pygmies. Something to discuss while sitting there? And isn’t it interesting that Italica should include expensive mosaics in a latrine? (Mary Beard’s recent TV programme did mention how much we could learn from latrines, I recall.)
Italica is full of superb mosaics, some of which you can see in my panoramic image at the top of this blog (with apologies for the shadows obscuring some of them). Here are more:
The image below shows, not a mosaic, but a phenomenally expensive opus sectile pavement made of at least eight different imported marbles laid in geometrical shapes. The owner of this house must have been very wealthy indeed.
Italica had an amphitheatre. Of course, it did. And it was massive. Although Italica probably housed about 8,000-10,000 people, the amphitheatre could seat 25,000. It was one of the largest in the Empire and must have pulled in spectators from cities well beyond Italica. The pit in the middle is the fossa bestiaria where the wild animals were kept in cages, covered by decking, prior to being released for the entertainment of the audience.The panorama above doesn’t give a real idea of the seating, much of which has disappeared over the centuries.
And remember that if you were a mere female, you had to sit in the highest and furthest seats. The front rows were only for the highest ranking males, including the man who was paying for the games.
In fact, games began to cost so much throughout the Empire that, under Marcus Aurelius, a gladiatorial law, passed around 177-180 AD, prescribed maximum spending limits. That law could not be found in the Roman archives but a copy, inscribed on a bronze plaque, was discovered in the late 19th century in the forum of Italica. A copy (shown here) is attached to the inside wall surrounding the amphitheatre.
It has been deciphered, but certainly not by me!
The writing is minuscule.
We who are about to die…
It seems that no one is really sure why the plaques show feet. Walking towards Nemesis, perhaps?
Geology strikes again
The amphitheatre survived pretty well because the Romans got their geology wrong again. They built their amphitheatre on a natural line of drainage. It flooded regularly and filled with silt. That helped to preserve it. Nowadays, a modern dyke protects it and I understand that it no longer floods or becomes filled with silt, so it is now an impressive site to visit.
Great engineers, certainly, but the Romans didn’t always get it right, did they?
PS For those who love Game of Thrones, I can confirm that some scenes were filmed in Italica. I know that, because I was in Seville at the time (2016) and I saw the ardent young fans crowded outside the best hotel in Seville where the GoT stars were staying (but I was not). I’m not sure that the fans ever did catch a glimpse of the stars, though.