Italica, the first city of Roman Spain: with geology problems

Roman Italica, Spain, panoramaLast 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.

Bust of Sulla now believed to be Scipio Africanus

Scipio Africanus (previously believed to be bust of Sulla)

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?street in Pompeii with stepping stones

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.

exedra building, arena        exedra latrine pygmy mosaic

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:

Italica, mosaic floors  Italica, mosaic floors

Italica, mosaic floors   Italica, mosaic floors

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.opus sectile, marble pavement

Italica’s amphitheatre

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.italica amphitheatre panoramaThe panorama above doesn’t give a real idea of the seating, much of which has disappeared over the centuries.

italica aerial viewThe tiers of seating went much further back and much higher than we see now.

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.


Italica bronze gladiator law

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…

italica votive plaques feet In the entrance to the amphitheatre, there is a sanctuary dedicated to the goddesses Dea Caelestis and Nemesis Augusta. Votive plaques made of marble are embedded into the ground, showing feet.

It seems that no one is really sure why the plaques show feet. Walking towards Nemesis, perhaps?

Certainly, some of those who entered the arena would not have returned alive. Perhaps you have a theory as to why the plaques show feet?italica votive plaques feet

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?

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland


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.

4 thoughts on “Italica, the first city of Roman Spain: with geology problems

    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree, Liz. I’d never visited Italica before and it is amazing. Even if it was built on the wrong bit of land. Those roads are stunning, even after nearly 2000 years. They built to last. And they assumed their empire would go on for ever, I think.

  1. Sophie

    Absolutely breathtaking photos. What an extraordinary place. Was this mostly Hadrian’s massive ego statement? Can the area ever have needed a 25,000-seater amphitheatre?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Apparently it was all up to the locals who were very rich anyway (olive oil, among other things). Hadrian gave them the dosh and let them get on with it. And it appears that they did fill their 25000-seater. Extraordinary. It was half the capacity of the Colosseum, I believe.

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