How Spain became Roman

6 mins read

What was it like for a barbarian to become Roman? In the book that I am writing in my retirement, or semi-retirement, on how Greece and Rome became predominant, I have reached one of the most interesting chapters, – and one of the most difficult to write: that of the golden age of Rome in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, when Rome brought peace and prosperity to much of northern Europe. I have written about their success (eventually) in Gaul (France), their failure in Germany, and their misfortunes in Britannia, but I also wanted to go back and look at an area of the Roman Empire that is rarely studied in Britain, and that is Roman Spain. How did Spain become Roman, and a very successful part of the Roman Empire, which nurtured two of the greatest Roman emperors: Trajan and Hadrian.

The story is a complex one. It begins when Carthage which was defeated by Rome in the first Punic War from 264 -241 BC. Carthage lost Sicily, so decided to expand its empire in Spain. However in 218 Hannibal invaded Italy with his elephants and defeated the Romans in several pitched battles. But the Romans managed to hang on, and eventually in 201 defeated the Carthaginians, and as part of the spoils of the war they found themselves more-or-less by accident in the possession of an empire in Spain. What were they going to do with it?

It was a messy sort of empire, only half conquered by the Carthaginians. The native peoples in Spain were extremely lively: to the west were the copper and silver mines of Rio Tinto where the great empire Tartessos had arisen and collapsed. In the north, the Celts had crossed the Pyrenees and had merged with the native Iberians to form the Celt-Iberians, speaking the Celtic language and with substantial Celtic artistic influence. And to the east, along the Mediterranean seacoast, the Carthaginians had begun to form or reform a Carthaginian empire centred round the town the Romans called New Carthage or Nova Cartago, modern Cartagena. What were the Romans to do with this half-empire?

The answer was that they spent 200 years of hard fighting, and it was only when Augustus came along and devoted a dozen years to the Cantabrian Wars in the north, that Spain finally became a settled and successful province of the Roman Empire, though the modern Basques still think of themselves as being a rather different people.

But it was not just war and fighting: new light has been thrown on the Iberian people, who were assimilated into the Roman world by the study of Iberian coinage by the foremost Spanish numismatist, Pere Pau Ripolles at the Valencia University. There is huge amount of Iberian coinage issued by more than 160 mints, suggesting that there were 160 towns in Iberian Spain, or at least sites big enough and important enough to issue their own coinage. Eventually some 77 of these towns were rewarded with the privileges of being converted into Roman municipalities. The implication is that the Romans were encouraging them to issue coins in the belief that monetisation of the economy would encourage them to become more Roman-like. Or as the Romans no doubt thought, to abandon barbarism and become Roman, that is civilised.

The coins can be divided into two main types: some were definitely Roman in inspiration and were issued by the Roman colonies, for the Romans founded a considerable number of colonies that is settlements of retired soldiers. In the Roman civil wars, the leading participants raised huge armies, and when the soldiers completed their service, they had to be settled, and Spain became a favourite place for establishing colonies: between them, Pompey, Caesar and Augustus founded 23 known colonies, and they issued their own coins based on Roman themes. But the majority were native coinage based ultimately on Greek types, for the Greeks had very early on around 500 BC established a major colony at Emporion in the northeast of Spain.

Spain like Gaul was finally re-organised by Augustus who spent considerable time in Spain dividing it up into three provinces. And it is surprising that the province that flourished best was Baetica in southern Spain around Seville, from which the two greatest Roman Emperors Trajan and Hadrian came, and which became one of the great sources of olive oil and garum, the marmite-like fish paste. Eventually the Iberian coinage ceased, as the official Roman mint took over. But Spain was for the Romans the great exploring ground of how eventually over the course of more than two centuries they made a country part of the Roman Empire.

See major article in series on how Europe became Roman in The Dark Secret of Civilization

Professor Ripolles’ article on Ancient Iberian Coinage can be found here

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