The Roman Province of Hispania

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Before Spain became Spain, it was part of the Roman province of Hispania. 

To understand the language, and geography of not just Spain but of the entire Iberian Peninsula, you have to understand Hispania. 

Learn more about one of the greatest provinces in the Roman empire, and how it created modern Spain on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.

Spain is a country that is rich in history. In almost any small town or village you visit, you will find churches, ruins, and buildings which harken back to the countries’ past. 

In Spain, you’ll find layers of history. You’ll find 20,000-year-old rock art, Roman ruins, Arab architecture, Renaissance Churches, as well as Art-Nouveau and Art Deco buildings.

You can start researching your dream trip to Spain today by visiting where you can get everything you need to know to plan your Spanish experience.

Roman influence on the Iberian Peninsula is profound and can still be seen today. 

The name the Romans used for the area that covers the Iberian peninsula, which today consists of Spain, Portugal, Andorra, Gibraltar, and parts of France was Hispania. 

The word for Spain in Spanish is Espana and considering that the letter H is silent in Spanish the name of Spain today is pretty much the name word that the Romans used for the land.

It is also obviously, the origin of the terms “Hispanic” and “Hispaniola”. 

Spanish is a Romance language that evolved from Latin, so you really can’t have modern Spain without ancient Rome.

The word Hispania itself probably comes from Phonecian, via Carthage. Before the Romans were on the Iberian Peninsula, the Carthaginians had set up colonies along the coast. 

Carthage was in modern-day Tunisia and they were establishing colonies and trading outposts in the western Mediterranean well before the Romans. 

The Roman interest in Hispania was directly due to the Carthaginians. 

Carthage began building colonies there around 250 BC when they lost their colonies in Sicily after the First Punic War. 

Rome entered Hispania in 218 BC as a front in the Second Punic War and remained there in some fashion until the end of the empire.

Both the initial Roman and the Carthaginian presence was confined to the Mediterranean coast. The majority of the Iberian Peninsula was inhabited by Celtic Tribes, distantly related to the Celtic peoples in the British Isles. 

It wasn’t until 27 BC in the reign of Augustus, and the conclusion of the Cantabrian Wars, that Hispania was fully conquered by the Romans. For almost 200 years the Romans had been fighting sporadically with the Celtic tribes in the region. 

One of the reasons it took 200 years is because at no point did Rome ever explicitly set out to conquer the peninsula. It wasn’t like Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, which was all about gaining territory. 

It was mostly a long series of reactionary moves to counter rebelling tribes. 

Over time, the Roman administration of the region evolved and became more complicated as the people became more Romanized. 

Eventually, the single Roman Province of Hispania was divided into two provinces: Hispania Citerior, which was the northern part along the coast, and Hispania Ulterior, which was the southern part where Andalusia is today.

In 27 BC, Marcus Agrippa, who I did an earlier episode on, created a third province called Hispania Lusitana. It consisted of much of what is today Portugal and Extramadura.

By the time the western empire collapsed at the end of the 5th century, there were 9 provinces in Hispania. 

The cultural assimilation of Hispania took centuries but was close to 100% by the time of the collapse of the empire. 

The original Celtic languages went extinct over time, and today they are totally lost. No one knows what they sounded like. 

Much of the cultural transformation was due to the creation of colonies, which was mostly for the settlement of veterans of the Roman Legions. 

With all the wars Rome was fighting, they needed something which was an incentive to get men to fight. The biggest incentive was the allocation of land. As most of the land in Italy was already claimed, Hispania proved to be an ideal place to settle troops.

It solved several problems. It provided a recruitment incentive, it helped Romanize the country, and it settled a group of men with combat experience who now had an incentive to protect their own land. They would be very hard to evict. 

Many of the major communities in Spain today had their starts as Roman Colonies. 

The city of Merida in Extramadura has a population of about 58,000 people. It was founded as the Colonia Emerita Augusta, which translates into the Colony of Augustus’ Veterans.

Emerita eventually evolved into Merida, which is the name of the city today. 2,000 years later, the city still has the basic same layout it had when it was founded.

The city of Zaragosa is the 5th largest city in Spain. It too was founded as a Roman colony with the name CaesarAugustus. 

CaesarAugusta became saraqusta in Arabic, which then became Zaragosa in Spanish.

You would probably never have guessed the Zaragosa came from CaesarAugusta, but once you know you, you can sort of see it in hindsight. 

Likewise, other major cities such as Barcelona, Seville, Pamplona, Cordoba, and Valencia, all had their starts as Roman Colonies. 

The capital of Hispania and the oldest Roman city was Terraco, or what is today Taragonna, which lies just down the coast from Barcelona. 

Over time as Hispania grew in importance, the people of Hispania assumed important roles in the Empire. There were Senators from Hispania pretty early on, and eventually, there were several Emperors from Hispania.

Trajan, Hadrian, and Theodosius were all born in Hispania. 

Romanization made Hispania wealthy. A single government, a lack of internal strife, common currency and language, and great infrastructure, meant that conditions were ripe for commerce. 

Hispania was perhaps the best mining region in the empire. It held some of the best mines for silver, gold, and cinnabar, aka mercury. Its location on both the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts made it great for fish, fish sauce, and salt production. As with much of the Mediterranean, it was also a prime location for the production of olives and wine. 

With a large population, economy, and 500 years of Roman rule, you can find Roman ruins all over Spain today. Some of them are the best Roman ruins in the world. 

The previously mentioned city of Merida probably has the best collection of Roman ruins I’ve seen in the country. The have the best-preserved Roman theater in Spain, pulse a well-preserved amphitheater, the longest intact Roman bridge in the world, a massive aqueduct, and several temples and other buildings right in the middle of town. There is also the outline of the circus which is still visible outside of town. 

The nearby town of Alange has a Roman bath which is still in operation today as a spa. 

Merida is also the home to the National Museum of Roman Art, which is actually one of the best museums in Europe, both in terms of the building its housed in, and the collection. 

The other great collection of ruins in Spain is in Tarragona. An easy day trip from Barcelona, they have a well-preserved amphitheater, as well a museum in the still preserved parts of the circus bleachers. If you look closely you can find Roman evidence all over town, including in the city walls. 

In Segovia, you’ll find one of the best-preserved Roman aqueducts in the world. It is in such good condition that it still carries water today, albeit in pipes that were laid on the aqueduct.

In Cordoba, the bridge dates back to Roman times and it is still used today. 

Baelo Claudia is no longer a city, but it was once an extremely important port for trading with Africa. It is located near the southernmost point of Spain and today you can see the ruins of the town.

In Lugo in the north of Spain, not far from Santigo de Compostella, you can see one of the best-preserved Roman city walls. 

In many cities all over the country, you’ll be able to find minor or small ruins. Even in Barcelona, which is not often thought of as having Roman sites, there are extensive underground ruins that you can visit. 

So, when it comes to modern-day Spain, everything from the name of the country, the language, and many of its cities, all owe their existence to the Roman province of Hispania.