(3rd Century BC - 5th Century AC) The Romans turned Tarraco into one of the most important cities of Hispania. They bequeathed to us important monuments that, in 2000, were declared Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO.
Before the arrival of the Romans, Tarraco was a fortified Iberian village called Kese. Its strategic situation, on a coastal hill next to the mouth of the river Tulcis (today Francolí), attracted the Roman armies, who turned it into their military base between the years 218-206 B.C., during the Second Punic War.
The Romans surrounded the fortress with walls built of great blocks and towers having interior rooms: the highest tower was decorated with a relief of the Goddess Minerva. Inside, was found the oldest known Latin inscription discovered to date in Roman Hispania: ‘Mn Vibio Mnerva’, which is a dedication from ‘Manius Vibius’ to the goddess Minerva.
Soon, Tarraco turned into the New Cartago, that is, the great communications port with Italy, and the door to the Ebro valley and the interior of the Iberian Peninsula. At the end of the second century B.C., the city was urbanised, the drains were outlined, the streets were organised, and a capitulary temple was built that presided the first forensic square. The richest citizens ordered the construction of luxurious ‘domus’, which were paved with mosaics of ‘opus signinum’, and impressive tower-shaped mausoleums decorated with statues in the Italic style.
Towards 45-49 B.C., Julius Caesar awarded Tarraco the title of colony (Iulia) ‘Urbs Triumphalis Tarraconensis’. Years later, between the years 27 and 25 B.C., another emperor, Augustus, chose it as a place to recover from a grave illness while the Roman legions fought in the Cantabrian wars. The importance of the city was on the increase and its competences were also growing. It became the capital of the new province of ‘Hispania Citerior’ or ‘Tarraconense’, which was the head of a judicial district (‘conventus iuridicus’), headquarters of the governor and procurator, treasury and provincial records.
An assembly of notables governed the colony and amongst the population there were free citizens, slaves, freed slaves, and foreigners. The Roman ‘villae’ of the surrounding areas started to produce wines of superior quality, which were much esteemed in Italy.
Round about the turn of the era, the imperial cult was in full apogee and monuments were erected that venerated the Roman emperors: a grand altar dedicated to Augustus was constructed during his lifetime. After his death, in 14 A.C., another enormous temple, constructed of white marble with eight Corinthian columns on its facade, was erected in his honour: the temple was built at the top of the city and within its interior was kept a gigantic figure of god Augustus enthroned like Jupiter. The coins of the city recorded both monuments.
The forum, which was built in the lower part of the city, next to the grand port protected by a breakwater of pillars, progressively widened over the years. Within it was erected a juridical basilica of three naves, in which trials were held. Nearby, the Romans built a grand theatre of faced, local stone. The scenic facade was decorated with statues of Augustus and his heirs. Over time, the facade would be restored and, during the first and second century A.C., new statues were added, dedicated to successive emperors.
Running water came to the thermal baths and the houses from the rivers Francolí and Gaia, through two pipes and aqueducts, similar to that which is still conserved at the Ferreres: it is a grand construction of ashlars, 200 metres long and 26 metres high, with two superimposed arches of 11 and 25 spans, respectively. The local stones, tiles and calcareous rocks were obtained from the quarries close by, such as those known as Mèdol, Santa Tecla and Alcover.
The Augusta road, which communicated with Cadiz and Rome, and was the origin of the other roads that united the coast to the interior of the peninsula, passed through Tarraco. The funerary buildings, like the ‘Torre dels Escipions’ [Tower of the Escipions], a family tomb from the first century A.C., and the commemorative monuments, such as the ‘arc de Berà’ [Berà arch], which was erected on the road by assignment of the tycoon Licini Sura, marked the boundary of these paved arteries at their point of entrance to the city limits.
With the arrival to power of the Flavis emperors, the city started to celebrate an annual grand assembly of delegates from all over the province, called the ‘concilium provinciae Hispaniae citerioris’. In these encounters, cult was rendered to the emperor, and the ‘flamen’ of the ceremonies was chosen. For the ceremony, an enormous provincial forum was constructed in the surroundings of the old temple of Augustus. The new forum had a precinct of cult, a gigantic square for performances with a great profusion of statues – there was not another in the whole of the Roman world that surpassed its dimensions – and an annexed circus that was built inside the city. The circus is one of the most unique bequeaths that the city of Tarragona has preserved from its Roman past. The frontispiece was restored and, nowadays, many of its arches are occupied by houses and shops.
Between the years 121-122 A.C., the emperor Adrian restored the temple of Augustus and convened a grand assembly of the three provinces of Hispania. On the outside of the city a grand amphitheatre was constructed to hold the gladiatorial combats and the hunting of wild animals. Terraces and tiers of seats cut into the rock, or constructed upon grand arches, allowed the separation of the public from the sand bed by a high podium.
Tarraco lived one of its most splendid periods throughout the first and second century A.C. The most powerful residents lived in the grand ‘villae’ of ‘otium’, built on the outskirts of the city, and were surrounded by many luxuries. The rich Roman citizens, who were able to build great residencies, like those that have been discovered at ‘Munts’ in Altafulla, had big thermal baths and salons with three seating beds having mosaic pavements, mural paintings and decoration with statues. Next to these luxurious houses there were other ‘villae’ and small hamlets (‘pagi’, ‘vici’), dedicated to agricultural and livestock production.
In 259 A.C., Bishop Fructuós and his deacons Auguri and Eulogi were martyred in the amphitheatre. When the Roman emperors decided to allow the Christians free cult, an enormous paleo-Christian necropolis was erected alongside their graves, next to the Francolí River, with mausoleums, sarcophagi and humble tombs of amphorae or tiles. In the Visigoth period a basilica was erected in the amphitheatre, in the same place as the Bishop and his deacons were martyred.
Tarraco continued to be an important city throughout the fourth and fifth centuries A.C.: in Centcelles villa (Constantí), a rich local person, who had converted to Christianity, was buried in a luxurious mausoleum under a cupola decorated with polychrome mosaics: it was so splendorous that for years it was believed to be the tomb of an emperor.
In 2000, UNESCO recognised the Roman monuments to be Patrimony of the Humanity. In the National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona and the History Museum of Tarragona, architectural, ceramic, glass and metal elements are preserved, as well as a collection of more than 1.200 tombstones, which is considered to be the most important in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula.