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Romans in Andalucia | Rome takes over from Carthage

By Nick Nutter | 18 Sep 2017
Hannibal’s War Elephants

Hannibal’s War Elephants

They Came, They Saw, They Conquered and then Stayed Awhile

That Hannibal had a pack of war elephants when he marched from Spain to Italy during the Second Punic War is well known. Less well known is the fact that his brother, Mago, also had elephants that were used in battle against the Romans in Spain, including at the battle of Ilipa (Alcala del Rio – Andalucia, Seville province) in 206 BC. It must have been a remarkable site to see this Carthaginian army on the march and in camp at Gades (Cadiz – Andalucia) with elephants roaming around. Although a fearsome sight, war elephants were notorious for becoming panicked during battle and were as likely to rampage through their own troops as they were to trample the enemy underfoot.

Although the Second Punic War, between the Carthaginians and Romans, had been raging for eleven years it was not until 208 BC that the area now known as Andalucia saw its first occupying Roman army. The war had started in Hispania (Spain) with the siege and sack of an Iberian settlement at Saguntum (Sagunto – Valencia province) in 219 BC by the legendary Hannibal. Saguntum was a large and prosperous town on the Valencia coast that traded with Greek and Phoenician coastal colonies and sided with Rome against the Carthaginians. Following the sack of Saguntum Hannibal, with his elephants and cavalry had then crossed the Pyrenees leaving his brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago, in command of the remaining Carthaginian armies in Hispania.

They were joined in 214 BC by another army commanded by Hasdrubal Gisco (no relation to Hannibal). Although Rome immediately sent its own army to Spain it was ineffective, most of the action being indecisive skirmishes, until in 211 BC it was convincingly defeated in two battles, Castulo (Linares – Andalucia, Jaen province) and a few days later at Ilorca (Lorca – Murcia province). The Carthaginians effectively controlled Hispania south of the River Ebro whilst the Romans occupied the north.

The Gladius Sword – By David Friel (Flickr)

The Gladius Sword – By David Friel (Flickr)

In 210 BC Publius Cornelius Scipio was appointed overall commander of Roman forces in Spain. He landed at Carthago Nova (Cartagena) with 25,000 men in 30 ships and took the city. That winter Scipio concentrated on training his men and supplementing his forces with the native CeltIberians. It was at this time that the Roman army abandoned its use of the gladius sword in favour of the shorter Celtiberian sword the Gladius Hispaniensis or Spatha.

In 208 BC Scipio with between 40 and 50,000 Romans met 30,000 Carthaginians commanded by Hasdrubal at Baecula (Bailen – Andalucia, Jaen province) on the banks of the river Baetis (Guadalquiver). Hasdrubal was defeated and retreated north into the interior of Hispania and then attempted to join his brother, Hannibal, in Italy. Most of the Spanish tribes immediately allied themselves to Rome. Scipio turned his attentions on the Carthaginian army commanded by Mago who was defeated and retreated to Gades where he joined the third Carthaginian army in Spain commanded by Hasdrubal Gisco. Mago and Hasdrubal marched from Gades in the spring of 206 BC with between 50 and 70,000 infantry, 4 to 5,000 cavalry and 32 war elephants. They headed for Ilipa where they were joined in battle by Scipio with 45,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, most of whom were non Romans since Scipio had been forced to leave many of his legionaries to garrison various towns in the conquered areas.

In an epic and famous battle the Carthaginians were defeated and, by the end of 206 BC Gades had also been captured. Southern Hispania and the area now known as Andalucia, but then just part of Hispania Ulterior, were in the hands of Rome although it would take until 133 BC to totally subdue the native tribes in Hispania Ulterior and until 19 BC before the remainder of Hispania was totally conquered.

Copper Mine Workings Huelva Province

Copper Mine Workings Huelva Province

It is not difficult to see why the Romans found Hispania Ulterior so attractive. The mineral reserves in the Huelva and Cartagena regions, primarily lead, gold, silver, and copper were worth unimaginable amounts and the Romans had been paying over the odds for them for many years via trade with the Carthaginians, now they could exploit them directly. The fertile strip of land on the coast and up the vallies of the Baetis and Ebro produced grain, olives for oil, grapes for wine, honey and figs. The area was also known for its horses and mules, its pottery, sea salt and garum, a fish condiment. Altogether a very valuable piece of real estate.

Having subdued the area the Romans spent no time at all in colonising it. For the time this process was very enlightened. Any man, whether Roman born or not, who had served with the legions, was given the status of a Roman. These men, on retirement, normally when a campaign had ended rather than a fixed term of years, were entitled to land and property in the territory they had helped conquer or they could take their accumulated pay (much obtained through plunder) back to Italy. Many, particularly the native born, choose to stay. The Romans thereby obtained a colonising force and a reserve that could be called upon in the event of future uprisings in the colonised area.

Amphitheatre Italica

Amphitheatre Italica

Italica was the first Roman settlement in Hispania, dating to 205 BC. It was, originally, for wounded veteran legionaries, following their victory over the Carthaginians at the battle of Ilipa the previous year and occupied the site of an earlier Turdetanian settlement. This older part of Italica is largely beneath the modern town of Santiponce although there are tantalising glimpses of it between the more modern buildings including a theatre reached by following signs through the narrow alleys of the town.

Sumptuous Mosaics at Italica

Sumptuous Mosaics at Italica

Italica developed into a suburb of Hispalis and could be likened to Mayfair as a suburb of London, with large villas, many with elaborate and beautiful mosaics, a grand amphitheatre, wide streets, and luxurious baths, all on a bluff overlooking the working town and port of Hispalis. The amphitheatre is one of the best-preserved examples in Spain and the fourth largest known from any part of the Roman Empire. It could seat 40,000 people. The subterranean passages and pits beneath the stage where animals and gladiators were kept from the sight of the public are all still there.

Hadrian (117 – 38 AD), whose family came from Italica, built the grand villas and public buildings you see today in the 1st Century AD. Hadrian’s family included his predecessor, the Emperor Trajan (98 – 117 AD) who was actually born in Italica. He and Hadrian became the first Roman emperors of provincial origin. Italica is open to the public. From the ring road at Seville, follow the signs for Merida. As you leave the city behind you will see the signs for Santiponce.

Roman Columns Carteia

Roman Columns Carteia

Carteia, just outside San Roque, was another well-established settlement when the Romans captured it from the Carthaginians in 206 BC. They had occupied this Turdetani town since 228 BC. Prior to that Carteia was a thriving port administered by the Phoenicians. It was resettled in 171 BC by 4,000 sons of Roman legionaries and local women and gained fame in 45 BC when it became one of the last refuges of Pompey. The port exported the local wine to all parts of the empire. Partly as a consequence of the wine trade an important amphorae factory was built there.


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