Vestiges of Barcino – Barcelona’s Roman History
Barcelona’s greatest claims to fame tend to focus on the city’s medieval past or Antoni Gaudí’s famously whimsical architecture. The city’s roots, however, reach much further into the past. One of its earliest heydays occurred during the Roman Empire.
Whereas it’s true that other Catalonian cities boast a richer Roman heritage (the aqueduct and amphitheater in Tarragona, for example), Barcelona has integrated the vestiges of Colonia Julia Augusta Faventia Paterna Barcino – or simply Barcino to its residents and constant flow of visitors – in most intriguing ways. Discovering these traces is one of the highlights of Barcelona tourism.
The city has always been an international melting pot, even during the days of the Roman Empire. Although much smaller geographically (13 hectares) and demographically (2000 inhabitants) speaking than it’s southern and northern neighbors Tarraco and Emporion, Barcino was nevertheless an important administrative, religious and mercantile center.
It had a busy port where the Llobregat river meets the sea, fertile fields beyond the thick city walls, stone quarries, a fishing trade and other natural resources.
Home to merchants, traders, regional administrators, priests, farmers and a significant number of ex-slaves looking to make a new life for themselves.
Something else endured throughout the ages: the city’s administrative and political center is still in the same place. Plaça Sant Jaume, home to the Palau de la Generalitat (the seat of Catalonian government) and city hall, is where the forum, the heart of Roman political life, used to be. The forum sat atop the highest point of Mount Taber, a hill surrounded by streams coming down from the Collserola hills. Although long dry, the memory of these streams is still alive in street names like Torrent d’Olla (Olla stream) or Riera de St. Miquel (St. Miquel river bank).
The streams also fed the city’s aqueducts, which entered Barcino where Plaça Nova is today, directly in front of the cathedral. Half of an aqueduct arch still juts out of the building at the corner of Carrer del Bisbe, where the Catalan poet Joan Brossa placed the large bronze letters of his visual poem BARCINO. The same corner also conserves parts of the old city wall and one of the circular towers and marks the spot where the western gate led into the city.
The cathedral is a good starting point for retracing the course of the old Roman wall. During the Middle Ages many important religious and noble buildings were constructed into or on top of the wall. For example, the Palau del Bisbe – or Archbishop’s Palace – on Plaça Nova was built around four Roman towers. Walking down Carrer Sotstinent Navarro to the bottom of Carrer Regomir takes us along one of the most well preserved stretches of Roman wall.
Carrer Regomir was once the eastern entrance into the city, known as the Porta del Mar or Portal of the Sea, because goods arriving at the port entered the city by way of this gate. The ruins of the gate can be seen inside the Pati Llimona Civic Center on Carrer Regomir. From here, the wall ran along Carrer Gignás, Avinyó and de la Palla to eventually come full circle at Carrer del Bisbe.
Walking up Carrer Regomir takes us back across Plaça Sant Jaume to the rear of the cathedral. Not only does the cathedral bear witness to mundane matters of ancient city life like fortification or water supply, but it also connects with its spiritual life. The cloisters extend into an area once occupied by Barcino’s main temple, dedicated to Augustus, the emperor who founded the city in the 10th century B.C. Vestiges of the temple still remain, three impressive columns tucked into the atrium of a building at Carrer Paradis, 10. Look for a small sign outside the entrance for the Centre Excursionista de Catalunya.
Roman life extended beyond the walls of Barcino. One of the most important areas is the Roman necropolis or funerary road on Plaça Vila de Madrid (see photo). As dictated by Roman custom, people buried their dead outside of the walled city. The necropolis is more than 2000 years old and houses the remains of about 200 people of humble origin. The cemetery was discovered in the 1950s when a fire burned down the convent once located at the site. The necropolis was restored and opened to the public in 2010.
During the course of Barcino’s history, people began to settle beyond the city walls, as revealed by archaeological sites discovered during the renovation of the Santa Caterina Market (Av. Francesc Cambo) or the Sagrera train station. Artifacts, including busts, inscriptions, statues, ceramics and household objects, found at these and other sites can be seen at the Museu d’Historia de Barcelona.
One of the most mysterious aspects of the city’s past is the Roman name Barcino, with different accounts pointing to Celtic, Iberian or Ligurian origins. The more mythically minded claim the name refers to Hercules’ ninth ship – or Barca Nona – which ran aground off Barcelona’s shore. Regardless of its origin, Barcino serves as a good starting point for tracing the evolution of the city’s name: Barcinona in the 6th century, Barchinona in the 9th and so on, drawing a line through history that brings us to the name we know today: Barcelona.
Discover more about the city on BCNinternet’s Barcelona Blog, full of great tips to make the most of your time in the city.
by Hildy SnowPublished in Tourism
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