I promised to write some more in detail about the Roman ruins in Tarragona here, so here you will find a more detailed description of what you can visit in Tarragona if you – like me – are a litte crazy about the history of the Roman empire. But first, a general desciption of the Roman Tarragona.
Tarragona enters world history under the name: “Tarraco” around 200 BC, when Rome and Carthage are battling for the rule over the Mediterranean Sea during the second punic war (that one with Hanno and the elephants). The Romans needed a strategic bridgehead between Rome and the war scene of Spain, and they therefore founded Tarraco. The city was located strategically perfect close to the Mediterranean Sea and not that far from Rome, and it provided a perfect link to Spanish roads.
Tarraco becomes the first Roman settlement on the Iberian peninsula, and the city preserved its importance throughout the 200 years of conquest and colonization of the peninsula, as well as during the rest of the Roman Empire.
From military to administrative city
Over time, the city develops from a military settlement to an important central city with colonial status – a legal city nomination with specific privileges under the Latin name: “Colonia Iulia Urbs Triumphalis Tarraco”, which is believed to be handed by Julius Caesar for the city’s help in the civil war against Pompey.
Later, Tarraco becomes the provincial capital of the Roman province: Tarraconensis / Hispania Citerior – in northeastern Spain by Emperor Augustus, who also resided in the town during the war against northern Spanish tribes.
The model in the picture below shows how Tarraco might have looked like at its peak around 200 AD. At that time a large part of what you now can see of today’s ruins: the circus, the walls, the amphitheater, etc. was constructed. The model shows Tarraco as an important administrative city of the Roman province, revealing a city planning that formed a model for provincial capitals of the Roman Empire.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the buildings have been used as building materials, whereby a large part of the ancient Roman town either forms part of the medieval buildings or is hidden below the present modern city. However, you will still get a sense of Roman Tarraco through the city design of the old town and through the many ruins, that fortunately still exsist. And this is the reason why Unesco declared the historic center of Tarraco as the world heritage site in 2000.
In the following you will find the sights that I think are the most important:
- The defense walls / Las murallas
- Amphitheater / Amphitheater Romá
- Circus / Torre del Pretori-Circ Romá
- Forum / Fórum Romá
- Museo Nacional Arqueológic de Tarragona
There are also many other Roman sights, if you have time for more – please check the links below.
The defense walls/Las murallas
As shown in the model above, Tarraco was protected by a comprehensive defense wall of approx. 3.5 km. The oldest part of the wall is from the city’s foundation in the 200s BC, and is, in addition to one of the earliest Roman buildings in Spain, also a fine example of Roman military construction. The defensive walls were of course modified constantly as needed and eventually became a part of the medieval town. Today there are about 1100m of the wall remaining, and a part of this can be seen on a nice walk: “Passaig Arquelógic” along one side of the older town center. Here you will find – among green areas, inscriptions and a few statues, including a copy of Augustus from Prima Porta – a clear impression of how the wall has constructed as a solid, high defense wall for the city with towers, entrances, etc.
Amphitheater /Amfiteatre Romá
The most impressive Roman attraction is the city’s amphitheater just outside the old town and close to the beach. Here gladiators have sought their fame, criminals got their death sentence, and Christians met their martyrdom, all in the name of entertainment, politics and power. Bread and circus, you know.
The amphitheater of Tarragona was built in the 200s AD at Tarracos peak. Today, it is well-preserved as you can see in the video below, with the iconic form of the arena and all the seats. In the middle and to one of the sides you can also see the ruins of two older churches – one from the visigotic period and one from the Middle Ages built into and from the amphitheater – in the place where a few local saints Fruftuós, Auguri and Eulogi met their death in the beginning of the decline of the Roman empire.
Cirkus/Torre del Pretori-Circ Romá
If the Roman did not entertain themselves in the amphitheater, he could choose to go to the circus and see the often very dramatic horseraces. In Tarragona, you will find one of the most well-preserved circuses in the Western world, unfortunately a large part of it is preserved below the surface of the current city. However, it is possible to sense the circus in the exposed ruins. You will find a part of the circus passing through “Torre del Pretori”, but there are also other parts visible on Plaça Sedassos, along Carrer Trinquet Vell and on Plaça de la Font.
The Torre del Pretori was originally a gate, which in the Middle Ages was transformed into a palace. Besides being the entrance to the circus, you will find here various Roman inscriptions and tombstones. I also recommend that you take the stairs to the roof to enjoy a nice view of the circus, the cathedral and the rest of the city.
Tarraco had two forums – a Forum Provincial, which today is the square in front of Torre del Pretori and the museum: “Museu Nacional Arqueológic de Tarragona”, and another forum a little further away from the city center: Romá went. The forum was the city’s commercial and administrative center, and at Fórum Romá you can see ruins of a basilica, shops and roads, located just in the middle of the city surrounded by balconies with bikes and laundry.
Museo Nacional Arqueológic de Tarragona
Finally, I recommend that you visit the archaeological museum, where you will find objects from the city’s excavations: sculptures, inscriptions and household items from daily life in Tarraco. You will also find a piece of the old wall in the basement.
But most importantly for me, you will find some wonderful mosaics, especially the large mosaic at the stairs: “Mosaic de Peixos de la Pineda”. You can see a fragment of it in the picture above. A fantastic floor made by the smallest coloured stones picturing 47 different fish etc. from the Mediterranean Sea. You will also find beautiful mosaic flooring with graphic patterns and a lovely mosaic of Medusa.
As mentioned, there are more Roman sights in Tarragona than the above mentioned, some of them located a little outside the city – including the aqueduct: “Pont del Diable” – Devil’s bridge as well as a Roman burial site. You can find more information about historic Tarraco and the other attractions here: