Most Recent Visit: June 2016
In 29 BCE, the Romans began a series of actions in northern Hispania intended to finally bring the whole of the peninsula under Roman control, a task that the Romans had been taking on for the better part of the previous two centuries. The Cantabrian Wars lasted from 29 BCE to 19 BCE and were fought against the Cantabri, Astures, and Gallaeci peoples. In 26 BCE, Augustus himself traveled to Hispania to personally lead the campaign, but shortly thereafter an illness forced him to leave the campaign in the hands of his legates Gaius Antistius Vetus and Publius Carisius while he recovered in Tarraco. The capture of the Asturian fortress of Lancia in 25 BCE brought the conflict to, what was thought at the time to be, an ending. While that turned out not to be the case, it precipitated the founding of Colonia Julia Augusta Emerita.
With the Cantabarian Wars seemingly over, in 25 BCE Carisus was appointed as a deductor by Augustus, tasked with setting up a colony for veterans of Legio V Alaudae and Legio X Gemina, who had been fighting in the war. Though the veterans had been fighting in the far north of the peninsula, they were to be settled over 400 kilometers away, in the southwest of the peninsula. The name of the new colony, Augusta Emerita, is a direct reflection of its function; a settlement for veteran soldiers (emeriti) under Augustus. Finds in the area indicate that there may have been a pre-Roman settlement in the vicinity of Augusta Emerita, but it is not attested in the historical record and there have been no pre-Roman architectural remains found to conclusively place a settlement at that location. Augusta Emerita was founded as a colonia iuris Italicum, a provincial colony governed by the same Italic rights as a colony in Italy.
Possibly by 22 BCE, but no later than 16 BCE, Augusta Emerita became the capitol city of the province of Lusitania, which had been created by Augustus just a few years previous. By the time of Claudius, Lusitanian was further divided into three judicial and administrative areas called conventus, with Augustus Emerita being the seat of the Conventus Emeritensis. The territory of Augustus Emeritus was apparently quite large, perhaps as large as 20,000 square kilometers. The amount of land granted to the colony was so large, that even after settling the initial complement of veterans, and some indigenous people, a further two assignments of settlers were needed to fill the vacant land, and even then there was surplus land that was still unoccupied. In 69 CE, Otho sent additional settlers to Augusta Emerita, probably veterans of Legio VI Victrix, in order to shore up support there as he sought the imperial seat. During the Flavian Dynasty, veterans from Legio VIII Gemina were settled at Augusta Emerita. Domitian apparently added additional territory to the city during his reign.
Augusta Emerita, also referred to as Emerita Augusta or just Emerita, doesn’t seem to play much of a historical role after its founding. It was certainly an important commercial and administrative hub in both the region and the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. The city seems to have remained at least regionally important through to the Visigoth conquest, and was then subsequently of some importance in the Visigoth period of occupation and beyond.
Getting There: Mérida is not exactly centrally located, and it’s not much of a draw other than the archaeological remains, but it is reasonably well-connected despite these things. I was headed to Mérida from Madrid and took a train out of Atocha station. There several trains that leave daily, and the trip takes between about 4.5 and 8.5 hours, though the most common length is about 5 hours. The price of the train runs between about 30 Euros and 45 Euros depending on which departure is chosen. Seville is another potential starting point to get to Mérida, though departures are much more limited, with the only departure sometimes leaving later in the afternoon and taking about 3.5 hours. Train prices and departures seem to have quite a bit of variation depending on the day and season, so it’s essential to check the Renfe website for an exact schedule. A bus is also an option for getting to Mérida; Avanza runs several departures a day out of the Estación Sur de Autobuses in Madrid with prices starting at 26 Euros. Those buses take between 4 and 5 hours. I opted for the train because the price difference was just a few Euros, the train stations in both Madrid and Mérida were more centrally located, and I figured there was a little less of a chance of delay with a train on a trip that long. Five hours on a train also seemed a little more comfortable than 5 hours on a bus.
Getting around Mérida and between the Roman monuments is pretty easy and doesn’t really require any sort of transportation. Nearly everything is within a reasonable walking distance save for a few things. Tracing the course of two of the aqueducts into the northern outskirts of the city require what some might consider an excess amount of walking (about 1.5 kilometers one-way on each). The Roman dam at the Proserpina Reservoir is also beyond a reasonable walking distance, but, there is a regular bus service to it from Mérida during the summer.
The Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, and rightly so. Not only are the remains of the ancient city quite extensive, but also impressive and well-preserved. An argument could certainly be made that the remains of Augusta Emerita are perhaps the best in Europe outside of Italy. Among what can be found of Augusta Emerita is a circus, theater, amphitheater, three aqueducts (two with intact arched sections still remaining), portions of both the local and provincial forums, a temple, several bathing complexes, two bridges, several domestic dwellings, a section of city walls, and numerous other miscellaneous remains. The circus is probably the best preserved circus in all of Europe, and the theater may well be the best preserved in Europe behind the theater at Arausio (Orange, France).
I spent a total of two and a half days to spend in Mérida, and my time was pretty well taken up by seeing all the Roman remains in and around the city. I had enough time that I could see them fairly thoroughly at an acceptable pace; I was never really too rushed. I will refer back to this map, rather than include one in each post, for the locations of the sites around the city.
Because the remains of Augusta Emerita are so extensive, I can’t possibly cover them all in one, or even two or three posts, so I’ll have to break up the coverage of them into several posts. I will be posting as follows, with the date I expect each one to be posted, and link active:
Cassius Dio, Historia Romana, 23-26.
Curchin, Leonard A. Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Edmundson, Jonathan. “A Tale of Two Colonies: Augusta Emerita (Mérida) and Metellinum (Medellín) in Roman Lusitania.” Roman Colonies in the First Century of Their Foundation. Oxford: Oxbow, 2011. 32-54.
MacKendrick, Paul. The Iberian Stones Speak: Archaeology in Spain and Portugal. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969.
Mays, Larry W. “A Brief History of Roman Water Technology.” Ancient Water Technologies. Ed. Larry W. Mays. New York: Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg, 2010. 115-38.
McElderry, R. Knox. “Vespasian’s Reconstruction of Spain.” The Journal of Roman Studies 8 (1919): 53-102.
Pliny, Naturalis Historia, 4.35.
Silva, Luis. Viriathus and the Lusitanian Resistance to Rome 155-139 BC. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2013.
Strabo, Geographica, 3.12.15.
Tacitius, Historiae, 1.78
Watkins, Thomas H. “Coloniae and Ius Italicum in the Early Empire.” The Classical Journal 78.4 (1983): 319-36.