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Roman around: Why Spain is celebrating its Ancient history
By thinkSPAIN Team Sun, Sep 1, 2019
WE KNOW it wasn't built in a day, that all roads lead to it and that when you're there, you should do as its people do. But otherwise, it's hard to believe that once, Rome was the seat of Europe's most powerful empire and that almost anyone born in the wider continent hails from a country that was once under its influence, or that most of us probably share DNA with the Ancient Romans.
But it's actually obvious pretty much wherever you go in Europe – aside from famous monuments, settlements and ruins, any building featuring columns and arches is based upon Roman architecture, even if it wasn't built until the 21st century; likewise straight roads and irrigation pipes.
Ancient Rome is everywhere, and its legacy in Spain is roughly equal to that of the country's other most powerful ancestors, the Moors, or Arab settlers from North Africa who lived on Spanish soil for the best part of 700 years.
Last year, for the first time, parts of Spain began to commemorate the date of the fall of the Roman Empire, and this year, the celebrations have expanded so rapidly that Día de la Romanidad ('Romanhood' or 'Romanness' Day) are now scheduled across cities from north to south, and even outside Spain, having stretched to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.
The main events will be this coming Wednesday, September 4, although other acts will be scheduled across the country over the rest of the month.
Why September 4?
“Back in the year 476 AD, Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus and formally liquidated what little was left of the Roman Empire in the west,” says Pedro Villanueva, political scientist and spokesman for the association which started Día de la Romanidad.
This was the number of the year in the Gregorian calendar, the one used today, and also the time when the Anno Domini era came into popular use in Europe. It was also the number of the year in the Julian calendar, where it was a leap year which started on a Thursday. Additionally, it is considered to be, officially, the final year of the Ancient era and the first year of the Middle Ages in Europe.
Odoacer, chieftain of the Germanic tribes, was quite an old man at the time – aged 43 – when he was proclaimed King of Italy by his Ostrogoth army troops and led them on a crusade through the valley of the river Po, pillaging his way across the country.
Once in Ravenna, he staged a coup against the usurper of the Western Roman Empire Romulus Augustulus (picture two shows his statue), but opted not to kill him – instead, he forced him into exile in what is now known as Castel dell'Ovo on Megaride Island in the Bay of Naples, and gave him a pension of 6,000 solidi – a solido being a gold coin weighing around 4.5 grams.
A week before, Romulus Augustulus' father Orestes had been arrested and executed in Placenza.
According to Villanueva: “This is where the Western Roman Empire as a political nation ended, but not as a cultural nation – which included the Eastern Roman Empire.”
Apart from reviving a key moment in history – the borderline between one major era and another – 'Romanness Day' is about celebrating what we all have in common, explains Villanueva.
“In these times where everything that goes against unity and the general interest seems to be everywhere, 'Romanhood Day' came about as a celebration of the union of cultures, protection of tangible and intangible heritage, a common thread which runs through different resources and generates participation in different cultural arenas, both financially and socially.
“It's an event of both social and cultural interest – it recognises the positive values that different cities and populations offer when they join together to commemorate their common inheritance.”
Día de la Romanidad is an opportunity for us all to recall that, in reality, we're all Romans, and to learn about our past and feel closer to the rest of Europe, Villanueva concludes.
Spain's best Roman ruins – and 'Roman Day' events
In total, 11 of Spain's 17 autonomously-governed regions – bar the islands, Navarra, the Basque Country, La Rioja and Aragón – are set to host events on September 4 and throughout the rest of the month.
It is unlikely there will be lots of huge parades in costume this year, but the association is working on strengthening the idea and is drawing up 'numerous deals' with town halls, museums and universities, and recognises that it needs to push itself in the national media and throw all its efforts into making 'Roman Day' a 'thing' in Spain, on the level of Easter week, the Moors and Christians, and other huge regional celebrations such as the Fallas (in the Comunidad Valenciana).
But it has already made vast leaps since the first edition on September 4, 2018 – and some of Spain's key Roman architectural sites will be thrust into the spotlight as a result.
To celebrate our Roman heritage – on the 1543rd anniversary of the 'Fall of Rome', or on any other day of the year - here are five of the country's top destinations:
Sagunto (Valencia province)
Famous as the end point of Hannibal's march across the Pyrénées, reputedly with elephants, the Roman amphitheatre in the port town of Sagunto just north of Valencia city (third picture) is a definite bucket-list attraction – and it's one of the main scenes for 'Romanhood Day' and, in fact, for the rest of that week.
Starting Wednesday and concluding on Sunday evening, everything from guided tours, workshops and talks through to re-enactments of the battles between the Greeks and the Romans are on the programme.
Santiponce (Sevilla province)
No trip of more than a weekend in length to Sevilla would be complete without a visit to the huge Roman ruins at Santiponce – actually, you could easily spend a week there and still be starry-eyed by the end of it. The Itálica archaeological complex, a huge tourist attraction which is gunning to become a UNESCO heritage site (why isn't it one already?) will be the setting for mock battles and re-creations of key scenes from the Roman era from Wednesday onwards.
If Spain decided to name its own 'New Seven Wonders' – as the wider world did in the year 2007 – the humungous aqueduct (fourth picture) in this Castilla y León city would be one of them. Obviously, 'Roman Day' activities are going to be based there – guided tours, free entry to the information centre, and visits inside this famous bridge.
Don't worry if you miss it this week – the Aqueduct has been around for 2,000 years. But you do need to go there. Seriously. You've simply got to see it at least once in your lifetime.
Given that Wednesday isn't the most convenient day for a big party or festival for the majority of the non-retired population, this Galicia city has opted to 'go Roman' on Sunday (September 8) instead. Its iconic Hercules Tower is the venue, and along with various religious ceremonies and guided tours, the events are much closer to those of a typical Spanish fiesta: food and booze. Roman recipes and Roman wine will be unearthed, recreated and dished up, and you can watch gladiators fighting it out in a makeshift Colisseum, too.
More family-focused, Roman celebrations in this northern city's Campa Torres archaeological park will take place on Saturday (September 7) and resemble a giant sports' day, with races and games, including board games, from the time of the Roman Empire re-enacted.
We said five, but...
Although events there, if any, have not been confirmed in the national media – but are very likely – at least two other Roman sites in Spain need to be added to your travel list, for any time of the year. Mérida, in the land-locked western region of Extremadura, is famous Europe-wide for its spectacular amphitheatre, and in Alicante, the MARQ Museum is based next to a huge complex of Roman ruins, which are essential viewing during a trip to the Costa Blanca. Whilst visiting the MARQ and the archaeological settlement, pop some comfortable shoes on and take a hike up Santa Bárbara Castle – which isn't Roman, it's Moorish, but very worth it and silly to miss when it's practically next door to the MARQ. And, of course, going back to the 'when in Rome' proverb, do like the alicantinos do and spend some down-time chilling out on its fabulous El Postiguet beach.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
This 64,000-solidi question was asked, and beautifully answered, in Monty Python's classic film The Life of Brian, but omitted a handful of the Empire's contributions to us – especially those it made to Spain.
The siesta, long held to be a highly-Spanish concept and, despite popular misconception, is only a 20- or 30-minute nap after a heavy lunch, was in fact invented by the Romans: they took a kip at the sixth hour of the afternoon, and this is what gave it its name.
Zebra crossings were also a Roman creation – and you can see the remains of them at Pompei.
Primary school education, or kids going to class until the age of around 12 before moving onto high school, was a Roman concept; many did not continue their lessons beyond this age, but boys and girls were all educated together until they were 12.
La cena, as the evening meal – supper or dinner – is known in the Spanish language, and also in Italian albeit pronounced differently, is also what they called it in Ancient Rome.
Sundays off may have been mentioned in the early verses of Genesis, but it was not until Caesar Constantinus declared the Sabbath to be a day of rest in the year 321 AD that it became widespread (and is still in force in Spain today).
Divorce, illegal in Spain until the year 1982, was socially acceptable in Rome, and unlike in the UK where one party has to 'sue' the other for 'unreasonable behaviour', 'desertion' or 'adultery', in the days of the Empire no cause had to be cited other than that the couple did not want to be married any longer.
Graffiti has not just been a headache for local councils in the 20th and 21st centuries – Roman rulers were already complaining about how it was rife on public buildings in the first century BC. So that famous 'Latin graffiti' scene in which Brian gets a painful grammar lesson (fifth picture) is based upon fact.
Traffic restrictions and car-free towns have hit headlines in Spain recently and opinions have never been more divided, but transport rules were already in place in Ancient Rome. Chariots (and other wheeled traffic) were permanently banned from the main square, which was pedestrian-only, and only allowed on any other city streets at night.
Drink measures appear to have been forgotten in Spain – unlike in the UK where a 'unit' is a finger of spirit or liqueur and glasses of wine come in set quantities of 125ml, 175ml and 250ml, a Spanish bartender will simply pour. Some bartenders count, in their heads, to ensure they don't sell themselves short, but optics are rare, if they even exist. However, a small-ish glass of wine or spirit is sometimes, depending upon the region you are in, known in Spanish as a chato – a word for 'mini' in Latin America – and which comes from the Roman times when wine was drunk in a cup of a set size, known as a ciato and pronounced the same, rather than necked down by the jugful or in communal bowls as in the later Mediaeval era.
Then, of course, the Romans have added plenty to language, and not just through Latin words contributing to the Romance languages and to English – Julius Caesar was born by Caesarean section, and the month of August is, of course, named after the Emperor Augustus.
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