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Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans in Southern Iberia

Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans in Southern Iberia – by Professor Simon Keay

This cruise provides you with a unique opportunity to travel along one of the earliest and most important maritime routes in western Europe. You travel in the footsteps of sailors and merchants who traversed the seas between the Atlantic coasts of Portugal and Spain, through the Straits of Gibraltar into the heart of the Mediterranean at Livorno, throughout antiquity. Prior to the arrival of the Phoenicians in the 7th century BC, the west and south of the Iberian peninsula had been settled by different Late Bronze Age peoples, living in a myriad of fortified hilltop settlements. They were in the possession of prestige goods, and their societies were organized hierarchically around the control of precious resources and prestigious imports. While there were  significant regional differences between them, there were also important cultural similarities, as evidenced by their bronze artefacts, which show stylistic similarities with those from peoples further north along the Atlantic coast as well as from the Mediterranean. The most significant grouping of these peoples is known to archaeologists today as Tartessos, possibly to be identified with Biblical Tarshish. Tartessos was situated in south-western Spain between the 7th and 6th centuries BC. It probably had some kind of urban centre on the site of the modern port of Huelva, and the presence of its characteristic ceramics and inscribed warrior stelae point to associated settlements across much of southern Spain. The principal source of its wealth was the silver, and to a lesser extent copper, to be found in the Rio Tinto mines in the Sierra Morena. The peoples of Tartessos traded these with both the peoples of central Spain, and Phoenician communities that had settled along the southern coast of Spain.


Gadir (Cádiz), the earliest and westernmost Phoenician colony, was the major trading partner with Tartessos, although there were a number of other smaller Phoenician settlements along the coast of southern Spain, and possibly Portugal, with outliers along the Moroccan coast as well. The colony was probably established by c. the 8th century BC, and would have acted as the key centre for the exchange of Tartessian metals for a range of imported jewellery, metalwork and ivory objects that are found on sites throughout southern Spain down until the end of the 6th century BC. This was symptomatic of intense Phoenician influence in the development of communities in southern Spain, a phenomenon often referred to by archaeologists as “orientalization” and which was to have profound influences on the cultural development of the region well into the Roman period. It is also important to note that while there were no Greek colonies in this part of Iberia, the presence of Greek objects at sites in southern Spain suggests that Greek merchants may have mingled while those from Tartessos and the Phoenician colonies at a number of coastal sites in southern Spain, including Malaca (Málaga).


Following the collapse of the loosely federated Phoenician trading network in the later 6th century BC, the communities of southern Spain gradually fell under the increasing economic power of Carthage. The broad cultural koiné of Tartessos had given way to a range of markedly hierarchical societies in south-west, south-east and eastern Iberia, and the Balearic islands, whose peoples came to be referred to loosely as “Iberians” by Greek and Latin writers in the course of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. These peoples developed regional dynamics that drew differentially upon Carthaginian, or Punic, influence from the south, as well as Greek, or Hellenized, influences from the north and east, which were particularly evident in the layout of their towns. Punic cultural influence, however, is never particularly visible in archaeological terms, except at such exceptional sites as Villaricos (Almeria) and on the island of Ibiza (Ebussus).


However, centuries of earlier Phoenician influence ensured that the communities of southern Spain were quite receptive to it. It thus comes as no surprise to find how quickly the communities of southern Iberia succumbed to the new surge of Carthaginian imperialism ushered in after the end of the first war between Carthage and Rome (264-241 BC). Hamilcar Barca embarked a period of aggressive overseas expansion, whose first phase ended with the foundation of Carthago Nova (Cartagena) in 228 BC, a major strategic base with capacious harbour. This rapidly drew Carthage into conflict with Rome both in Iberia and in Italy during the second war between Carthage and Rome (218-205 BC) under the leadership of Hannibal. Recent excavations in Cartagena have revealed important evidence for the layout of the Carthaginian centre. Rome’s eventual victory was marked with the establishment of a settlement of wounded veteran soldiers at Italica  (Santiponce), just outside of modern Seville, in 206 BC, and was followed by the formal incorporation of Iberia into the Roman Empire in 197 BC. Southern Spain was initially designated as the province of Hispania Ulterior Baetica (literally Hispania further from Rome), with its main administrative centre at Corduba (Córdoba) and a scattering of other Roman settlements, including Carteia (El Rinconcillo), near Algeciras.


However Gadir, or Gades (Cádiz) as it came to be called, Carthago-Nova and many of the other earlier towns also retained administrative roles in the new provincial framework, often recalling aspects of their diverse cultural origins on their coinages. The very rich silver resources in the hinterland of Carthago-Nova, made this Carthaginian foundation a focus of particular interest to Rome, and the source of much of the silver used in the Denarius coinage of the later Roman Republic. It is probably for this reason, and its relative proximity to Rome by sea, that this town may have acted as chief administrative centre of the province of Hispania Citerior Tarraconensis (literally Hispania closer to Rome), down until some time afrer the reign of Augustus, after whose reign it was displaced by the growing importance of Tarraco (Tarragona).


There is very little doubt that southern Spain was of major economic importance to the Roman empire, with the ports of Hispalis, Gades, Malaca and Carthago Nova acting as key conduits in the movement of a range of commodities to the ports of Rome and other parts of the western Mediterranean, and for a rich range of return cargoes. Hispalis was the principal conduit for olive oil from estates in the Guadalquivir and Genil valleys, as well as gold mined in north-west Spain, also bound for Rome. Gades, by contrast, was a major centre for the production and export of a range of fish sauces produced in the hinterland of the port, and along the Moroccan coast, while Malaca was a centre for the export of locally quarried stone destined for other parts of southern Spain. This trade between southern Spain, Rome and the western Mediterranean was very intense, particularly for the period between the later 1st century BC and the middle of the 3rd century AD. It generated substantial fortunes for regional landowners, merchants and shippers,and goes at least some way towards explaining a growth in the power of Senators from Baetica at Rome in the later 1st century AD, and the rise to power of the “Spanish” emperors Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

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