Italica pano

The Roman province of Hispania, what is now Spain and Portugal, was once an integral part of the Roman Empire. Primarily it was Rome’s bread basket, but it was also an important source of gold, wool, olive oil, and wine. Today we visited the ruins of Itálica, a city built as a retirement home for Italian veterans of the Punic Wars (brutal wars fought between Rome and Carthage). It was never as big as Hispalis (Sevilla), five miles to the south, but it was an important Roman cultural center. And it produced two Roman emperors: Trajan and Hadrian.

pillarI have to say the ruins are quite impressive and extremely well preserved. When the nearby Guadalquivír River silted up during Itálica’s heyday, no one was interested in investing further in a city that had no access to the sea. Itálica’s population dwindled until it was essentially a ghost town. Unlike most Roman ruins, it was never built upon by succeeding civilizations. Much of the stone was carted away by nearby residents who understandably took advantage of free building material, but the footprint is amazingly intact, like a life-sized city map. For the admission fee of €1,50 (that’s about $1.70), you can roam the ancient city to your heart’s content. Aside from the occasional school group, you have the place to yourself.

How interesting to walk down streets that have not been broadened and expanded in more modern times. You can even see the well-defined, original intersections. You can see the outlines of shops that lined the streets and the floor plans of residences. In the gymnasium, you can distinguish the workout room from the baths, and see the outlines of the various pools in the ginormous public baths. (They covered 32,000 square-feet.)

One of the most remarkable features of Itálica is the almost-perfect mosaics found in many of the excavated buildings. One house has a beautiful mosaic of Neptune; another has a mosaic of the twelve gods for whom heavenly bodies were named.

Neptune mosaic

Neptune mosaic

passagewayBut my favorite structure was the amphitheater. Only half the size of the Colosseum, it is still the third largest in the Roman Empire. Unlike the Colosseum, where you are mostly restricted to exploring the upper seating areas, Itálica is completely accessible. You can walk out onto the arena floor and roam through the maze of subterranean passageways where gladiators and wild beasts hung out waiting to be pitted one against the other. In places the intense Spanish sunshine streams into these cool, dank corridors through the portals leading into the arena, and in others the eerie darkness of the tunnels leaves you dreading what you might encounter around the next bend. I paused at a wide gap in my circuit. To my right was the center arena; to my left, a back entrance to the amphitheater. I could just imagine a chariot rounding the corner and charging through this corridor into the arena, whip cracking, the driver paying no heed to whomever had the misfortune to be standing in his path. The image was so strong, I instinctively stepped back into the maze of tunnels.

This little gem, in the middle of the Andalucían countryside, is a well-kept secret, and on this particular day it was all ours.

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