It was under the Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD) that Cartagena, then called Carthago Nova, began to achieve its greatest splendour, perhaps of all times. Large numbers of ships from the eastern Mediterranean arrived and new roads integrated the city with the interior and the Empire more generally.
Major new public buildings were erected – baths, the ampitheatre, the theatre, the temple of Augustus, the forum, temples on the hills, bridges and strengthened city walls. Sewage systems were constructed and water in lead pipes went to the houses of the most wealthy. The great theatre could accommodate perhaps 6 to 7000 spectators and ampitheatre some 11,000. The city as a whole expanded into previously unoccupied areas and, while it is impossible to know its population at this time, a figure of around 30,000 has been suggested. Lead, silver, esparto (for naval and textile uses), salted fish and fish sauce (garum) as well as wine, oil and many agricultural products all found their way through the port en route to Rome and other places in the Empire. Houses of the rich would have boasted painted murals, mosaics, and sculptures. Unsurprisingly, it appears that around three-quarters of the Roman sculptures unearthed in Cartagena come from this remarkable period of the 1st Century AD.
Today, the remains of this splendid period abound in Cartagena. For us, one of the most interesting and evocative sites, however, is that of the area of the Roman Forum, the nerve centre of Roman political, commercial and cultural life. This was located by the present day Plaza de San Francisco and would have been surrounded by many important buildings. The visitable area of the Forum District was only excavated in 2008-09 and is still, to some extent, a work in progress. No doubt there will be changes and, hopefully, additions to what can be seen in the years to come. However, when we visited the area (June 2013) the main remains had been covered by a huge, modernistic roof, forming part of the new Archaeological Park of the Molinete. The large area which has been opened up to visitors (there is a small entrance charge) housed the thermal bath complex (in use between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD), including a colonnaded courtyard, and the atrium building much of which came to be used for religious banquets. It was open from 10am to 7pm from Tuesdays to Sundays, plus Mondays in September.
You enter the area through a very contemporary yellow and green “fence” with the area of the Roman Baths immediately visible as you walk in, just to your right. A visual display recounted the various items found during the excavations as we walked around the wooden walkway surrounding the excavated area. There is also a display which details the layout of the baths which contained the usual temperature graded rooms. You can then descend to the level of the excavated remains and walk through them. The northern wall, built in the 1st Century AD served as a terrace support throughout subsequent centuries and there is still the access built into it to a shelter constructed around 1937 as a protection against bombing raids during the Spanish Civil War.
The northern part of the colonnaded area was closed off in the 2nd Century AD, dividing it into two rooms. One of these still opens on to the baths while the other was turned into a tavern which would serve food and hot drinks. Several columns of the original colonnade were incorporated in the tavern, the remains of which are quite clear. You can see the spacious kitchen and the footings of the bar for serving food and drink. The colonnaded forecourt itself (the peristyle), built next to the baths in the 1st Century AD, would have given access to that facility as well as serving as a meeting place. It consisted of a central paved space with a herringbone brick pattern known as opus spicatum, flanked by four colonnades.
After going back along the peripheral walkway, we were able to descend to another part of the complex of buildings – the Atrium. At the far end of the Atrium is the “sala de culto”, or “cella”, a room used for religious purposes in the 2nd Century AD. It was separated from the Atrium by a wall, which housed an altar on the Atrium side and had paintings on it, parts of which have survived. As you look toward the altar from the walkway, you get an excellent view of the Atrium together with a rainwater basin and well. The information panels suggest that the Atrium may well have been the seat of a religious organization which held ritual banquets in honour of gods, probably of eastern origin. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, the other rooms on this level are the banqueting rooms, each of which could accommodate 10-12 people for a meal, Greek style – in other words, reclining on couches (triclinia) built against the wall. These were accessed from the courtyard. In one of the banqueting rooms we were able to see a surviving mural/wall painting. Apparently, in the first half of the 2nd Century AD, most of the main rooms were refurbished with new murals added. The local press reported in June 2013 that three wall sections of murals had been carefully restored and were being put back, where possible, in their original positions in the Atrium building to be on display by the end of July 2013. The Atrium complex would also have had service rooms and probably taverns and had two floors. The second floor was reached by a staircase from the courtyard. It seems that the building changed function in the 3rd Century AD, being divided into several houses but with access still from the Atrium.
The forum district, however, saw decline like the rest of Cartagena in later years. A fire in the 3rd Century AD affected some of the buildings. There was also a more general decline in the city from the mid-2nd Century to the end of the 4th Century with a reduction in the population, the abandonment of some public buildings and the re-use of materials from existing constructions, so that, even when temporary recovery came, the city was smaller and poorer than in the glorious Augustinian era. Much later, the whole area was the location of a populous district of Cartagena from the 18th to 20th Centuries, before many of the more modern buildings were demolished in the 1960s and 1970s, eventually opening up the area to archaeological investigation, the incredible results of which we are beginning to see today.
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. These can be seen at and obtained from, www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com. Clive and Rosie’s book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is now available to buy from the CHM/Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books including the follow-up “Exploring Murcia, More Days Out”), or phone Patti on 968 433 978.