The second of our suggested “Roman” visits is to the Casa Fortuna. In 1971, a section of Roman road and the ruins of two Roman houses were located in a small square (Plaza del Risueño), off the Serreta Caridad a little way north of the sea front.
By 2000, a complete Roman dwelling and section of road had been uncovered with the museum which houses them opening a few years later. There is a small entry fee.
The house in question appears originally to have been constructed at the end of the 1st Century BC but with alterations made to it a century or so later. By the end of the 2nd Century AD it appears to have been abandoned.
On entering the museum, you will see a small section of Roman road which ran to one side. Then, inside, are three clearly identified bedrooms (cubiculae), a room for official business and the reception of visitors (tablinum) and a small shrine. As you pass on, however, you come to one of the house’s jewels – wall paintings of plant motifs, flower garlands, swans and figurines. These have obviously been restored since the excavations, but are virtually unique in Spain in terms of their completeness. There are also walls with carved stonework and mosaics on one of the floors. The triclinium follows. This is a banqueting room which would have had couches around the central space, wall fresco paintings and a decorated mortar floor.
Next to the house, at a lower level coming off the main street, there was obviously an alley which was subsequently walled up and may have been used as a work space and/or a kitchen. One of the most interesting features, however, is the road and the main entrance to the house which you find at the “back” of the museum. The road was 4½ metres wide and, opposite the Casa Fortuna, on its other side, is the entrance to another Roman house. In Roman times, entry to the Casa Fortuna was through a main door with stone pillars which are still well preserved. The name of the house, “Fortuna” is carved in the stone floor.
The remains of this Roman house as well as the main road at the back of the museum are, in our view, well worth an hour of your time to give an idea of how a wealthy Roman of the period would have lived. In addition, there are display cases showing some of the finds during excavation, including ceramics, weights used in weaving, coins and personal adornments.
However, if it is the sheer magnificence of Cartagena around the 1st Century AD that you want to see, then there can be no better place than the splendid Roman Theatre which is now attached to an impressive Museum, through which you go before coming out into the awe inspiring spectacle of the theatre itself. The entrance to the museum (itself part of the restored 19th Century Pascual de Riquelme Palace) is just before the Cartagena waterfront and opposite the recently restored town hall building. Entrance to the Museum and Theatre costs a few Euros but you will be very hard to please if you do not think it worthwhile! The entry area also has a small shop and, if you want to buy a memento or guide book, now is probably the time as you may well leave by an entirely different exit from the Theatre itself.
As you walk into the museum, note a closed off area to the left with an inscribed stone and a square raised stone structure which is part of a 5th Century AD building. To the right is another room with a section of stone wall. You then walk along a fascinating corridor with display cases showing the history of the theatre area, going backwards to the time of the theatre itself. This is perhaps not as strange as it might seem at first, as you are, of course, following a route which will end up in the Roman Theatre. In this corridor, you will see various ceramics and glassware dating from the 16th to the 19th Centuries. The area formed the “Barrio de Pescadores” (the fishing quarter) in the 18th and 19th Centuries with the remains of the theatre concealed beneath it and the “arrabal viejo” (old poor quarter) immediately before that. Next, you pass the “villa vieja” (old town) dating back to the earliest times after the Christian Reconquest around 1245, which, curiously, in 1381 is recorded as housing a mere 176 families, perhaps around 800 people. A far cry indeed from Cartegena’s Roman splendour. Remains of 14th and 15th Century pottery are on display. Further along the corridor, we find ourselves looking at Qartayannat Al-Haifa (Arab Cartagena) and, it is said, by the 12th Century this was a fully fledged Moorish town. Parts of a hand spindle, some bone buttons, ceramics and an oil lamp dating to the 10th to 13th Centuries are displayed.
Before we arrive at the Roman period, there is the Byzantine Quarter to pass. We are told that, following the creation of the new province of Spania by the Byzantines in 552 AD, Cartagena became the capital and main military port for an extensive territory. There are many examples of ceramics from the 5th to the 7th Centuries to be seen, together with amphorae including one huge example which came to Cartagena from North Africa. We now finally arrive at the Roman era. It is thought that the area of the theatre had a market function at this time. Before ascending the first escalator en-route to the theatre itself, there is an exhibition room with some remarkable pieces to see. There are fragments of Roman columns and sculptures, including a larger than life statue in white Carrera marble and possibly of Augustus, which is said to have presided over a “curia” or meeting room in the local senate house in the Forum of Carthago Nova, dated to the early 1st Century AD. Many Corinthian capitals, also of Carrera marble are to be seen, while one pink travertine section of a Roman column has been identified as having been brought from Mula, some 70 kilometres distant.
At the top of this first escalator, you come to another exhibition room which includes a small statue of the Roman (and Greek) god, Apollo, who is depicted as seated on a rock with a naked torso but thighs covered by a cloak. You will also see two grey limestone lintels which once crowned the entrance to the Roman Theatre. These are dedicated to Lucius Caesar and (probably) Caius Caesar, grandsons of the Emperor Augustus and dating from the very end of the 1st Century BC. It is thought that this, together with the scale and excellence of the theatre structure, would indicate the financial involvement of the imperial family in the project. Various stone altars of Carrera marble are also on display and are well worth looking at.
At the very top of the escalators, you reach an underground corridor which will deliver you into the theatre itself. However, this corridor has plenty of interest in its own right, being directly below the old Church of Santa Maria la Vieja. You can see some of the foundations of the original Church from the late 13th Century while the ground plan of a 19th Century crypt is said to correspond to the likely dimensions and orientation of a 1st Century Roman dwelling whose paving stones became the crypt floor. Among numerous other remains is an adobe wall with lime coating, believed to date from Arab times and the remains of a 2nd Century BC Roman dwelling which was subsequently demolished to make way for the theatre itself.
If, at this point, you feel there is a danger of archaeological overload, don’t worry! As you emerge into the huge bowl of the Roman Theatre itself, you should be both astounded at its scale and magnificence. It is truly breath-taking, especially when you consider that you are looking at the remains of something which was built over 20000 years ago, at the very end of the 1st Century BC. As one of the guides to the theatre remarks, built on one of the city’s highest hills and next to the Roman port, it would indeed have made a marked impression on to those arriving in Cartagena by sea. Of course, this was not the only reason for siting the theatre where you can now see its remains. Building it on a hillside meant that it was far cheaper to excavate the seating areas than if a stone structure had to be built from ground level. Even so, it has been estimated that some 25,000 cubic metres of rock would have been excavated during the construction process. In any event, the theatre has been marvellously excavated with some partial reconstruction to give an idea of its original grandeur. The towering terraces (or “cavea”) with their capacity of around 7000 spectators, the stage area and the reconstructed columns at one side are truly remarkable. You are even able (if you do not mind quite a hike!) to go through an entrance/exit tunnel to the theatre and climb up behind it to obtain a magnificent view of the terraces, the stage and the old ruined Church in the top corner. You can even go all the way down the steep stairways between the terraces and right on to the stage area. The theatre, it is said, was built as part of a development programme initiated by the Emperor Augustus in the cities of the Western Roman Empire to confirm the traditional values of Roman culture. It fulfilled an important political, social and religious function.
Detailed descriptions of the different parts which comprised the theatre complex are available in the guide books and leaflets if you are interested in this. The most surprising thing of all is the remarkable monument as a whole which we can see today. During the 5th Century the area was transformed into a market (the theatre itself appears to have fallen into disuse many years before during the period of more general decline in the Empire and following a fire in the 2nd Century AD), subsequently becoming a port area, and then part of the urban scene from Arab times until the 20th Century. Its discovery, a little over 20 years ago, has been described as sheer luck! Surprisingly, it seems that there were no references to it by classical authors and there were several levels of archaeological deposits above it.
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. Copies of some of the books may also be available from the Best Wishes shop in the Camposol urbanización.