One writer said that the Carthaginians greatest legacy to Cartagena was that they attracted the Romans. Certainly with the Roman conquest of the town in 209 BC, we enter a period in which Cartagena’s relative importance and splendour reached remarkable heights.
The Carthaginian presence in Spain was now effectively over, especially when the fall of Cadiz completed the Roman takeover of Iberia in 206 BC.
In 209 BC Carthaginian Qart-Hadast became Roman Carthago Nova. However, there appears to have been one minor difficulty at the very time of the town’s taking. Traditionally, the first Roman to raise the standard on a conquered city’s walls was rewarded with a gold crown. At Cartagena, this was claimed by two individuals with the army supporting the claim of one, and the navy that of the other. It almost came to a fight, before the Roman leader, Scipio, sorted it out by saying it had been a dead heat and both would be rewarded in the traditional fashion. Carthago Nova became the only town in the Empire whose conquest saw the award of two crowns!
The first years of Roman domination seem to have been years of consolidation. There were several thousand prisoners to be dealt with and it seems that Carthaginians were sent to the mines or the galleys while the native population was set free and even invited to join the Roman army. These early years undoubtedly saw numerous military sorties from Carthago Nova and a strengthening of the town’s defences. In one such expedition, Scipio decided to take revenge for the slaughter of Roman soldiers some years previously and put to death all the inhabitants of the town of Iliturgi, razing it to the ground and sowing the land with salt. Carthago Nova’s importance was clear: it soon became one of the principal Spanish ports for the movement of goods (and people) into the Iberian Peninsula and for the export of materials throughout the Mediterranean. When, in 197 BC, Rome divided Iberia into two great provinces, Ulterior and Citerior, Carthago Nova was incorporated in the latter, the capital of which was Tarragona. However, those in charge of the province appear to have spent rather more time in Carthago Nova because of its riches and greater proximity to North Africa. It appears also, that many Italians came to the town, attracted by the prospect of exploiting the nearby mining (40,000 slaves were said to be working in the mines around Cartagena and Mazarrón which became known as the “minas de Carthago Nova”), administration opportunities and business associated with the port.
It was during the period between the middle of the 1st Century BC and the beginning of the 2nd Century AD that Carthago Nova is generally regarded as achieving the greatest brilliance in its entire history. It was, at this time, one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire with buildings and works of art to rival those in Rome itself. Industry and commerce prospered, much on the back of mining, but there was also the production of a famous fish sauce, garum, much prized throughout the Roman world, especially in Rome itself. Cartagena was the port for this valuable commodity’s export. We shall not dwell on the fact that it was made essentially from the fermented entrails of fish! Cartagena’s importance can be judged from the fact that patrons of the magnificent new theatre built during these years were no other than Caius and Lucius, the grandsons of the Emperor Augustus.
How large was Carthago Nova? It is impossible to say with any accuracy, but one authoritative source suggests a population of between 20,000 and 30,000. Another indicator of its importance is the massive remodelling of the city which took place in this period – a geometric layout of streets; reconstruction of the city walls; the building of the theatre (using experts and materials from Rome and with a capacity of 6-7000 spectators), the amphitheatre (able to house 10,000 spectators), temples and many other public buildings with sophisticated wall paintings, sculptures and mosaics; and even the development of a drainage and water supply system for some parts of the city. One of the most important events for Cartagena in this period was the granting of the rank of “colony” in 42 BC with the name “Colonia Urbs Iulia Nova Carthago” appearing on subsequent coins. The city would have adopted a system of institutional Government identical to that in Italian cities of the time and would have had total administrative autonomy, benefitting from all the privileges of a Roman city.
Cartagena also played a full part in the Roman history of the time. During civil war which afflicted the Empire, it was taken by Pompey in 47 BC, and when Caesar triumphed two years later, Cartagena was the place chosen to bring together the representatives of Roman Government in Spain to work out the future. It was during these years that many inhabitants of the city were granted the status of Roman Citizen. The progressive Romanisation saw an extensive road network established with five major Roman roads focussing on Cartagena including the famous Via Augusta, which went from Marseilles to near Seville.
As history clearly teaches us, nothing is forever, and decline set in during the 2nd Century AD. Mining began to decay, taxes were more onerous, greater peace meant troop withdrawals and there was less local wealth available for public works and buildings. The occupied area of the city declined as did its commerce. It was not until the end of the 4th Century that the decline began to reverse. Even so, Cartagena retained some importance – when the Emperor Diocletian (the only Roman Emperor to give up his position peacefully!) reformed the Empire’s administration, Spain was divided into seven provinces with Carthago Nova the capital of one of them. The recognition of Christianity, and its adoption as the official religion of the Empire towards the end of the 4th Century, also helped Cartagena which became an Episcopal see. By this time, however, the Roman Empire was declining and, at the end of the century it was divided into an Eastern and Western component. A little later, tribes from the north crossed the Pyrenees and the Vandals are believed by some to have temporarily occupied Cartagena in 425 under their leader, Idacio. Even so, it is not clear that these years saw a fundamental change in Cartagena and there was even time for one of the Emperors of the Western Empire, Mayoriano, to become the last one to set foot in the city in the middle of the century as he sought to recover territories in North Africa.
There was, however, still time for one final twist before the Romans disappeared for ever. While it seems clear that Cartagena became part of the Visigoth Kingdom in Spain from the later 5th Century, in the middle of the 6th Century, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), Justinian the Great, was seeking to recover former territories of the old Roman Empire. He took advantage of a dispute between the Visigoth King of Spain, Agila, and his rival, Atanagildo, successfully to ally with the victorious latter, and, in return, receive an extensive coastal territory in Spain from Cadiz to near Valencia. This area formed the new province of Spania, with Cartagena its capital. For around 70 years, from about 552 AD, Cartagena remained under Byzantine control. There was something of a revival in the city to judge by the increased commercial links with the East and Africa, the greater production of ceramics and the possession of its own mint. The city defences appear to have been restored around 589-90 AD. The end came in the early 7th Century when the Visigoth King Suntila took Cartagena in about 621 AD, leaving the city, it would seem, largely in ruins in favour of surrounding villages, with obscurity following for the next two or three centuries.
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.