One of my favorite places in Spain is Mérida. If you have never heard of Mérida, then this illustrates my point: it is one of Spain’s lesser-known gems, which means that it is not overly crowded nor overly expensive. But it is an extraordinary place. Very few cities in the world can compare with Mérida for the breadth and quality of its Roman ruins. The city was one of the capitals of Hispania (Roman Spain) and had all of the comforts of provincial Roman life.
Most of the major sites in Mérida can be visited on a combination ticket, which you can purchase for 15 euros. I recently had a chance to visit Mérida and to experience anew the impressive monuments. The two stars are the amphitheater and theater. They are both enormous and well-preserved—especially the latter—and give you a good sense of what it would have been like to be a Roman having a day of entertainment. Ironically, the architectural monuments may have more lasting value than what the Romans actually consumed inside—gory violence and farcical comedies.
There are several ruins to be seen right in the center of town, free of charge. One of these is the so-called Temple of Diana, which was actually dedicated to the emperor. It is especially interesting because of the Renaissance house that has been incorporated into the remaining pillars (which you can see in the background). Nearby is the old Roman forum, where some fragments and columns still stand.
Apart from its many monuments, Mérida has an excellent museum of ancient Rome. The building itself is lovely—made of brick, with a high ceiling help up by Roman-style arches, and skylights that illuminate the space. There are artifacts of all kind inside: statues, pillars, mosaics, gravestones, pottery, jewelry, coins, and more. On the ground floor you can see a preserved section of a Roman road, and marvel at their extraordinary engineering. And in the museum’s basement still more artifacts are displayed, which were uncovered during construction.
Fairly close-by to the museum is the Casa del Mitreo, the excavation of a Roman villa. Whoever lived here must have been extremely wealthy, since there are three separate patios and many interiors are richly decorated. The Romans had taste. Another interesting site is below the Church of Santa Eulalia, were still more ruins have been uncovered. Probably there are rooms, walls, pillars, and shards of pottery under every inch of the place.
But some of the most beautiful ruins are located well outside of the city center. One is the Acueducto de los Milagros, a towering aqueduct dominating a grassy field. And it really is miraculous that something so seemingly delicate could survive two thousand years, exposed to the elements. Only slightly less impressive is the Acueducto de San Lázaro, which is near the old Circus Romano.
On the other side of town is the Roman bridge, which is connected to the Moorish fortress overlooking the Guadiana River. It is amazingly long—almost a kilometer in length, making it the longest surviving bridge from antiquity. And this is not the only Roman bridge in Mérida: there is another one near the Acueducto de los Milagros.
But perhaps the most impressive feat of Roman technology is the Embalse de Proserpina, a Roman dam. The Romans were extremely skilled hydraulic engineers, you see, and created their own reservoir to feed the town. The dam a lot more complicated than what meets the eye. There are deep chambers underground that the Romans used to divert the water into pipes, which eventually directed the water to the Aqueducto de los Milagros, which in turn brought it right into the center of the city.
As I hope you can see, Mérida has many sites for such a small and relatively obscure city. But this is how it always is in Spain: in every corner of the country, treasures await.
If you want to catch a glimpse of Catalonia’s Roman heritage, no city is better suited than Tarragona—or, as the Romans called it, Tarraco. The capital of its eponymous province, the city of Tarragona is nevertheless much smaller than Barcelona, with a population of about 130,000. It is easily accessible from that mecca of Catalonia, about an hour away by commuter train, and thus well-suited for day trips. Tarragona is also worth visiting on its own—especially if you’re looking for a place less infested by tourists. Like Barcelona, it is situated on the Mediterranean coast, in a section the Catalans call the Costa Daurada, or “golden coast.”
Roman remains are scattered throughout the city, especially in the old city center. This part of town is also called the “high part” by the inhabitants, for the obvious reason that it is situated high on a hill overlooking the sea to one side and the land on the other. You can reach this point by ascending the Via de l’Imperi Roma, a fine tiled walkway, sheltered with trees, that goes along the remains of the old Roman wall (which was likely built atop another, older wall, perhaps Phoenician). For a small price the visitor can climb up these walls and walk their length, giving one an excellent view of the city as well as the surrounding valley on the inland side.
Going along this way, the walker curves around back towards the city and the sea. I passed the Archaeology Museum, which unfortunately was closed at the time. Nevertheless, outside the building there are some ruins to explore, notably a staircase that leads up into the shell of the old Praetorium Tower. This tower has been repaired, rebuilt, and repurposed many times throughout its long life: as a castle, a barracks, and finally a prison. According to the informational plaque, it was used for this last function as recently as the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when it was filled far beyond capacity with political and military prisoners, many of whom were executed. Nowadays, the tower is a ruined shell; before it, on a tall pillar, stands the statue of a Roman dignitary, who seems to be gazing despairingly at the sea beyond.
Nearby, like a stone scar in the middle of the city, is yet another ruin. Like so many ancient remains, weather and time (not to mention the people who used these old ruins as stone quarries) have taken their toll on this site. All I could discern were doorways and what could have been rows of seats. A plaque informed me that this was a section of the old circus maximus, the stands where crowds cheered as chariots sped by. Further down, closer to the sea, a larger section of the old racing ground has been preserved. Apart from walls, doorways, and seating, there is a tower affixed to the structure—whose purpose I admit I do not know, but which looks to my eyes like a later addition.
But the most impressive ruin in Tarragona is still further towards the water. This is the amphitheater, which sits like a man-made crater in the hill above the beach. Few sights in Catalonia are more picturesque than this one: the tan stone, symmetrical and bare, seeming to float above the sea. Built in the early 2nd century, the amphitheater was approximately the same size as the one in Mérida, big enough for 15,000 spectators. And like all amphitheaters in Rome, what these spectators viewed was gore: fights to the death between slaves. During the reign of Valerian (253 – 260), the Christian bishop Fructuosus was, along with his two deacons, burned alive in this very amphitheater during one of the many waves of persecutions against the Christians.
The Roman remains within Tarragona have been subject to the pressure of an expanding city. Their rocks have been quarried and their structures used as foundations. But outside the city, some ruins have fared rather better. The most famous of these is the so-called Pont del Diable, or Devil’s Bridge. More prosaically, this is Les Ferreres Aqueduct. This was built during the time of Augustus to transport water to the city of Tarraco. Today it sits, peaceful and pristine, in a wooded area about 4 km north of the city.
I could have gotten there easily enough by bus. But I like walking and so I decided to go by foot. Google Maps has a bad habit of routing pedestrians with the most direct route, without considering whether it’s really walkable. So the path took me along the highway N-240 (which links Tarragona and Bilbao), which is indeed quite direct. The problem was that the sidewalk dwindled and eventually disappeared, leaving me wandering in the tight space between the guardrail and the grass. Eventually I decided that this was possibly unsafe and certainly unpleasant, so I turned into Sant Pere i Sant Paul, a suburb of Tarragona. Once I crossed through this sleepy hamlet (and stopped for coffee), I entered some dirt paths that led through a pine forest.
Amid these natural surroundings the aqueduct mysteriously materializes, traversing a wide valley between two hills. It has hardly aged a day. The tan rock bears the same color as the sandy soil underneath, and indeed of much of the stone of this region. It is not as tall or as graceful as the aqueduct of Segovia, which has three levels of arches rather than Ferreres’s two. Nevertheless, one cannot walk across the top of the aqueduct in Segovia, as one can here. There is no ticket booth nor any tourist apparatus of any kind. One simply walks up and across, enjoying the view of the surrounding forest. Admittedly the constant whooshing of the nearby highway traffic does lessen the enchanting sensation of having discovered a forgotten ruin. Even so, the aqueduct is one of the jewels of Tarragona.
This exhausts my knowledge of Tarragona’s famous Roman ruins. But Tarragona has still more to offer.
The most beautiful building in the city is Tarragona’s Cathedral. The building sits ensconced in the historic center, up on the hill, surrounded by attractive narrow streets and old buildings. A flight of stairs leads you up to its façade. This is most notable for its row of saints, apostles, and prophets in robs who flank the main doorway. In the central doorjamb stands the Virgin, holding Christ; and below her is a bas-relief of Adam and Eve. Once inside, I was able to hear the cathedral’s magnificent organ resonating throughout the space, since it was in the process of being tuned. This did not sound exactly beautiful, I admit, but it is a pleasure to hear even a single note on a real church organ.
What first attracted my attention was the main altar. Luckily the visitor can walk right up to it, which is usually not the case. It is a wonderful gothic creation in polychromed alabaster, depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary in 18 separate reliefs. Once more, the Virgin and Child stand in the center, while above two golden angels raise their weapons in righteous fury. The cathedral also has a lovely cloister, spacious and filled with green. When I visited a painter had set up an easel in one corner and was at work. From the painter’s spot you could also see the cathedral’s distinctive octagonal tower, which is doubtless why he chose it. I particularly enjoyed the small vents in the walls around above the cloister windows, each one carved into a different pattern.
Attached to the cloister is the Dioecian Museum, which houses several religious paintings and tapestries. I was also surprised to find that one door led into an archaeological excavation. A temple dedicated to the cult of Augustus has been uncovered under the cathedral. Humans like to build their temples over one another, it seems, perhaps for the sake of continuity during a period of dogmatic change. Many churches in Spain have been built over mosques, which themselves had been built over Visigothic churches. And so history flows on.
Once you descend the hill on which the old town sits, you can come to the city’s central road: the Rambla Nova. In the center is a spacious walkway where, when I visited, a Christmas market had been set up. Here you can also see the Monument als castellers, which is a metal statue depicting Catalonia’s famous tradition of making human pyramids. This tradition, by the way, is one of two in Catalonia to be designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The other is the Patum of Berga, a festival celebrated in the city of Berga during Corpus Christi, in which people dress up in giant monster costumes and dance.
At the end of the Nova Rambla is the Balcó del Mediterrani, a lookout point that sits high up above the Mediterranean Sea beyond. Dotting the seascape were the shapes of ships, large shipping frigates at anchor in the harbor. I wonder, do the sailors sleep on board or do they take a little boat to shore? The life of a sailor is a great mystery to me. Someone who assuredly did sleep many nights at sea is Roger de Llúria, a Catalan who was one of the greatest naval commanders of the medieval period, and whose statue stands in the center of the lookout point.
From here there is no direct way to get down to Tarragona’s beach, the Platja del Miracle. But it is worth the walk if you want to see the sun set below the dockyard, turning the skyline red and turning every building and person into a black silhouette. You may even enjoy a swim.
This wraps up my series on Catalonia. Of course with my measly three trips there I have inevitably left out much of the region’s treasures. Even so, I am tremendously impressed with Catalonia. It is a place replete with national and cultural beauty, rich with history, and still striving towards the future.
Philosophy is good advice; and no one can give advice at the top of his lungs.
One of the most persistent criticisms made of modern philosophy is that it isn’t useful. The critics have a point. Modern philosophy largely concerns itself with a variety of theoretical problems. Even though many of these problems do have practical ramifications, many do not; and regardless, the debates can often get so technical, so heated, and so abstract, that it is difficult to see modern philosophy as the path to wisdom it once professed to be. People don’t have time or patience for logic-chopping; they want useful advice.
Those of this persuasion will be happy to find a forerunner and a sage in Seneca. As the opening quote shows, he conceived philosophy to be, above all, the giving of good advice. Seneca thus finds a perfect vehicle for his thought in the form of the letter. Although this book apparently consists of the private correspondence between Seneca and his friend Lucilius, it is obvious from the first page that these were expressly written for publication and posterity. This book should rather be thought of as a collection of moral essays and exhortations.
Even in translation, Seneca is a master stylist. He is by turns intimate, friendly, self-deprecating, nagging, mundane, and profound. He has an enormous talent for epigram; he can squeeze a lifetime into a line, compress a philosophy into a phrase. He is also remarkably modern in his tolerant, cosmopolitan, and informal attitude. Indeed I often found it difficult to believe that the book was written by a real Roman. Montaigne and Emerson obviously learned a great deal from Seneca; you might even say they ripped him off. The only thing that marks Seneca as ancient is his comparative lack of introspection. While Montaigne and Emerson are mercurial, wracked by self-doubt, driven by contrary tides of emotion, Seneca is calm, self-composed, confident.
Perhaps because of his professed aversion to abstract argument, Seneca is not a systematic thinker. Emerson wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and Seneca apparently would agree, for there are many inconsistencies to be found in these pages. Sometimes God is conceived of as an impersonal order of the universe, and at other times a personal deity; sometimes Lucilius is advised not to take the opinions of friends and family into account, other times to do so. Seneca’s metaphysical arguments are weak and confused affairs; he is not one for disputation. But for all this, there is a core of good sense contained within these pages, which Seneca himself summarizes:
No man is good by chance. Virtue is something which must be learned. Pleasure is low, petty, to be deemed worthless, shared even by dumb animals—the tiniest and meanest of whom fly towards pleasure. Glory is an empty and fleeting thing, lighter than air. Poverty is an evil to no man unless he kick’s against it. Death is not an evil; why need you ask? Death alone is the equal privilege of mankind.
Like Marcus Aurelius, a prominent statesman in troubled times, Seneca is very concerned with how to be happy in spite of circumstances. There is no satisfaction to be had through external goods, like fame and riches, because these cannot be gotten unless fortune is kind, and fortune is notoriously fickle. Even in good times, this can only lead you into an empty, meaningless competition, valuing yourself for something that isn’t really yours, causing you to ceaselessly measure yourself against others. You must rather become content with yourself, taking pleasure in life whether fortune smiles or frowns: “We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in externals.”
Of course, this is easier said than done, and Seneca does not have a fully worked-out system for reaching this state. He offers, instead, an unsystematic mass of advice. It is here that Seneca is most charming and helpful, for most other philosophers would not deign to offer such workaday recommendations and observations. Here is Seneca on negative thinking:
The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry.
It is in these sections, of plain, friendly advice, that I think Seneca is at his best. Certainly not all of his advice is good; every reader will pick and choose what suits them best. But much of Seneca’s advice is timeless, and phrased in deathless prose. Most refreshing is Seneca’s insistence that his advice is for action and not reflection. This is more than slightly ironic, considering that Seneca is often accused of being a hypocrite whose lifestyle was far removed from his doctrines; but, to quote a modern philosopher, “There is no contradiction, or even paradox, in describing someone as bad at practising what he is good at preaching.” So preach on, Seneca.