Exploring ancient Rome in Mérida, Spain

Spain, Roman, theatre, Merida
It’s Christmas. What do you get an avid traveler who used to be an archaeologist?
For my wife the answer is obvious–a trip to a Roman city!

So here we are in Mérida, capital of the province of Extremadura in Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. In Roman times it was called Emerita Augusta and was capital of the province of Lusitania. This province took up most of the western Iberian peninsula, including most of what is now Portugal. The city was founded in 25 BC as a home for retired legionnaires on an important bridge linking the western part of the Iberian peninsula with the rest of the Empire. Putting a bunch of tough old veterans in such an important spot was no accident. The city boasts numerous well-preserved buildings and together they’re now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s a five-hour ride from Madrid on a comfortable train. Almudena and I brought along my five-year-old son Julián to give him a bit of classical education. (No cute kid photos, sorry. Too many freaks on the Internet)

Our first stop was Mérida’s greatest hits–an amphitheater for gladiator fights and one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the Roman world.

Both of these buildings were among the first to go up in the new city. Since the Romans were building a provincial capital from scratch, they wanted it to have all the amenities. The theater was a center for Roman social and cultural life and this one, when it was finished in 15 BC, was built on a grand scale with seats for 6,000 people. One interesting aspect of this theater is that it underwent a major improvement between the years 333 and 335 AD. This was after the Empire had converted to Christianity, and the early Christians denounced the theaters as immoral. The popular plays making fun of the church probably didn’t help their attitude. As I discussed in my post on the death of paganism, the conversion from paganism to Christianity was neither rapid nor straightforward. At this early stage it was still unthinkable to found a new city without a theater. The backdrop even has statues of pagan deities such as Serapis and Ceres. Although they’re from an earlier building stage than the Christian-era improvements, the fact that they weren’t removed is significant.

%Gallery-112089%Julián didn’t care about that, though. He was far more interested in the dark tunnels leading under the seats in a long, spooky semicircle around the theater. At first his fear of dark, unfamiliar places fought with his natural curiosity, but with Dad accompanying him he decided to chance it. It turned out there was no danger other than a rather large puddle we both stumbled into.

On stage he got a lesson in acoustics. The shape of the seats magnifies sounds. Voices carry further, and a snap of the fingers sounds like a pistol shot.

Next door was the amphitheater, where gladiators fought it out for the entertainment of the masses. Built in 8 BC, it seated 15,000, more than twice the amount as the theater. This was a city for veteran legionnaires, after all! Julián didn’t know what gladiators were so I explained it to him and soon throngs of ghostly Romans were cheering as Sean the Barbarian fought the Emperor Julián. He wanted to be a ninja and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any in ancient Rome.

These two places are enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there are more than a dozen other ancient Roman buildings in Mérida as well. The best way to sum up the experience of walking through these remains was what I overheard some Italian tourists: “Bellissimo!
If the Italians are impressed, you know it’s good.

This is the first in a new series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: More Roman heritage from Mérida!