Roman Barcelona

Barcino: the smelly part of a Roman city

It is one of the delights of visiting new places that you sometimes find an entirely unexpected archaeological site where you look at the past from a different angle. And this is what happened when we visited Barcelona and discovered that there is in fact, a Roman Barcelona, and that what is preserved is not the forum, nor a temple nor an amphitheatre, but some thing that is much rarer: the industrial area.

Barcelona is not normally considered to be a major Roman town.  The major Roman town was Tarragona which lies 50 miles to the south and was the capital of the province of Hispania Tarraconsensis, the great rival to Narbonne, the capital of southern France.  Barcelona today likes to think of itself as being the foremost town in Spain, though Madrid does not always agree.  Its importance began in the Middle Ages but increased in the Industrial Revolution when in the 19th and 20 centuries it reinvented itself as the capital of culture, and as the very vibrant capital of Catalonia: Catalan is still the major language.

Barcelona panorama

Barcelona lies in a fertile plain surrounded by mountains on three sides and the sea on the fourth. This view is taken from the forecourt of the magnificent National Museum of Catalonia.

It lies in a superb position at the head of a wonderfully fertile plain, fringed by mountains in the background.  There is a splendid view from the low hill of Montjuic on which the National Museum of Catalonia is magnificently situated.

Plan of town DSC00172

Although it was founded as a colonia, Roman Barcelona had an odd octagonal shape. The excavated area is in the top right hand corner.

Plan of Roman Barcelona

An alternative image of Roman Barcelona, showing position of excavations

But in fact, the origins of Barcelona go back to Roman times.  Pomponius Mela called it a  parvum oppidum  but it was not all that small:  it was founded in 10 BC by Augustus in the flurry of new towns that he founded as a colonia to provide a settlement for the many troops for whom he had to find a home following the chaos of the civil wars. It was a town of some ten hectares (25 acres) built somewhat strangely, not to a rectangular plan but to an octagonal layout.  It was surrounded from the beginning by a wall, though this was rebuilt very strongly in the 4th century with external bastions, which ensured its survival down to the 8th century.  An inscription of the Augustan period records that a local bigwig constructed ‘walls, towers and gates’, while the city’s water supply came from no less than two aqueducts,  of considerable length.

Barcelona: Temple of Augustus

These three columns – there is a fourth to the left, – are all that remains of the Temple of Augustus.

Near the centre was a grand Roman temple, four columns of which still survive hidden away in a minute courtyard. They survived because a house was built around them, with the vast Roman columns running up through the dining room, when the bases were down in the cellars.

However the real gem of Roman archaeology is to be found in the north east corner of the town, where an extensive area has been uncovered under the courtyard of the former royal palace, and preserved for display.  These are not the usual town houses, but something which to my perverted mind is far more interesting: the industrial quarter of the town, a very smelly area where one finds first a fullonica and then tintoria– that is a laundry and dye works. This is followed by something even smellier: a factory making the Roman equivalent of marmite, a fish paste called garum, which all the Roman world thought as absolutely delicious and paid high prices for the best products; and finally, an extensive winery. Then in the 5th and 6th centuries most of this was swept away and is replaced by Christianity, a small church and an extensive part of the Bishop’s palace.

Barcelona: courtyard of Gret Royal Palace

The courtyard of the medieval Great Royal Palace. The Roman remains lie under the courtyard.

This was all concealed under the later build up, and was preserved under the large courtyard of the medieval Great Royal Palace.  Here in the 1930s the remains were first discovered;  in the 1960s there were further investigations which were then followed in the 1980s by further investigations and a new display in the Museum of the History of Barcelona, accompanied by a fine report masterminded by Julia  Beltran, also published in an English translation from which this account is largely cribbed.

Roman funerary head

The funerary heads carved in the first century BC/AD are generally considered to be high point of Roman sculptoral art. This fine example was extracted from the late Roman walls where it had been reused.

When one enters the Museum one goes down by lift which instead of marking floors, gives dates,  so the ground floor is 2018, and you descend to the lower floor and arrive in 10 BC.  Here you find yourself just inside the city walls, mostly the original Augustan walls at this point, though a fine 4th century turret can be explored from the inside.  Behind the walls is the intervallum road, though it is not very visible because in the later period when law and order were breaking down, people began encroaching on the road – and in any case it is full of services – the Roman drainage system.  But it is a wide road as one would expect to find in a military fort.

Early plan2 DSC00165

The laundry and the dying works are the blue and yellow rooms bottom left. They are followed to the right by the garum factory and the winery.  Above is the domus, the fine town house where the owner presumably lived, but which is only sketchedly known. Note the temple of Augustus, with the four columns marked.

Then at the far end you find a Fullonica, a word often translated as a fulling mill, but which is better translated as a laundry.  This was a collection of four rooms each with a trough with elaborate drains where the remains of the fulling process can be found — ash, lime and urine – a very good chemical for cleaning cloths.

Fulling tank DSC00553

One of the fulling rooms where the cloth would be soaked. Note the opus sectile floor which one feels was rather too posh for such a mundane purpose.

One of the rooms even had an opus sectile floor which we often think of as being a rather posh flooring,  but here it was used in a very utilitarian way.

Next door was the tintoria, or dye works. Here they would dye clothes and the remains of the dyes were recovered: a blue dye using indigotine and Egyptian blue; a reddish/brownish dye using haematite; and finally an orange to yellow dye using saffron.

The Garum factory

Garum tanks

These two large tanks would have been filled with rotting fish to make the great Roman delicacy known as garum

Next door was a garum factory, producing the delicacy that was the Roman equivalent of marmite.  The basis of garum consisted of fish offal (eggs, blood, guts, gills, etc) often mixed with whole small fish, macerated in salt.  Its flavour could be varied by adding prawns, sea urchins, oysters and cockles.  Studies of the fish fauna and molluscs at the site found that sea urchins were used as part of the base to make garum.  The garum factory was laid out around an open air courtyard where two large tanks were used for salting the fish and a series of smaller troughs contained the garum paste.

The manufacture began with a fish salting process where alternate layers of cleaned and chopped fish were arranged in tanks with layers of salt.  After 20 days the product was taken out of the tanks and the paste was put into troughs where it was left in the sun and stirred every day for two to three months.  Working with a perishable product such as fish meant cleaning was a constant task in order to avoid the usual problems of a bad smell.

Garum factory

Two of the dolia, or huge vessels in which the final fish paste was prepared. (The column belongs to a later church).

To the south west were three rooms in which six dolia, or huge vessels are preserved where the final paste was prepared.   One large dolium had a drain hole in which a multitude of fish scales and bones, and sea urchin spikes had been trapped.  The factory operated over a long period of time as demonstrated by numerous repairs, and it remained in operation at least as far as the second half of the 5th century AD.

 The winery

Roman winery

View along the winery. In the foreground are the dolia where the wine was stored.

Next to the garum factory was a winery.  Most wineries in the Roman world are found in the countryside, but this winery was inside the town near the consumers.  An analysis of the waste at the site has found grape pips, yeasts, honey, cinnamon and other products used in wine making. In the north east corner the must was obtained by treading out the grapes on special platforms known as a calcutorium.  Inside the tanks large quantities of esparto fibres were found which acted as a filter holding back the skins, pulp and pips which were then subjected to mechanical pressing.

Wine press DSC00641

Area where the must was obtained. In the foreground is the press platform with the hole where the counterweight was located.

The surviving archaeological remains suggested that there may have been two presses: one a lever and counter weight press, the other a smaller screw press.  Once the open air operations were completed, the wine was moved to a cellar where the final stage took place in dolia: lined up along the walls are eleven dolia, a third of the body of which were buried below floor level. The insides of the dolia had been treated with resins precipitated in lime to provide a container that was better sealed, thereby preventing the wine deteriorating by contact with the air.  The average capacity of each of the dolia is 880 litres, meaning that the cellar could store 9,680 litres of wine.

The Episcopal buildings

Barcelona: early christian church

These four columns form the heart of the early Christian church. Note the earlier capital reused as the base of one of the columns.

Church reconstruction 2 DSC00617

Reconstruction drawing of the church

From the 4th century onwards, life in Barcina was turned upside down by the advent of Christianity.  In Britain we perhaps under estimate the force of the changes,  as the Anglo-Saxon invaders brought a rival form of religion with them. In Barcina the advent of Christianity produced major changes: Northern Spain was invaded by the barbarians, the Visigoths, but the Visigoths were Christian and wanted to be seen as perpetuating the Roman  Empire.  Indeed for a short time in the 5th century Barcina even became a royal capital and acquired the new name of Barcinona, and it was not until the 8th century that it finally fell to the Saracen invaders.

Barcino plan c6_7 p79 cropThe major change was the establishment of a Christian cathedral, presumably under the modern cathedral, though excavations have not taken place under the cathedral, so its origins are unknown.  However the space between the cathedral and the city walls was gradually taken up by an episcopal palace and baptistery, which completely changed the nature and status of this part of the town.

Domus DSC00680

The domus, the grand house where the owner of the work shops may have lived. But it has been explored with difficulty.

The origins of the episcopal buildings lie in a domus, a high class dwelling located next to the forum, though the only details of this domus are parts of its peristyle (its internal courtyard) and its sumptuous decoration. It had several pools reflecting the social status of its owner.   (It was the first part of the complex to be excavated in the 1930s, so it was not dug to modern standards). Did the wealthy family who owned the domus donate it to the church to become the centre for the early Christian worship? Many bishops came from eminent families and in the late 4th century a bishop, Pecian, came from the senatorial aristocracy, who in this way maintained their privileges and their properties.

Christian mosaic straightened DSC00667The most important of these ecclesiastical buildings lay to the north of the excavated area and were uncovered in the earlier excavations and are thus less well known.  But it appears that there was a baptistery, presumably attached to the cathedral; and adjacent to it an Episcopal hall was built at an angle in the 6th century.  In the 5th century the old domus was reconstructed as a new residence for the bishop, and some of the rooms in the palace had opus signinum floors.

In the 6th century a church was built in the plan of a cross of which fourteen pillars have been preserved.  Adjacent to it was a small necropolis with 22 individual burials in amphorae or covered by a pitched tegula roof, suggesting that the cruciform church may have been on the site of a martyrdom.

Barcelona Christian tombstone

A grave stone, a chance find in the neighbourhood of Sant Gervasi. It reads: Hic requies cit magnus puer fidelis in pace qui vixit ann III – here lies Magnu, a faithful child, in peace, who lived three years.

But by the 7th century,  the heart of the Visigothic kingdom had moved south and was based in Toledo near Madrid, and in the second decade of the 8th century Saracen troops conquered the city. From 711 to 801 Barcelona was under Arab control, but then the Carolingians conquered the city and it became a county under the rule of the Franks.  The Counts of Barcelona gradually annexed other counties and in 1150 the count of Barcelona became the Prince Regent of Aragon and the former residence of the Visigothic civilian authority became a Carolingian court. In the 12th century a new Palace was constructed on the site which was later turned into the Great Royal Palace  – the Palau Reial Major. However, from 1722 it became a Benedictine monastery, but it was closed to worshippers in 1835 and from 1877 housed the provincial Museum of Antiquities. Then in the 1930s the Roman and early Christian remains were discovered and were turned into a museum that forms a fine testament to the history of the remarkable city of Barcelona.


or, on to Cartagena, How a Punic town became a Roman city.

or, The Sagrada Familia – Gaudi’s masterpiece

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