The old town centre of Tarragona is situated atop an 82 metre high hill overlooking (& sheltering from the wind) a calm but deep natural port area. Tarragona is located to the south of Barcelona, in the province of the same name. In ancient times the town was known as Tarraco. This site was first recognised for its strategic importance by the Romans at around the time of the beginning of the second punic war against Carthage (218BC). This resulted in a large military encampment being built on the site; known as Tarraco. As Roman success on the peninsular progressed Tarraco grew from its humble origins to become capital of the Roman province of Hispania Citerior; renamed & reorganised asHispania Tarraconensis under the reign of Julius Caesar & Imperial Rome.
The province that Tarraco oversaw was the largest on the peninsular. Its importance caused the city to grow to a populace of 30,000 at its peak. A great infrastructure was built which included a large port area, currency mint, circus maximus, amphitheater, forum (large market-place), quarry, & much more. The Romans used Tarraco as a political, administrative, & military centre right up until the 5th century AD, when Iberian & Germanic invasions led to the establishment of a Visigothic kingdom.
The city fell to the Visigoths in the 5th century and the Moors in the 8th century and was recovered by a then Christian Spain in the early 12th century. Today evidence of its Roman past can be found in the many well preserved ruins within the city. Because of their cultural significance, the Roman ruins of Tarragona have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the year 2000. Some of the best preserved parts of Roman Tarragona are the walls which encircle the old town, a section of which is open to the public as an archaeological walk. The lowest part of the wall, formed by boulders, are the remains of the Iberian town walls built in the sixth century B.C.
Above them are the more sophisticated Roman walls, which date from the 2nd century BC and are considered the oldest conserved Roman construction outside of Italy.The best preserved part of Roman Tarragona are the walls which still encircle the old town, and a 1.5km section has been landscaped and is open to the public as an archaeological walk.
The lowest layers of the walls consist of large rough-hewn boulders, which survive from the Iberian period. These include two impressive but primitive doorways, which contrast with the more sophisticated Roman walls above, which date from the 3rd century BC and are up to 15m high. This makes them the oldest preserved Roman remains outside Italy. The walk also takes in a number of the bastions built by the British in 1707 during the Wars of the Spanish Succession, complete with cannons, as well as elements from the mediaeval period. Half way along there is a display housed in several vaults describing the history and development of the walls from Roman to modern times. The walk provides good views over the northern half of the modern city and the hills beyond.
Another famous monument is the Roman amphitheatre, which was built in the 2nd century A.D. and could hold up to 14,000 spectators. It was used for many events, such as gladiator combats (munera) and wild animal hunts or combats (venationes). It was also used to execute prisoners who had been condemned to death. In 259 a Christian bishop and two deacons were burned alive in the arena.
Tarragona Roman Circus (Circo Romano de Tarragona) was probably built under the Emperor Domitian in the first century AD and is now one of the best preserved Roman sites in this Spanish city.
When Tarragona Roman Circus was constructed, the city was known as Tarraco and it would have been just one of a series of impressive monuments. It was in use until the fifth century.
Tarragona Roman Circus is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco.Tarragona once possessed one of the most impressive circuses in the Roman world, and is still one of the best preserved outside Italy. Built in the 1st century BC, it was used to stage chariot races (think ‘Ben Hur’) and other similar entertainments.
Over the years, the walls have been incorporated into the street pattern of the mediaeval city, but at the southern end there are impressive remains to visit, which show the structure of the stage and the large vaults beneath. The remains were incorporated into the mediaeval walls, and include a mediaeval tower. But the highlights are the vaults themselves, which run for several blocks under the streets and houses above. The construction used one of the Romans’ greatest innovations – concrete – as well as large blocks of stone.
The adjacent tower-like structure is the Praetorium, a Roman-era tower that once housed the stairs that connected the lower city to the vast provincial forum (of which little now survives) by way of the circus, to which it is connected by means of underground passageways. It stands at one of the corners of the vast rectangle of the provincial forum square. In the 16th century, it was transformed into a palace for the Spanish monarchs, and was then used as a prison.
In the 6th century a basilica was constructed which was dedicated to them as recognition of their martyrdom. In the 12th century the church of Santa Maria del Miracle, which is Romanesque in design, was built on the remains of the basilica.
If you tire of the Roman ruins you may want to head over to the cathedral. Dedicated to Saint Mary, it is built on the same site of what was once the Roman temple. Construction began in the 12th century in the Romanesque style and continued though the Gothic period. At the cloister entrance is the Diocesan Museum, which holds a collection of medieval and modern religious art from Tarragona and its diocese.