Conquering Spain was hard for the Romans. They inherited an interest in it from Carthage – Hannibal had been ruling there before he attacked Italy. However, Spain – or rather Hispania – was a difficult land to conquer and harder still to rule.
The hardest part was Lusitania, much of which forms the territory of modern Portugal, plus a bulge into west central Spain. The Lusitani are recorded first in Livy in 218BC, allied to the Carthaginians. Even after the defeat and annexation of the Punic territories, they continued to resist Rome, fighting a war against the Republic in 194BC, which lasted until 179BC, when L. Postumius Albinus was awarded a triumph for defeating them. This lasted till 155BC, and a Lusitanian insurrection led by a man called Punicus, presumably a Carthaginian still living there, which reached Gibraltar, where L. Mummius, the Roman praetor, defeated them.
What brought them to Spain was metals. Tin is found only here and western Britain. Gold, solver, copper, lead, mercury and iron also abound. It has often been said that the purpose of all war is to obtain resources or prevent others from taking them. It’s quite likely that Roman interest in Britain stemmed from that too.
A few years later, the propraetor Servius Sulpicius Galba declared war on the Lusitani, then appeared to accept their surrender; they went to his base at Conistorgis (in the Algarve, north of Faro) in three sections to surrender; as each one arrived it was slaughtered. Perhaps the Lusitani were naïve – they had previously defeated and killed 7,000 Roman soldiers. One of those who escaped was Viriathus, a major hero to Portuguese and Spanish people.
|A modern statue of Viriathus|
Viriathus seems to have been a product of the Lusitanian elite, beginning as a shepherd (Spanish flocks have always been huge, so he may have been an ‘executive shepherd’), then joining their army and rising to leadership after the massacre of the Lusitanian elite youth commanded by Punicus in 150BC.
Viriathus ran a guerrilla campaign between 147 and 139BC to free Hispania from Roman rule. It may have been that the Romans were distracted by other fights – the Third Punic War would lead to the destruction of Carthage in 146BC, while parallel wars in Greece which began as the Fourth Macedonian War and became the Achaean War, which ended in 146BC with the destruction of Corinth in the same year. Viriathus timed his rebellion well – Roman resources were being used heavily elsewhere.
Within Spain, the Lusitanian War was sandwiched between two phases of the Numantine War and can probably be seen as part of a wider rebellion. In the Numantine war, well known people were involved, including Scipio Aemilianus, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Marius and Jugurtha, then on the Roman side.
This war leader was mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, a younger contemporary of Julius Caesar, by Appian and Livy. Diodorus calls him ‘lord of all’ and faithful to his word, while Livy comments on his honesty, Appian tells us of the great skill of Viriathus at warfare.
The readiness of the Lusitani to get rid of the Romans is shown by their willingness to back a Roman to do it. Quintus Sertorius, an Italian from Nursia, rebelled against Roman command in 80BC and held much of Spain against Rome until 72BC. He had earlier served in Spain as a military tribune and been awarded the Grass Crown, the rarest and highest honour in the Roman Army. On returning to Spain as a political figure for the Populares, he was rejected by the Roman leaders in Spain, who were Optimates, on the side of his enemy, Sulla, and who were robbing the Lusitanian people. The honesty and military effectiveness of Sertorius led them to hail him as their general, and join his army. He was assassinated by M. Perpena Vento, a Roman general in 72BC, upon which Pompey killed Vento to put an end to the uprising.
|The Roman tower of Centum Cellae. The upper parts may be post-Classical|
The Romans may have considered they needed to keep a watch on Lusitania in particular. The great tower of Centum Cellae is dated from the first century AD. While it’s often considered a villa rustica, it is positioned on top of a hill in Portugal’s Castelo Branco district, and in the middle ages was indeed as a lookout tower for royal forces. The seven fortresses built to encircle Numantia by Scipio Aemilianus possibly formed part of a culture of constant observation.
It’s possible that we can associate the Centum Cellae with the governorship (apparently moderate, according to Suetonius) of M. Salvius Otho, the second in the Year of the Four Emperors, who was made its governor at the age of 26, a post which he held for ten years, having been banished as far west as Nero could manage, in order for Nero to take Otho’s wife Poppaea, allegedly at Poppaea’s insistence.
|The Emperor Otho, who ruled for three months in AD69|
The Caladinho watchtower and others within the Alentejo area of Portugal have been investigated in the last few years. The question is whether they form part of a system of surveillance imposed upon the people, as author Joey Williams suggests, or something else.
|Excavations at the Caladinho Wtchtower|
They appear to be positioned along certain Roman roads. Williams suggests this is part of a ‘panopticon’ system, where everyone was watched in order to modify local behaviour. That is, nobody would now rebel against the Roman authorities because they could be spotted before they could achieve anything. Williams derives this idea from the design of prisons in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. The area is called a ‘contested landscape’ by Hannah Friedman in her review of Joey Williams’ book The Archaeology of Roman Surveillance in the Central Alentejo, Portugal in the American Journal of Archaeology(issue 221, January 2018)
While Spain was a place for colonial settlement, the towers were built in the first century AD, a hundred years after the revolt of Sertorius and maybe 200 after the major uprising of Viriathus. Moreover, we should consider this within the wider settlement and exploitation of the Roman peripheral territories. Who else was watched like this?
Britain eventually had Hadrian’s Wall, and there were limites on the Rhine and Danube frontier. But they were often nowhere near where people lived. Hadrian’s Wall was not a place of fear, but a tourist destination, as the various pieces of commemorative ware show (the Amiens skillet, etc.). This is not to say that nobody was monitored, but while there was a system of spies and informers, nowhere else seems to have been subject to a regime such as Williams proposes.
As mentioned earlier, this part of Spain is extremely rich in metals, and it may have been that the watchtowers, positioned along Roman roads, were intended to keep a protective watch on brigands, who would otherwise have put such precious cargoes at risk. Various members of the family of Pompey fled to Spain to resist Caesar, setting off further rebellions among the Cantabrians and a civil war that drew in Augustus.
Spain seems to have thrived under Roman rule. It should never be forgotten that Trajan and Hadrian, although of Italian stock, grew up there, and Martial was certainly Spanish. It has been suggested too that Juvenal, Martial’s friend and someone who thrived under the ‘Spanish emperors’ may have been Spanish too.
Spanish Romans included the Seneca family, father, son, nephew Lucan and geographer Pomponius Mela. The poet Florus, born in Africa, lived there much of his life. Lucius Cornelius Bocchus was a Lusitanian author on natural history and one of the sources of Pliny the Elder. The agricultural author Columella, author of De Re Rustica, came from Cadiz and lived in the Julio-Claudian era, as did the rhetorician Quintilian.
Much later, Theodosius came from Spain, so his various offspring had roots there – Constantine III had to apologise after killing some of the Spanish cousins of Honorius, who were running things there. Magnus Maximus, a cousin of Theodosius, was also Spanish. The theologian and historian Paulus Orosius came from Seville, while the late Roman bishop and author of erroneous etymologies, Isidore of Seville, actually came from Cartagena. Hydatius (or Idacius), bishop of Chaves in Portugal, is the author of a fifth century chronicle of the eventual Germanic conquest. The Christian poet Prudentius came from Saragossa.
The point of this summary is to note that Spain was not a backwater or marginalised society like Britain, but an active part of the Empire. Watchtowers along the Rhine, Danube, Maghreb and Hadrian’s Wall make sense. Internal watchtowers within Spain and Portugal make less sense, unless the primary watch was on brigands, bacaudae and general thieves, rather than subjected nations in rebellion. Hispania was a ‘normalised’ Roman society by the first century AD, when most of the watchtowers were built. Whoever built them and for whatever purposes, their use remains ambiguous.