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Sunday, 18 September 2011

Roman Ruins and the Fall of Nations

I've recently come back from Seville where I was researching for my next book, which will be set in partly in 17th century Spain. Seville is a city that was first under the Moorish and then under Christian rule. Its Cathedral still retains the tower of the old mosque, where the muezzin would call the faithful to prayer, incorporated into the gothic splendour of its catholic vaults and pillars.

What I didn't realise though, was that Seville was also the third largest Roman city in the empire, after Rome and Alexandria, settled in 206BC. It was the birthplace of Hadrian who spent his youth there.The excavated ruins, now known as Italica, lie a little outside Seville, and up until this century were ignored as ruins of little interest. These ruins include a very well preserved amphitheatre where you can walk the path the gladiators took from the passageways up to the searing heat of the arena. A truly terrifying spectacle to see the ranks of seats and imagine the roar of the crowd, the amphitheatre is truly monumental and seats 25000.

There are also thermal baths, and some of the most beautiful intact mosaics I have ever seen, inside the villas of the roman dignitaries. One shows the seven gods of the days of the week, (shown above) and one over thirty different species of birds.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the Roman town, including its Forum and many other important buildings lie underneath the current suburb of Santiponce, and cannot be excavated without demolishing the new town. To uncover some of the Temple remains, householders were re-settled to allow archaeology to take place. It is staggering to think that until a recent preservation order was put on the site, many of the mosaics were removed complete into the hands of amateur enthusiasts or wealthy collectors. Below you can see a mosaic of the life of Zeus about to be removed by a private collector.

What struck me most about this was how the city of Seville has been held by three very different sophisticated societies each of which has cannibalized the previous culture for its own ends. Moorish tiles are everywhere, despite the fact the Moors were forcibly expelled from Spain in the 17th century. Seville's modern bypass was built using some of the stone from the Roman ruins of Italica, as were many civic buildings right up until the thirties. Walking Seville you come across the Columns (a remnant of the Roman Era, topped by Caesar and Hercules), a little further and you can immerse yourself in the moorish architecture of the Alcazar Palace, and a few more strides takes you to 17th century Baroque Seville, all cheek by jowl. This is what makes a city fascinating, in my view, and it is interesting to think that my 17th century characters would have known Italica as simply "old Seville" - a ruin, marked on maps as a heap of old stones of little importance or significance.


  1. Another interesting post. I love Sevilla, my sister lives there and I have visited often. It is a fascinating city. Do you always visit/research the physical places you include in your stories?

  2. Hi Marianne, yes we loved it. Enough culture to keep us breathless and still want more.

    I like to visit the places in my books. I think of the setting as almost another character in its own right. This is probably because in my previous career as a scenographer I always had to research the settings so thoroughly. And you find things you would not expect which can be woven into the story. When I was there I watched men heaving bricks to the top of a building by bucket and rope. I would never have thought to include it - but now it's in! And Seville has amazing museums full of 17th century engravings of the city which are just not available in books or online. Intangible things are important too, like the quality of the light.