Hidden Treasure Beneath Barcelona
Updated: Jun 5, 2022
Barcelona is unarguably one of the most visited cities in Europe. Tourists flock there to soak in the vast offerings of the city ... its sunny beaches, the delicious Tapas, the colorful La Boqueria (food market), the modernist Antoni Gaudi sites, the beautiful art of Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso, the talented FC Barcelona Futbol, trendy shopping, and eclectic people-watching along La Rambla. But, based on my discussions with many people I know who have visited Barcelona, very few are aware of the hidden gem buried beneath the city. By this, I am referring to Barcino; the original Roman settlement from 2000 years ago.
According to historical records, Barcino was a colony established by the Emperor Augustus for retired Roman soldiers in about 15-10 BC. The colony was positioned strategically on the fertile Iberian peninsula which made its location perfect for nurturing an agricultural economy. The settlement's elevated location adjacent to a natural seaport and along the Via Augusta coastal road enabled it to ideally manage trade by both sea and land. The city was designed from scratch based on centuriation, the Roman grid system, with ample connections between the rural agrarian communities and the walled city center. Based on archaeological evidence, the inhabitants of Barcino gradually enjoyed much of the same luxuries and conveniences as the people of Rome, as noted by the presence of public thermals (hot and cold baths), a network of long canals and aqueducts, among others.
In typical Roman fashion, the main cross
roads were the Cardo Maximus and the Decumanus Maximus, with the Forum located at their intersection. The Forum is where the principle civic and religious buildings could be found, for example, the Temple of Augustus. The Temple, built in the late 1st c. BC, presided over the city's Forum for 400 years, thereafter losing its role when it was largely dismantled and repurposed, becoming spolia for nearby palaces or religious centers. The remains of this temple, four columns with Corinthian capitals, can still be viewed above ground, concealed within a medieval building in today's Gothic Quarter.
A few other Roman sites are scattered above ground, mostly in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. For example at Plaçe Nova, is one of the gates to the city of Barcino, called Porta Praetoria. Here you will find a part of the Roman wall and two towers, as well as part of the reconstructed aqueduct.
At Plaça de la Vila de Madrid, you can glimpse a section of the ancient Roman Via Sepulcral. During the 1st - 3rd centuries AD, Roman law prohibited burials within the city. The dead, therefore, were buried along roads just outside the city. Via Sepulcral was a road that was located just outside the walls of Barcino along which several ancient tombs and funerary monuments were found.
Where I really want to take you, though, is on a road less travelled, to the subsoil of present day Barcelona, specifically beneath the Plaça del Rei, to expose you to an impressive subterranean archeological site. These are thought to be some of the most expansive subterranean Roman ruins in the world. To gain access, visit the MUHBA office (Museu d'Historia de Barcelona) and purchase a ticket to Barcino. At the back of the museum you will take a small elevator and descend five meters to a vast subterranean space. Here a large section of the ancient Roman colony of Barcino, dating from 1st - 6th c AD, can still be seen and "walked through". Visitors walk on elevated walkways alongside the old city wall, over their sidewalks and gutter system, through the peristyle of a residence with retained floor mosaics and wall frescoes, alongside artisan workshops, a Roman felonica (laundry facility), a garum (fish condiment) factory, a wine-making facility and an episcopal complex.
A Roman felonica is a shop where clothes were washed and dyed. The clothes were placed in large cleaning vats and processed with agents, one of which was human urine. Many felonicas actually had restrooms adjacent to them where urine could be collected and piped directly into the laundry basins. They also had rinsing and dyeing vats.
Garum is a funky fish sauce made from fermented fish guts and was the condiment of choice across the Roman world. What would be on the menu at a banquet of a wealthy Roman at the end of the 1st century? To start, there may be pork with garum, followed by fish with garum, and to wash it down ... wine with, yes, garum! So as you can imagine, garum production was big business ... especially in coastal locations. So what exactly is it? Most comparably think of it as a fish sauce but made out of fermented fish guts and salt. Add in a little sea urchin, oysters, snails and dog cockles to give it a unique and enhanced zing! Barcino had a booming garum factory, dated to the 3rd c. AD, which prospered from the abundant amount and quality of highly prized oysters found right along its seashore.
Barcino also had a wine making factory in the latter 3rd c - 4th c AD. Taking advantage of its fertile agrarian location, the wine-making industry was very active. Barcino wines were highly regarded and were exported throughout the Roman Empire. Vats, transfer ducts, wine presses and a cellar are all present at this subterranean site. Grape pips, pulp residue and tartrates have been found preserved at the factory site.
Near the end of the 3rd c. AD, the Roman Empire began to weaken due to a number of factors. The Empire experienced economic instability and overreach, political corruption and weak leadership, unmanageable expansion and threats of impending invasion by Germanic tribes. These factors collectively played a role in the weakening of the Empire. Within short time Roman imperial and cultural influence in the area began to fade out as concessions were made to the invading tribes. Christian Visigoths ultimately overtook the city of Barcino, in 415 AD and developed a major economic center. It was at this time that the Forum lost its purpose and the Temple of Augustus began to be dismantled. It was also at that time that the episcopal ensemble, including the bishops residences, the baptistry and basilica were established.
I hope you can appreciate, that there is a lot to learn and see in the subsoil of Barcelona. So, if you ever find yourself visiting the city, try not to miss this remarkable subterranean site. It truly is special and you would treat yourself to something that few people do. If you enjoyed this article, or Roman history at large, then leave a comment to let me know and subscribe so that you can be notified about future posts! I have great interest in Roman history and many sites to blog about!!