What did the Romans ever do for Spain?
That’s not a question Franco gave much thought to when he allowed Cepsa to build an ugly oil refinery on top of one of Spain’s most important Roman archaeological sites: Carteia, a surreal juxtaposition of doric columns and petrochemical chimneys.
Like Reg the Anarchist (John Cleese’s character in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who didn’t rate the Romans), Franco didn’t rate Carteia, even though it was special:
the first Latin colony outside Italy, one of the most privileged cities in the Roman Empire.
Carteia, overlooking the Bay of Gibraltar/Algeciras (depending on your political viewpoint), was the Sotogrande of its day. It boasted luxury villas, a forum and fish-salting factory and a superbly-appointed thermal spa. Think hot and cold plunge pools, a gymnasium, library and toilets where people ‘got down to business’ while seated on the pot!
It’s an ancient ruin now, of course. But General Franco and the general public ruined it some more.
A lot of what hasn’t been expropriated for mantelpieces and rockeries is buried beneath a landscape of pollution-belching chimneys.
Cepsa is righting wrongs with a costly radar survey to scope out the remains of the theatre, and the artefact-nicking has stopped. What’s left to see is still pretty amazing and open to visitors, free of charge.
Although you need a bit of imagination and, on days when the Levante’s blowing, a clothes peg for your nose to block out the stench of sulphurous gases.
Carteia became a protected site in 1968 – too late to save the Roman necropolis buried beneath the petro-chemical plant which opened the year before. But archaeological digs have uncovered the columns of temples, the courtyards of villas, rings, pendants, hairpins, combs, amphoras and gold coins. Carteia had its own mint! New treasures are constantly being uncovered (especially when it rains) as only 7% has yet been excavated. Just enough to piece together the fragments of a story.
The Phoenecians and Cathaginians came first. Hannibal may have landed here with his army and elephants. But it wasn’t until the Romans invaded Spain that Carteia came into its own. In 171BC, Livy records, Carteia’s 4,000 inhabitants petitioned the Senate for Roman colony status and got the thumbs up. It gave them many rights. Including the right for local girls shacked up with Roman soldiers to become ‘honest women’ through marriage.
The Romans knew exactly what the Carteians could do or provide for them:
Over the next 580 years, Carteia grew to 25,000 citizens on the back of booming pottery and tuna fishing industries. They made amphoras with teat-shaped bottoms that could be buried upright in ships’ sand ballast, allowing them to export garum with far fewer breakages. It doesn’t sound very delicious but garum was a luxury gentlemen’s relish made from fermented fish.
After the Romans, came the Visigoths, then the Moors who began their entire 711 conquest of Spain from Carteia’s beaches. There are grey areas in its history after that. No one much bothered with it again until WW2, when bunkers were built on its coastal fringe. Cepsa funded Andalucía’s first bunker museum at Carteia last year.
Today, you can’t visit the site without a guide. You can’t enter with large bags or rucksacks. You can’t eat or drink on site. You can’t touch anything. And you can’t take photographs for publication without prior permission.
It smacks of dictatorship but not, in this case, Franco’s. To him, Carteia was just a pile of old stones.
Art flourishes in the most unlikely settings. Driving east from Carteia, across a Roman bridge, the grim barbed wire-topped walls skirting the boundaries of Cepsa’s smoky domain have been transformed into a magnificent urban art gallery. Nice idea, I thought. Until I heard that, beneath the art, there’s other graffiti regarding the number of ‘mysterious’ deaths from cancer in the region…
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bay, find out how Franco ruined Algeciras with the docks!