The Roman Ruins of Carteia

No thanks to Franco!

The Roman Ruins of Carteia
The Roman Ruins of Carteia

History up in smoke

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.

How it looks now:

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.

How it looked once:

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:

  • control of the strategic Mediterranean gateway
  • wood for boat-building and lead, iron and copper for weapons
  • cereals and fish to feed hungry armies on the march
  • oranges, lemons and silver to embellish Pompey’s banqueting table back home
  • murex sea snails which secrete a no-fade purple dye that was all the rage in Rome
tthe roman ruins of carteia

Plan of Carteia

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.

The bunker museum

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.

tthe roman ruins of carteia

Roman bridge

Artefacts from the site can be seen at the Archaeology Museum in San Roque Further information on Facebook.

The Roman Ruins of Carteia Art Gallery … or Cover-up?

the roman ruins of carteia

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!


  • Fiona Flores Watson April 21, 2014 at 10:54 am Reply

    What a fascinating place, especially the reconstruction visuals. Roman sites are always astonishing in their sophistication. Italica, outside Seville, was another of the earliest Roman colonies outside Italy – it dates from 206BC. I was under the impression that it was the Moors who brought oranges and lemons to Spain? Anyway, Andalucia has an amazing history which many visitors aren’t aware of, so it’s great to read about somewhere as totally hidden away as Carteia. Thanks Belinda!

    • Belinda April 21, 2014 at 3:59 pm Reply

      Italica’s on my ‘to do’ list Fiona, will check out your site for that!

  • Ryu May 10, 2014 at 1:34 pm Reply

    “But it wasn’t until the Romans invaded Spain that Carteia came into its own.”

    Carteia was a vital strategic location well before the Romans came on the scene. Phoenican/Tartessian(?) Carteia provided the last natural harbour on the great shipping route that linked the Phoenican city of Tyre with her trading posts on the Atlantic as far back as the 1300BCE.

    It probabaly became even more vital if not of pivotal importance during the Barcid period and the Second Punic War.

    Recent archaeological finds in the area (Proyecto Carteia 2006-2011) have started to validate what Strabo (Geography 3.1.7) wrote of Carteia: “an important and ancient city which was once a naval station of the Iberians. And some further say that it was founded by Heracles, among whom is Tiomosthenes who says that in ancient times, it was also called Heracleia and that its great city walls and its docks are still to be seen.”

    In terms of material remains, Italica or Baelo might be more attractive but in terms of historical significance, Carteia is second only to Cadiz.

    • Belinda May 13, 2014 at 11:16 am Reply

      Hi Ryu, you are absolutely correct that Carteia was a key location before its Roman heyday, thank you for your extra input. I love Baelo too and Bolonia beach next to it, even more! Must get to Italica too.

  • Ryu May 14, 2014 at 12:09 am Reply

    Thank you for your response to my comment. I’ve not been to Italica yet but its the next destination on my list. And yes, the sand dunes beyond Baelo/Boloia..

    It’s a shame that the vast majority of the archaeological work in the past 20 years relating to Campo de Gibraltar and indeed much of Andalusia has not been translated and remain largely unknown outside of Spain.

    There’s a conference commemorating 20 years of Proyecto Carteia starting on Thursday in Cadiz Somewhat symbolic in that both cities retain their Phoenician toponyms to this day.

  • mike January 18, 2015 at 10:53 am Reply

    hi I cannot signup for spain trip planner, the signup box doesent let me put any letters in it

    • Belinda January 18, 2015 at 6:12 pm Reply

      No worries Mike, I have sent it to you manually, hope you got it!

  • Edward de Maunsell May 20, 2015 at 1:26 am Reply

    Excellent website Belinda. I visited Carteia back in 2012. It is a splendid site of antiquity. Luckily I had a research lady based at the site give me a tour of the site. She mentioned how the euro crisis was affecting the funding of further research at the site. This is sad. It is such an important site of antiquity and I recommend all students of ancient history to visit this hidden gem.
    I hope you update or expand your Carteia webpage.

    • Belinda May 21, 2015 at 9:30 am Reply

      Many thanks Edward. As Carteia is on my doorstep I’m sure I will go back. Meantime, if you have written anything of interest on Carteia to share with readers I could add the link to my post.

  • gail gordon February 27, 2018 at 12:44 am Reply

    I live in Catalunya and am very interested in the Roman cities of Spain. I have just watched a Mary Beard program on Rome and Roman citizens and have learned of Carteia… what an interesting place and thank you for your site regarding it. I wondered what the chemical looking site was. I guess Taragona is lucky that the chemical plants were built on the southern outskirts so the Roman remains were left alone. Maybe a tour planned around the Roman sites of Spain could be in the works! There seem to be so many. Do you know of any Greek settlements in Spain too?

    • Belinda February 28, 2018 at 3:05 pm Reply

      Hi Gail,

      Ampurias, also known as Empúries was founded in 575 BC by Greek colonists.The ruins are midway between the Costa Brava town of L’Escala and the tiny village of Sant Martí d’Empúries. According to Wikipedia ‘There are good car parking facilities and the site may be reached by a traffic-free coastal walk from L’Escala’ Happy hunting!.

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