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Christians Buried the ‘Immoral’ Theater of Emerita Augusta, But the Grand Monument Would Rise Again

Christians Buried the ‘Immoral’ Theater of Emerita Augusta, But the Grand Monument Would Rise Again

A grand ancient Roman city with an impressive amount of buildings that allow you to feel like you've traveled in time. We are going to take you on a journey around a city created in Spain just a few years after the death of Cleopatra.

Over five years after the death of the Egyptian Queen, Octavian Augustus was a powerful ruler whose troops reached lands that were out-of-reach to his ancestors. The spectacular ruins of the ancient city of Emerita Augusta are the remnants of constructions created by his order and prepared to resettle emeritus soldiers - Roman veterans discharged from their legions. Most of them belonged to the Legio X Gemina and Legio V Alaudae. The settlement is located on the current site of the city of Mérida in Spain. Emerita Augusta became a capital of the Roman province of Lusitania. It was a provincial Rome full of magnificent buildings. The site is now a paradise for every person who loves the history of the Roman Empire.

Portal of the Roman forum from Emerita Augusta, now Mérida, Spain.

Portal of the Roman forum from Emerita Augusta, now Mérida, Spain. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

Theaters of Roman Dreams

Imagine an ancient Roman theater full of people dressed up in togas who are focused on the play performed onstage. They are breathlessly enjoying the story presented by the actors. The theater of Emerita Augusta is the most magical place of this city. The ancient heart of local culture is still in use; however, it had been forgotten for many centuries. As Pedro Mateo Cruz wrote in his article:

“According to the study of the drawings by Alicia Canto, the first monument Manuel Villena shown interest in, once he reached Mérida was the theater. Alicia Canto states that the description of the excavated areas could be defined as a brief excavation report where dug areas and documented structures could be exactly recognized. In 1793, the author drew the plate again, not changing the general composition but expanding it and adding other details, mostly regarding the description of excavated places. Nevertheless, the most relevant data is the insertion of the “stone plaque found in the excavation A. The one that is two tuesas and two feet long: it is worthy to be placed on door G for the travelers to see such a beautiful relic from the Antiquity”. Following, the drawing of the inscription: M.AGRIPPA L.F.COS.III.TRIB. POT. III. On the same epigraph, Manuel Villena, in his first description, remembered it as if it was “written on top of beautiful white bitumen, which seems to be thin marble”, giving a lost detail of one of the most significant elements of the theater.”

The Roman theater in Mérida, Spain.

The Roman theater in Mérida, Spain. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The theater became a part of many research teams’ excavations. Originally built by the famous consul Marcus Vispanius Agrippa between 16 and 15 BC, it was later renovated by the order of Augustus, and many decades later by Trajan. It was in use for several centuries before it became an abandoned ruin. When Christianity dominated these lands, theater had been called immoral entertainment. A site that had been full of life and art for centuries was covered with soil. Only the upper tiers of seats remained uncovered and in the Spanish tradition they survived as part of the legends about ''The Seven Chairs'' which were believed to have been used by Moorish kings who decided the fate of Emerita Augusta.

Apart from the theater, there is also an amphitheater which was created in the 8th century BC. It was an arena for gladiator fights and ''beast hunting''. About 15,000 spectators could observe one of the cruelest entertainments that had ever been created by human beings. Near the amphitheater is the circus which was built around 20 BC. Later it was dedicated to Tiberius, and for centuries it was a place of incredible horse and chariot races that could have been watched by 30,000 spectators. It looked like a scaled-down copy of the famous Circus Maximus in Rome.

A mosaic showing a charioteer and horses from Emerita Augusta

A mosaic showing a charioteer and horses from Emerita Augusta. (david_jones/ CC BY 2.0 )

The Famous House of Diana

Most of the ancient Roman temples have been badly damaged, but the vast temple of Diana in Emerita Augusta still allows you to experience the transcendent feeling of entering the house of the ancient deity. The temple is also the crown of the city center. It is beautiful and created in typical Imperial style. This temple is a remarkable example of sophisticated architecture characteristic of Octavian's rule.

Beautifully shaped columns surrounded the impressive rectangular temple. The front of the temple was formed by a set of six classical Roman columns. The temple is built of local granite. After Roman glory faded from the area, the temple of Diana was used as a palace for the Count of Corbos.

The cult of Diana is often commemorated during performances by groups of passionate people who enjoy historical reconstructions. Celebrations related to the ancient deity are now tourist attractions. The temple is one of the best preserved ancient temples in Spain.

Temple of Diana, Mérida, Spain.

Temple of Diana, Mérida, Spain. ( Public Domain )

A City Full of Treasures

Describing all the marvelous parts of Emerita Augusta is impossible, the old town is like a box full of chocolates. With the Roman circus, Tiberius Arch, the aqueducts, Mithraeum house, and later constructions like Santa Eulalia Basilica or Concathedral of Santa Maria La Mayor, baths, and many fountains, this is a treasured city and a world heritage site protected by UNESCO. Another gem of the city is the rare remnant of Visigoth architecture called Xendoquio. It is the only building like this in Spain.

Roman aqueducts from Emerita Augusta.

Roman aqueducts from Emerita Augusta. (Fernando Jiménez/ CC BY ND 2.0 )

Emerita Augusta, and later Mérida, became a monument for the ancient culture of these lands and a remarkable reminder of the impact that the Roman Empire had on Spanish territory. It is also a letter from the past written by many generations of inhabitants.

Top Image: Detail of the Roman theater of Emerita Augusta, Mérida, Spain. Source: Francisco Antunes/ CC BY NC SA 2.0

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

City of Emerita Augusta, at Merida, Badajoz, available at: http://www.spanisharts.com/arquitectura/imagenes/roma/i_ciudad_emeritaaugusta.html

Augusta Emerita, available at: http://www.livius.org/articles/place/augusta-emerita/

Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida, available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/664

Emerita Augusta – Mérida, Spain, available at: http://romeonrome.com/2015/11/colonia-emerita-augusta-merida-spain/

Augusta Emerita theatre and Amphitheatre Historiographic and Archaeological Contexts, by Pedro Mateos Cruz, available at: https://www.academia.edu/6677551/Augusta_Emerita_theatre_and_Amphitheatre_Historiographic_and_Archaeological_Contexts

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