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Statue and ruins at Empúries (Ampurias), Spain.

A Greek Town in Catalonia: What Fantastic Secrets are Still Hidden in Empúries?

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The history of ancient Spain is usually presented as dominated by Celtic and Roman cultures. However, among many other influences, even the “brave sons of Zeus” appeared and created colonies on Iberian land. The long life of the city of Empúries ended in early medieval times, but ruins unearthed there by archaeologists still allow you to experience an incredible mixture of cultures located in one place.

Greek refugees called the new city Empúries (in Spanish: Ampurias), but Ancient Romans called it Emporiae. It is located in the Catalan comarca of Alt Emporda in Catalonia, Spain. The settlement that lies closest to the ruins is a small village known as Sant Marti. When the researchers discovered that the city was not Roman, but Greek, they couldn't believe their eyes. The complete ruins of the ancient city seemed to be a paradise for adventurers who were searching for the footsteps of ancient inhabitants in the territory of modern Spain.

Greek vessel in Empúries, Spain.

Greek vessel in Empúries, Spain. (David Mateos García/ CC BY 2.0 )

A Greek City Among Iberian Tribes

Empúries was created in 575 BC by adventurous Greeks who made a colony in the area that is now known for a different city – Barcelona. Although the capital of Catalunya is fascinating, this article speaks about a city that is now in ruin. The damaged Empúries still hides many secrets, but it has brought dozens of treasures to archaeologists who’ve dug at the site. Among them are incredibly beautiful coins, pottery, elements of artifacts of daily use, and many other kinds of artifacts that document what life was like in this place for a few centuries.

When the Persian king Cyrus II conquered Phocaea in 530 BC, people started to leave. The refugees began to search for a new home. Many of them traveled from their homeland to Massalia (Marseille) and Hispania. Several were influential people who disagreed with the new political reality. These people arrived at the Greek colony, adding to the city’s growth.

Floor of a banquet hall at Empúries with an inscription in Greek.

Floor of a banquet hall at Empúries with an inscription in Greek. ( Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya )

This city was also a witness to the beginning of the conquest of Hispania by the Roman Empire. It was a place where the Roman troops led by Publius Cornelius Scipio started their successful campaign in 218 BC. Finally, when the city was included in a war between Julius Caesar and the military and political leader Pompey, Empúries stayed an independent city-state and supported Pompey. When he failed in the fight against Julius Caesar, it became a colony of Roman veterans.

Roman mosaics and walls in Empúries, Spain. 

Roman mosaics and walls in Empúries , Spain. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

An Island of Mediterranean Glory

Empúries was built on a small island and initially was called Palaiapolis. The island is located at the mount of the Fluvia River. Descriptions about the site dated back to ancient history are rare, but it is known that the famous ancient Greek author Strabo visited it and described it in his book. As Livius.org explains:

''According to the Greek geographer Strabo of Amasia, the Palaiapolis of Emporion was founded by Greeks from Massilia. It was not an entirely new town: the Iberian tribe of the Indigetes was already living there. The two nations appear to have gone along well: the natives obtained precious goods from the east, while the Greeks gained a stopover port in their expanding network in the western part of the Mediterranean. This was similar to that of the Phoenicians, who had already visited the place, but had decided not to settle there. The oldest archaeological finds imported from Greece suggest that the first trade contacts took place in c.600 BCE. The town itself must have been founded a bit later, perhaps in the second quarter of the sixth century.''

Therapeutic and religious center sacred to the god of medicine, Asklepiós, at Empúries.

Therapeutic and religious center sacred to the god of medicine, Asklepiós, at Empúries. ( Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya )

Among the most important buildings in the city are an acropolis and a temple dedicated to Artemis. The city was abandoned between the 3rd century and the Early Medieval period. Why did people want to leave this remarkable ancient settlement? How did it happen that amazing treasures were left under the city’s soil?

It seems that the growing power of the city now known as Tarragona, in ancient times Tarraco, made people move from Empúries. Moreover, another ancient city started to grow near the settlement: Barcino - now Barcelona. Therefore, only the less fortunate citizens of Empúries stayed there, ones who had no means to go anywhere else.

Temple to Serapis at Empúries.

Temple to Serapis at Empúries. (AugusteBlanqui/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The last raids in this area were recorded in the 9th century. The abandoned city could have been a place Vikings occupied. The last coin from the site with historical significance belongs to Hugh II of Empúries (1078 – 1117).

Coins found at Empúries from the 5th and 1st centuries BC.

Coins found at Empúries from the 5th and 1st centuries BC. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Charm of Greek Heritage in Spain

The city was rediscovered in the 15th century. For over five centuries it was plundered by locals and abandoned by historians. In the 20th century the first professional team arrived at the ancient city. Excavations began in 1908, led by specialists from the Junta de Museus de Barcelona. Archaeologists barely left the site alone for the next 108 years.

But the Greeks didn't stay in Spain for too long. They may have been Romanized. However, now the story about the multicultural roots of ancient Spain has become known once again. Researchers have unearthed forgotten stories about a city where people had different origins. The city of Empúries was like a small tower of Babel, full of people whose hearts beat in various languages. It was a crossroads for Romans, Greeks, Iberian people, and even Vikings.

Greek ruins at Empúries.

Greek ruins at Empúries. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

Top Image: Statue and ruins at Empúries (Ampurias), Spain. Source: Generalitat de Catalunya

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Emporiae (Ampurias), available at: http://www.livius.org/articles/place/emporiae-ampurias/?

Empuries, available at: http://www.mac.cat/eng/Branches/Empuries

Visit Empuries; a travel guide to the archeaological site of Empuries, Spain, available at: http://www.spainthisway.com/places/empuries.php

The Greco-Roman ruins at Empúries, available at: http://www.costabravalifestyle.com/features/the-greco-roman-ruins-at-empuries/

Empuries, available at: https://www.historvius.com/empuries-1713/

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