Inspired by the Lighthouse of Alexandria – The Roman Tower of Hercules
The only still functioning Roman lighthouse stands in the north-west part of the Iberian Peninsula, in Galicia. It is called the Torre de Hércules - Tower of Hercules.
When Julius Caesar arrived to Galicia in Spain in the year 61 BC, he understood the importance of this territory. Perhaps due to his decision, the lighthouse was constructed as a maritime signal, assisting navigation for the ships that were (and are today) crossing the Atlantic corridor.
The Tower of Hercules is located on a rocky hill, named Punta Euras, and measures approximately 57 meters (187 feet) tall. The place where the Romans constructed the Tower was once a part of a sacred place for the tribes of pre-Roman period. In those times, the lighthouse was located far from the Roman city of Brigantium, which gave rise to A Coruña (La Coruña).
Location of the Tower of Hercules within Galicia. (Wikimedia Map)
The Construction of the Lighthouse
Research shows that that Tower of Hercules, was built between the end of the 1st century BC and the beginning of the 2nd century AD. It was finished (or rebuilt) during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. The design was possibly Phoenician in origin, but it was modeled after the Lighthouse of Alexandria.
Archeologists discovered a votive inscription dedicated to the god Mars by architect Caio Sevio Lupo at the foot of the lighthouse. In the beginning, the connection between the inscription and the Tower wasn't obvious. However, some scholars have suggested that the mound where the lighthouse rises could have been a sacred place consecrated in earlier times to the god of war. However, over time, this hypothesis has been mostly forgotten.
During excavations in 1992, archaeologists discovered the existence of a golden-bronze statue near the inscription inside the Tower. This suggests that the architect was not dedicating the tower itself to Mars Augustus - it is more likely that he was dedicating a statue.
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The Glory of the Tower in Text
The Tower became a part of myths and legends very fast. According to the myth which blends Celtic and Greco-Roman elements, the hero Hercules, after three days and three nights of continuous battle, slew the giant Geryon. In a Celtic gesture, Hercules buried the head of his enemy with weapons and ordered a city to be built on that place. Thus, a skull and a crossbones representing the burial of the head of Geyron became the coat-of-arms of the city La Coruña.
The earliest known reference to the lighthouse at Brigantium is in Historiae adversum Paganos by Paulus Orosius (aka. Paulo Orosio ), written around 415-417 AD. It says: Secundus angulus circium intendit, ubi Brigantia Gallaeciae civitas sita altissimum farum et inter pauca memorandi operis ad speculam Britanniae erigit.
This means: “At the second angle of the circuit circumnavigating (Hispania), where the Gallaecian city of Brigantia is sited, a very tall lighthouse is erected among a few commemorative works, for looking towards Britannia.”
Historiae adversus paganos, Paulo Orosio. (Public Domain)
The second of the most important legends connected with the Tower comes from the 11th-century collection Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of Invasions, written by Irish monks. This story speaks of the King Breogán, the founding father of the Galician Celtic nation. The manuscript explains that he built the highest tower of Galicia. According to this legend, he went from Galicia to Ireland. His descendants stayed in Ireland and became the Celtic ancestors of the current Irish people.
Whether this legend is real or not, the colossal statue of Breogán has been erected near the Tower of Hercules. Close to the statue is a description of the legendary origins of the peninsula's history.
Folio 53 from the Book of Leinster. Lebor Gabála Érenn is recorded in more than a dozen medieval manuscripts and the Book of Leinster is just one of the primary sources of text. (Public Domain)
Destruction of the Tower of Hercules
During the Norman invasions, several references were made to the lighthouse. Due to the collapse of the Roman Empire, the lighthouse saw the beginning of a period of plundering, neglect, and ruin. The Crónica of King Alfonso III mentions a battle in 846, where troops from Asturias defeated the Norman army in the vicinity of Farum Brecantium – the Tower of Hercules. Other names used for the Tower include: The Faro or Farum Pregantium. The lighthouse was a very important part of the region, but after ten centuries, the Tower of Hercules stopped lighting the horizon. Nonetheless, it remained on the peninsula as an important site for more than just passing sailors.
The Hercules tower at the beginning of sunset. (Public Domain)
In the 16th century, people saw the Tower of Hercules as a quarry to get stones for new buildings in the city. The legal owner of the lighthouse, the city council, tried to protect the tower, but many parts of the lighthouse disappeared during that period. In the 17th century, the city made the first steps to reconstruct the Tower. Once the first work was completed, the building became the main bastion for guiding ships in Galicia.
In the late 18th century, La Coruña became one of the most important ports in northern Spain. The city was finally rich enough to make investments in their infrastructure. One of the most important projects became the restoration of the old Tower.
On January 4, 1788, King Carlos III officially authorized the restoration of the Tower of Hercules, which was financed by the Consulado del Mar. In 1788, between March and June, military engineer Eustaquio Giannini and José Cornide designed the project so the works could begin. The project was as respectful as possible to not alter the existing remains. The result of this work was a paradigmatic example of architectural restoration and it was an innovative project at the time in that part of the world.
An illustration from the Don Joseph Cornide book "Investigaciones sobre la fundación y fábrica de la torre llamada de Hércules, situada a la entrada del puerto de La Coruña" with floor plan of the Tower of Hercules. (Public Domain)
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The Modern Magnificence of the Roman Lighthouse
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the lighting system of the Tower was fixed. The old lamp was replaced by a new one made to order. Due to this change, the light of the Tower became stronger than ever before.
Apart from this, the Tower of Hercules became more popular and better appreciated by the tourists and by local Galicians. In this period, it also became a symbol of emigration to Latin America. Hundreds of Galicians saw this lighthouse while leaving the old land behind and crossing the Atlantic Ocean during their travel to the new continent. This image of the Tower was supported by the local media.
Breogan and the Tower of Hercules, A Coruña, Galicia, Spain (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The first archeological excavations were performed in 1990s and most of the artifacts discovered at the Tower of Hercules are currently located at the Archeological Museum in San Anton Castle in La Coruña.
Currently, The Tower of Hercules is also a museum and a working lighthouse, which still sends light to passing sailors. It now stands 120 meters (393.7 feet) above the sea and measures 59 meters (193.6 feet) tall. In the museum, one of the most precious artifacts is an original huge oil lamp that was a part of the lighthouse system in the roman period.
The Tower of Hercules is now recognized as a National Monument of Spain. On June 27, 2009 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After 2000 years, it is the second tallest lighthouse in Spain.
Featured image: The Tower of Hercules (CC BY-SA 3.0 ES)
Bello Diéguez, J. M.A Torre de Hércules, 2008
Barral Rivadulla, M. D., Breve historia da torre de Hércules, 2008
Caballero Zoreda, L., Latorre González-Moro, P., El faro de La Coruña, llamado La Torre de Hércules, Hispania el legado de Roma, 1998