Valeria: Thriving Roman Holiday Resort Emerging From Abandoned Ruins
Standing at these Roman ruins in the Spanish province of Cuenca, it’s hard to imagine that Valeria was a bustling Roman city 2,000 years ago. “You have to imagine a visitor entering the city through the gorges, the hanging houses, the nymphaeum, the hills full of buildings,... it must have been impressive,” highlights an article on Tarraconensis in a description which helps bring the city to life.
Putting Valeria in Context: The Romans in Spain
The Romans first moved into the Iberian Peninsula, known to them as Hispania, in 218 BC, a date which marked the beginning of an invasion which was to last 237 years until Hispania was fully under their control in 19 BC. That’s when Hispania was annexed and became a part of the Roman Empire, and it remained as such for the coming hundreds of years.
During their rule of the peninsula, the Romans brought about a sleuth of changes, including, but not limited to, the building of roads, fabulous Roman architecture and impressive displays of Roman engineering. In the modern-day province of Cuenca, in the Spanish autonomous community of Castilla-La Mancha, one can still visit the remains of three major Roman cities: Segóbriga, Ercávica, and of course Valeria.
At 1,000 meters (3,280 ft) above sea level, the area that is now home to these ancient ruins was conquered from the Celtiberians. Located in an area of striking natural beauty, on an elevation wedged between the Gritos and Zahorra river gorges, Valeria was founded between 93 and 82 BC. The majority of the monumental construction began during the reign of the Emperor Augustus and continued throughout the Flavian Dynasty .
The stunning landscape surrounding the Roman ruins at Valeria. (Rjdeadly / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Why and When of Founding Roman Valeria
Valeria took the name of its founder Gaius Valerius Flaccus, proconsul of Hispania Citerior, the Roman province of Hispania on the eastern coast of Iberia. Arriving in Spain in 92 BC, his primary task was to quell an uprising caused by the cruelty of Didius. The city enjoyed a dominating view of the surroundings, a view which hasn’t changed much in the over 2,000 years since it was first built. It was declared a Bien de Interés Cultural (or “good of cultural interest”) on the heritage register in Spain in 1977.
But, why did the Romans build such a city at such an out-of-the-way location? Hispania Citerior was of strategic importance for communication with other parts of Hispania and its wealth was associated with mining and the exploitation of timber. From here the Romans exported lapis specularis , a kind of transparent gypsum, particularly from the area around Segóbroga.
Lapis specularis, known as Hispania glass, was of immense value to the Romans and was mined in the modern-day province of Cuenca. ( Public domain )
Rise and Fall of Valeria, the Roman Holiday Resort
Lapis specularis , also known as Hispania glass, served to cover windows, allowing light to pass while still protecting from the weather outside. It thus served as a kind of crystal or glass, an item of immense value in a culture known for its imposing architecture. This was one of the reasons for the economic progress in the area which spilled over into towns such as Valeria, a city which would have provided auxiliary goods and services, such as the timber needed in the mining industry.
The location of Valeria was intimately related to “control of passage,” explained the historian Julian Torecilla during an interview with CMM Castilla-La Mancha . But it was more than that. According to Javier Ridruejo , Valeria was a Roman holiday resort. This was a place where important Romans, whose wealth was probably created directly or indirectly due to the lapis specularis trade, would come for leisure and rest.
Its heyday took place between the 2nd and 3rd century AD, but as the fortunes of the Roman Empire changed in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the upper echelons of Roman society abandoned the tradition of spa tourism, and the once-majestic Valeria fell into obsolescence. Over time it was abandoned, particularly after the Muslim conquest, later to be razed and used by locals for their private residences.
Valeria was once a Roman holiday resort. ( Cultura Castilla-La Mancha )
Bringing Valeria to Life: Understanding the Roman City
Valeria is a perfect example of Roman architecture, engineering and urban planning in Hispania. All in all, archaeologists believe that Valeria once covered 27 hectares (67 US acres). While the irregular topography and relief posed a challenge, the Romans created an artificial platform in order to provide a flat area stable enough for building the most monumental part of the city.
The archaeological site includes the remains of a selection of public buildings, built around this square platform. At its center is the Roman forum, or public square, which was the administrative, political and religious center of the city. The forum was built on top of a collection of rain cisterns which provided water for the 4,000 people thought to have lived there during its prime.
There was also a basilica, domus publica (official home of the Pontifex Maximus), exedra, cryptoporticus (a covered corridor or gallery), shops or tabernae, and the famed nymphaeum, all of which were surrounded by Roman streets and a complex system of aqueducts. All of these aspects point to this having been an important and well-respected corner of the Roman Empire. These days, visitors will also spot the remains of a medieval church at the top of the hill, the Ermita de Santa Catalina.
Underneath the forum archaeologists have uncovered the remains of old cisterns. ( ANADEL / Adobe Stock)
Delving Deeper into the Ruins at Valeria
Most of the city remains hidden under ground and what we can see today is just a small sample of the footprint Rome has left behind in the province of Cuenca. Experts believe that over time they will undoubtedly uncover a theater or amphitheater.
While probably not the first thing you’ll notice, one of the most stunning aspects of the site is its water system, cisterns, lead piping, wells and network of aqueducts which brought water to the city from Las Viñas, a few kilometers north of the site. South of the forum there is an interesting little gem, known as the House of Adobe or Casa de Valenrín due to an inscription found on an altar reading Valentinus Minervae , with many everyday remains providing insight into life in Valeria.
There are also examples of hanging houses built over the gorge, constructed by embedding beams into the rock face in order to support an approximately 3 meter (9.84 ft) portion of the homes that were suspended over the void below. Many claim this is the antecedent of the famous hanging houses of Cuenca. This was a novel way to maximize the use of the limited space at Valeria, as well as showcasing the engineering talents of the Romans.
Digital reconstruction of the nymphaeum at Valeria. (Facebook / Carpetania Integra )
The Roman ruins of the nymphaeum at Valeria. (Rjdeadly / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Star Attraction: Valeria’s Nymphaeum
Within ancient Greek and Roman settlements, nymphaeum were seen as sacred locations for the worship of water nymphs. They were usually lavishly decorated with statues and paintings, and in essence they were fountains which channeled water to create a magical environment. The nymphaeum, or monumental fountain, at Valeria, was located to the east of the site and was without a doubt the primary attraction for visitors.
In all it stretches 105 meters (344 ft) along one side of the forum. “The largest and oldest monumental fountain documented in the former Western Roman Empire,” according to Las Noticias de Cuenca . In reality its construction was probably an inventive way to cover a high retaining wall needed due to the sharp natural incline. Underneath the nymphaeum were the tabernaes, the shops used by local trades people. Much like a modern tourist destination, these stores would have been ideal for shopping.
The back wall was decorated with niches and alcoves with statues, behind which there was a complex water system which fed into the fountain, an example of advanced Roman hydraulic engineering. Built in the 1st century AD, archaeologists have concluded that it was no longer in use by the 4th century AD.
In 2018 Carpentania Integra SLL was given the contract to recreate the nymphaeum, including one of the niches, and part of the forum at Valeria. This work has provided an incredible chance to truly understand the immensity of this monumental structure. The work was presented to the public in 2019, providing an added feature to the Roman site.
Recreation of a segment of the nymphaeum structure. (Facebook / Carpetania Integra )
The Valeria Thermal Bath Complex
At the start of the 1900s, during construction of the Cuenca-Valverde road, workers encountered remains of the Roman necropolis and some edifications. While excavations originally began in the 1950s, they are still continuing today. But the excavations of Valeria have been a long, and at times thrilling, process. In recent years, the authorities have funded several excavations, as well as restoration work on the old cisterns under the forum.
In 2014 archaeologists discovered a Roman thermal bath complex dating back to the 1st century AD, one of the most important discoveries to have been made in recent years. During the Roman era, public baths were one of the staples in any Roman town. They were necessary for hygiene, medicinal purposes and they were also social centers. This one appears to have been in use until the 4th century BC.
In Terrae Antiqva , Santiago Domínguez from Ares Arqueología stressed that in the summer of 2018 his team was “confirming what we suspected, that the relevance of the Valeria archaeological site is staggering.” So far they’ve unearthed an arcaded arena with columns, a swimming pool, a large polychrome mosaic and rooms with marble floor and walls.
“We believe that the Roman bath complex could have a surface area of more than 1,000 m2 (10,764 ft2) and could have been 6.5 meters (70 ft) tall,” explained Domínguez. The most staggering find is the existence of up to 40,000 tesserae, cubed tiles used to make mosaics. “I cry with emotion every evening,” declared Javier Atienza, one of the archaeologists and an expert on Roman marble during a segment aired on rtve.es.
“The good thing at this bath complex is that it hasn’t been looted,” explained Atienza, the coordinator of the excavations in an interview with CMM Castilla-La Mancha Media . In 2020, the Diputación de Cuenca announced they would be investing 170,000 euros ($201,745) in order to build a roof over the mosaics and ensure their conservation. Visitors will be able to watch the progress in situ while archaeologists continue to excavate and work to conserve the mosaics and marble.
Valeria celebrates its Jornadas Romanas in August every year. ( Valeria Romana )
The Valeria Roman ruins are just 34 kilometers (21 miles) south of Cuenca, and 200 meters (656 ft) from the village. They are well worth a visit, if not just for the fact that they’re slightly off the beaten path, giving visitors the chance to explore without bumping into coach-loads of tourists or school children. At the visitor center at the entrance, there is a simple display of photographs and information about the archaeological site.
Touring the ruins can take between 30 minutes to 2 hours, and can teach you a great deal about the Romans in Spain . Regular tickets cost €5 ($5.90) and the site is open all year round. If you book ahead of time you can request a guided tour for an additional fee. Make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. For bookings and information visit Valeria Romana .
In the middle of August the area celebrates its Jornadas Romanas , which unfortunately won’t be taking place in 2021. Declared a Fiesta of Regional Tourist Interest, the forum becomes one of the primary stages for these celebrations during which everyday Roman life is recreated with shops, workshops and demonstrations, as well as theatrical performances, processions, music, sporting events and even a typical roman dinner with food cooked in the style from the Roman era. It’s a quite splendid affair, taking place outside and lit by torches.
Top image: The Roman ruins at Valeria in Castilla-La Mancha. Source: Cultura Castilla-La Mancha
By Cecilia Bogaard