A History of Hamilcar: The Legend of Cardosa and a Lost Carthaginian City – Part I
Deep in the heart of the Portuguese arid interior lies a city. It is the regional capital of the lands known as Beira Baixa and is strategically well-placed near the grand Tejo river, the superhighway of ancient times. The city has a name but with an unknown origin: Castelo Branco.
Although attempts have been made to explain the name, none have ever really proved satisfactory. The city’s origins have been lost to time, just like the two character-defining hallmarks for which Castelo Branco is known: the famous ‘bordado’ (embroidery) of Castelo Branco and the beautiful and unique gardens called ‘Jardim do Paco’.
Bordado: Embroidery in silk (CC BY-SA 4.0)
There is no hiding this lack of identity. The city council admits to it in their official website; “Little is known about the origins of Castelo Branco” are the official words. Yet there is a general awareness that Castelo Branco had a distant past, even if unknown. It is an ancient city, the mishmash of stones and the successive rebuilding attests to that and, more importantly, everyone here believes it is so. Then there is the legendary nickname about which there is no denying, the name which according to legend identifies the ancient roots from which Castelo Branco came: Castraleuca. Nobody knows exactly how to pronounce it, nor spell it. Ask any senior citizen about the origin of their city, however, and they will probably reply using this word, even though they have no idea what it means or from where it came. The word Castraleuca, just like the bordado and the gardens, belongs to this city.
Jardim do Paço (CC BY 3.0)
Searching for a City’s Origins
Nineteenth century historian Porfirio de Silva in 1853 quoted a contemporary document which was very specific about the origins of the city: “Seven hundred years before the time of Christ, time of the Carthaginians, Goths, Saracens, there existed on Cardoso hill the ancient Castraleuca, and from its ruins of Castelo Branco was built.”
The name Cardoso, according to Portuguese historian Augusto Leal, was said to have come from the thorns and thistles (cardos) which grew amongst the ruins of Castraleuca.
Thistle (Fir0002/Flagstaffotos /CC BY-NC 3.0)
A little-known historian who worked in the famous Torre de Tombo and directly for the King confirmed this. His name was Gaspar Alvares de Lousada. He was highly respected in his time both here and abroad, and was known to have been well acquainted with the ‘antiquities of Portugal’. He said Castelo Branco had been rebuilt by the Knights Templars from the ruins of Castraleuca. He evidently had seen ‘cippos’ (marker stones) which identified Castelo Branco as being the ancient Castraleuca.
This is confirmed by the city foral (a royal document) written by Knights Templar Pedro Alviti in 1213. The wording is important:
Foral of Castelo Branco (Public Domain)
Volumus restaurare atque populare castelbranco. Translated this gives “we wish to restore and populate Castelo Branco”. So, Castelo Branco already existed, including its name, otherwise they could not restore these things— the city and its name. It seems that the name Castello Branco had already become the commonly used name at the time of the Templar’s rebuilding of Castraleuca.
Nineteenth century historian Herculano rejected both the idea of Castelo Branco as being Castraleuca and Lousada (whom he discredited), calling Herculano and others ‘impostors’. His arguments were based upon the work of Ptolemy the Greek Geographer, who in the first centuries AD placed Castraleuca south of the Tejo. However, Ptolemy’s work was and is known to be flawed. He also significantly did place Castraleuca on Lusitanian soil and near the Tejo river. Ptolemy wrote from Alexandria in Egypt and had never placed foot on Lusitanian soil, and even today it is advised when reading his work not to rely on his coordinates. Lousada, a man highly respected by other contemporary historians throughout Europe, was soon forgotten. This was a great error. Instead of checking out the foral and comparing the city to see if it really was a rebuilt ancient city, the Castraleuca version was relegated to a fairy tale.
In actual fact, what happened was that opinion became divided. On one hand, there were the academics who, having rejected outright the story of Lousada and his Castraleuca, and being ignorant of the significance of the word, were left chasing their tails as to a new plausible explanation of the city’s ancient history. On the other hand, there were the ordinary Albicastrenses, who simply continued believing what they had always believed.
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There is a flawed argument based upon a false assumption. If somewhere (in this case Castelo Branco) is ancient, it must have been Roman. Yet if we closely look at the word Castraleuca we can see it is not Roman. It is a Romanization of a Greek name. As the Romans never used Greek names, we must look for another possibility. Greek became a ‘lingua franca’ after Alexander the Great’s conquests, which would indicate a possible date of the third or fourth century BC. This would be in agreement with the words quoted by Porfirio de Silva.
So, who were the founders? Who was here in Iberia at that time? It cannot have been any of the indigenous Celtic tribes, as they lived in their castros on the hilltops.
Rebuilt house in the Celtic castro of Vigo (Galicia). (CC BY 2.0)
Who else were around at such an ancient time? Who would have built a city? And, not of least importance, why?
The Missing Akre Leuca and the Carthaginians
The Greek writer Diodorus (25.10), in describing the Punic wars between the Carthaginians and Romans refers to a city by the name of Akre Leuka (or Akra Leuka) which was built by charismatic Carthaginian leader Hamilcar Barca, father to the famous Hannibal. Diodorus said it was a ‘very large city’. Spanish coastal city on the east, Alicante, has always claimed to be the lost Akre Leuka. Historians, however, have mostly rejected this claim to have little basis as there are no archaeological substantiations and no resemblance in the names. We will soon see that it couldn’t possibly have been Alicante because of the Iberian geography of certain peoples and events. So how could it be that what Diodorus calls a ‘very large city’ could just disappear without a trace?
Iberian ceramics. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
In their fruitless search for the lost Akre Leuca and indeed the Carthaginians in general, historians had always known that a certain name held the key to its whereabouts. The name was identified with a tragic incident— the death by ambush of Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal. He was the city’s builder. Roman writer Livy (24.43) identified the death of Hamilcar with a place called Castrum Album. Historians knew it must have been close by, as the heroic death of Hamilcar was to save his children, Hasdrubal and Hannibal, who were young teenagers and who made it safely to nearby Akre Leuka. So, it follows this Castrum Album and Akre Leuka were close by.
Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal and Hasdrubal
According to Sir William Smith, who writes in his Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (part 2 - pages 329-330), Hamilcar had come to Iberia to form a ‘new empire’ to compensate for the losses of Sicily and Sardinia, to provide wealth for Carthage, and to serve as a point from which they would renew hostilities against Rome.
Another Portuguese historian from the middle ages, Emanuel Farias de Sousa, member of the Ordem De Cristo and writing from Spain, provides all-important details about Hamilcar’s death which will shed light on the incident and make Alicante’s claims impossible. These details and others could well revolutionize not only our understanding of Carthaginian-Iberian history, but also the ethnic identity of Hannibal himself. For at a time when some say Hannibal was black and others that he was white, De Sousa tells us (and other ancient Iberian historians agree) that Hamilcar Barca had taken a Lusitanian woman as bride and had children by her. She apparently was from Lisbon.
A Carthaginian shekel, dated 237-227 BC, depicting the Punic god Melqart (equivalent of Hercules/Heracles), most likely with the features of Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal Barca; on the reverse is a man riding an elephant. (Public Domain)
Hamilcar’s superiors in Carthage apparently were delighted. He was a bridge-builder and by showing friendship to the local indigenous tribes he was winning over the whole of western Iberia. As the Lusitanian indigenous tribes were Celtic, we discover that Hannibal was a Carthaginian and, from his mother’s side, a Celt. On a sea voyage back to Carthage, she had gone into labor and the ship was forced to land in the Balearic Islands. Hannibal was born to his Lusitanian mother on the island of Formentera.
Formentera (CC BY 2.0)
Hamilcar’s death in the winter of 229-228 BC, and thus the whereabouts of the lost Akre Leuca, is described in great detail by De Sousa. Hamilcar was ambushed (as confirmed by Cornelius Nepos) by a powerful tribal confederation called Vettones. They were from the western Lusitanian side of Iberia. The Carthaginians used to spend the winter months in Akre Leuca. Hamilcar’s greatest allies were a tribal confederation known as the Celtici who lived south of the Tejo in what is now the Alentejo. They had been accompanying Hamilcar on the eastern side of Andalusia when their lands in modern Alentejo were attacked by the Vettones. Requesting permission to return and defend their lands and families, Hamilcar returned with them and they routed the Vettones.
The Bulls of Guisando, a set of Celtiberian sculptures located at Ávila, Spain. They are associated with the territory of a Celtiberian tribe called the Vettones. Circa 2nd century BCE. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
When at the place Livy identifies as being Castrum Album, Hamilcar was ambushed by a trap. Wagons loaded with timber had been soaked in pitch and were set ablaze. The Africans (Numidians who were mercenary soldiers in the Carthaginian armies) accompanying Hamilcar at first found it amusing, but the Vettones drove the wagons and the oxen into a frenzy, and into the Carthaginian troops. Chaos ensued. Hamilcar recognized the danger and knew it was a trap. He drew off their attack by removing his helmet so they would recognize him, and rode south to a river in flood. He did this to save his young children. He was hit by a javelin and drove his horse into the river so that the Vettones would never discover his body. The story of Hamilcar’s death is fairly consistent among all the ancient writers with slight variations.
All this, according to Livy, occurred at Castrum Album. The Latin words of Livy 24.41 concerning Castrum Album describe it as being a ‘fortified citadel’. The western Iberian bond between the Carthaginians and the Lusitanian tribes has hardly ever been recognized. Perhaps that is why Akre Leuca and Castrum Album were never found.
Careful analysis about the names will reveal a total harmony. Akre Leuca means ‘white high place or promontory’; ‘Castra Leuca’ (Latinized form of the Greek) means Castelo Branco (Portuguese) which in full Latin is Castrum Album. They are, in fact, the same place. The Latin form of the name is particularly significant because it has become the household name of every person born in Castelo Branco. They are Albicastrenses, a name which has always been shrouded with mystery and remoteness.
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Akre Leuka was a strong fortified city built on a hill by Hamilcar Barca as a military seminary to train and build-up the Carthaginian armies and was later (according to Livy) used by the Romans to store grain. Recent archaeological evidence has identified a grain-storing structure nearby to Castelo Branco at Sta Ana chapel.
Carthaginian hoplite (Sacred Band, end of the 4th century BC) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Archaeological and other evidence more than amply confirms all this. The Phoenicians (forefathers to the Carthaginians) had, for many hundreds of years, kept a carefully-guarded secret—their western Iberian Atlantic treasure. Permanent ports have been found in the estuaries of the Tejo, Guardiana and Mondego rivers. These rivers in ancient times were fully-navigable, and were used by the Phoenicians to gain access to the interior of what is now Portugal. They had established trading routes through what is now the Beira region of Portugal. De Sousa tells us that they, around 550 BC, asked for help from their Carthaginian fellow nationals against threats from a powerful Lusitanian king. They brought the Carthaginians to Iberia. In this way, the Carthaginians began to build friendships with the Lusitanian Celtic tribes and also to explore the mineral wealth of the Beiras.
The people of Castelo Branco have always been known as Albicastrenses, although nobody ever knew why; They were the people of Castrum Album, the full Latin form of the name Akre Leuca. Perhaps this is why, and more than in any other region, the names Hamilcar, Hasdrubal and Hannibal have remained even to this day.
Castelo Branco and its Carthaginian style
The proof of all this is in the city itself. For the whole urban structure, with characteristic winding streets harmonizing with the hill contours, steeply-sloping narrow streets coming down from the hilltop, and the houses with their double door next to single door are the same as in ancient Carthage. Castelo Branco is a city which has been rebuilt successively upon its ancient Carthaginian roots, making it a unique city.
Construction at Castelo Branco (Photos: Tom Hamilton)
The different construction styles are evident (above left). The original construction at grass level, neat lines of stones, the Templar reconstruction above with a ‘patchwork’ style. They were building using the stones which were lying around from the destroyed city. Note the smaller stones used to ‘patch’ the gaps as many of the larger stones were damaged and it was impossible to identify where each stone had originally come from. Clear evidence of the original ruins with the reconstruction (above right). So Lousada was correct, and the foral accurate.
(Left) beautiful arches in Jardim do Paco. (Middle) first floor in local bar ‘O Relogio’. (Right) one of many arches now blocked. (Photos:Tom Hamilton)
These two arches are in a recently-built museum. The arch in the right photo is underneath the one in the left photo. They are vertically built on top of one another. (Photos: Tom Hamilton)
(Left) This pair of arches, common to Castelo Branco can be seen. (Right) An arch in the wall of an abandoned house. (Photos: Tom Hamilton)
What we can see from the building techniques using arches in Castelo Branco is what Roman writer Appian described in ancient Carthage in 200 BC. He says they built on levels using arches and vaults as part of construction techniques. Uniquely, in Castelo Branco arches mysteriously have survived on all levels and in many buildings and in what remains of ancient walls. These walls clearly show the rebuilding, testifying to Lousada’s claim and confirming the words of the Templar city foral. One local builder remarked to me on how these arches seem to have been used as an architectural technique to gain height in all the buildings with more than one level. The arches are on first-floor and also below-ground levels.
Map: PreRoman Iberia (via Tom Hamilton)
The Barren Hills of Lusitania - a Hidden Military Seminary
De Sousa tells us, in his history of Portugal (p25 vs 9), that Hamilcar Barca had come to Lusitania with the intention of building a military seminary. Near the banks of the Tejo river, in the hills of Beira Baixa, it was strategically near perfect, hidden on the western side of Iberia, far from the reach of Rome. The three local tribes Lusitani, Celtici and Vettones were all situated on the Tejo. They were to provide the mercenary troops which were to form the backbone, along with the Numidians, of the Carthaginian armies— firstly under Hamilcar, then Hasdrubal and later Hannibal. We are told by De Souza and other ancient Portuguese historians that they also came from the north (between the Douro and Minho) and from Lisbon itself and from the Turdetani, a tribe in the south. Hannibal had united all of Lusitania and they accompanied him to Rome.
This explains why, on his famous journey to Rome across the Alps with 104,000 men and 37 elephants Hannibal motivated his army with the following words (Livy 21.43): “Don’t forget those futile years of chasing wild cattle on the barren hills of Lusitania and Celtiberia.” The “barren hills” can only refer to the region of Beira Baixa just north of the Tejo. It is dry and the land is comparatively infertile compared to the Alentejo plains south of the Tejo and, indeed, the fertile valleys of Gardunha just north which is a prominent cherry-producing region.
From the words of this speech of Hannibal we can see clearly that all the soldiers had been here in Beira Baixa and had passed through Celtiberia further eastwards into Spanish lands on their way to crossing the Alps, otherwise such an exhortation would make no sense.
Carthaginian war elephant, (used by permission Alexander Lunyakov of blackpen shop)
Akre Leuca (Castelo Branco) was built as a military training center based upon the design of Carthage. Diodorus tells us (Diodorus 25.102) that elephants were kept in Akre Leuca. According to Appian’s description of ancient Carthage, the level below ground contained vaulted rooms where the elephants (around two hundred war elephants) were kept. The ground level had stables for horses. The elephants were used by the Carthaginians in their battles as instruments of war. They are thought to have been African Forest elephants, about 2.5 meters tall and more apt to being trained than their larger cousins, although this is a subject of debate.
Castelo Branco is known for its ‘subterranean city’ as it is sometimes referred to by the locals. There are tunnels and, legend says, underground vaults. These have been closed-off by the local town council because they have become dangerous.
An underground tunnel recently discovered during the building of a subterranean parking space. (Photo: Tom Hamilton)
[Part II Coming Soon]
Musician, composer and producer, Tom G Hamilton is currently writing a book about the historical city Castelo Branco. His Lusitanian Heroes album was written to accompany the story about Hannibal Barca, famous for his epic journey across the Alps with elephants. www.tomghamilton.com