We love history, and we also dig seeing really old stuff; in Europe, there is no end to either. Like all of the great cities we visited, Barcelona has a rich history stretching back thousands of years, and opportunities for exploration and learning were endless. We especially enjoyed seeing the city’s Roman ruins, which seemed to be all over the place.
Barcelona’s Roman roots
It’s not surprising that no matter where we went in Europe, there was invariably a museum or an archeological site containing Roman relics. That’s because, at its height, the Roman Empire ruled large swaths of Europe (as well as parts of Asia and Africa).
Barcelona’s Roman roots stretch back over 2000 years. The city was founded by Emperor Augustus in around 10 B.C. and called Barcino. Barcino started small but gradually grew into an important Roman outpost. As the Roman Empire weakened, the city became more and more vulnerable to attack and eventually fell to the Visigoths in the 5th century A.D. The city’s name changed multiple times in the following centuries, but it finally became Barcelona in the 9th century after being captured by Charlemagne.
Barcelona’s Roman ruins
There are apparently numerous sites around town containing Roman ruins, and in the Gothic Quarter, where we spent most of the time, the ruins could be seen all over the place.
Over the centuries, as the ruins fell apart, locals incorporated them into new buildings rather than completely razing them. Here’s an example of remants of a Roman wall and defense tower from the 4th century AD that have been built into the structure of the Palace of the Requesens (which went up in the 14th century).
Over the centuries the ruins have also been integrated into modern life:
To learn more about the Romans’ time in Barcelona, we went to the Museu d’Història de Barcelona (Museum of the History of Barcelona), or MUHBA. MUHBA is a large institution that manages numerous historic sites and important architecture all over the city, from ancient ruins to medieval treasures and the incredible modernista architecture. MUHBA also hosts numerous cultural events, and one of its primary objectives is to educate visitors and residents alike about the city’s history, from its prehistoric origins to modern times. It also supports ongoing research and archeological excavation and acquires thousands of new artifacts every year. It would probably take a week of very productive days to visit every site within the MUHBA system.
We went to MUHBA Plaça del Rei. This was the first installation of MUHBA and opened in 1943. The museum is set in the Palau Reial Major (Catalan, meaning “Grand Royal Palace”) and the Plaça del Rei, (King’s Square) at the palace’s center. This 14th-century palace once housed the Kings of Aragon (including King Ferdinand II and his queen, Isabella, who sponsored Christopher Columbus’ explorations).
The palace is a complex of medieval structures that contains the Plaça del Rei within.
The museum, which allows you to explore parts of the palace, also exhibits many relics from Barcelona’s history, including a permanent exhibition that called Barcelona in the High Middle Ages (8th-13th centuries), but the exhibit that most interested us was underneath the palace grounds: the ruins from Roman Barcino, which were discovered during an excavation in the 1930s.
The archeological site covers a 4000-square-meter area of space underground, preserving remains from the 1st century B.C. to 7th century A.D.
The archeological site included an industrial district of sorts where wine was made, cloth dyed, fish processed, and clothing laundered.
It’s amazing how advanced the Romans were, and how hygienic. They used a combination of limestone and urine to sterilize their clothing, which may sound kinda icky, but they knew that ammonia was a useful disinfectant. (Incidentally, they also put urine in their toothpaste and mouthwash, specifically, the urine of the Portuguese, because Romans believed their pee was stronger and thus more effective). They also had an advanced sewage system and public baths, thus keeping disease under control. It was only after the Romans were defeated by the Visigoths in the 4th century A.D. and the city gradually fell into decay that disease swept through areas where the Romans once ruled.
Another portion of the archeological site features a church and religious center made up of an Episcopal Hall, a baptistery, the bishop’s residence, and a church. Christianity spread across the Mediterranean from Asia, but Christians were persecuted for many years until Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313. This large religious complex in Barcino demonstrates how important Christianity would become in Spain, to the point that, by the time Columbus sailed for the New World in the 15th century, all other religions would be outlawed and dissenters persecuted (beginning the 300-year period of terror known as the Spanish Inquisition).
It was thrilling to walk amongst the relics of an ancient society so advanced that many of its inventions and innovations are still used today. They founded and developed many of Europe’s greatest cities, establishing them with layouts and infrastructure that brought public health and order to society. They engineered sophisticated aqueducts that made it possible to provide fresh water to its citizens even when they were a long distance from the source, and these structures were so well-built that some are still in use today. They developed advanced medical techniques that helped keep their population healthy, including the cesarean section, tourniquets, effective combat medicine, and sterilization of surgical tools before use (a practice that declined after the Romans fell).
They established the basis for our current calendar system, and, as English speakers, we inherited their alphabet. Several core components of the American justice system originated with Roman legal code, such as the concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” and terms like subpoena, habeas corpus, pro bono, and affidavit. They had newspapers, a welfare system to house and feed their poor, and bound books. An intricate road system of over 50,000 miles stretched across Roman territory, allowing for faster travel across long distances (especially for the army, making them more effective conquerers). Their highways were equipped with stone markers that indicated location and mileage, not so different from the signage we use today.
The Romans were far from perfect, but they managed to exist as an entity for over 11 centuries (first as the Republic of Rome, then as the Roman Empire). They established a great society and an advanced civilization and contributed much to modern society and our heritage. It was wonderful to see some of their handy-work up close and personal.