Mérida, the Roman capital of Hispania

Sara Rodriguez Romo | Live the World

November 23, 2022

In the southwest of Spain, there is a region called Extremadura (which means extreme and tough in Spanish). It is bigger than Switzerland, yet only one million people live there: it is an empty land! However, it was not like this before. In Roman times, it was so important that its capital, Mérida, was also the capital of Hispania (the current Iberian Peninsula). This city was so magnificent that it was listed as one the best in the Roman Empire, even better than Athens! To this day, its remains are still visible: majestic temples, bridges, aqueducts, etc. Let us have a look at these wonders...

© Sara Rodríguez Romo

Mérida & its Roman theater

Mérida was founded in 25 BCE. It was created for retired Roman soldiers and indigenous people. Since the beginning, it was meant to be a significant city. In fact, within 20 years, it was already the capital of the province Lusitania, and eventually, it became the capital of all Hispania. Therefore, like every great Roman city, it needed great public buildings. Thus, a theatre was built* **for 6,000 people. An amphitheater followed,** **able to welcome 15,000 people*: gladiators were far more interesting for Roman citizens than classic plays!. A circus completed the affair: to this day it is one of the best-preserved of the world and impressive by its size: 403x96m. 

Mérida was built next to the great river Guadiana. There is still a very beautiful Roman bridge for pedestrians. Despite the closeness of the river, the Roman builders wanted to ensure that the city would always have water. Therefore, they built not one, but two aqueducts to provide for it. One of them (San Lázaro) is almost destroyed by now. However, there are 800m left from the other one. To this day, it goes through Mérida. One of its pillars is placed in a private yard. This aqueduct is called “Los Milagros” (literally, the miracles: it is a miracle that after 2000 years the aqueduct is still so well preserved!). 

The aqueduct

The aqueduct is impressively high at some levels: 27 meters. So high that a few years ago, when preparing the area around it to create a park, some workers discovered the graves of those who had perished building this great masterpiece next to the pillars. Nevertheless, it is impossible to think of that while walking through this nowadays beautiful park, the valley of the Albarrega. The Albarrega is the other stream of the city. And of course, it has a Roman bridge to cross it as well. 

Roman remains in the city center

In the city center, the monumental Roman remains are endless. There is a corner of the ancient forum, fontains, a mithraeum... However, one of the most interesting buildings is known as the “temple of Diana” (although it was actually dedicated to the emperor). It is surprisingly well preserved. Why this building in particular? Because a noble family decided to keep the Roman columns and build themselves a beautiful Renaissance palace inside!

The National Museum of Roman art

There is not enough space in this story to write about all the wonders discovered at Mérida. If you are interested in Roman times, this is your city. A piece of advice: if you do not have enough time to visit absolutely everything, go to the Roman Museum. It was designed by Rafael Moneo and inspired by the late Roman buildings. Huge mosaics, statues, and many other historical reliques. Despite its colossal size, it cannot contain the endless findings of the city anymore. Indeed, slowly, the old Roman city is coming back to light: the plan is to put on display the most important remains and give back to Mérida its past glory.

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