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Italica, Birthplace of Roman Emperors

Posted on April 3, 2007 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Southern Spain and Morocco

Our spontaneous excursion to Italica from Seville turned out to be well worth it. It was much larger and more impressive than we thought, and an ancient Roman site was a nice change from the churches (not that I ever really get tired of churches). And thankfully, it didn't rain on us anymore and we even had sunshine for some of our photos.

Italica was founded in 206 BCE as a place of settlement for veteran Roman soldiers and their families. It became one of the largest Roman settlements in Spain and was the birthplace of two Roman emperors: Trajan (in 53 CE) and Hadrian (in 76 CE). Today, the ancient city is in ruins, as later civilizations (Visigoths, Muslims, etc.) preferred the site of Seville and swiped most of Italica's stone to build it.

map of italica, near seville
Map of Italica from the brochure provided with admission.

IMG_9637 Italica is now located in the village of Santiponce, which is just a few miles north of Seville. Santiponce is a fairly average and not unattractive little Spanish town, and a big monastery we spotted on our way into town looked worth exploring. I've since learned that it's called San Isidoro del Campo and was founded in 1298.

The site of Italica is very beautiful, with its ruins scattered across what now looks like a huge sloping meadow, shaded by very Italian-looking trees. It was incredibly quiet, which was a nice break from all the activity of Seville. And crowds were certainly not a problem: we shared the expansive site with just a pair of American honeymooners and a family that I think was Dutch.

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The first thing you come to at the site is probably the coolest - ruins of a huge amphitheater that was one of the largest in the Roman Empire. It could seat 25,000 people and hosted gladiator fights and wild animal hunts.

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The entrance to the amphitheater.

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A view from above.

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View across the central pits, which were covered over and used for special effects and keeping some of the animals.

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We could also wander the halls and tunnels beneath the seating area, from which the gladiators would have accessed the arena. Back there was a long Latin inscription that I think was a list of gladiators, or gladiator rules... there was only a Spanish translation so we don't really know.

The rest of the site was mainly houses, public baths, shops and streets, which were laid out on a grid pattern in that wonderfully orderly Roman way.

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Amazingly, many of the houses and public baths still had floor mosaics intact, which were just left open to the elements. On one hand that's a great thing because it really gives you a sense of what these houses looked like. But on the other hand, it can't be good for them! Apparently many have been moved to Seville Archaeological Museum, but there were still some really great ones on site.

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Oops! I'm on the other side of the chain.

Our favorite by far was this black and white one with Neptune in the middle and all kinds of funny water creatures and scenes around him. In Roman times it was the bottom of the cold water pool in the public baths.

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Another nifty mosaic was of the seven gods that are associated with the seven planets and the seven days of the week (in the Romance languages at least): d80_2 259 d80_2 261 d80_2 263
Above left is Mars (Tuesday - Mardi in French) and right is Venus (Friday - Vendredi in French).

Also nifty was this labyrinth mosaic: d80_2 232

From the main area with the mosaics, we should have continued on even farther into the site, where there is a well-preserved theater (a semicircle, used for plays and performances rather than violence) and - I've since realized - the only religious site at Italica, a temple to Trajan. Argh. But I am sorry to say that we really felt we couldn't! Our strenuous days of walking had now fully caught up with us, and we were exhausted. My leg muscles were so sore, tired and shaky that I seriously thought if I walked too much further they might give out! And David was not enthusiastic about more walking, either. Sad, so sad. And, as usual, I was cold. But at least I picked up some postcards from the gift shop on the way out so we have pictures of some of what we missed:

roman theater, italica

Leaving the site the way we came in, we then made a beeline for a restaurant across the street that our Rough Guide said was "famous for its grilled steaks served on wooden slabs with small baked potatoes in mojo spicy sauce." David's ears perked up at that description!

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Happily, it was open and we had a very nice waiter who did speak a bit of English. He said the kitchen was closed (it was an odd hour like 4:30) but the grill was open, so we could still have any meat or potatoes. That's what we came for, so no problem! The only thing our guidebook was wrong about is that they've downgraded the wooden slabs to plastic cutting boards, but the food was wonderful!

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David got an expensive cut of veal steak that was incredibly tender and delicious. I'm less into the meat so just went with a sirloin cut of veal, which was also quite good. The potatoes don't look very pretty but they were delicious, and went nicely with the spicy sauce. We also had a huge basket of delicious bread with butter, and it was such a nice, relaxing time.

When our waiter offered dessert I couldn't help but ask what was on offer, and after struggling for a moment with the English, he said, "You trust me to choose?" We did, and he brought us a very nice flan-like custard dish to share, which was topped with either a coffee or liqueur sauce and garnished with whipped-cream-topped walnuts on the side. It was gone before I had a chance to take a photo.

Then it was time to figure out how to get back to Seville, since we arrived by taxi. Our waiter pointed us in the direction of a bus stop that went to Seville, and my guidebook said that buses depart every half-hour. So we headed down to a clearly-marked bus stop, where the timetable said the next departure would be in 10 minutes. Poor David was especially cold as we waited, since he hadn't brought his coat (it was nice and sunny when we left the hotel that morning!).

We passed the time by being confused about where the bus would come exactly - we were clearly next to the bus stop, but there were a few Italica tourists waiting across the street. Do they know something we don't? Sure enough, when it did come it sped right by us and stopped across the street where there is not only no sign, there is no place for it to pull over! So we had to run across the street in order not to miss it. Oy vey, this would not happen in Germany. As we boarded, the tourists we'd been watching smiled understandingly at us and said, "We wondered who would be right!" I think they must have been let off there, and so that gave them the clue as to where to wait.

Then it was a remarkably pleasant bus ride back to Seville. We were dropped off at the bus station and walked a bit before catching a taxi. We asked for the cathedral and were once again met with a barrage of protests in Spanish about the impossibility... but we interrupted him with, "Si, si, as near as possible" with accompanying hand gestures, and we were off. Along the way we got to see the big bullring where Seville's famous bullfights are held, which was great.

Just as last night, despite his protests the taxi driver did a great job and let us off in a beautiful square that was within sight of the cathedral. The sun was shining again, everything was bathed in a nice evening light, we could hear the drums of a parade in the distance, and the streets were as lively as ever. We had intended to try to just go straight to the hotel to get David a coat and relax for awhile, but this lovely situation gave us new energy.

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We got a couple hot drinks to go from Starbucks on the square, mainly for the privilege of using their bathrooms, and as usual marveled at the strange familiarity of a Starbucks in a foreign land. I know, I know, it's a sin to have Starbucks in a land of great coffee, but for the record I had a chai tea latte. Besides, Spanish coffee is meant to be savored, and we had places to go and things to see.

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Then we followed everyone else down to the cathedral, from which a Semana Santa parade was emerging. More on that soon...

d80_2 288 on the way to the parade