Numantia–or Don’t Mess with Rome

The Roman Empire was a nice package of countries and peoples. But what happened if you didn’t want to become part of it?

The native Spaniards of a little town called Numantia decided that they were damned if they would be bullied by Rome.

They were not damned, as it turned out, but they were annihilated. Rome itself admired them for generations.

Numancia, a painting by Alejo Vera.   The Numantinos kill themselves rather than surrender to Rome. (public domain photo)

A Visit to the Old Town

Now from the top of a pretty hill the guide (also pretty) tells you to look one mile out.

The ruins of Numantia today (public domain photo by Txo)

“See that red marker?” she says.  “That was where one of General Scipio’s camps were, with its tower.” Then she points a little to the left. “And that post marks Camp Two. If you look around you will see the other five.
“The camps were connected with a wall twelve feet high and a ditch ten feet deep. There were watchtowers every fifteen or twenty meters and something like 50,000 soldiers. Numancia was completely surrounded.”
Your imagination builds the wall up again and appreciates the neatness of it all. Then you remember where you are standing and that you are now a Numantino, and some of the old scare creeps in. You don’t stand a chance.

They must have told you that General Scipio, who commanded the army out there, didn’t horse around. He was the general who had wiped Carthage off the map. When he was done with it, the great city was just a charred, bumpy field. His plan for the subjection of your little burg was to reduce her by starvation. He wouldn’t even give you the chance to fight and die a warrior’s glorious death.

Some Brave Soldiers Broke out

There was a weak point in Scipio’s wall where it had to jump over the stream at the foot of the hill. He had tried to block the stream but a commando of brave Numantinos slipped under the wall undetected one foggy night and ran to the Celtiberian towns around to ask for help. They were able to collect a band of patriots and prepared to attack the Romans from the rear and break the siege. But some old Celtiberians who were afraid of what would happen to their people if Rome wasn’t defeated, warned the Romans. What was Scipio’s punishment for the hundred brave Celtiberian youths who had promised to take part in the action?
“Cut their hands off” was his order.

Cervantes’ Play

Miguel de Cervantes himself wrote a play about the heroic Numantinos. The legend was that they refused to surrender and that after first eating wood and leather, they ate their own dead. The few that were left when the Roman soldiers stormed into the town killed themselves.  Skeptical historians think they were simply made slaves—the usual fate of defeated warriors.

Of course Scipio saved the most presentable of them to take back to Rome for his triumph parade.
Needless to say, he razed the town. (See my comment below with the Polybius quote on the usual Roman treatment of conquered towns.)

What do you see today?

Numancia is just outside the city of Soria.

The modern province of Soria, Spain. The ruins of Numantia are just five kilometers from the city of Soria (map from file)

Archaeologists have brilliantly restored some of the old town and its walls and houses. There you can learn better than in any book or museum about those old times.

A modern reconstruction of the  city wall (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license photo by Multitud)

This is a postage stamp commemorating the Numantinos’ stubborn defiance of Rome.

(photo from file)

Read more about Numantia here.


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Meeting Hemingway’s Hero

I knew a bar called Las Panderetas where bullfighters went and I had seen Nicanor Villalta sitting at a table in the corner one afternoon.  I could have approached him right then but I wasn´t ready, and by the time I had figured out what I could say to him he had gone to speak to somebody and the occasion was lost.

Bar “La Taurina” in old Madrid(photo from file)

That night and a few other times I rehearsed the conversation I planned to have if I ran into him again.  And about a week later I went back to Las Panderetas and there he was again, sitting at the same table.  I sipped a glass of white wine (chato de vino blanco) at the bar while I went over my questions one more time and built up courage.  You´d have thought I meant to assassinate the guy.
OK.  One last look.  There he is now and looking in my direction.  Here goes.

I walked over to him and spoke just a little too soon, before I had reached him.  “Señor Villalta?”
His table was on a kind of podium and he bent way down to try to hear me.  “¿Perdón?”
“Are you Sr. Villalta the bullfighter?”
“Sí,” he said dryly and sort of defensively.  Maybe he thought I wanted to sell him something or ask him for a dime.
Opposite him at the table was an old guy who took a deep interest in this interview and made me nervous with his watching.

“I´m American,” I began.
“Sí,” said Villalta again.  He was hard of hearing and listened with a grimace and a squint and one ear towards you.
“Last week the American bullfighter Sidney Franklin died.  Do you remember him?”
He didn´t hear me or understand me but fortunately the old guy with him at the table told him what I had said.
“Yes,” said Villalta, starting to look inside himself while he remembered.  “He was very brave.  Muy valiente.”   I wondered if he meant this as a false compliment.  Bravery was a lot more common than quality fighting.  Maybe he was saying that Franklin was brave but no good.
“He was left-handed,” he went on.  His statements came out one by one, decisively, the way old people often make them.  “He did all the pases the other way around.  It was very curious.  But it worked.  He was all right.  Yes, I remember him.”

I could see that that was about all I was going to get out of him on the subject of Franklin. He hadn’t asked me to sit down: I was still standing at the foot of his table/podium and sweating heavily.  Always so nervous.   But I tried to relax and make this conversation look casual.  “Would you let me buy you a drink?” I asked.
“No.”   Bad luck.      He wasn´t enjoying this conversation much.
“And Hemingway, do you remember him?”   The other guy at the table explained that I wanted to know about Ernest Hemingway, the writer.

Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo  (public domain)

“I think they introduced me to him once,” said Villalta.  You could see he had something against old Hem.
“You are in his book on bullfighting,” I said.
“Yeah, he called me I don´t know what kind of insect.”   I saw the misunderstanding right off.  Villalta cut a strange figure in the ring (and outside of it).  He was disproportioned: tall as a basketball player, with a wee little head on a long neck.  There was something stilt-like about his legs, something stiff about his way of walking.  Though he performed all the pases competently, he wasn´t pretty to see.  “He has a kind of praying mantis style,” wrote Hemingway.

“But Hemingway admired you, ” I said.
“Do you know he named his son after you?”  This last wasn´t rehearsed.  It may not even be true.  I knew one of Hem´s sons was called Nicanor and deduced.
But Villalta wasn´t appeased.  He had made a judgment on Hemingway years before and that was that.  He went back to Franklin.   “Your Franklin wasn´t around very long,” he said.   “I remember an awfully big cornada (horn wound).”
“Did you get many?”
“No!” He almost shouted it.  He looked exasperated, as though for years he had been fighting a recurrent lie.   “Very few.  None.”
Not every bullfighter sees gorings in the same way.  Some brag about them.  Villalta seemed to think that you got gored out of incompetence, mostly, and poor judgment.  That if you understood bulls you didn´t get gored except now and then from bad luck–the wind, the bull´s distraction.

He was one of the very greatest of bullfighters.  He still has the record for ears in the Madrid ring.  He must have made big money in the early ’30s but by the time I knew him he was so poor he had to ask for help.  I went to a benefit fight for him.  He came down into the ring to take the applause of the crowd and one last time made a trip around the ring and even tried to run a little–sideways like they do, with his arms outstetched.  But his old legs were too stiff and he had to give it up and just bow.  In his old suit which was too big for him he looked like a tall scarecrow, or with his little head, like a …praying mantis.

So that’s how I begged an old guy for change.  What he had he gave in the ring to the people who paid for it then.  I  won´t be such an ass as to complain that what I made him give me out of his old  pocket wasn´t worth much.

(photo source)

Here is some of what Hemingway says about him in Death in the Afternoon:

“…When he does a great faena [performance, the torero's work] it is all valour; valour and that magic wrist, and it makes you put up with the greatest awkwardness…You are certain to see him looking as awkward as a praying-mantis any time he draws a difficult bull, but remember that his awkwardness is caused by his physical structure, not cowardliness.

photo of Nicanor Villalta y Serrés (1897-1980) from Death in the Afternoon

Because of the way he is built he can only be graceful if he can put his feet together, and where awkwardness on the part of a naturally graceful bullfighter is a sign of panic, in Villalta it only means that he has drawn a bull which he must spread his legs apart to work with. But if you ever see him when he can put his feet together…then you will forgive him the neck God gave him, the muleta the size of a bed-sheet that he uses, and his telephone-pole legs, because his strange mixture of a body contains enough valour and pundonor [moral imperative, sense of honor and responsibility] to make a dozen bullfighters.”

Though I only guessed about it at the time, it is a fact that Hemingway named his first son after Villalta. (“If the baby had been a girl we would have named her Sylvia. Being a boy we could not call him Shakespeare.  John Hadley Nicanor is the name. Nicanor Villalta the bullfighter.” Letter to Syvia Beach, Nov. 6, 1923)

Hemingway put in a long afterward about Sidney Franklin in Death in the Afternoon.  He says things like this:

“Franklin is one of the most skilful, graceful, and slow manipulators of a cape fighting today…He is a better, more scientific, more intelligent, and more finished matador than all but about six of the full matadors in Spain today, and the bullfighters know it and have the utmost respect for him.”

Sidney Franklin (1903-1976) public domain photo by Carl Van Vechten

Hemingway was proud of his friendship with Franklin, who taught him much about bullfighting. Franklin died in a New York nursing home in 1976.


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Old Roman Specularis Mines

Spain used to be a kind of Eldorado. It was fabulously rich in minerals. Rome and Carthage both financied their wars with Spanish gold and silver.

Roman gold mine of Las Medulas, Leon, Spain    GNFD photo by Rafael Ibez Fernandez

There were mines working all over the peninsula: copper mines, like the Riotinto in Huelva; gold mines, like Las Médulas in León; silver mines, like El Centenillo in Linares. And in the booming first century, the Romans opened lapis specularis mines near Cuenca.

Lapis specularis is a variety of gypsum (selenitic) that forms crystal sheets and they were used as window panes.

Lapis specularis

In the old world a window was just a hole in the wall—the English means “wind eye”.   Glass had been invented long before but it was blown glass, used only for small vials and decorative beads.No one had figured out how to make glass in sheets.
One day some Roman had the idea to stick a piece of stone crystal in the window hole. That let in the light and, at the same time, kept out the weather and the draft. It was a small piece of crystal and it wasn’t very transparent, but it made a big difference in the room.

Builders soon began looking around for bigger, clearer crystals and found one called lapis specularis. It is nearly as clear as glass and it could be split into fine sheets and cut easily to size. Plus, it did not seem to weather or to change in any way in heat and cold.

Some entrepreneurs saw the potential and sent out scouts all over the Empire to find deposits. Good lapis specularis, says Pliny in his encyclopedia called Natural History, comes from mines in Asia Minor and North Africa but the best comes from an area of 100,000 passi around a little town in Spain (Hispania) called Segóbriga.  Pliny was in Spain in 74 AD and saw the mines himself.

Nero’s Skylight

The Emperor Nero ordered lapis specularis for a skylight in his Temple of Fortune and it was used in the same way in some public baths in Rome. The sheets are usually less than a foot square but they can be put together like the segments of stained-glass in the old cathedral windows. The Emperor Tiberius had a greenhouse made of hundreds of crystal sheets. Rich men everywhere wanted the new windows for their villas. They became a great fad. Even carriages were made with lapis specularis windows.

Roman bath      a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Other uses were found for it too. It was pretty, it sparkled. When ground up and mixed with the sand of the racetrack and the amphitheater, lapis specularis gave the shows a special circus twinkle.

A scene from the movie Ben Hur

A Roman mosaic showing a chariot and triumphant driver        Archaeological Museum, Madrid

The boom lasted for just over a hundred years.  Slaves worked mines everywhere and sent the plaster in ships to Rome.  Men got rich, mining towns like Segóbriga began to blossom with monumental buildings paid for by their new-rich families.

Ruins of the Roman town of Segóbriga, Spain

The End Came Suddenly

But then sheet glass was invented and plaster windows were suddenly out. Lapis specularis was no longer of any interest. The mines were abandoned and the whole business was forgotten. For centuries historians reading Pliny weren’t even sure anymore what lapis specularis was. And the location of the famous town of Segóbriga was disputed. The mines were 100,000 passi around that city; but what was the length of a Roman passus?

What the Archaeologists Found

Starting in the eighteenth century, archaeologists excavated a buried city near Cuenca and found proof that it was Segóbriga.
They agreed on the size of a Roman passus, approximately 1.478 meters. That meant that Pliny’s 100,000 passi were about 147 kilometers. If the town of Segobriga is the center, then the mines should be inside a radius of 73.9 kilometers around the city.

They started checking out strange caves near Segóbriga and saw that they were in fact the lapis specularis mines Pliny had been talking about. No one had paid much attention to them for a thousand years. Many Spanish towns have caves and labyrinths under them, of unknown origin. These were a few more. Some were considered dangerous holes and traps to stay away from, others, half-collapsed, were hidden altogether. In the 1980s archaeologists excavated a couple of the known ones. Recently experts like Juan Carlos Guisado have found a dozen more.

Exploring a Roman lapis specularis mine near Segóbriga, Spain

Inside the Lapis Specularis Mines

Specularis mines are underground tunnels like ant colonies. Miners picked away at the earth until they found good crystal, then hauled it up to the surface in buckets. To get at minerals such as copper, where the proportion of metal to dirt is high, it pays to open a big pit. But lapis specularis comes in little deposits or incrustations only here and there in the ground, so the best method is to tunnel through the earth until you hit the crystal, chip it out, then go on until you find more, moving no more earth than is necessary to keep your way clear.

The miners moved forward by the light of little oil lamps set in niches in the wall, and they left a pillar of earth here and there to keep the roof from falling in. Pliny says it was dangerous and miners often died from collapses.

Ancient gravestone showing miners in the siver mines of Cástulo

Lucerna or oil lamp used in the specularis mines around Segóbriga

And now?

A few years ago a visit to one meant putting on a miner’s helmet with a carbide lamp attached and crawling through a deep hole in the ground until you came to a big chamber where you could stand up. But now several of the mines have been opened and offer guided tours to visitors.
The walls are full of pick gouges—made by men two thousand years ago. The broken-off point of a pic is still rusting in a few of them.
There is ancient graffiti on the walls. Over the centuries a few people went down into the mines—a very risky thing to do. It is easy to get lost in the labyrinth, especially in the darkness after your little oil lamp goes out. So far, no Latin writing has been found. The slaves who worked in the mine were no doubt illiterate and many must not even have spoken Latin well. There is Arabic graffiti from the time of the Arab occupation, between 711 and 1100 or so. And a seventeenth-century Spanish signature looking like one of Shakespeare’s or Cervantes’, with a looping rubrica underneath.
Outside some of the mines archaeologists found a miners’ cemetery. Around it were fragments of ceramic cups with a name (Greek) scratched on the base. Cups and little eye-wash dishes were a slave’s only possessions.

See this great site on the specularis mines.


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Caesar’s Dignity Bridge

“Find me a place where the river is nice and wide,” Julius Caesar told his tribunes. “And sort of mean.”

The “Tusculum portrait”, possibly the only surviving bust of Caesar made during his lifetime (public domain photo)

They came back with a couple of options. Some scholars think Caesar chose a stretch of the river near Cologne, others think it was near Koblenz or Bonn. The Rhine is nearly a quarter of a mile wide at those places and “mean”—with a strong current and a full twenty feet deep. In Caesar’s time there was a thick forest on both banks.

What was he up to?

He had decided to go after the Germans (the Germani) on the other side of the river. The Rhine was the border between Germany (the Germani) and France (Gallia). The Germans crossed it and raided Gallia from time to time and they had to be taught never to do that again.

mapgalliaparts-marked Map of ancient Gaul (file)

They had just come over the river and the invaded Gauls had called on Rome to protect them. Caesar went to the rescue and in a fierce battle annihilated a German army and sent the survivors scurrying back across the Rhine. They figured they were safe there and that had to stop.

“Now that he [Caesar writes in the third person] had seen how easily the Germans were induced to invade Gaul, he wanted them to experience fear…when they realized that the army of the Roman people was both capable of crossing the Rhine and brave enough to venture it.” The Germans were not going to be able to hide behind that river anymore—not from Rome.

There were other good reasons to cross. A little tribe called the Ubii, who lived on the other side, were allies of Rome and they had sent word to Caesar that they were being threatened. Could he send some soldiers over to show the Germans that Rome would protect them?
Caesar wanted to punish some tribes that had just fought against him, too, and had escaped across the river.

How was he going to take his army over? With dignity, of course. The Ubii promised to provide boats to ferry his soldiers across but “he was not convinced that such a method of crossing was in accord with either his own dignity or that of the Roman people. So despite the extreme difficulty of the task which lay before him of constructing a bridge (because the river was so broad, swift, and deep), he nevertheless concluded that he must attempt a crossing by bridge—or not take his army across at all.”

He put down the map of the river and picked up the bridge design his engineers had worked out: “ Gentlemen, it is not wide enough.”
They looked puzzled. Their bridge was five whole meters wide—enough to accommodate five fully-armed soldiers marching side-by-side.
“I don’t want a dinky bridge,” Caesar told them, “something that will just do. This bridge is supposed to knock the Germani out. It ought to scare the bastards. It ought to show them the kind of thing Rome can do and will do for her friends and against her enemies. Make it twice as wide. ”

A few hours later the engineers came back with the bridge as wide as a modern two-lane highway.
Caesar nodded at the change but his eye went right to another problem:
“Can’t we do something to protect our piles? When they see what we’re up to, the Germani are going to fill the river with logs, and with a current like that one they’ll knock the devil out of our bridge.”

“We could station men in rafts to intercept the oncoming logs,” said one of the engineers.”

“And a shield of some kind?” said Caesar. “How do you protect a fighting man? With a shield. How might you protect a bridge? With a shield. We could put wedge-shaped fences in front of the piles. Besides deflecting enemy obstacles they would divide the waters and reduce the force of the current on our bridge.”

“Very good, sir.”

caesar-bridge-shields Bridge shields (source unknown, 100falcons file)

“How long is it going to take us to make this thing?” Caesar asked.
The engineers knew he was in a hurry so to please him they had come up with a nearly impossible deadline for themselves. “Twenty-five days,” they said and held their breath, “including felling the trees and cutting the logs and branches.”
“Oh, come on,” said Caesar. “You men have built dozens of bridges and all the material is right here at hand. This bridge has to go over that river in record time. Let the men work in shifts all night and give them good protection from cavalry. It would be nice if the Germani scouts didn’t even know we meant to build a bridge until we started. How about ten days to gather material and ten days to span the river? If you fellows can’t do it, just say so and we’ll scrap the bridge. Maybe I was wrong about my engineers and what they can do.”

Caesar was a genius at influencing men, making them come his way. This was one of his old tricks. He had used it just after taking command of Gaul when his newly-recruited legions heard they would fight the big, fierce Germans and got scared. There were rumors of mutiny. Caesar addressed them: “I don’t believe you men are cowards or would really let Rome down. But just to see who will do his duty and who won’t, I’m going to break camp tomorrow morning. Anyone who wants to follow me to glory can come along. If the whole bunch of you chicken out I won’t mind. My loyal Tenth Legion and I will face the enemy and do the job by ourselves.” Of course the ashamed soldiers joined him in the morning. Now the engineers were challenged to do the impossible.

In ten days, chopping day and night, the soldiers had the logs and branches ready. And in ten more days they built Caesar his bridge while the unbelieving Germans watched from the other side. Awed. Scared. The Romans were coming after them.

Caesar’s bridge over the Rhine (public domain photo by Lo Scaligero)

When the bridge was finished, Caesar paraded his army across in wide rows, the cavalry first, their horses draped with colorful trappings, then the foot-soldiers, with horns blaring, flags waving, and the near-sacred standards held high in the air.   They met no resistance on the other bank. The Germans had fled and were hiding in the forest.
Caesar spent 18 days trying to find the enemy, burning the villages that he saw and razing the corn fields. Then, figuring he had accomplished his mission, he marched back across the dignity bridge.

And tore it down.

caesar_bridge-model Model of Caesar’s bridge  across the Rhine (Museo nazionale della civiltà romana, Roma; ©**) courtesy of

This story is taken from Caesar’s own account in his Commentaries (also called The Gallic Wars), Book Four, chapters 16-19. I have used the translation of Carolyn Hammond

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Caesar Escapes Just Like Indiana Jones

See him: the tough old general swimming for his life, keeping under water as much as he can while the arrows splash all around him in the water.
He holds his notes in the air.  A general needs his papers.

And where is his scarlet robe—the one he always wore in battle so his soldiers would recognize him?

Perhaps he gave it to an aide before hopping off the little boat, which was sinking because too many soldiers were jumping into it. The historian Appian says the Alexandrians captured the robe and hung it up as a trophy.


How did he get into such a mess?  Where was he going?

He was making for one of the larger Roman ships that lay farther out.
As soon as he reached it, he ordered them to send lifeboats back to save as many men as they could. He had lost the battle.

What battle?

He was trying to control the harbor of Alexandria, to close one of the exits to enemy ships. His troops from Syria would be coming in and he had to make sure they would land safely.

He and his soldiers were in real trouble.  They were boarded up in a corner of the city, trying to hold off the attack of the entire Egyptian army.  There wasn’t enough food and even their drinking water was poisoned.
They had only one chance of surviving: reinforcements from Syria. He had sent out a call for more troops  as soon as he arrived in Alexandria, and now they were on their way and he had to secure the harbor for them and keep command of the sea.

But how could he do that if he had only a few men and boats?

To start with, he set fire to the Egyptian warships in the dockyards—that was the only way to prevent their being used against the incoming Roman troop ships.  There were perhaps a hundred, many of them huge quadriremes and quinqueremes,  fully equipped for battle.  (The fire got out of control and burned down the most valuable building in the world: the Library of Alexandria, with its five hundred thousand scrolls.)

Then he hurried to seize the causeway  that led from the docks to the Island of Pharos, where the Great Lighthouse stood.  There was an opening in the causeway for ships to pass through on their way out to sea.  He built a little fort there and began filling the passage with big rocks to block it. The Alexandrians came to resist him with all their might.


To fight them Caesar quickly landed more troops from boats along the causeway but there wasn’t enough room for so many soldiers to deploy and they stumbled over each other and blocked their own retreat as the enemy came charging. They all ended up jumping back into the little boats.

Caesar himself describes the moment of great danger [he writes of himself in the third person] : “As long as he was able by exhortation to keep his men by the bridge [over the opening] and the fortification, Caesar was exposed to the same danger; when he saw that they were all giving ground, he withdrew to his own vessel.  He was followed by a crowd of men who began forcing their way on board and made it impossible to steer the ship or push it off from land; whereupon Caesar, who had guessed that this would happen, jumped overboard and swam out to the ships standing farther off. From there he sent small boats back to pick up his men in difficulties and saved a considerable number.  As for his own ship, it sank under the pressure of numbers and was lost, with all the men on board.” (Civil War 21.6)

And the little detail of his holding his papers out of the water as he swam?

That comes from Plutarch. He calls it a “story” to show that he took it only for what it was worth, viz., the color.  “This was the time when, according to the story, he was holding a number of papers in his hand and would not let them go, though he was being shot at from all sides and was often under water. Holding the papers above the surface with one hand, he swam with the other.”
(Life of Caesar, section 49)


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Cervantes Leaves His Pretty Wife and Looks for a Job

A few days after his wedding Cervantes must already have suspected that he had made a mistake.

Monument to Cervantes’ wife in Esquivias, Toledo, Spain

His wife was pretty and passably wealthy but he couldn’t stand her little town. How was he going to spend the rest of his life on a farm? He had wasted his youth first marching around Italy and then playing cards in an old Turkish bath in Algiers while he was a prisoner of the pirates. Would he waste the next best years being a country gentleman, hunting partridges and rabbits and husbanding vineyards?

Cervantes’ wife’s farmhouse in Esquivias, Spain

(See Cervantes’ House Restored)

Every chance he got he left the farm and went to Madrid to see old friends, including maybe his lover La Franca and their daughter.
But it seemed like it was always time to return to the damned farm.

Wasn’t he glad to see his young wife? No one knows. Perhaps he really loved her, perhaps he had only married her for her money. However that was, after nineteen months he pulled out of Esquivias.
“I’m going down to Seville to look for a job,” he told Catalina.

He had a good friend there, a former comic actor named Tomás. Tomás had decided that making monkey-shines on a stage was never going to bring him much money so he left Madrid and went home to Seville, where he ran an inn now. It wasn’t just any inn—it was probably the most luxurious one in Seville. The best people in town stopped in there—nobles, rich empresarios, high government officials. “Come on down south and stay at my place,” Tomás had written to Cervantes. “Good jobs are dealt out here at my tables over drinks. I can introduce you to some very important people. Probably in less than a week you will nail something.” Cervantes had grown up in Seville and loved the booming city. It was the biggest, the busiest city in Spain at the time. “Save me a room,” he wrote Tomás. “I’m coming.”

He stayed at Tomás’s inn for two weeks. What kind of talk did he hear? Spain had just beaten the Portuguese in a decisive naval battle and everyone was euphoric—cocky. “That’s one enemy down,” said the men at the inn. “Now let’s go get those damned English.” They had heard about the execution of the Catholic Queen Mary Stuart and wanted revenge on the Protestants. “And we’re getting sick and tired of those English pirates, who have been getting away with murder for decades. It’s time to hang the whole lot—right, boys?” And they would raise glasses of wine and vow to undo the English. King Philip saw that the whole country was in a mood of revenge and heroism and he decided to take advantage of it. “How many ships do you think we can assemble?” he asked the Duke of Alba. “The time is right to win back England for the Church.” For the Crown too.

One day while the inn was crowded with customers Tomás called Cervantes over. “See those two men by the window? The fat one is Antonio de Guevara. The King has just appointed him Head Comissary for a great Armada. That other fellow is Diego de Valdivia, Guevara’s adjutant. I’m going to introduce you to them. They are looking for commissaries to collect provisions for the fleet. The money is very good.”

The two nobles told Cervantes exactly what he would have to do. “The King needs wheat and oil to make the sailors’ biscuits. Of course the Crown cannot afford the huge sums necessary to pay for all that. But His Majesty is sure every Spaniard will want to cooperate in the undertaking, which the Almighty has surely ordained.”

“I see,” said Cervantes. “Requisitioning. The grain and oil will be collected by force.”

“Correct,” said the big Guevara. “Our commissaries will collect from each landowner an amount that we have fixed. You will simply go to his residence and present the official writ. Then at the granary you will supervise the actual transferral of the grain and oil to the King’s siloes. The Crown will pay you twelve reales a day.”

“And if the landowner or farmer refuses to open his bins?”

“As His Majesty’s commissary you will have full powers to oblige him to do so. Should the man refuse to cooperate, you will have him imprisoned.”

Cervantes was back on the farm when his offical appointment came through. What did he tell Catalina as he prepared to go south? Neither knew he would spend the next fifteen years collecting taxes in all the towns and villages of Andalucía. “Your mother wanted me to administer your family fortune, right?” he must have said. “Well, within two years I will double it—or my name is Charlie.”

He did and he didn’t. At one time he had thousands of maravedis in his hands but they disappeared mysteriously. “There are really only two ways he could have lost that money,” says a biographer. “Either he made bad investments or he gambled it away.”

Cards in the Spanish deck

“Cervantes must have been quite a card-shark,” says another of his biographers, “after all those years in the army and in the Turkish bath. In his stories he shows familiarity with all the games of the time.”
Perhaps at the gaming table they called him Charlie.


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A Spanish Pompeii?

Sort of. At least it was a real Roman city with all the fixings and it was buried and lost to history for a thousand years. The difference is that Pompeii was covered up all at once by volcanic dust and Segobriga was abandoned and slowly buried in mud and weeds.

It is an exciting place to visit, just a little more than an hour from Madrid, going east on the Valencia road. It is called Segóbriga (not Segovia, another great place to see). It is on a hill with a brook flowing around it in beautiful, rolling country—wheatfields and evergreen oak woods. That is just as it must have been in Roman times.

The hill when excavations began at Segobriga, Spain

The hill when excavations began at Segobriga, Spain

Segóbriga had everything a Roman city should have. There was a theater, an amphitheater, a circus (racetrack), a basilica, a temple, baths, a cistern and sewers, a cemetery. It might almost be a modern re-creation for educational purposes. But it is the real thing! There were gladiators in its amphitheater, old Latin plays in its theater, emperor worshippers in the temples, magistrates walking around in togas, and slaves.

A performance in the old Roman theater during the International Theater FestivalA performance in the old Roman theater during the International Theater Festival

The amphitheater of Segobriga, SpainThe amphitheater of Segobriga, Spain

The story of most ruins is lost to history, so you have guess what happened there. But not for Segóbriga—that is the best part of all.

There are ancient references to her with information and stories enough for a good novel. No less an authority than Pliny the Elder, the author of the Natural History, talks about her. He was there! And what does he say?

An old translation of Pliny's Natural HistoryAn old translation of Pliny’s Natural History

Segóbriga was a mining town. The mines brought her great wealth and made some of the local families rich, and they built the monuments for their hometown.
Mines? What Mines? Is there coal or some mineral around there?

No coal, no metal. Plaster.

How can you get rich on plaster?

Plaster, or rather GYPSUM, in its crystal state is transparent. Rocks of it split into fine sheets. What can you do with those?

Lapis specularis from an old Roman mineLapis specularis from an old Roman mine

In ancient Rome buildings had windows (“wind eyes”—square or rectangular holes in walls to let in light and air) but no glass panes. To let in the light they necessarily had to let in the cold or the heat too. Probably most of the time people kept those windows blocked with a curtain or a shutter.

The idea to use the sheets of crystal gypsum for window panes came to someone around the turn of the millenium, i.e. AD 1. An architect imported some big ones from Spain and used them as skylights to light the public baths in Rome. Then the rich started doing the same for their houses and villas. In time, the gypsum was used as window-glass.

It was a fad. It coincided with the big economic boom of the first century. Buildings, private and public, were going up everywhere. “The best lapis specularis in the world,” says Pliny, “comes from an area of 100,000 paces around a little town in Spain called Segóbriga.”

If you are lucky enough to make friends with a young enthusiast from the nearby town of Osa, you may put on a miner’s helmet with its carbide lantern and crawl down into one of the long-since abandoned mines to see the endless galleries and the pick gouges made 2000 years ago by Latin-speaking slaves. That mine will soon be open to the public.

Inside a specularis mine. There is ancient graffiti on this column.

Inside a specularis mine. There is ancient graffiti on this column.

There is one more cool feature—the remains of a Christian basilica—one of the oldest ever found. After the Roman Empire declined and Spain became Christian, Segóbriga became the seat of a diocese. Its bishops attended the synods in Toledo and are on record until the eighth century, when the Arabs invaded Spain and came through with fire and sword. End of basilica. And, more or less, end of Segobriga. At the ruins of the basilica you can see the tombstone of a seventh-century bishop, one of the last.

Gravestone of a seventh-century bishop of Segobriga

Gravestone of a seventh-century bishop of Segobriga

Posted in 1, archaeology, history, mines, Romans, Segóbriga, toga | Leave a comment