The last people to leave the town of Segóbriga had to pack up in a hurry and head for the fortified town of Uclés, eight miles away. There was no time to lose because the Moors were coming. The Moors would kill or enslave them all. The last anyone knew, the Arab army had taken Toledo itself and if Tariq, its commander, wanted to he could be in Segóbriga in a day.
Luckily for these last Segobrigenses the Moors had better things to do, better towns to attack and pillage. The old Roman town of Segóbriga was nothing anymore—just a hill full of unintelligible marble ruins. People now lived on the flat ground below the hill and just let the old town fill up with thistles and mud. No one had lived there for two hundred years and earth had filled the old marble rooms and covered or half-covered the baths and the temples. Shepherds brought their sheep there, children used it as a playground. It was full of rabbits. The little collection of huts where people lived now was of no interest to invaders.
What would bring the Moors to Segóbriga was the Christian basilica three hundred yards from its walls. That they would want to destroy. It was the seat of a diocese and the tomb of several of its bishops. There were no cathedrals in those days—where would the money to build them come from?—but this basilica was a beautiful temple, more splendid than any of the churches around. Segóbriga in the old days had been a showcase of fine marble buildings and there was a long tradition of good stonework. The pillars in the basilica, the capitals and other stone adornments, were carved with particular skill.
The bishop—call him Sefronius—was the leader of the little community. There were no civil authorities, no police force, no protection. The Christian King’s army had been annihilated at Guadalete a few weeks after the Arabs crossed over from Morocco. There was no one to defend the Segobrigenses and they huddled around the old bishop and prayed before setting out.
Sefronius came from an old Visigoth family. The Visigoths were the nobles of those times, not the native Spaniards. Two hundred and fifty years earlier they had come into Spain with fire and sword just like the Moors now, and had become its leaders. They were still the leaders in all the communities.
He ordered the people to take down the brass lamps and to hide the crucifix that hung above the altar. But there was no time to consider how to save things like the frescoes or the beautiful filigree carvings on the pillars and the altar.
When the Moors galloped into Segobriga a few days later, they headed straight for the basilica and started smashing everything in sight. When they had finished, the building was just a shell. Their leader told them not to burn it down, in case he got orders to make a mosque of it. That was sometimes done. But he got no such orders and so the Moors used some of its good stones to build a watchtower on the acropolis of the old town.
Here is the floor plan of the basilica (46 meters long) as drawn from its ruins in about 1800 by a priest who was an amateur archaeologist.
He found at least four bishops’ tombs and copied the epitaph of this one.
The bishop was Sefronius, who died in 580. The epitaph speaks of “that enemy Death who snatched Sefronius from his people.” This tombstone is on display at the site of the basilica now in Segóbriga.