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

This entry was posted in 1, archaeology, history, mines, Romans, Segóbriga, toga. Bookmark the permalink.

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