Travelling never stops reminding of us of how little we know. Last December we visited the Archaeologcal Museum of Seville, one of the pavillions created for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. As we explored the fascinating museum, we quickly noted that most of the impressive Roman exhibits were from Italica, which we soon learned was just northeast of Sevilla. Note to selves – we must visit!
Fast forward to June 2018, Erik was spending time with us and we hit the road for Andalucia – specifically Italica and Cordoba. Located in (and under) the modern town of Santiponce just northwest of Sevilla, this was an easy 2.5 hour drive from Portimão.
Italica was an elaborate Roman city founded in 206 BC by Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio. Smaller than it’s neighbour Hispalis (Seville), it’s main purpose was to settle war veterans from the Second Punic Wars against Hannibal and the Carthaginians. The city was built on the shores of the Guadalquivir River with formal streets surrounding a central public buildings and a forum.
Italica thrived for many years, particularly under the patronage of Hadrian, as it was his birthplace. He expanded the city northward and erected several new temples and buildings. However by as early as the third Century its prominence began to dwindle due both to the shifting of the riverbed and the continued prosperity of nearby Hispalis.
Throughout the Middle Ages and well into modern times the city remained a romantic site but was subject to looting, indiscrimate excavation and a quarry for building materials. In fact in 1740 the City of Seville ordered demolition of the ampitheatre walls to support building of a dam on the Gualdalquivir River. It wasn’t until 1810 that Italica recieved any protection, as well as an annual budget for excavation. In 1912 it was declared a National Monument but the final protection laws were not put in place until 2001.
As the modern city of Santiponce was not built over the entire site, much of the original city remains intact and visble. The ampitheatre was the 3rd largest in the Roman Empire at the time and seated 25,000 people which is about half of the Collosseum in Rome. We were actually overwhelmed by the feeling of walking into the centre of the ampitheatre and its surrounding vaults and walkways. There are many parts that remain intact and you definitely get a sense of the specatcles that took place here.
In addition to the ampitheatre several streets in the elite area of urbs nova or new town have been extensively uncovered and some very impressive mosaics from the original homes are visible. Wandering along the formal streets amongst columns, cedar trees and remains of the original homes and mosaics provides a fascinating experience and a unique insight into Roman history.
Getting to Italica is easy, as the signage on the highways is excellent and coming from Portugal you can avoid the busier thoroughfares as you head north in the outskirts of Sevilla. There are few overnight choices in Santiponce itself but most visitors come from Seville on a day trip or using public transportation.
We stayed at the Hotel Anfiteatro Romano which is reasonably priced and has a unique interior. The rooms were small but clean and perfectly adequate for a night. There are several restaurants within a short walk and we had an excellent meal at the attached Ventorrillo Canario.
The entrance to the site is directly across the street from the hotel and there is ample street parking in the area. Entrance fees are very reasonable and on the day we visited in late June there couldn’t have been more than 50 people in the whole site which is quite expansive. There are no facilities within the site other than washrooms and vending machines near the entrance. The grounds surrouding the ampitheatre contain some fascinating pieces and throughout the entire site you will find scattered remains of columns, poticos and statues. Also, keep in mind that the site is closed on Mondays.
A morning or an afternoon of about 2-3 hours should be sufficient to see the entire site, although this depends on the level of interest you have in this type of attraction. For us it was a unique, enriching and very memorable visit.