Numancia and how to irritate the Romans

If you are fortunate enough to visit Soria, a pretty old town up on the plateau in Castille, you should know that there is a place called Numancia on a hill just outside it which is MASSIVELY famous within Spain (I’m quite a Hispanist, and have been for years, but I had never heard of it, to my shame). Apparently, the Celtiberian inhabitants about 150BC held out for a long time against the Roman invaders, à la Asterix.  We were in Soria to see friends and they had asked if we’d like to see Numancia – it sounded as if we ought to know what it was, and as if we ought to be excited about it. Since our friends are lovely I said yes and sounded excited, then went to look it up.

It was a hot afternoon in August (there is no other kind of August afternoon in Castille), but once we had made the short journey through the stark yellow countryside, then up the hill called now Cerro de la Muela (Hill of the Tooth…) to park outside a reconstructed watchtower we were hooked.  It was fascinating, and so unlikely.  The might of the Roman Empire in their tens of thousands couldn’t defeat a few hundred local warriors barricaded in their encampment on top of this hill.

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A very knowledgeable guide took us round, and it is testament to her enthusiasm and the strange story that no-one, not even the children in the party, lost interest or wandered off even though the tour lasted for an hour and a half and we were pretty much cooked by the end of it.

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We were told many anecdotes – one of my favourites was about the time the Romans thought they’d win by bringing elephants to storm the barricades, but the elephants were startled by the fierce warriors and turned tail, trampling huge numbers of Roman troops in the process.

It was also interesting to hear that although the Romans were familiar with the scorchingly hot weather that is normal in this region in summer, the icy cold of their winters came as a tremendous shock to the soldiers. During their first winter here the tributes demanded of subjugated locals changed to include enormous numbers of winter cloaks, which then became part of Roman army uniforms across the empire.

Several different Romans were given the task of trying to conquer Numancia, including Scipio Africanus, because it was becoming known around the great Roman empire that this tiny settlement in Hispania was holding out against the invaders (yes, it rings a loud bell for those of us who love Asterix).  At one point the Romans even built a wall around the whole hill and laid siege to the place; it was in effect that tactic that succeeded eventually, and at that point there are different versions of the end of Numancia.  Some say that the Celtiberians all committed collective suicide rather than be taken prisoner. Others say that in fact they became assimilated into the Roman Empire. The certainty is that this historical outpost fell into ruins for centuries before being rediscovered in 1860 and made a historic monument in 1882.

There has been a lot of archaeological exploration here, indeed it continues; on our way round the site we had to detour to avoid a group of archaeologists working on part of it.  The discoveries are used to construct houses from different periods of Numancia’s history.

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Spanish schoolchildren must be taught about the Numantian actions in the same way we all in the UK learn about 1066.  Everyone on our tour except for us was Spanish, and all knew enough about the story to be able to answer the guide’s frequent questions. We were both very glad we had been, and finished with that slightly smug inner glow that you feel when you just know that at some future point you will be able to remark casually “Oh yes, that’s something that every Spanish schoolchild knows” and everyone will look at you with admiring eyes.  Or not.  Well, I can dream can’t I?

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