This is episode 4 called First Iron Age: Tartessos, Phoenicians and Greeks and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The emergence of Tartessos in the Guadalquivir Valley area, the literary references and the possible location of their capital
  • The importance of mineral resources for the rise of Tartessian culture, that is a confluence between native and Phoenician cultures
  • The findings of El Turuñuelo led by Sebastián Celestino and Esther Rodríguez
  • The political system and myths of Tartessos
  • A quick overview to Tartessian history, from their rise to their fall in the 5th century BC
  • Where did the Phoenicians come from, where did they build their colonies and in what did they base their power
  • The peaceful collaboration between Tartessians and Phoenicians
  • What did the Phoenicians bring to Spain
  • The fall of Phoenician power after the fall of Tyre in 573 BC
  • The Greek Phocaean colonies like Emporion or Rhodes in eastern Spain (Catalonia and Valencia)
  • How and why were the Greek colonial expeditions organized
  • The rise of Emporion


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 4, called First Iron Age: Tartessos, Phoenicians and Greeks. In this episode you will discover the fascinating and mysterious Tartessian culture, and the Iberian colonies of Phoenicians and Greeks. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

The waves of Indo-European immigrants, and later Phoenician and Greek colonists, changed the ways of living, brought new technologies, new religious beliefs and burial costumes, and many other things that changed the societies that populated the Iberian Peninsula. The Iron Age started in Iberia in 700 BC, with important regional differences.

Around the Guadalquivir Valley a new culture emerged in 1000 BC, the Tartessian culture, that lived in a very fertile land suitable for agriculture and rich in mineral resources. The Tartessos have been a matter of deep investigation because they are surrounded by mystery. I mean, some even argue that the Greek myth of Atlantis was based on the fall of the Tartessos! In the Bible the word Tarsis is mentioned multiple times, and although it could have different meanings like long distance maritime trade or a type of precious stone, Tarsis could mean the land of the Tartessos. It’s mentioned in the Old Testament that the ships of Solomon and Hiram travelled to Tarsis in the 10th century BC and that they returned loaded with gold, silver and ivory, among other things. In the Greco-Roman sources we have more confusing information about them. According to some authors Phoenicians founded the Tartessian culture, in relation to their location some said that their capital was in Cádiz while others said it was nearby, and that Tartessos was the name of the main city and not their region of influence.

The mainstream academic thought nowadays is that Tartessian culture is a confluence of native and Phoenician cultures. The most likely location of the capital of Tartessos is Huelva, in the west of Cádiz and Seville, as its red-colored river called Río Tinto contains high levels of iron and other heavy metals, and the nearby area has mines of copper, silver, gold and tin. Furthermore, the estuary of the Guadalquivir River was located more in today’s inland in the first millennium BC, and there’s a theory that locates the city of Tartessos in a delta of the river that is now underground.

What is clear is that the Tartessians were important producers of gold and silver. We not only have literary references about their mineral wealth, but also archeological evidence that confirms it. We have treasures of gold and silver that were decorated in detail, tools for extracting and working metals, beautiful religious artifacts… You should go and search it in Google Images to see how incredible their works were or visit where I will post some images.

tartessian treasure el carambolo

The Tartessians preferred small but dispersed towns rather than big urban concentrations. The location of Tartessian towns was based on the location of resources, like close to mines, or fertile lands, or rivers, which suggests that they had a complex and integrated economic system in the area of Western Andalusia. The lack of walls and weapons, and the easy-to-access location of towns suggests that their society was pacific and focused on trade instead of conquest.

The problem to learn more about Tartessos is that the cities that historians consider to be the most prominent of the civilization are Cádiz, Huelva and Seville. All of them are important cities of Spain so archeological research is complicated, because apart from the modern city we have the Medieval and Roman cities underground before the Tartessian cities. In fact, the majority of archeological findings of Tartessos have been found in what’s considered the Tartessian area of influence, in the interior rural region of Extremadura, along the Guadiana river. There are the spectacular rests of El Turuñuelo for instance, that is a very big and at least two-floor building that has yet to be totally excavated. The building was burned and sealed at the end of the 5th century BC, when Celtic tribes were invading the region. Archeologists led by Sebastián Celestino and Esther Rodríguez have found more than 50 sacrificed animals, half being horses, the bones of an adult man, and architecturally advanced structures, that only with 15% of the site excavated! In all Tartessian urban structures there were sanctuaries, and it’s important to mention here that sanctuaries were not only religious centers, but also commercial centers. A sanctuary was a neutral zone were merchants and customers had their interests protected by divinities. Furthermore, Tartessian altars were very unique, since those altars had the shape of a skin of bull spread out, and they could be found both at sanctuaries and homes.

el turuñuelo

Their political system was probably a confederacy of city-states ruled by several hereditary monarchies. Their religious beliefs and myths were quite complex, as advanced as those of the Greek civilization, and Tartessian mythology was influenced by Oriental ideas brought by the Phoenicians. You see, they had a pastoralist vision of the origin of humanity. The Tartessian people believed that their mythologic founder Geryon had three heads and that he had a herd of oxen. Yeah, this Geryon is the same that appears in Greek mythology, in the 10th work of Heracles aka Hercules. Later, King Gargoris founded the second dynasty and taught the Tartessians how to collect honey and trade. He was the father of Habis, a son born from an incestuous relationship of Gargoris with one of her daughters, and Gargoris tried to kill Habis but failed. Habis was breastfed by a doe until he grew up as a man. Then Habis became kind of a demigod that taught his people how to plow, he made laws to organize the society and he divided the society in social classes. Yeah, all those mythic kings resemble the Greek myths, I know.

The only historic king with literary references is Arganthonios, who reigned between the 7th and 6th century BC. Due to his longevity, he may not have been a single man but a dynasty, but who knows. Interestingly, his name, or nickname, reveals how closely linked was the silver wealth with the Tartessian civilization. According to Greek historian Herodotus, King Arganthonios offered the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Phocaeans, the opportunity to settle in Iberia. The Phocaeans refused his offer but accepted an envoy of money to build walls to prevent the attack of the Persians.

Okay, so let’s make a very quick overview of the history of Tartessos. From the 8th century BC onwards, Phoenician presence in South Iberia increased. The mineral wealth of Tartessos attracted many Phoenician colonists and those colonists influenced Tartessian politics, religion and culture. The Phoenicians brought with them new technologies, beliefs and urban planning. Tartessian trade with the rest of the known world increased, and that stimulated specialization and the stratification of their society. Tartessians quickly adopted the Phoenician religious beliefs, as well as their more advanced methodology to work with metals. But the fall of Tyre in 573 BC in the hands of the Neo-Babylonian Empire provoked a decline of Phoenician influence, while Greek and Carthaginian traders and colonists became more important. The 6th century BC is a period of instability for Tartessos, and the area started its economic and political decline at the end of that century. Tartessian culture disappeared in the 5th century BC, with the Turdetani culture succeeding Tartessos. Some researchers like archeologist Adolf Schulten defended the theory that Tartessos was destroyed by Carthage as they wanted to colonize and control the mineral riches of the region, but the causes of their fall are still uncertain. The interest for Tartessian mineral wealth fell, as Sicily and Sardinia became exporters of mineral resources, with the advantage of being closer to the wealthier Eastern Mediterranean states and the emerging Etruscans of Italy. In addition to that, geologists have recently discovered that there was an earthquake and tsunami in the area during that period, which could explain the disappearance of Tartessos and maybe the myth of Atlantis.

But from where did the Phoenicians, that I have mentioned so many times, came from? Phoenicia was the region that today Lebanon occupies, yes, in the Levant region of the Eastern Mediterranean. Imagine how important Tartessos was as a center of metal extraction and production that they came from that far! Well, because of that and because they didn’t get along with Assyria, so they were forced to make long-distance trade. The Semitic Phoenicians first founded Cádiz and they slowly built new colonies along the southern Spanish coast. Phoenicians always looked for islets or small peninsulas and settled there, as that provided a balance between easy access for trade and natural defenses. Their commercial colonies required docks and suitable lands for agriculture and ranching. Phoenicians based their influence over other civilizations like Tartessos not on military power but economic and cultural superiority.

What did the Phoenicians trade with the Tartessians? They traded wine, pottery and ivory for the metals and salt of the Tartessians. We must understand the Phoenician colonies in the context of increasing contacts and trade networks of the Mediterranean peoples, that traded from east to west and from north to south. They didn’t build that overnight, the Phoenician traders first made irregular contacts and then installed themselves in the most important cities of southern Spain before founding colonies of their own; and they didn’t build their trade networks alone, they used the help of Sardinian and Iberian Atlantic navigators that already traded in Tartessos. This is not even a Phoenician vs natives kind of story, many Tartessians actively collaborated with Phoenicians in their trade and with the construction of colonies because that benefited them as individuals. It’s in the 8th century BC, between 800 and 700 BC, that Phoenicians prioritized their interests in the coasts of North Africa and Southern Iberia.

Phoenicians brought with them the written word to Iberia, iron, coins, new weapons, new methodologies to extract and work metals and to produce clothes, the consumption of wine and the use of oil and ivory became more common, they introduced donkeys, chickens, lentils, chickpea, and of course their own costumes of urbanism, burials and religion.

After founding Cádiz, or Gadir as it was called, Phoenicians settled along the Strait of Gibraltar, and later they also expanded to the Portuguese coasts and to Mediterranean Andalusia. In Portugal Phoenician traders could buy gold and tin that was easier to find in the Atlantic than in the Mediterranean, and they exchanged their manufactured products at high prices since the journey was long and dangerous. Although their main interest was to get metals like silver or copper from Iberia, Phoenician traders diversified the products they imported during the 7th century BC. We see that by the fact that archeologists have found Phoenician products in towns with no mines nearby. Historians think that those Tartessian and Lusitanian towns probably exported salt, agricultural and livestock products, and wild resources like honey.

In the 6th century BC Phoenician traders lost their hegemony over the region of Valencia and Eastern Andalusia, and the local population learned to manufacture products with their own unique characteristics and gained more importance in trade. The Phoenician population either emigrated or integrated with the local culture, something quite different compared to the case of Western Andalusia. After the fall of Tyre, the Phoenicians lost their thalassocracy and the Phoenician colonies in the West Mediterranean had to take care of themselves. The city that emerged as the capital of the Western Phoenician world was Carthage. It’s important to note that each municipality was pretty independent from the metropolis, the Phoenician and later Punic colonies were organized as city-states. At the end of the 6th century BC Carthage and Cádiz, as well as other minor cities, made an alliance to dominate the Western Mediterranean. Phoenician presence under the protection of Carthage still continued for a very long time.

The Greeks travelled and founded colonies in the Iberian Peninsula for the same reason the Phoenicians did, to trade and to get access to more copper, silver and gold. The first Greek object found in Iberia was from the 8th century BC, a date 2 or more centuries later from that of the Phoenicians. The city-state that was more active in the colonization of Iberia was Phocaea. The Greeks called the region of Catalonia and Valencia Iberia, a concept that was of course used afterwards to refer to the entire peninsula. They founded colonies in Catalonia, like Emporion, modern-day Ampurias, or Rhodes, modern-day Rosas. Those may have been intermediate cities used both to trade with the natives close to the colonies and to trade with the Tartessos of southern Spain that were still relevant in the 6th century BC. While the Phoenicians dominated southern Spain, the Greeks dominated the poorer regions of Catalonia and Valencia. It’s important to highlight that Phoenician and Greeks weren’t like bitter enemies that monopolized those areas, Phoenician traders could go to the Greek areas of influence and the other way around too. In any case, after the fall of Phocaea due to the invasion of the Persians in 546 BC, far-away colonies like Emporion grew with an influx of refugees. As a matter of fact, I visited the archeological rests of Emporion and it’s pretty impressive, the site hasn’t been completely excavated but it was nice. Most of the remnants of Emporion were from the Roman period though, there were many Roman homes and even a wall with a dick chiseled on it.

greek phoenician and carthaginian trade routes and colonies

Myths of the 8th century BC like the story of how Hercules stole the oxen of Gerion in Iberia or how he obtained the golden apples of the Garden of the Hesperides, denote the mystical and mysterious image that Greeks had about the peninsula at the time. It was only later that Greeks traders and colonists made regular contacts with the Iberian Peninsula, since they focused more in the colonies of the Italic Peninsula. The legends told by the Phoenicians about a land wealthy in mineral resources attracted Greek traders. During the Peloponnesian War and the Greco-Persian Wars Greeks learned how to build massive navies quickly and with better durability than those of the Phoenicians. The colonial expeditions were usually organized by the Greek city-states during a time of demographic boom or in a year with a bad harvest, in order to prevent revolts and to lower the demographic pressure. Colonial expeditions were led by oikistes, which were men of aristocratic linage that represented the authority of the polis overseas. Oikistes had the power to perform the rites required to establish a colony, to choose the area to settle, to distribute the land among the colonists and to define the institutions of the new settlements.

The commerce in Greece was more private than in Phoenicia, and the political power only intervened if there was a political or economic crisis. To start commercial operations Greek traders usually obtained a financial credit to hire a crew and rent out a ship. Emporion, a Greek colony in Catalonia that literally means “market”, was not an exclusive Greek trade center, Etruscans, Phoenicians, Gauls and Iberians traded there as well, and the same happened pretty much everywhere in the Mediterranean. Around 535 BC, the Battle of Alalia took place between Greek Phocaean refugees that migrated to Corsica and Carthage and the Etruscans. The naval battle was a pyrrhic Greek victory and they had to migrate again, some went to mainland Italy, others to Massalia, modern-day Marseille, and a few to Emporion. Due to the population growth, Emporion expanded beyond the small island where the Phocaeans first settled. The colony grew enough to become a small, independent city-state of its own, as its evidenced by the fact that they started producing coins. The coins of Emporion were quickly adopted in the area of Catalonia and southern France, and the city was quite important between the 5th and 3rd century BC. After that, you know that the Roman Republic started overshadowing the Greeks.

THE VERDICT: Today’s verdict is a revindication of the Phoenician heritage, and I say that because the influence of the Phoenicians in Iberia has often been underrated. That’s because Spain is an heir of the Roman Empire, which in turn inherited the Greek culture. But following this process, the Classic Greek culture was influenced by the Phoenicians as well, not only in arts but even their alphabet is an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet. Maybe it’s true that in the long term the Greeks influenced more modern-day Spain, but I find important to highlight here that during the First Iron Age Phoenicians had a much vaster influence than that of the Greeks. I don’t know if it’s because Spanish nationalism rejects our Semitic influences or because it’s cooler to say that Spain is the descendant of Greco-Roman cultures that gave birth to Western civilization. In any case, this kind of oversimplifications get on our way to know history, not mystified history, but real history. And with that, The Verdict ends.

I hope you enjoy the launch episodes, I know that the topics covered aren’t the most interesting of Spanish history but I wanted to start the history of Spain from the start. In any case, give me some feedback, I want to know if you liked it, if you think I’m boring or I don’t pronounce some things well you can also say that to me, no worries. In the next episode I will cover the cultures of the Iberians, Celts, Celtiberians and Basques, before we get into the Second Punic War that is when proper written history starts in Spain. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website,, where you can find the scripts of the episodes and a list of books about the history of Spain available on Amazon and you can also subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!



DE IBERIA A HISPANIA. Francisco Gracia Alonso and others


TARTESSOS AND THE PHOENICIANS IN IBERIA. Sebastián Celestino and Carolina López-Ruiz


NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license

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