hadrian hispania

Hispania: Principate and Romanization

This is episode 8 called Hispania: Principate and Romanization and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • What does Romanization mean
  • What aspects Romanization involved
  • Which were the key elements or causes for the Romanization of Hispania
  • The internal elements that explain this process of acculturation
  • Which were the different phases of Romanization and why wasn’t the process geographically homogenous
  • Which were the key economic sectors of Hispania during the Principate
  • A discussion on the importance of the policies of colonization of Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus, as well as the Edict of Latinization of Vespasian
  • Why did Vespasian issue the Edict of Latinization and what consequences did that have
  • The reign of two Hispano-Roman Emperors: Trajan and Hadrian
  • The decadence of the Roman Empire with the Antonine Plague under the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus
  • The Severan dynasty and how the Crisis of the Third Century started


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 8, called Hispania: Principate and Romanization. In this episode you will learn the political and economic history of Roman Spain up to the Crisis of the Third Century, as well as the process of Romanization. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

Okay, some of you may wonder what Romanization means. Romanization was the process of acculturation of the populations incorporated into the Roman Republic and later Empire. Nonetheless, Romanization was not a deliberate or conscious policy that attempted to eradicate indigenous cultures, and it was not a totally one-sided thing. It was a spontaneous and gradual phenomenon that resulted from the interaction and integration of Roman and native cultures. Cultures change and the Roman culture prior to the Second Punic War is different from the one of, say, the 1st century AD. In Hispania, Roman and indigenous elements blended together and formed the Hispano-Roman culture. Of course the Roman elements predominated, but characteristics of indigenous cultures remained or adapted to look Roman. This syncretism is exactly the same that happened later when Spain colonized America. Yes, Spanish culture predominated, but indigenous elements prevailed as well and new regional cultures emerged from the fusion of Spanish and native cultures.

But what aspects did Romanization cover? Language, religion, customs, material culture and technology, law and urbanism. Let’s start with language. Latin became the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, it was first adopted by the upper classes of Hispania to communicate with both the Roman administration and other tribes. Many natives of the elite sent their kids to Rome to learn the language and to get to know influential people. As you can see, it was in their best interest to adopt Latin. The poor didn’t receive a formal education, yet the language eventually spread from the top to the bottom of the society. By the late 1st century AD all native languages, except from Ancient Basque, had disappeared.

capitoline triad

Another important aspect of Romanization is religion. As you may remember, in Pre-Roman Spain there were many religions, and foreign religions had already influenced the natives before the Romans came. I’m talking about the Phoenician and Greek deities, that could and were easily adapted to those of Rome. As many of you know, Rome essentially changed the names of Greek deities and made them as their own. Yes, they were not very original. Iberians quickly embraced Roman religion during the Late Republic and Early Principate, although that didn’t exclude the possibility of believing in other deities. The most important deities were those of the Capitoline Triad, that is Jupiter, the god of gods; Juno, the goddess that protected the empire; and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. On the other hand, Iberians quickly adopted imperial cult, as I mentioned in the episode about the Pre-Roman peoples of Iberia Iberians had this social institution called devotio that connected strongly the patron and client, and imperial cult was just an evolution of that. Even when Augustus was still alive, the Spanish cities of Tarragona and Mérida built altars and later temples in his honor. Oriental beliefs, like Syrian, Egyptian, Phoenician or Persian gods had their followers in Hispania too, while Christianity didn’t expand into Hispania until the 3rd century. But we will see the history of Christianity in Hispania in the next episode.

The natives adopted Roman customs as well. They adopted Roman clothes and names, again starting from the elites to then expand to lower social classes; they abandoned the practice of human sacrifice; people started going to bathhouses to clean themselves and socialize; and Spanish people started attending the famous Roman spectacles. Spectacles were financed by the rich landowner class to please the masses, similar to modern sports like soccer or basketball. Greek and Latin plays spread Greco-Roman culture, but violent “games” like gladiator battles or elephants vs rhinos had a more important role spreading Romanization. I mean, just look at Mortal Kombat, that’s the real Roman legacy!

The process of Romanization also meant the adoption of Roman material culture, tastes and technology. The more economically integrated Hispania became to the Roman Empire, the more Spanish people adopted Roman currency, units of measure, taste for wine and olive oil, advanced farming technologies or Greek-styled techniques to build sculptures. The process of accepting Roman laws and judiciary system wasn’t easy, it took time and it wasn’t implemented immediately in all of Hispania. To illustrate this with an example, during the Late Republican period provincial governors started organizing assemblies in multiple locations during the winter to deliver justice within and between tribes. That created a stronger relationship of dependency towards Rome.

About the Romanization in terms of urbanism, the Romans founded the cities of Córdoba, Tarragona, Valencia, Palma de Mallorca, Pamplona, Seville, Mérida, Zaragoza, Barcelona… Rome, especially under Caesar and Augustus, founded many cities above native settlements following the Roman urbanist standards. It’s notorious though that some exclusively native towns eventually imitated Roman urbanism to look more Roman and improve their prestige.

Those were the aspects that involved the process of Romanization. But which were the key elements for this process? The first key element is the constant presence of Roman and Latin soldiers. There were between 20 and 25k soldiers permanently stationed in Hispania until the late 1st century, and if there was a campaign led by the consul you can double or triple these numbers. Many military camps later became permanent urban settlements, like it happened with León, Tarragona or the Roman neighborhood of Emporion. The importance of the soldiers in the Romanization process was not so much during their service, but after soldiers ended their military duties. Most received or were able to buy a land and farm it, and the majority married native women. The army’s role to Romanize Spain was twofold, Roman and Italic soldiers settled in Spain and Iberian and Celtic soldiers learned Latin and Roman costumes when they joined the army. Natives weren’t accepted as core soldiers for Rome overnight, during most of the Republican period natives served as temporary auxiliaries and fought using their weapons and tactics. But later they progressively integrated into the Roman army, as Italic soldiers started to serve in the legions and someone had to fill the vacuum left by the permanent Italic auxiliaries. Even before the Principate, there was already a legion entirely made up by Iberians. When native Iberians, Celts or Celtiberians returned to their towns, they returned knowing Latin and Roman costumes and they, in turn, Romanized their communities.

Hispania was to the Romans what America was to the Spaniards, a land of opportunities perfect to colonize. The fertile lands of the Guadalquivir and Ebro Valleys, the mines of Andalusia, Cartagena or the north, or the commercial opportunities attracted peasants, merchants, slavers and prostitutes alike. Why Romans and Italics migrated from their homeland? Since the 2nd century BC middle classes and free peasants became poorer due to the rise of patricians who bought lands and worked them with slaves. It was the increasing social inequality and poverty in Italy that encouraged Latin colonization in Hispania. Colonization was opposed by the Senate, but the army founded some colonies with both Roman citizens and Italic colonists, and later Caesar and Augustus promoted colonization with civil population too.

via augusta

The army not only had the task to expand the empire and suffocate revolts, they also did public works like the building of roads or bridges that were so important to integrate the empire. Roman roads were key for Romanization and to maintain the empire. Without them, armies would have had difficulties to move, trade would have been more restricted to the coastline, and Roman culture wouldn’t have expanded as much as it did through the inner regions of the empire. The Julio-Claudian dynasty finished the construction of the most important roads of Hispania, the Via Augusta that connected the coastline from the Pyrenees to Cádiz, and the Via de la Plata that connected Mérida in modern Extremadura with the mines of the north.

We have seen the key elements from the Roman side, but there must be internal elements that explained the acculturation of the natives, because not all conquerors leave a lasting legacy. This is an issue I have already talked about in previous episodes, but local elites faced a dilemma with the arrival of the Romans: they could either collaborate or oppose them. The elites needed to evaluate what was better for their interests. The smart native leaders understood that it was better to be friends with Rome instead of enemies. The smart ones survived and preserved or even improved their position of power within their community, the fools who opposed Rome perished. Soon the elites learned Latin and Roman customs and adopted an external Roman look. Eventually that gave them privileges, as they were rewarded with Latin or even Roman citizenship.

Okay, I’ve covered the aspects and causes of Romanization, now I want to take the perspective of the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula to imagine how they reacted to the arrival of the Romans. Let’s start with the Greek colonists, who were the first inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula to ask for Roman protection. Imagine you are a merchant who is an influential political leader in Emporion, the Greek commercial city located in modern Catalonia. News arrive that Hannibal desires to conquer the entire Iberian Peninsula. You know that if Carthage succeeds, your Greek countrymen will be driven out by Carthaginian merchants. At the same time, you know that Rome is an emerging power. From your perspective, Rome is the lesser evil, as Romans are closer to the Greek world. In addition to that the native Iberians control the plain while the Greek colony is pressed to the sea, so perhaps if Emporion shows unequivocal loyalty to Rome you and all your colleagues may be able to expand and stop feeling threatened by the natives you trade with. So you talk to your community and all of you decide to offer Emporion as the landing base for the Romans, and the Republic accepts the proposal.

emporion roman and greek city

After the Second Punic War Emporion flourished as a powerful city with expanded borders. Rome rewarded your city with the plains of the natives, tax exemptions and a monopoly for the production of bricks in Hispania. In your lifetime, Emporion grows economically and it’s clear that the decision to show a pro-Roman position was the right one. Yet, your grandson saw Emporion losing importance. The Romans established a military camp that soon became permanent. From this outpost the Roman town emerged, and waves of Roman and Italic immigrants arrived. They soon outnumbered the Greeks and the city lost its Greek identity, while at the same time Tarragona became the most economically powerful city of Hispania Citerior. A similar process happened in Cádiz, the most important Phoenician and Turdetani city of Hispania. The city had long been a friend of Carthage, but when they saw clearly who was going to win, they switched sides and made a treaty of friendship with Rome. In less than a century the city lost its identity and was Romanized, which isn’t surprising as Cádiz and the region of the Turdetani was the most urbanized of the Iberian Peninsula.

If we take the perspective of the Iberians, they only wanted to be left alone, to not be enslaved and to not have their lands devastated. But they soon realized that the Romans weren’t altruistic liberators, they were just other conquerors. The Celts and Celtiberians only had an economic interest in the war, the ones who served wanted to earn some money while maintaining their independence. They were left alone, for the moment.

I say that because during the first phase of Roman conquest, that’s between the Second Punic War and the Second Celtiberian War, the Republic had strong control over the Mediterranean coastline, but many inner regions were not controlled at all. The area above the Guadiana river and the region of the Celtiberians was out of Roman control. Rome could exert limited actual power over the territory conquered. Romans relied on pacts with the native elites, they constantly had to deal with rebellions and raids, and they could only recruit native auxiliaries on an irregular basis. A very illustrative example of the limited power the Romans had is seen in something as important as taxation. We can’t imagine a modern state that doesn’t directly tax its inhabitants, but that’s what happened during Republican Rome. The Republic leased the right of taxing to equites, for a previously set sum of money. In doing so, the Roman state avoided any risk of non-payment while the equites had all the incentives to do whatever was needed to cover their expenses and make money. Key cities like Emporion, Sagunto, Cádiz or the few Latin colonies founded during this period were exempted to pay taxes for their loyalty or status. Therefore, the tax burden fell on the native and less-urbanized communities, no doubt why Iberians started general uprisings against Roman rule. Roman and Italic colonizers started the Romanization in the areas that were more economically important, the Guadalquivir and Ebro Valleys, as well as the mineral-rich Cartagena, but again, the extend of the Romanization was quite limited.

In the second phase of Roman conquest, between the Numantine War and the Sertorian War, the Roman Republic had the Tagus River, in Central Spain, as the frontier of their Spanish possessions. With the defeat of the Sertorian supporters, Rome forced many native communities to use Roman currency and forced their relocation to plains to control more effectively the territory and prevent revolts. Those policies were adopted to pacify the conquered lands, but that in fact accelerated the process of Romanization. At this phase some tribes like the ones of modern Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, and even some Vascones had their tribal unity substituted by local ties in urban areas. The Celtiberians still resisted Roman practices and their basic social institution, the gens, persisted. Latin was adopted to speak with the Roman ruling class and to speak with distant tribes, but to speak with others of their community they still spoke their language, and their laws were still the tribal ones.

The third phase and the pivotal point in the Romanization of Hispania was marked by the policies of Caesar, Augustus and his successors. Caesar granted, for the first time, the rank of municipium to entire cities, something that granted Latin citizenship. Caesar started the most ambitious policy of colonization yet, as Caesar saw in Hispania the perfect land to solve the social chaos and economic misery of the Italic peasants. Rome had been present in Spain for more than a century, there were fertile lands in the Mediterranean side of the Peninsula, it was relatively near Italy and during the civil war Hispania Ulterior was loyal to Pompey, so it was necessary to make the province loyal to him. All the conditions were aligned to take a step further to integrate Hispania.

roman and latin colonies

Caesar’s colonization policy was very successful, and his successor Augustus kept it and expanded it. But Augustus not only continued the policy of colonization and extension of Latin citizenship. If Caesar could conquer Gaul, he needed to complete the conquest of Hispania once and for all, submitting the sparsely populated northern regions of Asturias and Cantabria that raided from time to time their neighbors who were under Roman protection. The greatness of Augustus in Hispania didn’t only come from that conquest, he also started ambitious public works to transform Spain into a new Italy.

He then took the task of reorganizing the provinces. Augustus expanded Hispania Citerior and changed its name to Hispania Tarraconensis, and he also divided the province of Hispania Ulterior in two, the imperial province of Lusitania and the senatorial province of Baetica in Andalusia. Senatorial provinces were provinces that were controlled by the Senate instead of the Emperor, with little chances of rebellion and no legions stationed. You can imagine that Baetica was very Romanized at this point, as the newborn Roman Empire considered Baetica a core territory. The province was the richest region of Hispania, with its mineral resources and fertile lands for agriculture. But that’s not the only reason Baetica was the most Romanized region along the coasts of Hispania Citerior, I mean, remember, who inhabited those lands? The Iberians. And the Iberians, due to their location, had already interacted with other advanced civilizations, namely Greeks and Phoenicians. Their social structures and institutions were similar to those of Italy, only less advanced. That’s why the process of Romanization was easier in southern and eastern Spain.

On the other hand, Central Spain experienced a slower process of Romanization. How and to what extend were the peoples of Central Spain integrated into the Roman Empire? Roads, villas and urbanism were important elements to Romanize Central Spain. Villas were luxurious country houses built by landowners to control their states and show their wealth, and in heavily rural environments like Central Spain villas were the expression of Roman culture. Urbanism in Central Spain was a middle ground between the large cities of southern and eastern Spain and the sparsely populated northern regions. That’s why Central Spain took more time to Romanize, but it ended up Romanized anyway. A good indicator of how Romanized it was is that by the 1st century AD Central Spain could be demilitarized.

The other area is Northern Spain, that received little Roman cultural influence during the entire lifetime of the Roman Empire. Some Roman legions were stationed to protect the mines, but in most of those areas Romans only showed up every now and then. Because of that ancient tribal structures, native languages and local laws survived well into the Principate.

Before we get into the political history of Hispania during the Principate, I want to discuss the economy of Hispania of this era. The most outstanding sectors of the Hispano-Roman economy of the Principate were agriculture, mining and salting. Hispania was not anymore the breadbasket of Rome like Egypt, nor the wealthiest region of the empire. Yet Hispania presented opportunities to farm new lands and the greatest source of mineral wealth of the Roman Empire, with the far Britannia as the only province comparable in mineral resources. Hispania exported cereals, but also olive oil and wines that had an excellent reputation over the empire. Olive oil production was so important that in Rome they built the artificial Monte Testaccio with a height of 35 meters. They built it using a huge number of broken amphoras that mostly came from Baetica, modern-day Andalusia. In fact, the Romans were the ones who introduced olive trees and grapes on a large scale. While Baetica greatly increased olive oil and wine production, that meant that there was less land used to produce grain. Central Spain probably had the role of growing cereals for the rest of Hispania, as the dry Meseta it’s ideal for that. Grain must have been transported through roads or rivers to later be shipped by sea. Among the changes the Romans introduced in the Spanish agriculture, they made clearer distinctions between common and private lands and introduced new farming tools and more efficient agricultural techniques. All that allowed to have, to some extent, a market-oriented rural economy.

economy hispania industries

The second industry I mentioned was mining, and you may remember that Rome found very attractive the mineral wealth of the Iberian Peninsula. The mines of Cartagena, Andalusia and later northern Spain became very important for the empire. The mines of Baetica lost importance in the late 2nd century, as the mines of Britannia were easier to exploit and were very rich, but the mines of the north maintained their importance even in the Late Roman Empire. Mines were initially owned and exploited by the state, but later Rome leased mines to Roman businessmen. The exploitation of mines required skilled workers and the foundation of colonies, so we can say that mining was a pillar for the Romanization of Spain too.

The third outstanding industry I mentioned was salting, that involved the extraction of salt and fishing to later commercialize salted fish. Cartagena, Cádiz and other cities of southern Spain and Lusitania became famous for this activity. In addition to salted fish, Spanish salting factories produced a very popular sauce in Italy and Greece, garum. This may sound very disgusting, but this sauce was made from fermented fish intestines. There are only two reasons someone would consume salted fermented fish intestines, to use it as an aphrodisiac or as a medicine, and garum was used for both. To end this economic talk, I wanted to add that hunting, horse breeding and the manufacture of textiles and pottery were important industries as well.

Now let’s make an overview to the political evolution of the Roman Empire from the Julio-Claudian dynasty to the Severan dynasty. I’ve already talked about how Caesar and Augustus of the Julio-Claudian dynasty boosted the economic development, Roman colonization and integration of Hispania into the empire. Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the Flavian dynasty took the Roman throne in 69 AD. Emperor Vespasian issued the Edict of Latinization that gave not the Roman but the Latin citizenship to all the free Hispano-Romans, including the inhabitants of central and northern Spain that weren’t very Romanized. That was the definitive step for the integration of Hispania into the Roman Empire. This was the largest extend of rights given by Rome since the Republic gave Roman citizenship to all the freemen of Italy. But why did Vespasian take a measure of this magnitude? There are several reasons that explain the Edict of Latinization. One is purely political, Hispania helped Vespasian to reach his position, but the other was that Hispania was enough Romanized to at least give Latin citizenship, which was inferior to the Roman in theory but not so much in practice at this point. To mention another factor, as Italy grew wealthier, less Romans wanted to serve in the legions, and giving Latin citizenship to Hispano-Romans facilitated and encouraged recruitment.

Vespasian wanted to accomplish several objectives in Hispania: to reduce the size of the army in Hispania and relocate the legions to more problematic regions; to use more extensively Spanish manpower; to promote the mines of the north and the region of Lusitania; and to promote municipalities. By giving Hispano-Romans a more active role in the administration of the Roman Empire, Vespasian hoped he could purge the Senate and legions of disloyal Romans. It was during his reign that the administration of Hispania became civilian instead of military.

Because of the Edict of Latinization of Vespasian, a powerful faction of senators from Hispania emerged and that very same faction would soon promote, in the early 2nd century, two Hispano-Roman emperors, Trajan and Hadrian. Trajan became the first emperor born outside Italy and is considered to have equaled or even surpassed Augustus. He embraced the stoic ideals of the also Hispano-Roman Seneca to govern: austerity, kindness, self-demand, meritocracy, respect and tolerance without renouncing to authority and determination, and impassivity against adversity. That’s why he was called Optimus Princeps, which means best first citizen. He implemented social welfare policies, promoted an extensive public works program over all the empire and expanded the empire to its maximum extend with the conquest of Dacia and his campaigns in Mesopotamia.


Trajan favored Hispano-Romans in both administrative positions and the army, and that was criticized by some sectors of the Roman oligarchy. During Trajan’s rule recruitment in the wealthy Hispania Baetica diminished as it happened in Italy, while many auxiliaries came from the poorer north. To end the talk about him, it’s remarkable how Hispania benefited from his public works program. Trajan ordered the expansion of cities, the building of bridges and amphitheaters and the reparation and extension of Roman roads, with special attention to the neglected region of Lusitania.

His successor, Hadrian, adopted a policy of consolidating the gains and establishing defensible borders, as it’s exemplified by Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia, but also by the withdrawal of Roman troops from the recently conquered Mesopotamia. Hadrian continued the policies of social welfare and public works of his predecessor. The Hispano-Roman Emperor travelled throughout the Roman Empire to know the problems the empire had and to solve them. For instance, he gathered in Tarragona an assembly with representatives from all Hispania and asked them to contribute with an important number of soldiers to solve the problems in Britannia and Mauritania. His proposal was met with fierce resistance at first, but Hadrian and the representatives reached an agreement at last. Hadrian relied heavily at first on Hispano-Romans for key administrative positions and to fill the ranks of the army, but that changed as years went by. Overall the governments of Trajan and Hadrian are remembered for their prosperity, justice and relative peace.

Hadrian was succeeded by Antoninus Pius, who had a reign marked by peace. Antoninus proved to be a very good administrator, as he left the office with a huge surplus in the treasury. He also expanded access to drinking water and built Roman roads in Gaul, modern-day France. Nonetheless, the empire started showing signals of stagnation under him, and Antoninus Pius barely did anything in Hispania, although that may be reasonable since previous emperors had dedicated enough attention to the region. The reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus represented the end of the Pax Romana and the start of the slow decadence of the Roman Empire. The Antonine Plague desolated the empire, killing as much as 20 to 30% of the population, and to make things worse the Roman Empire suffered raids from Germanic tribes in the northern frontier and Berber tribes from North Africa in Hispania. The economy of Hispania resented from plagues and raids, but also from heavy taxes and levies. The population of Hispania is estimated to have been around 6 or 7 million people before the Antonine Plague, equal to that of the Italian Peninsula. But after that, population declined to around 5 million, and the population of Hispania remained more or less constant up to the Renaissance. Yep, more than ten centuries after the plague.

With Commodus the Antonine dynasty ended, and the Severan dynasty eventually seized power at the end of the 2nd century. The Severans sowed the seeds for an economic crisis, they exponentially increased the salaries of the soldiers, but since the state couldn’t pay for that they decided to devaluate the Roman currency. Eventually that generated high inflation, distrust in the Roman monetary system and in general an economic mess. Hispania specifically suffered more since landowners started spending more capital in North Africa. Regarding the military, the recruitment of Hispano-Romans massively decreased from the rule of Septimius Severus onwards, as it had happened with Italians.

The infamous Caracalla then conceded Roman citizenship to all the free peoples of the Roman Empire, not as an act of altruism but to tax more and to have more available manpower for the army. That didn’t affect much Hispania, as many already had Roman citizenship and every free Hispano-Roman had the very similar Latin citizenship. With that law Roman citizenship stopped being something to be proud of, because everyone had it, and for the ones who hadn’t they saw how they had to pay more taxes now, so they weren’t happy either. Severus Alexander became the last of the Severan dynasty, his reign was relatively peaceful, although with the rising Sassanid Empire and Germanic tribes threatening Roman power. What was worse and fatal for Severus Alexander was the breakdown of military discipline and continuous conspirations within the army. He was eventually assassinated by mutineers in Germania in 235, ending the Principate and beginning the Crisis of the Third Century that almost collapsed the Roman Empire.

THE VERDICT: I’m sure many of you had already heard about Romanization before, but it’s not an exceptional cultural phenomenon at all. There are actually many historical and current phenomenon of cultural assimilation that end with -zation. Hispanicization, Anglicization, Russification, even fucking Uzbekization and this is not a meme. But this is what happens with cultures, they can be transmitted in a more peaceful way, sometimes cultures can be imposed, but what’s common is that states try to expand their borders, their wealth and of course their culture. The desire to grow, expand and possess are the essence of human nature, and that’s how empires rise. And with that, The Verdict ends.

Many things to learn from this episode, right? What Romanization was and how it happened, which were the key industries of the economy of Hispania, how did Roman politics evolved and how that affected Spain… I hope you understood everything and learned things you didn’t know. If something wasn’t clear, relisten the episode or go to thehistoryofspain.com to read the script and see the images. In the website there’s also a list of books about the history of Spain and you can subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!








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