Unearthing Roman ‘nerve centre’ in Spain


Archaeologists have begun uncovering the remains of what they think could be one of the most important Roman settlements in Spain, under the present-day town of Jimena de la Frontera.

Three Spanish archaeologists stand at the top of what is known locally as the Moorish castle looking at detailed plans.

As well as showing the extent of their latest excavations, the drawings reveal that the hilltop town has some of the most significant and virtually untouched Roman remains in the region showing the town to have been a major settlement and shedding light on the power structure of the occupying force of the time.

The Castillo de Jimena de la Frontera is the original settlement of the current population of Jimena containing traces of an ancient and multi-cultural history, yet its existence lay hidden for many centuries until a retired archaeologist who used to walk up to the castle on a daily basis spotted signs of early Roman occupation.

According to Juan Miguel Pajuelo, the archaeologist who is co-ordinating the phases of the investigation, without the initial unpaid work carried out by Hamo Sassoon who retired to Jimena, the extraordinary Roman city could have still remained undiscovered.

“If it weren’t for his acute observational powers – and powers of persuasion – it is doubtful that we would have this opportunity to understand Oba, as Jimena was known between the first century BC and the third century AD,” he says.

Bilingual coins found on the site are proof of the existence of a Libyan-Phoenican settlement on the site with the name “OBA”. After the conquest by Rome the name OBA was Latinised and converted into Res Publica Obensis, endowing it with the status of a town ruled by Latin law under the government of Emperor Vespasian.

This effectively converted it into a city ruled by a local senate with the appearance of magistrates such as the Duumviri and the aediles.

“At first sight the impression is of visiting an Arab castle, slightly altered in the 19th Century,” says Miguel Angel Tabales, who has been in charge of the excavations since 2002 and is professor of archaeology at the University of Seville.

“But the moment you take a critical look and analyse what you are actually seeing you quickly realise that this is nothing other than the remains of a very important Roman city.”

The initial Roman compound colonises a hill strategically located on the natural thoroughfare between the Serrania de Ronda and the Bay of Algeciras and has been occupied without interruption since the 8th Century BC.

The plateau occupied by an imposing Moorish castle also hosts Roman remains / Richard Duebel

The remains of the Roman era are of particular interest since they include main doors, towers, hydraulic infrastructure adapted to the sloping nature of the site and a temple in addition to well-preserved walls.

Miguel Angel Tabales says that most of the perimeter wall of the urban fortification – partly Roman, partly Islamic – is conserved.

“By superimposing this enclave on to the usual structure of a Roman city, we can see that the public zone, the initial forum and the main street start in the lower part of the city,” he explains. “This means the Romans adapted their original model to the topography of the site.

“The site was chosen because it gives commanding views of the surrounding countryside – an imperative for a military garrison. The monumental character of the architecture witnesses a time of great power and confidence. It added to Roman imperial propaganda,” he concludes.

As well as the advantage of its geographic position, controlling inland routes from the Mediterranean coast from Gibraltar via Algeciras until reaching today’s Ronda, Fancisco Reina Fernandez-Trujillo who is director of the restoration work believes there was another significant reason for its location.

“The enormous agricultural and livestock richness of the lush valleys of the two rivers – the Guardiario and Hozgargante make this a natural place to set up a sizable garrison town,.” he tells the BBC.

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