When you first reach the archaeological site at Empuries, at the base of the bay of Roses new north eastern Spain, you are struck by what an incredible setting it is in. The ruins of two once-great cities sit right alongside a beautiful stretch of coastline, backed by trees and it is such a peaceful spot that you can’t help but feel that the Greeks, and then the Romans after them, knew a good thing when they saw it! As I stood on the site and gazed out to the sea beyond, it was easy to conjure up images of what a wonderful place it must have been to live.
It is quite a young archaeological site, in the sense that it wasn’t discovered until 1908. It has been excavated almost continually since then, but they have still only uncovered about 25% of the remains. This should give you an idea as to its size. It consists of two adjacent cities – a Greek one nearer to the sea and a Roman one a little further inland.
We were provided with an audio guide, including a special guide for children, which was excellent as it was very entertaining and pitched just right for them. The narrator spoke to them as though she were telling a story, inviting them to come and look at different things on the site and asking them to imagine different scenes before them.
There was also a very informative 10 minute film at the start that covered a bit of the history of the area and why the Greeks had settled there in the first place. It seems that the Greek city developed in about the 6th century BC due to the trading links between the Greeks and the indigenous peoples of the peninsula. Later, in about 218BC, the Romans arrived and set up a military camp alongside the Greek city. Following this, during the time of emperor Augustus, the Greek and Roman cities became one, physically and legally, under the name of Municipium Emporiae. However, as other Roman cities along the coast became increasingly more important, Emporiae gradually lost its influence. In the second half of the 3rd century AD, the whole of the town was abandoned and the people settled in nearby Sant Marti d’Empuries.
What is great about the site is that you can get so close to the ruins. There are some absolutely stunning mosaic floors in both the Greek and Roman cities and you can clearly see the layout of the homes, shops and public areas of each. The site is quite low key: it has been presented very simply and plainly, with no big song and dance about it, which is quite refreshing considering the archaeological importance of the two cities. Where it disappoints though is in not providing better images of what the different parts would have looked like at the time. There were some simple drawings on information boards around the site but these left a lot to be desired and didn’t do much to help bring it to life. When faced with a whole load of ruins with low walls and no complete buildings, it is helpful to have some images of what the whole thing would’ve looked like and we didn’t feel that they had made much of an effort with this. There were also lots of questions that remained unanswered by the information leaflet or the audio guide, such as why did both the Greeks and the Romans abandon this site and no-one ever lived there again?
We learnt that the Greeks were great traders and that they brought new foods and objects to this part of Spain. Apparently when the Greeks arrived, local people were pleased to see them and they happily lived alongside the locals, doing business with them, selling their goods and influencing the culture of the area. On the other hand, people were not generally pleased to see the Romans because instead of living alongside the indigenous people, they took over and controlled the local populations wherever they went.
We also learnt that names beginning with ‘Eu’ are Greek in origin and that the word ‘domestic’ comes from the Roman word for house – ‘domus’. The name of the original Greek town was Emporion, meaning ‘market’ and it is from this word that we get the word ‘Emporium’.
The Greek city (2nd century BC)
One of the key sights in the Greek city is the remains of a temple to what is believed to be the Greek god of medicine, Asklepois. The statue on the site today is a replica; the original was discovered in 1909 in pieces inside one of the large cisterns in front of the temple. It was taken to Barcelona where it remained on display until 2007. On the centenary of the start of the excavations, it was carefully restored and finally returned to Empuries.
Also of interest are a family house built around an inner courtyard and the many cisterns and channels that were built to capture and store rainwater. You can also see the remains of the public square, which was the civic, political and economic centre of the city.
There is a wonderful mosaic floor dating from the 2nd century BC which has some wording on it that translates as “How sweet it is to be reclined”. The room would apparently have been used by the owner of the house for holding banquets – symposia – where he would entertain and feed his guests at the end of the day.
The Roman city (1st – 2nd centuries AD)
The much bigger Roman city had many large and important public buildings and spaces, including a huge forum, amphitheatre, public baths and so on, many of which are incredibly well preserved.
Like the Greek city, the homes in the Roman city had some beautiful mosaic floors, mostly in black and white and still looking fresh and bright today. Looking down across the site from a high vantage point, they looked like carpets laid out in the houses, all with different patterns and borders. It was an amazing sight.
Towards the edge of the site, we passed through one of the gateways into the city and part of the huge perimeter wall that once surrounded it. In the stones under the gateway, you could see the tracks worn by the wheels of the carts that entered and left the city many millennia ago. As I mentioned earlier, only a fraction of the site has yet been excavated. As you get towards the perimeter you can see huge areas still to be uncovered that will keep archaeologists busy for many years to come.
In the centre of the site there is also a small museum which houses the original statue of Asklepois and some artefacts discovered during the excavations, including some Greek coins dating from the 3rd century BC!
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and learnt a lot about the difference between the Greek and Roman settlers in this area. So much of the Costa Brava coastline has been hugely developed and has lost any essence of what it was like before the big hotels and the promenades were built, so it was wonderful to see this ancient site in virtually its original setting with little evidence of the 21st century world nearby.
You can find out more about Empuries on the website of the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia (MAC), of which it is a part.