Category Archives: Roman Empire

Ancient Cantabrian fortified town: conquered and burned by Rome

Paleorama[es] has an interesting article on how the Ancient Cantabrian castro (fortified town) at Monte Ornedo, located in the modern municipality of Valdeolea (Cantabria, near Palencia, Spain) was captured in fierce battle by the Roman legions in a key battle of the Cantabrian Wars, burned and on top of the remains a Roman fort was built instead (Octaviolca?)

The aboriginal castro covered 19 Ha (=190,000 m², ~47,000 acres), being the largest of its kind known in all Ancient Cantabria. Many brooches (fibulae), characteristic of the indigenous horsemen’s clothing are concentrated near the main gate, suggesting that a key episode of the battle took place there. Around the castro, the Romans built their characteristic siege fortifications. Caligae sole nails, tent holding pins and weapons have been found all over the place, including a dagger with silver decorations and even a catapult fire projectile.
After the capture the Romans built there their own fort. First a campaign one with earth walls and then another more consolidated one with stone walls. Milestones defining the pastures assigned to the Legio IV Macedonica from those of the nearby town of Iuliobriga further North have also been found.

See also:


Battle of Andagoste (Kuartango, Basque Country) year 38 BCE

Caliga showing the nails

Or should I say Caristian territory, year one of the Hispanic Era?

Actually it was probably the year before or maybe even two years earlier: 40-39 BCE according to the best estimations but the case is that a battle took place in the municipal territory of  Kuartango, not far from Vitoria and Bilbao and the ancient city of Veleia, where many Basque and Vulgar Latin short inscriptions have been found. 
I was totally oblivious to this historical-era archaeological episode until I read about it yesterday at Iruina[es] blog and then at Euskonews[es] (dated in 2006). It seems that some 1500 Roman legionaries (1200-1800, known by the size of the defensive castrum erected) were attacked and defeated by local tribal troops in what was the prelude to the Cantabrian Wars, a decade later. 
The hill of the battle looks so peaceful now

While this prelude is poorly known to historians it must have been of some importance because Octavian (Augustus) declared the year 38 BCE as the first one of the Aera Hispanica, a chronology that was used in all Iberia (i.e. Hispania before the name was monopolized by the state of Spain) until the Late Middle Ages when the more cosmopolitan Christian calendar began to be used instead. And he did so because of the victories that he allegedly attained against the tribes of the North, campaigns of which little is known.

In that year of 38 BCE is known that M.V. Agrippa quelled an uprising by the Aquitani (Northern Basques and proto-Gascons). We can I guess speculate if this battle was caused by (or even cause of) the campaigns of Octavian in the South or that of his commander Agrippa in the North but I can only imagine that this is a trivial distinction and that both are one and the same crushing pressure of the Roman Empire against the Basque tribes overall.
Blue: Celtic tribes, Red: pre-Indoeuropean and hence presumably Vasconic tribes

The battle brings to question the myth of Southern Basques being submitted by Rome only or mostly by pacts and agreements. This myth is mostly based on the fact that Pompey camped at what is now Pamplona (Pompaelo) while his rival Sertorius (a supporter of Marius) did in Huesca (Osca), at the final showdown of the Sertorian War. However at that time the Romans battled with many diverse and circumstantial allies, alliances that might have been eroded by the time of this battle. Alternatively, different tribes may have held different relations with Rome and what applies (maybe) to the Vascones needs not apply to the Caristii or other tribes of North Iberia and Aquitania.
In any case the reconstructed battle depicts a siege of a roman military camp (castrum), maybe erected for the occasion, following the pattern of this image provided by Iruina blog:

The nails (clavos) are more than 600 used for caligae (military footwear), indicating where Romans lost a sandal and maybe their lives. The coins (monedas), weapons (armas) and slingshot ammunition (proyectiles de honda) may help give an impression of the details of the battle in and around the central fortification (núcleo) and also tell archaeologist of when the battle took place (for example these large shoe-nails were replaced by smaller ones in the Roman legions a few years later, the coins also allow for a quite precise estimate…) The overall estimate seems to be 38 BCE (+/-3 years) but the most exact claims are for the 40-38 BCE period in fact.
Rough chronology of the Roman takeover of the Cantabro-Aquitanian or proto-Basque area:
  • 80-72 BCE Sertorian War. Pompey making camp at a Vasco town in 75 BCE is considered the foundation of Pompaelo (Pamplona)
  • 56-51 BCE: conquest of Aquitania (within the context of the wider conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar)
  • 40-38 BCE: approximate date of the Battle of Andagoste
  • 38 BCE: Agrippa defeats an Aquitanian uprising
  • 38 BCE: decreed by Pompey to be the first year of the Aera Hispanica
  • 29 BCE: Octavius proclaims World Peace (closes the gates of Janus) for the first time
  • 29-19 BCE: Cantabrian Wars
  • 27 BCE: Octavius becomes Augustus (standard beginning of the Roman Empire, previously known as Roman Republic). 
  • 23 BCE: Octavius proclaims World Peace for the second time
  • 13 BCE: Octavius proclaims World Peace for the third time after a final campaign against the Alpine tribes (17-15 BCE)

Interview with E. Aznar: Basque was spoken in La Rioja before the Romans arrived

La Rioja, Errioxa in Basque, is modernly a province and autonomous community of Spain and has been held by Castile since the 12th century, excepting minor parts still belonging to Araba. However it was earlier an important part of the Kingdom of Pamplona (later Navarre), which even moved its capital to Nájera (Basque Naiara), where many Pamplonese monarchs are buried. 
Previously it was maybe part of the Visigothic marche against Basques known as Duchy of Cantabria, which has left the toponym Sierra de Cantabria and the legend of the destroyed City of Cantabria, maybe Iruña-Veleia in nearby Araba and earlier part of the Roman province of Tarraconensis (earlier Hispania Citerior), a region sometimes known as Ager Vasconicum (the fields of the Basques or Vascones). From this period we know that three tribes inhabited it: Vascones at the East, Berones (believed Celtic) at the center and Autrigones at the West. In the Iron Age it was penetrated indeed by late Urnfield culture offshoots and evidence of violent struggles has been found, most notably maybe in the once prosperous town of La Hoya, whose upper layer is full of bodies slain on the spot, probably by Celtic invaders.
Follows direct translation (my work) from original interview in Basque language at Berria newspaper this Saturday (found via Ostraka Euskalduna):
According to some scholars, Basque language arrived to La Rioja in the 10th century, together with the Kingdom of Pamplona. However, there are also researchers who argue that Basque or proto-Basque was spoken there before Romans arrived. One of them is historian Eduardo Aznar (Barcelona 1977).

What have you gathered in the book “El euskara en La Rioja. Primeros testimonios” (Basque language in La Rioja. Earliest evidence)?

This book is the first part of a work explaining that Basque language had a presence in La Rioja. In these books, I research the oldest Basque indications, and later, the second part, which deals with Middle Ages and modern toponimy, will also be published.
Which are the first evidences that Basque language left in La Rioja?

In the first book, I work with some onomastic materials from funerary slabs that were uncovered in the 1980s. These slabs appeared at the district of Tierras Altas, in modern Soria province (Castile-León, Spain) but they fit in the geography of La Rioja. Of these slabs, so far 11 appear to be indigenous proto-Basque. We believe that they were indigenous people who lived under Roman rule: they look Basque by the nicknames. The most clear example is Sesenco[1], the slab with that nickname also carries an image of a bull at the base. In the book, besides funerary slabs, I work with ancient toponymy and data from the period, looking for Basque traces.
Nevertheless, some experts defend that Basque language only arrived to La Rioja with the repopulations organized by the kings of Pamplona.

In my opinion, evidence like these slabs do confirm that Basque language was in La Rioja before the kings of Pamplona and before the Romans arrived. After researching these slabs and the toponymy, to say that Basque language arrived only with repopulations is to play with preconceptions.

Some researchers say that at Roman arrival, Calahorra was the main city of the Vascones. 

Yes, of course. All classic authors say that Calahorra was a Vasco[2] city. Today a lot of experts try to claim that Kalagorri[3] was Celtiberian but there is no evidence to support that. Another thing would be whether the local language was only proto-Basque or more languages were also spoken. For instance, it has shown up that local coins with the legend Kalagorrikos. To Basque-origin Kalagorri, Celtiberian suffix -kos was added. We may think that, maybe, in spite the Vasco origins of Kalagorri it seems that there was a Celtic elite[4].

However, if you go to the Roman Museum of Calahorra the word Vasco(-nes) does not show up anywhere. Why?

In my opinion, it is something within the intent of the authors. Sadly, there are a lot preconceptions in this aspect, and all the evidence is against what some researchers claim about Vascones only holding at the Pyrenees. Seemingly, in all this matter scientists do not combine the ideas that actually exist.

In the past, were you defending the early Basque-ness of La Rioja?

There were other authors. But this research is the deepest and most developed so far. Following the books order, first resarch was done by Fray Mateo de Anguiano a Riojan erudite who published in 1704. Already by the end of the 17th century, Anguiano knew that there were many Basque toponyms in La Rioja. However, the one to get deepest in the matter was Basque academic Juan Bautista Merino Urrutia, who researched in the middle 20th century. He was the one to make know, for example, his native Ojacastro town’s fazaña or sentence. In those documents from between 1234 and 1239 it is shown how the Supreme Judge of Castile jailed the Mayor of Ojacastro for allowing to make declarations before tribunals in Basque language. Luckily for him, he was later freed, as his stand was allowed by the local old law.
Appendix: Fernando Fernández Palacios, Actualización en onomástica Vasco-Aquitana. Acta Paleohispánica 2009 (PDF).  

The introduction is in Spanish but it is essentially an incoplete collection of onomastic and theonymy from the Southern Basque Country and neighbouring areas in Spain, and, curiously enough, a German and a Sardinian site. It includes some of the Riojan slab names. Thanks to Heraus.

Translator’s notes:
[1] Sesenco: must be little bull < zezen (bull) + -(s)ko (diminutive in Aquitanian epigraphy, now –txo or -txu)
[2] Vascones, singular Vasco per Wikipedia (properly sourced). From which modern Spanish and others Vasco (Basque). Typically in Spanish vascon (derived modern Basque baskoi) is used but this does not seem to be correct in Latin, only making sense via Romances, where plural is often made by the addition of -es or -s. However Vascon might have been correct in Vulgar Latin I guess, but still I’m sticking to classical Latin grammar while using English.
[3] See my brief discussion with Heraus on related Aquitanian (Gascon) toponym Calagorris Convenarum at his blog Discover Gascony!
[4] Definitively the advance of Iron Age Urnfields (influenced by Hallstatt) to the Iberian Plateau was through the Upper Ebro: La Rioja mostly and to some extent also Araba and the lowlands of Navarre. This was a crucial step in the eventual Celtization of the Iberian Plateau and Western lands (Lusitania, Gallaecia).

Iruña-Veleia: civic association demands that analysis are made

[Slightly updated – Oct 3]

Almost three years since the infamous ad-hoc commission decreed in a single session and without any proper evidence nor hearing that the exceptional findings of Vasco-Roman city Iruña-Veleia were false, a parliamentary commission (of the autonomous provincial parliament of Araba) finally gathered yesterday to listen to the civic association (SOS Iruña-Veleia) and its demands that the physico-chemical analysis are finally made in order to demonstrate whether the findings are genuine or not.

The members of SOS Iruña-Veleia explained to the commission:
  • The origin of the association as convergence of concerned citizens on the situation of the exceptional findings. 
  • The patrimonial damages caused by newly appointed site director and “archaeologist” Julio Núñez, including a document not yet available online that is described as very precise and clarifying.
  • The fraud of the Scientific Assessor Commission of 2008: half-done work, impossibility of appeal, not allowing reply by chief archaeologist Eliseo Gil, lack of demonstrating alleged falsehood with independent methods.
  • The demonstration of the existence of many many indications of carbonate crystallizations in the incisions of the inscriptions (which are blatant evidence that the pieces have been buried for a long time, with the texts on them). This is evident in the only chemical report of the 2008 commission (Madariaga) and in the many available photos of the inscribed shards.
They replied to the questions made by the representatives and mentioned that the provincial government has not yet provided the shards to the police, as demanded by the judge, in order to be analyzed.
They attach the graphic panels used in their exposition in PDF format (Spanish language mostly). The document on the patrimonial destruction will be available in few days.

In 2006 it became known that an abundance of highly informative, exceptional findings, with many many inscriptions, largely in Latin (later found to be Vulgar Latin mostly) and Basque (would be the oldest non-funerary texts in Basque), had been found at the Vasco-Roman city of Veleia, later known as Iruña (the city or the capital), SW of modern Vitoria-Gasteiz. They included also what seemed some of the earliest known Christian imagery and also some apparent Egyptian hieroglyphs, as well as other drawings.
Most of the graffiti were inscribed on shards, later used as part of the foundation of a house. There were also some on bone and even on bricks. The findings impressed everybody with an interest in history and linguistics, of course.
However soon rumors of falsehood began circulating by the faculty of philology (linguistics) of the University of the Basque Country: a pope of Basque linguistics, namely Joseba Lakarra, was not happy with the findings because, it seems, they challenged his theories on ancient Basque.
At that time I was an active editor at Wikipedia and created and filled with content the Iruña-Veleia page (see my latest version as of September 2006, later deprecated by anonymous users and certain Mountolive, who is at least a fanatic and stubborn Spanish nationalist). I knew of those rumors by Alan R. King, a linguist and and member of Euskaltzaindia (Academy of the Basque Language), the same as Lakarra, who was then a collaborator at Wikipedia and was persuaded early that the graffiti were false (on no other grounds but linguistic speculation). Notice that I do not think that King is “evil” in any sense but that he was mislead by his colleagues in the internal dynamics of linguistic clubs.
However I do think by now that Joseba Lakarra (left) is an evil (selfish, false, unethical) person and that he has been the main ringleader in the unwarranted persecution by means of rumor mill, camarilla dynamics, conspiration and fraud against Basque (as well as European) history and cultural legacy.
Why? Because, I understand now (but could not some time ago), he feels threatened in his status as pope of Basque linguistics by the discoveries. It is not just a matter of opinion, because that would have been settled easily with physico-chemical analysis and possibly independent excavations. It is a matter of power.
Whatever the case, Lakarra managed to organize enough and sufficiently powerful people by 2008 as to bring on a defamation campaign in the Basque and Spanish media.
Most Spaniards rushed to support the theory of falsehood because Spanish nationalist historiography has always sustained, with little evidence, that the Western Basque Country was originally of Celtic and not Basque language (together with other wacko hypothesis such as the Iberian origin of Basque language and Basques themselves or even the century-old Berber hypothesis). In brief: Spanish nationalist “historians” and “linguists” like to believe that everything is Celtic or Iberian not giving ever proper room for Basque/Vascoid distinctive personality and very much real ancient presence. If Basque would not exist at all they would be happy.
But while (many) Spaniards supported one side like crazy, the plot is genuinely Basque.
A key piece of support for the Veleia falsehood hypothesis was the Deputy (provincial minister) of Culture of Araba (Alava), Lorena López de Lacalle (left). She held the key power seat that ultimately ruled over the archaeological site of Iruña-Veleia.
Whether she was initially persuaded by the smear campaign or was knowing accomplice all along I cannot say. But she was the main responsible of all what happened since 2008.
Under her authority the infamous Scientific Assessor Commission was gathered. This commission consisted almost exclusively of linguists, all professors at the University of the Basque Country. When they gathered, only one report was ready: a linguistic one by J. Gorrotxategi (the second most visible ringleader of the linguist popes camarilla that is behind all this mess – his name is sometimes spelled Gorrochategui). All the others, including the crucial but shallow and inconclusive report by Prof. Madariaga on the physico-chemical evidence were included later.
In spite of the lack of anything but rumors, suspicions and linguistic speculations of no objective value, the Commission gathered once, only once, and decreed without any formality that the graffiti were false. The decision had been taken a priori and the gathering was just a formality, a very shallow, shameless and almost pointless formality.
In spite of that, the media were suddenly persuaded of the falsehood: it was official. For a year or so only silence existed on the Veleia affair. At least for me, who had remained pretty much apart from the debate.
But by the end of 2009, gradually, new information began appearing. I was interested, I wanted to know, and gradually I discovered the dimensions of the fraud, of what can only be described as cultural crime.
First I knew was Hector Iglesias, a French linguist of Galician origin, arguing that some of the supposed evidence of the falsehood of the shards actually supports its authenticity. He argued (PDF) that what people, including those arrogant linguists of the commission, could not believe as genuine are actually extremely rare names only known to exist to a few experts worldwide. They are not Basque words but the Celtic personal name Deirdre (modernly Deidre) and the Phoenician mythological name Miscart, an ill-known but attested version of Melqart, god protector of Tyre and widely worshiped through the Mediterranean once.
The Miscart/Descartes shard
Then came more and more voices supporting the authenticity of the findings: epigrapher and archaeologist Luis Silgo (PDF), world-famous archaeologist Edward Cecil Harris (PDF), linguist Enrique Fernández de Pinedo (PDF download), geologist Koenraad van Driesche (PDF download), linguist Roslyn M. Frank (press interviews: 1, 2), etc.
I have already gone over all this in my old blog Leherensuge, where more information can be found.
But the worst was still to come. Maybe feeling how they were losing ground, how truth was gradually outpouring the mantle of dirt it had been buried under, de Lacalle decided to give the directorship of Veleia to the only archaeologist that had participated in the infamous 2008 Commission: Luis Núñez.
That alone smell very bad but when he announced that his director plan included mechanical removal of as much as 50cm of soil, when the previous team had detected that the agricultural layer was not deeper than 30 cm in most areas and that archaeological remains laid directly underneath this thin layer, then worry and concern spread around.
The 50cm that became 150
But the director plan was in fact benevolent compared with what would happen in reality. As soon as he began working, Núñez started digging not 50 cm but 150 cm in many cases. He directly removed all the archaeological layers and went to the show stuff: the paved road underneath them without the slightest documentation work or anything.
This atrocity is well documented, thanks to the people of SOS Iruña-Veleia, in many photos and videos.
Sad as it may be, it was this barbarity what finally called the attention of the public, the media and some politicians. I don’t want to make any political propaganda here but the first one to speak out, as far as I know, was Iñaki Aldekoa, a name that I have often heard at my parents’ home because my father, not knowing him personally much, admires him somewhat because he obtained the first place in their promotion at the Engineering School (my father was the second), even if he had to study the whole career or almost from prison (that was under fascism, in the 1960s).
That was apparently enough for the plotting cowards to stop the cultural crime by the time being. Still they present such aggression as some sort of miraculous finding of great cultural value of some sort. They may be ruthless with the treasuries of the past but they are masterfully delicate with the media.
Maybe it is the pressure of the Internet (the media has not discussed the matter too much, although a little more within Araban media maybe), maybe it is the pressure of the provincial elections next year, maybe the unusual situation of the government ignoring the judge’s most normal demands, maybe that some still have some dignity, but at least there has been a parliamentary hearing finally.
That is the story so far, at least the way I see it.
Just remind of some reference links:

Update (Nov 25): those who can read Spanish may also want to read this anonymous paper (pamphlet if you wish, but erudite) on Lakarra’s career and why he is the center of all this problem: La Filología Vasca pese a Joseba Lakarra Andrinua (Basque Philology in spite of Joseba Lakarra Andrinua).