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Andreu Muñoz, Tarragona Biblical Museum director and archaeologist.
© Rafael López-Monné

Tarragona was once an early Christian landmark in Hispania

Archaeologist and biblical scholar Andreu Muñoz describes recent discoveries about the history of Tarragona and its late Roman and early Christian heritage. Written by Oriol Margalef.

January 259 AD. Fructuosus, Bishop of Tarraco, and deacons Augurius and Eulogius are burned alive on a stake in the Amphitheatre. Roman Emperor, Valerian, has promulgated laws that allow for Christians to be persecuted, and the execution of their spiritual leaders is a true catastrophe for the community existing in Tarragona. However, the martyrdom of Fructuosus and other Christian figures of the same period helped to rapidly advance and spread the religion, which was soon officially embraced by the whole Empire. On the same ground where Fructuosus was martyred, a basilica was built in the 6th century, attracting pilgrims from across Europe.

Tarragona, the city that, according to tradition, turned Saul of Tarsus into Paul the Apostle in the 1st century AD, experienced a crisis soon after the martyrdom of Fructuosus. Franks, a barbarian tribe, used the misrule of Rome to loot Tarraco one year later. But this misfortune didn’t weaken the faith of local Christians. Several archaeological findings—such as the extensive area of burials and early-Christian basilicas found nearby on the river Francolí—highlight the primary role of the Bishop of Tarraco over the other prelates of the Peninsula, and provide evidence that “Tarragona was once the early Christian’s landmark in Hispania”, according to the archaeologist and biblical scholar Andreu Muñoz, president of the Associació Cultural Sant Fructuós.

You are invited to explore the Route of the Early Christians of Tarraco - © Photography: Rafael López-Monné / Photo montage: Simbolic.cat
You are invited to explore the Route of the Early Christians of Tarraco - © Photography: Rafael López-Monné / Photo montage: Simbolic.cat

Stories of the martyrdom of Saint Fructuosus, which describe everything from the moment the clerics were arrested until the moment of their glorification, became very popular in the 4th and 5th centuries. One of the fathers of the Church, Saint Augustine, wrote a sermon for them, and his contemporary, the poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, mentions this very document in one of his poems. At the same time, the Christian community and the new ecclesiastic power of Tarragona grew, transforming the entire city. Some public buildings were abandoned, such as the Circus and the Theatre, and outside the walls the new great sepulchral and religious complex was taking shape.

The Associació of Muñoz, who is an archaeologist at the Archbishopric and directs the Museu Bíblic Tarraconense, has defined a cultural and religious tourist route highlighting the early Christians of Tarraco. The itinerary includes monuments that refer to the development of Christianity in the late-Roman society: Capella de Sant Pau, Cathedral and Museu Diocesà, Museu Bíblic, Amphitheatre, Fòrum de la Colònia, Basílica del Parc Central, Necròpolis Paleocristiana and Conjunt de Centcelles. There is a brand new entry ticket available this year, and the longer term goals is to create a Catalan route, together with other cities with similar heritage and purposes, such as Terrassa, Barcelona, Lleida, Girona and Empúries.

“The idea is to design joint actions that allow us to boost the early-Christian patrimony all around Catalonia. We want to establish a patrimony map for tourism and education, with the support of Generalitat de Catalunya and the various municipalities that are part of this heritage collection, using Tarragona as the starting point”, says Muñoz. The project is supported by the universities of Barcelona, Rovira i Virgili and Girona.

“Catalonia doesn’t start in the Middle Ages. Tarragona has an exceptional late-Roman heritage, a unique duality where classical and religious heritage meet. Early Christians were not sectarian people; they were Roman Christians. Their Roman way of living explains part of who we are, but it has often been relegated to dissemination purposes due to secular prejudices”. The route of the Early Christians pretends to mend the existing lack of knowledge. In a context where new generations have lost the ability to understand religious symbolism and iconography, “we’re obliged to spread the word of Early Christian heritage, not for religious purposes, but to address a cultural need”, states Muñoz.

Muñoz has been involved in research that would not have been possible without his vision, generosity and teamwork capacity with a number of partners. This is the case with an excavation of the Cathedral’s central nave, which uncovered, just a few years ago, evidence of the Roman temple dedicated to the cult of Augustus; or the most recent excavation in the tomb of Saint Fructuosus, which successfully combined the efforts of both the local government, the Archbishopric and the Institut Català d’Arqueologia Clàssica.

“Luckily, we’ve left behind the time when ancient and old were considered to be the same thing. The future of archaeology implies the sum of acquired knowledge and the capacity to spread the results by using a sort of language that can actually reach society. Science needs great humility, open-minded people and the sum of talents from various disciplines. And only by applying this new thinking will we manage to submit Tarragona’s heritage to a constant reinterpretation”, concludes Muñoz.

For more information about the route of the early Christians of Tarraco, click here.