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Barbarian Europe

Castro Culture Oppida

by Trish Wilson, 18 February 2023

The Castro culture of ancient Iberia was literally the 'culture of the hill forts'. It covered the north-western regions of the peninsula, including northern Portugal and northern Spain.

In terms of duration it encompasses almost the entire first millennium BC, from the end of the Atlantic Bronze Age (around 900 BC) until the peninsula's native cultures were superseded by imposed Roman culture during the first century BC.

From the second century BC onwards, and especially in the south, some of the Castro culture hill forts turned into semi-urban fortified towns, oppida. Today their remains are locally known as cividades or cidades (from the Latin civitates), from which we get 'cities'.

When in use these early Iberian cities had populations of some few thousand inhabitants each, such as Cividade de Bagunte, Briteiros, Sanfins, San Cibrao de Lás, or Santa Tegra.

Some of them were even larger than cities which were established a century later by the Romans. Bracara Augusti and Lucus Augusti were both smaller than their Castro predecessors.

These native cities or citadels were characterised by their size and by urban features such as paved streets which were equipped with channels for stormwater runoff, reservoirs of potable water, and evidence of urban planning. Many of them also presented an inner and upper walled space, relatively large and scarcely urbanised, known by local scholars as acrópole.

These oppida were generally surrounded by concentric ditches and stone walls, with there being up to five in Briteiros, sometimes being reinforced with towers. Gates to these oppida become monumental and frequently contain sculptures of warriors.

The typical oppida dwelling area is frequently externally walled, with kitchens, sheds, granaries, workshops, and living spaces being ordered around an inner paved yard, which is sometimes equipped with fountains, drains, and reservoirs.

Castro de Viladonga, Galicia, Spain
Castro de Viladonga is located about twenty kilometres to the north-east of Lugo on the main road to Viladonga, with the surviving earthworks representing a Romanised version of an Iberian castro settlement


Cividade de Bagunte in Portugal was one of the largest cities with a used ground space area of fifty hectares. Such cities are surrounded by a number of smaller castros, some of which may have been defensive outposts for the cities, such as Castro de Laundos which was probably an outpost for Cividade de Terroso.

There is a cividade toponym in 'Braga', a citadel which was established by Augustus as Bracara Augusta, although there have been no archaeological findings here apart from an ancient parish name and the pre-Roman baths. Bracara Augusta later became the capital of the Roman province of Gallaecia which encompassed all of the territory which had once formed part of the Castro culture.

The first meeting between Rome and the inhabitants of the castros and cividades was during the Punic Wars, when Carthaginians hired local mercenaries to help then fight Rome in the Mediterranean and into Italy.

Later on, Gallaecians backed the Lusitanians when they were fighting Romans and, as a result, Roman General Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus led a successful punishment expedition into the north in 137 BC. The victory he celebrated in Rome granted him the title Callaicus ('Galician').

During the next century Gallaecia was still a theatre of operations for Perpenna (in 73 BC), Caesar (in 61 BC, prior to his adventures in Gaul), and the generals of Augustus (between 29-19 BC).

But it is only after the Romans had defeated the Asturians and Cantabrians in 19 BC that it becomes evident through inscriptions, numismatic, and other archaeological findings that the local powers had submitted to Rome.

The first century BC represents an era of expansion and maturity for the Castro culture. However, under Roman influence and with the local economy apparently powered more than hindered by Roman commerce and wars, during the next century Roman control became political and military. For the first time in more than a millennium unfortified (non-castro) settlements were established in the plains and valleys, while at the same time numerous hill forts and castro cities were being abandoned.

Strabo wrote in what was probably a description of this process: '...until they were stopped by the Romans, who humiliated them and reduced most of their cities to mere villages' (Strabo, III.3.5).

The culture went through something of a transformation, as a result of the Roman conquest and the formation of the Roman province of Gallaecia in the heart of the Castro cultural area.

By the second century AD most hill forts and oppida had been abandoned or were being reused as sanctuaries or worshipping places, but some others remained occupied as far as the fifth century, when the Germanic Suevi established themselves in Gallaecia.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture and many of its splinter groups, although not the smaller groups who reached Britain, Iberia, and perhaps Scandinavia too (click or tap on map to view full sized)

 

Main Sources

Harry Mountain - The Celtic Encyclopaedia

David Rankin - Celts and the Classical World

Kristian Kristiansen - Europe Before History

Martin Amalgro Gorbea - War and Society in Celtiberia (E-Keltoi UWM)

Franciso Burillo Mozota - Los Celtiberos, etnias y estados

Alberto Lorrio Alvarado - Los Celtiberos

Ángel Montenegro et allii - Historia de España 2 - colonizaciones y formación de los pueblos prerromanos (1200-218 a.C.)

Online Sources

Gran Enciclopedia Aragonesa (in Spanish)

Celtiberia.net (in Spanish)

Hispanoteca.eu (in Spanish)

Euskomedia (in Spanish)

 

 

     
Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Trish Wilson. An original feature for the History Files.