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The Roman Circus and Pretorium

Every time I enter Pilats tower I feel like being drawn in to the pages of of the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Standing  there , in perfect silence, one can almost hear the Gothic town creaking above it’s hollow foundations, which is where the gigantic public building of the Circus and one of the corners of the Forum once stood. Imagine what Tarragona (Tarraco) must have been like at the height of it’s power, with its magnificent temples and extensive public amenities.

Yet most now of it lies buried and destroyed, it’s stones organically seeping in to the walls and floors of houses as part of a new history.

It’s only recently that this great ruins have been partly restored. Before that this particular wing of the Praetorium served as a Norman Castle and the surviving part of the Circus later converted in to a warehouse which then became army barracks. It reached its darkest moment when it was modified around 1822 and converted in to a prison.

During the civil war the remains of the Circus and Pretorium were used to ‘house’ the prisoners waiting to be sentenced for standing for the Republic against the Fraconist dictatorship.

Prisoners would be held in the dark underground confinement of what became effectively a dungeon. They were left in the dark, malnourished with filthy mattrasses or only the bare floorto sleep on, with little or no sanitation, covered in lice.

By 1948, 646 people were executed in Tarragona, and I have heard stories about bodies being dumped amongst the rubble and rubbish which then filled the Roman Anphitheatre.

As you walk up the tower you reach the Medieval level  which houses a a beautiful wooden model of the old town and an ornate marble sarcophagus retrieved from the sea.

As you ascend further via some narrow winding stairs you come to the top from which you get the best view of Tarragona and its surrounding area. It’s a wonderful spot from which you can take in all the beauty and complexity of the city.

On the west, beyond new Tarragona,  is the refinery belching out smoke from its gleaming chimney stacks and, as you turn further around, you can see just a bit of Reus and the hills which lead to to one of the best wine regions in the world.

Then there is Medieval part with its magnificent cathedral, for ever unfinished, and countless rooftops stacked upon each other creating an almost cubist impression. The was expanse of  the Mediterranean seals the visual journey;  no wonder the Romans choose this as a perfect spot to build this city.

The route takes you back to the bottom of the building which connects to the remains of the Circus through and underground tunnel from where one can see the  impressive supporting foundations.

There is one element which to me conveys the share size and spectacle of what must have been going on: it’s what remains of the large set of steps which would have led the crowds of  spectators to the upper seating area.  From there Tarraco would have been roaring watching the quadrigas racing out of clouds of dust at breakneck speed.

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