- Farum Brigantium
- History of the Tower of Hercules
- Lighthouse Architecture
- Tower of Hercules today
- Pictures of the Tower of Hercules
I visited the Tower of Hercules, in Galicia, and did a webpage about it, where I put my pictures taken there. I’ve written it in french, but since it’s a roman major monument, I wanted to have it also here, so I tried to translate it. Feel free to point any errors, please! This lighthouse, the Tower of Hercules, was built precisely in the flavian period, “my” period.
Galicia, the autonomous region of northwestern Spain, has in the city of A Coruña a building as there are no other in the world. Passionate about Roman History, I had to see this major monument of the Roman Empire, unfortunately not very well known by general public outside Spain : the Tower of Hercules. This is the oldest lighthouse still in operation in the world, nearly 2000 years of history, helping sailors looking for a guide in this troubled area of the Atlantic.
The beauty, but also the usefulness of the venerable lighthouse is a symbol of what was the Roman Empire: a mix between business and pleasure, built primarily to perform a function that would serve every citizen. Sometimes it’s bridges, aqueducts or roads, often large venues like circuses, theaters and amphitheaters. The lighthouse of A Coruña, the Tower of Hercules, is faithful to his post for two millennia. It experienced the end of the Roman Empire, barbarians invasions, Muslims and Viking raids, the Reconquest, the Great Discoveries, the Spanish Civil War… in short, all the history of the Iberian Peninsula since the advent of Latin culture in the countries of western Europe.
What is know A Coruña was before the arrival of the Romans a city of a Celtic tribe, the Artabros. Their city, designated by ancient geographers “Portus Magnus Artabrorum”, or Great Port of the Artabros, was called at the time “Castro Elviña ” and seems to have been occupied since the third century BC. It was a typical fortified village of the “Castro culture” common in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula. The region was gradually romanized since the arrival of the Romans in the second century BC.
Although Romans were present in the Iberian Peninsula since the Punic Wars, the northern part of what is now Spain was totally conquered only in Augustus times. In the year -61, Julius Caesar decided to make the kingdom of Brigantium a Roman stronghold, attracted by the wealth of Galicia. This name Brigantium, was found in other cities of the Empire, and are today current Briançon in France or Bragança in Portugal. The lighthouse, located in the area of influence of Brigantium was known in antiquity as the “Farum Brigantium.”
Galicia, during the Roman period, was an important site of production of gold and tin. It likely was to help trade routes that a lighthouse was built on this rugged coastal area in the first century of our era, perhaps a reconstruction of an earlier lighthouse. The lighthouse, besides its maritime function was also used to monitor the city. It is likely that Brigantium was one of the starting points of the Roman fleet, part in the conquest of what is now Great-Britain. One of the many clues to say this is the position of the lighthouse : it promotes sailing to the north and north-west, to what is now the southwest of England and southern Ireland. Galician ships were probably filled with olive oil from the Hispania Baetica, a roman province in southern Spain. The olive oil was considered essential by the Roman legionaries.
The city experienced in the first century AD, as in all the Empire, a period of prosperity, enjoying the effects of the Pax Romana and its “Pharum Brigantium”, the Tower of Hercules today. A popular tradition says that the current name of the city, “A Coruña” might be derived from “Column”, that is to say the lighthouse.
History of the Tower of Hercules
It is likely that the Roman tower built in the first century came in succession from a previous building of Celtic origin, The Tower of Breogán. Coins have been found, dating from the reign of Nero to Domitian. The Latin inscription found at the base of the lighthouse shows that the architect was Caius Sevius Lupus, a Lusitanian coming from Aeminium, current Coimbra. The architect dedicated its construction to Mars, as indicated by the inscription in the base of the lighthouse :
LVSITANVS EX V.
It’s probably the same architect that was the author of the cryptoporticus at Aeminium, serving as a support for the forum of this Roman city.
Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the lighthouse will remain important. Despite the lack of maintenance and the light off, it served as a reference in daytime to the sailors of Middle Ages. At the same time, the Tower of Hercules was a fortification. It is in the sixteenth century that the lighthouse was progressively back in full activity, with increased maritime navigation in this period. It was then necessary for the municipality to prevent people from coming to the lighthouse searching for supply stone, and to put up again the lantern, building a wooden staircase inside of the lighthouse to access it.
In 1788, the military engineer Eustaquio Giannini begins the restoration of the Tower of Hercules, giving it its modern appearance. The main work was finished in 1791. Giannini had the presence of mind to keep up the venerable monument, aided by José Cornide, an important Spanish scientist from A Coruña, and lover of the Tower of Hercules. The lighthouse experience thereafter all the developments of modern amenities of a lighthouse with a light becoming stronger and therefore more visible to sailors.
Legend of the Tower of Hercules
It all begins with Breogán, the mythical founder of the Galician nation. There are several versions of the legend, highlighted in the nineteenth century. It was at this time that characters like Vercingetorix, Arminius, or Boadicea and Viriathus are rediscovered : the rise of Europeans nationalists of that time did much to rediscover those now transformed into “hero” characters, but have not been completely honest with the true history of the peoples concerned.
The first legend comes from the Leabhar Ghabhála Érenn, the “Book of Invasions” compiled in Ireland in the eleventh century after oral legends of the island. Breogán mythical Celtic king of Galicia and founder of Brigantium would have built in the new town a tower so high that his two son, Ith and Belenus, could see the top of a green shore, Ireland. The Tower of Breogán is therefore the ancestor of the Tower of Hercules, built in the same place. Determined to go see what was on such a green land, the sons of the Celtic king decided to go on an adventure. Breogán lighted a bonfire at the top of the tower, that way his sons could find they way back home, but unfortunately Ith was assassinated in Northern Ireland, causing the wrath of Galician. Mil Espáine, Ith nephew and grand-son of Breogán, decides to avenge his uncle. The Milesians, sons of Mil Espáine, leave Brigantium to conquer Ireland and are now the ancestors of the Gaels, the Irish of today, after expelling the Tuatha Dé Danann gods from the green island.
The second legend tells us about a king of Brigantium, Geryon, who forced his subjects to give him half of their property, including children, to feed his herd of bulls. Geryon was, according to Greek mythology, a giant three-headed. The people asked the help of Hercules, who, after three days and nights of hard fighting, finally defeated the giant. It was the tenth of his famous 12 labors. The hero then buried the head (or heads) of Geryon and he built a tomb with a torch upon it, the Tower of Hercules. The first girl who came to live in the new city founded by Hercules, Crunna, gave its name to the city that we now call “A Coruña “.
Of square base, the lighthouse is a masterpiece of Roman engineering, placed on a hill 57 m high. Each side of the original Roman base was 18 m, for a total height of 41 m. This structure, the ancient siding, wrapped another structure, which is the one that has survived until today. The staircase leading to the lantern traveled between the two structures, but the exterior siding was lost in the Middle Ages. The people in the vicinity, like many other ancient monuments, had made of it a stone quarry. The remaining interior structure is now 11.75 m ( or 33 Roman feet ). Today, 34 m from the old lighthouse are still preserved in the new structure of 55 m renovated in the late eighteenth century by Giannini.
To reach this height, the Romans built three levels, each consisting of four chambers. On the new neoclassical facades, hiding the original monument with 60 cm thick granite (but protecting it), we can see a reminder of the old exterior stairs, with the helical transom that runs from bottom to the top of the building. These stairs were used to transport the fuel to the lantern. Today, we must climb the 234 steps of the staircase to reach the top of the tower, and enjoy the view over the city.
The original tower had above its square base a rotunda. The new tower restored by Giannini, as we can see today, has an octagonal tower that surmounts the large square base and a smaller round tower. Changes to the Tower of Hercules are recalled to our remembrance with bronze bas-reliefs that we can enjoy in the two entrances in the base of the lighthouse.
Tower of Hercules today
In 2009, UNESCO recognized the Tower of Hercules as a “world heritage”, turning it into an invaluable global monument. Although the lights are less useful today, the Tower of Hercules always keep its unique historical value, a Roman monument in an area that was considered at the time of its construction the “end of the world” or “finis terrae.”
If one day you sail in this part of the Atlantic, and you are lost, if you see four flashes of white light every 20 seconds, you’re looking at the lighthouse of A Coruña. Every lighthouse has indeed its own visual signature, which allows sailors to recognize the lighthouse they observe.