Carthaginians and Romans Festival in Cartagena

For ten days during the 2nd fortnight of September, the Spanish city of Cartagena in Murcia hosts the annual Carthaginians and Romans Festival. A huge festival site is transformed into an ancient city where both locals and tourists take part in the reenactment of historical events which took place in the city during the Second Punic War. This huge camp, located next to the Estadio Cartagonova, is home to many temporary bars, food stalls and craft markets where participants, dressed in elaborate costumes, come to enjoy the festivities. Major events which are commemorated include the foundation of the ancient city of Carthage (Qart Hadasht) by the Carthaginian general Asdrubal the Beautiful around 227 BC, the departure of Hannibal to Rome and the conquest of the city by Scipio Africanus in 209 BC.

Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta
Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta – Photo: Giorgio Montersino

Historical Background to the Festival

The Phoenicians were a seafaring civilization based mainly along the coast of modern-day Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Syria and south west Turkey between 1500 BC and 300 BC. Their influence also spread to the Western Mediterranean where they established colonies which included Carthage, an ancient city in modern-day Tunisia. Carthage was established as the capital of the Carthaginian people who became a major threat to the Roman Empire during the three Punic Wars which took place between Rome and Carthage from 264 BC to 146 BC.

The Second Punic War which lasted from 218 BC to 201 BC is the basis for the Festival of Romans and Carthaginians. The war began after Hannibal’s Carthaginian army attacked the Roman-backed hill town of Saguntum (modern-day Sagunto, near Valencia) in 219 BC. After fierce battles the people of Saguntum turned to Rome for help but none came. This led to an eight month siege which ended with all the the population being slaughtered having failed to accept Hannibal’s conditions of surrender.

Following the Siege of Saguntum Hannibal set up a base at New Carthage (Carthago Nova) which was modern-day Cartagena. From here he began to plot his march north through the Pyrenees, the Alps and finally to Rome itself. History records this event not for the 90,000 strong army which he put together for his journey but for the team of 37 war elephants which accompanied them.

Ten years later (209 BC) at the Battle of Cartagena the Roman general Scipio successfully led an attack on the city which led to its playing an important role in the Iberian Roman Empire until 435 AD when it was sacked by the Vandals.

Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta
Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta – Photo: Giorgio Montersino

Evolution of the Carthaginians and Romans Festival

A tragic accident at the conclusion of the Fiestas del Carmen y Santiago in 1972 caused the death of ten people in Cartagena. As a result the city didn’t host any popular festivals until 1990 when the first edition of Carthaginians and Romans fiesta took place.

Only about 600 people distributed in 10 troops and 7 legions took part in that first festival when the main characters of Hannibal, Scipio the African, Himilce and the Great Lady of Rome were established. In subsequent years the number of participants continued to grow and new characters from the Second Punic War were unveiled. The Festival of Carthaginians and Romans was officially recognised as being of Regional Tourist Interest in 1993. The following year saw the participation of 25 troops and legions which was the maximum number allowed. In 1996 the festivities were recognised by the Association of Historical Festivals of Spain.

In commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Festival of Carthaginians and Romans (1999) the event was recognised as being of National Tourist Interest. Continued growth of the festival saw major infrastructural improvements in the festive camp and citizens were allowed to watch the Great Battle from the top of the Sea Wall.

In 2016 the Festival of Carthaginians and Romans in Cartagena received the institutional backing of the Autonomous Community of the Region of Murcia and the following year was officially recognised as being of International Tourist Interest.

Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta
Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta – Photo: Giorgio Montersino

Romans and Carthaginians Festival Calendar

The official program of the Romans and Carthaginians Festival remains virtually unchanged year after year. All events are free of charge, except for the Great Roman Circus, which requires the purchase of a ticket for access to the site. In some events there is a charge per seat, although there is always the possibility to attend the event standing at no cost.

The festival camp is located next to the Estadio Cartagonova which is the football stadium of FC Cartagena who play in the Spanish 2nd division. This venue is likely to move to a permanent home on a piece of land behind the Centro Comercial Mandarache in time for the 2023 event.

First Friday:

The Arrival of the Sacred Fire takes place from a boat which makes its entrance through the port of Cartagena.

The Lighting of the Sacred Fire is a spectacle in which the priestesses, priests and vestals invoke the Punic and Roman Gods to send the sacred fire. It is performed on the Cerro del Molinete, one of the five hills of Cartagena.

The Proclamation of the Festivities takes place in the esplanade of the City Hall and its pronouncement falls each year on some personage of local or national importance.

The March to the Festive Camp takes place after the proclamation when all the troops and legions march to the festive camp. The town crier then cuts the ribbon which inaugurates the festive camp and allows the entrance of the Sacred Fire.

Before the official proclamation there is an act known as the Pregonillo in which a group of veteran festeros walk through the streets of the city centre announcing the imminent start of the festivities.

First Saturday:

The Foundation of Qart Hadasht is a show performed consecutively on three different stages in the city and tells the story of the Barca family from the death of Amilcar to the foundation of Qart Hadasht by the Carthaginian general Asdrubal Janto El Bello in 227 BC.

First Sunday:

The Dies Lustricus is a Roman children’s festival in which all the festeros born in the last year are baptized by the Roman rite. In addition, a small play is performed, accompanied by dance performances. The relatives of each baptized child pay tribute to the Gods with baskets of fruit, which are donated to charity, and receive a diploma sealed with the palm of the child’s hand smeared in ink.

The Destruction of Sagunto represents the capture and destruction of the city of Sagunto at the hands of the Carthaginian troops.

The Centuriate Comitium represents a meeting of the Roman generals to plan their military strategy to defeat the Carthaginian troops of Hannibal Barca.

The Plenary Session of the Senate stages the session of the Senate of Rome that will give way to the declaration of war. The script is completely rewritten each year to reflect local, regional, national and international current affairs and to include festive and political gossip. At the end of the event the audience votes by a show of hands for the “Brutus of the Year Award”.

Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta
Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta – Photo: Giorgio Montersino

Monday:

The Wedding of Hannibal and Himilce represents the betrothal of the Carthaginian general Hannibal and the Iberian Princess Himilce, with the participation of all the Carthaginian troops. The young general Hannibal Barca is proclaimed as Supreme Chief of the Carthaginian troops in Iberia and will seal a pact of friendship with the Iberian peoples by joining in marriage with the young Iberian princess.

At first the bride and groom do not accept the imposition of marriage but, after getting to know each other, love is born and the wedding takes place on a removable stage in the Port of Cartagena. Wedding celebrations then take place in the festive camp. Throughout the night, free weddings by the Carthaginian and Celtic rites are celebrated in the festive camp for all tourists and visitors. Some troops also celebrate express divorces.

Tuesday:

The Oracle of the Goddess Tanit is a theatrical act in which Princess Himilce consults the goddess Tanit about the future of the city and her marriage to Hannibal.

Wednesday:

The Trials of Aspar and the Ludi Romani transform the Carthaginian and Roman streets of the festive camp into fields of competitions, games and attractions for children.

The Feriae Latino is held at night in the Roman street of the festive camp and in it the festeros of all the Roman legions perform various free activities and invite the public to a selection of typical Roman food and drinks.

The Design of the Gods is a theatrical act that shows Scevola, commander of the Legion Extraordinarii and General Publius Cornelius Scipio consulting Marta the Syrian, pythoness of the goddess Belona, about the imminent battle for the capture of Qart Hadasht. The Pythoness announces a Roman victory in exchange for the life of the commander of the Extraordinarii.

Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta
Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta – Photo: Giorgio Montersino

Thursday:

In the Disembarkation of the Carthaginian Armada, troops disembark in the port of Cartagena to join Hannibal’s army before beginning the march to Rome. It also recreates the hiring of mercenaries in which General Hannibal offers a tribute to the mercenary troops in exchange for them to be his allies in the war.

The March of Hannibal’s Departure to Rome is a parade of Carthaginian troops in the direction of the festive camp in which the Carthaginian power is shown and the departure of the Carthaginian general to Rome is commemorated.

Second Friday:

The Maritime Sports Battle is a rowing race in the harbour between two boats in which the Carthaginian and Roman teams face each other. It is the non-historical battle of the festivities of Carthaginians and Romans.

The Disembarkation of the Roman Armada recreates the arrival of the Roman naval forces under the command of Admiral Gaius Lelius who will join the legions waiting on land under the command of General Publius Cornelius Scipio.

The Great Battle for the Capture of Qart-Hadast is the emblematic act of the festivities that represents the fighting between the Carthaginian and Roman armies, ending with the capture of the city by Publius Cornelius Scipio in 209 BC. It is held on the slope of the Batel, next to the Wall of Charles III and very close to the archaeological remains of the Punic Wall of Cartagena.

The Parade of the Victory of Rome is a parade to the festive camp in which only the Roman legions take part. It is a sample of the power of the Roman legions that enter the city of Qart Hadasht, which is designated with the Latin name of Carthage Nova.

Second Saturday:

The Tribute to the Fallen remembers the Roman soldiers killed in battle, depositing a laurel wreath on the funeral monument of the Blind Tower, a magnificent example of Roman funerary architecture that corresponds to a burial of the first century BC, dedicated to Titus Didius. In this act also a special remembrance is made to all the festeros deceased during the year.

The General Parade of Troops and Legions is the only occasion when you can see all the Carthaginian and Roman groups parade together. All the troops and legions wear their best clothes in a parade that ends at the festive camp.

Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta
Carthaginians and Romans Fiesta – Photo: Giorgio Montersino

Second Sunday:

The Great Roman Circus is a show that represents gladiatorial and Greco-Roman fights, chariot races, beams and horses, dances and military parades of Roman legionaries. Until 2009 it was held in the Estadio Cartagonova but has since moved to a portable bullring with capacity for about 4,000 people. Due to the high cost of assembling and disassembling this type of infrastructure, it is only held every two years.

The Act of the Victory of Rome stages the victory of Rome with the liberation of the hostages of Carthago, the delivery of the two Wall Crowns, the cession of the command of the city to Marcus Sempronius and the proclamation of the Law of Rome. As a unique case in the history of Rome, General Scipio delivers two Mural Crowns, one to the legionary Quintus Trebellius and the other to the sailor Sextus Digitius, for both disputing the glory of having been the first Roman to set foot in Qart Hadasht during its siege.

In the Extinguishing of the Sacred Fire the priestesses, priests, vestals and representatives of Troops and Legions, walk through the streets of the festive enclosure, turning off and silencing in its path all the camps, to reach the stage where the Sacred Fire will be extinguished and the Hymn of Cartagena will be intoned. Finally, a fireworks display is launched to mark the end of the Carthaginians and Romans Festival.

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