Interpretation Centre of the fortifications of Tarragona


The Interpretation Centre of the fortifications of Tarragona, located in the Passeig Arqueològic, provides an overview of the evolution of the system of defence of Tarragona over history, from the Roman times until when the city ceased to be a military stronghold, in 1854, and finally the wall was declared a Historic and Artistic Monument in 1884.

The emergence of the first urban nuclei is linked to the need to defend them. To this end, the lie of the land was leveraged, and at the same time increasingly more complex fortified structures were added, particularly following the proliferation of fire arms.

Over time, fortifications, walls and defences have exhibited a series of common traits:

  • They make the most of the orography and natural resources of the land. They protect the defenders and make it more difficult for enemies to attack.
  • They are structured hierarchically so that if part of the defences are lost, the rest of the system can continue to operate independently.
  • They are organised in such a way that each defended part has the greatest possible protection.
  • They have accesses that are readily available to the defenders but not to the attackers.

Moreover, walls, fortifications, perform another function which goes beyond the purely military aspect: they provide a distinction between the city and the suburbs and the city and the territory or countryside.

Tarragona stands on a hill some 80 m above sea level, with an orography that is ideal for defence. Moreover, on the south side there is a natural bay which became the city's port over time. It is a communications network with the hinterland of the Iberian Peninsula, and it has water. It has always had the potential to be a key point, and therefore to be a military stronghold.


 From 218BC to 713AC Sala1 Sala2 Sala3 Sala4 Sala5

In the year 218 BC, at the beginning of the second Punic War, the Roman army set up its first garrison atop the hill where the Iberian city of Tarrakon stood. It was to become its military and political base during this war and in the subsequent conquest of Iberia. As time went by, it became the Colonia Julia Urbs Triumphalis Tarraco, capital of the Hispania Citerior or Tarraconensis.

Initially, it was fortified with a provisional wall of stones, wood and earth. Later on, circa 200 BC, a sturdier wall was built around an area that was not very large: the first stable base of Rome in Hispania.

This wall is comprised of 6-m-high and 4-m-wide walls, made of large uneven stones or megaliths (opus siliceum), and is reinforced by towers with a second body of freestone. The towers held the troops' living quarters and space for torsion artillery, such as the catapults that shot through the loopholes. Three of them have reached us: the bottom part of the Archbishop tower, the Seminar tower and the Minerva tower, which conserves the oldest Roman relief outside Italy.

Meantime, next to the settlement of Tarrakon an incipient district of traders, sailors and the troops' families was taking shape... The evolution of the conquest of Hispania led the military base to become a first-order political, economic and military centre. A garrison, settlement and a district (cannaba) was no longer enough, a city was called for.

Between 150 and 100 BC, the wall of the high area was extended to the port. A new, lower (2-3 m) wall with a megalithic base was built over the previous construction, and a second body of freestone to a height of 12 m. It is between 5 and 6 m wide. This phase is still conserved in the High Part of Tarragona, and a monumental gate and six side doors remain.

It is unknown if it encircled the Iberian city, which became increasingly more Roman, nor how it closed the port. However, the descriptions from the Renaissance and other signs lead us to believe that it surrounded the whole Roman city, and was 5 km long.

Little is known about the wall in imperial times, but it was, without a doubt, an object of attention. We know, for example, that a high-ranking provincial official took charge of it. A lost inscription from Hadrian's time (122-123 AC), confirms this: Caius Calpurniis Flaccus, priest (flamen) of the imperial cult, temple curator and wall prefect.

In the 3rd Century, the wall prevented the Franks and the Germans from razing the city, although they did lay waste to the outlying districts. As of the 4th Century, Tarraco became smaller and was bipolarised again between the high area and the port. However, the Wall continued to maintain its urban significance, defining the city limits (pomoerium), separating it from the territory. One example would be: there were no burials inside the wall until the 6th Century, as they were forbidden by Roman law.

The old Roman wall witnessed the Arab-Berber invasion of 713-714, when Tariq ibn Ziyad took over the city of Terracona, probably peacefully.


 8th to 16th Centuries Sala1 Sala2 Sala3 Sala4 Sala5

Tower of the Nuns (14th C). Tower of Paborde or the Archbishop (12th Century) on a Roman base of 200 BC.
Ground plan and elevation of the Patriarch's castle (12th-15th Century) before it was destroyed. Model of the Praetorium
Drawing of the Castle of the Patriarch after it was blown up on August 19, 1813. Drawing by Vicenç Roig, Vicentó. Model of the Castle of the Patriarch King's Castle or Praetorium (12th-15th Century) built on a Roman tower dating from the 1st Century.

The Arab-Berber invasion of 713-714 put an end to Terracona as a city in the broadest sense. The loss of its political influence in the Visigoth epoch, the flight of Bishop Prosperous and the new situation in the Iberian Peninsula left the city in the doldrums until the feudal conquest.

Tarraquna was almost a ghost city, populated by Andalusians, Francs and feudal lords, a site for ambushes, reduced to a town but full of marvellous and fantastic ruins. Al-Idrissí (493 H/1100-561 H/1166) tells us that "it is a city of Jews and has a marble wall, reinforced constructions and fortified towers".

The Episcopal See was restored in 1091, although Tarragona was not actually occupied until the decade between 1119 and 1129, when it was given to bishop Oleguer of Barcelona, and Robert d'Aguiló embarked upon the colonisation of the city and the region.

Robert d'Aguiló repaired the city's defences, at that time reduced to the High Part. He closed off the southern side with a new wall, at the separation point of the representation square of the Provincial Council and the circus: the Old Wall. The side towers that connected the circus and the square of representation of the Provincial Council were turned into the castles of the Bishop of Vic (Audience) and Robert d'Aguiló (King's castle, or Praetorium). Another tower, next to the former square of the centre of worship, became the Archbishop's castle (Patriarch's castle). The Roman wall was repaired, and one of the towers became the castle of the Paborde (general administrator)

Medieval Tarragona occupied the former circus area, nowadays known as the Corral. The wars between Peter III and Peter of Trastàmara (1356-1375) rendered it necessary to wall up Catalan towns and cities. Peter III had the city fortified by means of different edicts, and in 1369 he ordered the building of a new wall in front of the facade of the circus, which is now known as the New Wall or Muralleta (Little Wall).

In the 15th Century, the Catalan Civil War (1462-1472) between the Government of Catalonia and King Joan II broke out. In 1462 the city was besieged by the royal troops. It was the first time that fire artillery had been used generally in a siege of Tarragona. The attack damaged the Muralleta, but it was thwarted at the Old Wall.

The advent of fire artillery changed the face of warfare substantially. Vertical or high walls made of masonry or freestone could not withstand the impacts of the new weaponry, and Italian architects conceived a new form of defence: lower, sloping walls, with reinforcement of the weaker points of the walls with bastions or ramparts.

Thus, in the course of the 16th Century the wall of Tarragona was bolstered with ramparts: Sant Climent (Saint Clement), Sant Antoni (Saint Anthony), Carles V (Chares V), Santa Bàrbara (Saint Barbara) or Fortí Negre (Black Fort), Torre Grossa (Big Tower). And a new tower was erected near the sea to defend the port. When the city grew southwards, in the time of Cardinal Cervantes (1568-1575), this prelate decided to start a new wall, with new ramparts "Sant Pau and Santa Clara", which was not completed until the 17th Century.

One thing was constant over time: the building of these defences was arduous and lengthy, due to a lack of resources, compounded by the raiding activities of North African corsairs.

What about the Roman wall in the lower part of the city? It was still standing, although it had been gradually dismantled over the years, either because it was in the way or to make room for new buildings.


 17th and 18th Centuries Sala1 Sala2 Sala3 Sala4 Sala5

In the course of the 17th and 18th Centuries, the fortifications of Tarragona were developed substantially due to the European wars and their echo in the peninsula. Times were difficult, and the Spanish monarchy was being challenged in the Peninsula and the rest of Europe: The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), the Catalan Revolt (1640-1659), the Nine Years'War (1688-1697), the War of Spanish Succession (1700-1714) and the Great War (1793-1795).

The Roman and medieval walls, with the 16th Century ramparts or the unfinished wall of Cardinal Cervantes, were insufficient. The repairs and reinforcements went on for years, always plagued by a lack of resources and hardly ever with royal funding. But that was not enough: the fortifications had to be planned in accordance with the new ways of making war. Although the results were not very successfully, as was borne out by the siege of the city in 1811.

The Catalan Revolt (1640-1659) left Tarragona under Castilian military rule, unlike the rest of Catalonia, which was under Franco-Catalan control. Pedro Fajardo, marquis of Los Vélez, turned the city into a fortress. The efforts to fortify it took the material form of two successive projects that would lay the foundations for the subsequent evolution of the defences. However, at the same time, the Franco-Catalan armies laid siege to the city in 1641 and 1644. The fortifications were subsequently given a further boost during the War of Spanish Succession (1700-1714), particularly between 1709 and 1713, with the presence of English troops.

Defence projects in Tarragona in the course of the 17th and 18th Centuries evolved on different fronts. The first one was the reinforcement of the fortifications of the High Area, with a low rampart on the sea side, in the Passeig de Sant Antoni, and the construction of different outer ramparts as an early defence system. Another one was later built on the land side, which is now the Passeig Arqueològic. The second project was the recovery of the idea of Cardinal Cervantes of extending the defences as far as the port, particularly on the inner side, which was more vulnerable to attacks. Following the line of the Roman wall of the low part of the city, new ramparts were erected, and, as of the mid-17th Century, work continued with the wall that defended the port.

A third front consisted of the building of a coastal defence line and the road to Barcelona, comprised of the small forts of Queen Anna Stuart and Saint George of the Parade Ground, which linked up with the outermost defence line, the small forts of the Cross and the new fort of Saint Jerome or Staremberg in the east, and those of Saint Peter and the King to the north. However, the outermost defences needed to be completed, although this did not materialise until the Peninsular War, in the form of a small fort at Forques Velles (Oliva) and three more in Loreto, the mountain of the Chapels and l'Arrabassada.

Rampart of Saint Magí (17th Century). Map of the city of Tarragona, by Antonio Alcedo, published in España Sagrada vol. 24, by Enrique Flórez, 1769.
View of the fortifications from the Oliva fort in the 1930s.
Fort of Sant Jordi (18th Century).
Rampart of Sant Diego (17th Century).
Model of the Fort of Sant Jordi. Model of the Rampart of Sant Diego.

 19th Century Sala1 Sala2 Sala3 Sala4 Sala5

Fort of Oliva at the end of the 19th Century.
Plan of the See, stairs and cathedral of Tarragona. Highlighting the scene of the attack.
Model of Tarragona during the siege
Map of the city showing the buildings damaged by the Peninsular War, April 27, 1838. (AHCT).
Indication of the High Part of Tarragona on the map, showing the explosions caused by Napoleon's fleeing armies on August 19, 1813. View of the city of Tarragona on the night of the explosions caused by the French on August 19, 1813. Drawing by Vicenç Roig, Vicentó.

The eagerness to fortify the city continued through to the beginning of the 19th Century, and was favoured by the outbreak of the Peninsular War (1808-1814). From the outset, major economic and human resources were allocated to bolstering the city's defences. There was a fear that the city would be besieged sooner or later.

This fear lent wings to the work between 1809 and 1810, when not only were the old walls, curtain walls and ramparts repaired, but new fortifications were also erected, such as the forts of Francolí, the Chapels, Loreto and Oliva, the city's first line of defence.

However, Tarragona's fortifications were but a series of unfinished, obsolete, damaged constructions, difficult to defend and badly planned. In fact, the city failed to withstand the siege of the Army of Aragon between May and June 1811.

The taking of the fort of Oliva, on May 29, was the prelude to the fall of the city one month later. Once the Oliva had fallen, the French troops had an excellent platform for attacking the high part, while the defences of the low part of the city were punished from the Francolí fort side until the French breached the port area. The bombing of the wall of Saint John heralded the beginning of the final attack on the afternoon of June 26, 1811. Three days of murdering and pillaging ensued, either ordered or permitted by General Suchet, who was named marshal after the fall of Tarragona.

Once in Napoleon's hands, the fortifications were repaired in view of a foreseeable counterattack by the Spanish armies. Finally, the withdrawal of the invading troops on the night of August 18, 1813 was accompanied by the prior destruction of the city's defences and castles (Archbishop, Patriarch, King), clearly intended to raze the terrain and render Tarragona subsequently useless as a military stronghold. It took twenty-three gunpowder mines to do the job.

Years later, new fortification work was conducted, such as the curtain wall of the rampart of Saint Francis as far as the Llatzeret, the rampart of Queen Amalia... During the Liberal Triennium (1820-1823), the refortification of Tarragona, which was to consist of knocking down the wall of Saint John, was considered, although the idea was finally ruled out.

The city's slow recovery, partially thanks to the port, led to the need to demolish the fortifications to promote urban growth. In 1854, hammers were taken to the wall of Saint John, and in 1868 Tarragona ceased to be a stronghold.

Over the years, through to the 20th Century, the old walls were gradually demolished, and once again a slow and costly city development was undertaken, which even endangered the Roman Wall, declared a Historic Monument in 1884.


Map of the Siege of Tarragona of 1811.

2. Torre d'en Tintorer 3. Baluard del Roser (Pàrq. Saavedra) 5. Fortí Negre 6. Baluard de Sant Diego (Cos de guàrdia) 7. Aqüeducte de l'Oliva 8. Baluard de Sant Pere 9. Fortí de l'Oliva 10. Baluard de Sant Magí 11. Baluard de Staremberg 12. Baluard de Sant Antoni 13. Baluard de Sant Jeroni 14. Baluard de Sant Climent 15. Castell del Rei 16. Torre de les Monges 17. Fortí de Sant Jordi 18. Fortí de la Reina Descarregar Plànol en PDF

  Audiovisuals Sala1 Sala2 Sala3 Sala4 Sala5

In this room you can see the following audiovisuals:

The audiovisual The siege of Tarragona 1811, directed by Mario Pons and coordinated by the Municipal Archive and Documentation Service, was produced to be screened in the Interpretation Centre of the defence of Tarragona.

The Audiovisual The fortifications of Tarragona explains how the defensive constructions evolved over the centuries, and shows their relationship with the city's evolution.

Segells de reconeixement d'administració oberta