The long ball

According to "The Golden Legend" the remains of James the Great were buried at the end of the earth (follow our previous thinking here). Fantastic elements are embedded in the story (like killer bulls, stone boats, and even a dragon!), and these, along with its late and curious agenda, render the narrative incredible. However, the story begs an introduction to a region that is unfamiliar to many Bible Land Explorers.

  A map of the inhabited world (Gk oikumene) as envisioned in the first century by Strabo. The Iberian Peninsula is inside the red box. Image modified from original available in  The Geography of Strabo I  (Loeb Series 1917: frontpiece).

A map of the inhabited world (Gk oikumene) as envisioned in the first century by Strabo. The Iberian Peninsula is inside the red box. Image modified from original available in The Geography of Strabo I (Loeb Series 1917: frontpiece).

Greek and Roman authors offer a helpful start. Hecataeus of Miletus, Polybius, Eratosthenes, Polybius, Strabo, and Diodorus Siculus (among others) contemplate the western reaches of the inhabited world (or the oikumene) in their day. Admittedly, their treatments are uneven, sometimes presented from a distance, and challenge our recognition of how knowledge of the West accumulated and developed over the course of time. Some testimony--like that of Diodorus Siculus--repeats rumors (Dio is full of hot gossip). Other testimony--like that of Polybius--reveals sober and even "real-time" eyewitness accounts.

For this gang of literates, the West was known generally as Hesperia or Hesperos. The Greek term is suggestive of the sunset and could be applied to most anything west of the Hellas.

Another more specific term, Iberia, was used by Greeks (notably Polybius). It seems to be drawn from an Celtiberian term for "river." It gives us the label we still use today for the whole peninsula (as well as the name of an airline with colorful jets!).

  Strabo understood the long ball. Image from  here  (accessed 8/7/2018).

Strabo understood the long ball. Image from here (accessed 8/7/2018).

It was the Romans, however, who pitch us Hispānia. Hispānia is used specifically to describe the land dangling way out there in the girdling ocean of the earth. The meaning of this word is disputed, although I do favor the rabbit idea.* It produces a whole litter of words used today like "Spain," "Espania," "Hispanic," and "Spanish"

Distilling all the details about classical Hispānia is challenging. Areas in the south and east, baked by the sun and splashed by the Mediterranean Sea, are much discussed (think about the Carthigianian Wars for example). But if we slip out of that Middle Sea by way of the Pillars of Hercules and follow the rugged "coast of death" northward, we find a corner of Hispānia that is far less mentioned and far more imagined.

Here are just a few words and phrases that jump out of these texts to describe it: "cold," "rugged," "tribal," "self-sufficient," "full of hardship," and "barbaric." I could go on.

  Topographic image of the Iberian Peninsula. The Roman administrative district of   Conventus Lucensisarea is located in the area marked by the blue square. Original image from  here  (accessed 8/7/2018).

Topographic image of the Iberian Peninsula. The Roman administrative district of Conventus Lucensisarea is located in the area marked by the blue square. Original image from here (accessed 8/7/2018).

The pre-Roman residents of this rugged corner were culturally varied, although they are often referred to collectively as Celtiberian. You can hear the piping blend of Celtic and Iberian tones in the pronouncement of the name. Your knees might knock a little too if you remember the indomitable Celtic spirit (who can forget their naked, shield-beating, head-taking, berserker ways?). 

The Roman pacification of Hispānia became possible only after Carthage was eliminated from the stage in 206 BC. Even then it would take two centuries of grinding and fistfulls of military generals (including Julius Caesar who led four Spanish campaigns) to accomplish any kind of Pax Romana here. The south was bridled early on; it already had a history of Mediterranean intercourse. The rugged uplands proved to be the challenge. The Celtiberians were among the last to cooperate, being hammered finally by Augustus himself in the Cantabrian Wars of 29-19 BC. Many veterans from the eight legions used over the course of this conflict would receive a discharge, a plot of ground, and encouragement to settle down in the colonae. Such "colonies" became the hubs of the Romanization effort. It is a most curious thing: the empire was congealing at one end of the Mediterranean just as Jesus of Nazareth began calling his disciples at the other.

Which brings us back to James, Iria Flavia, and the long ball.

  The Roman administrative district of Conventus Lucensis occupies the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula. Lucus Augusta was the primary administrative center. Iria Flavia was an inland port resting at the confluence of navigable rivers.

The Roman administrative district of Conventus Lucensis occupies the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula. Lucus Augusta was the primary administrative center. Iria Flavia was an inland port resting at the confluence of navigable rivers.

Efforts to administer Hispānia generally and the north specifically was a trial-and-error process.** This was not a region with a history of social cooperation. In time, however, lines were drawn, smudged, and redrawn, roads were cut, and gold was dug (The Romans were VERY interested in mining gold and tin from the northern mountains.) Settlement hierarchies developed as wealth and power were distributed. Even the Celtiberians found the pull irresitible and began to assimilate.

The province of Conventus Lucensis was established in the most distant corner of wild Hispānia. It drew its name from its principal city of Lucus Augusti (modern Lugo, Spain). One of the supporting towns in the provincial network was Iria Flavia (modern Padrón), named after the powerful Flavian family of Rome. 

  The Roman walls of Lucus Augusti still stand to a height of nearly 15 meters. Image accessed  here  on 8/8/2018.

The Roman walls of Lucus Augusti still stand to a height of nearly 15 meters. Image accessed here on 8/8/2018.

According to traditions about James the Great found outside the NT, his original mission target was the hard-scrabble individuals and veterans that would become the community of Iria Flavia (see a piece on this here).

There is a part of me that wants to buy into the tradition of James's western mission; it demonstrates true grit. Remember the word list we mustered a moment ago? Cold, rugged, tribal, self-sufficient, full of hardship, and barbaric. It sounds like an Aaron-Rogers-long-ball-church-plant; a job for nothing less than a "Thunderboy."

As our regular Bible Land Explorers know, collective memory puts the Apostle's remains in a tomb near Iria Flava. Unfortunately the exact spot was lost. At least for a season.

Buen Camino!

  The rugged uplands of northern Hispania were ideal for guerrilla warfare. Pacification of  the Celtiberian tribes required two centuries of painful effort by the Romans. Image from  here  (accessed 8/7/2018).

The rugged uplands of northern Hispania were ideal for guerrilla warfare. Pacification of  the Celtiberian tribes required two centuries of painful effort by the Romans. Image from here (accessed 8/7/2018).


*There are many proposals concerning the origin of the term Hispānia. Classical authors suggested that the Romans may have picked it up from the Phoenicians (who spoke a Canaanite dialect). Embedded in Hispania is the old word for a hyrax or rabbit (shaphan), hence, the "land of rabbits." 

**Here, see S. J. Keay and Simon J. Keay's Roman Spain (University of California, 1988).


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Consider this your invitation to join us this winter in Galilee, Israel. We will be hiking the Jesus Trail between Jan 8-16, 2019. This trip is facilitated by the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies and is a bargain at only $2,588 from New York. For more details click here or contact me at markziese@gmail.com.