Cartagena, although an important city, seems today to live under the shadow of its larger neighbour Murcia City. However, while Murcia City was founded in 825 AD, Cartagena was a significant settlement over 1000 years earlier and was one of Spain's foremost cities in Roman times. There are traces of human settlement in the Cartagena area long before this.
Hominoids left traces in the Victoria Cave which is situated within the Cartagena administrative area, some 1.3 million years ago! In the Middle Palaeolithic (Stone Age), from about 35,000 years ago, human occupation of caves and rocky shelters in the area such as the Cueva de los Avilones took place. What, however, seems a little surprising, is that, although there are remains of some settlements around the coast in the intervening years, when the Argaric culture began to flower in south east Spain around 3,500 years ago (for example the small "town" at La Bastida near Totana), there appears to have been little activity in the immediate area of Cartagena. Even when the Phoenicians began to trade increasingly with this part of Spain from around 800 BC, Cartagena seems initially to have been bypassed, although there have been notable finds off the coast in shipwrecks of Phoenician vessels carting jewels, wine, pottery, metals and other objects, and there is the suggestion of a Phoenician settlement around Escombreras.
None of this gives any indication of the remarkable story about to unfold in what is now Cartagena, and there is even another great mystery before we arrive at that time, related to refugees from the lost city of Atlantis and it is not all quite as fanciful as this might initially make you think! What is clear is that there was a remarkable civilisation which grew up in southern Spain around the first millennium BC – that of Tartessos. Both the origins and precise location of the civilisation are unclear, although many hold it developed from native roots and that it extended somewhere in the Huelva (its capital?), Cadiz, Seville area. Greek historians referred to it covering much of south Spain and including many towns and villages. Plato appears to have related it to the disaster of the lost city of Atlantis somewhere near present day Gibraltar, but what is clear, is that such a civilisation did exist (there are many historical references including several in the Bible) and that it was wealthy, based upon its mineral resources, prospering as a result of its trade with the Carthaginians and Phoenicians.
What is the relevance to Cartagena? Simply that one German archaeologist held that one of the principal cities of the Tartessos Confederation and its principal trading port, Mastia, was no other than present day Cartagena. Certainly, there is no doubt that, in the 5th and 6th Centuries BC, the area around Cartagena prospered as a result of its mining riches (especially lead and silver) with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians both having an influence. But, more than this? Perhaps unlikely.
At this point, we move from conjecture and uncertainty into better known territory. In 241 BC one of the two great Mediterranean powers of the time, Carthage, lost territories including Sicily, to the other force, the Romans, at the end of what was known as the First Punic War. The Carthaginian civilisation was centred on Carthage near the present day Tunis in North Africa and was probably founded by Phoenician colonists from the Lebanon. In any event, in an attempt to compensate for their territorial losses to the Romans, and to pay the heavy tributes demanded by Rome, Carthage began to look from its North African base at the mineral rich and agriculturally fertile lands of Southern Spain as suitable areas into which to expand. The Carthaginian general Amilcar Barca landed at Cadiz in 237 BC to begin this process. With him was his young son, one Hannibal Barca. Colonies were established with army veterans or others coming from North Africa. Although Amilcar died in battle in 228 BC, he was succeeded by his son-in-law, Asdrubal Barca, who founded the city of Qart-Hadast on the site of Cartagena around this time. Qart-Hadast, which means "new town" is said to have been the first city project in South East Spain with a true political and administrative structure allowing domination of the surrounding area, especially those rich silver mines so important to the Carthaginians continuing war efforts, including against Rome. Indeed, Cartagena became the centre for military and commercial operations in the south east peninsula as well as the winter quarters for Carthaginian troops fighting the Romans and seeking to extend the Spanish lands. In a very real sense, the city became the capital of a new state in the Iberian Peninsula. It was defended by a wall (two parallel constructions with a six metre gap and cross walls and buildings between them) and public buildings were constructed. One writer has said that, within 20 years it had a population of 15 – 20,000, a forum, an acropolis, several temples and a whole host of other buildings. The city had a large workforce, with construction, shipbuilding, agriculture, esparto working, mineral mining and refining, and salt production all to be found. Remnants of roads, house structures and the old city walls have been discovered in Cartagena with the Punic Wall Museum (the word "punic" meant Carthaginian in Latin), in calle San Diego, one of the attractions well worth visiting to see, in particular, the impressive remains of that 3rd Century BC wall which were only discovered in 1989.
Asdrubal was a shrewd operator, building a palace in Qart-Hadast and ensuring he kept as good relations as possible with the native Iberians. Unfortunately, his supremacy was short lived and, in 221 BC, he was assassinated by an Iberian slave apparently seeking revenge for the crucifixion of a native leader. Hannibal took up the reins. Hannibal had sworn eternal enmity to the Romans and did not delay in showing his hatred for them. He broke the Treaty of the Ebro (which delineated areas of Roman and Carthaginian influence in Spain) taking the town of Sagunto and beginning what was known as the Second Punic War. This also led to that most famous of all exploits, when, in 218 BC, he left Qart-Hadast with, it is said, 28,000 infantry, 6000 cavalry and 36 elephants with the intention of surprising the Romans in Italy. He and his army crossed the river Ebro, the Pyrenees and the Alps with, initially, tremendous success against the Romans.
Unsurprisingly, the Romans felt somewhat threatened by this energetic Carthaginian general, Hannibal, and saw Qart-Hadast as a key target. In an attempt to cut Hannibal's supply lines, two Roman generals and troops were sent to the south of Spain. Initially, things did not look good and both were killed in the Battle of Ilurco in 211 BC. However, the following year, under the command of the son of one of the dead leaders, the Romans headed for Qart-Hadast and, after several days of siege and by using a weak point in the defences, the city fell in 209 BC to one Publio Escipión (or Publius Scipio), who, it is said by one historian, had at his command, after landing in Tarragona, some 25,000 infantry, 2500 cavalry and a fleet of 36 ships – a vastly superior force to that defending Qart-Hadast, although reinforcements (perhaps like today's cheque in the post!) were apparently expected at any time. The loot obtained by the Romans (including gold, silver, wheat, barley, armaments, ships and a large number of prisoners) shows just how important the town had been as a logistic and economic centre for the Carthaginians.
Today, all this early history from the founding of Qart-Hadast by Asdrubal to the final battle between the Romans and Carthaginians, is commemorated in several days of marvellous fiesta each year in the second half of September. Encampments of Romans and Carthaginians are set up in the city and the whole place takes on a quite remarkable air. There is a remarkable Roman Circus which can be enjoyed – the year we went to it in the Cartagena Football Ground there seemed to be everything from chariot races to battles and even a dancing bear. The final battle between the Carthaginians and Romans is quite something with seemingly hundreds of suitably dressed individuals (even cavalry) involved. With all of this and the magnificent parades, no wonder this particular fiesta is regarded of national importance in Spain.