The Roman city of Alicante – exploring Lucentum

Lucentum is where Alicante began, with the Carthaginians and the Romans. The ruins of their settlements cover a three hectare (7 acre) site in Albufereta, a few kilometres up the coast from the modern city.

The word Lucentum comes from the Latin lucere, and loosely translates as ‘city of light’. And in the brilliant sunshine of a Costa Blanca summer, you can see why Lucentum got the name.

But if it hadn’t been for one woman’s fight against the property developers, the whole lot would have disappeared under tons of concrete.

The Roman city of Alicante – the ruins of Lucentum, surrounded by modern residential blocks. The whole site could have been submerged in concrete.

The woman who beat the bulldozers!

I’d never heard of Solveig Nordström until I went to Lucentum. But she clearly wasn’t a woman to mess with. She’d come over from her native Sweden in the 1950s to work on archaeological excavations here on the Costa Blanca.

The archaeologist who saved Lucentum; Solveig Nordström. Picture: Alicante Vivo

At the time, the tourism boom was just starting and property developers were moving in big time. By 1960, they had their beady eyes on el Tossal de Manises, a low hill just inland from the beach. This was where Lucentum had stood 2,000 years earlier. But archaeology didn’t count for much when there was big money to be made.

Solveig Nordström absolutely wasn’t having it. She tipped off the media – clearly this was a woman who understood exactly what makes a good news story – and laid down in front of the bulldozers.

This was Franco’s Spain and that kind of protest just didn’t happen back then. But she won. Her stand got international attention and the developers backed down.

When you look around the site, you see the scale of her achievement. The ruins are completely dwarfed by the unlovely apartment blocks that surround it. This would have been the fate of Lucentum too.

The Roman forum, built in the 1st century when Lucentum was at its height.

In Roman times, Tossal De Manises was a high point, dominating the area all around. No longer. Unless you know it’s there, you’d never find it behind all the high-rises.

The site was bought by the Spanish state, given official protection in 1961 and fenced off. Then nothing much happened till the 1990s, apart from unofficial rubbish dumping and graffiti. But now, a fair amount of the site has been excavated and it’s fascinating.

The Lucentum bathhouse – no Roman town of any size would have gone without a baths complex and Lucentum was no exception.

Take the tour!

Yes, you can just go in and have a wander around. There are plaques that explain some of what you see. But I’d definitely recommend getting a tour – it only costs €3 – and it’s brilliant. Suddenly all those ancient stones are brought to life. Tours are at midday Tue-Sun (4pm on Sat). In Spanish, but there are some in English too (contact details here)

You get to understand the different waves of occupation over the centuries. How the ancient Iberians settled nearby in the 6th century BC. The Carthaginians fortified the place, but then lost out to the Romans in the Punic Wars. How the Romans then added their own fortifications to their town of Lucentum during the Sertorian civil wars, with the town reaching peak importance in the 1st century AD.

By the 3rd century AD, Lucentum was declining, partly because it was losing out to the more important settlement of Illici (now Elche). Among other things. Illici had a had a better water supply, always a problem for Lucentum.

Eventually of course, the Roman Empire in this part of the world collapsed and Lucentum was more or less abandoned.

Five hundred years later, the Moors used part of the site as a cemetery. But bizarrely, among the Muslim tombs, there’s a Christian woman interred, surrounded by the graves of Muslim children. How did that happen?

Remember – all this would have disappeared under concrete if the developers had had their way. And there’s still more to find; 60% of the site of Lucentum still remains to be excavated.

More treasures at the MARQ

To see some of the key finds unearthed at Lucentum, head  to the MARQ – the archaeology museum. It’s excellent and only 10 minutes on the tram from Lucentum tram stop (get off at Marq-Castillo).

Exhibits include the best-known relic from Lucentum, a magnificent double-eagle sword hilt (below). It’s the only surviving fragment of what was probably a large bronze statue of an Emperor, cast sometime in the first century AD.

This memorial stone to Publious Astronius Verustus, a 23 year old priest from Lucentum is in the MARQ. His funeral inscription is quite touching – ‘to all who pass by, I ask you to say these words; “may the earth rest lightly on you”.

Sadly, Solveig Nordström died in 2021, at the ripe old age of 97. She’d spent most of her life in Spain – in Benidorm, as it happens.  The archaeology park on which the ruins of Lucentum stand is named after her. Very appropriate!

More Roman history nearby

Lucentum isn’t the only ancient site nearby. Head down to Albufereta beach to see the viveros – Roman fish farms hacked out of the rock. Follow the wooden walkway that takes you there from the end of the beach.

Roman fish farms (viveros) hacked out of the rock, next to the beach at Albufereta, a short walk from Lucentum.
The boardwalk that takes you along the coastline to the viveros.

And a little further up the coast, at El Campello, you’ll find the Illeta de Banyets. It’s a tiny peninsula jutting out into the sea just around the corner from Campello marina and overlooked by a 16th century watchtower. It’s been inhabited for 5,000 years, from Neolithic times through to the Roman and Moorish civilisations. More here.

Illeta de Banyets – aka Los Baños de la Reina – in El Campello.

Take a stroll around for free, or catch a guided tour (details here) Park for free near the imposing watchtower and wander down, or take the short tram ride from Lucentum and it’s a 15 minute walk from El Campello station.

Fascinating fact!

The Illeta is known as los Baños de la Reina – legend had it that an Arab princess used to come down to the sea to bathe in the pools hacked out of the rock centuries earlier by the Romans. It’s still a good place to come for a swim or a snorkel.

More ancient history!

The Romans also settled our town of Villajoyosa, 30 minutes drive up the coast from Lucentum (you can also get there by tram). They knew it as Allon – for more fascinating history, check out my post here.

© Guy Pelham

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