Barcino-etymology: The Origins of Barcelona

Barcino-etymology: The Origins of Barcelona

Thanks to the Alexandrian map-maker Ptolomy we know that a city called Barcino existed on the site of modern-day Barcelona in the Second Century BC. But where did the Romans get the name Barcino from? Did it come from an earlier 'Celto-Iberian' settlement? Or the Carthaginians perhaps?

The following hypothesis about the origin of the word Barcino, from Historias y Leyendas de Barcelona by Joan de Deu Prats, is a fun one:

'On the shore of the River Rubricatus (now known as the Llobregat), was an Iberian settlement called Barkeno. According to some studies, the name derives from the word bar, applied to inhabitants of the area by Celts migrating from the north. In their language bar meant ‘free, independent or rebellious people’. Whether the story is true or false, future citizens of Barcelona would do much to deserve the appellative.'

This idea playfully suggests the Barceloníns were a spirited, difficult lot even back in ancient history. But what does Prats mean when he says 'Iberian'? The idea of Iberia derives from the Greek usage for the Ebro River - Hiber - and was applied by the Greeks and later Romans to the indigenous peoples inhabiting the lands below that river.

An urban civilization referred to as 'Iberian' by the Greek historians Herodotus and Strabo certainly prospered along Spain's Mediterranean Coast before the Punic Wars and the arrival of the Cathaginians and Romans, while a 'Celtic' pastoral people were said to inhabit the northern, western and central parts of the peninsula. This vague demographic historians sometimes lump together into the term 'Celto-Iberian'. There would definitely have been trade and contact between these two ways of life, but how closely tied they were remains subject to speculation.

In recent times, the word or concept of 'Iberia' has been used as a myth-making expedient to promote nation-building within Spain, in the same way as 'Celtic' was used to define a common binding origin for the peoples of the Celtic Sea.

This notion of ambiguous common origin used as nationalist propaganda is taken up by the Catalan historian Guillem Martinez, who writes in Barcelona Rebelde of the 20th Century Francoist tendency to harness an 'Iberian mythology' :

'For Francoism, the Iberians were a fundamental myth. They had arrived from Africa. They continued pushing up until they met the Celts, and in the middle of Madrid's Gran Vía, founded the Celto-Iberian civilization, decided to not speak Catalan and formed a unified common goal which would last for evermore.'

Of course, Martinez is tomando el pelo, taking the mickey. However settlements up and down Spain's Mediterranean Coast did indeed share styles of pottery, jewellery and weapons, and historical evidence suggests that before the Punic Wars of the 3rd Century BC, the plain of Barcelona and much of what is now the Maresme and the Vallès were inhabited by a people who shared linguistic/cultural traits recognisably of the Iberian trademark. This people, the Laietani, had established a town called Barcinon in around the 6th Century BC, on the ground where the Barri Gòtic now stands, and had a settlement called Laiesken at the foot of Montjuic.

There were other important Laietan settlements at Badalona - then called Baetulo and nestled on the banks of the Vaetulo (the Besós river) - and Mataró (then called Ailuron); all consisted of fortified walls and simple rectalungar houses. Historians also place a Greek colony called Kallípolis (Beautiful City) in an unknown spot in the Barcelona area. During the third and second centuries BC there were even Drachma coins circulating in the area with the legend 'Barkeno'. (Had the name changed from Barcinon to Barkeno by then? Is it a Greek mispronunciation? Or could it refer to somewhere else entirely? The answer? We don't know.)

So the Laietans would have been well-connected. There were Greek settlements and coins from nearby Emporion (Empúries), Roman-inspired stone and bronze statues, Phoenician pottery and deities. A picture emerges of a rich, diverse society conducting trade with the Castros (fort-camps) of the recognizably Celtic pastoral culture in the interior, as well as the civilized Greeks in the north and Phoenician and Roman merchants from the other side of the sea. Despite the links to other cultures, the language of the Laietans was unique, totally different to Greek, Latin or Celtic, and it remains an unclassifiable non-Indo-European language, with vague links to Basque, Etruscan, Messapic and Minoan.

Another hypothesis, favoured by tour guides, locates the origin of the name Barcino in the Punic Wars between Cathage and Rome. This theory proposes that the city got its name from the family of the Carthaginian warrior Hannibal Barca after it was was conquered in 230BC by Hannibal's father, Hamilcar. One popular legend even states that Hannibal's tomb is buried on the site where the Romans would later build their Temple of Augustus (today the site of the Generalitat on Plaça Jaume). However there's no archaeological evidence of a Carthaginian presence on the site of the city. So at the end of the Punic Wars, when the victorious Romans replaced the defeated Carthaginians as the chief colonizers on the Catalonian coast, they may still have found a predominantly Laietan settlement at Barcelona.

With the arrival of the Romans, the name of Barcelona becomes Colonia Iulia Augusta Faventia Paterna Barcino. That they called it a 'Colonia' and not an 'Urbs' suggests it was a town of little importance compared to the impressive provincial capital at nearby Tarraco (Tarragona). Historians believe Barcino was at that time a small fortified port which produced garum (a kind of fish sauce enjoyed throughout the Empire) and textiles, and was inhabited by mostly non-native Romans from all over the Empire, including some who married with local Laietan women.

It's from a Roman version of Herculean legend that we derive possibly the most far-fetched explanation of the origin of the word Barcelona. This myth has it that four hundred years before the foundation of Rome, Hercules, fresh from the completion of his fourth task (slaying the Erymanthian boar), had joined Jason and the nine ships of the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece. The fleet was scattered by a storm off the Catalan coast. One ship, the Barca Nona (Ninth Ship), was missing. So Hercules climbed to the top of Mons Jovis (Montjuic) and there spotted the errant vessel. He was so pleased, that together with Hermes, he decided to found a city there, which they called Barcanona. This episode in the fleece myth took place in Eastern Europe, according to the Greek version. But the Romans for unknown reasons preferred to relocate it to the Western Mediterranean.

Myth upon myth.

Whatever its ancient origins, the final tweeking in Barcelona's etymology comes with the arrival of tribes of hirsute Barbarians from the north. 'One day, around the year 270 AD, the inhabitants of Roman Barcino heard a dull, distant, continuious rumbling noise. By pressing an ear to the ground, it was possible to make out the sound of cartwheels and carthorses. the noise was coming from the north-west, the road from Gaul. But it was not Gauls who were descending on Barcino but Germanic barbarians, former settlers of the banks of the Rhine, who having smashed through the frontiers of the Empire, had now crossed the Pyrenees. Some of them called themselves alleman, 'all men' (Alemanni in Latin), while others called themselves Franks, the 'free' or 'independent' people.' (Barcelona: A History, J. Castellar-Gassol)

This was the first noise from the north, a warning sign. The first batch of Barbarians sacked the city, and moved on.

But, at the start of the 5th Century AD, their Germanic cousins, the newly-Christianized Goths, descended on the city. They were led by King Ataulf, who had kidnapped the Roman Emperor Theodosius's daughter Galla Placidia, who he tied to the tail of his horse and dragged all the way from Ravenna, before making her his bride upon his arrival.

This time the Barbarians stayed on in Barcino. Eventually they would adopt Roman, civilized ways, learn to write Latin and would build their Romanesque churches. They would make the city their royal court and call it Barsilona.

Might future invasions lead to other newer mispronounced versions of the city's name? Probably, judging by the precedents of the last 3000 years of human history.

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