This study brings together a set of primary sources for the period of transition from late Roman to post-Roman rule over central Hispania, from the city of Mérida (Augusta Emerita) in west-central Spain. These sources—all inscriptions—illustrate important changes and continuities in the power dynamics at work in one of the most important urban centers of late antique Iberia in the period of Visigothic expansion. The central piece of evidence is the so-called Bridge Inscription of Mérida, which is preserved only in a ninth-century manuscript. A new critical reading of this complex text paves the way for a reconstruction of the local and regional context in which the events documented on the inscription took place.
This article revisits a small set of epigraphic evidence from Mérida, Spain, in order to illuminate an important stage in the transition from late Roman to post-Roman government and urban patronage in the late fifth century C.E. While the central focus of the article is on the so-called Bridge Inscription of Mérida, a lost fifth-century text that will be discussed at some length, that inscription has to be studied in its local context, and so two late Roman “imperial” inscriptions are also laid out in detail. This article argues that the Bridge Inscription is an often-underappreciated piece of evidence that illustrates some of the local dynamics at work during the period of Visigothic expansion into Hispania. The Bridge Inscription points to a fifth-century context in which the political lines were still being drawn over a map that retained profound connections to the world of the later Roman Empire. With one eye on Mérida's illustrious Roman past, the person responsible for this inscription, likely the bishop Zeno, used a traditional medium to position himself both within the local community and, crucially, in relation to the Visigothic King Euric and his representative, the dux Salla. By highlighting the similarities and differences between the Bridge Inscription and earlier public building inscriptions from Mérida, this article offers new insights into how Mérida—and perhaps, by extension, other similarly-positioned cities—navigated the transition from Roman to post-Roman rule.
LATE ROMAN PATRONAGE
In the cities of the Roman Empire, it had long been standard practice for wealthy individuals to contribute major public buildings to their hometown, either entirely through their own initiative or in their official role as members of the local ruling class (curiales). These buildings, and even subsequent renovation or maintenance projects, were often commemorated with monumental inscriptions.1 Indeed, it is frequently the case that our only evidence that the buildings ever existed comes from the epigraphic record. Inscriptions can provide us with crucial details about Roman period building projects such as the source of funding, the motivation behind the project, and sometimes even the cost of construction and other associated activities such as public games or feasts.2 Even in cases where the funding source was clearly public (pecunia publica, e.g.) and the impetus an official mandate (decreto decurionum), the fact that a named individual appears on the inscription is a crucial detail; it was not enough for such magistrates or private citizens to tell their viewers about the building, they also wanted to set themselves up as patrons and benefactors of their hometown, which is often referred to using the term patria.3
This sort of activity continued in the cities of the Roman West down through the later second century C.E., but by the middle of the third century, the inscriptions had largely stopped;4 the decline in the epigraphic habit was so widespread that it is often cited as a key feature of the Third-Century Crisis.5 With the re-stabilization of the Empire under the Tetrarchy and then the creation of the Constantinian Empire in the early fourth century, many of the main administrative centers of the Empire enjoyed a period of urban revival, attested by a substantial jump in the number of building inscriptions.6 But the nature of epigraphic commemoration was now significantly changed. Where local public building projects had largely been spurred and funded through private initiative or official curial obligations, this new wave of building activity appears to have been spurred by supra-urban, often even imperial, impetus, though the source of funding is often not made explicit on the inscriptions.7
Mérida was the provincial capital of Lusitania, the Roman province which comprised most of modern-day Portugal and a large portion of west-central Spain.8 The city was established during the reign of Augustus as a Roman colony, and in the course of the first century C.E. it came to have an extensive set of Roman-style public buildings, some of which are quite well preserved today.9 Under the Diocletianic reforms in the late third century, Mérida became the seat of the vicarius Hispaniarum, who oversaw the diocese that included the entire Iberian Peninsula and Mauretania Tingitana, a province located in modern-day Morocco.10 As the Christian church expanded its administrative structures to follow those of the Roman government, Mérida also rose to become a prominent church center. The city's position in Hispania's religious setting was further enhanced by the establishment of a major pilgrimage site at the Basilica of St. Eulalia, which was erected in honor of a victim of the Diocletianic persecution.11
Mérida's importance in the administrative systems of both the Christian church and the imperial government likely contributed to the expansion of a large and very wealthy aristocratic class in the fourth century, as exhibited by the extensive and elaborate rural villas concentrated in the city's territory.12 The city's enormous set of late Roman mosaics, many of them prominently displayed in the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, attests to the wealth and sophistication of Mérida's elite class in this period.13 Even into the fifth century, Mérida remained a very important urban center; its wealth and prominence frequently attracted the attention of raiding parties in the period of Suevic, Vandal, and Visigothic settlement, across the middle decades of the fifth century in particular.14
The epigraphic record from Mérida is extensive, offering hundreds of Roman and post-Roman inscriptions. As is the case with other Roman cities, there is a precipitous decline in the number of inscriptions across the third century, followed by a modest uptick in the fourth. While several inscriptions associated with the Constantinian Dynasty have survived, only two of these are sufficiently well preserved to allow for more than a very general reconstruction.15 These two inscriptions, from the theater and the circus, illustrate a new type of late Roman patronage, where the imperial regime and its representatives took an active role local in building and renovation projects at some of the major imperial centers, diocesan seats, and provincial capitals.16
The earlier of the two Constantinian Dynasty inscriptions from Mérida is the Theater Inscription (Figure 1). This five-line text is only partially preserved, in a collection of fragments that has been reassembled gradually in the course of the 20th century from pieces found in and around Mérida's Roman theater complex.17
A significant portion of the left side of the inscription has been lost, represented by a gap of unknown length between sections A and B in Figure 1. However, enough of the inscription survives to allow for a tentative reconstruction of most of the text, along with its overall significance.18 The Latin text reads as follows:
Our Lords the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine [ - - - ] Victor Eternally August and [Constantine II (erased)], Constantius [ - - - ] Caesars, [ - - - ] such an ancient building [ - - - ordered that the] theater of the Colony of Emerita [be embellished with] decoration even better than before, while Count [ - - - ] Severus, of clarissimate rank, managed the project, and [ - - - ] Praeses of the province of Lusitania, executed (it).
It is readily apparent that my English translation includes a few hypothetical restorations (marked off in italics) in order to fill out the sense of this very fragmentary inscription.20 Given the substantial lacunas across the left half in all five lines, it will be wise not to place too much emphasis on the portions that have been supplied. Nevertheless, a reasonably sound reconstruction of the sense of the text can be built from a few crucial terms that are wholly or partially preserved.21 The text includes a specific reference to “decoration” (l. 3), and it is clear that this work was intended to leave the “theater of the colony…better than it had been.”22 On the basis of these fragments, it appears as if this was more a renovation project, focusing primarily on an improvement to the building's decorations, than a full-scale reconstruction of the theater. The most likely possibility is that this activity focused on the ornamentation of the scaenae frons, large sections of which survive, but the archaeological evidence does not allow for a firm identification of work undertaken during this reported restoration (Figure 2).23
From the fragmentary text that survives, and following (albeit tentatively) the commonly accepted restorations, we can adduce that the Emperor Constantine and his sons were in power as joint emperors—Augustus and (at least) two Caesares—when the inscription was set up to celebrate a restoration of the theater of Mérida (ll. 1–3). Government officials involved more directly in the project include a comes of clarissimate rank named Severus (l. 4) and a lower-level colleague likely occupying the role of praeses—provincial governor—of Lusitania (l. 5, the title is lost).24 Because Constantine appears as Augustus in the singular (l. 1, section C), with Constantine II listed after him, we have a secure date range in the period c. 324–337 C.E.25
It is tempting on a surface reading to associate this inscription with the kind of traditional act of patronage once so common in the Roman cities. But the text also reveals some important divergences from the earlier Roman tradition, in keeping with trends in urban patronage across the early fourth century.26 Constantine and his son(s) are not local patrons seeking to beautify their hometown or attract the attention and envy of other wealthy locals, and, on some level, this can probably be seen as an imperial monument. But while the emperors do appear in the nominative, their role was not to undertake the project, but instead to authorize the project and to establish an appropriate context for this sort of work. By placing the emperors in the nominative, the inscription acknowledges the authority of Constantine and his son(s) to direct local affairs.27 This was obviously intended to bring them further glory, directly through their primacy on the inscription itself and indirectly through the actual building project carried out by their lesser officials, the comes and praeses. But it also sets up a definite rank ordering, from greatest to least: Augustus – Caesares – Comes – Praeses. And this rank ordering probably corresponded, in reverse order, to each actor's level of involvement in the actual renovation project highlighted on the inscription. As provincial governor, the praeses actually lived and served in Mérida, so he is most likely to have had direct oversight of the work commemorated here. The office of comes (provinciarum) at this time seems to have functioned at the diocesan level or even higher, and Severus’ duties likely had a much wider geographical orbit which would have drawn him away from Mérida quite frequently, even if he did have a formal residence here at the capital of the dioecesis Hispaniarum.28
Unlike on traditional inscriptions celebrating the benevolent actions of a private individual or local official, here all of the named individuals are government officials—the emperors and their representatives at the diocesan and provincial levels. The personal wealth of the donor had long been the primary source for funding such acts of patronage—or at least touted as the primary source for such projects on the commemorative inscriptions.29 The lack of such specifics on this inscription, coupled with the official status of the primary agents, may indicate that (some of the) funding came from the government at a higher level than the local administration. Because the source of funds is not explicitly stated, it is entirely possible that revenues collected from the provincial capital were directed to this public renovation project by the praeses in his capacity as provincial governor. But as the man on the ground, the praeses may well have identified Mérida's theater as a worthy target of imperial attentions, and he will have been directly responsible for making sure that the work was completed satisfactorily and any funds supplied were managed appropriately.
There is good reason to believe that traditional sources of local revenue were by now under a great deal of pressure, not least from the imperial administration itself. For example, we know that Constantine co-opted a portion of the city income, with undoubtedly deleterious effects on cities’ ability to fund public construction and maintenance projects.30 A suggestion for the source of funding for this project in the theater, then, is that some portion of the local income was returned to Mérida to help restore its traditional entertainment facilities. Of course, the mandate need not have been so specific—it could have been as general as an imperial edict that “generously” allowed certain cities to retain a portion of the income due the emperor in order to ensure that his major provincial centers were restored to their former glory.31 The role of the curatores rei publicae in this context may be significant, as it was, by the early fourth century, under their oversight that local finances were managed.32 These officials would have answered directly to the praeses on behalf of the local council's financial obligations to the imperial administration. It is easy enough to imagine a direct transfer of funds for a local project like this one, designed to advance the propagandistic aims of the emperor(s) while also benefiting the local community, and—crucially—enhancing the goodwill of the community toward the officials involved.
On this reading, the Constantinian regime was really just allowing the cities to retain control over a portion of the income that it had recently stripped away. But such a transparent political move offered tangible benefits to the cities and to the emperors. Local councilors would have received the reversal of a perceived imperial tax-grab, however temporary, positively; any reduction in imperial demands on the local income significantly eased their (sometimes personal) financial burden. Moreover, the maintenance and renovation of existing public buildings was one of their primary expenses, so if provincial or imperial officials used local funds to finance local public works projects, this again conferred an immediate financial relief on the local magistrates.33 The building projects, and the inscriptions resulting from such “imperial” initiatives, would also have raised the cities’ profiles in the mind and in the administration of the emperor himself, particularly valuable in those areas—like Hispania and Africa—that had lain on the apparent fringes of imperial policy since the middle of the third century.
Thus, by means of a broad initiative that ultimately cost them nothing, the emperor and his representatives could take their message of restoration and rebirth to the citizens of the major urban centers throughout the Empire. Provincial officials like the praeses on the Theater Inscription from Mérida could celebrate their own direct hand in this imperially-inspired project while at the same time reminding members of the local governing class of the new political realities.34 In the fourth century system, the praeses served as an essential link between the imperial government and the local community, via the comes and the vicarius. While the praeses was not necessarily a member of the local elite from the provincial capital, he was likely a member of the broader provincial elite class. In his official capacity, the praeses had to advance the interests of the imperial regime. But as a member of a relatively small network of provincial elites within Lusitania or even within Hispania, he also represented various local and regional interests in his interactions with higher-ranking imperial officials. Ultimately, it was only through the agency of the praeses that the emperor got his message across to the local community, and the local community (in this case) was able to enjoy an improved theater building.
Far from a simple bureaucratic exercise requiring each official to receive his due on the inscription, the clear ranking of officials on the Theater Inscription reinforced the status hierarchy of the current Roman system. It also placed the lowest ranking participant, here the praeses of Lusitania, in a direct relationship with the emperors. Local power and even income meant very little now, unless one's power base was concentrated in one of the major administrative centers. It was only from such a seat that provincial elites—among them perhaps this praeses Lusitaniae—could now hope to draw themselves into the greater ruling class of the Empire, through direct contact with the emperor and his representatives, the comites and vicarii.35
This same set of political circumstances provided the backdrop for the project commemorated by another inscription also set up in fourth-century Mérida, this one excavated during work on the city's circus in the early 20th century (Figure 3).36
In this favorable time, most flourishing and blessed thanks to the good fortune [and mercy] of our Lords and Emperors [Flavius Claudius Constantine Pius Felix Maximus Victor (erased)] and Flavius Julius Constantius and Flavius Julius [Constans (erased)], Most Courageous, Victorious, and Eternal Augusti, Tiberius Flavius Laetus, of clarissimate rank, comes, arranged that the circus, having fallen because of old age, be raised on columns, that it be surrounded with artful new decorations, and that it be flooded with water; and thus, with Julius Saturninus, of perfectissimate rank, praeses of the province of Lusitania, managing the project, the face of the circus having been suitably restored, he [sc. Laetus] bestowed endless joy on the most splendid colony of the Emeritenses.37
This nearly complete inscription celebrates the restoration of the circus of Mérida during the reign of the sons of Constantine, in the years immediately after his death. Unlike the Theater Inscription, above, the Circus Inscription is long enough and sufficiently well-preserved to offer specifics about both the participants and the actual project. And here the text places the emperors at an even greater distance from the renovation project than we saw on the Theater Inscription. It was thanks to the prosperous times over which the emperors—all three sons of Constantine—presided that Count Tiberius Flavius Laetus arranged for the circus to be rebuilt and embellished, after having “fallen because of its old age” (l. 5).
All three of Constantine's sons are listed here as Augusti, so the project must have taken place in the brief period during which all three shared power, 337–340. After the deaths of first Constantine II (d. 340) and then Constans (d. 350) their names were ceremonially removed from the inscription, though in both cases enough traces remain for an accurate reconstruction of the names and titles. In the case of Constans’ removal, the nomina Flav(ius) and Jul(ius)38 were left untouched, and only his personal name was—rather cursorily—chiseled out.
As we have already seen with the Theater Inscription, the introductory lines are concerned, not with the building project itself, nor even with those directly involved in that project, but instead with the imperial setting under which the project took place. This is stated explicitly in the Circus Inscription, where the entire opening section is a temporal clause. A substantial proportion of the inscription is given over to this flattering contextual introduction, which accounts for 4.5 lines of the ten-line inscription. Similarly, on the Theater Inscription, the introduction with imperial titulature occupied the first 1.5 of the inscription's 5 lines. Those responsible for these “imperial” inscriptions were clearly quite aware of the importance of giving the emperors their due, even if there was little or no chance any emperor would ever have a chance to see his name immortalized in Mérida's entertainment venues.39
The rank order, and the implications, are also similar to those of the Theater Inscription – Lead Augustus – Associate Augusti – Comes – Praeses, again with a clear intent to rank them from greatest to least. It seems that the provincial governor, Julius Saturninus here in the ablative phrase with “insistente,” actually directed the restoration and renovation of the circus. He was probably the person who had the inscription made to commemorate the project, following what may well have been a fairly standard formula in the mid-fourth century. But it is equally clear that his superior, Count Tiberius—the subject of the inscription's only active verbs disposuit and probably tribuit (“arranged” and “bestowed”)—wanted, needed, or deserved credit for the role that he played in improving on the colony's theater.
Even with his grammatically-active role on the inscription, it is most likely that the count's main contribution to this project involved making sure any public funds were available and managed appropriately, an activity routinely signaled by the verb disponere on dedicatory inscriptions.40 He will also have been tasked with conveying the emperors’ desire to have major urban centers restored and, crucially, with seeing to it that the emperors were given due credit for creating the prosperous conditions under which the circus renovation could be undertaken. On this reading, the praeses Saturninus had to be careful to underscore the importance of Tiberius’ role in order to ensure that Mérida (and he) continued to benefit from the goodwill of the emperors and their representatives to the greatest extent possible. This may explain Saturninus’ relatively understated role on the inscription, even though he was most likely the one responsible for making sure the entire project was carried out correctly and celebrated appropriately.
As far as the epigraphic record and the archaeological remains are concerned, the Circus Inscription commemorated the last Roman public building project in Mérida. This was not, however, the last major building project undertaken and commemorated in the late antique city. A few dedicatory inscriptions from churches and monasteries have survived, commemorating projects largely undertaken in the sixth and seventh centuries.41 Individuals named on these inscriptions are typically church officials, on those occasions when we are given any details at all about them. This trend is generally in keeping with what we see elsewhere in the late Roman and post-Roman West: there was a marked shift from the Roman focus on public buildings to elite investment in a broad class of church-related structures that can probably be classified as “private” buildings, but which in fact served a wide array of public and private purposes.42
The Bridge Inscription
In the Bridge Inscription of Mérida, we have a somewhat problematic text that bridges the divide between the context of the fourth-century imperial inscriptions discussed above and the later sixth- and seventh-century Christian dedicatory inscriptions from Mérida. This inscription is preserved only in a manuscript copy in the Códice de Azagra, a codex likely produced in southern Spain in the ninth century43 and now housed in the Biblioteca Nacional de España as manuscript no. 10029 (the text is on ff.52v-53r).44 The portion of the codex that contains the text of the Bridge Inscription is referred to as Section A. This is the oldest section of the Códice de Azagra, and it appears to be a ninth-century copy of an exemplar made from materials collated in Toledo very late in the seventh century or in the early eighth century.45 The texts in Section A are closely associated with Bishop Eugenius II of Toledo and with the intellectual circles of the late Visigothic Kingdom centered on Toledo, though the logic of the collection is not always entirely clear.46
I know of no strong reason to see either the extant copy or its exemplar as a forgery, but the Bridge Inscription does contain certain peculiarities that leave room for speculation.47 Even its inclusion in this collection is unexpected, as the only other “inscription” in the entire manuscript is the dedicatory poem of a Church of St. John by King Recceswinth (f.69v).48 A stone version of that inscription may well have been set up at the Church of San Juan de Baños, but in this case the Códice de Azagra does not allude to an actual inscription.
The Bridge Inscription appears toward the end of Section A; the heading near the bottom of folio 52v reads, “here begin the verses inscribed on the bridge of Mérida” (Figure 4).49 The final two words of the heading are compressed such that the central letters of the pairing must be read top-to-bottom and left-to-right (EMeretensiconsscriptI), and a later explanatory note expands the text in the left hand margin, “emeretensi consscripti [sic].” Consistent with the rest of Section A, the first letter of each line of the Bridge Inscription is picked out in a large rubric, and the remainder of the text is written in a clear “Visigothic” script typical of Iberian manuscripts in the eighth through 13th centuries.
The translation offered here follows a number of solutions and revisions that have been adopted over the years, but it will be useful to review some of these in order to justify my treatment of this document as a real historical artifact in the reconstruction of peninsular affairs late in the fifth century. The identity of the king mentioned on the Bridge Inscription (l. 5) was once a source of confusion, because the reading preserved in the manuscript, Ervig (lit. Eruigii) does not correspond with the date given at the end (l. 16, era 521). In the Spanish dating system in use from the third century onward, this corresponded to the year 483 C.E.50 King Ervig ruled the Visigothic Kingdom late in the seventh century (680–687 C.E.), and there is no plausible way to read the manuscript date to match Ervig's reign. In 1939, José Vives published a short article in which he posited that the name of the king should read Eurici instead of Eruigii.51 This solution is now widely accepted, because King Euric ruled 466–484 C.E., and he was instrumental in the formal creation of the Visigothic Kingdom after 476 as well as the Visigothic expansion from Gaul into central Hispania. The mistake in the king's name, according to Vives, was due to a scribal error in which C was mis-identified as G and VR was transposed for RV.52 The cause of such an error of transcription is not at all obvious from the manuscript, whose neat “Visigothic” script does not leave much room for such confusion, at least where the C and G are concerned (Figure 5). But such a slip of the pen begins to make a lot more sense against the backdrop of a nearly-contemporary inscription from Mérida.
A local parallel
This funerary inscription is the earliest of three epitaphs on a single tombstone found in situ during excavations under the Basilica de Santa Eulalia on the northern outskirts of Mérida in the 1990s.53 The deceased commemorated here was Gregorius, titled vir inlustris, who died in 492 C.E. and was buried inside or very near an earlier version of the Basilica of St. Eulalia.54 An examination of the lettering of this almost-exactly contemporary inscription from Mérida provides a useful illustration of the difficulty faced by the scribe seeking to transcribe the monumental fifth-century Bridge Inscription (Figure 6).
Gregory, of illustrious rank, a servant of God, lived 56 years and 5 months. He rested in peace on the 16th day before the kalends of November in the Era year 530 (i.e., 17 October 492 C.E.).
Here the text identifies the deceased as a member of the elite (l. 2) and a “servant of God” (l. 3), before giving his age.55 As a wealthy member of Mérida's old ruling class (implied by his title vir inlustris), Gregorius had access to an excellent place of burial (inside the entrance to the fifth-century Basilica of St. Eulalia) and, more than likely, the services of Mérida's best stonecutters.56 This funerary inscription is therefore an excellent parallel on which to reconstruct the appearance of the letters of the lost Bridge Inscription: both were set up in the last decades of the fifth century in order to commemorate important individuals. We cannot know if the stones were both carved by the same people/workshops, but at the very least, we can expect that the stonecutters in both cases were among the very best Mérida had to offer. An admittedly-rudimentary reconstruction based on the letter forms preserved on the tombstone of Gregorius illustrates how Evrici could easily be transcribed as Evrigi or Ervigi (Figure 7).
The original copyist was transcribing a long monumental verse inscription which was probably set up in a relatively high position, and therefore at some distance from the viewer.57 If, as has been proposed here, the original copy taken directly from the stone included an accidental substitution of G for C, then a subsequent mistake in transcribing the name of a long-dead king in a later copy should not be terribly surprising. The accidental replacement of C with an almost-identical G might easily have led a late seventh-century copyist—working during or after the reign of Ervig—to replace “ur” with “ru” and correct the resulting genitive by adding a final “i.” As Isabel Velázquez Soriano has observed, this sort of overcorrection would be particularly appropriate during the actual reign of Ervig rather than before or after his rule.58
The Códice de Azagra
There is fairly limited evidence around the history of the Códice de Azagra, but Manuela Vendrell Peñaranda offers a very plausible reconstruction of the history of Section A and the full codex.59 Julian, Bishop of Toledo, who had himself been consecrated only in January of 680, anointed Ervig as King of the Visigoths in October of that same year.60 It is very unlikely that the overcorrection of Ervig for Euric in this transcription took place before the year 680, as Ervig was by no means the obvious or even an expected successor of Wamba until late in the year.61 This establishes a definite terminus post quem late in 680 for the (lost) exemplar from which Section A of the Códice de Azagra was copied.
Unfortunately, there is no similar internal evidence to provide a definite terminus ante quem for the exemplar. However, given its likely compilation in Toledo, which was captured soon after the defeat of the Visigothic King Roderic in 712 by the forces of Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād, the document probably pre-dates the year 712.62 This leaves a 30-year window, 680–712, in which Section A could have been assembled. The decade following the death of Ervig (d. 687) and that of Julian (d. 690) hardly seems appropriate for the transmission of a collection celebrating the works of Julian's teacher Eugenius II and of King Ervig; Ervig's successor Egica confiscated his predecessor's property, he divorced Ervig's daughter, and he exiled her and the rest of the former royal family.63 It is not impossible that the exemplar for Section A of the Códice de Azagra was compiled in the course of the eighth century after the conquest of Iberia by the Umayyads under Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād and his superior Mūsa bin Nuṣayr,64 but the episcopate of Julian of Toledo and concurrent reign of King Ervig is probably the most likely context for this sort of activity.65
Vendrell Peñaranda has also made a strong documentary case for a terminus ante quem of 882 for the manuscript of Section A as preserved, as this is when a manuscript containing an almost-identical collection of works was catalogued into the library of the cathedral of Oviedo.66 The remaining sections of the Códice de Azagra were joined to Section A in the course of the 10th century, probably also in Oviedo,67 and by the 12th century the disparate sections of the manuscript were regarded as a single coherent whole, and each individual quire was numbered successively.68 These quire numberings survive, and from them we learn that some portions of the manuscript assembled in the 12th century have since been lost.
The question of whether this is a seventh-century forgery or a literary revision of some earlier document—for propagandistic purposes, for example—is an interesting one, and one which has not been adequately addressed in the scholarship.69 Space does not allow for a full examination of this problem, so for present purposes a very brief discussion will have to suffice. The simplest answer to both possibilities—outright forgery or propagandistic revision of an existing work—is that if this was an attempt to bolster Ervig's image by Julian of Toledo or his associates late in the seventh century, then the author has failed utterly in that aim. As will be shown in the close discussion of the text, below, at no point is it clear that the Visigothic king named in the text had either a direct or even indirect hand in the work undertaken in Mérida. Far from asserting the king's brilliance or generosity or piety—all in line with what we would expect of a new Visigothic king trying to shore up his position and justify his authority—the author of this inscription implies the peaceful reign of a king now concerned (whether directly or indirectly) with the establishment of a lasting economic stability built on agricultural production throughout his realm.70 This is the unambiguous meaning of the phrase “now in the time…in which he ordered the lands subject to him to be improved upon…” (ll. 5–6), where excoli terras could also be rendered quite literally as “that the lands be cultivated.”71
If the (purported) forgery was intended to benefit the legacy of either Salla or Zeno, the other two individuals mentioned in the text, then it is very difficult to conceive of an obvious context in which this would have made sense. Salla's name has only barely survived antiquity, here and in a brief reference from Hydatius—if, indeed, the Bridge Inscription and Hydatius’ Chronicle refer to the same individual.72 Similarly, Zeno survives only here and in two pieces of papal correspondence, where he is (by tradition) associated with the city of Hispalis—again, assuming these chronologically-proximate sources refer to the same individual.73 Why would the literary community in seventh- or eighth-century Toledo (or Córdoba) need a text highlighting the activities of two obscure figures in Mérida's history, a text which names the seventh-century king Euric as an actor two centuries before his reign? Without any compelling external or internal reason to believe the Bridge Inscription is a literary invention of a later period, the simplest explanation for its existence is the one provided here. There was a real inscription set up late in the fifth century in Mérida. This celebrated the construction of city walls and the reconstruction of the city's bridge; whether or not either project actually took place is, of course, another matter. Some two centuries later the text of the inscription was transcribed—either directly in Mérida or in Toledo from an earlier copy—and this text (our lost exemplar) was then copied down for inclusion in Section A of the Códice de Azagra, probably in the ninth century, in either Córdoba or Oviedo.74
The Bridge Inscription in Context
This discussion of the manuscript and its relationship to a lost Latin inscription from fifth-century Mérida allows us to turn now to the content of the Bridge Inscription and the context in which it was set up. This complex verse inscription is, on the surface, quite different from the late Roman ones discussed above.75 But despite its florid introduction, it still follows a very similar formula, and its function and intent also appear to fit neatly into the context of late antique patronage inscriptions.76 The basic components of the text parallel those in the late Roman precedents: a temporal (and political) indicator; justification/need for the project; ranked participants; and a positive outcome. A noteworthy divergence appears in the Bridge Inscription's lengthy presentation of motives—Salla's desire for glory and a place in the city's history (ll. 7–8 and 12), Zeno's personal commitment to the city (l. 14), and the shared interest of both men in the city's ongoing wellbeing (ll. 15–16). This inscription is not simply a list of the facts and of those responsible for carrying out this construction work; the text is set up as a dialogue between the author (probably Bishop Zeno), the intended audience (the local community, King Euric, and especially the dux Salla), and those responsible for the actual construction project described in the inscription (again, Salla and Zeno, along with any unnamed participants). In this sense, the Bridge Inscription represents both a traditional act of (late) Roman patronage77 and an illustration of the new set of power dynamics at play in the later fifth century.78
In its poetic introduction, the Bridge Inscription tells of the state of the bridge, detailing its failure due to old age and, presumably, lack of maintenance. In seeking to justify the project that the inscription celebrates, the text follows in a long-standing tradition around public building projects in the Roman cities.79 The Circus Inscription and (probably) the Theater Inscription also described an immediate need for the construction project, though on the latter the only specifics that survive are a portion of the word “ancient” and the words “better than it had been” (l. 3).80 In all three inscriptions, then, one explicit goal of the construction project was leaving things better than they had been before. For the circus and theater, the surviving texts suggest that this work focused primarily on the improvement of the decorative scheme and perhaps the restoration of some areas that had succumbed to years of neglect. But where the late Roman inscriptions both place their emphasis on the need for decorative renovation work (Theater: l. 3, ornatu; Circus: ll. 6–7, ornamentorum), in the Bridge Inscription the author states that the bridge was not even functional due to its condition, “the collapse of the bridge denied passage” (l. 4).81 Here, the use of terms such as “old age” (l. 1) and “collapsed” (l. 2) echoes the language of the Circus Inscription, “circus, having fallen because of its old age” (l. 5).82 Similarly, in enumerating the way in which the bridge was rebuilt (ll. 11–12, “he built…he founded…he outdid”),83 the text of the Bridge Inscription seems to echo lines 6–7 of the Circus Inscription, “he arranged that it be raised…surrounded…and flooded.”84
From the text we can be quite sure that the bridge was the main focus of the author of the inscription, if not for those actually responsible for the building project; this work was intended both to restore the bridge's functionality (l. 3, “the road had lost its use”) and to “outdo the work of the original builder” (l. 12).85 It must have been a very impressive bridge project indeed, if the author's claim, that the bridge work was an “even more wondrous feat” than the city's new walls, can be believed; the wall must have run well over two km on even a very conservative estimate, and possibly closer to four km if the entire Roman period wall was strengthened at this time. And in the same way as the rebuilder of the bridge sought to build an even better bridge than the one that had been consumed by time, the author of this long poetic inscription has also outdone his late Roman epigraphic models, the “inscriptions of the ancients” (l. 8), in composing a 16-line verse inscription celebrating this major building project.86 The titulis of line 8 must be surviving Roman period inscriptions commemorating similar feats of building and renovation, and the author flatters the dux Salla by placing his name among those of earlier builders and renovators whose names were associated with similar projects.87
A lost arch of Mérida?
The heading of the manuscript indicates that the verses were “inscribed on the bridge of Mérida,” and a monumental arch bearing inscriptions is envisioned by some modern scholars.88 A monumental arch bearing inscriptions—possibly on the southern end of the bridge—is certainly an attractive reconstruction of the original context. While a manuscript heading is not a particularly reliable piece of information, there are other archaeological and historical details pointing to the possibility that there was once an arch at the southern entrance to the Guadiana Bridge.
The 17th-century antiquarian, Bernabé Moreno de Vargas, says, “At the entrance to this bridge there was also a triumphal arch, like the one which still stands inside the city, whose foundations are not entirely finished, and Abderramen King of Córdoba had it knocked down, for the reason which will be explained in its place.”89 The source to which he attributes his information is the 13th-century Historia Arabum of Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, in whose chapter 27 we read, “In the following year [868 C.E.] Emerita rebelled, and upon his arrival there he [sc. Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba] had an arch of the bridge destroyed” (emphasis added).90 A couple sentences later we learn that the emir also “had the walls of the city destroyed.”91
In turn, this passage appears to rely on the account of Ibn Ḥayyān al-Qurtubī, written in the 11th century. Ibn Ḥayyān says that Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba led a surprise attack on Mérida, and in the course of this attack—likely an extended siege—a “leg” of the bridge [قنطرة] was destroyed, which precipitated the surrender of the rebellious city.92 This suggests that the “arch” in question in the later (dependent) sources is in fact a portion of the Guadiana Bridge, and not a monumental arch at its end. Here we see the intentional destruction of a section of the bridge, rendering it impassable. The immediate physical effect would have been to reduce the city's access to resources and communications: but a symbolic effect can also be identified in the destruction of one of the city's major monuments and one of its most visible historical treasures. Muhammad of Córdoba would not have been ignorant of the importance of the city's bridge, especially given the significance of the Roman bridge of his own capital city. The destruction of the main route to the south may also have prevented the leaders of the rebellious city from calling for support from any like-minded allies in areas still ostensibly under Muhammad's control, a common enough problem in this period of Iberian history.
All antiquarian and modern references to a now-lost triumphal arch at the end of the bridge seem to derive, whether directly or indirectly, from Moreno de Vargas’ expansion of the account of Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada.93 Their usefulness as witnesses is therefore limited to direct observation of the bridge itself and whatever remains are associated. As has already been mentioned, Moreno de Vargas does seem to have recognized the ruins of an arch near the end of the bridge, but he made no effort to describe whatever remained in his day. In the early 20th century, archaeologist Maximiliano Macías Liáñez identified a concrete footprint straddling the foundations of the southern end of the bridge, immediately after arch no. 57, just as the bridge begins its final descent.94 Macías Liáñez interpreted this as the foundation of a gate “which surely the bridge would have had, just like others which are still preserved.”95 Unlike nearly all of the remaining 750 m of the bridge, this section is not built on arches, instead covering a span of around 30 m as one continuous segment.96 Was the cityward end of this part of the bridge protected with a fortified gateway or monumental arch? Such an arch would undoubtedly have been an appropriate place for Salla to “add his name to the inscriptions of the ancients,” but unfortunately we simply do not have enough evidence to confirm such a reconstruction; like Moreno de Vargas before him, Macías Liáñez could offer only a plausible interpretation to accompany his reference to the inconclusive physical remains.
The Bridge Inscription and its late Roman precedents
Returning to the text of the Bridge Inscription, after the introduction that lays out the structure's state of disrepair, the text moves on to its temporal setting, “now in the time of Euric, King of the Goths.”97 As has already been indicated, the date given at the end of the document is in the style appropriate to the late fifth century, pointing to the year 521 in the Spanish era dating system (483 C.E.). The reference in line 5 to “Euric, King of the Goths,” however, is singular. Velázquez Soriano suggests we might naturally expect something like regnante rege Eurico or some abbreviated form of similar structure, as was common later in the Visigothic Kingdom.98 So, the phrasing adopted here is both irregular in its terminology and in its placement, particularly by comparison with the few Visigothic royal inscriptions that survive.
However, if we compare the Bridge Inscription's temporal indicator to the fourth-century inscriptions discussed here, the disparity is less pronounced. The late Roman inscriptions provide their dates by reference to the ruling emperors, and, as discussed above, in both cases these take up a significant portion of the text.99 In the Theater Inscription, the (mostly lost) Emperor Constantine and his Caesars set the temporal stage (ll. 1–2) and, as far as can be determined from what survives, they seem to have ordered that the project be undertaken. For its part, the Circus Inscription has a long introductory section—like the Bridge Inscription—whose main concern is to set the stage chronologically and also politically. There, however, the justification for the project is limited to the brief phrase, “the circus, having fallen because of its old age” (l. 5), whereas the opening four lines of the Bridge Inscription are dedicated to this task.100 An interesting chiasmus can even be marked out between the introductory sections of these two documents: the Circus Inscription provides a 4-line temporal opening and then just a half-line justification, while the Bridge Inscription offers a 4-line justification followed by a single-line temporal indicator. It is, admittedly, unlikely that this was an intentional contrast devised by the author of the Bridge Inscription—the circus may well have been one of the main sources of building materials for the reinforced city wall. But, by emphasizing the ruinous state of the bridge in the introduction, the author has made it clear that this inscription is about the bridge and its rebuilder, and not about the king who presided over the prosperous times in which this particular reconstruction project was undertaken.101 Internally, the contextual shift at line 5 of the Bridge Inscription is unmistakable—from a world in which it was possible for this glorious monument to collapse to one in which it was possible to build an even more magnificent bridge.102 Historically, that real world shift was precipitated by one of the most important differences between the late Roman context of the imperial Circus and Theater Inscriptions and the world of the later fifth century—the supremacy of a King of the Goths (Getarum) named Euric in place of an emperor in Rome and his provincial or diocesan representatives.
HISPANIA IN THE FIFTH CENTURY
Euric's reign spanned the decades immediately before and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and in the 480s the independent rule of a non-Roman king was still a very new phenomenon. The fledgling Suevic Kingdom in northwestern Iberia and the recently-established Vandal Kingdom centered on Carthage were still developing their own models of independent rule at this time. Euric's rule and his royal ideology were thus heavily informed by Roman imperial precedent, and it is little surprise that much of what we can reconstruct of the (later) Visigothic administrative system was built on the old Roman structures.103 That apparent administrative continuity should not, however, distract us from the very real chaos and the almost constant jockeying for power among the cities of Hispania and indeed among various powerful interests within the cities themselves.104 These problems are most evident in our surviving accounts of affairs in sixth-century Hispania, but the Chronicle of Hydatius of Chaves (Aquae Flaviae) offers plenty of evidence to suggest that the turmoil of the sixth century was characteristic of much of the fifth century as well.
The process whereby Hispania was excised from Rome was a slow one, but, even from the early fifth century, Rome's relationship with the provinces of Hispania was very different from what it had been a century earlier. For example, the standard response to Suevic raiding activities in the “Roman” provinces of Hispania was to send Visigothic armies to deal with the threat.105 Theoderic II's prolonged visit to Hispania in 456–457 significantly reduced the Suevic sphere of influence, forcing them to withdraw back into their main stronghold of Gallaecia after the death of Rechiar.106 But even Theoderic eventually returned to Gaul, the main Visigothic homeland in his day, and it was not really until after his assassination by Euric (in 466) that the Visigoths sought to expand their authority over northern Hispania.107 This expansion may also have begun as a response to Suevic raiding activities in the years 467–468, but this is where our only close account, Hydatius’ Chronicle, breaks off, and it is not at all clear how exactly the process worked.108
In any case, by the third quarter of the fifth century, nearly all of the Iberian Peninsula had fallen out of the sphere of direct Roman control—only the provinces of Tarraconensis and Carthaginensis (essentially, the Mediterranean coast of Hispania) were still nominally under Roman influence (Figure 8).109 But this does not necessarily mean that a new over-arching power scheme was in place before the end of the fifth century.110 It is true that the Bridge Inscription has sometimes been read as a very early illustration of the far reach of Visigothic authority in the final quarter of the fifth century, even in the absence of any other evidence.111 However, current scholarly consensus now probably tilts more heavily in favor of a gradual and somewhat haphazard Visigothic conquest of Hispania up until at least the second half of the sixth century.112
We have already seen that the Bridge Inscription should not be read as a top-down edict issued by the (absent) Visigothic King. Moreover, as is discussed below, this verse inscription can also be read as a negotiation between multiple interested parties.113 In this way, the text illustrates an important—but by no means final—stage in the development of the Visigothic Kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula. The scant accounts surviving of Visigothic activity under King Euric show that there was now more than a passing interest in expanding the Visigothic sphere of influence southward out of Gaul and northeastern Hispania.114 This interest was not consistent, however, nor were the Visigoths received with open arms by the people of Hispania. Opposition was particularly concentrated in the cities of southern and coastal Hispania, but, as is illustrated in Hydatius’ narrative, even smaller inland cities like Aquae Flaviae could rally substantial military opposition to invading forces or raiders. The success of this opposition depended to a greater or lesser extent on the size and wealth of the city population and on the organizational capacity of the local leadership or city administration.
Salla and Zeno in Mérida
The question of city administration and local leadership in fifth-century Hispania is a complicated one, and one that has been widely discussed in the scholarship, though not necessarily to a satisfactory conclusion.115 There is a general consensus around the continuity of the late Roman local power structures, including landowners, other nobles, and bishops, along with whatever remained of the old curial class.116 But there is also a growing recognition of the fact that post-Roman Hispania has to be understood on a city-by-city basis, rather than under some over-arching schema. The circumstances of one city cannot necessarily be assumed to apply to another, and our sources for the fifth and sixth centuries are both highly incomplete and locally-focused. Given the Christian authorship of the written sources, the role of the church and its representatives is likely significantly over-reported, even if it is also certain that the local bishops had taken on an increasingly important role in local affairs from as early as the late fourth century.117 In addition to their immediate ecclesiastical duties, the bishops of Late Antiquity also frequently found themselves negotiating on behalf of the local community, either directly or by sending embassies to the religious and temporal authorities.118 The Chronicle of Hydatius illustrates this key function of the bishops through the direct participation of Hydatius himself, but there are many further examples from around the late antique Mediterranean world.119
An important detail in Hydatius’ account of Euric's assassination of his brother Theoderic II is the role of Salla, an ambassador (legatus) whom Theoderic had sent to the Suevic King Remismund.120 Salla participated in just one of a seemingly endless stream of embassies that passed between Sueves, Visigoths, and Romans in the course of the fifth century (if Hydatius is any guide), but his circumstances are somewhat unusual. He was sent out by Theoderic but “upon his return to Gaul [from Gallaecia in northwestern Hispania] he discovered that Theoderic had been killed by his brother Euric.”121 We are not told what happened to Salla—this is his only appearance in Hydatius’ Chronicle—but the Bridge Inscription offers a dux of the same name (l. 8) acting under the authority of the Visigothic King Euric in 483 C.E.122 Salla was not a particularly-common name in the Roman world, and there is probably sufficient circumstantial evidence to tentatively identify the dux of the Bridge Inscription as the emissary of Theoderic II 15 years earlier.123 In his role as ambassador of the Suevic kings, the Salla of Hydatius’ account likely had a good deal of experience negotiating with officials and bishops working on behalf of their communities, and on the Bridge Inscription Salla appears to have fulfilled a similar role, engaging with the local representative (Bishop Zeno) on behalf of the Visigothic king.
Despite the obvious significance of the transition from Roman imperial authority to at least partial control by a Visigothic monarch, the Bridge Inscription uses the Visigothic King Euric primarily as a temporal reference point, whose implications are local and immediate. In this sense, Euric functions similarly to the sons of Constantine in the Circus Inscription—it is during their reign and not directly through their authority that the restoration projects were undertaken. Both the Circus Inscription and the Bridge Inscription attribute the actual building projects to representatives of their respective rulers—on the former, the comes Ti. Flavius Laetus (l. 6), and on the latter, the dux Salla (ll. 7–8). Nevertheless, a clear contrast can be drawn between the activities of Laetus and Salla. Laetus “arranged” (or “paid”) for the circus to be restored (l. 7)—as befitted his status as a direct representative of the emperors—and so he received credit for the upper level administration of the project and for its eventual outcome, the “bestowal of joy on the colony” (l. 10).124 But the provincial governor Julius Saturninus actually “managed” the project (l. 8, insistente), and it seems he is the one who oversaw the work on the ground.
For his part, Salla appears to have taken a much more active role in the project commemorated on the Bridge Inscription, possibly due to his role as dux, a position with military associations in later Visigothic contexts.125 In lines 7–8 we learn that through his efforts Salla “strove to make his name wider known and added his name to the inscriptions of the ancients.”126 Salla is the subject of all of the other active verbs here as well, “renewed…did not refrain…constructed…founded…outdid,” and it is not difficult to understand why a military officer of the Visigoths would concern himself with local defenses.127 The reconstruction of Mérida's city walls—or, more accurately, their reinforcement, as has often been argued on the basis of the archaeological remains128—was a pressing matter for the local community in the later fifth century, if we can judge from events of the middle decades of the century. Hydatius tells of a number of Suevic raids in the territory of Mérida, including one which resulted in the death of the Suevic King Heremigarius at the hands of the Vandals (in 429 C.E.).129 Mérida fell to the Sueves during the reign of King Rechiar in 439 C.E.,130 and they used the city as a base for their military incursions into Baetica and Carthaginensis for the following decade.131 In this context, it is easy to see why the Bishop Zeno might have spearheaded a request from the local community for Visigothic assistance in reconstructing or improving the city wall, to defend against the constant threat of Suevic attack from the north and west, especially if the city was posturing as an ally of the Visigoths at this time.132 As it turns out, this involved the likely-unpopular decision to despoil the city's impressive array of Roman public monuments—intramural and extramural—of a huge volume of granite building blocks, many of which are still visible in stretches of the wall reinforcement and, due to a later phase of spoliation, the ninth-century Moorish Alcazaba.
As is the case with the dux Salla, a Bishop Zeno is also known to us from outside sources. Around the year 480, Pope Simplicius had granted special authority to a bishop Zeno as papal vicar to deal with an issue related to boundaries (Lat. terminos), which E.A. Thompson interpreted as a need for some response to the expansion of Suevic power into the province of Lusitania, whose capital and main episcopal center was Mérida.133 While this reconstruction of the context is not certain, what is clear from the wider historical context is that there were (perceived) religious and temporal threats to the safety of the Christian community in Hispania in the early 480s. Between the movements of Suevic and Visigothic armies and the Arian Christianity of the Visigoths in this period, there is plenty of reason for the Pope's decision to entrust Zeno with additional authority.
If the Zeno of the papal correspondence is the same bishop as the summus sacerdos and pontifex attested on the Bridge Inscription, then here we have the same important figure depicted in two very different types of evidence.134 And in the context of the late fifth century, the participation of a papal vicar in a building project in Mérida takes on added significance. While he was not necessarily a local, nor is it even clear that he had a specific episcopal assignment in Mérida, the bishop Zeno who participated in the Bridge Inscription sought to provide a protection for “his hometown”—and also exhibited a clear interest in boosting his own profile in the eyes of the local community.
Although the text is not explicit in this regard, it is likely that Bishop Zeno himself commissioned—maybe even composed—this inscription.135 This is because Zeno features as the primary inspirational character in the text, when he does finally appear in line 14, near the very end of the poem. He is the only one inspired by his “love” of the city (ll. 13–14).136 The other motivating factors explicitly spelled out in the text are Salla's desire to achieve fame through his deeds (l. 7) and a less specific form of “zeal” attributed to both the bishop and the dux (l. 16).137 Both Salla and Zeno are motivated to improve the city's position and ensure its ongoing success. But the way that Zeno is cast specifically in relation to the city goes a step further in establishing his close relationship to the local community, as their representative, and not just as the king's assistant or even an emissary of the Pope in Rome. Calling this his patria and having his titles listed first as “high priest” (l. 14) and then as “pontiff” (l. 16) emphasizes Bishop Zeno's close emotional relationship with his (possibly adoptive) hometown and, in overt religious terms, the legitimacy of his position in the church hierarchy.138 It sets him up as the prominent local patron acting in his official (ecclesiastical) capacity on behalf of his community.139
If the justification for rebuilding the city wall is fairly obvious, the strategic importance of the bridge, the primary focus of the inscription and, apparently, the main object of Zeno's attention, is less straightforward. This may have posed a real difficulty for Zeno as he sought assistance for a bridge-building project from Salla and a Visigothic king who was likely still looking to consolidate control over northern and central Hispania. It is perhaps for this reason—the lack of an obvious strategic justification for what must have been a very expensive and time-consuming project—that the inscription's author has taken pains to flatter Salla quite overtly in the course of what need not have been such a long verse inscription.
The text opens by explaining the need for a reconstruction project (ll. 1–4), then moves on to a brief chronological indicator that obliquely praises the Visigothic King (ll. 5 and, possibly, 6), whose reign made it possible to realistically consider such massive renovation projects. Where lines 1–4 set out the problems with the bridge, lines 9–12 focus on the quasi-miraculous nature of the bridge building project, providing a solution that allowed Salla to add his name to the ancient inscriptions (ll. 7–8). And finally, the audience (which must include Salla and the local community) is encouraged to rest easy knowing that the August City will remain prosperous through long ages thanks to Salla's collaboration with Zeno (ll. 15–16).140 This echoes the sense of the Circus Inscription, where the project bestows “endless joy on the most splendid colony” (ll. 9–10), but the Bridge Inscription again diverges in emphasizing the personal motivations of the dux and the pontifex.
I view the treatment of Salla as a kind of coercive flattery, reflecting, in content if not in form, the actual conversation that might have taken place when Zeno sought to secure the assistance of “magnanimus Salla” (l. 7) in improving Mérida's situation. The author attributes to Salla both a literal “miracle” (l. 10) and the completion of a project that outdid the “wondrous work” (l. 12) of the original builder of the Guadiana Bridge. Zeno is cast as a local representative who, through his encouragement, inspired Salla to cement his place in the “August City's” history through his deeds, extending his own name while at the same time building a lasting monument to himself and the city. The collaborative efforts stressed in the last line again illustrate the way the poem's author positions Zeno with respect to the (outsider) dux Salla and, by extension, the King of the Goths, Euric. But it is ultimately Salla whose name is added to the ancient inscriptions through his deeds (l. 8), and it is through his “deeds” (l. 7)—the monumental building project presented on the inscription—that the city will “remain prosperous through long ages.”141
From a practical perspective, the primary connections offered by the bridge were to the west and to the south, where Visigothic influence was probably still virtually non-existent in the later fifth century. A restored bridge was not strategically necessary, even if Euric did have plans to continue expanding his power southward into Baetica. Moreover, as we have seen in the later history of the city, the bridge might even help Mérida's inhabitants hold out against a siege or call for assistance from allies to the south. This would have been a particularly serious threat if much of southern Hispania still considered itself to be under Roman control, or even loosely independent, in the later fifth century, as seems almost certain from the stepwise conquest of Hispania that was still underway in the sixth century.142
One of the reasons for the Visigothic king's willingness to support (or allow) the reconstruction of the bridge may relate to Zeno's role as representative of Christianity—if not as the direct legate of the Pope, then at least as the representative of one of the leading Christian centers of fifth-century Hispania. Euric and Salla will have been fully aware of the power and wide-ranging influence of Christian leaders across central and southern Hispania. If they could place themselves in the church's good graces through a simple act of benevolence on behalf of the city of Eulalia and the influential bishops of Mérida, then both sides stood to gain from this construction project. Having this respectable seat of traditional Roman power on side can only have been seen as beneficial to the Visigoths in the late fifth century, whatever their wider aspirations for power and conquest may have been.
An additional explanation for Salla's willingness to restore the city's bridge is based precisely on the city's apparent dependence on the bridge for its economic wellbeing. If destroying the bridge in the ninth century could bring a long drawn out siege to an abrupt end (as discussed above), then the restoration of the bridge may have been seen as an act of goodwill by the Visigothic king toward an important city that he hoped to bring over to (or keep on) his side. The king and his dux will also have been acutely aware that the city's ongoing economic success would determine its ability to pay regular tribute to the Visigoths, and this may well have been all that King Euric could realistically expect from such an important city at this early stage in the development of the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania.143
The Bridge Inscription, then, is not just a traditional Roman-style patronage inscription, nor is it even a typical late Roman building inscription in the style of the Constantinian dynasty inscriptions, even though it does bear clear similarities to the latter. It is a carefully constructed dialogue—almost an active negotiation—between the dux Salla, Bishop Zeno, and the local community.144 On the face of it, the inscription celebrates the incredible work of the dux in restoring the city's bridge and in building its walls. But as we have seen on a closer reading, the inscription also makes an extra effort to emphasize the role of Bishop Zeno in helping to motivate Salla to carry out one or both of these projects. In this light, the Bridge Inscription acts as a billboard, thanking the Visigothic king and his dux Salla for their work on the city while at the same time highlighting Zeno's crucial role in the project that saw the city's walls and bridge restored. The implication, likely directed at the local elite community, is that Zeno is looking out for the interests of Mérida in a difficult period of the city's history.
In the preceding half century, the city had gone from a major Roman administrative center to a (temporary) royal seat of the Sueves and, finally, an outpost on the northern border of “Christian Iberia.” Here in the Bridge Inscription, the author, whom I have identified as Bishop Zeno, follows in the long tradition of Roman urban patronage inscriptions. But he does so in a way that is not entirely traditional, because the political realities have changed dramatically since late Roman times.145 Here in the late fifth century, Zeno is set up as the legitimate representative of Mérida in its interactions with the new Visigothic power structures, and the inscription asserts his leadership as a representative of the local (aristocratic) community's interests.
The Bridge Inscription can now be read as an illustration of the power dynamics at work in late fifth-century Hispania. The inscription was likely set up on the bridge—the manuscript's heading, at least, makes this explicit claim, “here begin the verses inscribed on the bridge of Mérida”—and so intended for a wide audience.146 The person responsible for the inscription constructed the text as both a traditional celebration of a local act of patronage and as a commemoration of three very important individuals under a new, post-Roman set of circumstances. Thus, although he played no active role in events at Mérida, Euric, “powerful king of the Goths” was still given pride of place, appearing first among the three men listed and also providing the overarching context in which this sort of work was even possible—precisely as the Roman emperors had appeared over a century before in the Circus and Theater Inscriptions.
However, in the context of the ongoing Visigothic conquest of central Iberia, one of the key points to notice in this inscription is the decidedly understated reference to the Visigothic king. His authority is acknowledged, but Euric is not, in 483 C.E., “our king”; he is instead the “king of the Goths.” We can perhaps read this as a not-so-subtle pledge of allegiance to the Visigoths in the face of a growing Suevic press from the north.147 But it is also a tacit acknowledgement of a state of affairs still in flux, where multiple actors still had a role to play in local affairs in Mérida. It was perfectly normal in the late Roman context for a wealthy and powerful individual like Bishop Zeno to take part in the restoration of his city's bridge and walls.148 It was also perfectly regular, even to be expected, that a representative of the church might take on the task of negotiating on behalf of the city upon the arrival of a new political authority—in this case the Visigothic King Euric and his dux Salla. This was an important role of the local governing class of Roman cities, both before and after our period, and the increasing frequency of episcopal participation in such negotiations is a clear illustration of bishops’ growing authority in local affairs.149
Here I have tentatively identified Bishop Zeno as the author of the inscription, based on the nature of the language used and the fact that he is the one who has the most to gain from the way that the entire project is cast in the text. But, whether or not Zeno himself wrote the text, it is clear that he is positioned in such a way as to be asking for favors from the Visigothic King's representative (and therefore the king himself, indirectly) and at the same time extending a favor to the local community. Thus, the Bridge Inscription gives us a bishop who is jockeying for position both in the local community and in the broader context of late fifth-century Hispania.
One reading of the specific context is that Bishop Zeno undertook an embassy to the Visigothic king on behalf of the local community to request Visigothic support in rebuilding the city's defenses. Having been granted some of what was requested—funds, manpower, permission, etc.—Zeno collaborated with the dux Salla by stripping materials out of the city's ancient Roman structures: temples, forum complexes, entertainment venues, and even extramural cemeteries. In the course of this essential building project, Zeno cajoled Salla into the less strategically-important task of reconstructing the city's long-neglected bridge. It is for this reason that the significant proportion of the inscription's text—and by far the most flattering terminology—is reserved for Salla's contribution to the massive undertaking of rebuilding the decrepit bridge.
The justification might have run as follows: without improved defenses, Mérida would remain a tempting target for the Sueves and any other marauding band, as is amply illustrated in the later sections of Hydatius’ Chronicle, written less than two decades earlier. The safety of the city and its inhabitants was, naturally, paramount. But if the Visigothic King only supported the reconstruction of the city wall, the city's economic success was by no means guaranteed. The restoration of the Guadiana Bridge, Mérida's primary mode of communication with the southern cities of Hispalis, Corduba, and Gades (Cádiz), restored access to Mediterranean markets and communication, and this, in turn, guaranteed a steady stream of income in the form of tribute. In this sense, the reconstruction of the bridge ensured that the people of Mérida and the Visigothic king could take fullest advantage of the benefits offered by the improved urban defenses.
By allowing his dux to participate in the building projects commemorated on the Bridge Inscription, the Visigothic King cemented relations with one of the most powerful and strategic cities in late antique Hispania. By negotiating on behalf of the city, Zeno improved his own standing in the eyes of a very wealthy elite class, one that may well have resented the Pope's decision to lump an outsider into their Seat. They may also have been highly suspicious of any kind of Gothic intervention in local affairs, even if the project provided obvious military and economic advantages. Thus, in good traditional fashion, Bishop Zeno and the dux Salla did their part to leave the city better than they had found it. And also in good, traditional fashion, they made sure to have their names and deeds immortalized in a prominent verse inscription set up on the Guadiana Bridge of Mérida.
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Ramírez Sádaba, J. and P. Mateos Cruz, 2000. Catálogo de las inscripciones cristianas de Mérida. Cuadernos Emeritenses 16. Mérida: Museo Nacional de Arte Romano
Corpus inscriptionum latinarum
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Vives, J. 1969. Inscripciones cristianas de la España romana y visigoda. 2nd ed. Barcelona
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Museo Nacional de Arte Romano