The Edge of the World: Life in the Phoenician Colony of Gadir

In ancient Greek and Roman geographic texts, Gadir (known in Latin as Gades, in Greek as Gadeira, and in modern Spanish as Cadiz) stands out as a marker, a boundary. Here was the end of the line, the western edge of civilization, the last traces of urban, settled familiar society. Gadir was inhabited by “people who dwell at the limit where the world ends.” To the north were the barely explored coasts of Iberia, Gaul, Britainnia and mysterious Hibernia (Ireland). To the south lay the even less well known shores of Africa, a land of inhospitable terrain, strange peoples and terrifying wildlife. Due west lay the great Ocean which ran around the edges of the world. Rumors and legends persisted of land across the waters to the west, of Hesperides, of Fortunate Islands or Islands of the Blessed, but none had been there, for the gods did not permit man to cross.[1]

What was life like on this colony at the edge of the world? Archaeological excavation of the city has been limited, because the site has been continuously inhabited and any large-scale excavation would involve unacceptable demolition of the modern city of Cadiz. We are left with the descriptions of ancient historians and what archaeological evidence is available.

Gadir is situated on the Atlantic coast of Spain, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. Oddly, given its location on the far edge of the Mediterranean world, the ancient sources indicate that the city was the first Phoenician colony founded in the western Mediterranean. The dates given by Velleius Paterculus and Pomponius Mela indicate that the colony was founded shortly after the Trojan War, at around 1100 BC.[2] This would mean Gadir was founded before Carthage, before Utica, before Lixos or any of the other Phoenician colonies. Archaeologists have long disputed the early dates given to Phoenician colonization, but more recent discoveries have placed the founding of the first Phoenician colonies back to at least the late ninth century, definitely prior to Greek colonization of the western Mediterranean.[3] The earliest colonial outposts were likely small and would have left little to no archaeological evidence behind. Alternately, the founding date could have been the date of first contact with the area and establishment of trade, with permanent settlement structures being built at a later date. Whether Gadir was founded in 1100 BC or several centuries later, its great age and precedence over the western Greek colonies seems assured.

The Pillars of Herakles: The Rock of Gibraltar in the foreground and Jebel Musa in the background.

The people of Gadir traced their history to an oracle received by the people of Tyre directing them to set up a colony at the “Pillars of Herakles” (the strait of Gibraltar). They sent out an exploratory expedition, which reached the strait but assumed that the passage marked the edge of the world and did not dare to go further. They landed on the Mediterranean side of the straits, but the omens from their sacrifices proved unfavorable and they returned to Tyre. A second expedition was dispatched some time later, which plucked up the courage to venture through the straits and along the Atlantic coast of Spain for 1500 stadia. They found an island, but once again the omens proved unfavorable and the expedition returned. The third Tyrian expedition to the region founded the colony of Gadir.[4] Despite the founding story’s emphasis on the role of oracles, the tale as handed down to us does not mention any favorable omens associated with choosing the successful site. While other texts such as the Voyage of Hanno attest to the great influence given to divination and oracles in Phoenician exploration, one can also safely assume that the third expedition built on the discoveries of the first two. The idea of several scouting expeditions being made in preparation for finding an area for permanent colonization is entirely plausible.

Phoenician colonists were careful and shrewd in selecting the locations for their cities. They preferred to site colonies on small offshore islands or peninsulas, where they could be secured against sieges and attacks. They chose islands with good harbors and easy access to favorable trade winds. Because Phoenician colonies were primarily trade-driven rather than settlement-driven, they only needed small outposts rather than large land areas.[5]

Map of the island of Gadir as it appeared in ancient times.

The Tyrian colonists founded Gadir on what was then three small islands at the mouth of the Guadalete River. In today’s city of Cadiz, the islands have since filled in with sediment and connected to the mainland to form a narrow peninsula. The city of Gadir was built on the northern end of the islands, farthest away from the mainland. There was a temple to Ba’al Hemmon in the city proper, but on the tip of the south side was situated a temple to the god Melqart, which would grow to great size and become world famous by time of the Roman Empire. The nearby Guadalquivir River allowed easy access to the interior of Spain for communications and trade

The economic benefits of the site were enormous. The island was just offshore of the Spanish kingdom of Tartessos. The Tartessans appear to have been on friendly terms with the Phoenicians at Gadir and traded heavily with them. Tartessos was rich with mines that produced lead, tin, silver, copper and gold. The most valuable of these minerals was tin. Tin is required for the manufacture of bronze, yet it is a very rare mineral. On the other hand, bronze was used to make almost everything in the ancient world, even after the introduction of iron. Tin was only found in significant amounts in a few locations known to the ancient Mediterranean world, notably Britain, Spain and Germany.[6]

Two of these three locations were most easily accessed through the ocean route. Ships can move faster and carry more goods than caravans of pack animals moving overland. The colony at Gadir put the Phoenicians in prime position to trade not only with Tartessos but with the entire Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula as well as the mysterious “Cassiterides”, the “tin islands” commonly associated with the coast of Cornwall. What’s more, the location of Gadir meant they were now in a prime position to monopolize this trade by controlling the Straits of Gibraltar. At first, there was no competition, for no other nation thought to sail this far to trade. By the 6th century BC, all the Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean became part of the Carthaginian empire, and from then on Carthage set their foreign relations and national trade policy. The Carthaginian treaty with newly Republican Rome in 508 BC set spheres of influence and trade for each nation. The Romans were forbidden from trading or traveling anywhere west of what is now the north coast of Tunisia. Polybius speculates that this was to prevent the Romans from becoming familiar with the area, and he was probably right. What’s more, archaeological evidence indicates that the Greek colonists in Massalia (modern day Marseilles, France)  ceased trading with Tartessos at around 500 BC. It seems that the Carthaginians had a general policy by 500 BC of prohibiting non-Carthaginian trade in their western territories.[7]

Map of the kingdom of Tartessos.

These policies served to increase profits by requiring all people wishing to trade beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to use Carthaginian middlemen. Goods from Greece and the Levant had to be sold to Carthaginian traders at Carthage or Sicily, and then taken to Spain or Morocco where they would be sold again. This meant the Carthaginians were now making a profit on all trade in the west by re-selling it at a higher price. Likewise, goods from Tartessos and other regions had to go through Carthaginians to reach customers in Italy, Greece and elsewhere unless they chose to trade over long and insecure overland routes.

The Carthaginian defense of their trade routes was sometimes fanatical. Strabo described one such incident:

Now in former times it was the Phoenicians alone who carried on this commerce (that is, from Gades), for they kept the voyage hidden from every one else. And when once the Romans were closely following a certain ship-captain in order that they too might learn the markets in question, out of jealousy the ship-captain purposely drove his ship out of its course into shoal water; and after he had lured the followers into the same ruin, he himself escaped by a piece of wreckage and received from the State the value of the cargo he had lost.[8]

Gadir's wealth is evidence from these two marble sarcophagi which have been found there. The male sarcophagus on the left dates to about 400 BC, while the female sarcophagus on the right dates to around 470 BC.

As a result, it appears that Gadir became wealthy. Strabo reported that the men of Gadir “fit out the most and largest merchant-vessels, both for Our Sea and the Outer Sea.” By Strabo’s time in the 1st century BC, Gadir had a reported 500 men who had the wealth and status of a Roman equites, more than any Italian city except Rome and Patavium.[9]

The population of Gadir remained almost entirely on their main island. By the 1st century BC, the population had grown so large that a small settlement had been founded on the mainland, on the other side of the bay. Other small settlements sprung up on smaller islands next to the main island, however, the primary purpose of the smaller islands was to serve as grazing land for the people’s flocks. Strabo wrote that the islands had exceptionally good grazing land, writing that “the grass upon which they graze is dry, but it makes them very fat.” He further speculated that the rich grazing on the island inspired the legend of the island of Erytheia, from which Herakles had to steal cattle from the giant Geryon for his Tenth Labor.[10]

The Dory fish, which according to Pliny the Elder was considered a delicacy in ancient Gadir.

Fishing also had to have been a major part of the island’s economy and the islanders’ diet. Pliny the Elder reported that a fish called the “Zeus” or “Faber” (generally identified as the Dory) was eaten at Gadir. The people of Gadir had plenty of encounters with other sea animals. Turrianus described seeing a “monster” which was thrown up on the beach, which measured 16 cubits (about 24 feet) from its twin forward fins to its tail, and possessed 120 teeth. The number of teeth appear to be exaggerated, but the description is obviously that of a beached whale. Pliny also described a giant underwater tree and a four-spoked “sea-wheel” which inhabited the ocean of Gadir have been variously suggested to be mangled descriptions of starfish, jellyfish or giant squid.[11]

The later Greek writer Flavius Philostratus wrote that the people of Gadir  “are excessively given to religion; so much so that they have set up an altar to old age, and unlike any other race they sing hymns in honor of death; and altars are found there set up to poverty, and to art.”[12] On the south end of the main island there was situated a temple to the Phoenician god Melqart, which became a large and famous landmark. Phoenician rituals continued to be practiced there into Roman times (when Melqart became known as the “Tyrian Hercules” and the temple at Gadir  as a temple to “Hercules Gaditanus”). The first temple on this site was likely small as were most temples of the early Iron Age, but grew over time.[13]

No remains of this temple have been found, but we have several descriptions from ancient authors. All of them mention two gigantic pillars inside the temple, which matches what we know of Phoenician temples. By the time Greek and Roman writers such as Flavius Philostratus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder and Silius Italicus were describing the temple (from the 1st century BC to 2nd century AD) the temple still practiced Phoenician rituals but had also absorbed some of the Greco-Roman mythology surrounding Herakles.[14]

According to these authors, the temple’s walls went down to the ocean. The outside of the temple was polished. The doors to the temple showed scenes of Herakles’ Twelve Labors, which was obviously a later addition. Inside the temple, there were two freshwater springs around which wells had been built, which mysteriously rose and fell with the tides. The two pillars were sheathed in gold and silver, with an inscription describing their construction and the expense that it cost. The temple also exhibited the emerald-studded golden Olive of Pygmalion and the girdle of Teucer of Telamon, although no one could say why exactly they were there or where these relics came from. The temple was also home to an oracle, said to rival that at Delphi.

Bronze statuette of Melqart found near the site of the ancient temple and now on display at the Museum of Cadiz. This statue dates to the 600s-700s BC, indicated the Melqart was venerated at an early date at Gadir.

Inside the innermost sanctuary, no women were admitted. There were no statues or images of the god inside the temple. Instead, the sanctuary contained three altars, two of bronze and one of stone. In front of the altars there burned an eternal flame. The priests who attended the temple went barefoot, and wore linen robes and a headband made of flax when conducting rituals. They lived a monastic lifestyle, shaving their heads and remaining celibate.[15]

Gadir’s location at the edge of the Pillars of Herakles made it a jumping-off point for those seeking to explore the Atlantic Ocean. Pliny reports that the Carthaginian explorer Hanno the Navigator used Gadir as a base for his expeditions down the African coast. Gadir was likely also a departure point for Himilco in his expeditions to the north coast of France and Ireland. Later, at around 100 BC, the Greek explorer Eudoxos became convinced that a shipwreck he found in the Indian Ocean was from Gadir. Seeking to circumnavigated Africa and find a better way to trade with India, he recruited a crew in Gadier for his attempt to circumnavigate Africa (Greek geographers at the time believed Africa to be much smaller than it actually is). He sailed as far as Mauretania before discontent amongst his crew forced him to turn back. He outfitted a second expedition and set out to try again. There is no record of him ever being seen again, and he likely perished in the attempt.[16]

Starting in 237 BC, Carthaginian forces under Hamilcar Barca succeeded in conquering most of southern Spain, including what had once been independent Tartessos, and incorporated it into the Carthaginian empire.[17] This meant that Gadir was no longer a trading outpost on the edge of foreign territory, but simply an offshore island city next to Carthaginian-controlled land. It is not known if Gadir suffered any economic reversals from this development, but one can imagine that trading profits likely took a dip.

After successfully besieging Saguntum in 218 BC, the famous Carthaginian Hannibal Barca planned war against Rome. He dismissed his mostly Spanish army for the winter with orders to return in the spring in order to march through southern Gaul and invade Italy. Hannibal then went to worship at the Temple of Melqart in Gadir in order to give thanks for the victory at Saguntum and ask the god’s favor for his future endeavors. Hannibal then returned to Carthago Nova to plan his military campaign.[18]

A Roman Theater was built in Gades in the 1st century BC. Its remains were rediscovered after a fire in 1980. Theaters are a signature marker of Romanization all across the Mediterranean.

Gadir’s isolated location spared the city during the Punic Wars. The city came under Roman control at the end of the Second Punic War and became known as Gades. The city held more significance during the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus which broke out in 49 BC. In June of that year, Caesar’s forces executed a forced march from Italy to Spain to defeat a pro-Pompeian army at the Battle of Ilerda in northern Spain. Caesar himself returned to Italy, but left two legions under Quintius Cassius to mop up the remaining Pompeians. One of the defeated leaders, Marcus Terentius Varro, fell back to Gades. Varro’s plan was to take his surviving two legions to Gades, use his navy to resupply his troops, and hold the island until reinforcements could arrive.[19]

The problem with this plan was that Spain’s population was not sympathetic to Pompey and was fast throwing their support behind Caesar (who had been governor of Spain in 59 BC). Varro arrived in Gades in advance of his legions and began trying to rally support by holding public assemblies where he gave speeches denouncing Caesar. Not trusting the locals, he also took measures to establish control. He ordered the construction of 12 warships to supplement his fleet, and ordered all the treasures dedicated in the Temple of Melqart to be removed and stored in the city. He then left the city in command of Gaius Gallonius and left to round up the remainder of his forces. Gallonius began searching houses in the city and confiscating weapons from the people.

In the meantime, Caesar rushed back to Spain to aid Cassius. In response, the cities of Corduba and Carmo revolted against the garrisons Varro had put to control them and declared for Caesar. Varro was now in danger of being cut off, and he attempted to rush to Gadir as quickly as possible. Before he could arrive, the city elders of Gades conspired with some Roman officers in the garrison to revolt and open the city to Caesar. They summoned Gallonius and threatened a revolt if he did not leave the city immediately. Shaken by this, Gallonius fled to the mainland. Gades then declared for Caesar. In response to the loss of their planned sanctuary, one of Varro’s legions picked up their standards and deserted en masse from Varro’s camp. Left with only a single legion, in hostile territory, with nowhere to go, Varro surrendered his remaining forces without a fight.[20]

Caesar spent two days in Corduba thanking the citizens for their support, and then went on to Gades. There, he ordered the money and offerings which Varro had removed from the Temple of Melqart to be restored to the temple. He then took the ships Varro had ordered built and sailed in them back to Rome.[21]

Gades would play a small role in the very end of Caesar’s civil war. Pompey’s son Gnaeus Pompeius went to Spain in 46 BC and raised an army against Caesar. Caesar’s legions in Spain held their positions and waited for reinforcements, which arrived in the spring. On March 17, 45 BC Caesar defeated Pompeius at the Battle of Munda. Pompeius fled to Carteia, where the population revolted and drove him out of the city in an attempt to curry favor with Caesar. Pompeius fled up the Atlantic coast, wounded. Gaius Didius, the Caesarian commander at Gades, left the city in a fleet and pursued him along the coast. He caught up with Pompeius along the coast and defeated remaining troops. Pompeius was killed after being found hiding in a cave. In the aftermath of the battle, Didius’ small force was attacked by hostile Lusitanian tribesmen and overrun. Didius was killed, his ships burned and his force wiped out.[22]

Bronze statuette of Hercules found near the site of the ancient Temple of Melqart and now on display in the Museum of Cadiz. This further illustrates how the Greco-Roman deity of Hercules became associated with Melqart at Gadir.

Gades continued its existence as another city of the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar granted the inhabitants Roman citizenship as a reward for their loyalty during the civil war. A native of Gades named Lucius Cornelius Balbus became the first non-native born Roman to become Consul in 40 BC. His nephew of the same name in 19 BC became the first non-native born Roman to celebrate a triumph. Augustus granted the city municipium (self governance) and granted it the title Augusta Urbs Julia Gaditana. The famous agricultural writer Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella was born in Gades in 4 AD, he would later write one of our few surviving treatises on Roman farming practices. In 67 AD, the Greek philosopher and religious leader Apollonius of Tyana visited the Temple of Melqart and held philosophical discussions there. While Apollonius was in the city, word arrived that Nero had won every contest at the Olympic Games and that Nero ordered sacrifices be made in every city in celebration. The people of Gades had no idea what the Olympics were, and assumed that Nero had won a war against a people called the Olympians.[23]

The city also became famous for its dancing girls, which Juvenal mentions in his satire “With an Invitation to Dinner”:

Possibly you may expect to watch the Ladies from Cadiz
Winning applause for their act, their song and dance, with the climax
When they sink the floor, and lie there bumping and grinding[24]

In late antiquity, a large tower appears to have been built on the island. This tower was 122 feet high and was topped by a statue of a god pointing towards Gibraltar. This tower must have been built in the 2nd century AD or later, as it is not mentioned in any ancient sources but is mentioned by Arab writers, even though it is clearly not Arabic architecture. There is no mention of a lantern on the tower that would allow it to serve as a lighthouse, so it may have served as a daytime maritime marker. Increase sea traffic along the Atlantic coast of Spain may be the reason for the tower’s construction.[25]

Gades was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD. It was later reconquered by Justinian, and then was reconquered by the Visigoths, and then by the Muslim conquest of Spain. The city had lost all of its Phoenician character by the end of antiquity. It later served as a base for explorers such as Christopher Columbus, and a refuge for the Spanish government from the invasion of Napoleon. It now is the city of Cadiz, the oldest continuously inhabited city in Spain and a major port for the Spanish Navy.

An aerial view of the modern city of Cadiz.


[1] Silius Italicus, Punica, trans. by J.D. Duff (, accessed October 25, 2011), 3.1-13.

[2] Duane K. Roller, Beyond the Pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman Exploration of the Atlantic (New York: Routledge, 2006), 5; Velleius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History, trans. by F.W. Shipley (, accessed October 25, 2011), 1.2.6.

[3] Sabatino Moscati, “Colonization of the Mediterranean,” in The Phoenicians, ed. by Sabatino Moscati (New York: Rizzoli, 1999), 47-48; Roller, Beyond the Pillars of Herakles, 5.

[4] Strabo, Geography, trans. by H.L. Jones, LacusCurtius (, accessed October 25, 2011), 3.5.3-5.

[5] Moscati, “Colonization of the Mediterranean,” in The Phoenicians, 50; Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. by Rex Warner (New York: Penguin, 1954), 6.1-2.

[6] Edward Lipinski, “The Phoenicians” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. II, ed. by Jack Sasson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 1327; Moscati, “Colonization of the Mediterranean,” in The Phoenicians, 47.

[7] Roller, Beyond the Pillars of Herakles, 57-58; Polybius, The Histories, trans. by Mortimer Chambers (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966), 3.22-23.

[8] Strabo, Geography, 3.5.11.

[9] Strabo, Geography, 3.5.3.

[10] Strabo, Geography, 3.5.4.

[11] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Perseus, trans. by John Bostock. 1855, (accessed October 24, 2011), 9.3-4; 9.32.

[12] Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, trans. by F.C. Conybeare (, accessed October 25, 2011), 5.4.

[13] William Edwin Mierse, “The Architecture of the Lost Temple of Hercules Gaditanus and Its Levantine Associations,” American Journal of Archaeology, (545-575) Vol. 108, No. 4 (Oct., 2004), 558-559; Arrian, Anabasis, trans. by Aubrey de Selincourt (published under the title The Campaigns of Alexander) (New York: Penguin, 1958), 2.16.4.

[14] Mierse, “The Architecture of the Lost Temple of Hercules Gaditanus and Its Levantine Associations,” 568.

[15] Silius Italicus, Punica, 3.1-44; Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 5.4-5; Strabo, Geography, 3.5.3; Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 2.100.

[16] Roller, Beyond the Pillars of Herakles, 24, 28, 107-110; Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 2.67.

[17] Polybius, The Histories, 2.1.

[18] Livy, Periochae, trans. by Aubrey de Selincourt (published under title The War With Hannibal) (New York: Penguin, 1965), 2.21-22.

[19] Ramon L. Jiménez, Caesar Against Rome: The Great Roman Civil War (New York: Praeger, 2000), 110-111; Julius Caesar, The Civil War, trans. by Jane F. Gardner (New York: Penguin, 1967), 2.18-19.

[20] Jiménez, Caesar Against Rome, 110-111; Caesar, The Civil War, 2.18-20.

[21] Jiménez, Caesar Against Rome, 111; Caesar, The Civil War, 2.21.

[22] The Spanish War, trans. by Jane F. Gardner (New York: Penguin, 1967) 37-40.

[23] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 4.26, 5.5, 7.44; Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 5.1-8.

[24] Juvenal, “With an Invitation to Dinner” in The Satires of Juvenal, trans. by Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington, ID, Indiana University Press, 1958), 11.163-165.

[25] A. T. Fear, “The Tower of Cadiz,” Faventia: Revista de filologia clàssica, No. 12-13, Vol. 1-2, 1990-1991, p. 199-211.

Image Sources: (Banner); (Body);;;;,_William_John_Dory.jpg;;;;

Article © Christopher Jones 2011.

4 responses

  1. Well written and very thorough.
    Well done!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:33 PM

  2. andy

    is there any drawing or depictions of the Idol of Cadiz?

    March 3, 2013 at 1:32 PM

  3. If you are referring to the statue (likely of Poseidon) that was on top of the Roman period tower on the island, no, there are no contemporary depictions, only descriptions from Arab sources.

    March 3, 2013 at 1:45 PM

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