Tower of Hercules

The Tower

The Tower of Hercules is an ancient Roman lighthouse on a peninsula about 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the centre of A Coruña, Galicia, in north-western Spain. The name Corunna is said to be derived from the ancient column. The structure is 55 meters (180 ft) tall and overlooks the North Atlantic coast of Spain. It is almost 1900 years old, was rehabilitated in 1791, and is the oldest Roman lighthouse still used as a lighthouse.

In 61 BCE a Roman seaborne expedition, probably led by Julius Caesar himself, landed at present-day La Coruña (Brigantium) with the intention of installing a port and commercial settlement. There had already been Roman colonisation along the Mediterranean facade of the Iberian Peninsula and along the south and south-west from the 2nd century BCE. The port of Brigantium played an important role during the Cantabrian Wars (29-19 BCE). Once peace was restored, its strategic maritime role at the entrance to the Bay of Biscay, as well as that of a trading station, were confirmed. It became a rear base for the conquest of the British Isles while Galicia was being Romanised.

Under the name of Farum Brigantium, the Tower was probably erected in the 1st century CE, at the latest in the reign of Trajan (98-117). The votive inscription on a small ancillary construction would appear to bear this out.

The Tower, built on a 57 metre high rock, rises a further 55 metres, of which 34 metres correspond to the Roman masonry and 21 meters to the restoration directed by architect Eustaquio Giannini in the 18th century, who augmented the Roman core with two octagonal forms. Immediately adjacent to the base of the Tower, is a small rectangular Roman building. The site also features a sculpture park, the Monte dos Bicos rock carvings from the Iron Age and a Muslim cemetery. The Roman foundations of the building were revealed in excavations conducted in the 1990s. Many legends from the Middle Ages to the 19th century surround the Tower of Hercules, which is unique as it is the only lighthouse of Greco-Roman antiquity to have retained a measure of structural integrity and functional continuity.

The Tower of Hercules has probably existed in some form or other from the second century onwards and inscriptions on the foundation base refer to a Roman engineer called “Sevius Lupus”. References are also made to the Tower of Hercules as early as 415AD in written texts.

The Tower of Hercules in the coat of arms of A Coruña

It is highly likely that the original tower had an external access ramp and burned a wood fire, but in 1788, under the rule of King Carlos IV, a three year project was undertaken to build an enclosing facade around the structure and that is what can be seen now.

Through the millennia many mythical stories of its origin have been told. According to a myth that blends Celtic and Greco-Roman elements, the hero Hercules slew the giant tyrant Geryon after three days and three nights of continuous battle. Hercules then—in a Celtic gesture— buried the head of Geryon with his weapons and ordered that a city be built on the site. The lighthouse atop a skull and crossbones representing the buried head of Hercules’ slain enemy appears in the coat-of-arms of the city of Corunna.

Breogán and the Tower of Hercules

Another legend embodied in the 11th-century compilation Lebor Gabala Erren— the “Book of Invasions”— King Breogán, the founding father of the Galician Celtic nation, constructed here a massive tower of such a grand height that his sons could see a distant green shore from its top. The glimpse of that distant green land lured them to sail north to Ireland. A colossal statue of Breogán has been erected near the Tower.