The lightning in the Torre dels Escipions: a natural phenomenon or the wrath of Jupiter?

The restorers are finishing a second review of the Torre dels Escipions, after it was struck by lightning last Wednesday, April 20, as a result of the intense electrical storm that the city recorded. The first inspections confirmed that a fissure had been generated in the monument, in addition to the displacement of one of the ashlars in the upper part. Some effects that forced the first measures to be taken, pending the verifications that are just being carried out and that will determine the actions that must be promoted a posteriori.

Together to the professor of Classical Archeology at the Rovira i Virgili University (URV) and researcher at the ICAC, Joaquín Ruiz de Arbulo, we go back two thousand years to find out how this episode would be interpreted by Roman society, a highly superstitious civilization, in which any event was read as an unequivocal sign from the gods, which had to be interpreted and acted upon to avoid displeasure. “In Roman times when lightning struck it was the work of Jupiter, which meant that this god was angry,” explains Ruiz de Arbulo.

A lightning strike meant that the item in question “was touched by the finger of god.” And this generated discomfort for the Romans to which they responded with an expiation. “They interpreted that they had done something wrong and that they had to apologize to him,” he continues.

“If everything goes smoothly, without complications, the repair could be activated before the end of the year”

What was done in these cases? The discovery of several deposits has allowed us to know what the ritual consisted of, which would originally come from the Etruscans. The site was marked with an epigraph as a normal burial and became a kind of sanctuary. «In the first place, the pieces broken by the lightning had to be collected, which were placed in a hole. Then a two-year-old lamb was sacrificed and it was buried in a kind of well with an inscription”, says Ruiz de Arbulo. The name by which this ritual was known was fulgur conditum, which could derive from the forked shape with which lightning was represented, although some ancient authors relate it to the sacrificial victim.

The ceremony had its own pomp. This was led by a priest, who was in charge of sanctifying the site and expiating the behavior not desired by the gods that, whatever it was, had caused the lightning strike. Thus, lightning was not related to the phenomena of nature, but to the wrath of Jupiter.

In the case of the Torre dels Escipions, what could have aroused the discomfort of the gods? Here let everyone draw their own conclusions from it. However, this professor of Classical Archeology is of the opinion that “what has happened is absolutely exceptional.”

The incident was recorded on Wednesday late in the afternoon, although it was not known until Friday of that same week. This very day, andl Department of Culture of the Generalitat he set to work to make a first visual inspection as a result of the vertical impact, taking advantage of existing crack elements in the tower. Basically it affected the base of the upper cornice, to the point that a fragment of it volatilized and ended up on the road. The gods did not want the possible consequences to be more serious, despite this, its impact “shaked the entire tower”, as experts were able to verify after a few hours.

«In Roman times when lightning struck it was the work of Jupiter, which meant that he was angry»

In addition to the front, the impact also affected the back rear corner, where up to four rows of ashlars were moved. The block that crowned the remains of the monument, and that had been displaced, decided to withdraw to avoid greater evils. “We are waiting for the restorers to finish the review, scheduled for this week, and from then on the fence that protects the tower can be removed,” says the director of the Tarragona National Archaeological Museum (MNAT), Mònica Borrell.
After this first emergency intervention, the repair project must be drawn up, in which the state of conservation of the tower, which dates from the 1st century and was restored in 2012, will be evaluated from an architectural point of view. Borrell advances that “everything indicates that there are no stability problems”, so, at first, it is believed that a major intervention will not be necessary. Despite this, it will not be until this project is known when there will be an intervention proposal, which must be approved by the Heritage Commission, and which will involve activating an item for the intervention budget. All in all, Borrell indicates that “if everything goes smoothly, without complications, being optimistic the execution of the repair could be activated before the end of the year, although it is most likely that it will be for next year.”

Throughout this procedure, it will also be assessed whether preventive measures should be taken to prevent a “fortuitous” and “casual” event such as the one from a few days ago from damaging the remains that are a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Ruiz de Arbulo highlights the “exceptionality” of the tower within this world-renowned complex. “It is the only intact tomb that we have preserved, since in the other cases the stones were reused,” he says. Located on a hill next to the old Via Augusta, many of the old visitors could see the first image of Tarraco from this point.
The structure consists of three superimposed bodies, separated by moldings and cornices, originally finished by a pyramidal roof that is now lost. Despite the traditional name, it is known that the tomb bears no relation to the Scipios, but that we would be in front of a cenotaph dedicated to a man from Tarragona who founded the city of Iluro, the current Mataró.

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