The siege of Numantia in the 2nd century BCE is one of the great Spanish national myths. After 20 years of constant attrition, in 133 BCE the Senate of Rome gave Scipio Æmilianus Africanus the order to besiege and destroy the city located in what is nowadays North-East Castile. After holding out for over a year, Numantia’s Celtiberian inhabitants decided to burn it and commit mass suicide rather than yielding to the conquerors.
As with the narrative of King Roderick and the Islamic conquest of Spain, Pelayo and Covadonga, or el Cid, this heroic event is one of the outstanding themes in the Anglo-Hispanic Romantic imagination, though it has not yet been the object of sustained critical examination.
The tale of Numantia constitutes yet another significant link between Spanish and British literature and culture in the period from the outbreak of the Peninsular War to the end of the trienio liberal (‘liberal triennium’) in 1823. Over these years, the tale of the siege of Numantia emerged in both literary and cultural traditions as a powerfully vehicle for ideologically weighted commentary on current historical and political developments in Spain.
In the Spanish literary tradition, the most famous work on this theme is Miguel de Cervantes’s tragedy Numancia, which exists in two versions, both composed in the 1580s. In the eighteenth century, Neoclassical critics and playwrights found fault with the ‘irregularities’ of Cervantes’s work, which fell from favour. Instead, Ignacio López de Ayala’s regularly Aristotelian tragedy Numancia destruida, first performed at Madrid’s Teatro de la Cruz in February 1778, became extremely popular, started a vogue for siege plays, and was often revived in subsequent decades. Dramatic versions of the theme of Numancia, and most likely López de Ayala’s, were seemingly performed at the time of the Peninsular War – during the French siege of Zaragoza on the orders of General José Palafox, and in Madrid by the celebrated actor Isidoro Máiquez. During the trienio liberal, López de Ayala’s text was staged at least twice in Madrid – on 14 May 1820, at the Teatro del Príncipe, and on 3 May 1822 at the Teatro de la Cruz. After the fall of the constitutional regime, between 1823 and 1825, the fifteen-year old (and future Romantic poet) José de Espronceda and his friends Ventura de la Vega and Patricio de la Escosura founded a secret society called los numantinos aimed at avenging the death of the leader of the failed liberal regime, General Rafael del Riego.
However, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, it was the Cervantes text that helped popularize the theme of Numantia. William Wordsworth mentioned Numantia together with Saguntum (which was besieged by the Carthaginians in 219 BCE) in his prose tract on the Convention of Cintra (published in May 1809), while Robert Southey compared Saguntum and Numantia to Zaragoza in a letter to John Rickman of 20 November 1808 (letter 1539 in the online edition of the Collected Letters of Robert Southey). Later, writing to Henry Reveley from Pisa on 19 April 1821, Percy Shelley informed him that he had read Cervantes’s play and noted that, ‘after wading through the singular stupidity of the first act, [he] began to be greatly delighted, and, at length, interested in a very high degree, by the power of the writer in awakening pity and admiration’.
The publication of J.C.L. Simonde de Sismondi’s De la littérature du midi de l’Europe (1813) contributed to popularizing further the tale of Numantia. Chapter 28 in volume 3 of the first (French language) edition was entirely dedicated to Cervantes’s dramatic output, offering a twenty-page detailed summary and brief analysis of Numancia (371-90). Widely known in the original French, Sismondi’s work appeared in Thomas Roscoe’s English translation in 1823. The same year saw the publication of another crucial history of Iberian literatures, Friedrich von Bouterwek’s History of Spanish and Portuguese Literature, translated by Thomasina Ross, which also devotes a considerable amount of attention to Cervantes’s play.
In the 1820s, the theme of Numantia began to acquire particular visibility in the context of Whig and liberal publications. In February 1821, the New Monthly Magazine published the second part of an essay by T.S. Munden entitled ‘On the Less Celebrated Productions of the Author of Don Quixote’ that contained an in-depth examination of, and extensive translations from, Numancia (vol. 1, pp. 163-81) . Years later, in June 1824, the same periodical featured the second part of an essay on ‘Modern Spanish Theatre’ by Manuel Eduardo de Gorostiza, where he briefly mentioned López de Ayala’s tragedy (vol. 10, pp. 502-07).
Moreover, Cervantes’s Numancia holds a significant place in Felicia Hemans’s collection The Siege of Valencia; a Dramatic Poem. The Last Constantine: with Other Poems, published by John Murray in June 1823. The epigraph to the entire volume is taken from the conclusion to Cervantes’s play and quoted in the original Spanish. The same epigraph is then reprised in expanded form in the epigraph to the Siege of Valencia. Therefore, Hemans’s 1823 volume offers at least three siege texts – two of which appear in its title (The Siege of Valencia and The Last Constantine), while the third is present in fragmented form in the epigraphs. In addition, the double reference to the siege of Numantia strengthens further the relevance of Hemans’s collection as a major topical contribution to early 1820s Anglo-Hispanic literature by linking the volume to the current beleaguered and besieged condition of Spain after the Holy Alliance authorized France to invade the country in April 1823 and crush the liberal regime. Significantly, the invasion culminated in a siege, and one that harked back to Peninsular War events. As the French advanced on Madrid, the Spanish liberal government moved to Seville and then to Cadiz. On 31 August the French captured Trocadero, the fort that protected Cadiz, but the city held out until it capitulated on 23 September.
Hemans’s and the other uses of the theme of Numantia are further evidence of the shared discourses, themes and concerns linking Spanish and British literature and culture in this period of intense cultural and political transformation. They confirm the existence and, above all, the relevance of a tight network of forms of cultural transference, mirroring, synchronicity and exchange between Spain and Britain during the crucial phase of intercultural contact between 1808 and 1823.
Cotarelo y Mori, Emiliano, Isidoro Máiquez y el teatro de su tiempo, estudio preliminar de Joaquín Álvarez Barrientos (Madrid: Publicaciones de la Asociación de Directores de Escena de España 2009)
Echávarri, José Ignacio de la Torre, ‘Numancia: Usos y abusos de la tradición historiográfica’, Complutum 9 (1998), pp. 193-211
Mancing, Howard, ed., The Cervantes Encyclopedia, 2 vols (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood; Oxford: Harcourt Education, 2004)
Sala-Valldaura, Josep Maria, De amor y política: la tragedia neoclásica española (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Instituto de la Lengua Española, 2005)
Shields, Archibald K., The Madrid Stage 1820-1833 (Ph.D. Thesis, University of North Carolina, 1933)]
Alejo Vera y Estaca, Numancia o El último día de Numancia (oil on canvas, 335 x 500 cm) 1880 (Diputación Provincial de Soria)