The Pillars of Hercules

The stretch of water between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean is known as the Strait of Gibraltar, separating Spain and Gibraltar from north Africa (Morocco). The southernmost tip of Spain (and of Europe itself) is at the town of Tarifa, and here the African coast is only 10 miles (16 km) away. Gibraltar lies some 15 miles (24 km) north-east of Tarifa, and the African coast is almost 14 miles (22 km) away. Even though the distance to Africa is greater here, the promontories of Calpe (Gibraltar) and Abyla (Ceuta in Africa) were significant in Greek and Roman mythology, as they were believed to be the mythical ‘Pillars of Hercules’.

This picture shows the Strait of Gibraltar, looking westwards. The African coast with the promontory of Ceuta is on the left. Next comes the seaway of the Strait of Gibraltar that opens into the Atlantic. The right-hand half of the picture portrays the coast of Spain, with the distinctive darker outline of the Rock of Gibraltar in front.

Gibraltar StraitThe Pillars of Hercules looking westwards from the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic

The myth of the Pillars of Hercules originated with the ancient Greeks and was adopted by the Romans. In one version, Africa was joined to Europe, and the god Hercules cut the channel to divide them. In another version, Hercules pulled the two continents together to narrow the channel and stop the Atlantic sea monsters from bursting into the Mediterranean. In both stories, Hercules set up the ‘pillars’ of Ceuta and Gibraltar as markers of how far he had travelled. For the people living around the shores of the Mediterranean, the Pillars of Hercules marked the limit of civilisation. Beyond lay the ‘Ocean’, which was thought to be a river encircling the earth, with any islands in it inhabited by barbarians. All but the most intrepid of sailors would have been deterred from venturing westwards by the dangers of the unknown beyond the Pillars and the real dangers from the difficult tides and currents through the Strait, where the Mediterranean and Atlantic meet.

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One of the Pillars of Hercules, the Rock of Gibraltar, is a natural fortress that has changed hands several times over the centuries. It was captured by the British in 1704 and ceded to Britain in perpetuity in 1713 by the Treaty of Utrecht. After that date, there were various attempts by the Spanish to regain the Rock, by direct assault or by siege, with no success. When France joined the American side in the American War of Independence, Spain saw another chance to regain the Rock and in 1779 declared war on Britain.

GibraltarThe Rock of Gibraltar from the site of the old Spanish siege lines

From June 1779 until March 1783 Gibraltar was besieged, but the Rock withstood all attempts to starve it into submission or capture it by direct assault. We referred to this siege in our piece about the invention of the downwards-firing depression gun in newsletter 22 for March 2011. We are now writing a book about this siege, which we are pleased to say will be published in Britain by Little, Brown and in north America by Viking Penguin – the same publishers of our Jane Austen book. We should perhaps add that Jane Austen was 3½ years old when the siege began – it would have been the talk of her family when reading aloud their newspapers. We will keep you posted on progress in subsequent newsletters.