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Numancia (c.1585), Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

English title: The Siege of Numancia
Notable variations on Spanish title: El cerco de Numancia, Numancia, La Numancia, La destrucción de Numancia, La destruición de Numancia
Date written: c. 1585
First publication date: 1734
First production date: sometime between 1583 and 1587
Keywords: morality > honour, violence > torture, violence > suicide, family > duty, ideology > politics, power > war, ideology > honour
Genre and type: tragedy

The town of Numancia refuses to be conquered by the Roman general Scipio Africanus.  Rather than be enslaved or starve to death in the siege, they commit mass suicide, even down to the last child who bravely gives his life for the glory of Numancia. A condemnation of war and a testament to human bravery in the face of certain death, many believe this play to be the best of those attributed to Cervantes.


The Roman general Scipio Africanus brought down the Spanish town of Numancia in 134 BC. Cervantes’s dramatisation of the siege is a bitter and violent drama of how the Romans surrounded the city with a trench and starved most of the townspeople to death. Those who did not starve burnt all their possessions and committed mass suicide, so that the Romans would gain nothing of their wealth or themselves as slaves. The poignancy of this play lies in the bravery of the Numantians in the face of certain death. The Numantian soldiers want to rush out and face the Romans (who vastly outnumber them) head on, but the women, holding babies, beg the men not to abandon them to the lustful Roman soldiers, or allow their children to be enslaved. So, at the women’s own request, the men kill the women and children before themselves. After the traumatic destruction of the town by their own hands, the Romans send a scout up a ladder to see what has happened, and they find them all dead. Scipio desperately wishes to find just one Numantian survivor that he can parade in celebration of his victory over the town; and he believes he will succeed in this aim as there is one small child of a nobleman , Bariatus, who has climbed to the top of his dead father’s tower. The boy, in a profound display of strength and valour, declares himself unconquerable by the Romans, and forever true to the people of Numancia, before he throws himself off the tower to his death. The small boy’s suicide means that Scipio’s victory over Numancia will not be remembered as a great triumph; instead it will be known as a tribute to the valiant and unconquerable Numantians, who in this play represent the Spanish character. The personification of Fame appears at the end to praise the bravery of Numancia and Spain, and Scipio’s victory is overshadowed by the small town’s incredible sacrifice and refusal to be enslaved.


This play was inspired by the historical event of Scipio Africanus’s siege and defeat of the Celtic-speaking people in the Spanish city of Numancia in 134 BC.  Possible sources for Cervantes are:

the Epítome of book LXXX of Livy

the Geografía of Strabo

Historia romana, book VI, chapters 13-15, by Appian of Alexandria

Compendio de las hazañas romanas (book II), by Lucio Anneo Floro

Primera crónica general de España (1270) by Alfonso el Sabio

or the Crónica de España abreviada by Mosén Diego de Valera (1481)

or a romance in the Rosa gentil by Timoneda (1573)

(These are taken from Cervantes 1984: 24.)

  • Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. 1984. El cerco de Numancia, ed. Robert Marrast. Madrid, Cátedra (in Spanish)

Critical response

This play is often cited as Cervantes’s best full-length play, for its veiled political criticism and poignant bravery shown by the Numantians, down to the last small boy who kills himself rather than be taken prisoner. Some critics say the play would be difficult to stage for the personified characters (Fame, Spain, Hunger, etc.) but surely modern directors can make use of personified figures in creative ways. For a survey of Numancia critics see Cervantes 1994: 18-25.

  • Cervantes, Miguel de. 1994. La destruición de Numancia, ed. Alfredo Hermenegildo. Madrid, Castalia (in Spanish)

Further information

Cervantes mentions in the prologue to his 1615 Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses that this play was performed (so we date its first performance as before 1615, probably between 1583 and 1587). While there have been a couple of modern productions of the play, additionally Sánchez Castañer’s adaptation opened in the ancient Roman theatre of Sagunto in 1948 and the theatre company ‘Lope de Vega’ performed an adaptation by Nicolás González Ruiz outdoors in Alcalá de Henares in 1956.

French-language adaptations have also been popular: French-language productions took place in 1952, 1953 and 1955 as part of the Festival de Sarlat and in Bordeaux, version by Jean Lagénie, under his direction with Raymond Paquet (Cervantes 1984: 31). An adaptation by Robert Marrast and André Reybaz, published (Paris, 1957) opened in Rouen in 1958.

  • Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. 1984. El cerco de Numancia, ed. Robert Marrast. Madrid, Cátedra (in Spanish)

  • Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. 1984. El cerco de Numancia, ed. Robert Marrast. Madrid, Cátedra

  • Cervantes, Miguel de. 1994. La destruición de Numancia, ed. Alfredo Hermenegildo. Madrid, Castalia

  • Miguel de Cervantes. 1967. La destrucción de Numancia, ed. Ricardo Domenech. Madrid, Taurus

Useful readings and websites
  • Avalle Arce, Juan Bautista, 1975. ‘La Numancia (Cervantes y la tradición histórica)’, Nuevos deslindes cervantinos, Barcelona, Ariel, pp. 245-75 (in Spanish)

  • Hermenegildo, Alfredo. 1976. La Numancia de Cervantes. Madrid, Sociedad General Española de Librería (in Spanish)

  • Kahn, Aaron M. 2007. ‘Representation and Interpretation of Historical Characters in Cervantes’s La Numancia: Jugurtha and Viriatus’. Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 84, 573-88

  • Kahn, Aaron M. 2008. The ambivalence of imperial discourse: Cervantes's La Numancia within the 'lost generation' of Spanish drama (1570-90). Oxford, Peter Lang

  • Lewis-Smith, Paul. 1987. ‘Cervantes’ Numancia as Tragedy and Tragicomedia’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 64, pp. 15-26

  • Lewis-Smith, Paul. 2000. Two dramatic contextualizations of the union of Spain and Portugal: contrasting perspectives on Spanish pride in El cerco de Numancia and El alcalde de Zalamea. Bristol, University of Bristol, Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies

  • Maestro, Jesús G. 2003. ‘Cervantes’. In Historia del teatro español, ed. Javier Huerta Calvo, pp. 757-82. Madrid, Gredos (in Spanish)

    For La Numancia see pp. 758-63, ‘La tragedia Numancia’.


  • Martin, Vincent. 2000. ‘Cervantes’s Critique of Verisimilitude as Intertexte for the “New Comedy”’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 52, 2, 53-66

  • McKendrick, Melveena. 1989. ‘The Classicizing Tragedians’. In Theatre in Spain 1490-1700, pp. 57-65. Cambridge, University Press

  • Predmore, Richard L. 1973. Cervantes. London, Thames and Hudson

  • Thacker, Jonathan. 2007. ‘The Emergence of the Comedia nueva’. In A Companion to Golden Age Theatre, pp. 1-22. Woodbridge, Tamesis

    For Juan del Encina see p. 3-8, for Gil Vicente see p. 9-11. For La Numancia see pp. 20-1

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Entry written by Kathleen Jeffs. Last updated on 4 October 2010.

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