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. This monumental lighthouse is located at the entrance to La Coruña harbour, in the north-west of the Iberian Peninsula. It is designed to facilitate navigation along the rugged Galicia coastline, on a strategic point on the sea route linking the Mediterranean to northwest Europe.
A wood-fired system was located on the summit platform in a shelter opening on to the seaward facade; it possibly had columns used for navigational alignment when making the difficult approach and entry into the harbour. On the basis of the surviving structure, the original tower had a horizontal cross-section measuring 11.75m (33 Roman feet) square. It was surrounded by a spiral ramp providing access to the platform. The base of the Tower rested on 18m square foundations.
The Tower's use as an illuminated lighthouse probably persisted for a relatively long time throughout the Roman Empire. It seems not to have been lit throughout most of the High Middle Ages, although it remained intact and continued to play a role as a landmark and watchtower. The gazetteer lists the names of farum and faro in the 9th and 10th centuries, probably with periods of return to nocturnal service depending on the historical context and the state of maritime navigation. It is difficult to determine exactly the Tower's use and upkeep in medieval times. It seems to have been abandoned and in poor condition after the Viking invasions (854-56), as was the city; it is, however, referred to in two 10th century texts as the Farum Precantium.
Medieval chronicles mention the creation of a fort and a small town in the 11th-12th centuries, in this same position. The Tower is referred to as the Castellum Pharum; at this time it was used for defensive purposes and as an observation post, which most likely saved it from probable ruin. The urban and port development of Burgo de Faro Novo, later Crunia, started at the end of the 12th century and into the following century, in connection with the reign of Ferdinand II and the Pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela. The contemporary toponymy shows that the name then given to the Tower was Turrin de Faro suggesting its restoration as a lighthouse, but the external ramp appears to have been in ruins, perhaps as a result of the Tower's use for defensive purposes in the preceding centuries. The reuse of dressed stone from the collapsed parts of the Tower is reported during the late Middle Ages, until a 1557 municipal edict forbade this practice.
Starting in the 14th century, La Coruña became one of the kingdom's largest and most cosmopolitan ports. It was an essential stage between northern Europe and the Mediterranean world. The lighthouse's function would appear to have been fully restored at that time. The Tower of Hercules was a major symbol of the city in the 15th century, and was the main heraldic motif on the city's seal.
Iconography from the 16th century shows a highly restored Tower, notably fitted with a dome-shaped lantern. The external ramp no longer exists, but traces of its spiral shape are still visible. Work on the timber staircase is mentioned in the same period. There are several descriptions of the Tower in the 17th century. The first truly identifiable restoration was that led by the Duke of Uceda, the Captain General of Galicia in 1684-85. The presence of an internal staircase is again reported. In 1755 the Lisbon earthquake affected many buildings in the La Coruña region, but the Tower survived thanks to its architectonic design and the quality of its mortar (see Description).
The major restoration-reconstruction work on the Tower was undertaken in two stages at the end of the 18th century, from 1788 to 1806. The work was carried for navigational reasons, the external condition of the Tower, and changes in lighting systems. The work was entrusted to the naval engineer Lieutenant Eustaquio Giannini. It was preceded and accompanied by measurements and plans that are invaluable in understanding the Tower in modern times. At this time, its height was significantly raised and it was fitted with a new bell lantern; the interior staircase was rebuilt; and the exterior facing and the openings were completely reconstructed (see Description). It assumed its current external form in Neo-Classical style. Additional work was carried out by José Giannini, Eustaquio's brother, between 1799 and 1806. The lantern and the lighting system were replaced for operational reasons and to take account of the most recent innovations, the bell turret was replaced by a new higher one, and a platform was added around the base of the Tower.
The optical system was again changed in 1847 for a very efficient catadioptric system using Fresnel lenses. In the 1860s, ancillary buildings were erected and the access ways repaired. Further work was carried out in 1905: the internal staircase was again restored, this time entirely in stone. The lighthouse was fitted with electric lighting in 1926, with its beam visible for up to 32 nautical miles. In the 1990s excavations were undertaken at the base of the Tower, under the platform added in the early 19th century, to reveal the Roman foundations and buried remains. In 1991-92 the facades of the Tower and the small Roman building were restored.
Numerous legends surround the Tower's history, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. They attempt to explain in mythical and popular terms the Tower's origins and its construction, regardless of any historical or archaeological understanding. There are three main families of legends: the legend of Breogán in the Celtic-Irish tradition, the Greco-Roman legend of Hercules, the demigod of mythical strength who gave the Tower its contemporary name, and the tale of Trecenzonio halfway between the former two legends. There is evidence of these mythical tales in Galicia starting from the 14th century, but they probably predate that time.
Given that the lighthouse continues in use, ICOMOS regrets the absence of any description of the optical systems, which are an integral part of the lighthouse and its history, and the changes that they have undergone, notably in modern and contemporary times, in relation to Atlantic shipping.