Occupied by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, Lisbon was one of the most important commercial centres of the Roman era. Let’s take a stroll through Felicitas Iulia Olisipo (Lisbon’s Roman name).
The city's Roman theatre (pictured at top and below) is one of the most important monuments of the roman Felicitas Iulia Olisipo, with visible structures dating back to the 1st century CE. The structure can be seen for free from the outside, although a ticket is required to visit the nearby museum.
The Casa dos Bicos is a beautiful XVI century palace hosting the José Saramago Foundation and houses archaeological exhibits from various periods, including Roman foundations.
The exhibition presents what remains of a preserved salted fish production unit from the Roman city of Olisipo (present-day Lisbon), which was most likely set up next to the Tagus River during the 1st Century CE.
From the 3rd century onwards, Roman cities reinforced their defense mechanisms, and Olisipo was no exception, as highlighted from a fragment of a Roman wall and semi-circular watch tower. The Roman wall was subsequently integrated into the Medieval wall, as evidenced by other archaeological finds.
The beautiful Carmo Convent was Lisbon’s greatest medieval building, but was almost entirely destroyed by the earthquake of 1755 that devastated most of the city. Its Gothic arches still stand, but the roof collapsed on the congregation while they were attending Mass on All Saints’ Day, and was never rebuilt. Most of the architecture dates back to the 14th century, but Manueline (Portuguese Gothic) windows and other details were added later, in the 1500s and 1700s.
The sacristy’s small archaeological museum presents a varied collection that was donated by archaeologists in the 19th century. Among the treasures from Portugal and elsewhere are the Roman “Sarcophagus of the Muses” and other Roman artifacts.
The so-called Roman Galleries were discovered under the streets of Lisbon (Baixa Pombalina) in 1771 following the earthquake of 1755. This Roman structure is known as a "cryptoporticus", something that created a horizontal support platform to allow the construction of buildings of great dimensions (usually public buildings).
The public nature of the building under which the “cryptoporticus” was originally found was confirmed by the presence of an inscription dedicated to Aesculapius, the god of Medicine, and currently on display at the Portuguese National Museum of Archaeology. We couldn’t visit the Museum as it was closed for renovations (it will reopen in 2025).
The inscription was made at the behest of two priests of the Imperial cult of ancient Rome and of the city of Felicita Iulia Olisipo, Roman Lisbon.
The Roman Galleries can only be visited twice a year (in April and September) because to the levels of humidity and water inside the galleries need to be kept stable as they are essential to their preservation. Unfortunately, we were there in July and missed this opportunity.
This area of Felicitas Iulia Olisipo, near the shores of the Tagus river, was located just outside the city walls, near the city's Southwestern via (road).
After the mid-1st century BCE it was used as a necropolis, but in the mid-1st century CE a fish products complex was built over this necropolis. It was active until the 5th century CE. Archaeological excavations identified 31 cetariae (tanks used to salt fish) and some support structures, as well as a residential area. Excavations also discovered part of a house and its bathing facilities, with several pools and bathtubs. One room in particular still retains its mosaic pavement.
The archaeological collection shows the importance of the abundant local and regional ceramic production, but also of the great trade dynamics of the Felicitas Iulia Olisipo port, as indicated by the presence of several ceramic recipients imported from Baetica (Roman province corresponding roughly to present-day Andalusia), Italy and North Africa.
The site is temporarily closed, thus we could not visit it, however when it is open a tour can be booked for free and the visit lasts roughly 1 hour.
Lisbon is a beautiful city and its Roman heritage is a must-see for all culture and history lovers!
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Elisa Fulgenzi holds a BA and an MA in Modern Languages and Literature from the University of Rome and an MA in Language Learning and Education from the University of York, UK. In her spare time she writes about Rome and its outskirts on Rome and Beyond (https://romeandbeyond.altervista.org)