I went to find out more about the Roman age with an Oui Go Lisbon visit and I enjoyed very much what Andreia showed and explained. I traveled back in time and discovered the Roman ruins that are hidden in Lisbon. These are the ancient memories of the capital, which I invite you to know with this written piece.

The Roman Lisbon

Lisbon, just like any other city, can be seen and visited from countless standpoints. Everything depends on what the traveler prefers. Some, for instance, prefer visiting museums and churches, other go for markets and restaurants, and there are people who enjoy seeing the wildlife.

Whatever you like, we often start by what is considered the “Top 10”, those places considered mandatory. After that, each one of us has room to see a city according to what we enjoy the most.

The Portuguese capital has almost 1000 years of history and therefore we find memories of several people who have passed through it, with the Romans among them. They occupied what is now called Lisbon throughout 600 years, leaving many memories that remain until today. Did you know that you can visit what has already been the theater, the area of fish production or the Roman Pier? Have you ever imagined Lisbon through this lens?

The Romans

We have to go back 1800 years and imagine how Lisbon was, a city by the sea and the river, inhabited for quite a long time on the castle hill, by people probably associated with trade. The Tagus River occupied an area of what is now Lisbon, the riverfront area was not as extensive as it is today. A branch of the river crossed the city, even near what is today the Rossio.

That was the scenario when the Romans conquered Lisbon. They gave it the name of Felicitas Iulia Olisipo and developed it for several years, until the empire’s demise. Below you find points where you can now see what is left of the time when Lisbon was under the Roman rule.

The pier and the fish factory – Casa dos Bicos

A roman pier once existed in the spot where Casa dos Bicos is found nowadays, near Terreiro do Paço. This was the riverbed of Tagus back back then and where the boats were docked. Currently, the house is about 200 meters from the Tagus River. Over the years, the river kept receding and Lisbon gained ground.

 

Detail of the facade of Casa dos Bicos, Lisboa, Portugal
Detail of the facade of Casa dos Bicos

Casa dos Bicos is best known for housing the José Saramago Foundation, a famous Portuguese writer. What many people don’t know is that, on the ground floor, there is an extremely interesting archeological nucleus.

This area once had a pier that allowed the Romans to reach land and also the spot of the 1st fish manufacturing unit. These factories came to exist throughout the whole Lisbon riverfront and also in what is now Sines, Peniche and in the estuaries of Sado and Tagus. Lisbon was an important economic hub, where fish products had an enormous importance.

Stakes of the Roman quay (Casa dos Bicos), Lisboa, Portugal
Stakes of the Roman quay (Casa dos Bicos)

The liquamen, garum and hellec were produced and consumed internally, but they were also exported to the whole Roman Empire. If someone wants to try these delicacies, I leave you the recipe, which is found in Casa dos Bicos:

“This is how liquamen is done: place the fish entrails in a reservoir and salt them. The small fish (…) are salted equally, and are preserved under the sun, being stirred quite often, after being macerated by the heat, the garum is extracted. It is placed in a big and solid basket inside the reservoir full of fish (…) and the garum is extracted to the basket; and, thus, due to basket’s filtering, one gets the so-called liquamen, the rest becomes the hallec”.

Alongside this production, there was also a huge production of containers (amphorae), which were used for the transport of fish products all over the Roman-ruled places. I can imagine the Romans carrying the amphorae, full of garum, at the pier, towards the richest tier of the Empire…

Roman Amphora (Casa dos Bicos, Lisboa, Portugal)
Roman Amphora (Casa dos Bicos)

Domus (House) – Eurostar Museum Hotel

Very close to Casa dos Bicos, there is a hotel that revealed a room of a Roman domus during its construction. The old room is found next to the entrance and I think they will allow you to see it if you just ask to. I was part of a group and already had prior authorization.

Tiled Floor (Hotel, Lisboa, Portugal)
Tiled Floor (Hotel)

Due to the river proximity during the Roman age, it is assumed that a wealthy merchant inhabited this domus. Only the houses of the richest people had a mosaic-ornamented pavement like this one does.

A domus usually had a floor and occupied an entire block. Here we could find a lobby and, around it, a kitchen, the living room to welcome guests, the dining room and the guest rooms. What we see here in the hotel was quite probably a room. Just imagine those famous Roman banquets, during which they delighted themselves with fish products made in Lisbon!

Pipeline – Museu do Aljube

On the castle hill, quite close to the Sé (a former mosque), we find Museu do Aljube, a former prison during the Military Dictatorship. However, in the Roman age, a pipeline crossed this place, which carried the water discharge from the city’s most elevated area.

Roman Conduct (Aljube Museum, Lisboa, Portugal)
Roman Conduct (Aljube Museum)

The Romans were pioneers in infrastructure like pipelines, aqueducts, roads and bridges. In the museum’s basement, you can see an example of the vast breakthroughs in quality of life that existed at the time.

Theater – Roman Theater Museum

The Romans built a theater in Lisbon as soon as they occupied it, in an elevated area, making sure that everyone could see that it belonged to the Romans, particularly those who were arriving there for the first time.
The Roman theaters were a symbol of power that we encounter throughout their empire, in Lisbon, Italy, Tunisia, Turkey or, the greatest of all, the magnificent Coliseum of Rome.

In Lisbon, the theater must have had a capacity for about 4000 people, who watched happy or dramatic plays. The actors were the slaves, who wore masks like those painted on the wall immediately in front of the stage.

Roman masks used in the Roman theater, Lisboa, Portugal
Roman masks used in the Roman theater

The city stopped and everyone took the day to go to the theater, from the richest to the traders and even the slaves. It was a day off and everyone went to the theater.

When you are there, imagine 4000 spectators facing the Tagus river, with a view totally stripped of buildings. I imagine how absolutely great that was.

The thermae, tombstones and ex-votos – Travessa do Almada

The Romans went to public baths every day after work. These sites were very important not only to maintain their hygiene, but also to socialize. Taking a bath was a social act, during which conversations and political decisions were made.

In a street between Lisbon’s downtown and the castle, we find a bit of one of the old thermae. Unfortunately, we cannot visit it, just peek through the window.

Very close to the thermae remains, we find a house with an unique façade. It is a relatively recent building, where there are traces of Roman buildings that have been integrated into its construction.

There are four stones integrated and that are related to a possible Cybele-devoted temple and with ex-votos, which are offerings made to individualities.

 

Stone of an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess Cybele, Lisboa, Portugal
Stone of an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess Cybele

These are some of the examples that make you recall Lisbon’s importance during the Roman occupation…

 



Travel Guide

When to go: Between June and September for warmer temperatures.

Documents: To enter Portugal, you may need a passport and / or visa, depending on your country in which you live. Citizens of the European Community do not need a visa to enter Portugal. Passports must be valid for up to 6 months (depending on your nationality) and are required by all, except for nationals of the European Union and nationals of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Malta, Norway and Switzerland holding valid national identity cards. Brits, Australians, Canadians, Americans and Japanese need a valid passport.

Although it is not mandatory to have a return ticket, it is advisable to have one, because if you do not, you may have to prove sufficient means of financial support to return.

Currency: The local currency is the euro.

Time zone: GMT.

Language: Portuguese.