The Roman Occupation of Portugal and Conimbriga

The modern name of Portugal was not used until the 11th cen­tury.

The names in italics are the ones that were used at the time of the Roman Empire.

In 210BC the Romans entered the southern Iberian peninsula and quickly subdued the Mediterranean coast and the south of Spain and Portugal. In the central Iberian region they met great re­sistance and in 193BC the Lusitani rose up in arms. Based in central Portugal between the Tejo and the Lima rivers the Lusitani were known to the Romans as ‘Strabo’ “the most powerful of the Ibe­rian peoples, who resisted the armies of Rome for the longest period”. Under the rebel leader Viriato, possibly born in the area of Loriga in the Serra d’Estrela, they held up the Roman advance for 50 years, only finally losing in 139BC.

In 60BC Julius Caeser established his capital at Olisipo (Lisbon) and then built significant settlement at Ebora (Évora), Scallibis (Santarém) and Pax Julia (Beja).

Under the Emperor Augustus the Iberian provinces were reorganised in 27BC, with everything but the north of Portugal governed as Lusitánia. The Minho area formed part of another province which was added to northern Spain to become Gallaecia, with an important regional centre at Bracara Augusta (Braga).

The Roman influence was greatest in the south, where they established huge agricultural estates ‘litifundia’ (many of which survive today in the Alentejo).They introduced wheat, olives, barley and of course vines, to Portugal. The Romans ruled for 6 centuries under the emperors Tiberius, Trajar, Hadrian (he of the famous wall in the UK) and Diodetian. They have left many roads and bridges which are still in use today, 2000 years later. The Portuguese lan­guage is heavily based on Latin, which was the language of Rome, and one of the biggest influences that survives to­day from the Roman Empire, through­out southern Europe.

Conimbriga is one of the largest Roman settlements in Portugal and is classified as a National Monument. It lies 16km south of Coimbra and is well signposted from the main road. The site has a mu­seum that displays objects found by ar­chaeologists, including coins and surgi­cal tools, and you can walk around the site virtually unrestricted.

Excavations were first recorded in 1899 but real systematic excavation work started in 1936 and is on-going. In the museum shop they sell an excellent book ‘Guide to the Ruins’ (available in English) which you should get before you tour the site.

The name Conimbriga derives from an early, possibly pre-Indo-European ele­ment ‘conim’ meaning “rocky height or outcrop” and the Celtic ‘briga’, signifying a defended place. It was first conquered in 137BC by Decimus Julius Brutus and remodelled in the Roman style by Au­gustus.
Although Conimbriga was not the larg­est Roman city in Portugal, it is the best preserved. The city walls are largely in­tact, and the mosaic floors and founda­tions of many houses and public build­ings remain. In the baths, you can view the network of stone heating ducts be­neath the now-missing floors.

Like many museums in Portugal there is a small entry fee but on Sundays and Public Holidays it is free. There is a café/restaurant in the museum where you can sit on the balcony overlooking the ruins, and a small gift shop.

Other roman sites in Central Portu­gal include The Rabaçal Roman Villae, which was situated close to the Roman Way that connected Olisipo to Bracara Augusta, on the road between Sellium (Tomar) and Conímbriga. Here there are some excellent mosaics displaying dol­phins, ivy leaves, the seasons, and more. The ruins are open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm but closed between 1pm and 2pm for lunch. In order to visit the ruins you must first visit the museum. The collections here came from the ex­cavations that have been carried out since 1984 in the Roman Villae and in the farm, both dating from the 4th cen­tury A.D. There are displays of ceram­ics, metals, glass and wall decorations made of marble.

At Santiago da Guarda, North West of Ansiao, it is also possible to see pre­served roman remains and mosaics, in a museum in the centre of the town. Here part of the visitor centre has glass floors and viewing areas to allow you to get the best views of the excavations.
At Bobadela north of Coimbra there is also a Roman Arch in the town along with numerous other pillars and fea­tures and Amphitheatre in the church grounds.

The decline of the Roman occupation of Portugal echoed its decline throughout Europe. The Roman Empire was already disintegrating when the first Christians landed on the southern shores of ‘Lusi­tania’ around 200AD.

In the early 5th century Lusitania was attacked and occupied by the Suevi and the Visigoths (Germanic peoples), and in 410 Rome was sacked by the Visig­oths led by Alaric I.