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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of the Teatro Romano in Lisbon

What is the Teatro Romano?

The Teatro Romano is a 1st-century-AD Roman theatre in Lisbon that was built in the reign of Emperor Augustus and was rediscovered in the mid-20th century.

Turismoenportugal, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Teatro Romano History

Throughout Lisbon's history, the City has been governed by various peoples from far afield, namely the ancient Carthaginians (from modern-day Tunisia), the Visigoths (an early Germanic tribe), and perhaps most famously Arabs from North Africa. However, it was also at one time subject to the dominion of the empire that subjugated most of Europe during its inexorable rise. Following the Second Punic War, which saw the Carthaginian general Hannibal famously cross the Alps with his elephants, the Romans ruled the Iberian Peninsula. Vestiges of Lisbon’s Roman period remain scattered beneath the city’s historic centre, such as this 1st-century-AD theatre that now forms part of the Museum of Lisbon.

Built during the reign of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, and later remodelled in Nero’s day, the theatre occupies the southernmost slope of the hill of São Jorge Castle. A symbol of Roman power as well as a mark of so-called Romanisation, the theatre was visible to all arriving by river and in use for more than 300 years. It was dismantled in the reign of Constantine, and rediscovered only in the late 18th century when it was partially uncovered after the 1755 earthquake had caused the collapse of nearby residential buildings. At that time, it was covered over once again, and only reclaimed by archaeologists in the mid-20th century.

Here, along narrow São Mamede Street, is both the archaeological site and a museum containing its treasures. Multimedia exhibitions present the history of the theatre, its ruins, and their conservation and recovery plans. The museum is housed in two buildings: the one to the south is from the 17th century, and the other dates from the late 19th century. The southern building is a fine example of reclaimed industrial architecture, having once housed a printing shop and a luggage factory.

The ruins of the theatre, which had the capacity to seat approximately 4,000 spectators, consist of the supporting wall of the scenic façade, and the orchestra, paved with slabs of grey and pink marble, which was an area reserved for the elite. The stage was decorated with the figures of Melpomene, one of the nine Muses and the patron of tragedy, and a sleeping Silenus (part man, part beast, who was associated with the dramatic arts) reclining on carved marble wineskins, with a voluminous belly and thick beard. The theatre was set on a sloping limestone base worked into steps in the favoured manner for ancient theatres.

The museum is an excellent cultural centre, with more to offer than just Roman remains. Its permanent collection includes ceramics from the Iron Age, objects from the Middle Ages, and pots and tiles from the 16th and 17th centuries. Remember also to look for the Stone Sundial, one of the oldest in Portugal.

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