Portugal has many interesting historical sites, ranging from castles to megalithic dolmens. The Roman ruins of Conimbriga are one of the country’s most significant archeaological sites and are well worth a visit. Conimbriga was already an important settlement during the Iron and Bronze Ages and is known to have been occupied by indigenous peoples from at least the 9th century BC.
Conimbriga was subsequently brought under Roman rule following the Roman conquest of the region, led by Decimus Iunius Brutus Calaicus (138-136BC). It lay along the road that linked Lisbon (Olisipo) and Braga (Bracara Augusta), and also connected with Coimbra (Aeminium), 16km to the north.
The city’s architectural growth started under the reign of Augustus and continued through the 1st century AD. The city received additional fortifications in the 4th century, including a large wall, but then it began a period of decline, along with the Roman Empire, until it was abandoned in the Middle Ages.
The site has been under archeaological excavation since 1899 and has been classified as a National Monument since 1910.
The site is open to the public every day of the week, except for certain public holidays. Normal admission costs €4.50. Seniors tickets are €2.25 and children 12 and under enter for free. All residents of Portugal can gain free admission on Sundays and holidays. More information is available at the official website.
As we began to explore the ruins, I was surprised by the large size of the old city. It is spread out over a large area and it is estimated that only 10% of the city has been excavated to date. There is plenty to see, including the remains of aristocratic villas, public baths, mosaic floors, and a large Forum.
The first area that we reached featured examples of mosaic flooring that were found in the city.
Just beyond the first mosaics were the excavated remains of two houses, with their own intact mosaic floors. The ‘House of the Swastika Mosaic’ is believed to have been the home of a wealthy family. Its construction dates to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, but the mosaics were added later, around the 3rd century. The swastika cross depicted in the mosaics represented the sun and was a symbol of good luck. The house was demolished by the 4th century, to make way for the construction of the Late-Imperial Wall. Next door was the ‘House of the Skeletons’, so named because a late-Roman and Medieval cemetery was subsequently established on the site, above the remains of the house. This was also a home for the wealthy, constructed around the end of the 2nd century, with 3rd century mosaic flooring. The house also features a peristylium – an open courtyard within the house, with columns or pillars surrounding a garden, that supported a shady roofed portico. This house was also demolished to make way for the construction of the wall.
Near to these two homes is a partially excavated bathing facility that dates back to the last quarter of the 1st century. It featured a pool, furnaces and hot rooms, with separate areas to facilitate simultaneous attendance by men and women.
We made our way to the Great Southern Baths and were struck by the scope of the excavations, as we passed many partially excavated buildings. The first public baths of Conimbriga were built during the rule of Emperor Augustus, around the end of the 1st century BC, as part of an ambitious programme to modernise the city. The baths were modelled on the big imperial baths of Rome and featured several distinct areas. At the northern end of the facility is a large rectangular pool that would have contained cold water, with steps at one end. In the centre of the facility was the baths area that would have featured warm and hot rooms. At the southern end was the palaestra, an open-air garden or courtyard that could be used for exercise. Underneath the palaestra are the remains of some adobe structures that are rare examples of Iron Age urbanism.
Moving north from the public baths, we passed through more former residential areas, although the homes in this area seemed smaller than the two that were displaced by the wall. The area to the west of the Forum was gradually abandoned between the 5th century and the Middle Ages (10th – 11th centuries), partly due to the Forum Temple having been transformed into a Christian church, as well as the creation of a cemetery in this part of the city. There is not a great deal left of the Forum, but it is clear that it would have been a large feature of the city.
Leaving the Forum behind, we reached a small amphitheatre, an aqueduct and the remains of a small thermal bath.
Walking alongside the Late-Imperial Wall, we arrived at the ‘House attributed to Cantaber’. It is the largest house in the city, with a size of 35,090 square feet (3,260 m2). It was built in the 1st century AD and survived until the city was abandoned in the Middle Ages. In the 5th century, it is believed to have been occupied by Cantaber, who was an important aristocrat in the city. The house is bordered by the Late-Imperial Wall and has five distinct areas, each with its own peristylium. It is clear that it was a very impressive house.
We then walked through what would have been the main gate of the Late-Imperial Wall. With an average thickness of 4 metres (13 feet), it was a formidable military structure, but it did not encircle the entire city, only covering 10 hectares. The main entrance featured a double-gate with two large towers.
The final part of the excavations was the ‘House of the Fountains’ which was an aristocratic residence that has been partially excavated. Its construction dates back to the 1st century, but it was abandoned in the 3rd/4th century due to the construction of the Late-Imperial Wall. The house is said to contain the best examples of mosaic art, mural painting and waterworks architecture known in the city. Seeing the peristylium filled with water and plants helped to provide a better understanding of how impressive the other aristocratic homes must have looked around two thousand years ago.
After refreshing ourselves with ice creams and drinks at the cafe, we headed over to the onsite museum, where we enjoyed looking at displays of artefacts that have been recovered from the site. These include tools for metalworking, pottery, stone masonry, clothing and farming, as well as assorted housewares and decorative items. There is a scale model of the Forum, as well as remnants of statues and grave markers found during excavations.
I highly recommend a visit to Conimbriga. It was a very enjoyable and informative visit for us, that taught us a bit more about Portugal’s history. There is very little shade available, so I recommend hats and sunscreen during summer months – and carry a bottle of water with you.