Felicitas lulia Olisipo: Lisbon in the Roman Empire

Lisbon was named by Julius Caesar, Felicitas lulia Olisipo, and thrived by exporting garum.

Felicitas lulia Olisipo: Lisbon in the Roman Empire
Amphorae found in a house next to the roman theater in Lisbon. Credits: George Liapis

The city of Felicitas Iulia Olisipo 

Populated since prehistoric times, the significant city of Lisbon was known as Felicitas Julia Olisipo (or Olisippo) in ancient times. Various theories exist regarding the origin of its name, including one that combines lys (a Celtic word for Tagus) and ipo (of Phoenician origin), with a prefix o at the beginning. The term likely had local roots that were later influenced by Hellenic or Roman modifications. Plato, in the 4th century BC, referred to a character named Elásippos in his allegory of Atlantis, a son of Neptune, the sea god, and vividly described the local fauna and geography.

Writers such as Marciano Capela, Solino, Saint Isidore of Seville, and Damião de Góis have suggested that the name might have been derived from Ulysses, who, according to legend, might have conquered the city in antiquity. Another hypothesis connects the name to the region’s renowned fast horses, as the suffix 'ippos' hints at a relation to horses.

The Roman influence in what is now Lisbon was established early on, earning the region the prestigious designation of a municipium romanorum, granting it a status with notable legal benefits. The city was graced with favor by Augustus between 31 BC and 27 BC, bestowing upon it the title Felicitas Iulia Olisipo—a moniker shared with other honored Iberian cities such as Pax Julia (Beja) and Liberalitas Iulia Ebora (Évora). Following the Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 16 BC, and the ensuing Pax Romana, the region entered a period of considerable stability and began to construct the larger Roman Empire.

Felicitas Julia Olisipo became a city ennobled by its status as the capital for Roman citizens, and held an advantageous position throughout antiquity. It stood as a crucial geostrategic nexus for extensive economic and commercial exchanges, acting as a focal point for the inflow and distribution of goods and people.

This port city, pivotal in a region abundant with natural riches, mirrored the commercial spirit found in other Roman port cities renowned for trade, such as Baelo Claudia in Spain, Barcino (now Barcelona), Cartago Nova (Cartagena), and Ostia near Rome.

In the wake of this peaceful era, a new administrative arrangement was set in motion, overhauling the previous divisions of Citerior and Ulterior provinces, with the latter being segmented into Baetica and Lusitania. Felicitas Iulia Olisipo found itself in Lusitania, with its capital at Iulia Augusta Emerita (modern-day Mérida), established in 25 BC.

A representation of the Roman theater in its full glory, via the Museum of Lisbon.
A representation of the Roman theater in its full glory. Illustration credits: Museu de Lisboa, Photo credits: George Liapis

The serenity fostered by the Pax Romana enabled flourishing trade connections within the Roman Empire's provinces. Olisipo's wealth, primarily derived from its robust fishing and agriculture industries, allowed it to export numerous products by leveraging its advantageous Atlantic position.

Rapidly ascending to the status of maritime capital of Lusitania, evidence of its dynamic economy is underscored by the discovery of various fish-processing facilities along the riverside, alongside ancillary trades such as the production of ceramic containers.

A testament to Olisipo’s elevated standing was the construction of its theater. Eschewing the convenience of level terrain, the theater was purposefully erected against a sloping hillside overlooking the Tagus River. This choice was emblematic, serving as a potent symbol of Roman dominion, crafting an architectural vista that offered a striking welcome to those arriving by river.

The riverside baths' cryptoporticus in Felicitas lulia Olisipo

Ancient Felicitas Julia Olisipo, (Julius Caesar made Lisbon a municipium called Felicitas Julia, adding to the name Olissipo) though not extensively chronicled in historical texts, is understood through its surviving remnants as a bustling metropolis, the epicenter for Roman citizens within the Galeria tribe.

Graffiti on top of the Roman theater in Lisbon, behind the wires that protect the monument.
Graffiti on the construction that covers and protects the Roman theater ruins in Lisbon. Credits: George Liapis

Like its counterparts throughout the Roman Empire, it was anchored by a central forum—a hub of administrative and religious activity—whose precise location remains a mystery. The city's landscape was a tapestry woven with essential public structures like theatres and baths amid private dwellings.

On the city's fringes, structures requiring seclusion were erected, including a circus and facilities for fish sauce production, stretching from Rua Augusta to Campo das Cebolas. Beyond the city limits, along various roads, lay the necropolises, with unearthed remains at places such as Praça da Figueira.

The heart of trade and commerce was the port along the riverfront, distinguished by its monumental Thermae Maritimae. These grand baths, partly underpinned by a network of cryptoporticus—arched galleries serving multifunctional roles including supporting the hypocaust heating system—epitomized the city's blend of architectural ingenuity and public utility.

A sea of fish

Two millennia ago, when the Atlantic region became part of the expansive Roman Empire, there was a significant surge in resource exploitation to fuel the burgeoning global economy of the time. The burgeoning fish-sauce industry, in particular, enriched many cities along the western Andalusian coast and in North Africa. In Portugal, known centers of production were established along the Algarve coastline, in Sines, Peniche, and within the estuaries of Sado and Tagus.

Remains of a two-floor house found next to the Roman theater in Lisbon, situated within Museu de Lisboa Credits: George Liapis

The bountiful Tagus estuary provided optimal conditions for harnessing the abundant marine life, fostering an expansive industry dedicated to producing fish preserves. These products were not only consumed locally but also shipped abroad, playing a vital role in the economic ascent of Olisipo.

Archaeological excavations have shed light on this industrious past, allowing us to envisage a sprawling complex of factories dotting the western outskirts of the ancient city along the riverbanks and inlets, in the area now known as Baixa.

There's evidence that the pottery workshops which supplied Olisipo with amphorae, the containers used to transport these goods, operated for over five centuries on the left bank of the Tagus estuary.

One notable example of this industrious period, illustrating the interplay between both sides of the river, is the Quinta do Rouxinol pottery workshop located in Corroios (Seixal). This site stands as a historical testament to the region’s ancient economic endeavors and its integration into the wider networks of the Roman Empire.

A representation of how the Ancient Roman Theatre (Teatro Romano) looked like in Lisbon, Portugal.
A representation of how the Ancient Roman Theatre (Teatro Romano) looked like in Lisbon, Portugal. Illustration credits: Museu de Lisboa, Photo credits: George Liapis

Made in Portugal

Economically, Olisipo was renowned for producing garum, the highly-valued fish sauce favored by the elite of the Empire and shipped in amphorae to Rome and other cities. Additionally, the city exported wine, salt, and its famously swift horses (you can still buy garum in the Roman theatre museum of Lisbon).
Where today's Rua dos Correeiros in downtown Lisbon lies, one can explore remnants of ancient cetarias, the term for fish preservation tanks.

These facilities employed salting techniques, which involved cutting fish into pieces, layering them with salt in tanks, and then covering them with a final layer of salt and weights, as described by the naturalist and historian Pliny. They also produced garum, a refined and luxurious sauce made from fish by-products, highly esteemed and often mentioned in the writings of Seneca and Horace. Another variant produced was liquamen, which was slightly more fluid than garum.

Nearby, on Rua dos Bacalhoeiros, ruins of similar storage tanks and amphorae can be found, echoing a past closely linked to the bustling river traffic of the Tagus River during those times. Another great site for you to visit in order to see the garum production facilities in all their glory is the NARC (Nucleo Arqueologico da Rua dos Correeiros), where in the premises of Millenium’s Bank building, a secret museum lies for you to uncover.

There were also wells, courtyards, and buildings that supported the daily activities of production and trade, a bustling enterprise driven by extensive exports that stretched to the empire's borders. This routine was emblematic of a robust quality—a sort of certification—that lasted four centuries until the empire's decline in the 5th century. The same consumers who relished these exceptional products also celebrated their origin, creating a brand reputation akin to modern accolades, proudly labeled 'Made in Lusitânia'. This legacy filled the minds of many admirers with pleasant memories, a testament to the skilled professionals like those in charge and their assistants who, under the warming sun, wrapped up another day's work amid the grand narrative that unfolded around them.

Olisipo, with its prominence, ascended to the status of a capital in the emerging nation, continuing its significant fish production and trade. However, other locations like Setúbal, the Roman Cetóbrica, also played a crucial role in this bustling industry, showcased in the imposing tank factory complex at Travessa Frei Gaspar, in Setubal. Here, modern glass floors provide a clear view of the antiquities beneath, seamlessly integrating archaeology with daily life and allowing both experts and laypeople to connect with history. This blending of past and present offers a breathtaking encounter with knowledge and ignites a passion for seeing our reflections in the lives of those who came before us.

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