A short walk downhill from Lisbon’s São Jorge Castle are the archaeological remains of a Roman theater complex. The site was closed for two years while archaeologists excavated the site. In 2015 it re-opened to the public, which includes a new museum and permanent exhibits. Below is a sculpture of Sleeping Silenus, a companion of Dionysus, the god of wine.
The theater of Olisipo (the full Roman name for Lisbon at the time was Felicitas Olisipo Julia) was constructed in the 1st Century BC under the rule of Emperor Augustus. It was expanded further around 57 AD under Nero’s rule. At its height, it could easily accommodate 4000-5000 spectators. It would have been the most spectacular building in the city at the time. Here’s what it would have looked like in its heyday:
The theater was constructed in a very prominent location, overlooking the Rio Tajo, or Tagus River. The view from here was beautiful. I can only imagine what it was like in Roman times:
Theaters were used for plays, orations, poetry and musical performances. They were also open to the entire general public; slaves and citizens, rich and poor alike. Entrances and seating, however, were typically divided by social classes. In fact, it was Augustus himself who introduced the Lex Iulia Theatralis, an edict regulating seating arrangements. For example, senators were to have individual seats, while knights/cavalry of the Roman army occupied the first fourteen rows of seats. Women of all social ranks had their own section of seats, in the covered portico at the very back of the theater. While many of these rules had been in place previously, they weren’t always strictly followed, hence the edict to reinforce the structured seating plans.
After the 5th Century AD the theater was gradually abandoned. This was due to societal changes and the introduction of Christianity, which condemned pagan activities. Urban housing started popping up over the theater’s structure, re-using some of the original building’s walls. Meanwhile, masonry was re-used in the construction of new buildings, which was a common practice at the time. These cycles of re-use and re-construction are evident in the excavated layers:
Below is a diagram indicating the re-use of the scenic facade support of the theater as a wall in a 17th Century house:
This is the 17th Century house, which re-used a 16th Century archway:
An ancient staircase with an intricate floor mosaic pattern on the landing still visible.
The lower area of the theater’s stage contained a basin for wastewater. The pillars, seen below on either side of the basin, were stage supports. The holes, like the one in the upper left-hand corner, once held setting poles that allowed the curtain to be moved up and down.
The ruins of the theater were re-discovered not long after the 1755 earthquake, only to be re-buried again during the city’s reconstruction. The theater was only re-re-discovered sometime in the 1960s. Due to its cycles of re-use, it may not be the best preserved example of a Roman theater, but it is really interesting to see the layers of occupation at the site.
The museum itself is well-organized and informative, especially for its modest size. Admission was around €3,00, which we thought was quite reasonable too. You can easily go through the museum in an hour or two, depending on your level of interest, but it’s definitely worth checking out.