Did you know that there are archaeological remains of a Roman theatre complex right in the heart of Lisbon, Portugal? We didn’t! Which made stumbling upon the Roman Theatre Museum such a nice surprise.

Back in ancient Roman times, Lisbon’s full Roman name was Felicitas Olisipo Julia. Emperor Augustus had the theatre of Olisipo constructed under his rule in the 1st Century BC. Later, around 57 AD under Nero’s rule, the theatre was expanded. An inscription found on a wall separating the stage from the viewing area confirms the date of expansion. The theatre could easily accommodate 4000-5000 spectators.

Here’s what the theatre would have looked like in its heyday:

Rendering of Theater of Olisipo
Rendering of the Theater of Olisipo

The theatre dominated a very prominent position – overlooking the Rio Tajo, or Tagus River. The view from here was beautiful. I can only imagine what it was like in Roman times, without the taller buildings obscuring the view:

view from Lisbon Roman Theater museum

The ancient Romans performed plays, orations, poetry and musical performances here.

Everyone in the general public had access to the theatre; slaves and citizens, rich and poor alike. However, the entrances and seating typically divided the 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. Meanwhile, 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 theatre. While many of these rules existed previously, people didn’t always strictly follow them – hence the edict to reinforce the structured seating plans.

A portion of the theater with remains of columns
A portion of the theater with remains of columns

After the 5th Century AD the theatre 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 theatre’s structure, re-using some of the original building’s walls. Meanwhile, builders re-used some of the masonry 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:

Lisbon Roman theater layers

Below is a diagram indicating the re-use of the scenic facade support of the theatre as a wall in a 17th Century house:

Lisbon Roman Theater diagram of re-useThis is the 17th Century house, which re-used a 16th Century archway. Note the catwalk in the upper portion of the photo. These walkways allow visitors to view the spaces from different vantage points:

16th C archway, Lisbon Roman theater

This is an ancient staircase. You can see that an intricate floor mosaic pattern on the landing is still intact.

staircase with mosaic floor, Lisbon Roman theater

The lower area of the theatre’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. These allowed the curtain to be moved up and down.

basin for wastewater, Lisbon

In 1755, a massive and deadly earthquake caused extensive damage to Lisbon and surrounding areas. The theatre was re-discovered during the reconstruction of Lisbon in 1798. An Italian architect named Francisco Xavier Fabri drew pictures of what the theatre’s ruins looked like at that time.

Unfortunately, rebuilding Lisbon was more important than the historical importance of the theatre. Consequently, new construction re-buried the ruins again. However, this act may have actually protected some areas of the site from damage.

Fernando de Almeida, an olisipographer, started excavating the theatre in 1964. Eventually, the city of Lisbon purchased the buildings overlapping the theatre in order to demolish them. This opened up the site to easier excavations and viewing.

After 2001, new archaeological digs revealed additional theatre sections. The Museum of the Roman Theatre opened later that same year.

The site closed for two years while archaeologists excavated the site further. In 2015 it re-opened to the public, which includes a new museum and permanent exhibits. The museum actually stretches between two buildings of different eras – one from the 18th Century and one from the end of the 19th Century. The museum showcases architectural fragments, pottery, and sculptures found during excavations at the site.

For example, here is a sculpture of Sleeping Silenus, a companion of Dionysus, the god of wine.

Sculpture of Sleeping Silenus

The museum itself isn’t huge, but it is well-organized and informative. 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.

Getting There:

Address: Patio de Aljube, 5 – Alfama

Public Transportation:

Metro: Terreiro do Paço or Baixa-Chiado

Bus: 714, 732, 736, 737, 760

Tram: 12 and 28

Hours of Operation: Tuesday to Sunday, 10AM-1PM, 2PM-6PM (Closed Mondays)

Admission: 3,00 €

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