Oh Those Romans

Roman city of ConÍmbriga, Portugal
In the Roman province of Lusitania

What fascinated us about the Roman city of ConÍmbriga in Portugal were the intricate mosaics, uncovered and open to the sky— still intact after 2,000 years! Think of it. How will our living room floors look in 4019? Especially if we left them roofless and open to the elements for centuries?

ConÍmbriga is Portugal’s largest and most impressive Roman site. It’s a perfect stop in the countryside when you’re leaving Lisbon and headed north to Coimbra, as we were.

Of course the Romans weren’t the first to enjoy this blithe air when they arrived in 139 BC. The peaceful Conii tribe had a thriving settlement but they were easily convinced that the Romans offered a preferable lifestyle.

ConÍmbriga began its glory days under Emperor Augustus who erected public buildings, like the forum, shops, baths and an amphitheatre. And brought water via the Augustan Aqueduct from Alcabideque, almost four kilometres away. A network of stone-heating ducts and drains was laid beneath those lovely mosaics for thermal spas and 500 fountains. What’s not to like about these creature comforts?


Under Flavius in the 1st century AD, the imperial forum was reconstructed and the Vitruvian baths were built. In ConÍmbriga’s final stage, buildings were remodelled and homes were insulae (built with more than one floor) with open courtyards. Mosaics, sculptures and painted murals decorated public buildings and private homes. Prosperity reigned and the population grew upwards of 10,000 people.

The most iconic mosaics are in the Casa dos Repuxos, (House of Fountains), the large aristocratic residence built in the first half of the 2nd century AD. Emulating Rome’s imperial residence, the figurative mosaics of this noble villa illustrate mythological stories to signify the owner’s learned status and hunting scenes indicating his sponsorship of public games. Imagine walking on these mosaics, listening to gurgling water fountains in air perfumed by flower gardens.

One of the largest homes, not just in ConÍmbriga but in the entire Roman world, was built in the 3rd century AD, the House of Cantaber.

Then there’s the Casa da Cruz Suástica, (House of swastika), named for the motif the Romans considered good luck that decorates two of its mosaics and Casa dos Esqueletos, (House of the skeletons), named for the necropolis, which came later to this location.

Are you thinking what we were: how did these mosaics remain so well preserved?

The Romans used tesserae, cubes of stone, ceramic, or glass that are, obviously, resistant to fading. They imported stones with unusual colours for special highlights and relied on glass for bright colors like blue and green. However, in the 1st century AD, black-and-white mosaics were fashionable, as we could see at ConÍmbriga. Attacked and pillaged by the Suebii, and later the Swabian-Visigoths, ConÍmbriga went into a slow decline and was abandoned by the 5th century. Not so good for the ConÍmbrigans, very  good for the mosaics. These decorative floors lay undisturbed for centuries, protected by layers of “sunscreen”—soil and vegetation.

Canada was only six years old when the Portuguese first began excavating ConÍmbriga and the site opened to the public the year Richard Bennett was elected prime minister. Placed in this landscape, the raw beauty of ConÍmbriga places you in the time of the Romans. Even two years later, at home, the world telescoped to the here and now, ConÍmbriga leaves a lasting imprint, an ut signaculum super cor tuum I think the Romans would call it.

6 Responses

  1. Incredible designs; colours; symbols and patterns.

    Were the Romans the originators of all of these patterns, designs, and symbols or did they copy those of other, earlier, or just other civilizations.

    There are a lot of very creative ideas here.

    It would be amazing if they all originated with the Romans (?)

    1. Here’s what I found: Flooring set with small pebbles was used in the Bronze Age in both the Minoan civilization based on Crete and the Mycenaean civilization on mainland Greece. The same idea but reproducing patterns was used in the Near East in the 8th century BCE. In Greece the first pebble flooring which attempted designs dates to the 5th century BCE with examples at Corinth and Olynthus. These were usually in two shades with light geometric designs and simple figures on a dark background. By the end of the 4th century BCE colours were being used and many fine examples have been found at Pella in Macedonia. These mosaics were often reinforced by inlaying strips of terracotta or lead, often used to mark outlines. Indeed, it was not until Hellenistic times in the 3rd century BCE that mosaics really took off as an art form and detailed panels using tesserae rather than pebbles began to be incorporated into patterned floors. Many of these mosaics attempted to copy contemporary wall paintings.

  2. I think there is a lesson here for what kind of building materials will last the longest, wood is never going to outlast Brick, mortar and stone of various types.
    Of course, not all areas have access to vast quantities of stone required to build these massive buildings and structures so we must avail ourselves to the local materials.
    Beautiful examples of building skills and artistry combined to last indefinitely.

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