Roman mosaics from Lusitania (Portugal)

Among the most impressive Roman remains that can be seen today in Portugal are the large, prosperous farms and luxurious villas built in the countryside by the elite. The villas were splendidly decorated with mosaics, frescoes, and sculptures. Some of the mosaics, still in situ or exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Lisbon, are often very well preserved. They are also a valuable source of information on the rural lifestyle in this area of the Roman Empire. Their study can tell us much about the lifestyles of their occupants, from their love of hunting or their passion for the circus races to their devotion to scenes from mythology.

Torre de Palma, located in the Alentejo region, a South-Central region of Portugal, is one of the largest Roman villas in Portuguese territory. It was occupied from the 2nd through the 5th century AD and was located next to the road that connected Olisipo (Lisbon) and Scallabis (Santarém) to Augusta Emerita (Mérida, Spain). A year after the discovery of Torre de Palma in 1947, all the mosaic pavements were removed and transferred to the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia in Lisbon. Sadly not all the mosaics found at this villa were on display when I visited the museum last month. For example, the “mosaic of the muses“, one of the most famous roman mosaics from Portugal, is currently in storage. Another famous mosaic found at Torre de Palma and not shown here is the mosaic depicting five horses together with their names. The figurative and geometric mosaics of this villa are of great importance to the study of mosaic art in Hispania, both from an iconographic and technical perspective.

Mosaic panel depicting the madness of Heracles (Hercules furens), from the Villa Torre de Palma near Monforte, 3rd-4th century AD, National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic panel depicting the madness of Heracles (temporarily driven mad by the goddess Hera, Heracles kills his wife and children), from the Villa Torre de Palma, 3rd-4th century AD
National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic panel depiciting the Triumph of Bacchus, from the Villa Torre de Palma near Monforte, 3rd-4th century AD, National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic panel depiciting the Triumph of Bacchus, from the Villa Torre de Palma, 3rd-4th century AD
National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic panel depicting Theseus and the Minotaur, from the Villa Torre de Palma near Monforte, 3rd-4th century AD, National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic panel depicting Theseus and the Minotaur, from the Villa Torre de Palma, 3rd-4th century AD
National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic panel depicting Apollo and Daphne, from the Villa Torre de Palma near Monforte, 3rd-4th century AD, National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic panel depicting Apollo and Daphne, from the Villa Torre de Palma, 3rd-4th century AD
National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

In Milreu, located in the Algarve region, the southernmost region of mainland Portugal, the remains of a luxurious Roman villa contains some of the finest mosaics from the Roman imperial era to be found in the region. In the surrounding rooms of the villa and on the exterior of the temple devoted to the cult of water, polychrome mosaics with geometric motifs and underwater scenes can be admired in situ. The profusion of mosaics in the Algarve with fish motifs and marine backgrounds gives some indication of the importance of the industrial production of garum (Roman fish sauce) in this part of Lusitania. The fishes depicted in these mosaics are sea bass, dories, groupers, squids and dolphins together with mussels and urchins.

Detail of mosaic on the podium wall in the water sanctuary depicting fishes and molluscs, Roman Ruins of Milreu, a luxurious rural villa transformed into a prosperous farm in the 3rd century, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Detail of mosaic on the podium wall in the water sanctuary showing marine fauna, including fishes,  mussels and urchins
Roman Ruins of Milreu, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Detail of mosaic on the podium wall in the water sanctuary depicting a dolphin, fish and mollusc, Roman Ruins of Milreu, a luxurious rural villa transformed into a prosperous farm in the 3rd century, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Detail of mosaic on the podium wall in the water sanctuary showing marine fauna, including a fish, dolphin and urchin
Roman Ruins of Milreu, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Detail of mosaic on the podium wall in the water sanctuary depicting fishes and molluscs, Roman Ruins of Milreu, Estói, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Detail of mosaic on the podium wall in the water sanctuary showing marine fauna, including a dolphin and urchins
Roman Ruins of Milreu, Estói, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Detail of mosaic in the frigidarium of the baths depicting fishes and molluscs, Roman Ruins of Milreu, a luxurious rural villa transformed into a prosperous farm in the 3rd century, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Detail of mosaic in the frigidarium of the baths showing marine fauna, including fishes, mussels and urchins
Roman Ruins of Milreu, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor depicting an underwater scene of sea creatures, eartern side of the peristylum, Roman Ruins of Milreu, Estói, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor showing marine fauna, including fishes, molluscs, a dolphin and squid, eastern side of the peristyle
Roman Ruins of Milreu, Estói, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Detail of the mosaic floor in the peristylum depicting a squid, Roman Villa of Milreu, Estói, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Detail of the mosaic floor in the peristyle depicting a squid
Roman Villa of Milreu, Estói, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic with geometric patterns, Roman Ruins of Milreu, Estói, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic pavement with geometric patterns
Roman Ruins of Milreu, Estói, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

In Conímbriga, one of the best preserved archaeological site in Portugal, mosaic floors and foundations of many houses and public buildings remain. The city, located along the road connecting Bracara Augusta (Braga) and Olisipo (Lisbon) included its own bathing complex, a sophisticated heating system, ornamental pools, and colonnaded gardens. The mosaics on the entire site are in almost perfect condition, with incredibly detailed and colorful designs. Some, located in the so-called House of the Fountain, depict famous scenes from mythology (the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, Actaeon being eaten by his hounds, Perseus showing the head of Medusa to the sea-monster, Bellerophon battling the Chimera) but the area was not accessible to the public at the time of my visit (check this site here to see the mosaics).

Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika, Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika with floral and geometric patterns
Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika with geometric patterns, Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika with geometric patterns
Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Fountains with fish, Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Fountains with fish
Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Fountains with floral and geometric patterns, Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Fountains with floral and geometric patterns
Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika with swastikas motifs, Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika with swastika motifs
Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika with swastika motifs, Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika with swastika motifs
Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Fountains with fish, geometric pattern and labyrinths, Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Fountains with fish, geometric patterns and labyrinths
Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika, Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Swastika
Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Squeletons, Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor in the House of the Skeletons
Conimbriga, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Situated near the city of Beja (Pax Julia), are the Roman ruins of Pisões. The excavations unveiled a large Roman villa with over forty rooms arranged around a small peristyle with rich decorative elements found on the floors and on its walls. Partial excavations have been made in the residential sections of the villa (pars urbana). Various rooms and the atrium used to contain very fine monochrome and polychrome mosaic floors but the excavations and now the abandonment of the site have left the mosaics exposed to the elements, resulting in their deterioration.

Mosaic floor depicting a fish and eel, Roman Villa of Pisões, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor depicting a fish and a eel
Roman Villa of Pisões, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor depicting two birds an either side of a Kantharos, Roman Villa of Pisões, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor depicting two birds on either side of a Kantharos
Roman Villa of Pisões, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor with geometric motifs, Roman Villa of Pisões, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor with geometric motifs
Roman Villa of Pisões, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor with geometric and naturalistic motifs, Roman Villa of Pisões, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor with geometric and naturalistic motifs
Roman Villa of Pisões, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor with geometric motifs, Roman Villa of Pisões, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor with geometric motifs
Roman Villa of Pisões, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

The village of Mertola, in the Lower Alentejo region next to the Spanish border, is picturesquely set on the slopes above the left bank of the Guadiana. Its strategic location made it an important fluvial commercial port from classical antiquity through the period of Islamic domination. Recent excavations, in the area of what was the forum of the roman city (Myrtilis), have brought to light an impressive paleo-christian religious complex that integrates a Roman cryptoporticus, a 6th century baptistery and an interesting collection of mosaics with strong Byzantine influence. Of a series of mosaics depicting mythological and hunting scenes, the mosaic panel with Bellerophon riding Pegasus and spearing Chimera, is quite remarkable.

Mosaic depicting Bellerophon, in the figure of Saint-Michael or Saint-George, riding Pegasus and spearing Chimera, Mertola, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic depicting Bellerophon, in the figure of Saint-Michael or Saint-George, riding Pegasus and spearing Chimera
Mertola, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

This scene shows the struggle between Good and Evil, adapted to the Christian liturgy of the period. The classical hero Bellephoron, in the figure of Saint Michael or Saint George, kills Chimera, the demoniac monster with the serpent’s tail that spits fire from its three heads.

Detail of the mosaic floor depicting Bellerophon, in the figure of Saint-Michael or Saint-George, riding Pegasus and spearing Chimera, Mertola, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Detail of the mosaic floor depicting Bellerophon, in the figure of Saint-Michael or Saint-George, riding Pegasus and spearing Chimera
Mertola, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Detail of the mosaic floor depicting Bellerophon, in the figure of Saint-Michael or Saint-George, riding Pegasus and spearing Chimera, Mertola, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Detail of the mosaic floor depicting Bellerophon, in the figure of Saint-Michael or Saint-George, riding Pegasus and spearing Chimera
Mertola, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor with floral motifs, Mertola, Lusitania, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic floor with floral motifs
Mertola, Lusitania, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Finally the mosaics found in the Roman villa of Rabaçal near Conimbriga are well worth a mention. The excavations undertaken in the pars urbana since in 1984, date of the villa’s discovery, have brought to light about 250 square meters of mosaic flooring of exceptional interest dating from the middle of the 4th century AD. Two decades after the first excavations, the mosaics are still preserved in situ protected by a thin layer of sand awaiting a shelter structure. For this reason, the mosaics are currently hidden from public view. The figurative motifs of the mosaics found in the western corridor of the octagonal peristyle depict the four seasons, a quadriga (four-horse chariot), a seated female figure and some of the geometrical and vegetal compositions.

mosaic rabacal 1mosaic rabacal 2Further photos can be viewed from my image collection on Flickr.

Mosaic with Hippocamp, a mythological creature with hybrid body, half horse and half fish, from São Sebastião do Freixo, National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Mosaic with Hippocamp, a mythological creature with hybrid body, half horse and half fish, from São Sebastião do Freixo, National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

Bibliography:

  • Roman Mosaics In the Collections of the National Museum of Archaeology (Instituto Português de Museus, Lisboa 2005)
  • Roman Villa of Rabacal, a work of art in the landscape by Miguel Pessoa (1998)
  • Milreu Ruins (Collection Roteiros da arqueologia Portuguesa, 2002)

About Carole Raddato

I came, I saw, I photographed... follow me in the footsteps of Hadrian!
This entry was posted in Archaeology Travel, Lusitania, Museum, Mythology, Photography, Portugal, Roman art, Roman Mosaic and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Roman mosaics from Lusitania (Portugal)

  1. ritaroberts says:

    I simply love Roman mosaics! these are wonderful Carol

    Liked by 1 person

  2. TonyR says:

    Thanks so much for giving this to your readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gosto de ver moisacos, pois eles divulgam um bocadinho de história !

    Like

  4. Manuel says:

    Um Arqueólogo residente em Lagoa no Algarve encontrou, terra sigilata, ladrilho monocromático (o mais antigo), peças de armadura, bolas de artilharia, moedas e cavilhas no Sítio do Calvário, no morro defronte a Estômbar, concelho de Lagoa no Algarve… uns espertos que trabalhavam na Câmara de Lagoa foram fazer prospecções por conta própria com detector de metais ameaçando o proprietário dos terrenos (que havia autorizado o arqueólogo) de expropriação. Estes alarves encontraram algumas moedas de prata e o dono do terreno impediu que o arqueólogo continuasse as suas pesquisas. Os achados do arqueólogo foram avaliados pelo IPPAR. Hoje naquelas bandas está um lote de prédios e final da históra. Isto aconteceu nos últimos 15 anos. Quanto ao chão apenas o arqueólogo possui alguns fragmentos… que seria dos mais antigos a ser encontrados em Portugal.

    Tudo isto é verdade. Tão verdade como as dragagens do Rio Arade terem destruído um valioso espólio… tal como tudo neste país é feito à pressa, para que uns encham os bolsos e outros fechem os olhos. Não há patriotismo, não há idéias… só idiotas a ganhar a vida à conta do tacho.

    Like

  5. Helen Miles says:

    These photos are totally wonderful. Thanks so much for posting them.

    Like

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