Lisbon's history

Legend attributes the founding of Lisbon and the derivation of its name to the heroes of Greek myth Ulysses, Lisa and Elixa. History, however, traces the city back to the Phoenicians, who settled in the port they named Alisubbo (balmy inlet) on the summit and south side of the hill where the Castle of São Jorge exists today.

There are some traces of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic culture, with agriculture probably being introduced by a copper-using race who arrived both overland and by sea from southern Spain and the Mediterranean.

Their chief monuments are the collective tombs cut from the rock at Palmela, Cascais and Alapraia near Estoril, all located in the Greater Lisbon region.

Then the Celts swept into the area, bringing with them the use of iron in the late 5th and 4th centuries.

But Lisbon’s history really begins with the Romans, who occupied what they described as an ‘ancient Phoenician colony’ in 205 AD because of its strategic importance. They subsequently elevated the settlement to the category of a Roman municipality with the name of Felicitas Julia that later became Olissipo or Olissipona.

The whole area of the Tagus estuary is rich in relics from ancient times to the Roman era. Prehistoric remains have been discovered at Junqueira, Vale de Alcântara and Serra de Monsanto on the north bank.

Gravel beds beneath old terraces along the Sea of Straw (Mar da Palha) stretch of the river have also yielded up prehistoric tools as well as at other south bank sites such as Caparica, Trafaria, Ponta do Cabedelo, Foz do Rego, Charneca, Palhais and Vale de Cavalos.

Evidence of the Roman age is abundant throughout the whole area of the Port of Lisbon, testifying to settlements all along the estuary’s coastline.

Beside a theatre and baths indicating the extent of Roman urban settlement in Lisbon, four reservoirs thought to be connected with a fish conserving and salting plant were found in the ancient Casa dos Bicos on the edge of Lisbon’s Alfama district (indicated on the map below).

Remains of similar installations have been found on the south bank at Cacilhas, including a Roman oven for firing pottery. Evidence has also been found of a large area used by the Romans for fish processing at Porto dos Cascos near Alcochete.

The Moors occupied Lisbon in the year 714. The trade they developed turned Lisbon into a prominent port, as these descriptions by two Arab writers of the day, the chronicler Ahmed Arrazi and the geographer Al Edrisi, indicate;

‘Lisbon is situated to the west of Beja. It is an ancient city built on the edge of the sea, whose waves break against its walls. Its ancient name is Cudia. The city walls are admirable and of fine construction. The western gate, the greatest in the city, is topped by arches that rest on columns of marble, which are in turn supported by marble bases. Lisbon possesses another gate that opens to the west: they call it the Alfofa Gate. It dominates a vast plain crossed by two streams that flow to the sea.

‘There is another gate to the south, the Sea Gate, where the sea rushes through at high tide and beats against the adjoining wall to a height of three fathoms. To the east is the Alfama Gate, close to thermal springs beside the sea. These are bubbling springs of hot and cold water that the high tide covers. Finally, there is another gate to the east, the Cemetery Gate.

‘The city of Lisbon lies on the Tagus River very close to where the river flows into the sea. And Lisbon has many towns in its neighbourhood, one of which is Almada, another Ossumo and another Sintra. And in Almada there is a streak of fine gold. Between Lisbon and Almada stretches a leg of the sea that joins the Tagus.

‘Lisbon rises on the bank of a river that is called the Tagus or the river of Toledo. The river’s breadth at Lisbon is six miles and tides are vigorous. This beautiful city stretches along the river, surrounded by walls and protected by a castle. There is a spring of hot water in the centre of the city where the water flows both in summer and winter.

‘Situated close to the Gloomy Sea (the Atlantic), the city looks out, on the opposite bank and beside the river mouth, to the fort of Almada, so called because the sea throws up slivers of gold onto the bank. In the winter, the inhabitants of the region go to the fort to seek this metal and dedicate themselves to farming, with greater or lesser success while the harsh season lasts.’

Modern 21st-century Lisbon still has many vestiges of the city’s 3,000-year-old history which today’s visitors can closely examine, most notably within the excavation areas inside Sé Cathedral and within the walls of the domineering Castle of São Jorge, as well as the ruins of a Roman theatre (Museu do Teatro Romano) in the heart of the city’s Alfama district.