Romanization, Christianization and Islamicization in Southern Lusitania

Article excerpt

The study of Roman urban centres in Portugal (ancient Lusitania) is now well developed, but the rural landscape has remained little known. A new collaborative European project (Friedrich-Schiller-Universitat Jena, Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universitat Frankfurt/Main, National University of Ireland Galway and University College Dublin) is investigating the rural landscape and its economy -- with the support of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation Cologne and the Instituto Portugues do Patrimonio Arquitectonico -- from the Romanization of coast and hinterland, its Christianization and subsequent Islamicization.

The first excavation campaign carried out in 1999 was directed at the agricultural production centres around the Roman villa of Milreu (Estoi, Algarve). Situated in the hinterland of the Phoenician-Roman city of Ossonoba (the modern provincial capital Faro), the villa of Milreu is one of the best preserved Roman ruins in Portugal. On the site of a preceding late Iron Age settlement (dating to the 1st century BC), a basic building was constructed at the beginning of the 1st century AD. In the process of several alterations and expansions, the extensive peristyle villa visible today developed. In the southwest, an extraordinary large bath complex adjoins the central part of the house, which was built around the peristyle, and the more private living-rooms were arranged around a small atrium. The high quality of the decoration and furnishing of the rooms is visible, not only in the extensive mosaic floors and the geometrical wall-paintings, but also in a whole series of marble busts portraying members of the Roman imperial family.

Final alterations after the mid 4th century AD

at the villa of Milreu saw the simple brick pillars in the peristyle courtyard replaced by marble columns, and polychrome fish mosaics on the floors. Nearby, a sanctuary very similar to the late classical one of Sao Cucufate (Baixo Alentejo) was built. This complex, constructed in the classical method of opus caementitium (using bricks and concrete) can clearly be identified as a peripteral temple on a podium. Within a generation this antique nymphaeum was converted into a church. In the temenos area a small mausoleum was built and south of the temple a rectangular baptismal font was added. Epigraphical evidence from one of the nymphaeum's marble columns proves a continuity of settlement and cult site long after the Christian period. The epitaphs, written in 9th-century style Arabic characters, request God's mercy for the deceased members of at least four generations of the same extended family.

Excavations by Estacio da Veiga in 1877 included the extensive peristyle, with richly coloured fish mosaics, baths and the late Roman sanctuary (nymphaeum). …