Lusitania: its geography and natural resources

Come and find out what ancient authors wrote about the province of Lusitania!

Promontorium Sacrum , Sagres Portugal

"This is the most western point, not only of Europe but of the entire inhabited world." (1)

Geography 3.1.4
Strabo (c. 64 BC - c. 23 AD)

Get a panoramic view of Promontorium Sacrum (Sagres, Portugal) here.

Altar to Mars (1st-2nd centuries AD)National Museum of Archaeology

It was under the guidance of Mars and to the sounds of war, according to historian Carlos Fabião (2), that the Romans arrived in Hispania during the second Punic War.

In 218 BC, the Romans disembarked in Ampurias and slowly began to conquer the main towns of the south western Iberian Peninsula. By the 2nd century BC the Romans had divided Hispania into two provinces: Hispania Citerior ('Nearer') and Hispania Ulterior ("Further").

Statue of a Gallaecian warrior (1st century AD)National Museum of Archaeology

Throughout the 2nd Century BC there were multiple battles between the Roman governor and the native Lusitani.

Bust of Augustus (1st century AD)National Museum of Archaeology

During the decade of 60 BC, with Julius Caesar's visit to the province of Hispania Ulterior and important military campaigns in the Tagus and Douro, the majority of the western Iberian peninsula came under Roman control.

The administrative reform by Augustus led to the progressive romanisation of the Iberian peninsula and the creation of administrative centres. It's in 27 BC that Hispania Ulterior was divided into Lusitania and Baetica.

Triton. Roman scultpre of a male figure (3rd century AD)National Museum of Archaeology

The land of tritons, nereids and sea gods

"An embassy from Lisbon sent for the purpose reported to the Emperor Tiberius that a triton had been seen and heard playing in a shell in a certain cave, and that he had the well-known shape. The description of the nereids also is not incorrect, except that their body is bristling with hair even in the parts where they have human shape; for a nereid has been seen on the same coast, whose mournful song moreover when dying has been heard a long way off by the coast-dwellers; also the governor of Gaul wrote to the late lamented Augustus that a large number of dead nereids were to be seen on the shore." (3)

Natural History 9.4.9

Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79)

The cities of Lusitania

"The people learned the nature of these places and that the estuaries could be of service as rivers, and founded cities and other settlements on them, just as on rivers. Among them are Asta, Nabrissa, Onoba, ‹Os›sonoba, Maenuba, and a number of others."

Geography 3.2.5
Strabo (c. 64 BC - c. 23 AD)

"The notable towns on the coast, beginning at Tagus, are: Lisbon, famous for its mares which which conceive from the west wind; Alcazar do Sal, called the Imperial City; Santiagio de Cacem; Cape St. Vincent, and the other promontory called the Wedge; and the towns of Estombar, Tavira and Mertola." (4)

Natural History 4.22.116
Pliny the Elder (AD 23 -79)

Take a look at the Roman ruins of Miróbriga (Santiago do Cacém, Portugal) here.

Cornelius Bocchus mentions, furthermore, that rock-crystal of quite exceptional weight was found in Lusitania, in the Ammaeensian mountains, when wells were being sunk to water-level.
Eichholz, D.E. (transl.), Pliny. Natural History in ten volumes. Libri XXXVI-XXXVII, vol. 10. London: William Heinemann/ Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1962 (Loeb Classical Library), p. 183

Bocchus assures us that they [= stones] have been found also in Spain, in the place where, according to his previous account, rock-crystal is dug up from shafts sunk to water-level, and adds that he saw a ‘chrysolithus’ weighing twelve pounds.
Eichholz, D.E. (transl.), Pliny. Natural History in ten volumes. Libri XXXVI-XXXVII, vol. 10. London: William Heinemann/ Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1962 (Loeb Classical Library), p. 269.

Statue of Fortuna (1st century AD)National Museum of Archaeology

"Tourdetania itself is wonderfully prosperous. It produces everything and this productivity is doubled by exportation, for the surplus produce is easily sold, because of the abundance of ship owners. This is possible due to the rivers, as well as the estuaries, that, as I have said, resemble rivers, and which similarly can be sailed up from the sea to the interior cities not only in small boats but in large ones." (5)

Geography 3.2.4
Strabo (c. 64 BC - c. 23 AD)

Aureus of Faustina I Aureus of Faustina INational Museum of Archaeology

Fragments of tree trunks, leaves and fruits sculpted in white marble (Roman Period, 3rd century AD (final quarter))National Museum of Archaeology

Sculture Fragments of trunks, leaves, and fruits (3th Century AD, last quarter).

National Museum of Archaeology

Looming weight (Roman Period)National Museum of Archaeology

The wool

"Istrian and Liburnian fleece is nearer to hair than wool, and not suitable for garments with a soft nap: and the same applies to the fleece that Salacia in Lusitania advertises by its check pattern." (6)

Natural History 4.22.116
Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79)

"Previously much clothing came from there, but now it is wool that is mostly raven black. Its beauty is superior." (7)

Geography 3.2.6
Strabo (c. 64 BC - c. 23 AD)

Bust of Dionysus (2nd century AD)National Museum of Archaeology

The wine

"Much grain and wine are exported from Tourdetania, as well as olive oil, not only in quantity but of the best quality. Beeswax, honey, and pitch are also exported, as well as kokkos and red ochre, which is not inferior to the Sinopean earth." (8)

Geography 3.2.6
Strabo (c. 64 BC - c. 23 AD)

Mosaic featuring horses (4th century AD)National Museum of Archaeology


"It is known that in Lusitania in the neighbourhood of the town of Lisbon and the river Tagus mares when a west wind is blowing stand facing towards it and conceive the breath of life and that this produces a foal, and this is the way to breed a very swift colt, but it does not live more than three years." (9)

Natural History 8.67.166
Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79)

"These winds impregnate the creatures that derive life from the earth – indeed in Spain even the mares, as wee have stated". (10)

Natural History 16.39.93
Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79)

Silver denarius (2nd century BC)National Museum of Archaeology

Rome's most celebrated chariot racer

Appuleius Diocles was Rome's most famous chariot racer. He became a professional at age 18 in the Circus Maximus. He was born in Lusitania, in the year 104 AD during the reign of Emperor Trajan. We know that he won 1462 of his 4257 races and came in second 1437 times. He earned during his career more than 35 million sesterces. Given their fame in Rome, it is believed that the majority of the horses he used came from Lusitania. It is highly likely that he first started racing in Emerita Augusta Merida (Spain), where there was a large-scale hippodrome. It was claimed that his wealth was such that he would be able to purchase a year’s supply of grain for Rome.

Hare in carved ivory (Roman Period)National Museum of Archaeology

The hares

"There is also an abundance of all kinds of cattle and wild game. But there is a scarcity of destructive animals except for burrowing rabbits, which some call 'leberides', and which cause damage both to plants and seeds by eating the roots. They exist throughout almost the entirety of Iberia, extending as far as Massilia and are also a problem in the islands." (11)

Geography 3.2.6
Strabo (c. 64 BC - c. 23 AD)

Detail from mosaic (4th century AD)National Museum of Archaeology

The wealth from its seas and rivers

"The interior of Tourdetania is in such a way, yet one can find that the coast is equal to it, in terms of the quality [of products] from the sea. The many kinds of oysters and mussels are superior in quantity and size along the entire External Sea, but especially so here […]. It is the same concerning all kinds of sea creatures: the snouted, phalainai, and the spouters, whose spouting appears – to someone observing from afar – to be a cloud-like pillar. The conger eels are monstruous, much larger in size that those around us, as well as the muraena and many other such [creatures]." (12)

Geography 3.2.6
Strabo (c. 64 BC - c. 23 AD)

Roman patera depicting the myth of Perseus (1st - 2d Centuries AD)National Museum of Archaeology

Metals and minerals

"The previously mentioned territory has been abundantly provided with such good things. Not the least – indeed the most – one might admire and marvel at the richness of its mining operations. All of the Iberian land is full of them, although not all of it is fruitful and prosperous, especially that abundant in mines. It is rare to be fortunate in both, and also rare for the same region to have so much mining in a small territory. Regarding Tourdetania and that which neighbors it, there is no worthy word left for someone who would wish to praise its excellence. Up to this time no gold, silver, copper, or iron of such quality has been discovered anywhere in the world." (13)

Geography 3.2.8
Strabo (c. 64 BC - c. 23 AD)

The Tagus of poets

"Before song let monarchs and monarchs’ triumphs yield – yield, too, the bounteous banks of Tagus bearing gold!" (14)

Amores 1.15.33-34.
Ovid (43 BC - c. 17-18 AD)

"Let one that wishes me ill own Libyan harvests and Hermus and Tagus, and drink warm water." (15)

Epigrams 6.86.5-6
Martial (c. 38 AD - c. 104 AD)

"Accept whatever the Asturian digs in Galician fields, whatever the golden water of rich Tagus possesses..." (16)

Epigrams 10.17.3-4
Martial (c. 38 AD - c. 104 AD)

This, the Alcantra Bridge (Spain), is almost 2.000 years-old. It is Lusitania's most impressive remaining Roman bridge.

‏‏‎ Statue of Apollo ‏‏‎ Statue of ApolloNational Museum of Archaeology

The marble from Lusitania

"Nearly the whole of Spain is covered with mines of lead, iron, copper, silver and gold, Hither [= Nearer] Spain with muscovite mines also; Baetica abounds in cinnabar as well. There are besides quarries of marble." (17)

Natural History 3.3.30
Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79)

‏‏‎ Female Bust ‏‏‎ Female BustNational Museum of Archaeology

Lusitania's natural resources fascinated ancient writers.

Credits: Story

General coordination:

António Carvalho - Diretor do Museu Nacional de Arqueologia

Conception and texts:

Ana Maria Lóio - Universidade de Lisboa, Faculdade de Letras, Centro de Estudos Clássicos

Filomena Barata - Museu Nacional de Arqueologia

Language revision:

Joy Littlewood (independent scholar based at Oxford)

Digital production:

Luis Ramos Pinto - Direção Geral do Património Cultural

(1) Duane W. Roller (transl.), The Geography of Strabo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 152.
(2) Carlos Fabião, "Os primórdios: sob o signo de Marte", A herança romana em Portugal. Lisboa: CTT, 2006.
(3) H. Rackham (transl.), Pliny. Natural History in ten volumes. Libri VIII-IX, vol. 3. London: William Heinemann/ Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1940 (Loeb Classical Library), p. 169.
(4) Roller, op. cit., p. 157.
(5) Roller, op. cit., p. 156.
(6) Rackham, op. cit. (b), p. 135.
(7) Roller, op. cit., p. 157.
(8) Roller, op. cit., p. 157.
(9) Rackham, op. cit. (b), p. 117.
(10) H. Rackham (transl.), Pliny. Natural History in ten volumes. Libri XII-XVI, vol. 4. London: William Heinemann/ Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1945 (Loeb Classical Library), p. 449.
(11) Roller, op. cit., pp. 157-158.
(12) Roller, op. cit., p. 158.
(13) Roller, op. cit., p. 159.
(14) G. Showerman (transl.), Ovid I. Heroides and Amores. Second edition revised by G. P. Goold, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press/ London: Heinemann, 1976, p. 379.
(15) D. R. Shackleton Bailey (ed. and transl.), Martial. Epigrams. 3 vols. Cambridge (Mass.)/ London: Harvard University Press, 1993 (Loeb Classical Library), vol. 2, p. 69.
(16) Shackleton Bailey, op. cit., p. 339.
(17) H. Rackham (transl.), Pliny. Natural History in ten volumes. Libri III-VII, vol. 2. London: William Heinemann/ Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1942 (Loeb Classical Library), p. 25.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps