Early Portugal–Lusitania



The Iberian peninsula in the time of Hadrian (ruled 117–138 AD), showing, in western Iberia, the imperial province of Lusitania (Portugal and Extremadura)


Lusitanian warrior


The earth of Portugal is rich in prehistoric remains. Relics of its remote past are frequently brought to the surface when core samples of the soil are taken or when foundations for buildings are dug. Excavated artefacts disclose gradually changing techniques, and provide evidence of the unbroken settlement of the land from the early Stone Age to the Iron Age, with a succession of tribes establishing themselves in the Iberian Peninsula. Here, unlike the rest of continental Europe where they could roam at will over vast areas, these wandering tribes found themselves hemmed into a cul-de-sac bound by the sea. Those communities that had already settled had to put up with unwelcome new arrivals and co-exist with them in what was a comparatively limited space. In some areas these tribes remained separate from each other, retaining an individuality of which traces still persist; elsewhere, tribes merged, producing hybrids of race and culture.

Iberia had substantial mineral resources and, during the Bronze Age, its copper and tin deposits were searched out and worked by immigrant colonists. Rivers provided natural means of communication: the Tagus flowed close to the tin deposits of the Beiras and those of the Trás-os-Montes further north; the Sado – then navigable for much of its course – provided a route into the heart of the Alentejo, where ran rich and readily accessible seams of copper, as they still do. The region between these two rivers retains evidence of settlement by tribes from Asia Minor: the castros of Zambujal (at Torres Vedras), Pedra de Ouro (near Alenquer) and Vila Nova de São Pedro (on the Azambuja, south-west of Santarém), each have their arsenals and bronze foundries, which compare closely with fortified settlements in their areas of tribal origin.

In about 1000 BC a new wave of colonists, the Celts, entered the Peninsula. They were skilled ironworkers and goldsmiths and they cremated their dead. Since they became integrated with the indigenous inhabitants, already known as Iberians, early writers have referred to them as Celtiberians. Their way of life has been reconstructed by archaeologists who have excavated their fortified hill-top settlements, or castros, among them those of Castro de Avelas, Castro Daire, Castro Marim, and Castro Verde. In addition, the Phoenicians, and later the Greeks, were active in trading along the Algarve coast and in exploiting the metal deposits further inland.

When referring to the area between the Douro and the Tagus, sixteenth-century Portuguese humanists preferred to use Latinisms: Lusitania for the place, and Lusitanians for the inhabitants, rather than the simpler Portugal and Portuguese. So Camões, the national poet of Portugal, chose to write: ‘Behold, at the summit… of all Europe: the Kingdom of Lusitania…’ Many others adopted this practice, which led to the widespread belief, only partly true, that today’s inhabitants are descended directly from Roman stock. The belief has taken a nebulous form: it has not prevented an ancestor named Viriatus, assassinated in 139BC, who had fought against the Romans, being regarded as a national hero to this day.

Roman colonization

Roman legions first marched into the Iberian Peninsula in 218 BC. At that time Rome fought with Carthage for supremacy in the western end of the Mediterranean, just as it had formerly fought with the Greek city states for the control of its eastern end. By 139BC the Roman occupation had incited serious resistance from the native Lusitanians; none the less, by the beginning of the Christian era, the whole of the Peninsula had come under Roman domination, except the mountainous area in the north inhabited by the Basques.

The Romans invaded Iberia chiefly for economic reasons; they were not interested in imposing their culture on the conquered tribes, although this was to happen eventually. For Roman tolerance – by which the natives retained their customs, their ancient gods, their languages, their local laws administered by Roman magistrates – allowed easy co-existence, and this itself in the long run fostered Romanization. Recent research has revealed that local practices persisted far into the period of Roman occupation. In several regions Latin was modified, and two principal forms of Romance developed: one, Castilian, had as a substratum the language still spoken today in the Basque provinces; the other, Gallego-Portuguese, reveals many Celtic influences – it became dominant between the Cantabrian sea and the line of the Douro.

In the region known as ‘Lusitania’, the main economic activities (some introduced by the Romans, others stimulated by them), were: mining and metal-working; fishing and fish-preserving; raising cattle and tanning hides; pottery and weaving; producing rush or esparto articles (shoes, cord, paper, etc); and, above all, agriculture. Native wheatfields, olive-groves, and vineyards were developed by their new landlords with a view to exporting the produce to Italy. Grain was abundant in many areas, notably on the Alentejan plains, whereas in the mountainous north, bread was made with crushed acorns. The olive-oil of Iberia was held in high repute, and its wines competed successfully with those of Italy. Indeed, commercial pressures were such that the land was increasingly worked to produce such cash-crops, to the point of threatening the basic cereal requirements of the indigenous population.

The century following the reign of Augustus was described by the Romans as the ‘Pax Romana’, implying that it was one of peace and prosperity throughout the empire; but this was not entirely true of Iberia. In the mountainous north, dotted with fortified ‘castros’, there was armed resistance to the Roman occupation, which included the presence of soldier-settler or limitanei, given land on condition that they asserted Roman authority. The majority of them, as far as one can tell from the belt-buckles found in their graves, were Germanic in origin, largely from the Rhine basin. Despite periodic local resistance to the Pax Romana, during the first two centuries of the Christian era Iberia reached a high degree of civilization. However by 212AD decline had set in. That was the date of Caracala’s edict which granted the jus romana, previously restricted to a minority, to all free citizens of the empire; it allowed them the right to vote and to hold office (jus suffragii) and to become magistrates (jus honorum). The edict was an attempt to broaden the base of institutions already disintegrating, but the decline continued. The reason for the gradual decadence of Lusitanian society, which also applied elsewhere in the Peninsula, may be found in the ethnic division of society between Roman and native, and the judicial division between freemen and slaves, divisions that were not coterminus. Some of the indigenous population (the liberati, who had been freed, and their offspring) obtained most of the rights of Roman freemen and even rose to prominence: but the rest, together with slaves who had been imported, remained members of a slave class. Even the indigenous ‘freemen’ fell into two classes, gradually polarizing as honestiores and humiliores, rich and poor, the condition of the latter being hardly distinguishable from that of the slaves. Once it was realized that being a freeman was no security against poverty, few aspired to that status; as Salvianus of Marseille observed at the time: ‘No longer did the people wish to become Roman.’

For purposes of taxation, Roman society was subject to a census; and census lists confirm that, in general, economic strength and social status went together. Society was made up of four levels: the senatores (the senatorial class) stood at the summit of the pyramid; its members monopolized the main offices, both civic and religious, including that of consul, and owned the great estates. Below them came the equites (the equestrian order, or knights), likewise of Roman stock from time immemorial, who were destined for military or political careers, and whose wealth was based on property either in the form of land or acquired by trade. Next in the hierarchy came the decuriones, an ‘order’ which included the indigenous aristocracy, now romanized, who – important in the Iberian Peninsula – had inherited many of the castros, which had subsequently developed into Roman towns. These decurions provided a ‘middle class’, drawing their wealth from land, from trade, and from owning slaves. Last (among the freemen) were the plebs, citizens with rights, but without economic assets or employment. In principle, ‘work’ could only be done by slaves. If a freeman worked, he lost his status – unless he became a soldier, for if, after serving in the legions, he returned to civil life as a veteran, he could acquire land and move up a step, becoming a decurion. Although in Rome the plebs were very numerous, in conquered territory they were less so, and at first there were comparatively few in Iberia, although with economic prosperity the class grew.

In law, slaves had a common status: all were the property of their masters, even if their condition varied considerably in practice. Some, owned by the State, proved capable of carrying out bureaucratic duties and holding office. Among privately owned slaves there was a distinction between those who had been purchased, and those (the verna) born in the household. Occasionally these are tenderly described in tomb inscriptions as in loco filii habitus – children of the house – but such happy few were exceptions to the rule. The great majority of slaves – Galicians, Asturians, Cantabrians, and Basques – were the spoils of war, caught in the Iberian highlands and either assigned to the State or sold in the slave markets to private owners. The bronze plaques of Aljustrel in the Alentejo, confirm that slaves provided every sort of labour. Sometimes, free plebians, driven by need, were obliged to perform similar tasks, but punishment for derelictions of duty was more severe for slaves than for plebs; and the most exacting activities, such as rowing the galleys trafficking with Rome or North Africa or working in the mines, were reserved for slaves. A slave’s life was usually hard and short. The number of Iberians enslaved is not known, but the range of their recorded tasks suggests that slaves far outnumbered their free compatriots.

Barbarian invasions

The first hordes of Barbarians – Alans, Vandals, and Suevi – penetrated the Peninsula in 409. Roman resistance was overcome with ease, for the invasions coincided with a series of disturbances (or bagaudas, from the Celtic bagud or band of agitators) throughout the country. Braga, for example, was virtually destroyed in such a commotion. The contemporary Salvianus suggested that these subversive groups collaborated with the invaders, as the natives preferred the prospect of an easy life with few constraints, even if they would technically be conquered and vassals, to the continuance of what amounted to slavery, even if legally they were free. On the other hand, Orósio dismissed the ‘bagaudas’ as the work of ruthless cut-throats. The connection between the ‘bagaudas’ and the Barbarian invasions is complex; both played an important part in the collapse of Hispano-Roman society.

As we are concentrating on the history of what was to become Portugal, we need to focus on the events then taking place in the north-west of the Peninsula. The Suevi had already occupied the former Roman province of Gallaecia (Galicia) by 411, and had made several sorties as far south as the Tagus. In 516 it was the turn of the Visigoths. Confederate with Rome, the Visigoths were commissioned to expel the other Barbarians. They soon overpowered both the Alans and Vandals, but the suppression of the Suevi proved no easy matter, and it was not until 585 that this was accomplished. The Visigoths then dominated the region, but only for a little more than a century, until 711. Then the Muslims arrived.

The actual number of Germanic warriors entering the Peninsula cannot have been great, a fact confirmed by the rarity of those archaeological or other remains which would have marked their passage. They had few technical or cultural accomplishments with which to impress the Hispano-Romans, who were in most respects their superior. While the Barbarians may have retained their own institutions, it was not long before they were absorbed culturally into the people on whose land they had settled.

The presence of the Barbarians did nothing to stem the decline of Hispano-Roman civilization. Bagaudista activity intensified, and trade diminished. The Christian Church – an important component of the Visigothic monarchy – regarded trade as exploitation, and therefore sinful. Commerce was fit only for – and was principally conducted by – the sizeable Jewish community, who were subject to discrimination both in law and in society. Cultural life, such as it was, remained largely the preserve of the clergy. Although there were Christians among both the Hispano-Romans and the Visigoths, they did not mix: the Visigoths, christianized before entering the Peninsula, had embraced Arianism (adhering to the tenets of Arius, a fourth-century bishop, who denied the divinity of Christ), and were thus regarded by the Hispano-Romans as heretics.

The Hispano-Romanic nobility, although firmly established as a distinct hereditary social class and, as landowners, richer than those who worked for them, had been of the same race as the general population, had spoken the same language and, broadly speaking, had shared the same culture and tastes. Things were different after the Barbarian invasions. The new landowning nobility were warriors, not cultivators of the land; they were dissociated from those who worked the land. Social superiority came to be defined largely by race rather than by disparities in wealth or power.

Certain features characteristic of Portuguese society were gradually assumed during the Germanic occupation and remained evident well into the medieval period; they may be summarized thus: a military nobility owning the land; a rural population tied to it and dominated by a rich and powerful clergy; a Jewish minority controlling trade, its members often prosperous but living in ghettos, envied yet despised.

Leave a Reply