Portugal - Ancient History

Cromleque dos Almendres

A brief ancient history of Portugal


Palaeolithic remains, such as the Côa Valley cave drawings, stand as testament to prehistoric settlement. Dated from 22,000 to 10,000 years BC the drawings mainly consist of animal representations such as horses and oxen. The particular importance of this site is it's remoteness from previously discovered sites. The Celtic village of Citânia de Briteiros, near Guimarães in the north of the country is a further example of an ancient settlement, although at around a thousand years old is relatively recent.

One of the best known prehistoric sites of Portugal is the Almendres Cromlech megalithic complex near Evora. Dating back to around 5,000-4,000 BC the complex is believed to originally have included over 100 stones. Although it's purpose is unknown it has been suggested it may have functioned as a primitive astronomical observatory.


The Roman Empire stretched to the Iberian Atlantic in the final two centuries BC and remained until the 5th century AD, leaving a legacy which continues to this day. Many important Portuguese towns were founded and the country is peppered with bridges and aqueducts dating back to that time, not to mention the remarkable ruins of the Conimbriga settlement near Coimbra, and the temple dedicated to Diana in the Alentejan town of Évora. However, perhaps the strongest vestige of Roman influence remains in the Portuguese language, strongly rooted in Latin and, therefore, very close to Spanish and Italian.

Evora Roman ruins

The Imperial Temple in Evora



It was a series of Germanic tribes who ousted the Romans, their invasions starting in the early 400s. The most long-lasting and influential were the Visigoths, who controlled the entire Iberian Peninsula. In the wake of their rule, their law system endured until the middle ages, and common Portuguese names such as Rodrigo and Fernando have their origins in the Visigoth language. Some examples of buildings from the era also remain in the form of chapels and churches, notably in Braga and Nazaré.


The following invasion came from the south in the form of the Moors. Extending their empire out from North Africa, the Moors obliterated the Visigoth Kingdom and reigned Portugal, and indeed most of Iberia, from 711AD to their expulsion at the hands of the ‘reconquistadores’.

Moors Castle - Sintra

This reconquest was a slow process which took centuries, originally at the hands of Visigoths who had regrouped in the few unconquered territories in the north of the peninsula and later to become the Christian (Spanish) Inquisition, finally ending in the 12th century. Despite their systematic removal or forced conversion, Islamic influence in Portugal is still visible daily in the proliferation of both ornate tiled work (azulejos) and many words of Arabic origin (Algarve, azeite (olive oil), laranja (orange), café (coffee)…). Almost all mosques were razed and replaced with churches or cathedrals, but remains of castles can be seen in Sintra and Silves.