Magna Mater by the Forum

In 1749, construction works in Magdalena’s Square in old Lisbon exposed the remains of what was described as a great Roman building. It probably wouldn’t be more than the foundations, but nonetheless it seems to have been ruins big enough to be noted. Among them, there were several inscriptions, four of which were used as construction material for the new building, but in a fortunate way (given the circumstances) in that they are currently visible from the street.

The one more to the left is dedicated to Mercury (will deal with it later), while the second on the right – the unfortunate one with the air conditioner on top – was probably a pedestal for a statue of Lucius Caecilio, questor of the province of Baetica and Tribune of Plebes, as indicated by the inscription. The other two are ex-vota to Cybele and this had led to the conclusion that there was a temple to the Great Mother on that spot. Due to the lack of a modern archaeological excavation, the claim remains uncertain, though possible. The altar more to the right is dedicated to the Mother of the Gods from Ida, in Phrygia, by a Licenius Cerno in the days of the consuls Marcus Atilius and Afrosianus. The inscription is long and barely visible today, not only because of the exposure to the natural elements, but also due to the constant brushing every time the building’s facade was cleaned. According to the website of the institute in charge of archaeological heritage, it reads: MATRI DE VM MAG. IDAE A FRHYG. T. L. LYCH CERNO P. H. R. PERN. IIVI CASS. ET CASS. STA. M. AT. ET AP. COSS. GAI.

The second one on the left has a much smaller inscription, though also hard to read for preservation reasons and because it is placed higher. It says: DEVM MATR T. LICINIVS AMARANTIVS V. S. L. M. (Vieira da Silva, 1944, 122; n. 26).

One question about the assumed temple of Cybele is its possible proximity to the Roman forum. As with so many other things about Olisipo, the exact location of the city’s main public area is not certain, but it is generally believed to have been in today’s plaza in front of Saint Anthony’s church and the old Cathedral. For starters, because it seems to have been a central spot in Muslim Lisbon, complete with a public mosque (as opposed to the elite one on the castle hill). It’s also in the middle of the old city and surrounded by known Roman public buildings, namely baths and the theatre, plus what is believed to have been a Roman dock. But perhaps the most fascinating piece of evidence comes from the Arab description of the dubbed Iron Gate (red circle on the map), which was the main western entrance in the city walls in the Muslim period. It is said by al-Himyari that the gate was the biggest in Lisbon, with overlapped arches on marble columns (Guardado da Silva 2008, 96), hinting at a triumphal arch. However, the possibility that it was actually an Arab construction with material from the temple of Cybele has also been put forward (Vieira da Silva 1944, 56). Unfortunately, the gate was demolished in 1502, leaving us unable to confirm any theory about its exact origin.

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