Belmonte: unveiling the mystery of Centum Cellas?

North of Belmonte stands a Roman tower that has been a mystery through the ages. Centum Cellas, as the monument is called, has stimulated the imagination of many. But the mystery may have already been solved.

Over the years, a variety of interpretations have been given to Centum Cellas. They said it was either a prison or the main tower of a Roman military camp. The name itself suggested the former, but the impressive Roman monument that has come down to our day may have had a far more common function.

The visitor to Colmeal da Torre vllagre, in Belmonte, cannot remain indifferent to the monument that stands beside the road, on the hill of Santo Antão.

With its two floors, the Roman vestige is one of the most emblematic and mysterious monuments of Beira Interior. Near Belmonte<, land that is home to the largest Jewish community in Portugal, the tower imposes itself on the landscape.

Centum Cellas stimulated everyone's imagination
The imposing and beautiful tower of Centum Cellas

This is a unique vestige. Not even the ruins of the largest existing Roman city in Portugal, Conimbriga, has anything similar. In fact, not even in the whole Iberian Peninsula is there anything like it, although there are many remains – and some far more imposing – to be found in both countries.

Hence the stimulus to imagination and the mystery that has always surrounded the impressive tower of Centum Cellas.

The builder of Centum Cellas

But according to the Directorate-General of Cultural Heritage (DGPC), the mystery will be solved and the primitive use of Centum Cellas was far more prosaic.

In fact, the DGPC says not only that it was primitively erected as part of a Roman villa, it even says who had it built. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Those who took literally the name that has come down to our days believed that the structure had been a prison with a hundred cells. For other scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was the praetorium, that is, the central part of a Roman camp. Others have hypothesized that the structure was originally a mansio – moulting station – or mutatio – inn for travellers.

However, at the end of the 20th century archaeological excavations were carried out which revealed that Centum Cellas was part of a much larger complex and led to the conclusion that it was the dwelling of a wealthy man from the area.

The work of the archaeologists allowed several structures to be uncovered that had Centum Cellas as their central point. Those who go to the site today only notice walls and one or two steps. But experts recognise rooms, corridors, staircases, cellars and courtyards in these remains.

The mystery of Centum Cellas is thus unravelled. The tower was not isolated, but rather was part of a vast complex that was ordered built by Lucius Caecelius, a wealthy Roman citizen who made his fortune trading pewter from the mid-first century.

The mystery is now undone. Lucius has handed over the construction of his villa to a good architect and the rest is history. The building was partially destroyed by fire in the third century and underwent the first of the alterations there. But as time went by it lost its raison d’être. Lucius Caecelius had long since died when the owners left the villa.

Already in the high Middle Ages, the materials of the villa are used for the construction of a chapel to St. Cornelius, which would also disappear at the end of the 18th century.

The mystery of Centum Cellas is thus dispelled. No prison, no Roman camp. Just the excellent home of Lucius Caecelius. Could it be?

Previous ArticleNext Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.