On Mount Santo Antão in the Portuguese municipality of Belmonte, a curious structure stands tall. A two-story square tower, built with large ashlar stones, appears to have battlements, numerous windows, and doors. Despite its strange appearance, it is a Roman building from the 1st century AD known as the Centum Cellas Tower.

In Portuguese, it is called Centocelas, a term that may originate from the legend that claims it was once a prison with a hundred cells where Saint Cornelius may have been held captive (in reality, Pope Cornelius was exiled around 251 AD by Emperor Trebonianus Gallus to Centumcellae, the present-day Civitavecchia in Italy).

Constructed with large granite blocks, a material uncommon in Europe but frequent in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean at that time, it is not exactly square, measuring 13.3 meters wide by 15.5 meters long.

Originally having only two floors, with the upper one being a medieval addition, it gives the tower a picturesque and peculiar appearance, reaching a height of 12 meters. It has various entrances of different sizes and two friezes separating the floors.

It also appears to have been surrounded by other adjacent structures, now vanished, and to have had a portico with pillars that faced an open courtyard in the front.

For a long time, it was thought to be a praetorium or a small Roman fort, but archaeological excavations in the surrounding area until the 1990s revealed the remains of a villa rustica, of which pars urbana (main dwelling) the tower was a part.

The villa belonged to a tin merchant named Lucius Caecilius, who built it along with the tower in the 1st century AD.

The Iberian Peninsula was rich in minerals during the Roman period, especially tin, and there is evidence of extensive mining and processing in the region, suggesting that the tower may have been part of the facilities associated with tin mining and trade.

The villa was partially destroyed in the 3rd century AD, although it was rebuilt and continued its agricultural and commercial activities. During the Middle Ages, it may have housed a small chapel, but there is no trace of it today.

It is also possible that in the times of the kingdom of León, of which the area was part, the tower was used as a military outpost. According to the 19th-century Portuguese historian Pinho Leal, the tower was renovated for use as a watchtower in the 13th or 14th centuries.

Today, the tower stands in ruins but retains its original elegance. It was declared a National Monument of Portugal in 1927 and is the subject of ongoing archaeological campaigns to clarify its original, still unknown, function and the entire context of the ancient Roman villa.

The municipality of Belmonte plans consolidation works and an interpretation center to help preserve this testimony of the region’s past.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 26, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La extraña torre romana de Centum Cellas en Portugal, cuya función original se desconoce


Torre de Centum Cellas (Sistema de Informação para o Património Arquitectónico) | Torre de Centum Cellas (Patrimonio Cultural) | Pedro C. Carvalho, A Caminho do Douro na época romana | Francisco Villar, María Pilar Fernández Alvarez, eds., Religión, lengua y cultura prerromanas de Hispania | Wikipedia

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