Italy – Anagni

In one of those frank and charming letters that Marcus Aurelius as a boy wrote to his rather pedantic professor Fronto, he speaks of an excursion he made on horseback to Anagnia from the villa of his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, at Lanuvium. “It is a small ancient town,” he says, “but contains many antiquities, especially shrines of divinities and sacred memorials. There is no corner without some sanctuary, some chapel or some temple, and there are many books on sacred subjects written on linen. Upon leaving the town we saw cut on both sides of the gate these words : Flamen Sume Samentum. I asked one of the men in the town what this meant, and he told me the words were in the old dialect of Latium, being a direction to the priest, when he entered the gates, to place on his head the little piece of sacrificial hide which has been honored by tradition in the annals of the town. A great deal of other information, too, we were fortunate enough to obtain.” This sacred bit of hide may have been from an animal sacrificed at the ceremony of founding the city. It was worked into a peculiar form of peaked head-dress, which some ancient works have reproduced on the heads of Roman priests. This passage is one of the most interesting cases of local archæology in Roman literature coming from the mouth of a “college student” of the second century of our era.

Anagni makes, even now, a similar impression of intense religiousness. It was, during the Middle Ages, the birthplace and residence of several popes, and its episcopal palace and cathedral are reminiscent of the dastardly insult to Pope Boniface VIII by the envoys of King Philip le Bel, commemorated by Dante.

But Anagni was not always as small and quiet a town as Marcus Aurelius found it. Even Virgil calls it dives Anagnia and Silvius Italicus describes it as pinguis, for its territory was rich and fertile. So we can think of it in the last days of the Republic when Cicero, Brutus and other prominent Romans owned places here, as not fallen completely into the obscurity that had swallowed up most of the earliest cities. But of course she made her mark in history in the centuries before her ill-judged revolt against Rome in 306 B.C.

The ancient Anagnia of those days lay on the ridge of Monte Porciano above the point where the three highways from Rome joined to pass southward as one toward the Campanian border. Strictly speaking, I should have described it first instead of last among the Hernican towns. But it has lost everything of the primitive period of its history. It was just above it, at Compitum Anagninum, near where the tribal shrine to Diana was built and where the great meeting place of the Hernican people was, in what Livy calls the Maritime Circus, that the Via Praenestina, after joining Rome to Praeneste, passed into the valley of the Trerus and was joined by the Via Labicana and the Via Latina. This made Anagnia the most important center as well as the capital city of the Hernicans. She guarded the neck of the valley on the north side of the river as Signia did opposite her on the south side. She is said to have sent aid to Rome in the fabulous days of King Tullus Hostilius, and was certainly the largest city in the valley. There is no reason to doubt that she was originally surrounded by the same kind of cyclopean walls as Verulae, Signia, Aletrium and Ferentinum, but they seem to have entirely disappeared,—torn down, perhaps, in 306 B.C.

The city resisted Pyrrhus when he advanced into Latium to attack Rome, and it was then probably surrounded by the walls we now see, which are among the most perfect of their class in Italy. They are built in regular courses of alternate headers and stretchers, of carefully tooled medium sized blocks of travertine, in the Hellenic rather than the Etruscan mode. Their circuit of irregular octagonal form can be followed almost completely, but only on the north side are they well preserved. In the center of this side is a particularly imposing section which gives the original height of the wall, built of eighteen courses 0.55 meter high. At this point the walls make a decided double curve, across which, some time after, but still in quite early Republican times, a straight platform or loggia was flung, supported by four high piers connected by round arches. Between the line of piers and the walls is an interesting early barrel vaulting. On one of the piers is carved a phallus, the common religious emblem of the Hernican cult, and this rather leads to the supposition that this arcade was built to give the needed straight line bounding some sacred inclosure either above or below. The piers are bossed, a peculiarity not used in the walls, and at the spring of the arches there rise engaged columns with Doric plinths, on which rest square pilasters which must have supported some superstructure, perhaps an architrave, connected with the shrine or public building that overlooked the walls. This architectural feature of the structure has not, I think, been noticed. It is interesting, because so little detail of this early date remains in place in this part of Italy. The travertine blocks of the walls themselves have in their lowest courses, originally perhaps covered by earth, quite numerous mason’s marks, which are among the most numerous and interesting of their class in pre-Augustan times. They can be compared with those at Castrimoenium (Marino) , Tyndaris, Pompeii, Cumae, in the Servian wall at Rome, and at the Porta Augusta in Perusia. If we set these travertine walls beside those also of Roman origin at Falerii, but built of the far coarser tufa and dating from about 240 B.C., the period of the Anagni wall seems decidedly earlier and this is confirmed by the character of the mason’s marks.

Perhaps their greatest interest lies in the use one might make of them in arguing as to the age of the cyclopean style of polygonal masonry. Those among modern critics who do not believe in the early date of the cities of Central Italy with this style of walls, claim that the polygonal form of the blocks was due to the kind of stone used in this region, which naturally took this irregular form of cleavage in the quarries. They contend that had the soft tufa been the local stone here instead of limestone, the blocks would have been cut in quadrangular instead of polygonal shape. In their opinion the polygonal walls and the straight-coursed walls may not only be contemporary, but the polygonal walls may be later; that they were in fact used almost until imperial times. So these critics dub as childish fictions the claim of a pre-Roman epoch for the majority of extant polygonal ruined cities. Their arguments seem to me decidedly weak, and these walls of Anagni suggest one of these weaknesses. They are in the heart of the region of polygonal masonry and had it not gone out of fashion when they were built would have been in the polygonal and not in the straight-coursed style. It is not as if travertine was not occasionally used as well as limestone for polygonal work. It is seen, for example, at Saturnia. If there is a material suited for squared blocks and unsuited to polygonal handling, it is the light, punky, volcanic tufa, that has no cleavage lines. In all other regions it is cut into squared blocks, but in the polygonal region of Latium it is sometimes tortured into polygonal and irregular shapes, as at Empulum and Tusculum. The most satisfactory explanation would seem to be that the different forms of the blocks were not caused by the different ways in which the various kinds of stone were easiest quarried, but were caused by different structural ideals and fashions.