Italy – Circeii

We took a small boat at Terracina for the excursion of about twelve miles across the bay to the promontory of Circeii, the southernmost military colony of early Latium. It is a huge rock rising like a bleak island from the sea to a height of over sixteen hundred feet (five hundred forty-one meters). There seems but little doubt that this was the fabled island of Circe, that never really was an island, but appeared so to the ancient mariners as they passed. Only as the boat nears it, do we see that its base joins the long stretches of the lowest marshes furrowed with a network of canals.

This excursion is only for the hardy if one wants to reach the citadel of Circe itself. We land at the east end. Here, not far from the water, at the modern village of S. Felice, seems to have been the original settlement, judging from the traces of polygonal walls. But the really interesting ruins are on the east end of the long ridge forming the top of the mountain. It is now called Civita or Monte della Cittadella. Here is a rectangular citadel, about one hundred and ninety by ninety-five meters, with heavy polygonal walls of superb construction, tapering at times from a thickness below of nearly two and one-half meters to one at the summit of about one and one-half meters. Here, as at Norba, the walls rise above the inner level to show that they had a chemin de ronde and perhaps battlements.

The special interest of this citadel is that it is quite distinct from the city, which is far below it, at S. Felice, A. long and steep causeway, protected by two solid polygonal walls, runs up the mountain straight from city to citadel. ‘We had seen this at Praeneste ; but here at Circeii it is even plainer, and the citadel exists almost intact, while at Praeneste it has disappeared.

It was in 393 B.C. that the Romans, beginning a determined and steady attempt to win back the Pontine plain, captured Circeii by a raid and established a colony there, with which they could hold communication only by sea for many years until the intervening region was annexed. The walls of the citadel show the careful tooling and close joints that we usually associate with the later polygonal style like that of Cosa or the later work at Norba.

The site is an ideal one for a prehistoric fortress. The ancients appreciated its poetry. Even now it is exquisite, though part of the scene is desolate. We look down on the lush vegetation that chokes the long canals, follow the thin border line toward Rome marked by ruined medieval watch towers and on the other side the more clearly modulated coast past Terracina to Gaeta and beyond, with the Vesuvian smoke tingeing the farthest background.

The nymph and magician Circe had her temple on another one — the highest, — of the ten peaks on the island, and the polygonal altar subtructures show reconstructions of the shrine as late as the Empire. But her cave, as local traditions have it, is at the water’s edge, looking seaward.

Some modern scholars insist that the Latin colony sent to Circeii in 393 was the first one, and marked the founding of the city. This I do not believe. Both Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus ascribe the sending of an earlier colony here in 510 by Tarquinius Superbus at the same time that the colony was sent to Signia. They also both relate that Coriolanus captured it for the Volscians in 488 and expelled the Roman colonists, who were then distinct from the natives. We infer two things from these texts: that there may have been a city here before 510; and that its inhabitants did not mix with the Roman colonists. Why is it not natural to infer that Tarquin’s Roman colonists lived in the citadel and the oppidani in the city below? They sympathized with the Volsci and opened their gates to them, which would be easy if we suppose the Roman garrison to have been in the citadel above. I would attribute, then, the city walls at S. Felice to an early date, previous to 510, when the Roman colonists came and built the citadel in imitation of that at Praeneste, connecting it with the city by the causeway. When the new colony of 393 was sent probably few structural changes occurred, but when the whole of the Pontine plain came into Roman possession, the two colonies of Norba and Circeii received the lion’s share, as being with Setia the only Latin colonies in this region, and their size and prosperity must have materially increased.