Italy – Norba

I once spent about two months in a survey of the ruins of Norba, on a daily diet of cold pork chops. To be sure the porkers were raised on the spot. In fact, their favorite abiding place for centuries had been a large and mysterious cavern that seemed to extend from the face of the cliff overhanging the plain into the heart of the city in the direction of the main group of temples. I was curious to know whether it could actually have reached under the foundations of the temples and connected with their favissae, for then I hoped to find a mass of broken pottery, utensils, and offerings thrown down by the priests during several centuries. But my curiosity could never be satisfied. Each time I was driven back by legions of predatory fleas, installed there from generations in harmony with the pigs. The combination was too strong.

Norba seemed then to me and still seems the most promising of the ruined cities of early times in Italy. I once hoped to excavate it and some day I may tell the story of why this could not be done. Spurred on by our survey, the Italian Department of Fine Arts, after denying to our School of Classical Studies the privilege of completing the survey by some modest excavations, proceeded itself to excavate. Its archæologists have all, apparently, joined the phalanx of those who believe in the late date of these polygonal cities, and in their excavations they seem to have mainly concerned themselves with discovering proofs that Norba was not founded before 492 B.C., when the Roman colony was sent there. In fact they tried to prove that it was a thoroughly Roman city. Now, it is recognized by Roman historians as a general custom in the establishment of Roman colonies that wherever possible they were sent to already existing centers of population. There are hardly any exceptions to this rule. It was a peculiarity which distinguished the Romans from the Greeks, who were in the habit of choosing fresh sites. The passage of Livy reads, in the year 492, “et Velitris auxere numerum colonorum Romani et Norbae in montis novam coloniam, quae arx in Pomptino esset, miserunt.” There is nothing in its wording to prove that Norba did not preëxist. The corresponding passage in Dionysius of Halicarnassus shows how we should interpret it, for, after speaking of the reinforcing of the colony at Velitrae, he says: “A few days after, a new colony was sent to Norba, a city of the Latin people of considerable importance.” This qualification applied to Norba proves that in the opinion of Dionysius and his sources Norba was already a well known city before 492 B.C. Now, if archæologists set aside preconceived notions to the contrary, they will easily find proofs of this in the ruins themselves, and see just how the Roman colonists enlarged and strengthened the older city after their advent.

The situation of Norba is not only strong, on a ridge jutting out southward, but it combines the abrupt and dramatic picturesqueness of stony slopes and naked ledges with a background of richly wooded hills and with the soft and veiled monotony of the moist plain and distant sea line. The descent to the springs of Ninfa that bubble out of the base of its limestone cliff, fifteen hundred feet below, is so steep as to be almost perpendicular. Its ridge makes a break in the long line of the Volscian hills, and it was far better suited than either Cora or Setia to check the Volscians.

A short and poorly run local railroad, almost unused by foreigners or even by Italian tourists, runs southeast from Rome to Terracina. It is a unique experience to get out of the train at the Norba station and to find oneself at the gates of the medieval town of Ninfa, abandoned since the fourteenth century on account of malaria. Many years ago Gregorovius vividly described in his Journal the gorgeous colors of the flowers and vines that almost conceal the masses of its ruined unroofed churches and monasteries, walls and towers. Around and through it stand rather than move the waters of the famous stream ad Nymphas that give to it its name, still frequented by many enthusiastic fishermen for its large and delicately flavored trout. There are some dim frescoes on the walls of one church. The little town hall is even in fair preservation; but the only sign of modern life is a mill. We cannot be certain of it, but it is quite probable that when ancient Norba on the cliff above was destroyed, the few survivors were forced as a punishment to build in the plain a town that could not be easily defended.

A causeway zigzags up the steep mountain until in about two miles it passes near the ancient city and on to the modern Norma which has adopted its name and was probably settled not much before the Renaissance by the f ever-stricken refugees from Ninfa below. For up here they are far above the dangerous fever zone.

Even before starting up the causeway from the plain, the eye perceives traces of the pre-historic city: a sort of blockhouse that defended the approaches from the lowlands, long and fugitive lines of polygonal masonry striating the slope at various levels, and having evidently, served as foundations for the numerous villas or farming establishments that formed a sort of suburb to the fortified city and were the headquarters for the cultivation of the territory in the plain.

Before we reach the ruins the old passage in Appian’s history of the civil war prepares us. It is dramatic in its brief simplicity. He is telling of the last days of the struggle between Marius and Sulla, when the Italian commonwealths, which had practically all of them sided with the defeated democratic party of Marius, were being decimated or destroyed. After the destruction of Praeneste, Norba was last in the hopeless struggle, besieged by Sulla’s general, Aemilius Lepidus. He could not capture it, but “was admitted in the night by treachery. The inhabitants were maddened by this treason. Some killed themselves or fell on each other’s swords, others strangled themselves with ropes. Still others closed the gates and set fire to the town. A strong wind fanned the flames, which so far consumed the place that no plunder was left in it. In this way did these stout-hearted men perish.” This is the requiem of Norba worthy to stand beside the defense of Saguntum. Since that time, 82 B.C., it has not been lived in as a town. The principal signs of later life are the villas of some Romans of the Empire and a few medieval graves. Sulla probably gave the site to one of his followers, as he did other cities that he destroyed, or else it was auctioned off to the highest bidder. What we shall see then, at Norba, is earlier than 82 B.C. This is not the opinion of the Government archæologists, who believe that temples, and city were rebuilt under the Empire. This seems more than doubtful to me, any more than the Byzantine fragments prove a medieval township.

As we approach it we can trace the ancient pre-Appian road that joined it to its two neighbors on either side, to Cora on the side toward Rome and to Setia in the direction of Terracina. We enter Norba by a large fortified gateway on the southeast corner, defended on the right by a large circular bastion. The wall circuit of about seven thousand feet with its gateways is practically complete. In comparison with later cities it is not large, and is, of course far smaller than great Etruscan cities like Veii. Standing on the summit of a rocky ledge, there has been in all these two thousand years but a slight accumulation of earth over the site; several streets with their sidewalks, three temple groups, the city reservoir, several well and treasure chambers, some civil buildings and the walls which divide the city into terraces can still be seen inside the walls.

The special fascination of Norba, aside from its situation, is its state of desertion. Its only use is to grow grain. There is no modern and medieval city obliterating the old. Run a pointed stick a foot into the ground and you may hit the ancient sidewalk. The original street is almost on the surface. We can see exactly how the different levels were obtained by lines of artificial terraces supported by retaining walls of the same cyclopean construction as those of the outer city. I do not believe that on any other ancient Italian site north of Magna Graecia, the city walls inclose so many traces of buildings.

The special points of interest are the two towers or bastions, one circular and the other square; the two acropolis hills with their buildings; the hillock overlooking the Pontine plain; the large and small cisterns ; the various gates and posterns, with their subterranean passages.

It is very unusual to meet with towers in cyclopean city walls. Beside these at Norba none have been noticed except the far more numerous and regularly disposed towers at Cosa and the possible bastion at Alatri. They are certainly a sign of a more advanced military science, and I should assign these at Norba to the time of the arrival of the Roman colonists. The city must then have been enlarged and this was done on the side opposite the Pontine plain by the construction of an artificial terrace ex-tending from the main gate (Porta Maggiore)’ with the circular bastion at least as far as the next main gate, the Porta Signina. As the city level along this line was not much above the surrounding ground the wall was made unusually high and was strengthened at its principal angle by a projecting square bastion, which is the largest as well as the earliest of its class in ancient Italy.’ It is nearly forty feet wide at its base and still rises to a height of about forty feet. Some of its stones are ten and twelve feet long.

How much higher it originally was cannot be determined, but both wall and tower must have risen considerably above the level of the terrace. It has been asserted that this was not so: that in no case in these cyclopean fortifications did the walls rise above the interior level of the city. The walls of Norba are conclusive evidence to the contrary. Along nearly the whole northeast side we find a second wall running parallel to the outer wall; the space between was filled up and the level of the chemin de ronde was reached by inclined planes and staircases of which undoubted traces remain, marked also by breaks in the inner wall. What is true of Norba was probably true of other cities. We shall find it true, somewhat later, at Circeii. Of course, for the greater part of their height the city walls, here and elsewhere, were merely retaining walls, banked with earth or built against the natural hillside. There is everywhere a considerable batter.

The use of the circular bastion at the Porta Maggiore is an even greater sign of advanced military knowledge. Until quite a late date the Romans clung to the far inferior form of square towers whose angles could so easily be dislocated by attacking machinery. It was from the far more scientific Orient that the more invulnerable circular bastion may have come into use in Italy in the same way as it was re-introduced into Europe from the Orient at the time of Richard Coeur de Lion and Philip Augustus by the engineers of the returning crusaders. This circular tower at Norba has, therefore, an historic interest, as apparently the first of its type in Italy and the west. The gate it defends is about twenty-five feet wide and could hardly have been spanned by a stone architrave even with the device used at Signia: so we must complete it with a wooden beam which was undoubtedly consumed by the fire of 82 B.C. I discovered, by the way, numerous traces of this fire among the ruins of the city.

I imagine that before the Roman colonists of 492 B.C. built this new stretch of wall with its great gate, the main entrance to Norba had been just around the corner to the southwest where a gate of considerable size (Porta Ninfina) stands just below the minor acropolis. The early road which enters here bifurcates in two directions, one descending to the plain, the other keeping on the upper slope. Inside both these gates I noticed certain walls connected with them and with the city walls which formed a sort of irregular place d’armes or court which could be defended in case the enemy stormed the gates. It is the embryo of what the Roman engineers before the Augustan age developed into an architecturally symmetrical inner court such as we shall see at Cosa, at Spello, at Aosta and several other cities.

Another addition to the city by the Roman colonists may have been all that part toward the cliffs overlooking the Pontine plain which is beyond the long line of inner bastions. This includes the hillock on which stood the temple of Juno, which is partly artificially formed with materials that cannot be of earlier date.

This means, of course, that the internal arrangements and levels of the city on this side were changed. The two centers of the primitive city seem to be undoubtedly the two acropolis hills. That on the very outer edge of the city, immediately to the left as one enters Porta Maggiore, is quite small and holds nothing but two temples with their sacred inclosure or temenos. Each temple seems to have had a separate approach ; that on the right by a staircase, that on the left by an inclined plane. Their stylobates still stand intact, but all the super-structure has disappeared. Stylobates, temenos wall and encircling walls are all of polygonal cyclopean masonry. From fragments of columns and terra-cottas it is evident that the temples were rebuilt in the second or third century B.C., and that they were of the usual type of cella and pronaos with columns first of wood covered with terra-cotta and then of stuccoed stone. Evidently this was a sacred hill ; not the arx or citadel, which stood on the larger acropolis hill farther north.

On the citadel hill, also, there was a temple. In the case of the others we cannot say to what deities they were dedicated, but the excavations have shown that this, was a temple of Diana. An archaic head which originally belonged to her cult-statue is in the style of the sixth century and is another proof of Norba’s preexisting the Roman colony. To give Diana a supreme position was quite natural to the Latins and cognate tribes. The shrine of Diana at Nemi near Aricia was the national religious center of the Latin league; that of the Hernican cities was the shrine of Diana at Compitum; the attempt by the Tarquins to make Rome the arbiter of Latium was marked by the building of a national Latin shrine to Diana on the Aventine. So it would not be out of place to consider this temple at Norba as the original shrine of the city previous to the advent of the Roman colony, and to consider the other temples as later. Perhaps the temple of Juno in the new part of the city over-looking the plain was the shrine of the new colonists.

At the foot of the acropolis is an enormous open cistern, nearly one hundred feet square, which supplied the whole city with water. It is built of the usual polygonal masonry, but the stones instead of being simply laid up dry are bedded in cement. The floor also is of heavy cement which I have had analyzed and which seems of peculiar interest since it is about the earliest known mixture on a large scale for a water-tight floor. Of course there are other small ciserns in different parts of the city. One of quite primitive construction is in the sacred acropolis, for the use of the priests of the temples. It is a circular well, vaulted in the usual primitive pseudo-domical way by projecting horizontal courses of masonry. Another cistern, less ancient, is of peculiar constructive interest because its covering is formed of two intersecting barrel vaults of unusual construction, showing a primitive and tentative use of this method of attaining a sort of cross-vaulting. It is in its small way the most interesting piece of construction in Norba, and is situated southwest of the large cistern.

Almost parallel with the city walls on the side facing the Pontine plain is the line of retaining walls which divided the lower and newer from the middle and older city, supporting a terrace which joined the level of the hillock of the temple of Juno. Between blocks this terrace was reached from the lower city by inclined planes which connected the streets of the two sections. This difference of levels added picturesqueness to the city.

It would not be possible or interesting to give a technical demonstration of the various styles of cyclopean masonry used in the walls of Norba, nor to attempt a chronological arrangement of them. I hope to do this some time in a more technical study. One thing is interesting; that the quarries for the stone were found partly, if not wholly, on the site itself. They can be located both on the northeast and southwest sides within the walls. Another thing is that the least ancient part of the walls, that on the northeast, is also the least well preserved; it has been partly dislocated by the pressure of the artificial terrace behind it, and partly cast down to the level below.

Before leaving Norba I must say a word about its necropolis, because hereby hangs a tale. While I was at work there, a peasant brought me a few objects from a tomb of the iron age which interested me extremely because thus far not a trace had been discovered of the necropolis of Norba. I could not get any clue from him as to the spot where these things were found. Needless to say, I prospected on all sides of Norba for traces of tombs and found none. When the government archæologists decided to excavate here they not only examined the entire neighborhood but dug trial trenches in all likely spots. They went northward toward the hills and southward toward the plain without finding a trace. Then to the southeast, after descending to the plain and beginning to rise again toward Sermoneta, a necropolis was discovered of considerable extent and of very early date. In fact the objects found belonged to the iron age. They were several centuries earlier than the date settled upon by the government archæologists as that of the founding of Norba and could not very well be dated later than the eighth or seventh centuries. Some ruined tombs were found above the monastery of Valvisciolo. Evidently the similar objects brought to me years before by the peasant had been from this necropolis. Vade retro Satanas! Avaunt ! These graves must not, cannot, be of the inhabitants of Norba. It mattered not that they are in just the position we should expect them to be from the analogy of Etruscan cities, where the necropolis is not usually in the hill on which the city itself is built, but on the nearest available slope. It mattered not that the government archæologists had themselves proved there was no necropolis in any other direction. It mattered not that the distance between Norba and this necropolis was less than in a number of Etruscan cities. Norba must go without any necropolis whatever rather than that the pet theory that Norba was not founded until 492 B.C. should be overthrown!

And so they invented a hypothetical town, a small one to be sure, but a town earlier than Norba, marked by a few walls on the hillside not. far above this necropolis. It so happens that they were not the first to discover these walls ; both my surveyor and I studied them and decided that they were not of early date, but were probably put up in the Middle Ages for the protection of the Cistercian abbey of Valvisciolo! It seems to me quite clear that in these tombs we should recognize that part of Norba’s necropolis in which its earlier inhabitants were buried and that further researches in this region will probably bring to light the later tombs, at a greater distance.

It was a great pleasure to me while at Norba to do the honors of the place to the Government Archæological Commission which came down to investigate the work I was doing. To all of them, in fact to every Italian archæologist except Rodolfo Lanciani, Norba had been until then a sealed book and none of them had visited her. Since then they have shown much interest.

The truth probably is that Norba was a city ,founded not long before or after the eighth century, enlarged and strengthened in about 492 and changed in the regular course of events until its destruction in 82 before Christ.

What I would have to say about the cyclopean ruins of Setia and of Cora would be in a way repetitious. There is, to be sure, a variant at Cora in the arrangement of the walls, which are terraced in three circuits. But Cora needs visiting on account of quite another architectural feature: its two temples. They are, both of them, of the late Republican era, and in their age and preservation are paralleled only by the two temples of Tivoli. In both cases the picturesqueness of their site, jutting out at the edge of the town, with a superb view over an extensive valley, adds to their intrinsic beauty. They have been shown to exemplify the Hellenic variations from horizontal and vertical lines to produce certain optical effects. One of them was probably the Capitolium temple and the other the temple of Castor and Pollux which stood at the approach to the square of the forum in the position appropriate to their character of guardians of the city and messengers of Jupiter. The forum was evidently remodeled under Sulla, or shortly before, for the retaining wall of the square in front of the Capitolium,—which is popularly called the temple of Hercules,—is constructed of opus incertum that points to this age.