The Cities Of Hernican League

There are some ancient cities in the hills along the railroad line from Rome to Naples that have been most successful in keeping their attractions concealed. They have not decorated the pages of any author who believes himself to have discovered the hill towns of Italy, nor have they slipped into any fugitive sketch of Italian high-ways and byways. One might believe the cause to be the regrettable absence of comfortable inns, were there not every reason to be skeptical as to this state of affairs ever having been made a subject of investigation.

These towns still keep their antique names,—Anagni, Alatri, Ferentino, Veroli; and they belonged to the tribe of the Hernici, who gave its name to the range of hills which rise on the north side of the railway as soon as it has passed the Alban mount on the right, the end of the Praenestine ridge on the left and enters the valley of the Sacco, the ancient Trerus or Tolerus.

They fascinated me as a boy, and they have not changed for me since then. For a combination of unspoiled antique flavors one would have to go far to find their equals.’ You pass through the pre-Roman city gate, up a winding street with long lines of Gothic windows set in the mellow stone walls, with all the patina of age still lingering on them like the burr on an un-rubbed etching, and as you look approvingly at the mullioned casement to catch the dark eye of a maid with coal-black hair and pure Greek pro-file, you have a picture untouched by modern contrasts, for her costume, even, is centuries older than the Gothic house, in its heavy textures, its simple patterns and bold broad colors,—the costume of the Ciocieria, of which the models in Rome give a sadly freshened and de luxe edition.

For over two thousand five hundred years—perhaps for two or three centuries longer,—the people with the strong straight figure, the free carriage and proud Greek head have lived here in their own town, surrounded by their immense polygonal stone ramparts, with a walled citadel standing within it and overlooking its streets by about fifty feet of superb unbroken masonry.

The ancient name of Aletrium has been preserved in the modern Alatri and the women still feel proud of the legend that gives them most of the credit of building the antique walls. If it were in Greece, instead of Italy, an abandoned ruin of half the size and in bad preservation, difficult to reach and quite bare of bed and board, devoid of the mellowness of years and marred by recent diggers, we should undoubtedly flock to it amid much discomfort, as we do to Tiryns and Mycenae. But, being in Italy, where it is de rigueur to admire only the Baedekerized and subsidized show places and things of imperial times, these ruins, unsurpassed in the world, remain the peaceful appanage of their proud in-habitants.

One day when, as a boy, I was walking across the hills from Ferentino to Alatri, I was given my first inner vision of the sturdy life and primeval passions of those heroic days of early independent tribal life. The towns, though only five to seven miles apart, always on some precipitous rocky spur, could not be seen from one another like the cities, such as Spello, Assisi and Perugia, strung along the gentle slopes above the Umbrian plains. Nor could they stand in isolated hegemony like the more widely spaced cities of the Etruscan league, such as Volsinii, Caere and Clusium, self-sufficient in their wealth. Hidden as they were from each other by the quick enfolding hills, they were bound by the closest fellowship, because far more than the Etruscans, their people swarmed out into the open, living the life of an agricultural race, close to the soil, ‘unspoiled by luxury or foreign traffic.

They did not trade with Etruscans, with Greeks or Phoenicians, and did not show in the least the Latin cosmopolitanism so evident at Praeneste. So we can understand these freedom-loving tribes, close blood-brethren, born fighters, and sticklers for local rights. Long after it was esteemed so great a privilege by most towns to be given by Rome the full rights of Roman citizenship they preferred to keep their municipal autonomy, to be considered the allies and friends of the Roman people, not part and parcel of the octopus, because this carried with it the submission to Roman magistrates. This was allowed them because from the beginning the three cities of Alatri, Ferentino and Veroli had been stanch friends to Rome, in the days when it meant, perhaps, the making or the marring of Rome’s ambitions. These cities formed a solid wedge separating those constant partners in war—the Aequi in the northern hills and the Volsci in the southeast. It was to the mutual interest of Hernicans and Romans to fight their junction, which would have overwhelmed them both.

It is curious that the greatest of the group, Anagni, the capital of the league, is the only one which has not preserved its original prehistoric walls and citadel. In their place are other walls once equally magnificent in their way, but built after Roman supremacy had become a well established fact, some time just before or after the Pyrrhic war. Is it not because Anagni, the richest and most sophisticated of the cities and the one most likely to be swayed by ambition into dangerous expedients, joined with some of the other Hernican towns under her influence such as Capitulum, in the anti-Roman confederacy of Samnites, Etruscans and the rest? This was in 306 B.C. Anagni then lost her autonomy and most of her land. It is probable that at the same time she lost her walls, a punishment several times inflicted by the Romans on faithless friends. Afterward the walls were probably rebuilt, in the later style of straight-course blocks, such as prevailed until the time of the Gracchi, when the Hernicans of Anagni were no longer feared and the city could become a Roman bulwark in the struggle with Pyrrhus or with Carthage. As we shall see it was also after some siege, some struggle in which the defenses of Ferentino were battered and torn, that its cyclopean walls were repaired and supplemented in a somewhat similar though rougher and perhaps earlier masonry than what we find at Anagni.

I have here illustrated these three stages. The citadel of Alatri, the unspoiled work of the pre-Roman people: the Porta Sanguinaria at Ferentino, giving the old ramparts with their early Roman repairs, perhaps of the fourth century B.C.; and the walls and retaining arcades at Anagni, records of the possession of the rebellious city by Roman magistrates in the days before and after the Punic war.