The Via Appia And The Cities Of The Pontine Plain

The Via Appia intersects the happy hunting grounds of the Latin people, as it takes its way in wavy straightness from Rome toward Alba and then after leaving the first spurs of the Volscian hills on its left shoots straight as a bullet across the Pontine plain to the southern boundary of Latium at Terracina.

Built by Appius Claudius in 312 B.C., it was the first of the great highways inaugurated by Rome to bind her yoke on an already subjugated region. It marked the close of the long struggle with the Volscians, the dissolution of the Latin league and the subjugation of Campania. To pass along it even now, as we easily can in an automobile, or on a long-tailed horse, loping and Campagna bred, or in an antique diligence, is to see on either side nearly all the ancient sites that made the drama of earliest Roman history.

On our way to the Alban hills we pass on the left Collatia, so soon absorbed by Rome; on the right Politorium,Tellene and Bovillæ, early Latin towns of small size that soon fell into obscurity. Around the crater of the mountain were grouped, after the destruction of Alba, the important cities of Tusculum and Lanuvium, near which was the famous national shrine of Diana at Lake Nemi, where so many wonderful finds of the early Empire have recently been made. Just beyond it on a spur was Velitrae, at times a Volscian city, at times a Latin-Roman fortress, founded in about 500 B.C. to stem the tide of the Volscians’ invasion when these tribesmen saucily placed a stronghold on nearby Mount Algidus, by which they threatened the seat of the Latin race.

The Appia then spans the gap between the Alban hills and the Volscian range of the Monti Lepini, a picturesque spur of the Apennines running parallel to the main range along the edge of the Pontine plain until it reaches the coast and the mountains at Terracina. We are still in the foothills. If we look seaward to our right we can place, near the water, Laurentum and Lavinium, earlier than Rome and even earlier than Alba, the sacred city from which the penates, or household gods, came to Rome. Then, only six miles farther, Ardea of the Rutuli, an important seaport, another of the primitive Latin cities and next to Rome and Alba the largest in Latium. Its circuit of tufa walls, built in part like the stretch of Servian wall on the Esquiline, can still be traced.

The insignificant Pollusca and Longula were farther inland; and nine miles beyond, set frankly on a rocky point of the coast line, Antium, which after being a Latin city became the metropolis, the richest city and northern bulwark of the Volscians, almost the rival of Rome, when they overran southern Latium and occupied the Pontine plain. Here the struggle with the Volscians was fiercest ; here and on a parallel line drawn inland toward the mountains past Satricum, which also passed shuttlecock fashion from Latins to Volscians. Little appears of Ardea beside a few bits of wall. But recent excavations at Satricum have uncovered best of all the famous historic shrine of Mater Matuta outside of the city, in whose ruined stratifications, burnings and rebuildings, all traceable in the temple area, we see an epitome of these historic struggles in their various stages. The plan of the temple is Greek, not Etruscan, and it is perhaps the farthest north of any Greek temple. Hellenic is also the art of the terra-cottas from the different temples, now preserved in the Papa Giulio Museum. I saw them soon after the discovery and the coloring was wonderfully pre-erved.

In this neighborhood are some of the thick tangled macchie which were the refuge of male-factors, but so unhealthy as to be more deadly than a papal prison.

Here begins the real Pontine plain, now a dreary pestilential marshland, then as fertile in its way as the proverbial valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, and fallen as low in its estate. We can follow its border from Satricum through modern Cisterna to the mountain range below the rock of Norba. But as we stand once more on the Via Appia at this point, we must not forget that on our left, some five miles back, we have left high up on the mountain side the ancient Latin city of Cora with its well preserved triple circuit of polygonal walls and its very early bold bridge. When the Volscian invasion threatened upper Latium from the south Cora was not considered a sufficient protection and as an outpost Norba was selected, and it is Norba that will mainly furnish us with the means of judging these Latin cities of the middle period. In the plain, too, Suessa Pometia was built, a large and wealthy city, but not strong enough to escape repeated capture and early destruction.

From below Norba, the Appia, keeping strictly to the plain, begins its arrow-like flight in absolute straightness across the Pontine plain to the shrine of Feronia near Anxur-Terracina. At present a depressing, sometimes fabulously beautiful, sometimes ghoulishly slimy and repellant stretch, it was always more or less unhealthy and marshy from the time of the late Republic. Aside from the picturesque and rocky Volscian hills on the left and the Ausonian mountains into which they dimly melt as they curve east-ward, there is nothing to see but the rank and tall vegetation that hides the sea line on the right, the sluggish miasmatic canals and, directly in front, rising superbly out of the haze, the rock of Circe, Mount Circeii, almost parallel with in-visible Terracina. In the thickets of this marsh-land there is a great variety of game—wild boar, wild duck, partridges, quail—and even now and then there emerges either a solitary tawny bull, or groups of the superb half-wild campagna cattle with their centaur-like shaggy-legged guardian cattlemen, who will survive long after the western cowboy will have sunk into innocuous desuetude.

Until one enters here upon the real marshland the hills have sent out ridges into the plain like the exposed roots of some large trees, but at and beyond Norba the rocks sink abruptly into the flatness below. One can throw a stone from the polygonal walls of Norba to fall nearly fifteen hundred feet straight into the springs of Ninfa.

Even along the mountain line, though a spot peculiarly sacred to their race, the Latins were obliged at this point to let go their hold. It was just here that in the old legend Saturn found a hiding place when he was expelled by Jupiter from heaven and gave civilization to the earth. From this latibulum the land was called Latium, say these fabulists, and from the god Saturnia. His earliest historic shrine was by them said to be near Setia. Setia, the next city to Norba, though strongly walled and strongly set on its rock, was occupied, it would seem, by the Volscians and not recovered until their power was broken, in 382 or 383 B.C., when it again received a Roman colony. Cyclopean walls, citadel circuit, bastion, temple sites can be studied here, though less perfectly than either at Cora or Norba. Setia commanded the first wide valley that leads deep into the Volscian hills and connects with the valley of the Sacco, the ancient Tolerus. Through this valley the Volscians poured into the Pontine plain from the northeast at some unknown time after 500, when Rome had been weakened by the expulsion of the Tarquins and the loss of Etruscan support. Near the mouth of the valley stood Setia on the west and Privernum on the east, both of which the Volscians captured. Privernum they kept until the end, when Rome punished its obduracy by forcing the inhabitants in 318 B.C. to leave their hill city and build a defenseless one in the valley. Its ruins still exist, most inviting to the excavator, for it not only has monuments of the late Republican age, but superb sculptures of the time of Augustus and Tiberius. The favorite villa of Se j anus was here. I remember how one day years ago as I was on my way to see a primitive fort built by the Volscians at the neck of the valley, I listened to the song of a shepherd who was herding on the southern slope below the ruins of this villa. The first of the words to his song were :

Marciano, Marciano Tutte le pecore son ‘di Sejano.

The name of Sejanus and of his head herds-man! Strange survival of a local tradition for perhaps nineteen centuries !

Soon after passing by this opening in the range we reach the ruins of the famous shrine of Feronia, at the end of the last spur before Terracina. Here were fountain, grove and shrine, referred to by Virgil and Horace, founded, it was said, by Lacedemonians led to emigrate from Sparta out of discontent with the severe laws of Lycurgus. Now the marshland ends, and leaving Circeii towering to the right, we enter the city which the ancients called both Anxur and Terracina.

Here was the southern frontier of Latium in the earliest times. Here were located some of the earliest legends. Here the magician Circe changed into a woodpecker her lover Picus, son of Saturn and king of the Ausonians. Under the Tarquins it was still Latin, but fell to the Volscians with the rest of southern Latium and was kept by them for nearly a century and a half. It is interesting to look across at Mount Circe and remember that while Terracina was still Volscian the Romans must have raided that mountain in 393 B.C., turned it into a fortress and a thorn in the side of the Volscians even though their communications with it could be only by sea until the conquest of the Volscians had been completed.

In fact, as Norba had been a defensive bulwark for Rome at the beginning of the struggle at the north end of its area, Circeii was placed as an offensive wedge in the south at its close. The two fortresses illustrate different types and periods and I shall study Circeii after Norba. Both are in splendid preservation.

Long before the building of the Appian way there had existed another great road in this region. In fact, the Appia had serenely disregarded every city between Velitrae and Terracina. Cora, Norba, Setia, Privernum had all to be reached by long stretches of special roadways branching from it. The Roman road was, we see, not designed for local communication, but as a great inter-provincial artery to establish communication with Campania and to insure the free despatch of troops from Rome to any southern point. From this time forward the inter-mediate cities were to steadily diminish in size and importance. They were no longer needed as fortresses in a completely friendly country. The loss of independence sent the more ambitious and able to Rome and other large centers. With the abandonment of the old system of free agriculture and the substitution of slave labor and large estates came the neglect of the old network of underdrainage. Soon after there commenced the gradual subtle inroads of malaria, reaching up farther and farther from the coast line and from the south. The source of the wealth of the old towns failing, they first became fossilized and then decayed.

But we are not concerned with this decay that went on during the third and second centuries B.C. What these antique cities represent in history is a stage of culture corresponding in Rome to the age of the kings and the earliest Republic.

It was then that they lived their full life. At that time a highway was built not on the plain but quite high above it, more than half way up the mountain side. It first connected Velitrae with the cities of the Alban hill and Rome itself and then joined Velitrae to the Volscian hillside at Cora. Then leaving Cora it crossed a torrent by a bridge which even as it stands is of the Re-publican age,—perhaps pre-Appian,—for it is constructed of three superposed lines of archivolts like the Cloaca Maxima. It followed the hillside to Norba, rising to its gates in zigzags and then passing out and down to the narrow valley of the Visciola. Its line can be traced not only to Setia but beyond until it debouches above the Amaseno valley in front of Privernum.

I do not believe that any one before myself had tracked continuously the line of this pre-Appian highway. I had it surveyed over the entire stretch from Cora to Setia. It was no easy job to trace it on account of the many early polygonal retaining walls that still lined the hill-side and others that in the distance fooled one into thinking them ancient. It is now quite a general opinion that these ancient retaining walls were the foundations for lines of buildings along the hillside. I shall refer to them later. Of course the highway was also supported by a line of walls which differed from the roughest of the early city walls only in their superior roughness. After certain preliminary rambles from Norba as a center I started from Cora to really make a consecutive tracing of the road and walked all the way to Terracina. When I got there my shoes were all askew and my feet huddled into their right sides from walking steadily on a steep slant for four days in one direction, so that while I was inclined to give myself up for my return to the luxury of the stuffy diligence, I was obliged, in order to restore their shape, to walk back along the same hillsides !

My consequent intimacy with these hillsides certainly had one good result. Nothing else would have given me so strong and close a sense of the antique life here in prehistoric times. In thinking of these cities we must eliminate our ideas of modern life and even of Roman life—the life of the city. For these Latins, Hernicans and Voiscians, the life was that of the country, strange as this may seem when we look at their grandiose walled cities. The cities held, it is true, most of the temples; the acropolis or citadel on the highest point was supplemented by one or two enormously strong lines of walls, sometimes concentric, sometimes in superposed terraces. The circuit of the walls was in some cases two, three or even four miles in length, so that Tiryns and Mycenae were small in comparison. And yet we must look upon these cities as mainly the refuge of the inhabitants in times of danger and the center of their government. The life was essentially agricultural; more so than that of most other groups of peoples in Italy, though they had rivals in the Umbrians and Sabines. There was not the development of art, of commerce and of industry that we find on either side of them in Etruria and in Campania or even in Latium. No fleets brought imported works, no pampered aristocracy existed, no luxurious works of art were produced. It was a plain, hard-working people.

For them the unit remained the territory, the land. The city was mainly the means by which it could be kept. Here as elsewhere not only each city but each territory was marked out by a ditch and consecrated by the priesthood,—a general Italic custom. Where the highway entered the territory it was often defended by a fortress. I found these unique and primitive polygonal blockhouses on the border lines between Privernum and Setia, between Setia and Norba and between Cora and Norba. I do not believe they have ever been noticed or at least recognized as forts.

In the plain, other blockhouses defended the approaches to the hillside, like that below Norba, just above the station. It was outside the walls, along the hillside, that line upon line of farm-houses supported by the retaining walls I have mentioned were built ; and to each citizen was probably assigned a lot on the Pontine plain below, from which came all the agricultural wealth of the community. We can well imagine the temporary wattled huts in the plain and on the hillside, after the type of the cabin urns, be-cause such huts are still built by the herders and shepherds for the same purposes, not only on the Pontine plain but north of Rome in the corresponding stretches of the Maremme. Several passages show that in times of peace a large part of the people not only stored their produce but lived outside the walled towns, in villages, farm-houses and villas, the destruction of which is recorded. So that beside these primitive huts we must visualize the hillsides as thickly sprinkled with more substantial buildings. In all this region where now hardly a soul is to be seen there were several hundred thousand people in the period between the fourth and the eighth centuries before Christ.

Researches by M. de la Blanchère have given some inkling of the painstaking and efficacious methods by which these ancient tribesmen worked their land and made of the present desert a gar-den. He discovered elaborate networks of passages, some of which were large enough for a man to explore, and built of well constructed stonework. They were evidently intended to use for carrying off water and for underdraining the lowlands where water would otherwise stand. This careful system made it possible to utilize every inch of ground and it honeycombed the whole district from the Alban hills to Terracina.

There is an abundance of material in this region. Both Cora and Setia have magnificent remains of their polygonal walls and foundations of temples of the early period, and at Cora there are two temples of the Hellenistic age. Something remains of the Privernum of the Republic, though the site of the cyclopean city was so well destroyed by the vindictive Romans that it has not even been located. But in this wealth I shall concentrate on Norba, on Circeii and Terracina, for though I am tempted to speak of Satricum, all that was interesting there has been removed and the site is too unhealthy to visit.