California Literary Review

Notes from Italy: Romulus and Neighbors

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October 17th, 2007 at 9:07 am

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Village of Saracinesco, Italy

Call me a poor sort of tourist, but I have seen enough of the ruins of imperial palaces on the Palatine hill. For one thing, the sun gets hot and there is no shade; nor have I ever been able to conjure up in my mind, no matter how good a guide I have along, just what the place must have looked like before Constantine got angry with the Romans and moved east in the year 327.

I do, since I like shade, like to stroll even in summer in the Farnese gardens up on the Palatine, and gaze down at the sweltering city while I sit on a bench beneath a good-sized oak. Better yet, even when the sun shines hot I like to walk to the southwest corner of the hill and look at what remains of the house of Romulus. This is no palace, just some holes in the ground in the volcanic tufa, which is relatively easy to cut and then hardens. One sees a round trench on which rested a stone wall of a round house. In the middle of the circle are holes that anchored the tree trunks supporting the roof. Archeology tells us that the hut was built around 750 B.C. That equates almost perfectly with the traditional date when Romulus founded the city.

When Andrew Marvell came to Rome in 1645 he found on the Palatine what he called in a poem years later “Romulus his bee-like cell.” It must have been a reconstruction, presumably near the site that I like to visit, of the founder’s imagined dwelling: a round hut that had a stone wall about four feet high, above which was a thatched beehive-like roof.

More than three centuries after Marvell, I have seen in Italy not reconstructions but real houses of this sort, still inhabited and unchanged in design for three thousand years or more.

The first time was in 1968. My wife and I let the three children skip school one spring day, so that we could all go climb a mountain that Mary Jane and I had seen from the highest point in the Monti Lepini, fifty miles south of Rome between the sea and the autostrada to Naples. Some miles beyond our mountain we caught sight of an interesting-looking pyramidal peak that seemed not too steep or high. We identified it on the map as Monte Caccume. The following Tuesday we drove, the five of us and Seumas the dog, to the old stone town of Patrica, parked just above the town, and began to walk up Caccume on a rough track.

An hour from our start we walked around a bend and just below us saw a Neolithic farm. There were three of the beehive houses and they were inhabited, two it seemed by people and one by farm animals. We could see a woman, a couple of sheep, a cow. There were low stone walls that marked off pastures, a vegetable patch, an enclosure for animals, and a couple of big beeches for shade. No machines, little sound, much peace. We never forgot the place. I am glad we did not. A quarter-century later we climbed Caccume again and found the farm abandoned.

It was during those same Roman years, the years that we had Seumas, that it rained one winter Sunday. My wife and children were content to stay home reading and playing, in our apartment in the Via dei Banchi Nuovi, but I needed exercise. So, I told Seumas, do you. I loaded the dog in the VW and we drove out the Appian Way as far as vehicles were permitted. I parked, and we started walking out the ancient road by the remaining Roman tombs, those too big for thieves to cart off. To our left, plowed fields stretched for some distance. Beyond the fields and not a half-mile from us, I could see cars on the new version of the Appian Way.

Seumas, meanwhile, was coursing ahead. Beyond him I saw, on the right side of our road, a pair of old beehive huts just like the ones on Monte Caccume. There was a kind of farmyard, and a chicken came out of the farmyard onto the road. Seumas knew what to do; he chased the bird into the farmyard. In two seconds he came running out again with three big white sheep dogs behind him, bent on murder. Then they saw me and envisioned a double murder. I called Seumas and we went off at quickstep into the fields to the left. I called out for humans but none came. The sheep dogs followed us a long way, then finally went home. We walked another mile, and then we turned for home–and I went far out into the fields to avoid meeting the dogs again. Such dogs can be dangerous; their instinct is to protect their flock by killing predators. What would the headlines have read–diplomat killed at Neolithic farm in suburbs? That farm, too, has long since vanished; just as well.

What has not vanished is the amazing ancient stonework in certain towns south of Rome. Five of them, whose names start with A–Alatri, for one–are said to have been founded not by a mere man like Romulus, but by Saturn. That means if nothing else that they are very old places.

Porta Maggiore, the main entrance to the citadel, Alatri, Italy.

Not long ago we drove out from Rome, one Saturday morning, to see Alatri. It is now a city of about 25,000. Centuries before Christ its inhabitants fortified it with walls of closely-fitted polygonal blocks, cut from local limestone. The walls are well jointed and some of the blocks weigh tons. Inside the fortifications, in what is still the middle of town, rises the citadel, adapted from an ancient hill. The hilltop, around five acres, was flattened and paved. Then the edges were sheered off to make a 30-foot wall, which was faced with polygonal blocks, some of which measure seven by ten feet and must weigh twenty-five tons each. The main approach to the citadel is through a portal above which is an architrave of a single limestone block, fifteen feet long. Atop this citadel stands the little cathedral, also constructed of limestone, but its blocks are of a lesser size. When we walked into the cathedral that Saturday, a Mass was being celebrated with a congregation of just five or six older women–and there in the bishop’s chair sat the bishop in his mitre: a diocese in miniature, I thought.

There is a yet more impressive place of polygonal walls. This is the abandoned town of Norba, which stands fifteen hundred feet above the Pontine marshes and sea, on the slopes of the Monti Lepini. What remains of Norba is a perimeter wall over a mile and a half around, built of closely fitted great polygonal blocks. It was a sizable city, of which little is known–and it has an enormous main gate with jambs over twenty-five feet high and an adjoining stone bastion over forty feet high, that to my mind rivals the famous Lion gate of Mycenae.

Who built such great walls for these Italian towns? We know that tribes of Italic-speaking shepherds moved out of the Apennines into this area near the Tyrrhenian coast, centuries before Christ. They were good with animals and they knew how to build Romulus-style stone huts. They were not capable of cutting huge blocks and building huge walls–even if most of these polygonal walls were built on sites where they could be lowered rather than raised into place.

The undoubted answer to the riddle is that masons and architects came to Italy from the eastern Mediterranean. Who or when, we just don’t know. The Mediterranean has been a highway for migration for almost ten thousand years; even after people learned to write, many centuries passed before the story of their moves was written down. Norba became a Roman colony in 492 B.C., and it was already a large place then, as we are told by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who wrote at the time of Christ. Dionysius was a Greek, which may in part explain why so many of the invaders of Italy he tells about came from Greece–Trojans, Pelasgians, Tyrrhenians, etc. Someday, I hope in my lifetime, DNA studies will have much more to tell us about early Mediterranean migration. Dionysius, we may find, told fables based on fact.

Consider Sardinia, that large island which is such a different part of Italy. After the Romans conquered the Carthaginians, who had held the Sardinian coast for centuries, Sardinia became in 227 B.C. an overseas province of Rome’s growing empire. But although the Romans held the coasts, the people of the inland forests and granite mountains continued to resist Roman rule. They more or less kept that up for two millennia; brigands roamed the Sardinian highlands into the twentieth century, and their sons became kidnappers who were still a plague when I first reached Italy. Where did the ancestors of these Sards first come from?

A nuraghe on the island of Sardinia

More than a thousand years before Christ, archaeology tells us, a seafaring people invaded Sardinia and started building the stone towers called nuraghi, hundreds of which still dot the island. The invaders could not write and so we do not know what they called themselves–but far to the east the Egyptians had just recorded, in the early twelfth century B.C., how Ramses III successfully defended his kingdom against wild “sea peoples” coming from the north. One of these peoples, the Egyptians wrote, were the Shardan. They may well have been the ancestral Sards. I have seen in the museum at Cagliari a large copper ingot brought to Sardinia, around that time, from the eastern Mediterranean. The Shardan, I decided, must have stolen it from some Egyptian warehouse.

Back to Romulus. He himself was hardly an Italian aborigine, but rather the descendant of an immigrant from the eastern Mediterranean named Aeneas. Educated people all know that Virgil wrote the Aeneid, a little before the time of Dionysius, as a kind of Roman continuation of the Iliad. The Romans were pleased to know that their founder came from an honorable lineage; Aeneas, Virgil wrote, had been a Trojan hero. When I was a schoolboy I understood that this was all pure fiction; but it was not.

The next time you go to Rome, take a half-day to go to Pomezia, just south of the Alban hills, a few miles inland from the sea. The town is unlovely but the new Pomezia museum contains some of the most beautiful terracotta statues of women that I know, dating from several centuries before Christ. It also contains exhibits that trace the story of Aeneas in Italy back to at least the eighth century B.C. You may well leave Pomezia convinced that someone, whose name may have been Aeneas, landed on the nearby coast a millennium or so before Christ–and married the daughter of the king of the local Latins–and had a descendant named Romulus. Not just Virgil but Dionysius gives a detailed account of all this. Dionysius dates the founding of Rome to 431 years after the fall of Troy. That equates well with the destruction of the city archaeologists call Troy VII-a at Hisarlik, in Turkey, around 1190 B.C., and the subsequent founding of Rome around 750.

Migration to Italy has never stopped since Aeneas. If you take the autostrada that leads inland from Rome to the mountains of the Abruzzo, a few miles beyond Tivoli you may catch sight of a town high up on the right, a vertical half-mile above the road. This is Saracinesco, and it was founded by a band of Saracen raiders from North Africa around 890 A.D. A thousand years later, Ferdinand Gregorovius wrote that the people of Saracinesco still had different customs and dress. More recently yet, a friend of mine who grew up nearby–Pietro Del Gallo, Marchese di Roccagiovine–could remember how before World War II the Saracinesco people still had a distinct dialect, shot through with words derived from Arabic.

Or take the Albanians. The Turks finally conquered Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg, in the late 1400s. There was an Albanian exodus to Italy, and today there are as many as a million Albanian-Italians, the Arberesh, some of whom still preserve in their villages the language of pre-Ottoman Albania. But that is not all. Unrest and poverty in Albania after the end of Communist rule in 1992 led to yet a new Albanian exodus to Italy, mainly of working-class men. The Italians were worried about the influx, but a decade later the new Albanians are gainfully employed in the Italian countryside, saving their money to send home to their wives and to build the new houses one sees rising in the outskirts of Tirana.

Nor would Italian readers want me to ignore the other new immigrants. They come from Sierra Leone, Tunisia, Kurdistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, China–and even America. The Italians call them, not impolitely, extracomunitari because they come from outside the European Union. Many of them come, indeed, from outside the largely white, Christian, Indo-European world, and they present a serious political and societal problem in Italy. The Italians, however, are in the main not chauvinists, not xenophobic. The Latins accepted Aeneas and crew, admittedly after some fighting, and today’s Italy is by and large accepting these new crews, too–which is more than can be said for some other countries that are not our subject here.

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