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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

(Vol. XVIII)
p316
Mevania

Mevania (mod. Bevagna), an ancient town of Umbria, on the river Clitumnus and on the Via Flaminia, 8 m. WSW of Forum Flaminii, and 5 m. W of Fulginium (Foligno), 738 ft. above sea-level. There are remains of a temple near the north gate, and of an amphitheatre built into the modern houses.a The walls, which have disappeared,b were, according to Pliny (Hist. Nat. XXXV.173), built of unbaked bricks. In 310 B.C. the consul Fabius broke the Umbrian forces here; but otherwise it is not mentioned until the 1st century A.D. In 69 the army of Vitellius awaited here the advance of Vespasian. Its pastures near the river and its white oxen are mentioned by Propertius,c whose family belonged to Asisium (mod. Assisi) and after him by Silius Italicus, Lucan and Statius. The town was a municipium. The churches of S. Michele Arcangelo and S. Nicolod are Romanesque buildings of the 12th century.


[image ALT: The massive remains of a colossal brick and stone building, several storeys tall, with at least four engaged circular brick pillars, on a base about 2 m high of about a dozen courses of squared stone masonry. It is a Roman temple in Bevagna, Umbria (central Italy).]

The temple in the via Crescimbeni on the N side of town:
notice the remnants of stone cladding, and the careful base of opus quadratum.


Thayer's Notes:

a There are indeed substantial vestiges of a circular structure of the Roman period embedded in the urban fabric of downtown Bevagna, and a via dell' Anfiteatro Romano goes right by them. The most recent scholarly opinion, however, is that it was a theatre; and an amphitheatre has — or apparently at least (see my page) — been found outside the town, in an area still now mostly fields.

b The walls that have disappeared are the Roman ones. Like a number of Umbrian towns, Bevagna has a full circuit of walls; they date to the 13c‑14c, and are said to sit on the Roman foundations.

c The concision required in an encyclopaedia will mislead the unwary here. Today, Bevagna is the seat of a rather small township, of only 56 km2, which the American reader can mentally squeeze into a square less than 5 miles on a side; but in Roman times, its relative importance was much greater, and it was the administrative center of a far larger district, extending to Asisium (today's Assisi) and Hispellum in the N (now Spello), which was a fairly important town in its own right, and in the S to the Via Flaminia and the celebrated springs of the Clitumnus.

Propertius' sole mention of Mevania is in a brief passage (Book 4, 1st Elegy) where he speaks of himself, expropriated from his native patch of Italy by Augustus, who grabbed the land of the locals to reward his troops after the civil war:

Umbria te notis antiqua Penatibus edit —

mentior? an patriae tangitur ora tuae? —

quam nebulosa cavo rorat Mevania campo,

et lacus aestivis intepet Umber aquis,

scandentisque Asis consurgit vertice murus,

murus ab ingenio notior ille tuo.

ossaque legisti non illa aetate legenda

patris et in tenuis cogeris ipse Lares:

nam tua cum multi versarent rura iuvenci,

abstulit excultas pertica tristis opes.

Umbria bore you from an illustrious hearth, that ancient land — do I lie? or do I mention the land of your fathers? — which foggy Mevania bedews from its sunken fields and the Lacus Umber warms with its summer waters, and where from the escarpment of Asisium rises a wall, a wall made more famous by your talent. You gathered up the bones — though hardly of an age to gather them — of your father; you yourself were forced to move your household gods to straitened quarters: yes, many young bulls plowed your land, but those riches were taken from you by the dire surveyor's rod.

Clearly the writer was a poet, not a geographer.

On the basis of this little snippet of verse he is claimed by both Assisi and Bevagna, although the towns are 15 km apart — as well as by Spello, which lies between them; but the impartial reader will be at a loss to decide. In Book I, Elegy 22, Propertius shows a fondness for "the plains below Perugia" and says that that fertile land gave him birth, which tips the balance for me, or at least nudges it: as you've just read, Bevagna hunkers down in a slight basin prone to dews and fog, but Assisi is relatively dry and windswept, clinging to the flank of a tall mountain where both bulls and surveyors would have a tough time of it.

The situation is not helped, but the arguments are entertainingly fueled, by those who claim — usually in order to rob Assisi of any chance at the honor of giving our poet birth — that Asis in the text of Propertius should be emended to arcis; or that Asis doesn't mean Assisi at all, but Mount Subasio. In view of the occasional passions raised by this curious controversy (I mean, does Propertius' birthplace really matter?) I should point out that my slight preference for Mevania is as free from local prejudice as could be, since I'm not from Umbria at all, and am very fond of all three towns; if anything, one might expect me to be biased toward Spello, where I lived for six months. At any rate, for a sample of the debate, see J. P. Postgate's review of Urbini's La Patria di Properzio (CR 4:162‑163) and W. Y. Sellar, The Birth-Place of Propertius (CR 4:393‑396).

As for the cows, the author of our article does well to say that the famous white oxen are "mentioned" by Propertius. That's just about it, in a different bit of verse altogether (Book 2, 19th Elegy):

qua formosa suo Clitumnus flumina luco

integit, et niveos abluit unda boves.

. . . where [the god] Clitumnus overspreads the lovely streams with his sacred grove, and with his waters washes the snow-white kine.

This too was in the territory of ancient Mevania; but it's nowhere near the modern Bevagna. The fons Clitumni, a very beautiful place indeed — see for example the photograph in my diary — is over 20 km SE of the town.

d An inexplicable slip; there is no church of S. Niccolò in Bevagna; the second great Romanesque church is S. Silvestro.


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