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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria

by George Dennis

published by John Murray, Albemarle Street
London, 1848.

The text is in the public domain.

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p245 Chapter XLIV


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Jam silvae steriles, et putres robore trunci
Assaraci pressêre domos, et templa Deorum,
Jam lassâ radice tenent, ac tota teguntur
Pergama dumetis; et jam periêre ruinae.


These headings of the author's are used here as local links to text on this webpage.
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Road from Follonica Grosseto Locanda Palandri Site of Rusellae Its ancient walls Area of the city Modern defences The ancient Arx Lago di Castiglione Paucity of tombs around the city Rusellae, one of the twelve Historical notices Utter desolation

It is a tedious drive of nearly thirty miles from Follonica to Grosseto. There is a track along the coast direct to Castiglion della Pescaja, leaving the Torre di Troja, the Trojanus Portus of antiquity,1 to the right; but the high-road, formed of late years, leaves the coast at Follonica, and runs for half the way through a long barren valley. At the distance of nine miles is the Locanda della Potassa, p246a wretched osteria, yet the best halting-place on the road. Beyond Gavorrano, Caldana, and Giuncario, the scenery begins to improve, and Colonna on a wooded height is a picturesque feature in the landscape. This is supposed to be the Colonia, near which, in the year of Rome 529, took place the great rout of the Gauls, commonly called the battle of Telamon.2

The half-way house to Grosseto is Lupo, a wretched cabaret — a mere wolf's den. Here you emerge from the valley into a vast, treeless, houseless moor, or rather swamp, containing the waters of the Lake Castiglione, the Lacus Prelius or Aprilis of antiquity, and realizing all your worst conceptions of the Maremma, its putrescent fens, its desolate scenery. You must make a wide circuit at the edge of the swamp, beneath the Monte Pescale, ere you reach the gates of Grosseto. If the morass have its horrors, it is not necessary to linger amid them, for the road is excellent.

Grosseto, the capital of the Tuscan Maremma, stands on the very level of the plain. It has two or three thousand inhabitants — a population almost doubled in winter;a and in comparison with the towns and villages in its neighbourhood, seems an oasis of civilization; for it has an air of neatness and cleanliness, a small but pretty cathedral, a faint reflection of the glories of Siena, a theatre! and an inn, whose praises I cannot express better than by saying p247it is one of the best in Tuscany, south of Florence. The padrona, the widow Palandri, is known far and wide through the Maremma — nay, throughout the Duchy — not only for the excellence of her accommodation, but for her boast of having resided, maid, wife, and widow, more than sixty years at Grosseto, summer as well as winter, and in robust, uninterrupted health — a living monument of the elasticity of the human frame, and of its power to resist by habituation the most noxious influences of Nature. For Grosseto, though protected from the assaults of man by strong fortifications, has no safeguard against the insidious attacks of the marsh-fever, which desolates it in the summer; and the proverbial saying, "Grosseto ingrossa" — save in the case of La Palandri, where it applies literally — is no mere play upon words, nor is it to be taken ironically, but refers to the bloating, dropsifying effect of the oft-recurring fever. Grosseto has no interest to the antiquarian, beyond its vicinity to the ancient Etruscan city of Rusellae, which lies a few miles to the north, near the high-road to Siena.

At the distance of about four miles on this road are the hot-springs, called I Bagni di Roselle. Above them rises a lofty hill, Poggio di Moscona, crowned with ruins, which the traveller will be apt to mistake for those of Rusellae, as did Sir Richard Colt Hoare.3 At the little wineshop hard by the Baths a guide is generally to be had. I found not one, but half a dozen — young peasants, who had come to hear mass in the little chapel, and were returning to the site of Rusellae, where their cattle were grazing. There are two ways hence to the ancient city, one on each side of the lofty hill of Moscona. It would not be amiss to go one way and return the other. I took the path to the right, and after traversing a forest of underwood for a p248couple of miles, ascended the steep slope on which Rusellae was situated. The hill is one of those truncated cones sometimes chosen by the Etruscans for the site of their cities, as at Orvieto, Saturnia, and Cosa; and the slopes around it are covered with wood, so dense that it effectually conceals the walls from the spectator at a distance. By this road I entered Rusellae on its south-western side. I then turned to the right and followed the line of walls, which are traceable in detached fragments along the brow of the hill.

At first, the masonry was horizontal — rudely so indeed, like that of Volterra and Populonia, but such was its decided character, though small stones were inserted in the interstices of the large masses.4 But when I had gained the eastern side of the city, I found all rectangularity and horizontality at an end, the walls being composed of enormous masses piled up without regard to form, and differing only from the rudest style of Cyclopean, as described by Pausanias, in having the outer surfaces smoothed. Speaking of Tiryns in Argolis, that writer says, "The walls, which are the only ruins remaining, are the work of the Cyclops, and are formed of unhewn blocks, each of which is so huge that the smallest of them could not be in the least stirred by a yoke of mules. Small stones were fitted in of old, in such a way that each of them is of great service in uniting the large blocks."5 In these walls of Rusellae small blocks are intermixed with the large masses, occupying the interstices, and often in some measure fitted to the form of p249the gap. The irregularity and shapelessness of this masonry is partly owing to the travertine of which it is composed; that material not so readily splitting into determinate forms as limestone, although it has a horizontal cleavage.6

The masses are in general very large, varying from six to ten feet in length, and from four to eight in height. Some stand vertically seven or eight feet, by four or five in width, and I observed one nearly thirteen feet in length.7 The walls on the eastern side of the city are in several parts fifteen or twenty feet high; but on the north, where they are most perfect, they rise to the height of twenty to thirty feet. Here the largest blocks are to be seen, and the masonry is most Tirynthian in character; here also the walls are not mere embankments, but rise above the level of the city. On the western side there are few p250fragments extant, and those are of smaller and more regular masonry than in any other part of the circuit. On this side are many traces of an inner wall banking up the higher ground within the city, and composed of small rectangular blocks, corresponding in size with those usually forming city-walls in the volcanic district of the land. The space between this outer and inner line of wall reminded me of the pomoerium, the sacred space within and without the walls of Etruscan cities, no signs of which have I been able to trace on any other ancient site.8 It is true that in this part the inner wall embanks the high mound to the north, which there is reason to suppose was the Arx; but the same walling is to be traced round another mound at the south-eastern angle, as well as at several intermediate points; which makes me suspect there was a continuous line of it.

The area enclosed by the walls forms an irregular p251quadrangle, between ten and eleven thousand feet, or about two miles, in circuit.9 The city then was much smaller than Volterra, yet larger than Populonia or Fiesole.

I traced the sites of six gates — two on the northern side, one at each angle; two in the eastern wall, and two also in the western. In the southern I could perceive no such traces.

Let no one venture to explore the site of Rusellae who is not prepared for a desperate undertaking, who is not thorn-proof in the strength or the worthlessness of his raiment. To ladies it is a curiosity more effectually tabooed than a Carthusian convent, since they can hardly even approach its walls. The area of the city and the slopes around are densely covered with a thorny shrub, called "marruca," which I had often admired elsewhere for its bright yellow blossoms, and delicate foliage;b but as an antagonist it is most formidable, particularly in winter, when its fierceness is unmitigated by a leafy covering. Even could one disregard the thorns, the difficulty of forcing one's way through the thickets is so great that some of the finest portions of the walls are unapproachable from below, and in very few spots is it possible to take a sketch.10 Within the city, the thickets are not so dense. p252Such at least I found the state of the hill in 1844. Let him therefore, who would explore this site, keep in mind the proverb — "tal carne, tal coltello" — "as your meat is, so must your knife be" — and take care to arm himself for the struggle.

Within the walls are sundry remains. On the elevated part to the north, which I think to have been the Arx, besides fragments of rectangular masonry, are some vaults of Roman work, which have been supposed, it seems to me on no valid grounds, to have formed part of an amphitheatre.11 At the south-eastern angle of the city is a mound, crested by a triple, concentric square of masonry, which Micali takes to have been the Arx, though it seems to me more probably the site of a temple or tower.12

On the south-western side of the city are three parallel vaults of Roman opus incertum, about a hundred feet long. They are sunk in the high embanked ground already mentioned, in which, not far from them, are traces of a gate through the inner line of wall.13

p253 From the height of Rusellae you look southward over the wide vale of the Ombrone, with the ruined town of Istia on the banks of that river; but Grosseto is not visible, being concealed by the loftier height of Moscona, which is crowned by the ruins of a circular tower.14 On the east is a wooded hollow; but on the north lies a wide bare valley, through which runs the road to Siena, and on the opposite heights stands the town of Batignano, of proverbial insalubrity — "Batignano fa la fossa." There resides the present proprietor of Rusellae, hight Jacobetti. On the east the valley widens out towards the great lake of Castiglione, the Lacus Prelius, or Aprilis, of antiquity, which of old must have been as at present a mere morass, into which several rivers discharged themselves; but it had then an island in the midst,15 which is no longer distinguishable. p254Castiglion della Pescaja is seen on the shore at the foot of the hills which rise behind the promontory of Troja.

Scarcely a trace of the necropolis has been discovered at Rusellae. The hardness of the rock and the dense woods which for ages have covered the hill, in great measure account for this. It is probable that here, as on other sites of similar character, the tombs were of masonry, heaped over with earth. Such is the character of one on the ascent to the city from the south, not far from the walls.c It is a chamber only seven feet by five, lined with small blocks of unhewn masonry like the Tirynthian in miniature, and covered with large slabs, about eighteen inches thick. The chamber was originally of greater depth, being now so choked with earth that a man cannot stand upright in it. It can be entered only by a hole in the roof, where one of the cover-slabs has been removed; for the original doorway, which opened in the slope of the hill, and which is covered with a horizontal lintel, is now blocked up. As it is therefore a mere pit, without any indications above the surface, it is not easy to find. From the peculiarity of the masonry, and from the general analogy this tomb bears to those of Saturnia, I do not hesitate to pronounce it of high antiquity. This was the only sepulchre I could perceive, or that I could hear of, in the vicinity of Rusellae, though many others probably exist among the dense woods below the walls. No excavations have been made on this site within the memory of man.16

p255 The walls of Rusellae, from their stupendous massiveness, and the rude shapelessness of the blocks, are indisputably of very early date, and may rank among the most ancient structures in Italy. While those of Cosa and Saturnia, in the neatly joined polygonal style, have been referred to later, even to Roman, times, no one has ever ventured to call in question the venerable antiquity of Rusellae; which therefore needs no confirmation from historical sources. The limited extent of the city, only two miles in circumference, and not more than a fourth the size of Volterra, does not seem to entitle it to rank among the Twelve chief cities of Etruria. Yet this honour is generally accorded to it; principally on the ground of a passage in Dionysius, where it is cited in connection with Clusium, Arretium, Volaterrae, and Vetulonia, all cities of the Confederation, as taking part in the war against Tarquinius Priscus, independently of the rest of Etruria;17 which it could not have done had it not been a city of first-rate importance. This is the earliest mention made of Rusellae in history. We next hear of it in the year 453 of Rome, in the dictatorship of M. Valerius Maximus, who marched his army into the territory of Rusellae, and there "broke the might of the Etruscans," and forced them to sue for peace.18 And again in the year 460, the consul, Postumius Megellus, entered the territory of Rusellae, and not only laid it waste, but attacked and stormed the city itself, capturing more than 2000 men, and slaying almost as many around the walls.19 When we next find it mentioned in history, it is among the cities of Etruria, which p256furnished supplies to Scipio in the Second Punic war. It sent him its quota in corn,º and fir for ship-building.20 It is afterwards mentioned among the Roman colonies in Etruria.21 It continued to exist after the fall of the Western Empire, and for ages was a bishop's see, till in 1138, its population had sunk so low, and the site was so infested by robbers and outlaws, that its see and inhabitants were transferred to Grosseto, its modern representative.22 Since that time Rusellae has remained as it is now seen — a wilderness of rocks and thickets — the haunt of the fox and wild boar, of the serpent and lizard — visited by none but the herdsman or shepherd, who lies the live-long day stretched in vacancy on the sward, or turning a wondering gaze on the stupendous ruins around him, of whose origin and history he has not a conception.

The Author's Notes:

1 Ptol. Geog. p68, ed. Bert.

2 It is Frontinus (Strat. I.2, 7) who mentions Colonia as the site of that battle.d Polybius (II.27) says it was fought near Telamon. This Colonna di Buriano is said to have the remains of Cyclopean walling and Roman pavement on the summit of the hill; and vases, Roman coins and other antiquarian treasures are stated to have been there discovered. I was not aware of the same when in that part of the country, or I should not have passed the spot without examination. Repetti (I. p784) does not think this Colonna can be the site of the said battle, which he would rather place at a village, Colonnata, in the neighbourhood of Toscanella. Cluver (II p475) takes this Buriano to be the site of the Salebro of the Itineraries.

3 Classical Tour, I. p49.

4 It is this regular portion of the walls which is represented in the wood-cut at the head of this chapter. They are here about 15 feet high; the block marked a is 7 feet 4 inches long, by 5 feet 4 inches in height.

5 Pausan. II.25, 7. Τὸ δὴ τεῖχος ὃ δὴ μόνον τῶν ἐρειπίων λείπεται, Κυκλώπων μέν ἐστιν ἔργον, πεποίηται δὲ ἀργῶν λίθων, μέγεθος ἔχων ἕκαστος λίθος, ὡς ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν μήδ᾽ ἂν ἀρχὴν κινηθῆναι τὸν μικρότατον ὑπὸ ζεύγους ἡμιόνων. λιθία δὲ ἐνήρμοσται πάλαι, ὡς μάλιστα αὐτῶν ἕκαστον ἁρμονίαν τοῖς μεγάλοις λίθοις εἶναι. cf. II.16, 4.

6 These walls are cited by Gerhard (Ann. Inst. 1829, p40; cf. 1831, p410, tav. d'Agg. F. 1) as an example of the rudest and most ancient kind of Cyclopean masonry, similar to those of Tiryns and Mycenae in Argolis, and of Arpino and Aufidena in Italy; but the smoothing of the outer surface distinguishes them from the Cyclopean walls of Pausanias, as well as from the ancient walls above Monte Fortino, thought to be those of Artena of the Volsci, and from those at Civitella and Olevano, on the opposite range of mountains; all of which are in every respect unhewn. Mr. Bunbury (Class. Mus. V. p180) speaks of portions of the walls of Rusellae being "decidedly polygonal" — a term by no means applicable; for there is nothing here resembling the ancient masonry of Cosa, or of Segni, Alatri, and other polygonal fortifications of Central Italy. Mr. Bunbury, however, does not speak from personal acquaintance with Rusellae. He also states that all the polygonal portions of these walls are of hard limestone, while the regular masonry is of macigno, or stratified sandstone. I may be allowed to question this fact, for to me the rock appeared to be travertine throughout. This is confirmed by Repetti, IV. p820.

7 I add the dimensions of a few of these blocks — 8 feet 4 inches high, by 3 feet 2 inches wide — 12 feet 8 inches long, by 2 feet 10 inches high — 7 feet 4 inches, by 4 feet 10 inches — 6 feet 4 inches, by 5 feet 4 inches.

The difficulty of raising such huge blocks into their places would be immense; but I believe that in nearly all these cases where the walls are formed of the local rock, they have been let down from above — that the top of the insulated height chosen for the site of the city was levelled, and the masses thus quarried off were used in the fortifications. There are still some deep pits in one part of the city, whence stone has been cut.

8 The pomoerium was a space marked out by the founder within, or without, or on both sides of, the walls of an Etruscan city, or of those cities, which, like Rome, were built according to the Etruscan ritual; and it was so called by the Romans, because it was post murum, or pone muros as A. Gellius says, or proxime muro as Festus intimates. Though its name is Roman, its origin was undoubtedly Etruscan; and it was marked out by the plough, according to the rites which the Etruscans observed in founding their cities. It was ever after held sacred from the plough and from habitation, and was used by the augurs in taking the city-auspices, being divided into "regions" for that purpose. But when the city was enlarged the pomoerium was also carried further out, as was the case with Rome, where one hill after another was included within it. Its boundaries were marked by cippi or termini. The space it enclosed was called the ager effatus. Liv. I.44; Dion. Hal. IV.p218; Varro, L. L. V.143; Plutarch, Romul.; Aul. Gell. XIII.14; Tacit. Ann. XII.24, 25; Festus, v. Prosimurium; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. VI.197; Cicero, de Divin. I.17; II.35; cf. Müller, Etrusk. III.6, 9. Niebuhr (I. p288) thinks the "word pomoerium seems properly to denote a suburb taken into the city, and included within the range of its auspices."

If the above-mentioned space in the walls of Rusellae were the pomoerium, of which I am very doubtful, it was the inner portion. But the inner line of masonry may be merely the embankment of the higher ground within the city-walls, or it may be a second line of fortifications.

Thayer's Note: For a more nearly complete general article on the pomoerium, see Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, which also links to Platner's article on the pomoerium of the city of Rome.

9 See Micali's Plan of Rusellae (Ant. Pop. Ital. tav. III), and that of Ximenes (Esame dell' Esameº d' un libro sopra la Maremma Sanese) from which it is taken. Müller (Etrusk. I.3, 3) cites Rusellae as an instance of the usual quadrangular form of Etruscan cities.

10 When writers describe the walls of Rusellae as "of well hewn parallelopiped blocks" (Micali, Ant. Pop. Ital. I p144), or "of squared blocks of immense size" (Cluver. II p514), it is clear they must have contented themselves with the portions to the south and west, — such as that represented in the wood-cut at the head of this chapter — and were stopt by the marruca from seeing the finest fragments. This shrub seems to have a long hereditary locus standi in this part of Italy; for it is most probably to this that Polybius (II.28) refers, in his description of the battle between the Romans and Gauls in this neighbourhood. The latter were evidently "freshmen" in the Maremma, or they would not have been so ready to denude themselves, lest their clothes should impede them in passing through the thickets.

11 Ximenes (Esame, &c.), who published in 1775, was the first to give a plan of these ruins as an amphitheatre; but Hoare (Class. Tour, I. p64), in 1818, could see nothing of such a structure, beyond the form; and that is not at the present day very apparent. Repetti (IV. p820), however, speaks of it as an undoubted amphitheatre, but perhaps only on the authority of Ximenes, whom he cites.

Thayer's Note: Dennis's intuition failed him here. See this page for an overview of the amphitheater, now excavated, on the summit of the hill.

12 The foundations of the two outer quadrangles are not now very distinct, though the terraces can be traced; but the inner square preserves its foundations unmoved, consisting of the small rectangular blocks already described — the only sort of masonry within the city-walls. The square is 48 feet, and the thickness of the wall 5 feet 6 inches. Within the square the ground sinks in a deep hollow. This would seem to indicate a tower rather than a temple, but its small size precludes to my mind the idea of its being the citadel, which on other Etruscan sites is not a mere castle or keep, as this must have been, but an inclosure of such extent as to contain within its area a triple temple, like that on the Capitoline at Rome.

13 At this spot the masonry of the embankment, each course of which recedes from that below it, as at the Ara Regina of Tarquinii, terminates abruptly, so as to leave an even break all the way up, making it clear that here was a gate, or a roadway, to the high ground within the embankment.

14 I did not ascend this height, but Sir Richard Hoare who sought here for the ruins of Rusellae, describes this tower as built over subterranean vaults, apparently reservoirs. The same traveller speaks of a small house in the plain beneath Rusellae, belonging to one Franchi, or Franceschi, which has many inscribed tablets built into the wall, but with their faces turned inwards. Classical Tour, I. pp50, 68.

15 This lake, or rather swamp, is called "Aprilis," by the Itineraries (see page 212). Cicero (pro Milone, 27) calls it "Prelius," and speaks of its island. Pliny (III.8) must mean the same when he mentions the "amnes Prille," a little to the north of the Umbro. These "amnes" seem to refer to several mouths or emissaries to the lake. The island of which Cicero speaks is by some supposed to have been the hill of Badia al Fango, nearly two miles from the lake, but Repetti (IV. p10) considers it rather to have been a little mound now called Badiola, on which are still some remains of ancient buildings, and which he thinks in the time of Cicero may have stood in the midst of the marsh, instead of hard by it, as at present. It is impossible to say of what extent the lake was of old; before the hydraulic operations commenced for its "bonification," as the Italians term it, it had a superficial extent of 33 square miles, but it is now reduced by the means taken, and still taking, for filling it up; this is done by letting in the waters of the Umbrone, which bring down abundant deposits from the interior. It would seem from the forcible possession Clodius took of the island in its waters, as related by Cicero (loc. cit.), that this spot was much more desirable as a habitation in ancient times than at present, when it is "the very centre of the infection of the Tuscan Maremma." Repetti gives good reasons for regarding this lake or swamp as originally the bed of the sea. An interesting account will be found in the same writer (II. v. Grosseto) of the attempts made at various periods and by different means to reduce the extent of stagnant water, and lessen the unhealthiness of this district.

16 This tomb has a great resemblance in construction, if not in form, to the Sepolture di Giganti of Sardinia, which are long, passage-like sepulchres of rude stones, and covered in with unhewn slabs. De la Marmora, Voyage en Sardaigne, pl. IV. pp21‑35; and Bull. Inst. 1833, p125, et seq. tav. d'Agg.; Abeken, Mittelitalien, p240, taf. IV. 6a-d.

Micali (Mon. Ined. tav. XVII.11, p109) describes a small bronze lamp found near Rusellae; which is in no way peculiar, except as coming from this site; for, as far as I could learn, it is all that has yet been found here. Cluver (II p514), however, speaks of sundry marbles, columns, bronze figures, and ancient coins having been dug up before his time.

17 Dion. Hal. III p189.

18 Liv. X.4, 5.

19 Liv. X.37.

20 Liv. XXVIII.45.

21 Plin. III.8; Ptol. p72, ed. Bert.

22 Repetti, II. pp526, 822. This writer shows that at the period of the transfer of the bishopric to Grosseto, either this latter city could not have been as unhealthy as at present, or Rusellae could not have been deserted on account of malaria.

Thayer's Notes:

a two or three thousand inhabitants, almost doubling in winter: Grosseto's population has ballooned considerably since Dennis wrote: the official figure in the 2000 census is 72,662 for the entire comune, that is, the town proper and the township around it. The census is silent as to how many of these people fly the coop in the summer.

b marruca: The common Mediterranean thorn, Paliurus spina-Christi. See this page for photos.

c tomb seen by Dennis: 150 years later, it's hard to tell whether this is one of the ones I saw, although I think it might well be (see my page and photographs). At any rate, even to date (2002) there have still been found relatively few Etruscan tombs at Rusellae, and those fairly scattered: for a detailed archaeological map, see this PDF document. This is puzzling; maybe we can expect the eventual find of a necropolis somewhere in the area.

d Frontinus mentions Colonia as the site of that battle: Not in any edition I've seen; possibly in the manuscripts. The two different editions on line both give Vetuloniam rather than *Coloniam; this may be an emendation. See Dennis's note in Chapter 45 for other proposed emendations.

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