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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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 p151  Chapter VIII


Though nought at all but ruines now I bee,
And lye in mine own ashes, as you see;
Verlame I was; what bootes it that I was,
Sith now I am but weedes and wastefull grass?


Hem! Nos homunculi indignamur, si qui nostrûm interiit aut occisus est quorum vita brevior esse debet, cum uno loco tot oppidûm cadavera projecta jaceant?

Serv. Sulpit., Epist. ad M. Tull. Cicer.

The second town of the Falisci, Fescennium, or Fescennia, or Fascenium, as Dionysius calls it, was founded, like Falerii, by the Siculi, who were driven out by the Pelasgi; traces of which latter race were still extant in Dionysius' day, in the warlike tactics, the Argolic shields and spears, the religious rites and ceremonies, and in the construction and furniture of the temples of the Falisci.1 This Argive or Pelasgic origin of Fescennium, as well as of Falerii, is confirmed by Solinus.2 Virgil mentions Fescennium as sending her hosts to the assistance of Turnus;3 but no notice of it, which can be regarded as historical, has come down to us; and it is probable that, as a Faliscan town, it followed the fortunes and fate of Falerii. It was a Roman colony in the time of Pliny.4 We know only this in addition, that here are said to have originated the songs, which from an early  p152 period were in use among the Romans at their nuptials;5 and which were sung also by the peasantry in alternate extempore verses, full of banter and raillery.6

To the precise site of Fescennium we have no clue, though, from its connection with Falerii, and the mention made of it by Virgil, we may safely conclude it was in the district between Soracte and the Ciminian Mount, i.e. in the ager Faliscus. Müller's opinion, that it occupied the site of Civita Castellana, has been shown to be incorrect.7 The assumption of Cluver, that it is represented by Gallese, a village about nine miles to the north of Civita Castellana, seems wholly gratuitous;8 he is followed, however, in this by subsequent writers9magni nominis umbra. The truth is, that there are numerous  p153 Etruscan sites in this district, none of which, save Gallese, have been recognised as such, so that, in the absence of definite description by the ancients, and of all monumentary evidence on the several localities, it is impossible to pronounce with certainty which is the site of Fescennium.

The district lying between the Ciminian on the west, Soracte on the east, the Tiber on the north, and the modern Via Cassia on the south, with the exception of the road which passes through Nepi and Civita Castellana to Ponte Felice, is to travellers in general, and to antiquaries in particular, a terra incognita. This tract of country, though level, is of exceeding beauty — not the stern, barren grandeur of the Campagna around Rome — but beauty, soft, rich, and luxuriant. Plains covered with oaks and chestnuts — grand gnarled giants, who have lorded it here for centuries over the lowly hawthorn, nut, or fern — such sunny glades, carpeted with green sward! — such bright stretches of corn,º waving away even under the trees! — such "quaint mazes in the wanton groves!" — and such delicious shady dells, and avenues, and knolls, where Nature, in her springtime frolics, mocks Art or Titania, and girds every tree, every bush, with a fairy belt of crocuses, anemones, purple and white cistuses, delicate cyclamina, convolvuluses of different hues, and more varieties of laughing flowers than I would care to enumerate. A merrier greenwood you cannot see in all merry England; it may want the buck to make it perfect to the stalker's taste; but its beauty, its joyousness, must fill every other with delight —

"It is, I ween, a lovely spot of ground,
And in a season atween June and May
Half prankt with spring, with summer half embrowned . . .
Is nought around but images of rest,
Sleep-soothing groves, and quiet lawns between,
And flowery beds that slumb'rous influence kest
From poppies breathed, and beds of pleasant green."

 p154  Ever and anon the vine and the olive come in to enrich, and a flock or goats or of long-horned cattle,10 to animate the landscape, which is hedged in by the dark, forest-clad Ciminian, the naked, craggy, sparkling Soracte, and the ever-fresh and glorious range of Apennines, gemmed with many a town, and chequered with shifting shadows.

All this is seen on the plain; but go northwards towards the Tiber, and you find that you are far from being on low ground; the river flows a thousand feet beneath you, through a valley which in fertile beauty has few rivals, even in Italy. Or attempt to approach some one of the towns whose spires you see peering above the woods of the plain; and many a ravine, darkly profound, unseen, unthought of till you stand on its brink, yawns at your feet, and must be traversed to its uttermost recesses ere you attain your object. In these lower regions you are amid scenes widely different from those on the upper level. Your horizon is bounded by walls of rock, but what it wants in distance it gains in intrinsic beauty. The cliffs, broken into fantastic forms, and hollowed into caves of mysterious interest, display the richest hues of brown, red, orange, and grey; wood hangs from their every ledge, and even crests their brows — a wood as varied in mass as in tint — ilex, ash, alder, oak, chesnut — matted together with ivy, vines, clematis, and honeysuckle; a stream winds brawling through the hollow, here spanned by a rustic bridge, there sinking in a mimic cascade; now struggling among the fallen, moss-grown crags, now running riot through some lowly mill, half hid by foliage. A  p155 white shrine or hermitage looks down from the verge of the cliff, or a bolder-featured town, picturesque with the ruin of ages, towers above you on an insulated mass at the forking of the glen; so lofty, so inaccessible is the site, you cannot believe it the very same town you had seen for miles before you, lying in the bottom of the plain. Such are the general outlines of the scenery; but every site has its peculiar features, which I shall only notice in as far as they have antiquarian interest.

About six miles northwards from Civita Castellana lies Corchiano, now a wretched village of five or six hundred souls, ruined by the French half a century since, and never rebuilt. There is nothing of antiquity within the walls, but the site is clearly Etruscan. No walls of that origin are extant, but the ravines around contain numerous sepulchres, now defaced by appropriation to other purposes. Traces of Etruscan roads, too, are abundant. On the way to Gallese, to Ponte Felice, and to Civita Castellana, you pass through deep clefts, sunk in the rock in ancient times; and in the more immediate neighbourhood of the village are roads cut in the rock, and flanked by sepulchres, or built up on either hand with large blocks of tufo, which have every appearance of remote antiquity. The tombs have no remarkable features — being mostly square chambers, with benches of rock around, and sometimes with a pillar or partition-wall in the centre. There are some columbaria as at Falleri, and not a few of those singular conical tombs, sunk in the ground, and having an opening above, which have been stated to abound at Civita Castellana. But the most remarkable monument on this site is about half a mile from Corchiano, on the road to Falleri. After crossing the river — the Rio Fratte — you ascend to the level of the plain by a road sunk in the tufo, on the wall of which is an inscription,  p156 in letters fifteen inches in height, and with an intaglio of at least three inches —

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which, in Roman letters, would be Larth. Vel. Arnies. On the rock just beyond there has been another inscription, but one letter only is now traceable. There is no appearance of a tomb, and the rock does not seem to have been hewn into a monumental form, yet the inscription of a proper name, in such a situation (and complete in itself, as the smooth surface testifies), can hardly be other than sepulchral. Here, at least, is proof positive of the Etruscan antiquity of the road, and a valuable guide by which to judge of other roads. There has been a water-course down one side, and, a little above the inscription, a sewer, just like those beneath the walls of Etruscan cities, opens on the road, bringing the water from the ground above into the course; and again, some distance below the inscribed rock, another similar sewer opens in the tufo, and carries the water through the cliff, clear of the road. Both sewers have evidently been formed for no other purpose; and have every appearance of being coeval with the road. This, which ran here in Etruscan times, must be the same as that afterwards called by the Romans Via Amerina; it led northward from Nepi, through Falleri, to the Tiber near Orte. Corchiano, the ancient name of which is utterly lost,11 was also on the road, perhaps a mutatio.

 p157  There is considerable interest around Corchiano, and the antiquary or artist, who would explore the neighbourhood, would do well to make it his head-quarters, as it is centrally convenient, and accommodation may be had in the house of the butcher and general shopkeeper of the place, Giuseppe Lionidi. The persons who entertain strangers at these out‑of-the‑way places are often butchers, and generally well to do in the world, that is, as well-doing is esteemed in Italy. Giuseppe proves his substance by being about to send his eldest daughter to a convent, for no fair one can become the bride of Christ without a handsome dowry. At such places the traveller cannot look for much comfort, but here he will at least meet with great attention from the whole household, from Pepe himself, and his handsome wife, Maria, down to the merry-eyed, pretty little Lucia. As a guide to the sites of interest round Corchiano, I can recommend a meagre, fever-faced lad, named Costantino.

About two miles from Corchiano on the road to Bassanello, at a spot called Puntone del Ponte, is a singular tomb, with a sort of court in front sunk in the rock, and with the remains of a portico, of which but one square pillar is now standing.12 On the inner wall of the portico, high under the cornice, is an Etruscan inscription, which is imperfect. It seems to state the age of the defunct.

The general style of the tomb is like that of the triple-arched tomb at Falleri. The existence of this monument has hitherto been unknown to antiquaries. It now serves as a pig-sty; therefore beware of fleas — swarming as in Egyptian plagues — beclouding light nether garments!

 p158  Seven miles north of Corchiano, on the road to Orte, is Bassanello, perhaps an Etruscan site. There is nothing of interest here; but half-way between it and Corchiano, is a deserted town called Aleano or Liano, alias Sta. Bruna, from a ruined church on the site. The walls and other ruins, as far as I could see, are medieval, highly picturesque; but there are tombs of more ancient date in the cliffs beneath the walls, and in the neighbourhood. In many parts of this road you trace the Via Amerina, by the line of basaltic blocks, running almost due N. and S., and in one part, near the Puntone del Ponte, you tread the ancient pavement for some distance.

Three miles from Corchiano and nine from Civita Castellana, lies Gallese, the town which has been supposed to occupy the site of Fescennium.13 It stands, as usual, on a mass of rock at the junction of two ravines. It has evidently been an Etruscan site, and though no walls of that construction are extant, there are several sewers in the cliffs beneath the town, and plenty of tombs in the rocks around. Within the walls are a few Roman remains, fragments of columns, inscriptions, and bas-reliefs, but nothing which throws light on the ancient name of the place. This, however, has been determined by a worthy canonico of Gallese, recently deceased, to be the Aequum Faliscum, mentioned by Strabo, Virgil, and Italicus,14 and he wrote a work thereon, still in manuscript, entitled, "La Antica Falisca, o sia notizie istoriche della città di Gallese, dal Canonico Teologo Amanzio Nardoni." His is not a new idea, for on the front of the Palazzo Comunale or Town-hall is inscribed —

Saecula dum vivent durabit vita Phaliscis.

 p159  The derivation of Gallese from Halesus, or Haliscus, the son of Agamemnon, and reputed founder of the Faliscan race, is plausible enough; but another less venerable origin has been sought for the name by the townspeople, who have assumed for the arms of the town a cock — Gallese à gallo.a Aequum Faliscum seems, from Strabo, to have been on the Flaminian Way, but Gallese lies about midway between that and the Via Amerina, two or three miles from each. The town is circumscribed by nature, and can never have been of much importance — scarcely large enough, I should opine, to be the ancient Fescennium. It is distant five miles from Ponte Felice, and nine from Orte.

Six miles north-west of Corchiano lies Vignanello, also an Etruscan site, but with no remains of interest. It is a mean and dirty town with a villainous osteria, yet of such importance that a vehicle, miscalled diligence, runs thither from Rome twice a week. Its wine has more renown than merit. Four miles beyond Vignanello is Soriano, another ancient site, possibly the Surrina Vetus whose existence may be inferred from the "Surrina Nova" which occupied the site of Viterbo. It is boldly situated on the lower slope of the dark Ciminian, lorded over by its venerable castle; and still retains many a picturesque trace of the earthquake which shattered it in the last century.

I had the fortune to discover the site of an ancient city in this district, which seems to me to be more probably that of Fescennium, than any one of those yet mentioned. It lies about a mile and a half west of Ponte Felice, on the way to Corchiano, and the site is indicated by a long line of walling, an embankment to the cliffs on the opposite side of ravine. From the character of the ground the city must have been of great size, for it is not the usual narrow ridge between two ravines, but a wide area, some miles in circuit, surrounded by ravines of great depth;  p160 more like the site of the ancient Falerii, on the heights of Civita Castellana, than of any other town in this neighbourhood. The area of the city is covered with dense wood, which greatly impedes research; on its stands the ruined church of San Silvestro, which gives its name to the spot. The wall is the facing to a sort of natural bastion in the cliff, considerably below the level of the city. It is so conspicuous that I am surprised to find no mention of it in any work on the Campagna, not even in Westphal or Nibby.

Forcing a way through pathless thickets, I climbed to the wall and found it to extend in an unbroken mass for 150 or 200 feet.15 In the size and arrangement of its blocks it is more like the fragments at Veii and Caere, than any other remains I can recollect in Etruria. The whole is much ruined in surface, and bears the appearance of very high antiquity. It has evidently been the wall of a city, for no mere castle would have had a bastion such as this, nor would it have occupied such a site, on a ledge of the cliff, completely commanded by higher ground; and though in the style of its masonry it differs somewhat from the general type, yet in its position, as a revêtement to the cliff, it exactly corresponds with the usual walling of Etruscan cities. That such is its character is corroborated by the existence of numerous tombs, not in the cliffs of the ravines, but, as at Nepi, on the level of the high ground opposite, together with fragments of walling, and sewers which were probably intended to drain this level and keep the tombs dry.

The size of this city, so much superior to that of the neighbouring Etruscan towns, and its vicinity to the Via  p161 Flaminia which ran just below it to the East on the way to the Tiber and Otricoli, greatly favour the view that here stood Fescennium. Not that that city is known to have been on the Flaminian, but the ancients generally made their roads to accommodate any place of importance that lay in the same direction;16 and that Fescennium was of more importance than the many nameless Etruscan towns in this district, it is fair to conclude from the mention of it by Dionysius and Virgil, and from its being coupled with Falerii, one of the cities of the Confederation. If it were certain that Aequum Faliscum was not merely another name for Falerii, it might well have occupied this site, for Strabo seems to indicate it as being on the Flaminian Way, between Otricoli and Rome, which must mean a little on the Roman side of the former place.17 In one of the three Itineraries, indeed, which give the stations on the Flaminian, a town of that name is placed in this neighbourhood; but on the wrong bank of the Tiber.18 Neither  p162 Fescennium nor Aequum Faliscum is mentioned by Ptolemy. If this be the site of Fescennium, as the latest mention of that town is made by Pliny, it is probable that at an early period of the Empire, it fell into decay, and was deserted, like so many other Etruscan towns, and "the rejoicing city became a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in." Its only inhabitants are now the feathered tribes, and the only nuptial songs which meet the ear are those of countless nightingales, which in spring-time not only "smooth the rugged brow of Night," but even at noonday fill the groves and ravines with tuneful echoes,

"Stirring the air with such a harmony"

as to infuse a spirit of joy and gladness into this lonely and desolate spot.

The Author's Notes:

1 Dion. Hal. I., pp16, 17.

2 Solin. II., p13. Servius however ascribes to Fescennium an Athenian origin, and calls it a town of Campania.

3 Virg. Aen. l.c.

4 Plin. III.8.

5 Servius, l.c. Festus, voce Fescennini versus; Plin. XV.24; Catul. LXI.126; Seneca, Medea, 113. Claudian gives a specimen of Fescennina, on the nuptials of Honorius and Maria. Festus offers a second derivation — quia fascinum putabantur arcere — which Müller (Etrusk. IV.5. 2., n8) thinks is not a satisfactory explanation. Dr. Schmitz, in Smith's Dictionary of Antiquities, objects to the Fescennian origin of these songs, on the ground that "this kind of amusement has at all time been, and is still, so popular in Italy, that it can be scarcely considered as peculiar to any particular place." He further maintains that these songs cannot be of Etruscan origin, because Fescennium was not an Etruscan, but a Faliscan town. But whatever may have been the origin of the Falisci, ages before we find mention of the Fescennine verses, they had been incorporated with the Etruscan Confederation, and were as much Etruscans as the citizens of Caere, Cortona, Alsium, Pyrgi, all of which had a Pelasgic origin.

6 Livy (VII.2) calls them — versum incompositum temere ac rudem. Catullus (loc. cit.)procax Fescennina locutio. So also Seneca (loc. cit.) —

Festa dicax fundat convicia Fescenninus.

Fescennine seems to have been a proverbial synonym for "playing the fool." Macrob. Saturn. III.14.º In their original character these Fescennines, though coarse and bold, were not malicious; but in time, says Horace, the freedom of amiable sport grew to malignant rage, and gave rise to dissensions and feuds; whereon the law stept in, and put an end to them altogether. Epist. II., I.145. Augustus himself wrote Fescennines on Pollio, who would not respond, save with a witty excuse — non est facile in eum scribere, qui potest perscribere. — Macrob. Satur. II.4.

7 See Chapter VII, pp145, 149, 150.

8 Cluv. Ital. Antiq. II., p551.

9 Nibby, II., p26; Cramer I., p226; Abeken's Mittelital. p36; Westphal, Map of the Campagna.

10 The waters or the pastures of this district, the "ager Faliscus," were supposed by the ancients to have the property of turning cattle white, (Plin. Nat. His. II.106; Ovid. Amor. III; Eleg. 13, v. 13), but the breed is now of the grey hue common in the Campagna. This district was anciently fertile in flax — indutosque simul gentilia lina Faliscos — Sil. Ital. IV.223. There is little enough, either of produce or manufacture, at present.

11 Among the sepulchral inscriptions of Chiusi, we find the proper name of "Carcu," "Carca," "Carcna," and "Carcuni," which in Latin would be Carconia. (Mus. Chius. II p218; Lanzi, II. pp348, 409, 432, 455.) The name of "Curcli" which bears a very strong affinity to Corchiano, occurs in an inscription said by Buonarroti to be cut on some rocks in the mountains near Florence, (p95, ap. Dempst. II). Vermiglioli (Isc. Perug. I. p298) gives another version of apparently the same name — Carcznas, which he thinks equivalent to Carconia.

12 As Etruscan tombs are often imitations of houses, this court in front of the portico must represent the vestibule described by Caecilius Gallus (ap. A. Gell. XVI.5; Macrob. Sat. VI.8) as a vacant space before the door of the house, through which lay the approach to it.

13 Spanheim (cited by Lanzi, Saggio, II. p65) seems alone in the opinion that Gallese was the ancient Falerii.

14 Strabo, V p226; Virg. Aen. VII.695; Sil. Ital. VIII.491. The last two, however, refer the name to the race, rather than to any locality.

15 About eight or ten courses are standing, formed of tufo blocks, from 18 to 22 inches in height, and square, or nearly so (not alternating with long blocks as in the usual emplecton), and laid often one directly over the other, as in the Tullianum prison, and other very early structures.

16 The ancient road departed from the line of the modern Via Flaminia about Aqua Viva, leaving Civita Castellana two or three miles to the left, and continued to Borghetto, crossing the Tiber by the bridge now in ruins, called Le Pile d' Augusto; but its precise course through this district has not been determined. Westphal, Römis. Kamp. p136. It did not run to the original Falerii, because that city had been destroyed before its formation, and the second Falerii was accommodated by the Via Amerina. But Fescennium continued to exist under the Empire, and therefore was most probably connected with the City by a road.

17 Strabo, it must be observed, does not speak from his own knowledge, though he must have known the road, but records it as a report — οἱ δὲ Αἰκουμφαλίσκον λέγουσιν, &c., (V, p226). This is according to the version of Cluver (II, p538), who reads it Aequum Faliscum, an emendation of the evidently corrupt text also approved of by Müller (Etrusk. einl. II.14, n101). Both these authorities, however, take this for a synonym of the second Falerii, which was built in the plain, not of the third city (Faliscum) of the Falisci.

18 In that of Antoninus, the earliest, there is a gap of 25 miles between Villa Rostrata and Ocriculum, and in the Jerusalem Itinerary there is a distance of twelve miles between Aqua Viva and Civitas Ocricoli, without any intermediate station. In the Peutingerian Table beyond Aqua Viva, but on the Sabine side of the Tiber, we find —

Aequo Falsico (Falisco) XVI
Inter Manana (Interamnia) XII

This position must be an error of the transcriber.

Thayer's Note:

a I would alert the young student especially, here as I have elsewhere, that punning arms, which are almost always later than both town and name, are next to useless in deriving the origins of placenames. If the name of a town, for whatever reason, is Gallese, what more natural, when Latin for a rooster is gallus, than to draw this bird for its arms?

In the case at hand, I don't know the origin of Gallese any more than Dennis, Nardoni, or the townsfolk; on the basis of sound changes, I would expect it to have been at one time something like *Caletes. (Now the more advanced reader will now have to resist the temptation of taking my own unsubstantiated surmise and identifying this place with Caletra.)

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