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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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 p189  Chapter XI


Cimini cum monte lacum.

— Virgil.

How soon the tale of ages may be told!
A page, a verse, records the fall of fame.
The wreck of centuries — we gaze on you
O cities, once the glorious and the free! —
The lofty tales that charmed our youth renew,
And wondering ask if these their scenes can be.


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Lake of Vico View from the summit of the pass The great Etruscan plain Etruria as it was, and is

Who that has seen has not hailed with delight the exquisite little lake of Vico, which lies in the lap of the Ciminian Mount, just above Ronciglione? Its own singular beauty is charm enough, but in English eyes it possesses the additional interest of similarity to some of our own island lakes. The first time I saw it was one evening when I had strolled up from Ronciglione, and had come upon it unexpectedly, not aware of its close proximity. The sun was sinking behind the hills, which reared their broad, purple masses into the clear sky, and shaded half the bosom of the calm lake with their hues — while the other half reflected the orange and golden glories of an Italian sunset. Not a sound broke the stillness, save the chirping of the cicala from the trees, whose song served but to make the silence heard — and not a sign of human life was there beyond a high column of smoke wreathing up whitely in front of the dark mountains. When I next visited the lake, it was under the glare of a noonday sun — its calm surface deepening  p190 the azure of the sky into a vivid sapphire, was dashed at the edge with reflections of the overhanging woods, in the richest hues of autumn; and with Siren smiles it treacherously masked the destruction it had wrought.1

Who has not hailed with yet higher delight the view from the summit of the long steep ascent which rises from the shores of the lake to the shoulder of the mountain — more especially if he be for the first time approaching the Eternal City? — for from this height, if the day be clear, he will obtain his first view of Rome. There lies the vast, variegated expanse of the Campagna at his feet, with its framework of sea and mountain. There stands Soracte in the midst, which

                      "from out the plain
Heaves like a long-swept wave about to break,
And on the curl hangs pausing."

The white convent of San Silvestro gleams on its dark craggy crest, as though it were an altar to the god of poetry and light on this his favourite mountain. There sweeps the long range of Apennines, in grey or purple masses, or rearing some giant, hoary peak, into the blue heaven. There flows the Tiber at their feet, from time to time sparkling in the sun as it winds through the undulating plain. There in the southern horizon swells  p191 the Alban Mount with its soft flowing outlines; and there, apparently at its foot, lies Rome herself, distinguishable more by the cupola of St. Peters, than by the white line of her buildings. Well, traveller, mayest thou gaze, for even in her present fallen state

Possis nihil urbe Româ

Visere majus.​2

Nor must the dense and many-tinted woods, which clothe the slopes of the mountain around and beneath, be passed without notice. It is the Ciminian forest, still as in olden times the terror of the Roman,​3 and still with its majestic oaks and chestnuts vindicating its ancient reputation — silvae sunt consule dignae!

On descending from the crest of the pass on the road to Viterbo, a new scene broke on my view. The slopes around and beneath were still densely clothed with wood​4 — a wide plain again lay at my feet — mountains also rose beyond — the sea glittered in a golden line on the horizon — a lake shone out from the plain — even Soracte had its counterpart: the general features of the scene were the same as on the other side of the mountain, but there was more tameness, more monotony in their character, and the same stirring interest did not attach to every spot as the site of some historic event or romantic legend; nor was there one grand focus of attraction to which every other object was  p192 subordinate. Yet it was a scene of high interest. It was the great Etruscan plain, the fruitful mother of cities renowned before Rome was — where arose, flourished, and fell that nation which from this plain as from a centre extended its dominion over the greater part of Italy, giving laws, arts, and institutions to the surrounding tribes, and to Rome itself — the twin-sister of Greece in the work of civilising Europe. I could not, as the consul Fabius once did from this same height, admire "the rich fields of Etruria,"​5 for the plain is in most parts a desert, with here and there a few patches of wood to relieve its monotonous bareness.

With what pride must an Etruscan have regarded this scene two thousand five hundred years since. The numerous cities in the plain were so many trophies of the power and civilisation of his nation. There stood Volsinii, renowned for her wealth and arts, on the shores of her crater-lake — there Tuscania reared her  p193 towers in the west — there Vulci shone out from the plain, and Cosa from the mountain — and there Tarquinii, chief of all, asserted her metropolitan supremacy from her cliff-bound heights. Nearer still, his eye must have rested on city after city, some in the plain, and others at the foot of the slope beneath him; while the mountains in the horizon must have carried his thoughts to the glories of Clusium, Perusia, Cortona, Vetulonia, Volaterrae, and other cities of the great Etruscan Confederation. How changed is now the scene! Save Tuscania, which still retains her site, all within view are now desolate. Tarquinii has left scarce a vestige of her greatness on the grass-grown heights she once occupied; the very site of Volsinii is forgotten; silence has long reigned in the crumbling theatre of Ferentum; the plough yearly furrows the bosom of Vulci; the fox, the owl, and the bat, are the sole tenants of the vaults within the ruined walls of Cosa: and of the rest, the greater part have neither building, habitant, nor name — nothing but the sepulchres around them to prove they ever had an existence.

Did he turn to the southern side of the mountain? — his eye wandered from city to city of no less renown, studding the plain beneath him — Veii, Fidenae, Falerii, Fescennium, Capena, Nepete, Sutrium — all then powerful, wealthy, and independent. Little did he foresee that yon small town on the banks of the Tiber, would prove the destruction of them all, and even of his nation, name, and language.

The Author's Notes:

1 The waters of this lake, called by the ancients Lacus Ciminus (Virg. Aen. VIII.697; Sil. Ital. VIII.493), are said to cover a town called Succinium, or Saccumum, engulfed by an earthquake (Ammian. Marcell. XVII.7.13; Sotion. de Mir. Font.) The latter writer states the same of the Lacus Sabatinus, or Lago Bracciano. The lake is evidently the crater of an extinct volcano. Fable, however, gives it another origin. When Hercules was on this mount, he was begged by the inhabitants to give them some proof of his marvellous strength; whereon he drove an iron bar deep into the earth. When they had tried in vain to stir it, they besought the hero to draw it forth, which he did; but an immense flood of water welled up from the hole, and formed the Ciminian Lake. Serv. Aen. VII.697. Strabo (V. p226) and Columella (de Re Rust. VIII.16) say this lake abounded in fish and water-fowl.

2 Horat. Carm. Saec. 11.

3 It was so dreaded by the ancient Romans, that the Senate, even after the great rout of the Etruscans at Sutrium, in the year 444, dispatched legates to the consul Fabius, charging him not to enter the wood (Liv. IX.36; Florus, I.17); and when it was known that he had done so, all Rome was terror-struck (Liv. IX.38).

4 The height on the northern shore of the lake is called Monte Venere — a name it is said to owe to a temple of Venus, that once occupied the summit. But as far as I can learn, the existence of a temple here has never been ascertained.

5 Liv. IX.36opulentia Etruriae arva. If it were not expressly stated by Livy that — juga Ciminii montis tenebat, it would be more reasonable to suppose that Fabius crossed from Sutrium by the line of the subsequent Via Cassia, than that he should have scaled this much loftier, more difficult, and dangerous pass. Possibly he chose it as being wholly undefended. He was the first Roman, it is said, who dared to penetrate the dread Ciminian forest, which before his time had never been trod even by the peaceful traveller. It is impossible to believe this statement, and that the forest was utterly pathless, (Liv. l.c., Flor. I.17), for as the Mount originally stood in the heart of Etruria, there must have been sundry passes across it for communication between the several states. Besides, as Arnold (Hist. Rome, II. p243) observes, the range could not have formed "an impassable barrier." The highest peak rises 3000 feet above the sea, but there are very deep depressions between its crests; and the shoulder to the south, crossed by the Via Cassia, is of so slight an elevation, that the rise is scarcely perceptible. The difficulty must have lain rather in the density of the forest than in the height of the mountain. Niebuhr (III. p279) also disputes Livy's statement, but suggests that the mountain may have been left in a savage state by mutual agreement to serve as a natural frontier between Latium and Etruria. He was evidently, however, quite ignorant of the pass by the Vadimonian Lake, between the foot of the Mount and the Tiber. Frontinus (Strat. I.2. 2) simply observes, that the forest had not previously been attempted by the Roman army.

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Page updated: 31 Oct 08