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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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 p514  Chapter XXVIII


Temple and tower went down, nor left a site.

— Byron.

Quale per incertam lunam, sub luce malignâ,
Est iter in silvis, ubi coelum condidit umbrâ
Jupiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem.

— Virgil.

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Lake of Bolsena Its islands, miracles, and malaria Monte Fiascone Antiquity of the site Cannot be Trossulum May be Oenarea More probably is the Fanum Volturnae Speculations on that celebrated temple Panorama of the Etruscan plain

It is a distance of nine miles from Bolsena to Monte Fiascone, and the road on the long ascent commands superb views of the lake and its richly-wooded shores. That the lake, notwithstanding its vast size, was once the crater of a volcano, seems proved by the character of its encircling hills; and in one spot, about a mile from Bolsena, there is strong evidence in a cliff of basaltic columns, of irregular pentagons, hexagons, and heptagons, piled up horizontally. The quarries, for which these shores were anciently renowned, have not yet been recognised.1

Though the lake anciently took its name from Volsinii, the principal city on its shores, yet, as the ager Tarquiensis stretched up to its waters on the west, it was sometimes called the Tarquinian Lake.​2 In all ages something of the marvellous seems to have attached to it. The blood-flowing wafer, and the foot-prints of the virgin-martyr, have already been mentioned. Its islands are described as floating groves, blown by the wind, now into triangular, now into circular forms, but never into squares.​3 Shall we not rather refer this unsteady, changeful  p515 character to the eyes of the beholders, and conclude that the propagators of the miracle had been making potations in the rich wine of its shores? Now, at least, the islands have lost their erratic and Protean propensities, and, though still capt with wood, have taken determinate and beautiful forms, no longer plastic beneath the touch of Aeolus.​4 As early as the Second Punic War, this lake was the subject of a miracle — its waters were changed into blood​5 — not merely, it may be, a portent of the pestilence that ensued, but a symbol, perhaps, of the pestiferous atmosphere which must even then have brooded over it. If miracles have ceased, malaria has not, but summerly visits the spot, and makes these beautiful and fertile shores, which might be a paradise, a desolation and a curse. Man has well-nigh deserted them, and the fish and wild-fowl, which abounded here of old, have still undisturbed possession of its waters.6

Monte Fiascone stands on the very summit of its hill, the loftiest ground on the shores of the lake. It is a town of some importance, with a neat, new cathedral, on the plan of the Pantheon, and with a decent inn outside the walls. Beyond this, and its wine, the far-famed, prelate-snaring, prelate-slaying "Est, est, est,"​7 which, if it be not  p516 Latin for "good," as the natives tell you, is understood to represent that quality in the modern vernacular, seeing it fetches the enormous price of three paoli (fifteen pence) the flask — there is nothing of interest in Monte Fiascone.

The origin and antiquity of Monte Fiascone are involved in obscurity. The fortifications are wholly of the middle ages; but a number of Latin inscriptions, found in the neighbourhood, seem to indicate an existence under the Romans; while some tombs in the surrounding slopes give evidence of still higher antiquity. These sepulchres are greatly defaced, partly owing to the friability of the tufo in which they are hewn, partly from serving as abodes to the labouring population, who are content to dwell in caves and holes in the rock, in the most abject squalor and wretchedness. Of them may it verily be said, "They remain among the graves, and lodge in the monuments; and the broth of abominable things is in their vessels."a The natural position of the town is so strong, that it is difficult to believe that the Etruscans could have neglected to avail themselves of it. It resembles that of Volterra, Fiesole, and some other cities in the northern part of the land, but has no counterpart in this southern district.8

The antiquity of Monte Fiascone has been almost universally admitted, and its original name has been variously converted  p517 into Mons PhisconMons FalconisMons Faliscorum, or the site of Falerii;​9 though it seems clearly to be derived from the wine for which the Mount has for ages been celebrated — Fiascone signifying "a large flask." By one it has been regarded as the site of the Etruscan Volsinii;​10 by another of Trossulum,​11 a town which was taken by some Roman knights without the aid of foot-soldiers, and which is said to have lain nine miles on this side of Volsinii.​12 Trossulum, however, is more likely to have stood in the plain, at a spot called Vado di Trosso, or Vado Trossano, two miles from Monte Fiascone towards Férento, which was recognised some ages since,​13 though at the present day both name and site are utterly unknown.​14 Monte Fiascone is hardly the sort of place to be taken at a gallop.

 p518  There are two places spoken of by ancient writers, either of which is more likely, than any of those yet mentioned, to have occupied this site. One is Oenarea, a city of Etruria, which submitted to be governed by its manumitted slaves, and is described as "extraordinarily strong, for in the midst of it was a hill rising thirty furlongs in height, and having at its base a forest of all sorts of trees, and abundance of water."​15 Though the usurpation of the slaves evidently refers to the events at Volsinii, already recorded, it is possible that the writer erred chiefly in assigning them to another site in the Volsinian territory, the situation of which, even to the ascent of the hill, four miles in length, accords closely with that of Monte Fiascone.​16 The name, which given by a foreigner, may be merely an epithet descriptive of the place — Winy or Viny — may be cited in corroboration of this view. Indeed it is nearly equivalent to the actual appellation — Fiascone. The light volcanic soil of these slopes must have been in all ages well adapted to the cultivation of the vine; which still flourishes on most sites in Italy, where Bacchus was of old most renowned.

But I think it more probable that this was the site of the Fanum Voltumnae, the shrine at which "the princes  p519 of Etruria" were wont to meet in council on the general affairs of the Confederation.​17 We have no record or intimation of the precise locality of this celebrated shrine, but we know it must have been north of the Ciminian, for after the conquest by the Romans of the whole of the Etruscan plain to the south, we find it still mentioned as the grand seat of council.​18 Then where so likely as in the great plain of Etruria, which was originally in the very centre of the land, and contained the metropolis of the Confederation — Tarquinii — the spot hallowed as the source of the civil and religious polity of the Etruscans?​19 That  p520 the shrine stood on an eminence we may conclude from analogy. The temple of Jupiter Latialis, the common shrine of the Latin cities, as this was of the Etruscan, stood on the summit of the Alban Mount.​20 We also know that the Etruscans were wont to "make high places" to their gods​21 — a custom they had in common with the Greeks and oriental nations,​22 and one conformable to the natural  p521 feelings of humanity; just as kneeling or prostration are by all men, but Quakers, acknowledged to be the natural attitudes of adoration and humility. Analogy leads us to the conclusion that the fane, the shrine of the great goddess of the Etruscans, whither the sacerdotal rules or land were wont to resort in times of difficulty and danger, for the sake of propitiating the goddess, or of consulting the will of heaven by augury, must have stood on an eminence rather than on the low site which has generally been assigned to it. And if on a height, and in the great Etruscan plain, where so probably as on the crest of Monte Fiascone, which rises in the centre of the expanse, and from its remotest corner still meets the eye — a city on a hill which cannot be hid? To prove the fact with the data we have is impossible; but it is strongly favoured by probability.

It is not to be supposed that the temple stood wholly apart from habitations. The priests must have dwelt on the spot, and accommodation must have been found for "the princes of Etruria" and their retinues, as well as for those who flocked thither to attend the solemn festivals and games,​23 and for the traders who availed themselves of such opportunities to dispose of their wares;​24 so that, as  p522 in the case of Feronia, there must have been a permanent population on the spot, attracted by the temple and the wants of the worshippers. This would explain the tombs found on the slopes of the hill.

Well may this height have been chosen as the site of the national temple! It commands a magnificent and truly Etruscan panorama. The lake shines beneath in all its breadth and beauty — truly meriting the title of "the great lake of Italy"​25 — and though the towers and palaces of Volsinii have long ceased to sparkle on its bosom, it still mirrors the white cliffs of its twin islets, and the distant snow-peaks of Amiata and Cetona. In every other direction is one "intermingled pomp of vale and hill." In the east rise the dark mountains of Umbria; and the long line of mist at their foot marks the course of "the Etruscan stream" —

                         "the noble river
That rolls by the towers of Rome."

The giant Apennines of Sabina loom afar off, dim through the hazy noon; and nearer Ciminian, dark with its once dread forests, stretches its triple-crested mass across the southern horizon. Fertile and populous was the country, numerous and potent the cities, that lay beneath the confederate princes as they sat here in council; and many an eye in the wide plain would turn hitherward as to the ark of national safety. The warriors gathering at the sacred lake in defence of their children's homes and fathers' sepulchres, would look to the great goddess for succour — the augur on the distant arx of Tarquinii or  p523 Cosa, would turn to her shrine for a propitious omen — the husbandman would lift his eye from the furrow, and invoke her blessing on his labours — and the mariner on the bosom of the far-off Tyrrhene, would catch the white gleam of her temple, and breathe a prayer for safety and success.

The Author's Notes:

1 See Chapter XIII. p208; and Chapter XXIV. p467.

2 Plin. II.96.

3 Plin. loc. cit.

4 The Isola Martana is said to retain vestiges of antiquity. The other, called Bisentino, must have received its name from the Vesentum or Vesentium mentioned in Pliny's catalogue — "Vesentini" (III.8) — the site of which town, I know not with what truth, has been placed on the western shore of the lake, between Marta and Valentano.

5 Liv. XXVII.23.

6 Strabo, V.p226. Columella, de Re Rust. VIII.16. Strabo errs in saying that the reeds and rushes of this lake were borne by the Tiber to Rome, for the lake has but one emissary, the Marta, which falls into the sea below Corneto.

7 The family of the Rev. John Fugger bequeathed a sum of money for masses to be said for his soul on the anniversary of his death, and for a barrel of the fatal wine to be poured upon his grave. The first part of the bequest is religiously attended to, but the people now dispense with the heathenish libation, and pour the wine, which Sancho would have pronounced "very Catholic," down their own throats instead.

8 It may be objected that had a city existed on this spot it would have left some traces of its walls, seeing that cities in similar situations, as Volaterrae, Faesulae, Cortona, Perusia, have preserved so much of their ancient fortifications; but the walls of a city on this height must have been of tufo, and therefore much more liable to destruction than those of the cities to the north, composed, as they are, of enormous masses of limestone or hard sand-stone. Again it may be urged that a city in so commanding a position as this must have been of great importance, and it is hardly credible that its very name would have perished. Yet Veii, the rival of Rome in size, power, and magnificence, and within a few miles of her gates, was lost for ages, and its site has been only rediscovered by the researches of modern antiquaries.

9 Annio called it "Mons Phiscon, quae est arx Iti." Raffaelle Maffei, Il Biondo, and Alberti, took it for Falerii. Dempster (II. p417) seems to be the only writer who has not considered the site ancient, and his reason is merely that he finds no mention of it in ancient writers.

10 Abeken, Mittelitalien, p34.

11 Cluver, Ital. Antiq. II. p562.

12 Plin. XXXIII.9 Festus ap. Paul. Diac. v. Trossuli. Schol. in Pers. Sat. I.82. This exploit long conferred on the Roman equites, the name of Trossuli. It is not so singular a feat as was performed by a body of French cavalry in 1795, when they captured some Dutch ships of war, stuck fast in the ice. Trossulus from being an honourable appellation became one of reproach, equivalent to a luxurious, effeminate fellow. Seneca, Epist. 87, 8. Livy (X.46) mentions a town of Etruria, called Troilium, taken by the Romans in the year 461 (B.C. 293) which Cluver (loc. cit.) thinks identical with Trossulum. This can hardly be the case, because Troilium was not taken by a sudden assault, but before it was attacked, 470 of its inhabitants, men of great wealth, purchased immunity of Carvilius the Consul, and were allowed to leave the town. And after the capture, the same Roman force took five castles, all in strong natural positions. Cluver also suggests the possible identity of the Gurasium, mentioned by Diodorus (XIV. p319), with Trossulum.

13 Mariani, de Etruriâ Metrop. p46; and before him, Holsten. Annot. ad Cluver. p67, and Alberti, Descrit, d'Italia, p64.

14 I have on several occasions made inquiries at Monte Fiascone, Viterbo, and Bolsena, and have never been able to learn that any spot in this neighbourhood now has the name of Trosso. In the time of Holstenius and Mariani it was probably a mere "luoghettaccio," and now is so utterly desolate that its very name has perished.

15 De Mirab. Auscult. cap. 96, commonly ascribed to Aristotle, and printed with his works, but written by an unknown Greek about the 130 Olympiad, (260 B.C.). He is quoted by Stephanus of Byzantium, who calls the town Οἴνα (sub voce). Niebuhr (I. p124 n382), considers this undoubtedly to mean Vulsinii, and that Οἰναρέα was a distortion of the name committed by the author or transcribers. So also Arnold (History of Rome, II. p530); and Müller (Etrusk. II.2, 10), who amends Oenarea into Olsanea, remarking that Propertius (IV. eleg. 2, 4) has "Volsanus," and that Volci was called by the Greeks Ὄλκιον. Cluver (II p513) takes this city for Volaterrae.

16 It is scarcely necessary to observe that the text must not be taken literally as regards the hill rising in the midst of the city; it is either corrupt, or a distortion of the fact, which resolves itself into this, that the city stood on a hill, not of such a height perpendicularly, but the ascent to which was of such a length.

17 Liv. IV. 23, 25, 61; V.17; VI.2.

18 Liv. VI.2. It is elsewhere strongly intimated by Livy (V.17) that the Fanum Voltumnae was in this district of Etruria, for when Capena and Falerii sought assistance in behalf of Veii from the confederate princes of the land there sitting in council, they received for reply that no succour could be afforded — that it was vain to look for it, "especially in that part of Etruria," on account of the unexpected invasion of the Gauls; who must then have been besieging Clusium, which lies in the valley of the Clanis, the natural entrance to the great Etruscan plain from the north. Something may perhaps be deduced from the fact that the statue of Vertumnus, an Etruscan deity nearly allied to Voltumna, which was set up in the Tuscus Vicus at Rome, was captured from this part of Etruria, as Propertius (IV. eleg. 2) states —

Tuscus ego, et Tuscus orior; nec poenitet inter

Praelia Volsanos deseruisse focos.

Vertumnus seems to have been an Etruscan Bacchus, a god of wine and fruits. He it is, thinks Gerhard (Gottheiten der Etrusker, p31), who is represented in the Grotta delle Iscrizioni at Corneto, as having a fish offered to him. See Chapter XVIII, p342. He is called Vortumnus by Varro (L. L. V.8; VI.3); and probably also Volturnus, by Festus (ap. Paul. Diac. v. Volturnalia), as well as by Varro (L. L. VII.45); though neither recognise the relation in this case. See Müller's views on Vertumnus (Etrusk. III.3, 3). Voltumna was probably his wife, equivalent, thinks Gerhard (loc. cit. p8), to Pomona. Voltumna or Volturna was also an Etruscan family-name, found in sepulchral inscriptions at Perugia, and also at Sovana. See Chapter XXVI. p499, where it is given in its Etruscan form — Velthurna.

19 Antiquaries have universally agreed in placing it in this region, though differing as to its precise locality. The general opinion, from the time of Annio, has favoured Viterbo (see Chapter XII p195), from the existence of a church there called S. Maria in Volturna. A few would place it at Castel d'Asso. Müller (Etrusk. II.1, 4) inclines to place it near the Vadimonian Lake. Lanzi (Saggio II. p108) thinks it must have occupied a central and convenient situation, as the similar shrines of Delphi and of the Alban Mount. The site of the latter is said by Dionysius (p520)(IV. p250) to have been chosen for its central advantages. The traces of the name preserved at Viterbo, even were it ascertained that the said church occupies the site of a temple to Voltumna, do not prove this to be the celebrated Fanum. It is not to be supposed that the goddess had only one shrine, any more than that Apollo was worshipped only at Delphi, Diana at Ephesus, or Juno at Argos. It was merely the Fanum of Voltumna par excellence, just as St. Peter has his chosen temple at the Vatican, St. James at Compostela, or the Virgin at Loreto.

Thayer's Note: There are at least a dozen candidates for the site of the Fanum Voltumnae, of varying plausibility; Montefiascone has, as Dennis almost admits, nothing behind it but the say‑so of Annio da Viterbo, who has been amply and conclusively demonstrated to have been an egregious forger.

In 2006‑2007, yet another was added after a team of archaeologists tentatively announced they had found it under the former fairgrounds at the foot of Orvieto — but the identification once again is by no means certain: there is, for example, no confirmation in the shape of an inscription or the like. (BBC report)

20 Dion. Hal. loc. cit. The shrine of Apollo was on the summit of Soracte; and that of Feronia, common to the Sabines, Latins, and Etruscans, has been shown to have occupied in all probability the elevated shoulder of the same mountain (see Chapter X. pp180‑182).

21 The temple of Juno was on the Acropolis of Veii (Liv. V.21, Plut. v. Camill. 5), and at Falerii it stood on the summit of a steep and lofty height. Ovid. Amor. III; eleg. 13, 6. The Arae Mutiae, another Etruscan shrine, most probably occupied the summit of Monte Musino. See Chapter IV. pp80‑82. It was an Etruscan custom to raise in every city a triple temple to the three great divinities, Jove, Juno, and Minerva (Serv. ad Virg. Aen. I.422), and from the analogy of the Romans, who, borrowing the custom from the Etruscans, raised the same triple shrine on the Capitol, we may conclude it was upon the Acropolis or highest part of the city. On the Roman Capitol, indeed, were images of all the Gods. Serv. ad Aen. II.319. It seems to have been a very ancient and general Italian custom to raise temples on the Arces of cities. Thus, Orvinium in Sabina, a town of the Aborigines, had a very ancient shrine of Minerva on its Acropolis. Dion. Hal. I p12. Virgil (Aen. III.531) describes a temple to the same goddess on such a site on the Calabrian coast — templumque apparet in arce Minervae. The word Arx seems sometimes to be used as equivalent to temple, as in Liv. I.18.

22 In Greece, temples to the great god were generally on the Acropolis — as that of Minerva at Athens, and at Megara (Pausan. I.42) — of Jove and Minerva at Argos (Pausan. II.24) — of several deities at Corinth (Paus. II.4) — and of Apollo at Delphi (Paus. X.8). Besides which the most important shrines were generally on eminences, — as the temple of Panhellenic Jove in the island of Aegina (Paus. II.30), — as the Heraeum at Argos (Paus. II.17), rediscovered of late years by General Gordon (Mure's Greece, II. p177, et seq.) — and as the celebrated temple of Venus on the summit of Mount Eryx, the highest mountain in Sicily after Aetna. Polyb. I.55; Tacit. Ann. IV.43. The shrines of Apollo were usually (p521)on mountain-tops. Hom. Hymn. Apol. 144. Lofty places were dedicated to Saturn; whence Olympus was called the Saturnian height. Lycoph. Cass. 42. Mountains, says Lucian (de Sacrif. p185, ed. Bourd.), are dedicated to the gods by the universal consent of mankind. Similar instances might be multiplied extensively. So in the East, Jupiter (Hom. Il. XXII.170) and Cybele (Virg. Aen. IX.86) had shrines on Mount Ida. The ancient Persians also, though they raised no statues or altars to the gods, sacrificed to them on elevated sites. Strabo, XV.p732. The examples of other oriental nations that might be taken from Sacred Writ are too mus to quote, and will recur to the memory of the reader.

23 That such festivals were held at these national conventions, we learn from Liv. V.1. Similar solemnities were celebrated at the temple of Jupiter Latialis on the Alban Mount. Dion. Hal. IV.p250.

24 This might be presumed from the analogy of the Lucus Feroniae, where large fairs were held at these religious gatherings (Dion. Hal. III p173; Liv. I.30); but it is also strongly (p522)implied by Livy (VI.2) when he says that merchants brought to Rome the news of the Etruscan council at the Fanum Voltumnae. Fairs were held at the similar annual meetings of the Aetolian League at Thermum. Polyb. V.1.

25 Plin. N. H. II.96.

Thayer's Note:

a Isaiah 65:4.

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