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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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 p11  Chapter XXXII


Pyrgi veteres.

— Virgil.

Grandia consumpsit moenia tempus edax.

— Rutilius.

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Fortress of Sta. Severa  — Polygonal walls of Pyrgi  — The town was Pelasgic  — A castle and port  — Its temple of Ilithiyaº  — Historical notices  — Remains on the site  — Sepulchres

Six miles beyond Santa Marinella is the fortress of Santa Severa, standing on the shore, about a furlong from the high-road. It is a square castle, with a keep at one angle, and a lofty round tower, with machicolated battlements, rising in the centre. To the casual observer, it has nothing to distinguish it from other mediaeval forts; but if examine closely, it will be seen that its walls on the side of Civita Vecchia are based on foundations of far earlier date, formed of massive, irregular, polygonal blocks, neatly fitted together without cement,​1 — precisely similar to the walls of Cora, Segni, Palestrina, Alatri, and other ancient towns in the Latin and Sabine Mountains — in short, a genuine specimen of what is called Pelasgic masonry. This wall may be traced by its foundations, often almost level with the soil, for a considerable distance from the sea, till it turns at right angles, running parallel with the shore, and, after a while, again turns towards the sea — enclosing a quadrangular space several times larger  p12 than the present fort, and sufficiently extensive for a small town.​2 This is the site of "the ancient Pyrgi."3

These, and the slight remains on the Puntone del Castrato, are the only specimens of polygonal masonry in this part of Etruria, though such is found on three other sites further north. The strict similarity to the walling of cities south and east of the Tiber, seems to imply a common origin, and an origin not Etruscan. Moreover, the position of this town in the plain, scarcely raised above the level of the sea, is so unlike any purely Etruscan sites, which are always strong by nature as well as art, and the materials of its walls — limestone, travertine, crag, sandstone, all aqueous formations — so distinguish them from the volcanic fortifications of the other ancient sites in the southern district of Etruria, that we are led irresistibly to the conclusion that it was built by a different race, or in a different age. Now, though we have no express assertion in ancient writers that Pyrgi itself was of Pelasgic origin, we know that its temple of Ilithiya was built by that people, and that it was the port of Agylla or Caere​4 which was founded or occupied by the  p13 same race,​5 and we have Virgil's authority as to its high antiquity,​6 and its name in proof of its Greek origin. So that while history gives us the strongest presumptive evidence that Pyrgi was a Pelasgic town, its existing remains confirming that evidence, may be considered decisive of the fact.7

The small size of the town, little more half a mile in circuit, as determined by the remains of its walls, is another feature which distinguishes it from all the Etruscan sites already described. Yet in this particular it quite agrees with the description we have of Pyrgi, as "a castle"​8 and "a small town."​9 It must, nevertheless, have been a  p14 place of considerable importance as a port, naval station, and commercial emporium,​10 and it was renowned as the head-quarters of those hordes of pirates, who long made the Tyrrhenians as dreaded throughout the seas of Italy and Greece,​11 as the corsairs of Barbary have been in modern times.

Much of the importance of Pyrgi must have arisen from its temple of Ilithiya or Lucina, the goddess of childbirth.​12 — a shrine so richly endowed with gold and silver, and costly gifts, the opima spolia of Etruscan piracy, as to tempt the cupidity of Dionysius of Syracuse, who, in the year of Rome 370 (B.C. 384), fitted out a fleet of sixty  p15 triremes, and attacked Pyrgi, ostensibly for the sake of repressing its piracies, but really to replenish his exhausted treasury. He surprised the place, which was very scantily garrisoned, spoiled the temple of not less than a thousand talents, and carried off booty to the amount of five hundred more, defeating the men of Caere, who came to its rescue, and laying waste their territory.13

This is all we know of Pyrgi in the days of Etruscan independence. Her history must in great measure be identical with that of Caere, on which she was so intimately dependent. We find her mentioned as a Roman colony in the year 563 (B.C. 191).​14 It is evident that under the Roman domination she lost much of her former importance.​15 We find nothing more than mere statements or hints of her existence,​16 till in the fifth century after Christ she is said to have dwindled from the condition of a small town to that of a large villa.​17 After that we heard no more of her as Pyrgi, but find her mentioned in A.D. 1068, as the Castle of Sta Severa.18

Of the celebrated temple there are no traces existing; nothing to determine even the site it occupied. Canina suggests that, from the period in which it was built, it may have been in the most ancient Doric style.​19 If so, it must have resembled the great temples of Paestum, standing like them on the shore, and rearing its massive capitals  p16 and entablature high above the towers and battlements of the enclosing walls, at once a beacon to the mariner, and a stimulus to his devotion.

The foundations show the walls of Pyrgi to have been in parts of great thickness, implying what might be expected from its exposed situation in the plain, that its fortifications were of unusual strength and loftiness.20

The port, as already said, must have been wholly artificial, which seems indeed to be expressed in the term applied to it by the ancient writers.​21 Nothing remains to determine the shape of the harbour, but Cav. Canina thinks it was formed by two curved moles, each terminating in a tower, with a third mole in front of the opening between them, like the island at Civita Vecchia.

There are no tombs visible around Sta Severa, not even a tumulus on the plain, but at the foot of the heights which rise inland, sepulchres have been discovered. On one spot, called Pian Sultano, the Duchess of Sermoneta has excavated, and the tombs were of very simple character, and similar to those of Palo and Selva la Rocca.22

The Author's Notes:

1 Under the walls of the fortress, however, the blocks are imbedded in mortar. The traveller must not be misled by this, which is a modern addition, as at Orbetello. One block is 9 ft. 6 in. long, 3 ft. 9 in. high, and 1 ft. 9 in. thick.

2 Canina (Ann. Instit. 1840, pp39, 40) gives the dimensions as 850 by 650 Greek feet. Abeken calls its 750 by 600 ft. (Mittelitalien, p138), which nearly agrees with my measurement.

3 Strabo (V. p226) says Pyrgi is little less than 180 stadia from Graviscae, and 260 from Ostia. The Itinerary of Antoninus describes it as 34 miles from Rome, which is the true distance, and 8 miles from Castrum Novum. The Maritime Itinerary makes it 34 miles from Portus, at the mouth of the Tiber, 16 from Alsium, and 8 from Castrum Novum. The Peutingerian Table calls it 10 miles from Alsium, which is correct, but 14 from Castrum Novum. These discrepancies in the distances are of little consequence, since it occupies the relative position assigned to it between Alsium and Castrum Novum.

4 Strabo, V.p226; Diod. Sic. XV. p337, ed. Rhod. Pyrgi can hardly have been founded originally as the port of Caere, for it was 50 stadia (6¼ miles) distant from that city (Strabo, V p226), which lay only 4 miles from the sea (Plin. III.8); and there can be no reason why a site should not have been chosen for a port much nearer the city, as there is nothing in this spot to recommend it in preference to any other part of the neighbouring coast, and the harbour it once possessed must have been entirely artificial. I think it much more probable that the earliest structure on this site (p13)was the celebrated temple, and that the castle sprang up subsequently to protect that wealthy shrine, and that the existence of a fortress here determined the people of Caere to adopt the spot for their port, instead of constructing another on a more convenient site. Canina (Ann. Inst. 1840, p37) cites Dionysius, in support of his opinion that this temple was founded by the Pelasgi at least two generations before the Trojan War.

Thayer's Note: The Loeb editor of Strabo emends the distance from fifty to thirty stadia.

5 Strab. loc. cit.; Dionys. Halic. I. p16, ed. Sylb.; Plin. N. H. III.8; Solinus, Pol. cap. VIII.

6 Virgil (Aen. X.184) calls it ancient even in the days of Aeneas; and he, though at liberty to indulge in the proverbial licence of a poet, was too good an antiquary to commit a glaring anachronism.

7 Cavaliere Canina (Ann. 1840, p40) thinks that as the site itself did not afford the Pelasgic builders of Pyrgi materials for the polygonal masonry, to which they were accustomed, they cut the blocks from the neighbouring mountains, now called Monti del Sasso, which yield a calcareous stone naturally assuming polygonal forms. Micali (Mon. Ined. p373) will not admit that this polygonal masonry shows a Pelasgic origin, but thinks such a style would be naturally adopted, in every age, in great walls, especially for substructions, and was here used in order to resist the force of the waves, and because the oblique stratification of the mountains afforded the masses requisite. My reasons for regarding the polygonal masonry of Italy, in type at least if not always in construction, as Pelasgic, will be given in a future chapter. I may remark that both the writers cited admitted that a choice was exerted in this instance. Indeed it was not necessary to go to the mountains of the interior to find stone for building; and the variety of materials employed — all alike thrown into polygonal forms — proves that the adoption of that style in this case was not accidental, but intentional. At Agylla, however, where the rock is volcanic, the Pelasgi seem, if not in the city walls — which can hardly be ascribed to them — at least in their tombs, to have hewn it into rectangular blocks. See page 29.

8 Serv. ad Aen. X.184.

9 Rutil. I.224. Strabo also (V. p225) classes it among the πολίχνα of the Etruscan coast.

10 Pyrgi was also a fishing-town (Athen. VI. cap. 1, p224, ed. Casaub.). It seems to have suffered the usual evils of a seaport, that — "quaedam corruptela ac demutatio morum" — as Cicero terms it (de Rep. II.4); for Lucilius (ap. Serv. Aen. X.184) mentions the — "scorta Pyrgentia."

11 Serv. loc. cit. — "Hoc castellum nobilissimum fuit eo tempore, quo Thusci piraticam exercuerunt; nam illic metropolis fuit." The small size of Pyrgi, as Müller remarks (Etrusk. I.4, 8) is no proof against its importance in ancient times, seeing that the once renowned ports of Greece astonish the modern traveller by their confined dimensions.


Rite maturos aperire partus
Lenis Ilithiya, tuere matres;
Sive tu Lucina probas vocari

Seu Genitalis!

Hor. Carm. Saec. 13.

Aristotle (Oeconomic. II.20) and Polyaenus also (V. cap. ii.21) call this goddess Leucothea. Niebuhr (II. pp478, 493, Engl. trans.) and Müller (Etrusk. III.3, 4) call her Mater Matuta, who was identified by the Romans with the Leucothea of the Greeks. But Matuta also is allied with Eos or Aurora (Lucret. V.655); and Gerhard (Gottheiten de Etrusker, pp9, 25) suggests an analogy between Ilithiya-Leucothea, and the Etruscan Aurora, who was called "Thesan." Etrusk. Spiegel, I. taf. LXXVI. The natural relation between the goddess of the dawn and the goddess of births is readily understood; that with a goddess of the sea, is not so evident. As Leucothea was deemed powerful in preserving from shipwreck, and was the patron-deity of sailors, it is an argument in her favour in this instance. Were this shrine sacred to her, it would seem to imply that the port was prior to the temple. On the other hand, it may be said, that Ilithiya being but one form of Juno, the great goddess of Argos (Hesych. Εἰληθυίας), the Pelasgic colony may well have raised a temple to her honour — as did the Argive colony, called by Dionysius (I. pp16, 17) Pelasgic, which settled at Falerii. She is sometimes called the daughter of Juno (Paus. I.18; Iliad. XI.271). Homer, however, elsewhere (Iliad. XIX.119) speaks of this goddess in the plural number. So also Hesychius. For a new view of the derivation of the name, vid. Ann. Inst. 1842, p95 (Henzen.).

13 Diodorus Sic. XV p337; Serv. ad Aen. X.184. See also Aristot. Oecon. II.20; Strab. V. p226; Polyaen. Strat. V. cap. ii.21; cf. Aelian Var. Hist. I.20.

14 Liv. XXXVI.3. When with Fregenae, Castrum Novum, and the maritime colonies of Latium, she was compelled to add her quota to the fleet fitting out against Antiochus, king of Syria.

15 Servius (loc. cit.) speaks of Pyrgi as "nobilissimum" in early times, and implies that she had lost her importance with her piracies.

16 Liv. XXV.3; Cic. de Orat. II.71; P. Mela, II.4; Plin. III.8; Ptolem. p68, ed. Bert.; Mart. XII. epig. 2; Strab. loc. cit.; Serv. loc. cit.

17 Rutilius (I.224), speaking of Alsium and Pyrgi, says —

"Nunc villae grandes, oppida parva prius."

18 Nibby, Dintorni di Roma, III. p94.

19 Annal. Inst. 1840, p42.

20 The name of Pyrgi denotes the existence of "towers" in the ancient walls, yet there are no traces of any now visible. It is evident they did not project beyond the line of walls, as at Cosa and Falleri, though Cav. Canina, in his restored Plan of Pyrgi, has so represented them, for the outer face of the foundations is in parts clearly definable for a considerable distance; nor are there traces of towers within. Perhaps they rose only on the side towards the sea, where huge masses of ruin, the wrecks of the fortress and port, now lie on the shore, fretting the waves into everlasting foam. There are traces of Roman work on this side, of opus incertum and reticulatum. The ancient walls seem to have varied from 8 to 12, and 16 feet in thickness.

21 Cav. Canina points out that Strabo and Dionysius both use the term ἐπίνεων, instead of λιμήν, in describing Pyrgi — the former term implying an artificial port, constructed with moles or breakwaters — the latter a natural harbour only. Ann. Inst. 1840, p43. This view is favoured by Hesychius when he says that ἐπίνεων is smaller than λιμήν.

22 Micali, Mon. Ined. pp375, 385. The tombs which Abeken (Mittelitalien, pp239, 242, 267) describes as belonging to Pyrgi, or to a village dependent on her, are those at the Puntone del Castrato, treated of in the last chapter.

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