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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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 p69  Chapter XXXIV


Alsia praelegitur tellus.

— Rutilius.

The place of tombs,
Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men,
Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang,
Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam.


These headings of the author's are used here as local links to text on this webpage.
Let the page load completely before clicking on them.

Alsium was of Pelasgic antiquity Local vestiges Tumuli of Monteroni Excavations Curious shafts and passages Palo and its hostelry Sea-shore scenes Selva la Rocca Fregenae

Palo is well-known to travellers as the half-way house between Rome and Civita Vecchia; but few bear in mind that the post-house, the ruined fortress, and the few fishers' huts on the beach, represent the Alsium of antiquity — one of the most hoary towns of Italy, founded or occupied by the Pelasgi, ages before the arrival of the Etruscans on these shores.1

It is strange that no record is preserved of Alsium during the Etruscan period; but this may be owing to its dependence on Caere, with whose history and fortunes its own were probably identical. That it was occupied by the Etruscans we learn from history,​2 confirmed by recent  p70 researches. The earliest notice of it by Roman writers is its receiving a colony in the year 507.​3 At no time does it seem to have been of much importance; the highest condition it attained, as far as we can learn, being that of a small town.​4 This may have been owing to its unhealthy position, on a low swampy coast. Yet it was much frequented by the wealthy Romans;​5 and even the Emperor Antoninus chose it as his retreat, and had an Imperial villa on this shore.6

Haveva un bel giardin sopra una riva,
Che colli intorno e tutto 'l mare scopriva.

At the beginning of the fifth century Alsium, like the neighbouring Pyrgi, had sunk to the condition of a large  p71 villa;​7 but we have no subsequent record of it, and it was probably destroyed by the Goths or Saracens, who devastated this coast in the middle ages.8

Not a vestige of the Pelasgic or Etruscan town is now visible; but there are extensive substructions of Roman times along the beach. The fort, also, which was built in the fifteenth century, has some ancient materials in its walls. About a mile to the east are some very extensive ruins on the shore, apparently of one of the Roman villas.9

Alsium, though its site had been pretty clearly indicated by the notices of the ancients,​10 had been well-nigh forgotten, when a few years since the enterprise of a lady revived interest in the spot.

About a mile and a half inland from Palo, close to the deserted post-house of Monteroni, and about twenty-two miles from Rome, are four or five large tumuli, standing in the open plain. They bear every appearance of being natural hillocks — huge masses of tufo rising above the surrounding level. Hence their ordinary appellation of "Colli Tufarini." Yet their isolation and similarity to the sepulchral mounds of Cervetri, induced the Duchess of Sermoneta, in whose land they lay, to probe their recesses. This was in 1838. One of the most regular in form, which was about forty feet high, was found to be girt by a low basement wall of tufo masonry, which formed a  p72 periphery of nearly eight hundred feet. This wall had two buttresses on the north, sundry drains on the south, and on the west a hole containing a small stone cylinder. Though the sepulchral character of the tumulus was thus clearly indicated, the entrance to the tomb was long sought in vain; till at length, some forty or fifty feet up the slope, a passage was found cut in the rock, and leading to the tomb; and it was remarked that the mouth of the passage was pointed at by the cylinder in the basement-wall. The tomb closely resembled the Grotta Regulini-Galassi of Cervetri; for it was a long passage, walled with regular masonry, the courses converging till they formed a rude Gothic-like arch, which terminated in a similar square channel or groove; and the high antiquity indicated by its construction was likewise confirmed by the character of its furniture. No painted vases of Greek form or design; nothing that betrayed the influence of Hellenic art; all was here closely allied to the Egyptian.11

No other tomb was discovered in this mound, but a well or shaft in the floor, twenty feet deep, opened into another horizontal passage, about a hundred feet long; and here were three other shafts, probably sunk to other sepulchral chambers on a still lower level. This system of shafts and passages reminds us of the Pyramids, and is in harmony with the Egyptian character of the contents of this tomb.12

At the foot of this mound, sunk beneath the surface of the plain, was discovered a double-chambered sepulchre, of more ordinary Etruscan character, and its contents showed  p73 only that resemblance to the Egyptian which bespeaks a high antiquity.13

These tombs, from their position, must have belonged to the necropolis of Alsium; and thus, while one bears out Dionysius' statement of the existence of an Etruscan population on this site, the other confirms his testimony as to its prior occupation by a more ancient race.

Were excavations continued here, other tombs would doubtless be discovered. But since the Duchess's death, a few years since, nothing has been done on this coast. For antiquarian zeal and enterprise this lady rivalled the late Duchess of Devonshire.

It is scarcely worth while to visit the tumuli of Monteroni,  p74 for the chambers are now re-closed with earth; even the basement-wall is re-covered or destroyed, and not a trace remains to attest their sepulchral character.

In spite of its venerable ancestry, Palo is a most dreary place. Without extant antiquities of interest, or charms of scenery, it can offer no inducement to the traveller to halt one hour, save that he will here find the best accommodation in the neighbourhood of Cervetri; and should he propose to take more than a passing glance at that site, he may well admit the claims of Palo to be his head-quarters. The fare is not such as the place once afforded — no "fatted oysters, savoury apples, pastry, confectionery, and generous wines, in transparent faultless goblets," dainties fit to set before a king — convivium regium14 — but, for a wayside hostelry, the post-house is not to be despised. Yet the place itself is desolate enough. Beyond a copse on either side of the village, there is nothing to relieve the bare monotony of the level waste. It is hard to believe Alsium could ever have been "the voluptuous sea-side retreat" it is described in the time of the Antonines.​15 Now the traveller is ready to exclaim —

"Oh, the dreary, dreary moorland! oh, the barren, barren shore!"

Yet the lover of sea-side nature may find interest here, as well as in the sparkling bay of Naples. Though to me this is no dilectum litus, as it was to Halesus, yet memory recalls not without pleasure the days I have spent at Palo. The calm delight of a sunny shore finds its reflex in the human breast. The broad ocean softly heaving beneath my window, ever murmured its bright joy; mirroring "the  p75 vault of blue Italian day." A few feluccas, their weary sails flapping in the breeze, lay off shore, lazily rocking with the swell, which broke languidly on the red ruins at my feet, or licked with foam the walls of the crumbling fortress. Away to the right, was the distant point of Santa Marinella; and to the left, the eye wandered along the level shore, to which the dunes of Holland were mountains, uncertain whether it were traversing sea or land, save when it rested here and there on a lonely tower on the coast; or when it reached a building on the extreme horizon, so faint as now to seem but a summer-cloud, yet gleaming out whitely when the evening sun fell full on its flank. This was the fort of Fiumicino, at the mouth of the Tiber, the port of modern Rome. Such were the standing features of my prospect; which was varied only by scenes of domestic life, at the doors of the huts opening seaward, or by herds of long-horned cattle, which came down to pick their evening meal from the straw scattered over the beach. When the sun's last glories had faded from the sky, then began the life and stir of Palo. The craft, which had lain in the offing all day, stood in after dark, and sent the produce of their nets to land. Then what bustle, what shouting, on board and ashore! Red-capt, bare-legged fellows with baskets — my chubby host of Palo bargaining for the haul — sky-blue doganieri, and cloaked quidnuncs, looking on — all common-place features enough, but assuming, from the glare of torches, a rich Rembrandtish effect, to which the dark masses of the vessels, magnified by the gloom, formed an appropriate background.

About three miles beyond Palo, on the road to Rome, at a spot called Statua, are some ruins, supposed to mark the site of Ad Turres, a station on the Via Aurelia.16

A mile or two beyond, not far from Polidoro, and at a spot called Selva la Rocca, the Duchess of Sermoneta, in 1839 and 1840, excavated some tumuli, and found vases of the most beautiful Greek style, some resembling those of Sicily and Athens; besides pottery of more ancient character; together with articles in bronze, and gold, amber, smalt, glass, and alabaster.17

Beyond this, or six miles from Palo, stood Bebiana, another station on the Via Aurelia;​18 and at or near Castel Guido, stood Lorium, the first station on this road out of Rome.19

About half-way between Palo and the Tiber, at the mouth of the river Arrone, stands the Tower of Maccarese, which is supposed to mark the site of the Etruscan town of Fregenae or Fregellae,​20 — and its position on a low swampy shore, and in the vicinity of a noxious marsh or fen, called Stagno di Maccarese, answers to the picture of Silius Italicus — obsessae campo squalente Fregellae.​21 In very early times it may have been of importance; for Tarquinius Priscus invited Turianus, an artist of this place, to Rome, to make the terra-cotta statue of Jupiter, for his new temple on the Capitol.​22 We hear no more of it, however,  p77 till it was colonised by the Romans in 509 (B.C. 245);​23 and in 563 (B.C. 191), with the other maritime colonies of this coast, it was compelled to aid in fitting out a fleet against Antiochus the Great.​24 It was in existence at the commencement of the Empire,​25 but after that we lose sight of it; and now, as far as I can learn, there are no local remains visible to mark the Etruscan character of the spot.

The Author's Notes:

1 Dion. Hal. I p16. Silius Italicus (VIII.476) refers its origin to the Argive Halesus, son of Agamemnon, from whom he supposes it to have derived its name —

Necnon Argolico dilectum litus Haleso

Its Pelasgic origin being admitted, it seems just as likely to have derived its name from ἅλς — the sea; or from ἄλσος — a grove, as Professor Gerhard opines (Ann. Inst. 1831, p205), in reference to the dense woods on this coast. For both he and Professor Welcker are of opinion that the Pelasgic tongue, though differing from the Greek, bore sufficient analogy to it, to enable us to trace by that means the origin of the names of certain ancient localities.

2 Dion. Hal. loc. cit.

3 Vell. Paterc. I.14. As a maritime colony it was compelled to furnish its quota of troops in the year 547 (B.C. 207), when in the Second Punic War Italy was threatened with a second invasion of Carthaginians under Hasdrubal. Liv. XXVII.38. But it is not mentioned with the other naval colonies, which, in 563 (B.C. 191), were reluctantly compelled to aid in fitting out a fleet against Antiochus the Great, King of Syria. Liv. XXXVI.3. Pliny (III.8), and Ptolemy (Geog. p68, ed. Bert.) certify to its existence as a colony in their days.

4 Rutil. I.224. Strabo (V. p225) also speaks of it as a mere πολίχνιον. Yet the fact of giving its name to a lake — now Lago Martignano — full 20 miles distant, implies an extensive ager, and no small importance. For the Lacus Alsietinus, see Frontinus, de Aquaeduct. II. p48. Cluver (II p524) errs in taking the Lago Stracciacappa to be the Lacus Alsietinus.

5 Pompey had a villa here. Cicero, pro Milone, XX. M. Aemilius Porcina also built one on so magnificent a scale, that he was accused of it as a crime, and heavily fined by the Roman people. Val. Max. VIII.1, Damn. 7. And the mother-in‑law of the younger Pliny had also a villa at Alsium, which had previously belonged to Rufus Verginius, who took such delight in it, that he called it "the nestling-place of his old age." — senectutis suae nidulum — and was buried on the spot. Plin. Epist. VI.10; cf. IX.19. Cicero (ad Divers. IX.6; cf. ad Attic. XIII.50) refers to Alsium as the spot where Caesar was thinking of landing on his return from Africa.

6 Fronto, de Feriis Alsiensibus. Gruter (p271, 3) gives a dedicatory inscription to Marcus Aurelius, by the Decuriones of the Colony of Alsium, which was found at Palo. Cf. Cluver. II p497. An inscription also, found at Ceri, mentions a villa at Alsium. See Visconti, Mon. Ant. di Ceri, p12:—

D. M.

7 Rutil. I.224 —

Nunc villae grandes, oppida parva prius.

From the mention made by the Peutingerian Table we also learn that it existed in the time of Theodosius.

8 Nibby, Dintorni di Roma, II. p526.

9 Nibby (op. cit. p528) takes these ruins to be those of Pompey's villa, because the style of construction marks the latter days of the Republic.

10 Strabo (V. pp225, 226) places it on this coast between Pyrgi and Fregenae. And so also the Maritime Itinerary marks it as 9 miles from the latter, and 16 from the former town. The Peutingerian Table is nearer the truth in calling it 10 miles from Pyrgi (ut supra, page 4); but 12 is the true distance. These discrepancies are of little importance; the general position being thus indicated, the precise site can be determined by extant remains.

11 Rude pottery of black earth, with figures scratched thereon; flat vases of smalt, ornamented with lotus-flowers, purely Egyptian in character, and ostrich-eggs painted — both as in the Isis-tomb of Vulci (see Vol. I p419); beads of smalt and amber; and gold laminae with archaic reliefs.

12 There were other passages opening on that which formed the entrance to the tomb, but Abeken considered them to have been the experiments made by former excavators. Mittelitalien, p242.

13 They consisted of pottery and terra-cotta figures in the archaic or Egypto-Etruscan style, some with four wings, forming the feet of vases. The description of these tombs I have taken from Abeken, Bull. Inst. 1839, pp81‑84; and also from his Mittelitalien, pp242, 267, 272, 274; for nothing is now to be seen on the spot. Micali, who takes his notices from the papers of the late Duchess, give a somewhat different description of these tombs. He says, above the basement-wall of the tumulus the tufo was cut into steps to the height of 18 feet, and then levelled; and on this was raised a mound of earth to the height of 27 feet or more. In the lower or natural part of the mound was discovered a sepulchre of four stone chambers, one of them circular, all with rock-hewn benches, and bronze nails in the walls around. These, from his description of their contents, are the less ancient of the tombs mentioned in the text. The passage-tomb he represents as 45 feet long, sunk in the same levelled part of the mound, though lined with masonry, regularly squared and smoothed. Upon it opened, by a door of the usual Etruscan form, another narrow passage, similarly lined and half the length, with a rock-hewn bench, and numerous bronze nails in the wall. Here were found some articles of gold, and jewellery, fragments of Egyptian vases, and odorous paste, and a stone in the form of an axe-head, supposed to be Egyptian. There were no Etruscan inscriptions in any of these tombs. The masonry of the passage he represents (Mon. Ined. tav. LVII) as opus quadratum of tufo blocks, but pseudisodomon, or in courses of unequal heights. These tombs were drained by many channels cut in the rock, and branching in all directions. Mon. Ined. pp378‑390. It must be the less ancient of these tombs in which Mrs. Hamilton Gray, who visited them shortly after they were opened, saw a pair of panthers painted over the door of the outer chamber, and two hippocampi, with genii on their backs, on the walls of the inner. Sepulchres of Etruria, p123, third edition. Mrs. Gray errs in calling the site "Monte Nerone;" it is named Monteroni, from these "large mounds."

14 Fronto, de Feriis Alsiensibus, epist. III.

15 Fronto, loc. cit. Were it not that the author was writing to an Emperor, we might suspect him of irony; but sovereigns, especially despots, are edged tools; which Pollio remembered when challenged to banter by Augustus. Macrob. Saturn. II.4. Fronto, however, qualifies his praises of Alsium by mentioning the raucas paludes.

16 Mentioned in the Itinerary of Antoninus, as 22 miles from Rome. Ut supra, page 4. Here it is that Cramer (ancient Italy, I p208) places Alsium.

17 Abeken, Bull. Inst. 1839, p84; 1840, p133; Mittelitalien, p267; Micali, Monum. Ined. p374.

18 Mentioned by the Peutingerian Table. Ut supra, page 4. Gell (sub voce) places it at Torrimpietra, a tower on an eminence to the left of the modern road to Rome; Nibby (Dintorni di Roma, I. p297) at Casal Bruciato, in the same tenuta of Torrimpietra, 6 miles from Palo, where is still some regular travertine masonry, perhaps the cella of a temple. Cluver (II p522) placed it at Testa di Lepre, near the Arrone.

19 See the Itinerary and Table at page 4. Gell places Lorium at Bottino, a mile or two nearer Rome than Castel Guido; but Nibby (II. p270) thinks it occupied the sites both of Bottaccia and of Castel Guido. The Emperor Antoninus Pius had a villa at Lorium, and here he died. A. Victor, de Caes. 16.

20 Cluver II. p499. Nibby, Dint. di Roma, II. p281. The Maritime Itinerary places it between Portus Augusti and Alsium, nine miles from each.

21 Sil. Ital. VIII.477.

22 Pliny, who records this fact (XXXV.45), calls the place Fregellae;​a but that he refers to the town of Etruria, and not to Fregellae of the Volsci, is manifest from the context, as (p77)well as from a comparison with Liv. I.56; and is confirmed by the extended renown of the Etruscans in the fictile art. Besides, Silius Italicus calls the Etruscan town Fregellae, Pliny (III.9) the Latin town Freginae; so that the names seem to have been used indifferently. Yet Müller (Etrusk. IV.3, 2) takes the town whence Turianus came, for the Fregellae of Volscium, on the ground that the fictile art was early practised in that land, as is proved by the celebrated bas-reliefs found at Velletri; but, to reconcile this view with the rest of Pliny's statement, he supposes this Volscian to have been a disciple of the Etruscan school. All this seems to me unnecessary, and the simplest and most rational interpretation is to suppose that Pliny referred to the Fregenae of Etruria.

23 Vell. Paterc. I.14; cf. Epitome of Liv. XIX.

24 Liv. XXXVI.3.

25 Pliny (III.8) classes it among the maritime colonies of Etruria. Strabo (V. p225) also cites it as a small town on this coast, and calls it Fregenia.

Thayer's Note:

a The attentive reader who followed the link will have noticed that, in Mayhoff's edition of Pliny online, no mention is made of Fregellae, nor of Turianus. The occasional critical notes in the Loeb edition of Pliny, however, witness to a corrupt text, footnoting Vulcam Veis accitum as follows:

uulcam B1: uulcani B2: uulgam rell. (turianum cd. Par. 6801): Volcaniam coni. Ian.

It looks plausible therefore that some manuscript may have a reading, or a gloss, involving Fregellae.

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