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Bill Thayer

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Book V
Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a section of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book V
Chapter 12

Book V (continued)

Vol. IV
Note C

On the Topography of Orvieto

Procopius's account of the capture of Orvieto is more allusive and less clear than is usual with him. It is only in a parenthesis (ὅπερ ἐγένετο) that we are informed of the surrender of the city, and we are left to infer that it was the result of famine. For the sake of travellers to this city, now so desolate, yet so noble in its desolation, I translate the description given by Procopius:

'Belisarius went round the city to see if he could spy out any place suitable for an assault, but came to the conclusion that it was impregnable by open attack, though it might perhaps be taken by some well-contrived stratagem. For it rises, a solitary hill out of a hollow country, evenly sloping and level above, but precipitous below.​1 But round this hill other cliffs of the same height range themselves in a circle, not in the immediate neighbourhood, but about a stone's throw distant. [The nearest hill, that on the east of the city, is quite half a mile distant, further assuredly than any catapult could throw.]a On this hill the men of old founded a city, but did not surround it with walls or any other kind of fortification, thinking that Nature had herself made it impregnable. For there is only one way of access to it from the [neighbouring] heights, and if this is guarded the defenders need fear attack from no other quarter. For round all the rest of the city, except this one point, runs a broad and unfordable stream filling up the chasm between the city and the surrounding eminences. A little fortress was accordingly erected by the Romans of old at this point of access, and in it is a postern gate (πυλίς), which was guarded by the Goths.

'Belisarius therefore ranged all his army round the city, on the chance of effecting something against it by the way of the  p300 river, but having also some hope that the enemy would be compelled to surrender by hunger' [which apparently is what actually occurred].

The assertion of Procopius as to the course of the river encircling the whole city except at one point is not true now. Orvieto is situated near the confluence of the Paglia and the Chiana (Clanis). The former stream flows diagonally past the northern and eastern sides of the city, but its southern and western sides have no river below them. The course of the Paglia, however, has been a good deal changed even in recent times (so I was assured by the canons of the cathedral): and all the land about the railway station (in the fork between the two rivers) is 'made ground.' It is therefore possible that the river may in former times have wound more than half round the city, and afterwards joined the Clanis at a lower point than it does now. The one side by which it could be approached would probably be from the hills to the west, between it and Bolsena.

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Thayer's Note: In this classic view, taken from near the Etruscan Tomb of the Hescanas, on one of those adjacent hills to the south, we see about two-thirds of the butte of Orvieto. On the far right, to the east, the shimmering white and gold façade of the cathedral stands out prominently. More toward the center of the photo, the tallest of the watchtowers is the Torre del Moro.

The sharp drops of the cliff are particularly noticeable between those two landmarks, and the north side of the butte is similarly abrupt. The more accessible side of the city, as Hodgkin says, is at the western end, and it is where the only road comes into the city.

Photo © William P. Thayer

The Author's Note:

1 Λόφος γάρ τις ἐκ κοίλης γῆς ἀνέχει μόνος, τὰ μὲν ὕπερθεν ὕπτιός τε καὶ ὁμαλός, τὰ δὲ κάτω κρημνώδης (p225). Strictly speaking, the sides of the hill are only at first precipitous and afterwards slope down gently into the plain.

Thayer's Note:

a As someone who's walked the area, including some of the hills in question, I can tell you that while Hodgkin's main point is correct and he's more nearly accurate than Procopius, he's still not quite on target. The nearest hill (measured as the nearest point equal in elevation to Orvieto's 325 m) is about 1200 meters (three-quarters of a mile) from the edge of Orvieto's cliff — but to the south. The hills to the east of the city, while taller and more substantial, are considerably farther away: by the same criterion, the distance eastward, or better, north-eastward, from the edge of Orvieto's cliff to the nearest point at an elevation of 325 m, is 3900 meters (nearly two and a half miles). See this relief map of the area, on which we can measure the distances we like.

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Page updated: 22 Jun 21