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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a note in
Notes and Queries,
No. 217 (Saturday, February 24, 1872), pp153‑154.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p153  Birthplace of Plautus and Temple of Jupiter Apenninus​a

Having lately (antè, p5) given a short account of the birthplace of the poet Ennius (born B.C. 230), I have been reminded of another Roman writer, Plautus, his contemporary (born B.C. 254), whose birthplace, Sarsina,​b in a far different part of Italy, I once visited; and as it is rarely that such a secluded nook is reached by the English traveller, it may be not without interest to your classical readers to have a description of its present appearance. I have before, in speaking of the "Tomb of Hasdrubal" (4th S. I.69), remarked that this part of the Apennines is distinguished for little sequestered valleys, apparently cut off from the whole world. I approached these valleys from the direction of Gubbio, crossing a high ridge by a mountain path, which brought me to the neighbourhood of the village Schieggia; so interesting for the ruins of what is believed to have been the temple of Jupiter Apenninus, to which the confederated tribes of Umbria repaired to sacrifice as the Latins did to the Alban Mount.​c At Valle di Rolla ed Ajale, about half a mile from Schieggia, on the hill called La Serra, you find the ground covered with ruins; and if the earth were cleared away, I do not doubt that the foundations of the temple would be clearly traced. Some pieces of mosaic I saw at Pietra Grossa, and on the hill La Serra was found the following monumental inscription of Roman times:—

C · Mesio

C · F · Lem


vix · ann · XIX

C · Maesivs


fil · piissimo.

It is a high mountainous region, inhabited principally by shepherds and their flocks, as it was in the time of Claudian (about A.D. 400), who speaks of it [VI Cons. Hon. 504‑505]:—

"Exsuperat delubra Jovis, saxoque minantes

Apenninigenis cultas pastoribus aras."

I threaded my way by Urbino, San Marino, San Leo by cross paths to the sources of the river Sapis, now Savio; on the banks of which I found the village Sarsina, of about three thousand inhabitants, retaining the name which it had two thousand years ago, and situated in a secluded valley surrounded on all sides by the lofty ridges of the Apennines. The ancient city extended up the hill at some distance from its modern representative, and here many remains have been found, though I do not believe that it could at any time have been of great extent. The following imperfect sepulchral inscription was the only memorial of Roman times which I saw near the site of the ancient city:—


L · F · Priscae

et · L · F · Asvrcto


I could see that its territory contained extensive mountain pastures, and is still as rich in milk — dives lactis, as Silius Italicus (VIII.462) says; nor are its forests on the declivities of the mountains extinct, though I cannot say that I heard of the dormice being still there, as they were in ancient times when prized by the Romans (Martial, III.58.35). I found, however, the baths of which Martial (IX.58) speaks:—

"Sic montana tuos semper colat Umbria fontes,

Nec tua Bajanas Sarsina malit aquas."

They are now known as the Bagni di S. Agnese, and at some distance I heard that there were baths called Bagni di Regina, still used by invalids; while the baths of Baiae have long ceased to exist. At the cathedral there are numerous mutilated columns of all kinds; also marble slabs with ancient sepulchral inscriptions. Many inscriptions are also found at the Palazzo del Commune. I was much interested by my visit to the birthplace of Plautus, and could not doubt that I saw everything much as it was when the poet lived. There were the everlasting hills clothed with woods, the spring still supplied baths for the recovery of invalids, and the dormice, no  p154 doubt, still chirped in the woods, though no longer caught for the luxurious Romans. I may state that the scenery, as you cross this lofty ridge of the Apennines towards Florence, is highly picturesque, though the ascent can only be made on mule-back. You come down on the valley of the Arno, not far from the celebrated Camaldoli; and if you be energetic, you may climb the highest point of the ridge, I Scali, mentioned by Ariosto on account of the extensive view it affords:—

"Scuopre il mar Schiavo e il Tosco

Dal giogo onde a Camaldoli si viene."

I had seen both seas from a hill of the Sila in Calabria (4th S. VII.529); but the breadth of Italy is there only some thirty miles, while here it cannot be much less than one hundred and fifty.​d

Craufurd Tait Ramage.​e

Thayer's Notes:

a Although Ramage probably saw neither of these places — see the notes below — a glance at a map will make his tour clear; Scheggia and Serra are in the southern part of his range, and Sarsina in the north. Most of the places he mentions were indeed in what the Romans called Regio VI Umbria; in modern terms though, Urbino and San Leo are in the northern Marche: the modern Italian administrative area called Umbria is much smaller, and only partly overlaps the Roman region.

b You will read almost everywhere that "Plautus was born at Sarsina in Umbria"; but in that author's time Sarsina was not in Umbria although it became attached to Regio VI Umbria by the time of Pliny the Elder (N. H. III.xiv.114), and Plautus' birthplace is unknown. If St. Jerome and Festus, writing six centuries later (although apparently based on Varro's lost Life of Plautus, only 150 years after the subject's time) place it at Sarsina, this appears really to be based on a single reference to the place by the writer (Mostellaria, 770):

Hey, how about a girl from Sarsina, if you don't have an Umbrian one?

Not only does this strongly suggest that Sarsina was not in Umbria, but it says nothing about Plautus' birthplace: as often, a thirst for certainty, even if spurious, has led to a fanci­ful notion being taken for fact, becoming something everyone 'knows'. Still, Sarsina is an attractive little place, and Ramage's excursion must have been a pleasant one.

For everything you wanted to know about Sarsina — and then some — see local historian Filippo Antonino's Delle antichità di Sarsina . . . (Sarsina, 1607), pp1‑82.

c Though many have gone looking for it, the Temple of Apennine Jove has not been found yet. In addition to the reference in Claudian, Peutinger's Table puts Iouis penninus in the general area, with the annotation idē agubio: "also Gubbio".

The temple must have been within 10 km of Scheggia, though; it's tempting to try and locate it somewhere in the pass over the range from Gubbio to Scheggia, possibly near the isolated church of S. Michele: churches dedicated to St. Michael are frequently found on holy mounts (the Mont St‑Michel in Normandy, S. Michele al Gargano, St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall, and several churches of St. Michael in Auvergne all come quickly to mind); this is, however, just one more theory.

d A handy Google Maps Distance Calculator puts the width of Italy here at about 117 miles (188 km).

e Craufurd Tait Ramage (1803‑1878), compiler of a number of miscellanies bearing titles like Beauti­ful Thoughts from Latin Authors: with English Translations, also wrote a somewhat more original work, The Nooks and By-ways of Italy. Wanderings in search of its Ancient Remains and Modern Superstitions (1868). For another sample of his Italian antiquarian travels, see his Note on Mons Vultur (N&Q, Jan. 7, 1871, pp3‑5).

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