Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Cyclopean Cities of Ancient Latium

The Cyclopean Cities of Ancient Latium

The countryside around Rome is littered with relics of a past more or less remote. One feels almost a continuity there between the ancient and the modern world, with the ancient Roman ruins being almost a familiar presence as if part of the natural landscape. Yet, one also finds there remains of a much older and mysterious past. Massive cyclopean walls encircle towns and villages, their stones darkened by the passing of centuries and millennia. One can never get used to them, so strange they are in their interlocking geometries and so different from the familiar contours of Roman and Medieval walls. They loom as a relic from an entirely different past of which we know almost nothing.   

The cyclopean walls of Alatri near the Main Gate of the Acropolis (Porta Maggiore). In the foreground, one of the three enigmatic niches called "The Sanctuaries", which probably once contained statues - Photo by Author
The megalithic gate of the Acropolis of Alatri (Porta Maggiore). The walls reach an height of over 15 meters in this point and in proximity of the corner in the walls - Photo by Author
Who built the cyclopean walls and why? 

The small towns of Alatri, Ferentino, Segni, Sezze, Veroli and Arpino, all in the Province of Frosinone, Norba, Cori and Circei in the Province of Latina, Amelia in nearby Umbria, as far as Ansedonia,  Orbetello and Roselle in Tuscany and Alba Fucens in Abruzzo, are entirely surrounded by cyclopean walls that survive to this day in varying states of preservation. They loom even to this day over 15 meters high on the Acropolis of Alatri, and are almost intact over their entire circuit around Ferentino, Segni and Norba.
The stones composing the walls are truly gigantic, each weighting many tons, and as finely fitted together as to leave a few millimeters at most between the joints. But it is their near impossible acute angles and interlocking corners that cause the greatest amazement, as if each stone was individually carved to be a piece of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.  

Another view of the Walls of Alatri near the Porta San Pietro (Saint Peter's Gate) - Photo by Author
Not much has changed since the time when Ferdinand Gregorovius first described the cyclopean walls of the Acropolis of Alatri as “the most astounding monument of the past in Latium”. It was 1859 when he wrote these words:  “The sight of this marvelous masonry, which equals in size any existing Egyptian building, would amply repay the visitor for the longest and most fatiguing day's journey […] When I walked round this black, Titanic, construction, just in as good preservation now as if years, instead of thousands of years, had passed over them, I was filled with amazement greater than when I first beheld the Colosseum at Rome”. [1]
In over 150 years, very little has changed also in our knowledge of the builders and purpose of these cyclopean structures. The debate on the original builders of Alatri and the cyclopean walls of Latium raged for much of the 19th and the 20th Century. Lacking any other plausible explanation, the construction of the walls was attributed to the Romans of the early Republican period (III – I Century BC) and the whole question was put to rest for almost half a century. Indeed, no other civilization known to historians and archeologists would have had the technical skills and social organization to afford the construction of the miles long walls and to move tens of thousands of stones, some of which weighting in excess of 27 tons.

Yet, whoever visits the little town of Ferentino, still encircled by its beautiful cyclopean walls, would immediately realize that this attribution is plain nonsense. Here one sees more than in any other place three distinct and clearly recognizable stages of construction: the cyclopean, the Roman and the medieval. The inscription of the Roman censors Aulus Lollius and Marcus Irtius still stands to commemorate the restoration of the walls by the two censors in 180 BC. Of course, the restoration was made with relatively small, square blocks of stone upon the already ruined cyclopean masonry underneath, which served as a 10 meters high foundation for the new roman wall.  Even without the inscription, no reasonable person would ever think that the cyclopean masonry and the brick-like stone wall above could belong to the same period, not to mention having been built by the same people! Yet one still reads in guidebooks and even scholarly studies that the two censors built the whole of the walls of Ferentino, including the cyclopean portion. 

The acropolis of Ferentino, where one can clearly see the three layers of construction: the Cyclopean (bottom), Roman, and the Medieval on top - Photo by Author 
Another view of the cyclopean walls of Ferentino, near the Porta Sanguinaria. The arch above the gate is a Roman addition, as also much of the wall above - Photo by Author
Again at Ferentino one can clearly see the three different layers of construction: Cyclopean (polygonal), Roman (with small sized square blocks) and medieval on top. These layers belong to completely different epochs and denote entirely different construction techniques - Photo by Author
Nor did the Romans ever claim authorship of such a feat as building the walls of Alatri, Norba, Segni or any other of the cyclopean cities of Latium. Quite to the contrary, ancient historians had a tendency to attribute these structures, so similar to the great walls of Tiryns and Mycenae, to mythical ancestors like the Pelasgians.

If then the walls were not built by the Romans, who built them? More recent scholarship has shown greater openness towards the idea of a pre-Roman date for the cyclopean walls. The pre-roman peoples of the Hernici and the Volsci are therefore sometimes credited for the construction of the walls. Yet, also this attribution, though much more plausible, appears to rest on very thin evidence.  The Hernici formed a league as far back as 495 BC, until their capital, Anagni, was taken by the Romans in 306 BC. Yet one is surprised not to find even the slightest trace of cyclopean walls in Anagni itself, where the walls – which are with good certainty attributed to the Hernici – are rather built with much smaller square blocks.

Even the ultimate function of the cyclopean walls and acropolises is ultimately shrouded in mystery.  Of course, the immediate thought that comes to mind when seeing a wall is that it might serve some defensive function. Yet, in spite of their grand scale, cyclopean walls would offer very little protection and certainly no better protection than a much more simple structure built of bricks or even wood. Not only are the walls pierced by several gates and lacking towers or any other defensive feature one would expect from a fortification of comparable size, but they even present features that seem to exclude any meaningful defensive function. The author Giulio Magli lists several of this features in his book “I Segreti delle Antiche Città Megalitiche” [Secrets of the Ancient Megalithic Cities]. For instance, the acropolis of Circei lacks any defense on the Northern side, which was therefore entirely open and defenseless towards the mountain. Even the main gate of Norba is too broad, at over 7 meters, to allow any kind of covering unless we imagine a capstone of truly monstrous size as could have never been supported by the side walls (there is ample evidence the builders of the cyclopean walls didn’t know the principles of the arch, or deliberately chose not to use it in their constructions) [2]. These cyclopean walls are much more similar to a sacred precinct, like the themenos of a temple, than to a fortress of any kind. 

The Main Gate (Porta Maggiore) to the ancient city of Norba. Over 7 meters wide, the gate is flanked by a round "tower" to the right of unclear function, which is a masterpiece of polygonal megalithic architecture - Photo by Author 
Another gate in the walls of Norba, facing the cliff, and sormounted by a huge architrave. Also note the very fine texture of the polygonal blocks, each one of which weighting many tons - Photo by Author
This is especially true in the case of the Acropolis of Alatri, undoubtedly the finest of its kind in Italy and among the greatest megalithic realizations in the Mediterranean. Other than the usual absence of any defensive features inside or outside the perimeter of the Acropolis, the only structure inside the precinct of its walls appears to be a large stepped platform. Here is found some of the finest cyclopean masonry in Italy and probably in the world, including a stone with over 15 angles, with joints so tight that they don’t allow even the finest blade to pass between two stones. This platform, called a Hyeron, was clearly an altar of some sort, and is moreover very carefully astronomically and geometrically aligned as to be the virtual center or omphalos of the whole city of Alatri. 

Recent research has shown that the entire city of Alatri was designed after a roughly circular plan, with three concentric walls converging towards the Acropolis. The gates defined a number of axes which show evidence of having been carefully astronomically aligned towards the rising and setting of the Sun at the solstices and equinoxes. A number of stellar alignments also seem to point to the constellation of Gemini, Orion and the Southern Cross, at a time when it was still visible above the horizon in the Northern hemisphere. Also, the golden section was embedded in the design of the Acropolis and its gates.

The stars may shed new light on the age-old question of the dating of the Acropolis of Alatri: A recent archaeo-astronomical study shows that the Acropolis could not have been built later than 1,270 BC, when the main axis of the city and of the Eastern wall of the Acropolis was aligned to the star Polaris, with the North-West wall aligned to the rising of the Sun on the morning of the Summer equinox and its setting on the Winter solstice.  The same study found evidence of an astronomical clock based on the shadow projected by the sun along the tunnel formed by the lesser gate of the Acropolis, also pointing at a date in the XIII Century BC. [3]

Previous studies had already shown that the shape of the Acropolis almost exactly mirrors the profile of the constellation of Gemini.  Even on a grander scale, the position of the towns of Alatri, Atina, Arpino, Anagni and Ferentino (ancient Antinum) matches the same profile of the constellation of Gemini (or, according to other interpretations that also include several other centers of Lower Latium, the constellation Ursa Maior). [4]

The stepped megalithic Hyeron (altar) on the Acropolis of Segni, also sorrounded by massive cyclopean walls, is a good examples of how the altar on the Acropolis of Alatri would have looked like before the Medieval cathedral was built on top of the older sanctuary. Also at Segni a church was built on top of the original Hyeron, partly reusing the walls of a Roman temple to the Goddess Juno Moneta - Photo by Author
According to tradition, these five cities were founded by a legendary king Saturn (sometimes identified with the God of the same name) and are therefore called “Saturnian Cities”. According to the same legend, the tomb of Saturn was located in the town of Atina, which is also surrounded by imposing cyclopean walls of unknown date. 

Following the renewed interest in the megalithic civilization of Central Italy, even UNESCO has taken an interest in the astronomic alignments of the acropolis of Alatri. [5]
Even UNESCO now acknowledges that the cyclopean walls of Lower Latium may be indeed several centuries older than their assumed dating to the Roman period, and laments the lack of a reliable stratigraphy that may shed more light on their true age. UNESCO defines Alatri as “the most spectacular example of the use of geometry and astronomy in planning” and is considering its inscription as a World Heritage site.

A view of the Hernici Mountains from the Acropolis of Veroli - Photo by Author


[1] Ferdinand Gregorovius, Latian Summers (tr. Dorothea Roberts, 1903), http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/_Texts/ROBLAT/3*.html, accessed January, 2014
[2] Giulio Magli, I Segreti delle Antiche Città Megalitiche, Newton Compton, 2007
[4] Gianluigi Proia and Luigi Cozzi, “Le Città Cosmiche del Lazio”, Mystero n. 33, february 2003, http://www.circei.it/pagina-27.html, accessed January 2014
[5] UNESCO Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy, http://www2.astronomicalheritage.net/index.php/show-entity?identity=27&idsubentity=1, accessed January 2014