Sunday, January 4, 2009


Abraham Ortelius, in Parergon, Antwerp, 1595

Osher Collection, University of Southern Maine

This map depicts the central region of Italy inhabited by the ancient Latins. A miniature plan of the walled city of Rome is seen at its western border. An insert view at the lower left depicts the Circaean Promontory, described in the Aeneid as the home of the enchantress Circe, who changed the companions of Odysseus into swine.


Between the steep scarp of the Appennine ridges and the outlying Ausonian mountains, the Valle Latina provides an excellent low level inland route north from Campania. It debouches into a wide plain from which rise two large volcanic uplands, the Monti Sabatini and the Alban hills. Between these flow the perennial and navigable Tiber, and its tributary the Anio, whose headwaters form a rare east-west route across the mountain spine of the peninsula. A relatively heavy rainfall has furrowed the sides of the volcanoes with a radial pattern of deeply incised gullies, between which are many defensive sites. In the eighth to sixth centuries these were occupied by the numerous small agricultural settlements of an Italic people whose copious archaeological remains are now usually called Latial. Over the last twenty years it has become clear from sites like Castel di Decima and Osteria dell’ Osa that their society was prosperous and complex, as well as distinct from the Hellenised Etruscans to the north and in Campania, and from the other Italic peoples.

Near the Tiber—which served both as a route to the interior and as port of entry for overseas cultural influences—the terrain is flatter, though not very fertile. This is the distinctive landscape of the Roman Campagna, an area virtually uninhabited in large tracts almost within living memory, but in the imperial period the teeming hinterland of Rome: it was crisscrossed by a network of local and long-distance roads, which gave access to suburban communities, dormitory towns, villas and horticultural areas. This unique human landscape was the product of Rome’s astonishing success as an imperial capital. Her cultural and political achievement was founded upon her nodal position on the navigable Tiber: in the Latial period this had given her the hegemony of the towns of the region, as well as a prosperity which even in the sixth century made her one of the larger cities of the western Mediterranean.

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