The Five Cities of Saturn of Ciociaria | Wild Heart of Italy
PHOTO CREDITS: Silver Compass Tours
Many of the larger mountaintop villages in Ciociaria are in fact the site of the fortresses and sacred temples of two Etruscan tribes who settled the region in Megalithic times – the Ernici (pronounced ‘ern-ee-shee’) and the Volsci (vol-shee).
The ancient Etruscan civilisation sprang up in Central Italy around 900 BC, but just 600 years later their culture was absorbed by the Romans. However it’s still possible to find little pockets of mountaintop villages in this area clinging to long-forgotten traditions and customs that could be seen as an Etruscan echo down through millennia.
The Ernici (referred to as Hernici in Latin, but locals refer to them as Ernici) had urban settlements in Anagni, Alatri, Atina and Ferentino (originally known as Atino), and there was an additional settlement recorded at Veroli (known as Verulae in Roman times). The Volsci were recorded in Arpino and Frosinone.
There were probably many additional settlements for both tribes throughout the Ciociaria region, but these appear to have evaporated into fragments over time with a series of Roman invasions around 300 BC, as the Etruscans mainly preferred constructing their agrestic settlements from wood.
In particular, there were five main capital cities of the Ernici and Volsci tribes – Anagni, Alatri, Arpino, Atina and Atino. You’ll notice that these all start with the letter ‘A’, and while we’re unsure why we do know that the cities are also referred to as the ‘The Five Cities of Saturn’ – or sounding much more romantic in Italian, ‘Le Cinque Città di Saturno’.
Very little evidence remains of the Ernici and Volsci branches of Etruscan civilisation in Ciociaria, apart from the acropolises and the remains of the polygonal temple walls of these major mountaintop centres, which were built to last using local sandstone and limestone.
ANAGNI – SACRED CAPITAL OF THE ERNICI
The first of these cities, Anagni, was known as the ‘City of the Popes’ in the Medieval ages: with five Popes being born in this city in the 12th and 13th centuries and choosing to reside there during their Papacies. Anagni also has strong ties to the Knights Templar. Pre-dating this, it was the most sacred site of the Ernici tribe: and underneath the Catholic Papal cathedral there is a Roman temple, and underneath that lies the original Pagan temple of the Ernici who revered Saturn.
While Anagni was founded by the Pelasgian populations from the Middle East and Greece around 3,000 years ago, archeological digs have revealed that humans have actually been living in the same spot since the Lower Neolithic epoch, with the discovery of flint tools in the area.
The geographic location of the town has constantly inspired its rebirth through the ages as a cultural, religious and political centre. Roman luminaries such as the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus, as well Septimus Severus and his son Caracalla all held residence in Anagni.
Alatri is the site of a massive mountaintop cyclopian acropolis built in the 6th Century BC, and this was another sacred temple site of the Ernici. Underneath the church on top of the mountain, surrounded by groves of trees, is the original Pagan temple which must have been highly significant to the Ernici people of the time.
Three stone gates lead up to the mountain temple, and archeologists have discovered that each gate is built in tune with the planets and stars – much like the sacred Glastonbury site in Britain. The gates of Alatri seem to have been built to monitor the pathway of Saturn in the skies, and the equinoxes.
Adopting Christianity sometime in the 5th Century AD, Alatri suffered a similar fate to Atina and Ferentino in the centuries of the Roman Empire’s collapse with continuous ‘barbarian’ invasions and it didn’t really experience a mild resurgence until the 10th Century AD.
Common to each of these towns is the existence of huge ‘cyclopean’ stone walls, and no-one seems sure who built them – although they are currently attributed to the Pelasgian migration in Megalithic times who became known as the Etruscans, they could potentially be even older.
The Phoenicians are thought to have colonised Italy at some stage, and in Arpino there is a curious triangle arch built into the megalithic walls in the Phoenician style. It is the only remaining example of this arch style in Italy, and the only other existing examples of this kind of polygonal stone engineering are in the Middle East and Peru. Arpino was a town of the Etruscan Volsci tribe, and much later the birthplace of the Roman senator and orator, Cicero as well as the Roman General Gaius Marius and possibly also that of the Roman Consul Marcus Agrippa.
Poor old Atina, there’s not much left to see after it suffered from a series of constant invasions throughout the first Century AD. There are some polygonal walls remaining, and it’s claim to fame is that Emperor Marcus Aurelius once owned a villa there. It also rated a mention in Virgil’s Aeneid…The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is built directly over the remains of the original Ernici temple dedicated to Saturn.
FERENTINO (originally ‘Atino’)
The 2km polygonal Pelasgian walls of the fortified mountaintop town of Ferentino are still impressively standing today. During the Roman empire, Ferentino was one of the favoured resorts of aristocratic Roman families due to its natural sulphuric hot springs. The Empress Flavia Domitilla, wife of Vespasian, was born there.
It was also one of the first towns in Italy to accept Christianity somewhere between 314 and 335 AD. During the decline of the Roman Empire, Ferentino fell to the invading ‘barbarians’ and was largely destroyed. Hannibal is also said to have caused a fair bit of damage to Ferentino when he swept through the Ciociaria region with his troops and 37 elephants during the Second Punic War in the 2nd Century BC.
WATCH: This video from Visit Lazio has some great footage of the polygonal walls at Alatri and Ferentino >>
It has been suggested by traditional legend that the god Saturn himself founded these five cities in the wild heart of Ciociaria. However it is more likely that during the wave of migration from the East into Italy during the Megalithic era (roughly 8,000 BC to 3,000 BC) immigrants brought with them their reverence of Saturn and built the temples in honour of their deity. It is thought the Etruscans were descended from migrants from the highly evolved Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilisations of the time, and their culture possibly originated from either the Hittite, Minoan, Illyrian or Pelasgian civilisations (and possibly a combination of these!).
Not a great deal is known about the Etruscan belief system, as their language has been lost and few writings recorded other than some frescos and inscriptions in tomb sites in the Lazio region. It appears they worshipped and revered both Saturn and nature, heaven and earth.
It is possible they ascribed their beliefs to the Pelasgian creation myth of Eurynome. Interestingly, the name Eurynome means ‘wide wandering’ and probably captures the essence of the vast swathes of mass migration occurring across the planet during the Megalithic era due to — wait for it — rapid climate change.
Eurynome was ‘The Goddess of All Things’ who parted the sky from the sea so she could dance upon the waves. With the serpent Ophion, she gave birth to an egg which, when hatched, split open to create:
Commenting after viewing the frescoes that adorn the Etruscan tombs at Tarquinia in the Lazio region of Central Italy, DH Lawrence wrote:
“You cannot think of art, but only of life itself, as if this were the very life of the Etruscans, dancing in their coloured wraps with massive yet exuberant naked limbs, ruddy from the air and the sea-light, dancing and fluting along the little olive-trees, out in the fresh day.”
In Roman times, although no longer the major deity of worship Saturn was known as the god of agriculture and crops – corresponding to the Greek god Cronus, who was the son of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). The Romans continued to celebrate the pagan winter solstice festival of Saturnalia which was held 17 to 23 December, and where much wine drinking and frolicking was encouraged – and this festival more than likely has Etruscan roots.
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