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Chapter 5. Strange Superstitions in Rome.

IN perusing the first part of the sixth volume of the “Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum,” which contains about a thousand dedications to gods and goddesses,1 found in Rome or in its immediate vicinity, we are struck by the variety and strangeness of names which appear in the roll. No nation has ever shown such liberality in opening the gates of its Olympus to newcomers as the Romans have done. What the Gospel says of the centurion detached at Capernaum, and of his inquiries into the Jewish religion, may be applied to a great many other officers and magistrates in charge of Roman interests in the far-away provinces of the Empire; in fact every soldier, every sailor who came back to his native place, on receiving the “honesta missio,” carried with him fresh superstitions gathered from the more or less civilized lands in which he had kept garrison. Another source of corruption of the simple old Roman religion may be found in the harbors of Ostia and Portus, where thousands of ships landed every year from every corner of the Mediterranean, the crews of which were allowed to worship in their own fashion, under the guidance of their consul, or “proxenos,” who was invested at the same time with the functions of “archiereus,” or high priest. The authorities at Rome, both clerical and civil, tried to stop the invasion of foreign deities and the import of foreign mysteries, with little or no result. I was present many years ago at the discovery of a foreign lodge, or “megarum,” in the harbor of Porto, where the adepts of the worship of Isis and Serapis held their meetings; and in giving an account of the find (in “Bullettino dell' Instituto” of 1868, p. 227) I was led to inquire into the legal condition of these adepts in respect to Roman religious legislation. I must acknowledge that no decided line of action was ever followed in dealing with these intruders. Periods of tolerance succeeded outbursts of persecution, and vice versa, until the adepts were almost forced to seek safety in secrecy.

Hence the great number of “Mithræa,” “Metroa,” “megara,” sacred caves and lodges, found daily in Rome and its neighborhood. We must also remember that when the garrison and the police of Rome were no longer allowed by Septimius Severus to be drafted from the ranks of Roman citizens, but from the semi-barbarian tribes of the lower Rhine and of the lower Danube, the men brought over with them their own gods, their θεοὶπατρῷοι, whom they could worship in their barracks with absolute impunity. This state of things has been beautifully illustrated by the finds made in the barracks of the “Equites Singulares,” in that part of the old Villa Giustiniani, near by the Lateran, which is now crossed by the Via Tasso.

These “Equites Singulares Augusti” formed a select body of horsemen, attached to the person of the Emperor, like our life-guards or “cuirassiers du roi.” They were drafted mostly from amongst the Thracians, the Batavians, the Pannonians, and the Mœsians, in contrast to the Prætorians, who were taken in preference from the Spanish and Gaulish provinces, and even from Italy. The Equites Singulares, who wore helmets without plumes, and carried oval shields, swords, and lances, formed a regiment one thousand strong, divided into two squadrons, quartered respectively in the old barracks (castra priora or vetera) discovered between 1885 and 1887 in the Via Tasso, and the new barracks (castra nova or Severiana) discovered in 1733 or 1734 in the foundations of the Corsini Chapel at the Lateran.

We may gather an idea of the extent of these barracks from the fact that the present church of St. John Lateran and the adjoining palace of Sixtus V. occupy only a section of the last named barracks,2 and we may appreciate the splendor of their fittings and decorations from the works of art which have come to light within their boundaries. Such are the marble chair, now in the Corsini Library, the low reliefs of which represent a procession of warriors, a boar hunt, and sacrificial ceremonies, the work of a Greek chisel; and the marble statue of Bacchus now in the Villa Maravini at Lugano, an illustration of which is here given.

The greatest and happiest event in the life of a Roman soldier was his receiving the “honesta missio,” or honorable discharge, after serving the required number of years. During the Republic the legionaries were bound to serve from sixteen to twenty campaigns, the horsemen only ten. Under Augustus the term for the legionaries was reduced to sixteen years, while the city garrison served for twenty, and the auxiliaries for twenty-five; but as a matter of fact we find soldiers commonly retained in the service as “evocati” long after their legal enlistment had expired, such as T. Cillius from Laranda, who died at the age of seventy after serving thirty-eight years in the eleventh legion, and Claudius Celer from Verona, who had enlisted at twenty and died at sixty-three, without giving up his commission.3 After Hadrian's time soldiers did not obtain their discharge till they had seen twenty-five years' service, but during the last five years they were released from the harder duties. There were three kinds of discharges: the “honesta missio,” when they received the full recompense for their long and faithful services; the “causaria,” when they were dismissed for physical incapacity or sickness; and the “ignominiosa,” when they were ignominiously cashiered and drummed out before the whole army.

The day of the honesta missio, when the men secured either a piece of land or a lump sum of five thousand denarii, or nine hundred dollars, besides the rights of citizenship and of contracting a regular marriage (civitas et connubium), was celebrated by the gallant veterans with a loud display of loyalty towards the Emperor who had signed the decree, and of gratitude towards the gods who had preserved their lives through the hardships and dangers of so many campaigns. As a rule, the veterans discharged on the same day and by the same decree joined forces, and each contributed his own share towards the erection of a monument which took generally the shape of an “ædicula” or shrine when offered to the gods, or that of a statue and a pedestal when offered to the sovereign.

I shall never forget the wonderful sight we beheld on entering the vestibule of the old barracks of the Equites Singulares in the Via Tasso. The noble hall was found to contain forty-four marble pedestals, some still standing in their proper places against the wall facing the entrance, some upset on the marble floor, and each inscribed with the dedicatory inscription on the front and with the list of subscribers on the sides. Some bear dedications to the Emperor commander-in-chief, as, for instance: “To the Genius of our Emperor Antoninus Pius. The Thracians honorably dismissed from the regiment of the Equites Singulares after twenty-five years of service, and whose names are engraved on the sides of this pedestal, have raised by subscription this marble statue on March 1st, the Emperor and Bruttius Præsens being consuls for the second time (A.D. 139).” Then follow thirty-nine names, of which one is original,—Seutheus,—the rest are Latinized.

More difficult must have been the wording of the dedications to the gods, because each of the subscribers had his own “santo protettore,” as we Italians say, and wanted to tender to him, personally, the expression of his gratitude. Sometimes not less than eighteen names of gods occur on a single stone raised by thirty or thirty-five men, of which some are borrowed from the Roman temples, some from the dolmens and menhirs of their native lands. To this last class belong Epona, the goddess of stables and beasts of burden, whose name of Celtic origin is derived from epus, horse; the Fatæ, corresponding in number and nature to the Roman Fates, to the Greek Μοlραι, and to the German Nornir; the Matres or Matronæ, also three in number, haunting the forests watered by the Rhine and the Danube, like the Sulevæ or Suleviæ, female geniuses of those dark and mysterious leafy recesses, addicted to the kidnapping of children; Noreia, the genius of the ancient capital of the Taurisci in Noricum; Toutates and Hercules Magusanus, worshipped by the Batavi; Deus Sabadius, worshipped by the Mœsians; and Beelefarus, worshipped by the dwellers in the land of Moab, conquered by Trajan in 106, and annexed to the Empire under the name of Northern Arabia.

Among the vast crowd of foreign deities worshipped in Rome I shall select three as a subject of study for the present chapter, the Great Mother of the gods, Mithras, and Artemis Taurica, because recent excavations have allowed us to enter over and over again into the secret dens where their worshippers assembled, and to unravel to a certain extent the mysteries of their worship.

For the convenience of those among my readers who have not made a special study of ancient mythology, I shall briefly state, in regard to Rhea or Cybele, that she was supposed to be the mother by Chronos of Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. Hence her Roman title of Magna deûm Mater, the Great Mother of the gods.

Mithras, the god of the sun among the Persians, became popular in Rome under the name of Sol Invictus. He is represented in innumerable works of art as a handsome youth, wearing the Phrygian attire, and slaying a bull which he has brought to the ground.

The Taurian Artemis was an hyperborean goddess, whom the Romans identified with Diana. Her worship was mystic and orgiastic, and connected—at least in early times—with human sacrifices; in fact, all strangers shipwrecked on the coast of Chersonesus Taurica were mercilessly slain on her altar.

Cybele became known to the Romans in 206 B.C., when a meteoric stone considered to represent the goddess was brought over from Pessinus, and placed in a temple raised expressly on the west corner of the Palatine Hill, where its ruins, shaded by a grove of ilexes, stand to the present day. In its first observance the feast of the Great Mother of the gods was a mere thanksgiving for the aid granted to the Roman armies in the Second Punic War; later on it became a display of the most audacious superstition, and gave origin to the gathering of secret societies, imbued with the Phrygian mysteries, in which the beautiful Atys played also an important part. The myth of this youth is rather vague. The version current at Pessinus was that Agdistis, the androgynous offspring of Uranus and Earth, having been mutilated by the gods, an almond-tree sprang from her blood, the fruit of which was gathered by Nana, the daughter of the river-god Sangarius. She bore a son, the fascinating Atys, reared by goats in the mountains, who afterwards fell in love with the royal maiden Sagaritis. Agdistis or Cybele, stung with jealousy, drove him desperate, so that he mutilated himself under a pine-tree, into which his spirit passed. Violets sprang at its foot from the blood. The pine-tree, therefore, wreathed with violets became a sacred emblem of Atys in the wild festivals of Cybele, whose priests were eunuchs.4

Their joint festival in Rome began on March 15, with a procession of men and women carrying the sacred reed of Atys. On March 22 the sacred pine was borne to the temple on the Palatine. March 24 was kept as a “dies sanguinis,” a day of blood, of fast and mourning, when the high priest cut his arm with a knife to commemorate the self-inflicted wound of the god. March 25 was a day of rejoicing, when banquets were given, the extravagance and luxury of which became so intolerable that a maximum of expenditure that would be incurred by the host was fixed by a decree of the Senate of 161 B.C. Lastly, on March 25 a procession of priests followed the sacred image to the first milestone on the road to Ostia, where it was washed in the waters of the river Almo.

By a singular coincidence my career as an excavator and as a student of antiquities began in 1867 under the auspices and with the manifest protection of the Great Mother of the gods.

On May 14 of that year, while my late friend Carlo Ludovico Visconti and I were resting from our morning work in the sacred field of Cybele at Ostia, a workman rushed into our place of shelter with the tidings that a great find was just going to take place. I was then beginning to learn from my companion—the last representative of the Visconti dynasty of archæologists and Pope's “Commissarii delle antichitá”—the gentle art of excavating, for which purpose we used to drive once or twice a week to Ostia, where twenty or thirty hands were employed in exploring those noble ruins: but I had not yet seen with my own eyes a work of statuary come out of the earth.

The sacred field of Cybele is a triangular space of ground, about one acre in extent, with the temple of the goddess at the apex, a colonnade on the right side, and a group of miscellaneous buildings on the other. The men were at work in a recess at the east end of the colonnade when they saw a bronze hand and a marble head appear above the surface of the rubbish. On reaching the spot we left the marble figure to the care of the men, and took upon ourselves the task of setting free the bronze statuette to which the hand belonged. Like the initiated who used to gather together in this field for the celebration of the Megalesia, we shed drops of ichor, as our fingers were bleeding freely at the end of the exhumation.

I need not give a description of the statue, as the accompanying illustration speaks for itself. The original, now in the Lateran Museum, has been identified by Visconti as a Venus “Clotho,” on account of the spindle which he thought she was holding in the right hand; while Helbig thinks the goddess is simply attending to her toilet. “The object in her left hand,” he says, “was evidently the handle of a mirror, in which she was gazing at her image. The attribute on the right, much injured by oxidation, seems to have been a small spatula for laying on rouge.”5

While we were busy welcoming Aphrodite, the men had exhumed the recumbent statue of Atys, which, strange to say, had never left the steps of its altar, nor suffered the slightest injury from time or at the hands of men. According to the inscription of the plinth, the statue was consecrated to the Phrygian god by Gains Cartilius Euplus at the inspiration of the Magna Mater. The bodily form is delicate, almost womanly; the face expresses melancholy resignation rather than suffering. His connection with vegetation is symbolized by the solar rays (modern, but inserted in the five holes originally bored in the marble) round his head, by the crown of pine cones, pomegranates, and other fruit, by the wheat ears and fruit in his right hand, and by the wheat ears springing from the point of the Phrygian cap. I distinctly remember that at the moment of discovery the clothing of the figure retained its original coloring (pink and ultramarine), while the hair, the crescent, and the ears of corn were heavily gilded.

With the finding of these two statues, the surprises which the sacred field of Cybele held in store for us were by no means exhausted: we had still to explore the schola or meeting hall behind the temple, and the Metroon or secret cave on the left side of it, both of which places contained an invaluable set of written records, some relating to the “Collegium Dendrophorum” placed under the invocation of Silvanus, some to the “Collegium Cannophorum,” worshippers of the Phrygian gods. These records referred mostly to gifts of silver statuettes (of Mars, the Mother Earth, Cybele, Atys, etc.) weighing from one to three pounds each, offered to the brotherhood by zealous members or else by the “venerables” of the lodge, both male and female. There were also records of “taurobolia” or sacrifices of bulls to propitiate the gods of the sea at the opening of the navigating season. This interesting place has since been allowed to fall into ruin, and its contents have heedlessly been removed to the Lateran museum.

Twenty Mithraic sanctuaries, at least, have been found and explored in Rome and its vicinity in my time, their main feature being the extreme care taken to conceal their entrance from outsiders. They are to be met with, not only in cities and villages, but also in the most secluded districts of the Campagna, where, it appears, servants and farm-hands were initiated into foreign religious mysteries by their own masters or allowed by them to assemble in lodges. In the spring of the year 1899, while exploring the wild uplands between the Via Collatina and the river Anio, I was told by a shepherd in vague and mysterious terms that a figure of the Madonna had been seen, somewhere in that neighborhood, deep in the bowels of the earth. It took some weeks for my companions and myself to make out where and how the story had originated. On the border of the farm of Lunghezzina, towards the hamlet of Corcolle (Querquetula), we were shown a kind of well, overgrown with shrubs and brambles, which led to the awe-inspiring cave. Letting ourselves down by means of a ladder, we found a dimly lighted passage at the end of which a rock-cut staircase descended to unknown depths. We could not count the steps, as they were covered with mud and rubbish brought down by the filtering of rain-water, but there must have been about forty of them. The steps led to a door, also hewn out of the rock, above which we beheld one of the brightest and best preserved pictures it has been my fate to come across. It represents a mystic subject; and as far as we could see by the flickering light of a candle and in an atmosphere darkened by smoke and damp vapors, the central figure appeared to be Hercules seated on a boulder, with the club by his side, to whom a winged Victory offers a drinking cup. Cupids were flying above the group in a sky dotted with stars. There is no doubt that the door led into the crypt used as a “lodge” by the adepts; however, the want of air and of proper light made it impossible for us to proceed farther, and find out the secret of this remarkable cave.

The lodge of the Mithraic brotherhood in the so-called imperial palace at Ostia discovered by Visconti in 1867 could only be entered by a dark, narrow, and tortuous passage, running back of the kitchen and scullery. The other, which I discovered in the same city in the spring of 1888, within the house of the Ægrilii,—the best preserved of all,—stands entirely apart from the living rooms, and can be reached through a corridor built on purpose against all the Vitruvian rules for a Roman dwelling. The same precautions are manifest in the Mithræum of S. Clemente (see illustration on page 197), and in the one of the Via dello Statuto, which I have described in “Ancient Rome,” p. 192. The cave which perhaps enjoyed the greatest fame at the time of the renaissance of classical studies is the one of the Capitoline Hill, near the great sanctuary of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The particulars concerning this Mithræum are rather interesting.

Flaminio Vacca, who has chronicled all the finds made in Rome in the second half of the sixteenth century, says (Mem. 19, ed. Fea, 1790): “I remember to have seen in my childhood a hole, like a chasm, in the Piazza del Campidoglio; and those who dared to enter it said that there was a woman sitting on a bull. I happened to mention the subject one day to my master, Vincenzo de Rossi, and he said he had seen the place; that it contained a bas-relief set into the rock in a cave which cut through the hill from the Arch of Severus to the steps of the Aracœli; and that the bas-relief represented the Rape of Europa.” We can easily forgive those simple explorers for their mistake; the woman on the bull, the Europa of Master Vincenzo de Rossi, was nothing else but the image of Mithras Tauroctonos, that is, of Mithras slaying the bull. These things happened in 1548. Shortly afterwards, on September 4, 1550, another explorer found his way to the cave. I have discovered a memorandum of this incident in a manuscript note to a copy of Lucio Fauno's “Antichità della città di Roma,” now in the possession of the Cavaliere Giulio Vaccai, of Pesaro. The memorandum, which must have been written by a Franciscan brother of the convent of the Aracœli, says:—

“While I was in Rome in the Anno Santo or jubilee of 1550, I descended with some of my brother monks carrying lighted torches into a crypt under the marble steps which lead to our church of the Aracœli. Here we found the mouth of a cave, shaped like a vaulted corridor, from which the wind blew in such force that it was difficult to keep the torches lighted; and proceeding farther we came to the foundations of the ‘Palace of the Cæsars’ [he means of a noble building] where are baths of wonderful beauty, and quite well preserved. Lastly, we entered a hall, the ceiling of which was covered with reliefs in stucco: there were benches and seats round three sides of the hall, while on the fourth side, opposite the entrance door, we saw a great piece of marble representing a bull caught by the horns, etc.”

The name of Lo Perso given to this cave in the middle ages, is truly surprising, because it betrays an archæological knowledge remarkable for that age, Lo Perso being a manifest allusion to the Persian origin of the god. The name occurs not only in the epigraphic MSS. of Cola di Rienzo, Nicolas Signorili, and Ciriaco d' Ancona, but also in the legal deeds of notaries and magistrates. I have found, for instance, in the records of Giovanni Angelo de Amatis, a notary of the fifteenth century, the account of a judgment delivered on May 31, 1456, by two city officers, Battista de' Lenis and Paolo Astalli, sitting on a wooden bench…“in tribio dicto lo Perso.” It seems that before the collapse of the underground sanctuary, which must have taken place soon after the visit of Master Vincenzo de Rossi, the bas-relief was removed to a place of safety. Pignorio saw it in 1606 in the Piazza del Campidoglio. It passed afterwards into the Borghese Collection, whence it was stolen by the French in 1808. It is now exhibited in the Louvre.

The late Commendatore de Rossi has pointed out first of all, I believe, that the existence of many Mithræa and Metroa near or under the great sanctuaries of pagan and Christian Rome cannot be accidental. De Rossi thinks that the members of these brotherhoods sought deliberately and intentionally the contact of the Capitol and of the Vatican, in their attempt to counteract, as it were, the influence of those two great centres of Roman religion. I may add that the Mithræum called Lo Perso, which I have just mentioned, was by no means the only one bored in the rock of the Capitoline Hill. When the carriage road, known as the Salita delle Tre Pile,—from the three pots, or “pignatte,” which form the coat of arms of Pope “Pignattelli,” Innocent XII., the maker of the road,—was repaired and enlarged in 1873, I found, on January 3, a staircase cut out of the rock, at the back of the garden which formerly belonged to Michelangelo's house, and a small cave, at the bottom of the stairs, which contained the Mithraic bas-relief published in “Bullettino Comunale,” vol. i. p. 114, plate iii. The cave must have been a private one, judging from its small size, and from the absence of the side benches, where the members usually sat according to the degree they had gained in the lodge. There were seven degrees in all, marked not by numbers, but by a name in the following order: I. corax, raven; II. cryphius (κ ρύϕιος), secret; III. miles, soldier; IV. leo, lion; V. Perses, Persian; VI. heliodromus (ἡλιόδρομος) sun-runner; and VII. pater, the venerable of the lodge. This is the reason why the pavement of the lodge found at Ostia in 1888 in the house of the Ægrilii is divided by bands of black mosaic into as many compartments as there were degrees of initiation. The promotion from one to another could not be obtained unless the candidate had successfully withstood certain trials, which are beautifully illustrated in a bas-relief found near Botzen, and published by Layard.

I must acknowledge, however, that the contact between these dens of mystery and the pagan or Christian sanctuaries above ground was not always sought by the sectaries: sometimes the reverse took place, and the sacred caves were given up to the Christians, to be purified under the name of the true God. Such was the case with the Mithræum of Alexandria, which, having been abandoned for some time by the initiated, was given by the Emperor Constantius to the local congregation in 361. And while the Christians were searching the place, and investigating how it could be turned into a church, they found a secret passage containing human bones, believed to be remains of human sacrifices. These ghastly relics were shown to the populace, together with the uncanny representations of the Mithras leontokephalos, Mithras-stone, etc.; but as the population was still essentially pagan, and addicted to all sorts of mysterious practices, the revelation of the secrets of the Mithræum gave rise to the outbreak described by Socrates and Sozomenos, followed by pillage, arson, and murder. The scheme for raising a church on the site of the Mithræum, put aside for the time being, was taken up once more in 389, by Bishop Theophilos, and again the attempt was followed by a revolution, in the course of which hundreds of Christians fell the victims of the infuriated mob.

When the work for the erection of the national monument to King Victor Emmanuel on the Capitol began in 1883, we felt sanguine that the many and vexed problems connected with the topography of the famous hill would soon find their solution. The results have been rather disappointing, except as regards the respective location of Jupiter's temple (Capitolium) and of the Citadel (Arx), which has been made clear, beyond the least shade of doubt. The temple stood on the southwest summit, now occupied by the Caffarelli palace, the Citadel on the site of the Aracœli. The latest link in the chain of evidence was obtained in November, 1892, with the finding of a pedestal, the dedicatory inscription of which begins with the words: “Flaviæ Epicha(ridi) sacerdotiæ deæ virginis cælesti(s), præsentissimo numini loci Montis Tarpei,” etc. (To Flavia Epicharis, a priestess of the Dea Cælestis, the protecting deity of the Tarpeian hill, etc.). The grammar of the text is uncertain and the spelling decidedly wrong, but the meaning is interesting. We learn from this inscription that another meeting place of a mysterious sect had been established November, 259 A.D., on the side of the hill, the precipitous face of which was known by the name of the Tarpeian Rock; that the members of the lodge were of the female sex, except the chaplain, a certain Junius Hylas, who happened to be the husband of Flavia Epicharis herself; that they were organized in degrees, two of which were named of the sacratœ and of the canistrariœ; and lastly, that the titular goddess of the lodge was the Virgo Cœlestis, a Roman representative of the Phœnician Astarte, and of the Carthaginian Juno, whose worship was first introduced into Rome by Scipio, at the close of the Third Punic War. It is possible that at so late a period as the one to which the inscription of Flavia Epicharis belongs, when religious syncretism was so highly in favor, the name of Virgo Cælestis may have been attributed to Juno, the true Roman Juno, to whom the northeast summit of the hill was especially sacred.

Among the points which these excavations have failed to make clear is that concerning the site of the corner-stone of the great temple of Jupiter, laid on June 1, A.D. 71, and the consequent burial of an enormous mass of gold and silver in the heart of the hill. As the subject is rather new and of considerable interest for the excavators of antique edifices, I beg leave to enter into more particulars.

The old temple of Jupiter, the cathedral as it were of ancient Rome, designed by Tarquinius the Elder, finished by his son, and dedicated by the consul M. Horatius Pulvillus, on September 13, 509 B.C., stood erect for four hundred and twenty-six years. An unknown malefactor, taking advantage of the inflammable material of which the temple was built, set fire to it, and reduced it to a heap of ashes on July 6, 86 B.C.

Its reconstruction was intrusted, first, to Q. Lutatius Catulus, later to Julius Cæsar. The inscription of Ancyra mentions a second restoration by Augustus.

During the civil disturbances of Vitellius the Capitolium was burnt to the ground for the third time. Vespasian inaugurated the works of reconstruction, carrying away on his shoulders a basketful of rubbish, which, according to the direction of the augurs, was dumped into a marsh.

The following details about the laying of the cornerstone, on June 21, A.D. 71, are given by Tacitus in chapter 52 of the fourth book of the “Historiæ.”

The space set apart for the ceremony was marked out with masts and pennants, from which hung festoons of evergreens, and garlands of flowers. The troops on duty reached the sacred enclosure in the first hours of the morning, under a cloudless sky, carrying branches of palm and laurel instead of the weapons of war. They were soon followed by the Vestal Virgins, clad in their white garments, and attended by sons and daughters of patrician families, sprinkling the enclosure with lustral water which they had drawn from clear springs. The high priest, Plautius Ælianus, then offered the sacrifice of the Suovetaurilia, which consisted of a sow, a sheep, and a bull, while the prætor Helvidius Priscus called down the blessings of the three Capitoline deities, Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, on the enterprise. The prayer being over, Priscus touched the gaily ribboned ropes with which the inaugural stone was bound, and then magistrates, priests, senators, knights, soldiers, and people dragged the great block to the edge of the shaft into which it was to be sunk. The same classes of citizens then marched past the shaft, each individual dropping into the cavity a votive offering, consisting mainly of gold and silver nuggets “as they come from the mines, not worked by hand.”

We can easily appreciate the value of the treasure buried in the heart of the Capitoline Hill on June 21, 71 A.D. It represents the spontaneous offering of the greatest city in the world, of a population of about a million souls, full of religious enthusiasm, and impatient to see the august temple rise again from its ashes. Thousands and thousands of pounds' worth of gold and silver must have been sunk at the bottom of the inaugural well. Now it may interest the reader to know that this invaluable treasure has never been discovered to the present day.

The platform of the temple on which the Caffarelli palace (now the seat of the German Embassy) was built in the seventeenth century has never been disturbed until comparatively recent times. When Martin Heemskerk drew his celebrated panorama of Rome in 1536, the Monte Caprino—as the Capitol was then called—was covered with vineyards and gardens. Excavations began after the middle of the sixteenth century, the results of which are minutely described by contemporary archæologists. Blocks of Pentelic marble were found belonging to the peristyle of the temple, of such size that Flaminio Vacca was able to cut out of one of them the great lion now in the vestibule of the Villa Medici. The platform itself was not touched until about 1680, when the Duke Caffarelli removed (partially) the fourteen upper layers of stones. Other damage was inflicted in more recent times.

Now, if the treasure had been detected in one of these excavations we surely should know about it. A find of this sort which requires the connivance of several workmen, and produces a sudden rise in the fortunes of one or more families, cannot be kept concealed; and if we possess genuine accounts of treasure hunting and treasure trove from the darkest period of the middle ages and from the remotest parts of the City, so much more probably should we have heard of this one, the most amazing of all, in a spot located under the very eyes of the magistrates of the City. And besides, the “Historiæ” of Tacitus, the only document stating the facts of the case, was unknown to literary men before the middle of the fifteenth century, when Poggio Bracciolini discovered the text in the library of Monte Cassino. In all probability, therefore, the vast mass of gold and silver is still awaiting the hand destined to exhume it from its hiding-place.

It is time, however, that we should turn our attention towards the sanctuary of the Scythian Diana at Nemi, the last of the three mysterious deities mentioned at the beginning of the chapter.

The Lake of Nemi lies at the bottom of one of the craters of the Alban range, which measures six miles in circumference at the top of the cliffs and four at the water's edge. Its altitude above the sea is 191 metres, the depth in the centre 36 metres. When the worship of Diana was first established on its shores, and all through the classic period of Roman history, the aspect of the place was very different from its present appearance. There were then no villages teeming with life, no fields yielding the choicest produce of the earth, no villas, no farms, nothing but primeval forests casting their shadows over the silent waters.

The lake was formed many centuries before the extinction of the last volcano of the Alban range (Monte Pila). We may easily imagine what an awe-inspiring place it must have appeared when the mountains around were shaken from their foundations by outbursts of incandescent lava, when the skies were heavy with ashes and smoke, and the thundering of the “boati,” reverberating from cliff to cliff, from mountain to mountain, was heard as far as Rome. “Vox ingens,” Livy calls it, “vox ingens e luco et summo mon tis cacumine!” No wonder that such a frightful retreat should have been selected for the seat of a mysterious worship, that of the Scythian Diana, the origin of which is variously explained by Strabo, by Servius, and by Pausanias. The worship seems to have been imported from the Chersonesus Taurica (Crimea), the abode of rude, savage tribes, addicted to piracy as well as to the veneration of Artemis, or, according to their own statement, of Iphigenia. The principal rule of the sanctuary by the Lake of Nemi was, in fact, truly barbaric and worthy of the Scythians; no one could be elected high priest unless he had slain with his own hands the one who, by a similar deed, had obtained the dignity before him. It is evident, therefore, that the thoughts of the unfortunate priest must have been directed more to the preservation of his life than to the service of the goddess. This extraordinary rite was still flourishing at the time of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, but the duels were generally confined to runaway slaves, one of whom would escape, for the time being, the fate to which, nevertheless, he was doomed.

In the palace of the Count of Montenegro at Palma, Majorca, there is a bas-relief three and a half feet long and two feet high, of archaic workmanship, discovered in 1791 by Cardinal Despuig near the mouth of the outlet of the lake, at the place called “le Mole di Valle Ariccia,” and reproduced by Sir William Gell in his “Topography of Rome,” p. 327. It is considered to represent the issue of one of these duels; the high priest, wounded to death by his rival, lies on the ground holding with his right hand the intestines which are protruding from the gash. The successful antagonist, brandishing the bloody poniard, is surrounded by four female attendants of the temple, in attitudes expressive of the greatest distress. The prohibitory laws of Valentinian II. and Theodosius must have put an end to the practice in A.D. 393.6

The temple of the Scythian goddess, to whom human sacrifices were offered in times gone by, rose in the midst of the great forest on the north side of the lake, at the foot of the craggy boulder on which the village of Nemi is now perched. Judging from her figure, as given upon an ancient vase, the statue of the goddess seems to have been an almost shapeless stone, with a rude head, and one arm resting upon a sword. Before the sanctuary expands the lonely lake, fed by the same springs which are now forced up to fill the reservoir at Albano. The temple stands not much higher than the lake, and might have been easily flooded except for a wonderful emissary by which the waters are kept at a fixed level. The emissary, therefore, must be the work of a very remote age, and this explains why no mention of it is to be found in ancient writers. The tunnel is 1,649 yards long, irregular in shape and direction. It is possible that the temple may have been built on the newly claimed land in commemoration of the almost marvellous drainage of the lake.

Though nothing in the present day can exceed the beauty and loveliness of this “Mirror of Diana,” as the ancients called it, where fragrant strawberry fields have succeeded to the ancient forest, and life and thrift to the wilderness of old days, its chief celebrity has arisen from the discovery at the bottom of the lake of two ships of great size, and as rich and beautiful as an enchanted palace.

Besides insignificant attempts made frequently by local boatmen and fishermen, a regular search for the mysterious wrecks has been undertaken four times, the first by Leone Battista Alberti, at the time of Eugenius IV. (1431–1439); the second by Francesco de Marchi in 1535; the third by Annesio Fusconi in 1827; the last by Eliséo Borghi in 1895, which has not yet been brought to a close.

Flavio Biondo da Forli, in his “Italia Illustrata,” relates that Cardinal Prospero Colonna, who counted among the fiefs of the family both Nemi and Genzano, had often heard from his tenants and fishermen the story of two immense ships sunk deep in the water, so strong and well preserved as to resist all attempts made to float them or to demolish them piece by piece. Prospero being a learned prelate for his days, and very studious of history and ancient remains, determined to find out why two such large craft should have been launched on a narrow sheet of water, enclosed by mountains on every side, and to what causes their wreck should be attributed. He sought the help of the “Vitruvio Fiorentino,” the engineer and mechanician, Leone Battista Alberti, who built a raft of beams and empty barrels to support the machinery by means of which the explorations could be made. Skilful smiths prepared hooks, like four-pointed anchors, hung to chains, to be wound up by capstans; and seamen from Genoa, “who looked more like fish than men,” were called to adjust the hooks on and around the prow of the first ship. The immense weight of the wreck baffled their efforts; the chains broke; many of the hooks were lost, and the few that were successfully hauled up brought to the surface fragments, which filled the assistants with marvel and admiration. It was seen that the framework of the vessel, ribs and decks, was of larchwood; that the sides were made of boards three inches thick, caulked with tar and pieces of sail, and protected by sheets of lead fastened with copper nails. Alberti's description of the inside is rather obscure. He says the decks were built more to resist fire and the violence of men than to withstand the rain, or the gentle waves of the lake. He speaks of an iron framework supporting a floor of concrete, and also of a lead pipe upon which the name of the Emperor Tiberius was engraved.

Guillaume de Lorraine and Francesco de Marchi renewed the attempt in July, 1535. Guillaume had just invented a diving-bell, or something like it, and was trying experiments on the wreck. De Marchi went down first on July 15, and looking through the convex glass of the spy-holes, which acted like lenses, was horrified at the sight of hundreds of fishes three feet long and as big round as his arm. They were nothing but “lattarini” or “whitebait,” sixty or seventy of which are required to make a pound. At his second descent de Marchi remained one hour in the bell. His operations and doings are cleverly described by himself in a curious chapter which is too full of details to be repeated here. He concludes by saying that the ship was four hundred and seventy-five feet long, two hundred and twenty-eight feet broad, and fifty-three feet high.

It is not necessary to dwell on the absurdity of these figures; but the true ones, as we shall presently see, are none the less surprising if we consider the difficulties of building and launching the huge craft in such an awkward funnel-shaped hole, and of floating and manœuvring them in such a diminutive sheet of water.

The third attempt was made in 1827 by Annesio Fusconi, who has left an account of his doings in a pamphlet which has become exceedingly scarce. Fusconi sunk some twelve hundred pounds in the experiment, half the amount being wasted on a threatrical “mise en scène” for the accommodation of diplomatists, noblemen, and prelates, who were to witness the beginning of the operations on September 10 of that year.

The enterprise was tried for the fourth time in 1895. The search made by divers led to the discovery of six mooring-rings of solid bronze, representing heads of lions, wolves, and tigers, and one of Medusa, to which objects a prominent place has already been given in the history of Greco-Roman art, so exquisitely beautiful are they in moulding and finish.

Let me declare at the outset that the finding of an ancient ship in good preservation is by no means an extraordinary event among us. Three have already been discovered in my lifetime,—the first in 1876, when the foundations of the iron bridge at “la Ripetta” were sunk in the Tiber by means of compressed air. The craft was so deeply embedded in silt and mud, and the section which fell within the range of the air-cylinder so small, that no investigation could be made.

The second was discovered at Porto d' Anzio in 1884 in the foundations of the Hôtel delle Sirene. The mainmast, part of the rudder, and part of the keel, with fragments of the ribs, were exposed to view. If I remember rightly, Cavaliere Pietro Jonni, the builder of the hotel, had some pieces of furniture made out of the wreck.

In the spring of 1885, about two miles west of Astura,—an island and a castle on the Pontine coast well known in the history of Cicero, Augustus, and Conradin von Hohenstaufen,—and about fifty yards from the shore, which is there very shelving, a fisherman discovered the wreck of a Roman trading-ship, the hull of which was filled with amphoræ, or earthen jars, which were used in the shipment of wine from the islands to the continent.

Crustacea of various kinds had cemented in the course of centuries the whole mass into a kind of coralliferous rock, from which it was very hard to extricate an amphora without breaking it, yet four or five beautiful and perfect specimens were saved, which can be seen at present in the grounds of the Villa Sindici at Porto d' Anzio. See “Ancient Rome,” p. 252.

In each of these cases, however, we had to deal with fishing or trading ships of small tonnage and hardly fifty feet in length. Very different is the case of the Lake of Nemi; and we are not far from right if we compare the vessels which plied on its waters in centuries gone by to the liners which crossed the Atlantic twenty years ago.

The measurements of the wrecks have been taken very ingeniously by the head-diver and his assistant under the direction of the eminent naval engineer Cavaliere Vittorio Malfatti, to whom we are indebted for an excellent report on the subject of these discoveries, and for exquisite illustrations of the ship.7 Floaters, tied to strings, were fastened at short intervals around the edge of the woodwork, care being taken to draw the string tightly so as to have the floater absolutely perpendicular above the point below. When the operation was finished the people on shore were surprised to see the form, or horizontal section, of a great ship appear on the surface of the lake. (See cut on page 205.)

The exactitude of the proceedings was verified at a subsequent period by measurements taken directly on the wreck itself. The length between the perpendiculars has been ascertained to be two hundred feet, the beam about sixty feet. The depth of hull cannot be measured on account of the silt which fills it to the level of the deck.

The deck itself must have been a marvellous sight to behold. The fanciful naval engineer who designed and built these floating palaces must have been allowed to follow the most extravagant flights of his imagination without regard to time and expense. The deck is paved with disks of porphyry and serpentine not thicker than a quarter of an inch, framed in segments and lines of white, gold, red, and green enamel. The parapets and railings are cast in metal, and heavily gilded; lead pipes inscribed with the name of Caligula carried the water to the fountains playing amid-ship and mixing their spray with the gentle waves of the lake. There are other rich decorations, the place of which in the general plan of the vessel has not been yet made clear.

The second ship appears to be even larger. One of the beams brought ashore measures eighty-five feet, although broken at one of the ends. The length between the perpendiculars probably exceeds two hundred and fifty feet. An Atlantic liner of such dimensions would have been considered almost gigantic a quarter of a century ago. We knew that the ancients, especially the Syracusans, had built large and wonderful vessels, but we were not prepared to find a monster two hundred and fifty feet long with marble terraces, enamelled decks, shrines, fountains, and hanging gardens in a little speck of water, hardly four thousand feet in diameter. We must remember in dealing with this question that the quinqueremis, the typical man-of-war of the ancients, from the end of the third century B.C. downwards, with her complement of three hundred and ten oarsmen, measured only one hundred and sixty-eight feet in length, twenty-six feet in breadth, with a height above water of fifteen feet and a draught of eleven and a half feet.

I am sure the kind reader would be pleased to know why two such great ships should have been launched on “Diana's mirror,” between the years 37 and 41 of the Christian era, under the rule of Caligula, whose name is engraved on the water pipes. I am inclined to believe that they were the property not of the state or of the Emperor, but of the sanctuary of Artemis Taurica, the remains of which, excavated by the Frangipani in 1554 and 1737, by the Orsini in 1856, by Lord Savile Lumley in 1885, and by Luigi Boccanera in 1887, are still to be seen commanding the north shore at a place called il Giardino. I believe also that they were used not so much for the conveyance of pilgrims from shore to shore, as for religious ceremonies and for combined processions on land and on water. If we live to see the ships floated again, or beached on the sandy margin of the lake, no doubt they will reveal to us the secret of their origin and of their fate.

  • 1.

    Pars prima Inscriptiones Sacrœ, pp. 1–150, nn. 1–871 (appendix, nn. 3671–3744a). Two or three hundred more have been found since 1876.

  • 2.

    The church is cut in two by a Roman street, which runs parallel with the transept of Clement VIII., passes under the canopy of Urban V., and leads to a postern in the walls of Aurelian below the “Giardino dei Penitenzieri.” Constantine, after disbanding (the Prætorians and) the Singulares, made a present of their empty barracks to Pope Miltiades in 313, for the erection of the “Mother and Head of all the churches of the city and of the world,” and gave up also a small section of his own imperial Lateran palace, west of the street.

  • 3.

    Corpus Inscr. vol. iii. nn. 2834, 2818.

  • 4.

    “The myth symbolizes the growth of life in nature, especially of plant and tree life, its death and its resurrection, as well as the twofold character of natural production, the male and the female.” Marindin, in Smith's Classical Dictionary, ed. 1894, p. 149.

  • 5.

    Compare Visconti, in Annal. Inst., 1869, p. 216, and Helbig, Guide, Eng. ed., 1895, vol. i. p. 515.

  • 6.

    Modern archæologists disagree as to the interpretation of the bas-relief.

  • 7.

    Published in the Rivista Marittima, June, 1896, and July, 1897, under the title, “Le navi Romane del lago di Nemi,” part i., ii.

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