Ferdinand Gregorovius, a German historian best known for his studies on medieval Rome, spent some days at Anzio in
June 1854; from that port on the Tyrrhenian Sea he saw Mount Circeo at the end of a long and sandy coast. He was fascinated by the view of this isolated mountain which is named after Circe, the witch-goddess who turned Ulysses' comrades into hogs (The Odyssey - Book X).
Gregorovius went nearer to the mountain by walking to Nettuno and Torre Astura, but only in 1873, almost 20 years later and when he was about to return to Germany, he set foot on it. He described his visit in Das Kap der Circe (Circe's Cape), an account he wrote for a German paper.
(above) Mt. Circeo seen from Monte S. Angelo at Terracina;
S. Felice is located on a terrace at the southern (left in the photo) end of the mountain;
(below) S. Felice with Palazzo Caetani on the right side of the image
If the traveller can spare a day he may hire a boat, and sail along the coast to the promontory of Circe, which forms so conspicuous a feature in his prospect and appears from Terracina as Homer and Virgil poetically describe it, a real island. As he ranges over its lofty cliffs he will recollect the splendid fictions of the one, and the harmonious lines of the other. He may traverse the unfrequented groves, but instead of the palace of Circe he will discover the lonely village of Santa Felicita, a few solitary towers hanging over the sea.
John Chetwode Eustace - A Classical Tour through Italy in 1802
The charm of Mt. Circeo lies in the myth of Circe, the witch-goddess skilled in all enchantments, but with little love for human-kind. She reigned over Aeaea, the island of death, and she was mentioned in Homer's Odyssey; according to a Roman tradition, Mt. Circeo, which because of its isolation has the appearance of an island, was Aeaea. Virgil, in describing the arrival of Aeneas on the shores of Latium, wrote: Proxima Circaeae raduntur litora terrae (Now near the shelves of Circe's shores they run - The Aeneid - Book VII - translation by John Dryden).
In his account Gregorovius made many references to the myth of Circe, which is summarized here below following Robert Graves' account of Odysseus' (Ulysses) meeting with Circe (The Greek Myths - Penguin Books - 1955):
"Odysseus (who was escaping from the land of the Laestrygones with a sole vessel) after a long voyage reached Aeaea, the Island of Dawn, ruled over by the goddess Circe, daughter of Helius and Perse and thus sister to Aeetes, king of Colchis. When lots were cast to decide who should stay to guard the ships and who should reconnoitre the island, Odysseus's mate Eurylochus was chosen to go ashore with twenty-two others. He found Aeaea rich in oaks and other forest trees, and at last came upon Circe's palace, built in a wide clearing towards the centre of the island. Wolves and lions prowled around her, but instead of attacking Eurylochus and his party, stood upright on their hind legs and caressed them. One might have taken these beasts for human beings, and so indeed they were, though thus transformed by Circe's spells.
Circe sat in her hall, singing to her loom and, when Eurylochus's party raised a halloo, stepped out with a smile and invited them to dine at her table. All entered gladly, except Eurylochus himself who, suspecting a trap, stayed behind and peered anxiously in at the windows. The goddess set a mess of cheese, barley, honey, and wine before the hungry sailors; but it was drugged, and no sooner had they begun to eat than she struck their shoulders with her wand and transformed them into hogs. Grimly then she opened the wicket of a sty, scattered a few handful of acorns and cornel-cherries on the miry floor, and left them there to wallow.
Eurylochus came back, weeping, and reported this misfortune to Odysseus, who seized his sword and went off, bent on rescue, though without any settled plan in his head. To his surprise he encountered the god Hermes, who greeted him politely and offered him a charm against Circe's magic: a scented white flower with a black root, called moly, which only the gods can recognize and cull. Odysseus accepted the gift gratefully and, continuing on his way, was in due course entertained by Circe. When he had eaten his drugged meal, she raised her wand and struck him on the shoulder. 'Go join your comrades in the sty', she commanded. But having surreptitiously smelt the moly flower, he remained unenchanted, and leaped up, sword in hand. Circe fell weeping at his feet. 'Spare me', she cried, 'and you shall share my couch and reign in Aeaea with me!'. Well aware that witches have power to enervate and destroy their lovers, by secretly drawing off their blood in little bladders, Odysseus exacted a solemn oath from Circe not to plot any further mischief against him. This oath she swore by the blessed gods and, after giving him a deliciously warm bath, wine in golden cups, and a tasty supper served by a staid housekeeper, prepared to pass the night with him in a purple coverleted bed. Yet Odysseus would not respond to her amorous advances until she consented to free not only his comrades, but all the other sailors enchanted by her. Once this was done, he gladly stayed in Aeaea until she had borne him three sons, Agrius, Latinus and Telegonus."
Latinus is the link between the Greek and the Roman myths, as he was the ancestors of the Latins.
Section near the sea of a canal which in summer is turned into a marina
In order to reach Mt. Circeo Gregorovius first went to Terracina where he spent the Easter Week; he was then persuaded to rent a boat because the path along the coast was dangerous owing to the presence of buffaloes in the wild. These imposing animals were used from time to time to dredge the canals dug at the time of Pope Pius VI in an attempt to reclaim the Pontine Marshes which surrounded Mt. Circeo. In his account Gregorovius described a scene he saw on his way back to Rome, when herds of buffaloes were forced to walk inside a canal so that they destroyed the vegetation which hampered the passage of water; these scenes were depicted in many paintings by Charles Coleman and his son Henry (you may wish to see one of them in another window);
the men who forced the buffaloes into the canal stood on flat boats which can be seen in this old photograph
(opens in another window).
Today the canals are utilized for mooring luxury boats and the countryside around Mt. Circeo is known for its excellent buffalo mozzarella.
The boat carrying Gregorovius and a local guide was propelled by four oarsmen; they left Terracina before dawn and after three hours they landed on the beach near Torre Vittoria, one of a series of coastal towers built in the XVIth century to prevent raids by Ottoman corsairs from Tunis or Algiers. The towers continued to be garrisoned until the fall of the Papal State in 1870. Today some of them have been turned into luxury second homes.
(left) Polygonal walls; (right) Porta Vecchia (Old Gate)
From Torre Vittoria Gregorovius and his guide walked to San Felice, a very small town built on a terrace of the mountain. Mt. Circeo was populated very early; evidence of prehistoric settlements (and even a Neanderthal man's skull) has been found in many caves; Gregorovius knew that in antiquity the site of today's San Felice was fortified and during his studies on medieval Rome he found out that the name San Felice was rather recent and it replaced Rocca Circei (castle of Circeo). Minor evidence of polygonal walls (typical of many nearby towns such as Terracina and Norba) can still be seen at the foot of the medieval walls which protected San Felice.
According to Gregorovius the castle on Mt. Circeus was conquered by the Frangipane, a powerful Roman family, in the XIIth century when they also seized the highest tower of Terracina. In 1259 the castle was recorded as being assigned to the Knights Templar who in turn in 1301 were forced by Pope Boniface VIII to sell it to members of his family, the Caetani, who at the same time acquired several other fiefdoms in the area including Sermoneta.
(left) Tower of Palazzo Caetani; (right-above) decorative motif of Sicilian origin (also in the image used as background for this page);
(right-below) clock with one hand which indicated the "Italian hour"
The Caetani sold San Felice to the Ruspoli in 1713 when they also sold their palace in Via del Corso. The Papal Government however decided to exert their pre-emption rights and San Felice became a direct property of the State. In 1808 the fiefdom was acquired by Prince Stanislaw Poniatowski, nephew of Stanislaw August II, the last King of Poland, who in Rome lived at Villa Sinibaldi Poniatowski. According to Gregorovius the prince did a lot to improve the living conditions of the inhabitants of San Felice until he left Rome for Florence in 1822.
Trees and flowers at Quarto Caldo
One of the reasons for the prehistoric settlements of Mt. Circeo lies in its island-like climate, especially in the south-western section which enjoys long hours of sunshine and is protected from north-eastern cold winds.
During the last glaciation, when a Siberian tundra covered Central Europe and the Alps were just one large glacier, the caves of Mt. Circeo provided our ancestors with an environment where living conditions were less harsh than in other parts of Italy.
This part of Mt. Circeo is therefore known as Quarto Caldo (Hot Quarter) and it is one of the northernmost locations where the Mediterranean dwarf palm can be found in Italy. Today the owners of second homes at Quarto Caldo have plenty of choices on how to decorate their gardens.
Mt. Circeo was chosen by Marcus Aurelius Lepidus for his golden retirement when Augustus forced him to give up his political role.
The lighthouse on the southernmost point of the coast
Gregorovius would have liked to reach the northern side of Mt. Circeo by walking along the coast, but he had to give up because the path was too narrow and there were some high rocks to climb. It was a great disappointment to him and a sign of age; in other accounts he had written in his early thirties he had let his readers understand he was "nimble of foot" and had a strong build which allowed him to take long walks and rides and running from Norba down to Ninfa on a straight line.
Southern side of Monte Circeo: rocks at sea level (above) and at the top of the mountain (below); according to Virgil the rocks resounded Circe's
Gregorovius was a man of 52 at the time of this account and he was about to leave Rome for Munich where he had accepted a position at the local university. Two years earlier in 1871 he had published the last tome of The History of Rome in the Middle Ages which made him an acclaimed historian; in 1872 the City of Rome decided to publish an Italian translation of Gregorovius' work; this irritated the Catholic Church, because the portraits of many popes made by Gregorovius were anything but flattering, and The History of Rome was included in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of publications prohibited by the Catholic Church.
The beach near the ferry harbour and in the background Zanone (centre) and Ponza (right)
Nearly opposite the promontory of Circe, but visible only from the hills, lie a cluster of islands, the principal of which, Ponza now, anciently Pontia was little noticed under the republic, but ennobled under the Caesars by the exile and death of several iilustrious victims of imperial tyrranny. Eustace
The Italian peninsula does not have many islands, apart from the three big ones (Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica); the Papal State did not have any island at all, because those which can be seen from Mt. Circeo belonged to the Kingdom of Naples. The nearest one is Ponza which is surrounded by islets. It is more difficult to see Ventotene and Santo Stefano as they are very small and rather flat, while on clear days it is easier to see the profiles of Monte Epomeo (Ischia) and Monte Solaro (Capri).
Sailors' reference points (in descending order): Mount Circeo (left) and the mountains behind Terracina (right) seen from Torre Viola near Gaeta;
S. Stefano (left) and Ventotene (right) seen from the ferry; Ischia (left) and Capri (right) seen from Ventotene; Capri seen from Ischia;
the Sorrento Peninsula seen from Capri
My eyes were dazzled with the beautiful picture. (..) Before me lay the sea, - the wonderfully beautiful Mediterranean. It was heaven itself in the purest ultramarine, which, like an immense plain, was spread out before me. Far
out at sea I saw islands, like floating clouds of the most beautiful lilac
colour, and perceived Vesuvius where the dark column of smoke became
blue in the far horizon. The surface of the sea seemed perfectly still,
yet the lofty billows, as blue and clear as the ether itself, broke against
the shore on which I stood, and sounded like thunder among the mountains.
Hans Christian Andersen - The Improvisatore - in Augustus J. C. Hare - Days near Rome - 1875
In addition to Ulysses, other Greek seamen came to this part of Italy in search of locations where new colonies could be founded (Cuma and Naples were Greek colonies); they probably felt themselves at home because small islands and promontories facilitated their navigation similar to what occurred in the Aegean Sea.
Previous page of this account: Terracina
Roman Campagna: Colonna and Zagarolo. Palestrina, Cave, Genazzano, Olevano, Paliano and Anagni.
The Ernici Mountains: Ferentino, Frosinone and Alatri; Fiuggi (Anticoli di Campagna); Piglio and Acuto.
The Volsci Mountains: Valmontone, Segni, Carpineto, Norma and Cori.
On the Latin shores: Anzio; Nettuno and Torre Astura.
The Orsini Castle in Bracciano.
Subiaco, the oldest Benedictine monastery
Small towns near Subiaco: Cervara, Rocca Canterano, Trevi and Filettino.