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POMPTI´NAE PALU´DES (τὰ Πομπτῖνα ἕλη: Paludi Pontine), was the name given to the extensive tract of marshy ground in the S. of Latium at the foot of the Volscian mountains, extending from the neighbourhood of Cisterna to the sea at Terracina. They occupy a space of about 30 miles in length by 7 or 8 in breadth: and are separated from the sea on the W. by a broad tract of sandy plain, covered with forest, which is also perfectly level, and intermixed with marshy spots, and pools or lagoons of stagnant water, so that it is almost as unhealthy as the regular marsh, and the whole tract is often comprised under the name of the Pontine Marshes. The extremely low level of this whole tract, affording scarcely any natural outfall for the waters which descend into it from the Volscian mountains, together with the accumulation of sand along the seashore from Astura to the Circeian promontory, readily accounts for the formation of these extensive marshes; and there can be no doubt that the whole of this low alluvial tract is of very recent origin compared with the rest of the adjoining mainland. Still there is the strongest reason from physical considerations to reject the notion very generally entertained by the Romans, and adopted by Pliny, that the whole of this accumulation had taken place within the period of historical record. This idea seems indeed to have arisen in the first instance from the assumption that the Mons Circeius was the island of Circe mentioned by Homer, and was therefore in the time of that poet really an island in the midst of the open sea. [CIRCEIUS MONS.] But it is far more strange that Pliny should assert, on the authority of Theophrastus, that the accumulation had taken place in great part since the [p. 2.655] time of that writer; though Theophrastus himself tells us distinctly that the island was in his days united to the mainland by the accumulated deposits of certain rivers. (Theophr. H. P. 5.8.3; Plin. Nat. 3.5. s. 9.) Another tradition, preserved to us also by Pliny (l.c.), but wholly at variance with the last, asserted that the tract then covered by marshes, and rendered uninhabitable by them, had formerly been occupied by no less than 24 (or, according to some MSS., 33) cities. But no trace of this fact, which he cites from Mucianus, an author contemporary with himself, is to be found in any earlier writer; and not even the name of one of these supposed cities has been preserved; there can therefore be little doubt that the whole story has arisen from some misconception.

The Pomptine Marshes are generally represented as deriving their name from the city of Suessa Pometia, which appears to have been situated somewhere on their borders, though We have no clue to its precise position. [SUESSA POMETIA]. The “Pomptinus ager,” which is repeatedly mentioned by Livy, and which was cultivated with corn, and part of it portioned out in lots to Roman colonists (Liv. 2.34, 4.25, 6.5, 21) was probably rather the district bordering on the marshes than the actual swampy tract, which does not appear to have been ever effectually reclaimed; though a very moderate amount of industry must at any time have sufficed to bring into cultivation considerable portions of the adjoining plain. As early, however, as the year 312 B.C. the Appian Way appears to have been carried through the midst of the marshes (Liv. 9.29; Diod. 20.36), and a canal conducted along with it from Forum Appii to Tarracina, which became also much resorted to as a mode of traffic. [VIA APPIA] The institution of the Pomptine tribe in B.C. 358, and of the Ufentine tribe in B.C. 318 (Liv. 7.15, 9.20), would seem also to point to the existence of a considerable population in the neighbourhood at least of the Pomptine Marshes; but still we have unequivocal testimony of the continued existence of the marshes themselves in all periods of antiquity. (Sil. Ital. 8.380; Strab. v. p.233, &c.)

The very circumstance that the plain is bordered throughout by a chain of considerable and populous towns situated on the mountain front, while not one is recorded as existing in the plain itself, is a sufficient proof that the latter was in great part uninhabitable.

The actual marshes are formed principally by the stagnation of the waters of two streams, the AMASENUS and the UFENS both rising in the Volscian mountains, (Strab. v. p.233.) Of these the latter was the most considerable, and appears to have been regarded as the principal stream, of which the Amasenus was only a tributary. The Ufens is described as a slow and sluggish stream; and Silius Italicus, amplifying the hints of Virgil, draws a dreary picture of its waters, black with mud, winding their slow way through the pestiferous Pomptine plains. (Verg. A. 7.801; Sil. Ital. 8.379-382; Claudian. Prob. et Ol. Cons. 257.) But, besides these, several minor streams either flow down from the Volscian mountains, or rise immediately at their foot in copious springs of clear water, as is commonly the case with all limestone mountains. The NYMPHAEUS which rises at the foot of the hill at Norba, is the most remarkable instance of this. Thus the whole mass of waters, the stagnation of which gives rise to these marshes, is very considerable; and it is only by carrying these off in artificial channels to the sea that any real progress can be made in the drainage of the district.

Various attempts were made in ancient times to drain the Pontine Marshes. The first of these was in B.C. 160, by the consul Cornelius Cethegus, which, according to the brief notice transmitted to us, would seem to have been for a time successful (Liv. Epit. xlvi.); but it is probable that the result attained was in reality but a partial one; and we find them relapsing into their former state before the close of the Republic, so that the drainage of the Pontine Marshes is noticed among the great public works projected by the dictator Caesar, which he did not live to execute. (Suet. Jul. 44; Plut. Caes. 58; D. C. 44.5.) It would appear that on this occasion also some progress was made with the works, so that a considerable extent of land was reclaimed for cultivation, which M. Antonius proposed to divide among the poorer Roman citizens. (D. C. 45.9.) Horace alludes to a similar work as having been accomplished by Augustus (Hor. Art. Poet. 65; Schol. Crug. ad loc.); but we find no mention of this elsewhere, and may therefore probably conclude that no great success attended his efforts. Juvenal alludes to the Pontine Marshes as in his time a favourite resort of robbers and highwaymen (Juv. 3.307); a sufficient proof that the district was one thinly inhabited. The enterprise seems to have been resumed by Trajan in connection with his restoration of the Appian Way through the same district (D. C. 68.15); but we have no particular account of his works, though inscriptions confirm the account given by Dio Cassius of his renovation of the highroad. The next serious attempt we hear of to drain this marshy tract was that under Theodoric, which is recorded both by Cassiodorus and by an inscription still extant at Terracina. (Cassiodor. Var. 2.32, 33; Gruter, Inscr. p. 152. 8.) But in the period that followed the works naturally fell into decay, and the whole tract relapsed into an uninhabitable state, which continued till the close of the middle ages. Nor was it till quite modern times that any important works were undertaken with a view to reclaim it. Pope Pius VI. was the first to reopen the line of the Appian Way, which had been abandoned for centuries, and restore at the same time the canal by its side, extending from Treponti to Terracina. This canal takes the place of that which existed in the time of Horace and Strabo, and formed the customary mode of transit for travellers proceeding from Forum Appii to Tarracina. (Hor. Sat. 1.5. 10--24; Strab. v. p.233; Lucan 3.85.) It is evidently the same which is called by Procopius (B. G. 1.11) the Decennovium, a name which could only be applied to an artificial cut or canal, though that author terms it a river. The “nineteen miles” indicated by the name commenced from Tripontium (Treponti), from whence the canal was carried in a straight line to within 3 miles of Tarracina. It was this portion of the road which, as we learn from an inscription, was restored by Trajan; and the canal was doubtless constructed or restored at the same time. Hence Cassiodorus applies the name of “Decennovii paludes” to the whole tract of the Pontine Marshes. (Cassiod. Var. 2.32, 33.)

The SATURAE PALUS mentioned both by Virgil and Silius Italicus in connection with the river [p. 2.656] Ufens (Verg. A. 7.801 ; Sil. Ital. 8.380), must have been situated in the district of the Pontine Marshes, and was probably merely the name of some portion of the swamps included under that more general designation.

The line of the Appian Way was carried in a perfectly straight line through the Pontine Marshes from the station Sub Lanuvio, at the foot of the Alban Hills, to within a short distance of Tarracina. The stations along its course and the distances are differently given in the Itineraries; but they may all be readily determined with the assistance of inscriptions and Roman milestones still existing. At the beginning of the marshes, or rather in the level tract immediately adjoining them, was the station of TRES TABERNAE distant 17 miles from Aricia, at point where a branch road from Antium fell into the Appian Way. The site of this was fixed by the Abbé Chaupy and other writers at a place called Le Castelle, 2 miles on the Roman side of Cisterna; but there seems no reason to reject the distances given in the Antonine Itinerary, which would place it 5 miles further from Rome, or 3 miles beyond Cisterna, where some ruins still remain, referred by Chaupy to the station Ad Sponsas of the Jerusalem Itinerary, but which would suit equally well for those of Tres Tabernae. [TRIES TABERNAE.] Six miles from this spot, and just 39 miles from Rome (as shown by a milestone still remaining there), is a place still called Torre di Treponti, marking the site of TREPONTIUM the spot from whence the canal of the Decennovium commenced, and from which therefore the 19 miles from which it derived its name were measured. Four miles further on considerable remains mark the site of FORUM APPII which in the Augustan age was a busy and thriving town; but in the fourth century had sunk to a mere Mutatio or post station. The Antonine Itinerary gives the distance from Rome to Forum Appii at 43 miles, which is exactly correct; from thence to Tarracina it reckons 18 miles; the Jerusalem Itinerary makes the distance 19 miles, and gives an intermediate station called Ad Medias (Paludes), which was 9 miles from Forum Appii and 10 from Tarracina. The site of this is still marked by a spot called Torre di Mesa, where a striking Roman monument still remains; but the real distance from Forum Appii is only 8 miles, which coincides with the Antonine Itinerary. (Itín. Ant. p. 107; Itin. Hier. p. 611.) The whole of this part of the road has been carefully examined and described by the Abbé Chaupy (Découverte de la Maison d'Horace, vol. iii. pp. 382--452); and the distances discussed and corrected by Westphal, (Röm. Kampagne, pp. 67--70).


hide References (13 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (13):
    • Plutarch, Caesar, 58
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 34
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 7, 15
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 9, 29
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 7.801
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 44
    • Lucan, Civil War, 3.85
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 3.5
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 9, 20
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 6, 5
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 4, 25
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 6, 21
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 20.36
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