The Cyclopean Problem: Who Built Italy’s Astounding Ancient Walls?
Megalithic cyclopean masonry is found in many parts of Italy, including Lazio, Abruzzo, Campania, Umbria, Tuscany and Molise. This type of masonry involves fitting together huge differently shaped stone blocks without mortar in a way that leaves no gaps between them. Scholars attribute them to the Romans, but there are a number of reasons why some researchers think they may be more ancient in origin. For one, although the highest intensity of polygonal walls appears in the Lazio region, there are none in Rome itself!
Their existence is not a matter of interpretation. There are hundreds of visible examples of clearly cyclopean masonry making up parts of hilltop fortifications, aqueducts, road substructures, agricultural terraces and villa platforms as well as other types of architecture. They tend to form the foundations of these buildings or structures, with more typically Roman quadrangular brickwork, finishing them off.
Apart from these cyclopean walls, megalithic architecture isn’t really a feature of the peninsula. While a splattering of menhirs and dolmens have been reported, there’s nothing as extensive as the grand megalithic building projects of Iberia, Malta and Sardinia to name just a few places. This makes the cyclopean walls even more curious.
They are impressive because they are difficult to create and have properties that give them a high level of protection against earthquakes. Examples of this incredible megalithic masonry can be found in so many places, it’s impossible to list them all here
In the hilltop town of Alatri, Italy, it makes up much of the acropolis. The nearby Museo Civico on Corso Cavour has a section featuring photographs of this phenomenon all over mainland Italy. In Palestrina, at the ancient Praeneste, there is a particularly well-preserved section of polygonal wall next to the Porta Sole. When this was excavated, another clearly Roman wall made up of tuff quadrangular stonework was found close by, and the contrast between the two is very obvious.
Porta Sole at Palestrina, Italy, with a cyclopean wall as part of the original structure. (Laura Tabone)
In the higher part of the town, more cyclopean masonry is found at the bottom of the enormous Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia. This extensive complex, built in terraces along the hillside, features brickwork and architecture that’s typically Roman, yet it sits on a megalithic foundation that looks quite out of place. It’s thought that the cyclopean masonry found here originally made up a fortification wall before being reused as a base for the sanctuary some years later.
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Castel San Pietro Romano (Laura Tabone)
A few kilometers to the north, a large cyclopean masonry wall encloses the hilltop village of Castel San Pietro Romano. Another impressive example forms the foundations of an aqueduct that sits between the towns of Ferentino and Sora.
Aqueduct between Sora and Ferentino (Laura Tabone)
A Greek Origin?
Some of the earliest examples of cyclopean masonry are not found in Italy but come from the Bronze Age civilizations of the Aegean (3000-1000 BC), which is one of the reasons some researchers give an earlier date for the walls and posit a Greek influence. It was classical Greek writers observing the remnants of Mycenaean polygonal walls who gave the name cyclopean to the construction technique, because in their view only the mythical one-eyed giant Cyclopes could have moved such megalithic blocks into place.
The Cylopean Walls of Mycenae, Greece (Public Domain)
The Lion Gate. Mycenae. Argolis, Greece. (Public Domain)
Back on the Italian peninsula, local legend has it that the cyclopean walls there were built by the Pelasgians, ancestors of the classical Greeks. However, the archaeological evidence simply doesn’t support that. One Aegean culture known to predate the Classical Greeks was the Mycenaeans, a sophisticated society administered from palace complexes, which had the organizational capabilities to carry out such building projects. On the other hand, the Italian peninsula of the Bronze Age had nothing like these semi-urbanized centers. Furthermore, although there was contact between the Italian mainland and the Bronze Age civilizations of the Aegean, connections were limited to small amounts of trade, so a cultural exchange in building methods cannot be proven either.
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The Cyclopean Walls of Mycenae, Greece (Public Domain)
Pre-historical Italian Cultures
Before considering the arguments for and against a Roman origin for the polygonal masonry, understanding the ancient history of the Italian peninsula might help cast light on this intriguing subject.
From 1300 to 700 BC, the groups inhabiting the large geographic area of Middle Europe had similar social hierarchies and funerary practices, which has led archaeologists to classify them as the Urnfield culture. As with many Bronze Age cultures, a warrior class existed and the defense of settlements and the ritual deposition of weapons were very important to them. In most of the Italian mainland, the Proto-Villanovan culture appeared around this time, and it is thought to have been a part of the Urnfield tradition due to migrations from the north.
During the Bronze Age, while the agricultural settlements of the Urnfield and the Proto-Villanovan cultures flourished in Middle Europe and the Italian peninsula, the Aegean was characterized by the more sophisticated societies of the Second and Third Palace periods. The Minoans, with a power base in Crete, were the first culture in the Aegean to create a complex palace-based society, and were eventually replaced by the Indo-European speaking Mycenaeans who had similar hierarchies and architecture.
The collapse of this Mycenaean palace culture plunged the Aegean into what is sometimes referred to as a ‘dark age.’ It appears that the subsequent Iron Age villages in the region lacked the sophistication of their palatial predecessors. At the same time, Iron Age agricultural villages were springing up all over the Italian peninsula.
The culture living in the area which roughly corresponds with modern Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, north Lazio and pockets of Campania, is referred to by archaeologists as Villanovan. In the Lazio region, the Latial Culture predominated, while the Este, Golasecca and Fritzens-Sanzeno cultures, as well as the Camui people inhabited the alpine region.
After 700 BC, the culture we now call the Etruscans appeared in pretty much the same places that the Villanovan culture had been. Classical Greek writers talked matter-of-factly of their origins outside the mainland, however these stories all contradict one another. From Sardinia to Asia Minor, the Etruscans were given geographic provenances all over the Mediterranean, but scholars now think they were descendants of the Villanovans. At that time Greek colonies also appeared on the southern part of the Italian mainland, and Sicily and the Etruscans were known to trade fairly extensively with the Aegean, in comparison to contemporary groups on the peninsula.
Greece Pictorial, Descriptive, & Historical, and a History of the Characteristics of Greek Art, London, John Murray, 1882 (Public Domain)
Rome and the Latin League
By the time the ancient Romans appeared on the scene, the Etruscans already had a huge influence on large swathes of the Italian mainland. Just as with the Etruscans, Rome also had its mythical origins outside the mainland, believing itself to have been founded by the Trojan prince Aeneas. The usual date given for its foundation is 753 BC, and this spearheaded a period now known as the Roman Kingdom.
During that time, it was run by individual kings for almost 250 years, and remained fairly small. The period now referred to as the Roman Republic lasted from 509 to 27 BC. At the beginning of the Republic, Rome formed an alliance now referred to as the Latin League with the tribes in its hinterland, partly to counteract the power wielded by the Etruscans, and the increasing presence of Greeks and Phoenicians in the area. By 264 BC, in the mid-Republican era, Rome had largely assimilated the surrounding region and covered 26,000 square kilometers, a geographic reach that was to expand massively in the subsequent period now referred to as the Roman Empire.
Interestingly, the geographic distribution of the cyclopean masonry corresponds with the reach of Rome during the mid-Republican era, and this date is supported by finds recovered in the vicinity of the walls. The fact that the masonry forms the foundation of typically Roman structures such as roads and villa platforms, as well as more generic hilltop fortifications, also lends weight to the idea that it dates to this period.
It was in the 1950s that the walls were first attributed to the Romans by the classical archaeologist and Roman topographer Giuseppe Lugli. One of his arguments was based on an inscription by Roman magistrates on a wall of the acropolis at Ferentino. Here, they claim responsibility for building both the upper and lower courses of masonry, the latter being polygonal and the former being quadrangular. However, some researchers argue that this particular section of wall does not look typically cyclopean. Perhaps it was an attempt by the magistrates to emulate the much more apparent polygonal masonry in other parts of Ferentino?
The Romans wrote about and illustrated many of their construction techniques. Commonly used construction methods in the Republican era were opus quadratum, using rectangular blocks, and opus caementicium, using a type of ancient cement . When Lugli assigned a Roman date to the cyclopean walls, he named the technique that produced them opus siliceum because of a mention by the architect and engineer Vitruvius of a building technique called silice. Lugli equated the two, however since Vitruvius didn’t accompany his term with a description, it’s difficult to confirm a connection.
Arguments for Pre-Roman Cyclopean Masonry
There are several arguments for a pre-Roman date. As mentioned above, there are no cyclopean walls in Rome itself, but they are prevalent across the peninsula. It's also interesting how many of the cyclopean walls tended to use upside-down Vs to create entrances through them instead of the arches that the Romans were famous for.
Triangular portal in the city of Arpino, Italy. The only one left in the world (Public Domain)
A good example of this is at Arpino. However, there are also towns where both regular arches as well as upside-down Vs are used in the same walls, and it's not clear why.
Since the Romans documented a lot of their construction projects, it’s curious that they did not mention these polygonal walls. It’s known that the construction methods they did use incorporated pulleys and tackles, which some researchers think wouldn’t have suited these irregularly-shaped blocks. So, if the Romans did build them, there’s also a question as to how they did it.
From an aesthetic point of view, the megalithic foundations finished off with regular brickwork do look quite strange. The distinct possibility exists that ancient, more complete cyclopean structures were reused by the Romans. However, if they are ancient, then why is there no archaeological evidence for who could have built them? Of course, it's also possible that the cyclopean masonry was built by the Romans sometime during the Republic, and later renovated or reused, using different types of construction techniques that had become more popular. The Romans were around for a long time after all!
The whole subject is truly fascinating, especially when these megalithic walls are viewed up close. A modern detailed study of the walls, Le Mura Poligonali. Atti del Settimo Seminari, is a great reference point for those who aren’t aware just how extensive they are. It also discusses the possible construction techniques that were used. A much older and fun source is A Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy, written in 1862, that gives a wonderful tour of many of these cyclopean walls which were already quite a curiosity at the time. However, the real highlight of the latter book is the general travel advice. In the days before hotels and holiday rentals were common, a small village inn with a fixed mealtime was all that was available and if it was ‘wretched’, there was usually a local wealthy family who would accommodate travelers instead.
The cyclopean walls are well worth a visit, but due to their wide geographic spread, only a few towns or villages can be managed in any one day, so a trip needs to be planned well. Luckily, nowadays the hilltop villages fortified with cyclopean walls have many bed and breakfasts which are far from wretched!
Top image: Alatri acropolis cyclopean wall by the Porta Maggiorre. Source: Laura Tabone
By Laura Tabone (MegalithHunter)
Attenni, L. (2021). Le Mura Poligonali. Atti del Settimo Seminario. Naples: Valtrendeditore.
De Haas, T.C.A., Attema, P.A.J. and Tol, G.W., 2012. Polygonal Masonry Platform Sites in the Lepine Mountains (Pontine region, Lazio, Italy). Palaeohistoria, 53(54), pp.195-282.
Magli, G., 2004. Polygonal Walls and the Astronomical Alignments of the Acropolis of Alatri, Italy: A Preliminary Investigation.
Murray, J., 1862. A Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy. London: John Murray
Price, S., and Thonemann, P. (2011). The Birth of Classical Europe. A History from Troy to Augustine. London: Penguin Books.