Text and images by Luca Panichelli of Tesori Nascosti. Visit his blog: tesorinascostiagrofalisco.wordpress.com
The Ancient Etruscan/ Faliscan Passageways
The passageways are a series of long and narrow paths, dug by hand from giant deposits of volcanic rock by the Faliscan and Etruscan people, sometimes reaching as high as 20 meters (65.5 feet). The median length of the paths is approximately 300 meters (985 feet), with some extending much further. Walking along these paths, I’m not only struck by their extraordinary dimensions, but also by the ancient engravings and tombs found along their steep walls.
There are several theories on why these narrow and picturesque passages were excavated. The most widely accepted idea is that they were dug to connect the Etruscan or Faliscan necropolises with their respective centers of religious importance; in short, the passageways were used for religious ceremonies and processions. This theory has been proven for the passage found at the end of Via Velata in Civita Castellana, the ancient road used by the Faliscans for their sacred parades from Falerii Novi to the Temple of Juno in the Celle Valley in Falerii Veteres.
The great Roman poet Ovid wrote about the ancient road in this work Amores:
Being that my wife is from the land of Faliscans, we were skirting the walls [of the area]. The priests were preparing the sacred rituals for Juno, with solemn games and a local ox. It was a great reward to stay there, despite the steep road leading to to the zone. There is an ancient forest, and if you look closely you will see that it is the home of a deity. An altar is adorned with the prayers and incensed votive of the faithful. There, just as the the horn rings solemnly, the annual procession moves along the sloping streets. In the parade are local white-haired heifers, calves that have not yet grown horns, and a single goat. As the story goes, the goddess fought with the goat in the forest; therefore, the children still chase after the “betrayer”, hoping to be the first to strike it and receive a special prize. The young, timid children lay cloth down on the wide streets where the goddess will pass. The virginal hair is adorned with gold and gemstones, with a splendid dress descending onto the golden feet. Wrapped in white robes reminiscent of their Greek ancestors, they carry on their heads the sacred vessels. The procession is truly Greek in form and tradition. After the murder of Agamemnon, Halaesus fled the wickedness of the kingdom, spending time as a refugee on land and sea. After his journey, with good omen, he built these walls. He then taught the Faliscan people the sacred things about Juno.
This passage confirms the theory that the paths originally had a religious function. Later in time, the passageways were used for defensive purposes, allowing people to move undetected between the areas. Over the centuries, these streets were reused and readapted by the population of the time. The existence of Christian symbols on the walls of the paths, such as crosses, small devotional churches, and alters of the Madonna, suggest that later populations desired to erase the Pagan history of the sites. During the medieval period, the passageways were instead used to to carry communications throughout the region.
The “Fantibassi” Passage
Just outside the town of Civita Castellana near the street Via Nepesina, the Fantibassi passageway is one of the most important examples of ancient road engineering.
After crossing a cultivated field, you find yourself on a plateau on the edge of the Rio Maggiore river. Between the dense vegetation surrounding the deep gorge is a small passageway descending to the bottom of valley floor. Ten meters (approximately 30 feet) down the road, small niches dug into the volcanic rock walls hint at its religious past.
As you descend further down the passageway, you will be amazed by the extraordinary landscape: the tall, thick walls of moss and ferns seem to swallow all who visit. Walking down the path it is natural to think how, many centuries ago, without any modern machinery and technology, man succeeded in accomplishing works of such great magnitude. It truly seems impossible that all of this is a result of manual work carried out in the IV Century BC.
The proximity of this passageway to the necropolis of Tre Ponti, the Zucchi Caves, the Valle dei Principi, and the sites of the ancient Via Amerina, seems to further confirm the hypothesis that the roads were used for religious purposes.
Most likely, at the time of its construction, the volcanic rock walls would have been slightly lower with respect to street level. However, erosion due to heavy rain and the passing of time has contributed to the street slowly sinking.
One particular feature of the road is the presence of a large number of symbols and written inscriptions engraved on the walls, such as the photo below:
According to some scholars, the inscription would mean: furc (ulam)- p (rotacios)- c (ensor)- ef (fodi)- I (ussit)- v, or “the Censor Titos Pratacios ordered the excavation of the path for wagons”. The script therefore indicates the individual who commissioned the construction of the passageway.
A few meters down the path is a large boulder on the road, apparently fallen from the imposing stone wall. At this point, the path splits into two directions: on the left, the path ascends to the tomb of the “queen” along Via Amerina; on the right, the route continues all the way to the town of Civita Castellana, offering the visitor a view of Ponte Clementino and Ponte Terrano from the bottom of the valley floor.