photo © Italo Caira

The Early History of Atina

Atina has experienced an interesting and eventful history. During the early history of Atina history and legend seem to merge together.

Atina in Mythology

Atina is said to have mythological connections with the Roman god of Saturn. When Saturn, the King of Crete, was exiled from Olympus by his son Jupiter, he fled and eventually found his way to ancient Latium. This land was ruled by Janus, the ancient Italic god of the sun. It is said that Janus welcomed Saturn to this green and fertile land, granted him refuge and gifted him a share of his kingdom. 

Under the rule of Saturn rebellious tribes learned to live together in harmony, in a civilized society.  Saturn is also said to have taught these native people how to build houses, to cultivate the land and plant vines and to live together harmoniously. Thus he became known as the Roman God of agriculture and fertility. His reign was said to have been one of peace and prosperity and this era is often referred to as the “Golden Age”.   

Roman God of Saturn

The Volsci and Samnites

The ancient coat of arms of Atina recalled these mythical origins, as it bore “a depiction of Saturn as an old man riding a horse, bearing in his right hand a sickle and in the left some sprigs of wheat, and on the upper section there were two pillars on a light blue background surmounted by a crown. Around this was written the acronym A.S.F. (Atina Saturni Filia). 

Saturn is said to have founded five large towns, the names of which all commenced with the letter A. These were: Aletrium (the present day Alatri), Anagnia (Anagni), Arpinum (Arpino), Atina and Antinium (now known as Ferentino).  These five cities are characterized by imposing megalithic and polygonal walls, from which the medieval centers developed.

In the Aeneid, the great Roman poet Virgil wrote of: “Five great cities with resounding anvils, in the preparation of arms: Atina potens (mighty Atina), proud Tivoli, and Adrea, Crustumerio and Antenna fortified with towers.” They were forging weapons for Turnus, king of the Rutili, in preparation for the battle against Aeneas.  Atina was closely linked with the production of metal due to its proximity to mines at Monte Meta which extracted iron, silver and  copper ore.

Samnite Warriors

Archaeological excavations and research have revealed the presence of human settlements in the Val di Comino dating back to prehistoric times. Findings at Atina and Pescarola (now Casalvieri) are thought to belong to a Volsci community linked to the tradition of the “ver sacrum”, which was celebrated every year in the waters of the river Melfa in Canneto. The territory was later claimed by the Samnites in 337 BC and became part of the territory of Samnium. They formed part of the Samnite league, a group of four tribes opposed to the expansion of the Roman Republic. The Samnites built a mighty stronghold within the valley named Cominium.

During three violent wars the Romans battled against the Samnites.  In the final confrontation the Roman legions destroyed Cominium and took control of the area in 293 BC. The Roman historian Livy wrote that 255,000 Samnites were slaughtered during this tumultuous conflict.

Roman Atina

Thus Atinam was incorporated into the Roman state. Its status was initially reduced to that of a “prefecture”,  a district strictly controlled by the government of Rome and without voting rights. As Atinam grew it developed into a colony that was allocated to the Roman Teretina tribe. Finally towards the late Republican period it developed into a Latin Municipality, with full voting rights.

Atina was situated in a  strategic location, being positioned along important commercial routes that ran between Campania and Etruria. From its dominant position it guarded the entrance into the Val di Comino from Cassinum.  It also had an wide view out over the the valley. Silicus Italius, a Roman consul orator and poet wrote of Atina’s impregnable position among the strongholds of the Apennines.  

The town was surrounded and protected by a double circuit of fortified walls, made of large polygonal blocks of stone, which were constructed in two main phases: pre-Roman and Roman. The inner wall has three gates leading into the town: the bronze “Porta Aurea”, the “Porta Virilassi” and “Porta Posterula”.

Roman Suit of Armour © Louise Shapcott
Roman Centurion Helmet © Louise Shapcott

Under Roman rule, the territory experienced unprecedented development in the form of roads, aqueducts, a forum, an amphitheatre, temples and elegant villas which were lavishly decorated with mosaics and precious works of art.

Drawn by the beauty of the local landscape many emperors, leaders and men of culture, such as Cicero, Pliny the Elder and Titus Pomponius Atticus chose to build holiday villas in this area of the Val di Comino. According to Cicero, the Roman orator and statesman, Atina was a prosperous town. Virgil also wrote:  Atina mother of many illustrious, so much so that no city in Italy can said to be richer”, relating to the presence of numerous high-ranking figures.  Indeed many noble families originated from this area, bearing such surnames as Arruntius, Plancus, Plancius, Petreius,  and Sentius Saturninius.

Cicero was also a close friend of Gnaeus Plancius who was born in Atina.  Plancius served in Africa and Macedonia in the role of quaestor, a manager of financial affairs. Cicero, when he was forced to flee in exile, had stayed in Macedonia during 58 BC and Gnaeus Planicus aided and protected him. In return, Cicero defended his friend in 54 BC when Plancius was accused of soliciting votes in order to win an election.

Atina was the birthplace of Lucius Munatius Plancus, (c. 87 BC – c. 15 BC) a renowned Roman general of Caesar and also a politician. He founded two Roman colonies, that of Lyon in France (Lugdunum) and Basel in Switzerland (Augusta Raurica). There is a street named after him in Atina, Via Planca.  His mausoleum can be found on Monte Orlando in the seaside town of Gaeta in the province of Latina.

Gaeta Mausoleum of Lucius Munatius Plancus © Louise Shapcott
Gaeta Mausoleum of Lucius Munatius Plancus © Louise Shapcott
Gaeta Monte Orlando & Serapo Beach © Louise Shapcott

The Twinning of the Two Towns of Atina and Veroli

In 419 the prefect of the town of Atina was the son of the Eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius. During a wedding feast the young man is said to have fallen in love with a beautiful and noble maiden named Minola. However Minola refused his advances and feeling rejected he went on to rape her. The people of Atina were outraged by this attrocious act and wanted justice for the crime he had committed, and so they killed him.

When the news of his demise arrived at the court of the emperor, Arcadius immediately sent his army to Atina. His troops made multiple unsuccessful attacks the town over a period of seven years. The emperor finally decided to set a trap, and he invited some representatives of Atina to sign a peace treaty.  However when they arrived he had them stripped and murdered. Then, dressed as people of Atina, soldiers were able to penetrate Atina via the Porta Aurea.

Meanwhile the emperor arrived with his special troops, who conquered the hill and set fire to the town and murdered all of its inhabitants. From this terrible siege 200 children  survived by being hidden underground. Surprised by the soldiers the children were captured and taken away to be sold as slaves. However when they reached the town of Veroli, the children were bought for ransome by the kind inhabitants who felt compassion for the children. They founded an area for these children to live in within Veroli, this still exists today and is known as Piagge Atinate.

The children grew and became strong and when they became adults they returned to their home of Atina and rebuilt the town together with the citizens of Veroli. Thus there developed a fraternal friendship linking the two towns. This was sanctioned by the Verolani Pacts which were public acts ratified in 1615, 1753, 1888 and 1981 to unite past and present citizens of the two towns and their descendants.

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