Cassino: The Gate of Ancient Rome

View of Montecassino e the valley

Cassino is an Italian municipality in the province of Frosinone, southern Lazio, is the second largest city in the province by number of inhabitants (about 40.000). For centuries it remained the administrative center of the Land of Saint Benedict, and, for being the birthplace of many holy men, its area is still today called the “Valley of the Saints“.
Even the historical region is designated by a name: Terra di lavoro (in english the “Land of labour”)[note a], and indeed, developed at the foot of the mountain on which stands the famous Abbey of Montecassino, this was the land were the “rebirth” of Europe took place (for this reason Benedict of Norcia was named patron Saint of Europe). Following the disastrous collapse, both political and social, of the Roman Empire, the people, following the example of the Holy monk, resigned to found their own corporate structure by basing their ethics precisely on the binomial Faith in GOD and work (latin “Ora et labora“, english “Pray and work”).

During Ancient Rome

The archaeological area bears witness to the ancient importance of the city of Casinum, and today still preserves some remarkable monuments of the old Roman town, partly inside the old city walls, and partly immediately outside. Remains of the ancient street layout are preserved, in particular a road paved with limestone paving stones (an old urban stretch of the via Latina extended up to Casinum on the occasion of the acquisition of the city by the dominions of Rome), as well as “Porta Campana” (a entrance to the city thus identified in an epigraph relating to restorations made in 57 AD) and the amphitheater.

Among the greatest Roman roads there was the Appia Antica inaugurated by the censor of 312, Appius Claudius Caecus. For the first time a great road took its name not from its function (such as the “Via Salaria” which served for the salt trade) or from the place where it led (the “Via Ostiense”, connecting the city of Ostia) but from the person who had made it build. The street, also called “Regina Viarum”, that was the “queen” (from latin “regina”) of the roads, initially ended in Capua, then in 268 BC it was extended to Benevento and finally (191 BC) up to Brindisi, thus becoming the main port and outlet of Rome for its traffic with the Holy Land and the East. The Appia Antica has a particular position, it passes high in the Roman countryside and not in a valley bottom such as, for example, the Via Appia Nuova and how they generally did all the major roads. The route uses the flow of Capo di Bove, a 270,000-year-old lava flow that came from the volcano (on the Colli Albani) and that flowed inside a small valley. Thousands of years later the side hills, among which the lava flowed, collapsed because they consisted of earth and became valleys (like the one where today the Via Appia Nuova passes). Instead the lava flow (formed by leucitite, a very hard flint used to pave the road) became the ridge of an almost straight hill, which comes from the Alban Hills to Rome. Then Appius Claudius took advantage of the very top of this ridge to trace the Appian Way, formidable, in the past centuries, also due to the view that gave on the two sides. The goal was to have a new and bigger road for Capua, Rome’s great ally in a sort of Roman-Campanian federal state, inevitably colliding with the Samnite federation. To get to Campania there was already a road, the “via Latina”, this road ran through the Sacco valley connecting Valmontone, Artena, Colleferro, Anagni, Frosinone, Cassino in a zig-zag path of spontaneous origin but much longer and more tortuous (besides it crossed a dangerous area since the mountains were inhabited by the Samnites). Appius Claudius therefore wanted a new road that coasted the maritime side, faster and safer than the “Via Latina” and set back from the war front. The Appia was therefore born as a strategic and military route, whose realization took two years of work, a huge burden and a great technical commitment to overcome the considerable natural difficulties.

An old picture of the city wall in Cassino

Cassino the “Gate of Rome”

Cassino was historically, and still is today from a geographical point of view, considered the gateway from the southern slope to the great city of Rome. An entrance of huge importance and splendor, and this is evidenced by the many writings of historians and the remains still present today: Roman villas, mausoleums, the amphitheater and the aqueduct (just to name a few). Cassino for the Roman writer Aulus Gellius was “the simulacrum city and image of the majesty of the Roman people” during the glorious republican and imperial period, and for this reason the Romans annexed it to the city as a bulwark.[note b]

However, with the decay of the Roman dominion, this territory of the Italian peninsula was trampled and for long periods remained desolate. A valley too exposed to the barbarian hordes, and from that setting of greatness, always remained the object of foreign dominance. A difficult position to defend, the center and south of Rome (and today’s Italy) is in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, and in fact Mediterraneus, from the Latin means “in the middle of the lands”. Thus, as Cassino was considered the “Gate of Rome”, this small sea was considered “the gateway to Europe”, the access to a territory coveted by foreign powers. The Saracens, above all, after many years of supremacy in these places, have left an indelible influence in southern Italy which, to date, has now completely merged with the people’s roots. These original inhabitants of the Middle East were so called from the Latin sarraceni (which dervates from the Aramaic sarq [iy] īn which means “inhabitants of the desert”, from sraq, “desert”) or “oriental” (sharq [iyy] ūn, from Arabic noun sharq, “orient”). As the famous etymology of Isidore of Seville states:

“The Saracens have been so called or because they proclaim themselves descendants of Sarah, or because, as the gentiles say, they originate from Syria, almost sirigini: they inhabit a vast desert. They are also called Ishmaelites, as the book of Genesis teaches, as descendants of Ishmael, and they also take the name of Kedar, from that of the son of Ishmael, or of Agarene, from Hagar. ”
(Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, IX, 2.57.)

The “gate” of Rome during the II World War, the Gustav (aka Winter) line

Cassino has therefore always been a land of great importance, considered the “limit” before which we have access to the capital of the ancient world. A border and a barrier to cross to get to Rome which, even in World War II, was the stage for very important events. Just for Cassino passed a fortified defensive line prepared in Italy with Hitler‘s disposition, called the Gustav line (also called the Winter Line). This divided the Italian peninsula in two: to the north the territory in the hands of the Italian Social Republic and to the German troops, to the south the Allies, Cassino was almost completely destroyed by bombing (for this reason it is also known as the Martyr City), although completely rebuilt in the post-war period, this place has always remained strategic for communications between central and southern Italy.

For these reasons, the Monastery founded by Benedetto of Norcia, obtained a great political and social advantage, its location made it the international “port” of intercultural exchanges. The Montecassino Library and its archive are still today recognized as the most remarkable and valuable in the entire world.



[note a] “Going back to San Germano, it is a small but very illustrious city up the working land, animated by just over five thousand inhabitants. His site is at the foot of Monte Cassino in fertile plain all irrigated by the waters of Rapido and other streams, which descend copiously from the games of the nearby mountains. Various characters she very clearly created the famous name for the value of arms and letters, such as the handling of large civilian shops. “(Viaggio da Roma a monte Cassino; Alessandro Guidi 1868)

[note b] “The illustrious man of letters Marco Terenzio Varrone, who had a sumptuous villa here, informs us that for long periods the Samnites occupied the city, until the Romans finally conquered it to make it their own bulwark against enemy solicitations from the south. “(Cassino – Dalle origini ad oggi; Emilio Pistilli 1994)



Translate into your language
Main Topics
ASH’s Newsletter