BMCR 2013.08.31

Exploring the Kingdom of Saturn: Kircher’s Latium and Its Legacy

, Exploring the Kingdom of Saturn: Kircher's Latium and Its Legacy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. xiv, 236. ISBN 9780472118151. $75.00.

The life, career, and travels of Athanasius Kircher, S.J. (1602-80) have been extensively documented. His publications include a wide variety of topics, from Egyptian hieroglyphics, linguistics, natural science, and musicology to the history of China. But his work as a topographer and archaeologist has not attracted much attention, or when it has, has often been dismissed. Evans has here undertaken to correct some of this oversight, by examining Kircher’s work on ancient Latium, whose full title is Latium, id est, nova et parallela Latii tum veteris tum novi descripti (Amsterdam 1671). This work was heavily criticized in his own lifetime, by, among others, Kircher’s contemporary Raffaello Fabretti, who lacked the powerful patronage enjoyed by Kircher (14).1

In this book, Evans examines Kircher’s Latium which followed a long tradition of “chorography,” which Evans defines as “research into the chronology, antiquities, local history, and topography of an area, including the genealogy of prominent local families.” (9-10) Unlike works of his predecessors, which tended to be on the whole of Italy, Kircher’s book had as its focus the much more limited area of Latium itself. Kircher’s explanation of the purpose of this study was that he wanted to use the physical remains of ancient Latium to teach the reality of human mutability and transience.

Evan’s Chapter 2, entitled “It All Started with Noah” (30-43), provides helpful insight into Kircher’s thinking, particularly about his historical/religious perspective. Kircher quotes at length the account by Dionysius of Halicarnassus ( Ant. Rom. 1.17-21.2) “about the Pelasgians’ migration into Italy and settlement in Etruria and North Latium and their subsequent expulsion of the Sicanians,” but his reading is highly selective (35). Kircher argues that the different names given to early peoples of Latium are all synonymous with the “Janigenae” introduced by Noah/Janus/Saturnus. He maintains that “the oldest of the kings who established cities and peoples were given the name of Saturnus; as a result, there was not one Saturnus but more than one; their fathers were given the names of Caelus or Janus, and their sons the name of Jupiter” (37). Kircher’s first chapter, concerned with the “Origin and Antiquity of Latium,” is predominantly historical in focus, with three-quarters of it devoted to first settlements in the region. A final chapter gives a survey of places along the Tyrrhenian coast from Ostia to Minturnae. Kircher cites Greek sources, but concludes with a detailed argument purporting to show that Noah founded the first settlements in Italy (his argument is built on sources going back to St. Augustine, de civ. D. 15.26), whose descendants occupied the area until the time of the Trojan War. According to Kircher, the second phase of settlement was the Pelasgians, and the third and fourth were those led by Evander and Aeneas. Evans shows that Kircher’s sources were already recognized as bogus in his own time.

Kircher then turns to the description of particular places, beginning with his detailed treatment of sites and monuments in the area closest to Rome, which he called “Latin Territory Proper”, beginning with the Alban Hills and the Lake Country. He then moves to Tusculum and its territory, including the sites of Cicero’s Villa, the Tomb of the Furii, and Lucullus’ Villa. Evans observes that Kircher’s “description of Tusculum, like that of the Alban hills, is uneven but on the whole, quite valuable…his discussion is essentially the first scholarly attempt to make sense of its antiquities on the ground in the context of ancient literary sources, linking the grand Renaissance residences of his own day to the ancient counterparts that inspired them. After Kircher, study of ancient Tusculum would never be the same.” (94)

Kircher praise of Palestrina, “becomes even more lavish” than his praise of Tusculum (95) even though his descriptions relied more on the works of Joseph-Marie Suarez, also commissioned by the Barberini family, than from his own tour of the site.2 But the Nile mosaic was not treated extensively by Suarez, whereas Kircher undertook to determine “what the ancients wished to intimate through this portentous variety of images” (100). Kircher attributes the original mosaic to Lucius Sulla, whose career he discusses along with his “role in establishing the cult and its rituals at Praeneste ‘in Egyptian fashion’ … along with the construction of a pharos …visible to sailors at sea….” (103). Evans carefully points out many of Kircher’s misinterpretations of the various registers of the mosaic (e.g., 105, 106), and concludes that “Kircher’s interpretation is not convincing” (108). For Kircher, “the Barberini mosaic and the lessons it provided about the power of Fortuna in human affairs, the family who restored it, and the importance of Praeneste within later church history….were his chief points of focus” (111).

Kircher then surveys the great Tiburtine villas, continuing with an extensive treatment of Hadrian’s Villa, which receives his lengthiest account but concludes with a moral lesson: “You may understand all too well…its incomparable magnificence…Nevertheless, because of the hidden judgment of God, it lasted only eighty years.” (125)

Evans concludes that, like Kircher’s accounts of coastal Latium from Ostia to Minturnae, his treatment of Sabine territory is almost entirely derivative. Kircher’s maps and accompanying figures, however, are impressive, and consistent with Kircher’s other publications, with their useful explanations and decorations. The final portion of his work includes a proposal he had made some twenty years before, to drain the Pomptine Marshes. This was a longstanding problem, from antiquity to his own time. Evans credits Kircher’s Latium with inspiring later topographical studies, despite its shortcomings. Even if it was not a “good beginning” in the study of Latium’s topography, it was “a beginning and far from a dead end in systematic investigation of the region around Rome.”(216)

The basic format of Evans’ book is to follow that of Kircher’s book. It does seem somewhat disjointed, as Kirchner (followed by Evans) wanders through the territory, beginning with a chronology that Kirchner takes back to Noah. The sequence then follows through Latium: the Alban Hills, Tusculum and the ager Tusculanus, Praeneste; Tivoli and surrounding territory; the Sabines and Volscians, and finally to the Pomptine Marshes. In the final chapter Evans discusses the legacy of Kircher’s book. His conclusion is somewhat mixed: “Kircher’s reading of Latium’s topography …by modern standards..cannot even be considered a good beginning. But it was a beginning” which “set in motion something bigger….the lively and contentious field of topographical study of the Roman suburbium still flourishing today.” (216)

Table of Contents

1. Preliminaries: Latium, the Church, the Pope, and Kircher’s Preface 16
2. It All Started with Noah (Book 1, Chronological) 31
3. Latium’s Lake Country, the Alban Hills (Book 2, Part 1) 44
4. Villas and a Tomb: Tusculum and the Ager Tusculanus (Book 2, Part 2) 65
5. Praeneste: Barberini Town and Its Mosaic (Book 2, Part 3) 95
6. Villa Country: Tivoli and Its Surrounding Territory (Book 3 and Book 4, Parts 1-2) 116
7. The Sabines and Volscians (Book 4, Parts 3-4) 150
8. Draining the Pomptine Marshes: A Not-So-Modest Proposal (Book 5) 165
9. Habent sua fata libelli: Fabretti’s Reading of Kircher 185
10. The Legacy of Kircher’s Latium 207


1. 14. Page numbers in parentheses refer to Evans’ book. See also Evans’ 2002 study of Fabretti: Harry B. Evans, Aqueduct Hunting in the Seventeenth Century: Raffaello Fabretti’ “De aquis et aquaeductibus vereris Romae (Ann Arbor 2002).

2. Especially Joseph-Marie Suarez, Praenestes antiquae libri duo. Rome 1655.