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Fonti del Clitunno

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The source of the Clitunno (in Latin, Clitumnus) is a spring that emerges from limestone rocks  at Campello, to the north of Spoleto.  Water from the spring is channeled under the busy Via Flaminia (behind the trees in the picture) into a lovely shallow lake.  The willows and poplars that surround this lake were brought from the island of St Helena in 1865 in homage to the Emperor Napoleon, who had died there in 1821. 

The lake feeds a narrow canal that passes the Tempietto del Clitunno (after some 600 m) and Trevi to Bevagna, where it merges with the Teverone, becoming the Timia.  (This river joins the  Topino near Cannara, and the combined waters pass Bettona to Torgiano, where they flow into the Tiber).   Throughout its 16 km course, the Clitumnus meanders through the fertile plain of Bevagna.

The flow of the river has been diminished over the centuries by a series of seismic events, the first documented example of which occurred in 446 AD.  Despite this, it has remained prone to flooding and has been the subject of a long series of human interventions.  It was finally almost completely canalised in the 19th century. 

Roman History

River Clitumnus

In Roman times the Clitumnus was navigable, and its source could be reached by boats from Rome. It featured in the work of two of the great lyrical poets of the 1st century BC: 

  1. Propertius:  “I'll go hunting ... where [the god] Clitumnus covers the beautiful stream with his grove, and his wave bathes the snow-white heifers” (‘Elegies’, 2:19). 

  2. Virgil (in the Georgics): "Here are your snowy flocks, Clitumnus and, the noblest sacrifice, your bulls, which, drenched in your sacred stream, have often led Roman triumphs to the gods’ temples" (‘Georgics’, 2:146). 

These are among the earliest references of the association of the river with: 

  1. the god Clitumnus, to whom a shrine at the source of the river was dedicated (see below); and 

  2. the fine white bulls that were raised on its banks, which were often used in the sacrifices made by triumphal generals to Jupiter Optimus Maximus at his temple on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. 

In his Letter LXXXVIII to Romanus, Pliny the Younger gave an important description of the river and its source in the 1st century AD:

  1. “Have you ever seen the source of the river Clitumnus?  If you have not ... , go there as soon as possible.  I saw it yesterday, and I blame myself for not having seen it sooner.  At the foot of a little hill, well wooded with old cypress-trees, a spring gushes out, which, breaking up into different and unequal streams, forms itself, after several windings, into a large, broad basin of water, so transparently clear that you may count the shining pebbles, and the little pieces of money thrown into it, as they lie at the bottom.  From thence it is carried off not so much by the declivity of the ground as by its own weight and exuberance.  A mere stream at its source, immediately... you find it expanded into a broad river, fit for large vessels even, allowing a free passage by each other, according as they sail with or against the stream.  The current runs so strong, though the ground is level, that the large barges going down the river have no occasion to make use of their oars; while those going up find it difficult to make headway even with the assistance of oars and poles: and this alternate interchange of ease and toil ... is exceedingly amusing when one sails up and down merely for pleasure.  The banks are well covered with ash and poplar, the shape and colour of the trees being as clearly and distinctly reflected in the stream as if they were actually sunk in it.  The water is cold as snow, and as white too”.   

At least two Roman writers of the 1st century AD associated the river with nearby Mevania (Bevagna):

  1. Silius Italicus makes this association on at least two occasions in his account of the Second Punic War:

  2. Varenus, who served in the Roman army and was killed in the war, came from:

  3. “... Mevania ... where the Clitumnus, flowing through the spreading fields, bathes the white bulls in its cool stream” (‘Punica’, 4:544). 

  4. On retiring from Rome, Hannibal headed for Umbria, where:

  5. “... Mevania, lying low on the wide plains, breathes forth sluggish mists and feeds mighty bulls for Jupiter's altar” (‘Punica’, 6: 647). 

  6. Statius, speaking of his celebration of the recovery from illness of his friend Rutilius Gallicus, lamented that he could not find an animal fine enough for sacrifice, even if:

  7. “... Mevania emptied its valleys [and] Clitumnus supplied its snow-white bulls” (‘Silvae’, 1:4:129).

Juvenal, a broadly contemporary poet, echoed Statius while lamenting the poor quality of the calf that he had sacrificed to Tarpeian Jove in celebration of the safe return from sea of his friend, Catullus:

  1. “If my personal resources were ample, a match for my feelings, we’d be dragging a bull fatter than Hispulla to the slaughter,  .... the product of the fertile fields of Clitumnus” (‘Satires’, 12).

The Clitumnus was a popular destination for the Roman upper classes in the Imperial period.  Pliny the Younger (above) was obviously among them, and a later extract of his letter (quoted below) refers to the amenities for visitors and the many villas built on the banks.  The “resort” attracted even more illustrious visitors:

  1. Suetonius recorded that, in 39 AD, the Emperor Caligula went:

  2. “... to Mevania, to visit the river Clitumnus and its grove" (‘Life of Caligula’, 143). 

  3. Phlegon of Tralles reported on an event that happened in 53 AD at:

  4. “... Mevania, ... in the country house of  [Caligula’s sister], Agrippina Augusta” (‘Book of Marvels’, 7:1) .    

  5. Claudian described a journey that the Emperor Honorius made from Ravenna to Rome in 404 AD, during which he decided:

  6. “... to visit Clitumnus' wave, beloved of them that triumph, [because it is from this area that] victors get the white-coated animals for sacrifice at Rome” (‘On the Sixth Consulship of the Emperor Honorius’ - search on ‘Clitumnus)’.

The Clitumnus continued to feature in literature in the 4th and 5th centuries:

  1. Claudian (again) favourably compared the herd in question with those raised on the banks of the Clitumnus:

  2. Not such” [were] the bulls thou bathest, Clitumnus, in thy stream for pious vows to offer duly to Tarpeian Jove” (‘Description of a Herd - search on ‘Clitumnus)’.

  3. St Isidore of Seville made two references to it:

  4. In the Introduction to the ‘History of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi’, in a passage in which he heaps praise on the fertility of Spain, he included the Clitumnus as a worthy (albeit inferior) comparator for Spanish rivers:

  5. “Clitumnus [yields to you] in cattle, ... even though [it] once sacrificed great oxen as victims on the Capitol”.

  6. In the “Etymologies” (search on ‘Clitumnus’), he noted that:

  7. “Lake Clitumnus in Umbria produces very large oxen”; the “lake” here is presumably the pool at the source of the river.

  8. Vibius Sequester, who compiled annotated lists of geographical names, included in his “De fontibus” (on river sources) the “Clitumnus mevaniae”, placing the source of the river in the ownership of Mevania.

  9. Servius, in his commentary on the passage of Virgil’s “Georgics” (“Commentary’, 2:146) quoted above, noted that:

  10. Clitumnus autem fluvius est in Mevania, quae pars est Vmbriae, partis Tusciae

  11. The river Clitumnus is in Mevania (which, he asserted somewhat surprisingly, is partly in Umbria and partly in Tuscany)

  12. the white cattle on its banks were “Mevanienses” (from Mevania); but

  13. Clitumnus et deus et lacus in finibus Spoletinorum

  14. Clitumnus, [its] deity and [its] lake (presumably references to the sanctuary of the deity at the source of the river), are  in the territory of Spoletium.

Cult Site of Clitumnus

As noted above, the deity Clitumnus was documented in the 1st century BC:   

  1. Propertius referred to the Clitumnus river as “his wave”, and reported that it was covered (or perhaps shrouded) by “his own woods” (‘Elegies’, 2:19)

  2. Virgil (in the Georgics) referred to the Clitumnus river as “your sacred stream” and the bulls who were bathed in it prior to sacrifice were “your snowy flocks" (‘Georgics’, 2:146).

Vibius Sequester, in his “De fluminibus” (list of rivers), recorded that

  1. Clitumnus Umbriae, ubi Iuppiter eodem nomine est

  2. The Umbrian deity Clitumnus was a manifestation of Jupiter. 

In the Letter LXXXVIII to Romanus (mentioned above), which was written in the 1st century AD,  Pliny the Younger described the cult site at the source of the river that was devoted to Clitumnus (together with other cult sites nearby):

  1. “Near [the source of the Clitumnus] stands an ancient and venerable temple, in which is placed the river-god Clitumnus clothed in the usual robe of state; and indeed the prophetic oracles here .... testify to the immediate presence of that divinity.  Several little chapels are scattered round, dedicated to particular gods, distinguished each by his own peculiar name and form of worship, some of them also presiding over different springs.  For, besides the principal spring, which is ... the parent of all the rest, there are several other lesser streams, which, taking their rise from various sources, lose themselves in the river; over which a bridge is built that separates the sacred part from that which lies open to common use.  Vessels are allowed to come above this bridge, but no person is permitted to swim except below it.  The Hispellates, to whom Augustus gave this place, furnish a public bath, and likewise entertain all strangers at their own expense.  Several villas, attracted by the beauty of this river, stand about on its borders.  In short, every surrounding object will afford you entertainment.  You may also amuse yourself with numberless inscriptions upon the pillars and walls, by different persons, celebrating the virtues of the fountain and the divinity that presides over it.  Many of them you will admire, while some will make you laugh ...”

We have seen in the sources above three different statements on the ownership of the

  1. Vibius Sequester included the “Clitumnus mevaniae” in his “De fontibus” (on river sources),which places the source of the Clitumnus in the ownership of Mevania;

  2. Servius, in his commentary on a passage of Virgil’s “Georgics” (“Commentary’, 2:146), noted that:

  3. “Clitumnus et deus et lacus in finibus Spoletinorum” (Clitumnus, [its] deity and [its] lake (presumably references to the sanctuary of the deity at the source of the river), are  in the territory of Spoletium); and

  4.   Pliny the Younger, in his Letter LXXXVIII to Romanus wrote:

  5. “Have you ever seen the source of the river Clitumnus? ...   The Hispellates, to whom Augustus gave this place, furnish a public bath, and likewise entertain all strangers, at their own expense.”

Simone Sisani (referenced below, at pp. 415-6) suggested that these sources described the situation at three different times: before the Roman conquest originally to Mevania, but passed:

  1. to Spoletium, when the Latin colony was founded there in 241 BC; and then

  2. to Hispellum, when Octavian founded a colony there in 41 BC.

Ritual Landscape

Simone Sisani (2012, referenced below) has suggested that a ceremonial road from Bevagna terminated at the cult site at the source of the Clitumnus.  This road is known from an incomplete inscription(CIL XI 5040) which was found in Bevagna (behind the church of San Silvestro) ca. 1876 and which Dr. Sisani ates the inscription to the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BC - 14 AD). It records the names of six (presumably originally of nine) freedmen who belonged to the college of priests that administered the cult of the goddess Valetudo in that city.  The surviving part of the last line reads:
  1. [MAG(istri)] VAL(etudinis) VIAM A PORTICU AD M[......... straverunt]

  2. which probably read:

  3. The Magistri Valetudinis paved the road from the portico to

  4. [an unknown location beginning with “M”]

Dr Sisani traces this ceremonial route from Porta Todi, Bevagna to the source of the Clitumnus, passing through Picciche and Castel San Giovanni, villages that are close to the find spots of two cippi (ca. 241 BC) inscribed with the Lex Spoletina.  (These cippi are now in the Museo Archeologico, Spoleto, and the inscriptions are also described in the page on Latin Inscriptions after 295 BC).  Michael Gilleland has posted on line two recent English translations, one of which is as follows:

  1. “Let no-one violate this grove nor carry out anything that is in the grove nor set foot in it [or possibly 'cut it'] except annually on the day of the rite; on the day when it is done because of the rite it shall be permitted to enter (cut) it with impunity. Whosoever violates the grove shall give a purificatory offering of an ox to Jupiter; whoever violates it knowingly and maliciously shall give a purificatory offering of an ox to Jupiter and shall be fined 300 asses [a unit of currency].  The dicator (chief magistrate) shall be responsible for the exaction of the offering and fine”.

Simone Sisani (referenced below) has suggested: that the grove in question was sacred to Clitumnus/Jupiter; that the cippi originally stood beside the ceremonial road; and that the grove might well have extended as fas as the sanctuary itself.  (Note that the existence of a grove sacred to Clitumnus near the river is noted by both Propertius and Suetonius in quotes above).

The ritual significance of this ceremonial route from Bevagna to the sanctuary of Clitumnus should be considered in the context of a second such route, this time from Mevania to the Umbrian/ Roman sanctuary below the walls of Spello, which the Magistri Valetudinis also paved at around the same time (according to a second inscription, CIL XI 5041, from Bevagna).  This hypothesis is set out in more detail in the page on the Ancient Cult Sites of Bevagna.  

Read more:

S. Sisani,, “I Rapporti tra Mevania e Hispellum nel Quadro del Paesaggio Sacro della Valle Umbra”, in

  1. G. Della Fina (Ed.), “Il Fanum Voltumnae e i Santuari Comunitari dell’ Italia Antica”, (2012) Orvieto (pp. 409-64)

A. Dubourdieu, “Les Sources du Clitumne: De l' Utilisation et du Classement des Sources Littéraires”,  Cahiers du Centre Gustave Glotz, 8 (1997) 131-49

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