Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XVI

Nice, May 2, 1764.

DEAR DOCTOR — A few days ago, I rode out with two gentlemen of this country, to see a stream of water which was formerly conveyed in an aqueduct to the antient city of Cemenelion, from whence this place is distant about a mile, though separated by abrupt rocks and deep hollows, which last are here honoured with the name of vallies. The water, which is exquisitely cool, and light and pure, gushes from the middle of a rock by a hole which leads to a subterranean aqueduct carried through the middle of the mountain. This is a Roman work, and the more I considered it, appeared the more stupendous. A peasant who lives upon the spot told us, he had entered by this hole at eight in the morning, and advanced so far, that it was four in the afternoon before he came out. He said he walked in the water, through a regular canal formed of a hard stone, lined with a kind of cement, and vaulted overhead; but so high in most parts he could stand upright, yet in others, the bed of the canal was so filled with earth and stones, that he was obliged to stoop in passing. He said that there were air-holes at certain distances (and indeed I saw one of these not far from the present issue) that there were some openings and stone seats on the sides, and here and there figures of men formed of stone, with hammers and working tools in their hands. I am apt to believe the fellow romanced a little, in order to render his adventure the more marvellous: but I am certainly informed, that several persons have entered this passage, and proceeded a considerable way by the light of torches, without arriving at the source, which (if we may believe the tradition of the country) is at the distance of eight leagues from this opening; but this is altogether incredible. The stream is now called la fontaine de muraille, and is carefully conducted by different branches into the adjacent vineyards and gardens, for watering the ground. On the side of the same mountain, more southerly, at the distance of half a mile, there is another still more copious discharge of the same kind of water, called la source du temple. It was conveyed through the same kind of passage, and put to the same use as the other; and I should imagine they are both from the same source, which, though hitherto undiscovered, must be at a considerable distance, as the mountain is continued for several leagues to the westward, without exhibiting the least signs of water in any other part. But, exclusive of the subterranean conduits, both these streams must have been conveyed through aqueducts extending from hence to Cemenelion over steep rocks and deep ravines, at a prodigious expence. The water from this source du temple, issues from a stone building which covers the passage in the rock. It serves to turn several olive, corn, and paper mills, being conveyed through a modern aqueduct raised upon paultry arcades at the expence of the public, and afterwards is branched off in very small streams, for the benefit of this parched and barren country. The Romans were so used to bathing, that they could not exist without a great quantity of water; and this, I imagine, is one reason that induced them to spare no labour and expence in bringing it from a distance, when they had not plenty of it at home. But, besides this motive, they had another: they were so nice and delicate in their taste of water, that they took great pains to supply themselves with the purest and lightest from afar, for drinking and culinary uses, even while they had plenty of an inferior sort for their bath, and other domestic purposes. There are springs of good water on the spot where Cemenelion stood: but there is a hardness in all well-water, which quality is deposited in running a long course, especially, if exposed to the influence of the sun and air. The Romans, therefore, had good reason to soften and meliorate this element, by conveying it a good length of way in open aqueducts. What was used in the baths of Cemenelion, they probably brought in leaden pipes, some of which have been dug up very lately by accident. You must know, I made a second excursion to these antient ruins, and measured the arena of the amphitheatre with packthread. It is an oval figure; the longest diameter extending to about one hundred and thirteen feet, and the shortest to eighty-eight; but I will not answer for the exactness of the measurement. In the center of it, there was a square stone, with an iron ring, to which I suppose the wild beasts were tied, to prevent their springing upon the spectators. Some of the seats remain, the two opposite entrances, consisting each of one large gate, and two lateral smaller doors, arched: there is also a considerable portion of the external wall; but no columns, or other ornaments of architecture. Hard by, in the garden of the count de Gubernatis, I saw the remains of a bath, fronting the portal of the temple, which I have described in a former letter; and here were some shafts of marble pillars, particularly a capital of the Corinthian order beautifully cut, of white alabaster. Here the count found a large quantity of fine marble, which he has converted to various uses; and some mutilated statues, bronze as well as marble. The peasant shewed me some brass and silver medals, which he has picked up at different times in labouring the ground; together with several oblong beads of coloured glass, which were used as ear-rings by the Roman ladies; and a small seal of agate, very much defaced. Two of the medals were of Maximian and Gallienus; the rest were so consumed, that I could not read the legend. You know, that on public occasions, such as games, and certain sacrifices, handfuls of medals were thrown among the people; a practice, which accounts for the great number which have been already found in this district. I saw some subterranean passages, which seemed to have been common sewers; and a great number of old walls still standing along the brink of a precipice, which overhangs the Paglion. The peasants tell me, that they never dig above a yard in depth, without finding vaults or cavities. All the vineyards and garden-grounds, for a considerable extent, are vaulted underneath; and all the ground that produces their grapes, fruit, and garden-stuff, is no more than the crumpled lime and rubbish of old Roman buildings, mixed with manure brought from Nice. This antient town commanded a most noble prospect of the sea; but is altogether inaccessible by any kind of wheel carriage. If you make shift to climb to it on horseback, you cannot descend to the plain again, without running the risk of breaking your neck.

About seven or eight miles on the other side of Nice, are the remains of another Roman monument which has greatly suffered from the barbarity of successive ages. It was a trophy erected by the senate of Rome, in honour of Augustus Caesar, when he had totally subdued all the ferocious nations of these Maritime Alps; such as the Trumpilini Camuni, Vennontes, Isnarci, Breuni, etc. It stands upon the top of a mountain which overlooks the town of Monaco, and now exhibits the appearance of an old ruined tower. There is a description of what it was, in an Italian manuscript, by which it appears to have been a beautiful edifice of two stories, adorned with columns and trophies in alto-relievo, with a statue of Augustus Caesar on the top. On one of the sides was an inscription, some words of which are still legible, upon the fragment of a marble found close to the old building: but the whole is preserved in Pliny, who gives it, in these words, lib. iii. cap. 20.


This Trophy is erected by the Senate and People of Rome to the Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Julius, in the fourteenth year of his imperial Dignity, and in the eighteenth of his Tribunician Power, because under his command and auspices all the nations of the Alps from the Adriatic to the Tuscanian Sea, were reduced under the Dominion of Rome. The Alpine nations subdued were the Trumpelini, etc.

Pliny, however, is mistaken in placing this inscription on a trophy near the Augusta praetoria, now called Aosta, in Piedmont: where, indeed, there is a triumphal arch, but no inscription. This noble monument of antiquity was first of all destroyed by fire; and afterwards, in Gothic times, converted into a kind of fortification. The marbles belonging to it were either employed in adorning the church of the adjoining village, which is still called Turbia, a corruption of Trophaea; [This was formerly a considerable town called Villa Martis, and pretends to the honour of having given birth to Aulus Helvius, who succeeded Commodus as emperor of Rome, by the name of Pertinax which he acquired from his obstinate refusal of that dignity, when it was forced upon him by the senate. You know this man, though of very low birth, possessed many excellent qualities, and was basely murdered by the praetorian guards, at the instigation of Didius Tulianus. For my part, I could never read without emotion, that celebrated eulogium of the senate who exclaimed after his death, Pertinace, imperante, securi viximus neminem timuimus, patre pio, patre senatus, patre omnium, honorum, We lived secure and were afraid of nothing under the Government of Pertinax, our affectionate Father, Father of the Senate, Father to all the children of Virtue.] or converted into tomb-stones, or carried off to be preserved in one or two churches of Nice. At present, the work has the appearance of a ruinous watch-tower, with Gothic battlements; and as such stands undistinguished by those who travel by sea from hence to Genoa, and other ports of Italy. I think I have now described all the antiquities in the neighbourhood of Nice, except some catacombs or caverns, dug in a rock at St. Hospice, which Busching, in his geography, has described as a strong town and seaport, though in fact, there is not the least vestige either of town or village. It is a point of land almost opposite to the tower of Turbia, with the mountains of which it forms a bay, where there is a great and curious fishery of the tunny fish, farmed of the king of Sardinia. Upon this point there is a watch-tower still kept in repair, to give notice to the people in the neighbourhood, in case any Barbary corsairs should appear on the coast. The catacombs were in all probability dug, in former times, as places of retreat for the inhabitants upon sudden descents of the Saracens, who greatly infested these seas for several successive centuries. Many curious persons have entered them and proceeded a considerable way by torch-light, without arriving at the further extremity; and the tradition of the country is, that they reach as far as the ancient city of Cemenelion; but this is an idle supposition, almost as ridiculous as that which ascribes them to the labour and ingenuity of the fairies: they consist of narrow subterranean passages, vaulted with stone and lined with cement. Here and there one finds detached apartments like small chambers, where I suppose the people remained concealed till the danger was over. Diodorus Siculus tells us, that the antient inhabitants of this country usually lived under ground. “Ligures in terra cubant ut plurimum; plures ad cava, saxa speluncasque ab natura factas ubi tegantur corpora divertunt,” “The Ligurians mostly lie on the bare ground; many of them lodge in bare Caves and Caverns where they are sheltered from the inclemency of the weather.” This was likewise the custom of the Troglodytae, a people bordering upon Aethiopia who, according to Aelian, lived in subterranean caverns; from whence, indeed they took their name trogli, signifying a cavern; and Virgil, in his Georgics, thus describes the Sarmatae,

Ipsi in defossis specubus, secura sub alta Ocia agunt terra. —

In Subterranean Caves secure they lie Nor heed the transient seasons as they fly.

These are dry subjects; but such as the country affords. If we have not white paper, we must snow with brown. Even that which I am now scrawling may be useful, if, not entertaining: it is therefore the more confidently offered by — Dear Sir, Yours affectionately.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30