Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

Presented by

Public Domain Books


A black snake of alarming dimensions, one of the monsters that still infest the Calabrian lowlands, glided across the roadway while I was waiting for the post carriage to drive me to Caulonia from its railway-station. Auspicious omen! It carried my thoughts from old Aesculapius to his modern representatives–to that school of wise and disinterested healers who are ridding these regions of their curse, and with whom I was soon to have some nearer acquaintance. We started at last, in the hot hours of the morning, and the road at first skirts the banks of the Alaro, the Sagra of old, on whose banks was fought the fabled battle between the men of Croton and Locri. Then it begins to climb upwards. My companion was a poor peasant woman, nearly blind (from malaria, possibly). Full of my impressions of yesterday, I promptly led the conversation towards the subject of Musolino. She had never spoken to him, she said, or even seen him. But she got ten francs from him, all the same. In dire distress, some years ago, she had asked a friend in the mountains to approach the brigand on her behalf. The money was long in coming, she added, but of course it came in the end. He always helped poor people, even those outside his own country. The site of the original Caulonia is quite uncertain. Excavations now going on at Monasterace, some ten miles further on, may decide that the town lay there. Some are in favour of the miserable village of Foca, near at hand; or of other sites. The name of Foca seems to point, rather, to a settlement of the regenerator Nicephorus Phocas. Be that as it may, the present town of Caulonia used to be called Castelvetere, and it appropriated the Greek name in accordance with a custom which has been largely followed hereabouts. [Footnote: It is represented with two towers in Peutinger’s Tables. But these, says an editor, should have been given to the neighbouring Scilatio, for Caulon was in ruins at the time of Pliny, and is not even mentioned by Ptolemy. Servius makes another mistake; he confuses the Calabrian Caulon with a locality of the same name near Capua.] It contains some ten thousand inhabitants, amiable, intelligent and distinguished by a philoxenia befitting the traditions of men who sheltered Pythagoras in his hour of need. As at Rossano, Catanzaro and many other Calabrian towns, there used to be a ghetto of Jews here; the district is still called “La Giudeca"; their synagogue was duly changed into a church of the Madonna.

So much I learn from Montorio, who further informs me that the ubiquitous Saint Peter preached here on his way to Rome, and converted the people to Christianity; and that the town can boast of three authentic portraits of the Mother of God painted by Saint Luke ("Lukas me pinxit”). One is rather bewildered by the number of these masterpieces in Italy, until one realizes, as an old ecclesiastical writer has pointed out, that “the Saint, being excellent in his art, could make several of them in a few days, to correspond to the great devotion of those early Christians, fervent in their love to the Great Mother of God. Whence we may believe that to satisfy their ardent desires he was continually applying himself to this task of so much glory to Mary and her blessed Son.” But the sacristan of the church at Caulonia, to whom I applied for information regarding these local treasures, knew nothing about them, and his comments gave me the impression that he has relapsed into a somewhat pagan way of regarding such matters.

You may obtain a fairly good view of Caulonia from the southeast; or again, from the neighbouring hillock of San Vito. The town lies some 300 metres above sea-level on a platform commanding the valleys of the Amusa and Alaro. This position, which was clearly chosen for its strategic value, unfortunately does not allow it to expand, and so the inhabitants are deprived of that public garden which they amply deserve. At the highest point lies a celebrated old castle wherein, according to tradition, Campanella was imprisoned for a while. In the days of Pacicchelli, it was a fine place–"magnifico nelle regole di Fortezza, con cinque baloardi provveduti di cannoni di bronzo, ed una riccha Armeria, degna habitazione di don Carlo Maria Carrafa, Prencipe della Roccella, che se ne intitola Marchese.” Mingled with the stones of its old walls they have recently found skeletons–victims, possibly, of the same macabre superstition to which the blood-drenched masonry of the Tower of London bears witness. Here, too, have been unearthed terra-cotta lamps and other antiquities. What are we to surmise from this? That it was a Roman foundation? Or that the malaria in older times forced Caulonia to wander towards healthier inland heights after the example of Sybaris-Terranova, and that the Romans continued to occupy this same site? Or, assuming Castelvetere to date only from mediaeval times, that these ancient relics found their way into it accidentally? The low-lying district of Foca, at this day, is certainly very malarious, whereas the death-rate up here is only about 12 per 1000.

Dr. Francesco Genovese of Caulonia, to whom I am indebted for much kindness and who is himself a distinguished worker in the humanitarian mission of combating malaria, has published, among other interesting pamphlets, one which deals with this village of Foca, a small place of about 200 inhabitants, surrounded by fertile orange and vine plantations near the mouth of the Alaro. His researches into its vital statistics for the half-century ending 1902 reveal an appalling state of affairs. Briefly summarized, they amount to this, that during this period there were 391 births and 516 deaths. In other words, the village, which in 1902 ought to have contained between 600 and 800 inhabitants, not only failed to progress, but devoured its original population of 200; and not only them, but also 125 fresh immigrants who had entered the region from the healthy uplands, lured by the hope of gaining a little money during the vintage season.

A veritable Moloch!

Had the old city of Caulonia, numbering perhaps 20,000 inhabitants, stood here under such conditions of hygiene, it would have been expunged off the face of the earth in fifty years.

Yet–speaking of malaria in general–a good deal of evidence has been brought together to show that the disease has been endemic in Magna Grsecia for two thousand years, and the customs of the Sybarites seem to prove that they had some acquaintance with marsh fever, and tried to guard against it. “Whoever would live long,” so ran their proverb, “must see neither the rising nor the setting sun.” A queer piece of advice, intelligible only if the land was infested with malaria. Many of their luxurious habits assume another import, on this hypothesis. Like the inhabitants of the malarious Etruscan region, they were adepts at draining, and their river is described, in one of the minor works attributed to Galen, as “rendering men infertile"–a characteristic result of malaria. What is still more significant is that their new town Thurii, built on the heights, was soon infected, and though twice repeopled, decayed away. And that they had chosen the heights for their relative healthfulness we can infer from Strabo, who says that Paestum, a colony from Sybaris, was removed further inland from the shore, on account of the pestilential climate of the lowlands.

But the Ionian shores cannot have been as deadly as they now are. We calculate, for example, that the town walls of Croton measured eighteen kilometres in circumference, a figure which the modern visitor to Cotrone only brings himself to believe when he remembers what can be actually proved of other Hellenic colonies, such as Syracuse. Well, the populace of so large a city requires a surrounding district to supply it with agricultural produce. The Marchesato, the vast tract bordering on Cotrone, is now practically uninhabitable; the population (including the town) has sunk to 45 to the square kilometre. That is malaria.

Or rather, only one side of the evil. For these coastlands attract rural labourers who descend from the mountains during the season of hay-making or fruit-harvest, and then return infected to their homes. One single malarious patient may inoculate an entire village, hitherto immune, granted the anophelines are there to propagate the mischief. By means of these annual migrations the scourge has spread, in the past. And so it spreads to-day, whenever possible. Of forty labourers that left Caulonia for Cotrone in 1908 all returned infected save two, who had made liberal use of quinine as a prophylactic. Fortunately, there are no anophelines at Caulonia.

Greatly, indeed, must this country have changed since olden days; and gleaning here and there among the ancients, Dr. Genovese has garnered some interesting facts on this head. The coast-line, now unbroken sand, is called rocky, in several regions, by Strabo, Virgil and Persius Flaccus; of the two harbours, of Locri, of that of Metapontum, Caulonia and other cities, nothing remains; the promontory of Cocynthum (Stilo)–described as the longest promontory in Italy–together with other capes, has been washed away by the waves or submerged under silt carried down from the hills; islands, like that of Calypso which is described in Vincenzo Pascale’s book (1796), and mentioned by G. Castaidi (1842), have clean vanished from the map.

The woodlands have retired far inland; yet here at Caulonia, says Thucydides, was prepared the timber for the fleets of Athens. The rivers, irregular and spasmodic torrents, must have flowed with more equal and deeper current, since Pliny mentions five of them as navigable; snow, very likely, covered the mountain tops; the rainfall was clearly more abundant–one of the sights of Locri was its daily rainbow; the cicadas of the territory of Reggio are said to have been “dumb,” on account of the dampness of the climate. They are anything but dumb nowadays.

Earth-movements, too, have tilted the coast-line up and down, and there is evidence to show that while the Tyrrhenian shore has been raised by these oscillations, the Ionian has sunk. Not long ago four columns were found in the sea at Cotrone two hundred yards from the beach; old sailors remember another group of columns visible at low tide near Caulonia. It is quite possible that the Ionian used to be as rocky as the other shore, and this gradual sinking of the coast must have retarded the rapid outflow of the rivers, as it has done in the plain of Paestum and in the Pontine marshes, favouring malarious conditions. Earthquakes have helped in the work; that of 1908 lowered certain parts of the Calabrian shore opposite Messina by about one metre. Indeed, though earthquakes have been known to raise the soil and thereby improve it, the Calabrian ones have generally had a contrary effect. The terrific upheavals of 1783-1787 produced two hundred and fifteen lakes in the country; they were drained away in a style most creditable to the Bourbons, but there followed an epidemic of malaria which carried off 18,800 people!

These Calabrian conditions are only part of a general change of climate which seems to have taken place all over Italy; a change to which Columella refers when, quoting Saserna, he says that formerly the vine and olive could not prosper “by reason of the severe winter” in certain places where they have since become abundant, “thanks to a milder temperature.” We never hear of the frozen Tiber nowadays, and many remarks of the ancients as to the moist and cold climate seem strange to us. Pliny praises the chestnuts of Tarentum; I question whether the tree could survive the hot climate of to-day. Nobody could induce “splendid beeches” to grow in the lowlands of Latium, yet Theophrastus, a botanist, says that they were drawn from this region for shipbuilding purposes. This gradual desiccation has probably gone on for long ages; so Signor Cavara has discovered old trunks of white fir in districts of the Apennines where such a plant could not possibly grow to-day.

A change to a dry and warm atmosphere is naturally propitious to malaria, granted sufficient water remains to propagate the mosquito. And the mosquito contents itself with very little–the merest teacup fui.

Returning to old Calabria, we find the woods of Locri praised by Proclus–woods that must have been of coniferous timber, since Virgil lauds their resinous pitch. Now the Aleppo pine produces pitch, and would still flourish there, as it does in the lowlands between Taranto and Metaponto; the classical Sila pitch-trees, however, could not grow at this level any more. Corroborative evidence can be drawn from Theocritus, who mentions heath and arbutus as thriving in the marine thickets near Cotrone–mountain shrubs, nowadays, that have taken refuge in cooler uplands, together with the wood-pigeon which haunted the same jungles. It is true that he hints at marshes near Cotrone, and, indeed, large tracts of south Italy are described as marshy by the ancients; they may well have harboured the anopheles mosquito from time immemorial, but it does not follow that they were malarious.

Much of the healthy physical conditions may have remained into the Middle Ages or even later; it is strange to read, for example, in Edrisius, of the pitch and tar that were exported to all parts from the Bradano river, or of the torrential Sinno that “ships enter this river–it offers excellent anchorage"; odd, too, to hear of coral fisheries as late as the seventeenth century at Rocella Ionica, where the waves now slumber on an even and sandy beach.

But malaria had made insidious strides, meanwhile. Dr. Genovese thinks that by the year 1691 the entire coast was malarious and abandoned like now, though only within the last two centuries has man actively co-operated in its dissemination. So long as the woodlands on the plains are cut down or grazed by goats, relatively little damage is done; but it spells ruin to denude, in a country like this, the steep slopes of their timber. Whoever wishes to know what mischief the goats, those picturesque but pernicious quadrupeds, can do to a mountainous country, should study the history of St. Helena. [Footnote: By J. C. Melliss (London, 1875).] Thanks to the goats, Maltese fever has lately been introduced into Calabria. Man, with his charcoal-burning, has completed the disaster. What happens? The friable rock, no longer sustained by plant-life, crashes down with each thunderstorm, blocks up the valleys, devastating large tracts of fertile land; it creates swamps in the lowlands, and impedes the outflow of water to the sea. These ravenous fiumare have become a feature in Calabrian scenery; underneath one of the most terrible of them lies the birthplace of Praxiteles. Dry or half-dry during the warm months, and of formidable breadth, such torrent-beds–the stagnant water at their skirts–are ideal breeding-places for the anophelines from their mouth up to a height of 250 metres. So it comes about that, within recent times, rivers have grown to be the main arteries of malaria. And there are rivers galore in Calabria. The patriotic Barrius enumerates no of them–Father Fiore, less learned, or more prudent, not quite so many. Deforestation and malaria have gone hand in hand here, as in Greece, Asia Minor, North Africa, and other countries.

Thus year after year, from one cause or another, the conditions have become more favourable for the disease to do its fatal work.

That much of this harm has been done quite lately can often be proved. At Caulonia, for instance, the woodlands are known to have reached the shore a hundred years ago, and there are bare tracts of land still bearing the name of “foresta.” In a single summer (1807) a French regiment stationed at Cosenza lost 800 men from fever, and when Rath visited the town in 1871 it was described to him as a “vast hospital" during the hot months; nevertheless, says he, the disease has only been so destructive during the last two centuries, for up to that time the forests touched the outskirts of the town and regulated the Crati-bed, preventing the formation of marshes. The literary record of Cosenza is one of exceptional brilliance; for acute and original thought this town can hardly be surpassed by any other of its size on earth. Were statistics available, I have not the slightest doubt that fever could be shown to be largely responsible for the withering of its spiritual life.

The same fate–the same relapse from prosperity to decay–and for the same reasons, has overtaken many other riverside villages, among them that of Tarsia, the Caprasia of the An tonine Itinerary. “It was described to us,” says Rath, “as the most miserable and dirty village in Calabria; but we found it worse.” It remains, to-day, a highly infected and altogether pitiable place, concerning which I have made certain modest researches that would require, none the less, a chapter to themselves. . . .

Perhaps I have already said over-much on the subject. An Englishman unacquainted with malaria might think so, oblivious of the fact that Sir Ronald Ross has called it “perhaps the most important of human diseases.” But let him go to a malarious country and see with his own eyes something of the degradation it involves; how it stamps its accursed imprimatur upon man and nature alike! It is the blight of youth–the desert-maker. A well-known Italian senator has declared that the story of south Italy is, was, and will be the story of malaria; and the greater part of Calabria will certainly remain an enigma to the traveller who ignores what is meant by this plague.

Malaria is the key to a correct understanding of the landscape; it explains the inhabitants, their mode of life, their habits, their history.



[Buy at Amazon]
Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
At Amazon