Until 142 years ago, where now lays a fertile valley pride of the Italian agriculture, there was the third biggest lake in Italy: the Fucine.

Satellite view of the Fucine lake

Above: public domain

A rather unusual lake, the Fucine one, which creates many issues to those farmers who are living and cultivating that soil around its banks. And not just in recent times but actually since the age of the Republican Roman Empire.

The name itself says a lot about the features of this lake, which often resembles more a swamp. Fucine may mean, according to a pre-Roman etymology a “muddy place”. A Greek poet, instead, called the lake as “Phorcys swamp”, drawing inspiration from the marine god Phorcys. It could also recall the red-like colour that the lake would colour its water with: this was caused by the presence of certain seaweed, which resemble the incandescent tones of a forge (in Italian “fucina”).

The Fucine lake in a map – Gallery of Maps, Vatican Museums

Above: public domain

The Fucine lake has no outlet so the level of the water varies only depending on the climatic change. When the basin fills up, its water floods the fields nearby hand damaging their cultivations; when instead the level drops, due to the heat, the marshy fields spoil the air, subject to malaria.

The Fucine lake and the mount in Abruzzo – Jean-Joseph Xavier Bidauld, 1789

In the Roman era the Marsi, people living in the area, asked to the great general Julius Caesar to somehow provide a reclamation  for their valley, so fertile but also so sensitive to the whims of the weather.

The Roman historian Suetonius said that Julius Caesar was willing to come up with an endeavour which would have given splendor to the city of Rome; the project was to create a road which was linking the Adriatic sea to the Tiber river through the Apennines. The powerful project was shattered by his murder, as his plotters were seeing in Caesar a danger for the holy institution of the Republic, which was short lived either way,

The Marsi kept on asking for help to all the emperors, one after the other, but only Claudius, around 80 years later, listened to them.

Emperor Claudius bust

Above: public domain

The project was extremely ambitious: it was necessary to dig a gallery through mount Salviano, allowing the lake to drain part of its waters into the Liri river.

The excavation began in 41 AD and terminated 11 years later: the mount was crossed by a channel (artificial emissary of the lake) and six tunnels used by 32 wells. The tunnel in the belly of mount Salviano is approximately 6 km (4 miles). It took 1800 years before it was realised a tunnel which would have bet this record, with some way more sophisticated methods, i.e. the railway one of Frejus.

The main tunnel in mount Salviano

Above: picture by Claudio Parente via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

To complete the work there were 22,500 slaves and 7,500 workers such as bricklayers, blacksmiths, and carpenters  working day and night, alternating each other in 3 turns.

The naturalist and admiral Pliny the Elder, pushed by his uncontrollable curiosity, visited the construction site and said: “it was necessary to break the rock with the chisel and each job had to be carried out through implacable turns In the bowels of the mount in its utter darkness: all those things that cannot be understood if not by those who saw them, nor the human language is able to describe them”.

Junctions of the Major Tunnel

Above: picture by Claudio Parente via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

This immense project was completed in 52 AD but there is no historian from that time talking about how many of those slaves and workers died during its construction.

Junction of the artificial emissary

Above: picture by Claudio Parente via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

What instead is known though, even though not with exact certainty  is the following fact: around 19,000 were the imprisoned men who “joined” the Roman army to partake the massive organised show for the inauguration of the project.

Claudius, proud of his gigantic work of hydraulic engineering, offered to the present people the representation of something unforgivable.

A naumachia like it had never been seen before

The naval battles were not novelty for the Romans, but the one on the Fucine must have darkened the memory of all the previous ones. According to Suetonius, Tacitus and Cassius Dio,  around a hundred of galee were built , divided in 2 teams representing two populations: the Rodians and the Sicilians.

The prisoners knew that this was a bloody battle and, once in front of the emperor they would recite: “Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant”, coined by Suetonius right in that occasion ( it will become popular in its version “Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant”).

To attend the show there was all Rome, starting from Claudius and his wife Agrippina with her son Nero, enjoying the naumachia along with the court, from a stage set up around the emissary.

On the lake there were galee confronting each others, surrounded by many other little ships fully armed, placed there on guard of the “forced”warriors: no one couldn’t try to escape its own death sentence. The water turned red once again, not for the seaweed that time, but for the amount of blood of the dead and wounded men who were there just for the amusement of their Roman class.

To the few survivors, Claudius granted freedom

After the naumachia the so much waited moment had arrived: the opening of the underground canal which would have drained part of the Fucine waters. The massive construction project revealed itself as disastrous, perhaps due to some karstic rock falled down, or maybe since the canal had not been made deep enough.

Outlet of the emissary in Capistrello

Above: picture by F.angelo via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

After having fixed those issues, Claudius organised a new inauguration, that time accompanied by a gladiator show and a banquet still in the area of junction with the emissary. Even in this second occasion there was an issue, when they rose up the bulkheads, the water went in a gallery built in a wrong direction and kept without outlet.

The water which drained created a seaquake kind of effect, and with its strength provokes collapses in the underground gallery, flooding the stage where the imperial banquet was already ongoing. Besides Claudius, the empress Agrippina was raging, blaming the two superintendents the freemen Narciso and Pallante, to have gained much money from the realisation of the project. The accusation did not lead anywhere in that episode: the loyal men of Claudius did not pay any consequences, at least on that time.

Despite all those mistakes, at the end, the basin of Fucina got reduced and the flooding issue and the one about the marshy banks or the lake were fixed. Agriculture bloomed  again and the valleys  nearby were then chosen by the noble Romans as vacation spots.

The 3 mouths of the main tunnel

Above: picture by Marica Massaro via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

The “tunnels of Claudius”, need continuous maintenance, not only for the mistakes occurred during their construction, but also for the nature itself of the rock of of mount  Salviano. The emperor Trajan and Hadrian invested money and strength in the maintenance of the artificial emissary to the point that the basin of the Fucine decreased even further.

When the Roman Empire fell though, no one worried about dealing with those canals which then ended up all completely obstructed.

Inside of the Ferraro tunnel

Above: picture by Valemdc via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

Only 18 centuries later someone was brave and rich enough to reconsider that project (up until then all the attempts to restore the ancient tunnels failed). It was Francis I, King of the two Sicilies, who ordered to fix the emissary; however it was only with the Roman banker Alessandro Torlonia that the idea became to actualise.

Alessandro Torlonia

Above: public domain

20 more years came by, between the 1854 and the 1873, so that the engineers, technicians and the workers managed to see the conclusion of their hard work, during which, part of the original canal of Claudius was recovered. it was the 1st October 1878 and the Fucine lake was officially declared as dried out, thanks to the constant work both personal and financial of Alessandro Torlonia, subsequently appointed with the title of “Prince of the Fucine”.

The outlet of the emissary claudius-torloniano

Above: picture by Marica Massaro via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

The Fucine lake has turned, even after lively battles  between the inhabitants or the area, in one of the most fertile plains in Italy, which saw a growing production when the lands were gradually expropriated (after the agrarian reform of 1950) from the Torlonia family.

Paesant struggle in Ortucchio – 1950

Above: public domain

Besides any kind of consideration about noblemen and boor Marsi( the writer Ignazio Silone talks about this in his Fontamara), th drying out of the lake remains a great project of hydraulic engineering, born from the proud vision of a aRoman emperor and brought to completion by a banker, still of Roman heritage. If it  was sesterces or lire (national currency in the Kingdom of Italy in 1862), what really took was nothing but money.

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