City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The Peninsula of Italy

If you will look at a map of Europe, you will see three great peninsulas extending from its southern coast into the Mediterranean Sea. The one which lies farthest to the east is the peninsula of Greece; you may have read of its beautiful scenery, and the brave people who lived there in olden times. The peninsula farthest to the west, with the Atlantic Ocean washing its rocky coast, is Spain. The land lying between the two is Italy; and it was there that a great people lived, many centuries ago, whose story you are now to read.

These three peninsulas of southern Europe differ greatly from one another in shape and size. The Grecian peninsula is not nearly so large as that of Spain or Italy, and it has a number of smaller peninsulas running out into the surrounding seas like the stubby fingers of a great hand. Spain is the largest of the three, and it is almost square in shape, with few bays and capes along its coast-line. Italy, which lies between the two in position, is also between the two in size and shape. It is larger than Greece, and smaller than Spain, and its coast line is neither so broken as that of the former, nor so regular as that of the latter. In shape, Italy is long and slender, and very much like a huge boot. On the map you will see it lying in the midst of the Mediterranean, with its toe to the south and its heel to the east; and if you will look closely you will see that there is a great spur, too, upon the back of the boot, but, instead of being placed on the heel, it has slipped far up on the ankle.

The peninsula of Italy lies about as far north on the earth's surface as the State of New York, but it has a very different climate from that which is found in this latitude in America. To the north of it lies a high chain of mountains, which protect its sunny plains from the cold northern winds; while the sea that lies around it is warmed by the hot currents of air from the deserts of Africa. In this way, the winters are made milder, and the summers warmer, than with us, so that the orange and the olive grow there, where the people of our own country raise the pear and the apple.

The surface of Italy varies greatly in different parts of the peninsula. In the northern part, between the steep wall of the Alps and the mountains to the south of them, lies a broad, well-watered plain, larger than the State of Indiana. Here we find the most fertile land in all Europe, where grow great fields of wheat and other grain, and groves of waving mulberry trees. Here, too, is to be found the largest river of Italy the River Po which draws its waters from the melting snows of the Alps and flows eastward to the Adriatic Sea.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding

South of the basin of the Po, we come to a belt of mountains again. These are the Apennines. They are not nearly so high as the snowy Alps, but still they are higher in many places than the tallest peaks of our Appalachians. From where they leave the Alps, the Apennines sweep eastward almost across the peninsula; then they gradually curve to the southward and extend to the very toe of the peninsula. This same range appears again in Sicily, and forms the backbone of that island. Among these mountains we may see many lofty peaks, covered to the very top with forests of chestnut, oak and pine. Between the parallel ridges of the chain lie pleasant valleys without number; and at their foot are broad uplands where herds and flocks can find pasture in the hottest and driest summer weather.

On both sides of this wooded mountain chain, plains and wide belts of marshy country stretch away to the sea. On the eastern side, the slope is quite steep and short, and the land there is hilly and broken by deep gorges through which the rivers have cut their way to the Adriatic. Only people who live, for the most part, on the products of their sheep, goats and cattle, can find, a living here. On the western side, the slope is more gentle, and broad, fertile plains lie between the mountains and the sea. Here the people do not have to depend so largely on their flocks and herds, for they can raise grain, and grow vineyards; and, in the south, groves of orange, fig and olive trees may be seen.

As the peninsula is so narrow and the slopes so short, you could not expect to find long, deep rivers, in that part of the country which lies south of the River Po. Many streams rise in the mountains, and flow down across the country into the sea, but they are most of them short, and few of them are deep enough to bear a ship, or even a boat of large size. They vary, how-ever, according to the season of the year. Sometimes, after the rains have begun to fall, or when the snow is melting on the tops of the mountains, they are rushing torrents which sweep everything before them. Then, again, when the summer heats have come, and the rains have ceased, they shrink to little harmless streams, or dry up altogether. The only river, south of the basin of the Po, which is deep enough to bear boats and small ships all the year around is the Tiber. This river rises in the Apennines, where they bend to the south; it follows a long course through the plains, and then flows into the Mediterranean about half-way down the western side of the peninsula. The waters of even this longer river vary greatly at different seasons of the year, and its swift current is so often muddied with floods from rains and melting snows that it has been called "the yellow Tiber."

Now that we have seen the surface of the peninsula of Italy, suppose that we go aboard a ship and sail along its shores in order to get an idea of its coast. We will begin our journey at the point farthest to the west. Here the Alps and the Apennines run together, and the mountains lie close to the water's edge. The shores are steep and lofty, and in many places there is barely room for a road to run between the mountains and the sea.

Sailing from here across the gulf which lies between the peninsula and the mainland, we come to a coast where the Apennines leave the shore and are lost to sight to the eastward. This part of the coast is not so mountainous, but still it is high and rocky. As we go southward, however, it gradually becomes lower, until we see the flat and marshy plains that lie about the mouth of the Tiber. Let us look well, as we pass, at that broad, flat plain that lies south of the Tiber; for it was there, many centuries ago, that the people lived of whom we are to read.

When we have sailed past this low-lying coast, we come again to a bold and rocky shore. Here the coastline is cut into broad, deep bays, whose shores are dotted with towns which were founded long, long ago. Towering above the waters of one of these bays we see the smoking summit of Mount Vesuvius, one of the most famous volcanoes in the world.

From here; all around the toe of Italy, the sea is faced by steep rocks, behind which rise lofty heights. On the shores of the great gulf which lies between the toe and the heel of the peninsula, we find another broad, well-watered plain; and here too are cities which were founded in the ancient days.

As we sail around the eastern corner of the peninsula, we look out upon a low and sandy country, which makes up the heel of the boot. As we continue up the eastern shore, we notice that there are almost no good harbors on this side of the peninsula. We do not need to be told, therefore, that in ancient times there were few cities here, and that only shepherds and cattle-raisers lived on the rolling plains.

In some places this eastern shore is high also, and in others we find long stretches of low and sandy country. When we reach the land about the mouth of the River Po, we see wide, unhealthy marshes and many small sandy islands. Upon a group of these islands, the wonderful city of Venice is now built; but in the times of which you are now to read, there was no Venice, and all these islands were either marshy wastes, or the homes of a few scattered fishermen.

In this peninsula of Italy, which we have been examining so carefully, there now lives a nation of people who are united under one king into a government called the kingdom of Italy. But when our story begins, about seven hundred and fifty years before Christ was born, there was no kingdom of Italy and no Italian nation.

Instead of this, there were many separate groups of people living in the peninsula, who were only distantly related, and who had very little to do with each other. They knew much less about their country than we do now; for there were no books then to tell them about it, and in every direction the mountains, the rivers, or the sea hemmed them in, and made traveling so difficult that they could not well find out about it for themselves. So it happened, that most of these peoples were acquainted only with the groups who lived close by them; and they were interested only in their own little city, and in their farms and pasture-lands which lay about it.

In those olden days, each little city had its own king, who governed the people in time of peace, and led them in war, when they fought against their neighbors. Often, when there came to be too many people to live comfortably within the walls of a city, the younger and the poorer people would go away from their old homes and begin a new city somewhere else.

Each of these new cities, like the old one, would be built on a hill or some high place which could easily be defended against their enemies. There the people would build their fort—or citadel, as they called it—and the rest of the town would grow up about it. Then, from their homes in this strong place, the people would go into the surrounding country to cultivate their farms and to herd their cattle; but to this spot they would always retreat in time of danger. In this way every town lived more or less to itself, obeying its own king, fighting its own battles, and owning and cultivating a few miles of land about it.

In very early times, there was one city of this sort, on the south bank of the River Tiber, about twenty miles from the sea. It was called Rome, and at first it was probably not very different from a hundred other towns in Italy. As time went on, however, Rome was to become much more than this. It was to conquer, first, the cities that lay nearest to it. Then it was to conquer those which lay farther and farther away, until it had made all Italy its own. Then it was to reach out, and conquer all of the lands about the Mediterranean Sea. In this way, it was to become, at last, the mightiest city that the world has ever seen.