Formia in South Lazio Italy

Formia is situated on the spectacular Gulf of Gaeta in the region of South Lazio.  It is situated close to the southern border of Lazio and the Campania region of Italy. Behind Formia rise  the majestic peaks of the Aurunci Mountains which tumble down to meet the sea.

photo © Patrizia Esposito

In the Castellone district there are the remains of a Roman Theatre.

The History of Formia

Formia in Mythology

Legend has it that this was the mythical land of the Laestrygonians, who were fierce giants who attacked the hero Ulysses when he came to land on these shores. Meanwhile, the Roman historian Strabo claimed that the town was founded by the Laconians. However originally it was the land of an Italic tribe known as the Aurunci. It was subsequently taken over by the Volsci.  Sections of ancient fortified polygonal walls are still in evidence around the town.

Roman Formia

During Roman times Formia was known as Formiae. It was a port and staging post along the route of the ancient Via Appia.  It was also a fashionable holiday resort for several wealthy Romans and statesmen. The Roman poet, Marco Valerio Marziale, wrote of Formiae “O Temperatae Dulce Formiae Litus …..” which translates as “gentle coast of Formia with a mild climate …..”. Today many ruins and ancient monuments of this era are still visible.

Cicero

Villa Rubino is situated in the Caposele district.  Here are the remains of a sumptuous Roman house, that some say was owned by the Roman lawyer, statesman, politician and philosopher – Marco Tullio Cicero. Cicero definitely possessed a villa in the Formia area, however there is some controversy as to whether this particular villa actually belonged to him. This residence was constructed on three terraces, close to the seashore, overlooking  the Gulf of Gaeta. It was adorned with aquatic gardens, a fountain, fishponds and it also had a small harbour. The remains of the villa are now privately owned, so unfortunately are rarely open to the public.

* Print by Luigin Rossini (1839)

* Print by Luigin Rossini (1839)

Mausoleum of Cicero

Six months after the murder of Julius Caeser, Cicero dared to criticise his opponent, Mark Anthony, in a series of speeches known as the Philippics.  Mark Anthony took his revenge and ordered the assassination of Cicero. On the 7th December 43 BC Cicero was caught being carried on a litter leaving his Formia villa. He was planning to escape from his enemies by boarding a ship heading for Macedonia. He was murdered by some of Mark Anthony’s men, he was decapitated, his hands were severed and his tongue cut out. Cicero was aged 64 years.

A mausoleum can be seen situated just outside Formia (in the direction of Rome) to one side of Via Appia.  Some say this is Cicero’s tomb, however this is not known for sure. In fact his severed head and hands were put on public display in the Roman Forum in Rome and he was buried in the city. The cylindrical concrete structure stands 24 metres high on a base of large limestone blocks. Inside there are two chambers.  The monument is rarely found to be open, but it can be visited by appointment. To organise a visit contact the Archaeological Museum in Formia.

Carole Raddato   CC BY-SA 3.0

Nearby on a hill in the Acervara district are the remains of another tomb, that of Cicero’s daughter, Tulliola.  She died in childbirth at a young age.

The Remigio Fountain

Also along the Appian Way is the Remigio Fountain which dates from the Roman Imperial period. It consists of a wall of limestone blocks which had a large water cistern behind it.  Water flowed from two spouts which were decorated with masks depicting the sun and the moon. Only one can still be seen today. There was also a water trough for thirsty horses and animals travelling through along the Via Appia.  Here sections of the original Roman road can be seen paved in basalt.

The Muro di Nerva

The Muro di Nerva  are the remains of a mighty sea wall, in opus incertum, of the Roman Republican era. There are also sections of an ancient cyclopean wall dating from the 5th century BC. These walls formed  part of the sea defences of the harbour and port. Nearby, in an area known as the Grotto di Sant’Erasmo, warehouses with barrel vaults were also constructed along the sea front.

Caposele Harbour

At Caposele there are the remains of a small Roman port with more warehouses built alongside.

The Roman Theatre in Castellone

The Criptoportici and Roman Villa

Under Piazza della Vittoria there are the remains of a villa and some underground buildings or warehouses known as criptoportici, which date from the 1st century BC. Nearby there were pools which were once used as fish hatcheries. These can be seen at low tide.  Sadly, under many of the modern day buildings of  Formia lies much of the ancient Roman town Formaie.  In the main street of Via Vitruvio, close to Piazza Mattej stood a basilica and an Augustan forum.

The Water Cistern or Cisterone  of Formia

A large Roman water cistern, or Cisternone dating from the 1st century BC, was unearthed during public road works in 1930.  It is said to be one of the largest ever discovered. It has undergone restoration and it is now possible to visit this monumental construction. It has mighty raised vaults and impressive strong walls. The cistern was fed by local fresh water springs and the water supply was distributed to public and private buildings throughout the town. It is a wonderful testament to the skill of Roman hydraulic engineering.

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

Among other Roman remains to be found in the Formia include two funerary monuments can be found in the districts of Remigio and San Pietro. The ruins of a temple dedicated to Janus (50 BC), the theatre of Trajan, an amphitheatre close to the railway station (1st century AD), an aqueduct (1st / 2nd century AD), a small port along the coast at Giànola and a grand residence owned by Lucius Mamurra (50 BC) located near to Scauri in the Natural Park of  Giànola e Monte di Scauri.

The Archaeological Museum of Formia has some interesting Roman artefacts that have been unearthed in the local area.

The Settlements of Mola and Castellone

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, this area fell into decline. From the 6th century it was repeatedly attacked by the Goths, the Huns, the Ostrogoths and the Lombards.  

Then, in 846, the Saracens invaded and completely devastated the town.  The townsfolk were forced to take refuge in the surrounding hills or fled the nearby town of Gaeta further along the coast.  The sacred relics of the holy martyr Erasmus were taken their for safe keeping, and still remain there to this day.

In 916 the Saracens where finally defeated and driven out by the Christian forces during the infamous Battle of Garigliano.

Gradually, over time, people began to return to the area and two settlements evolved.  One was named Castellone and was situated to the west. The other was known as Mola and was positioned to the east.

From the 10th century the area became under Norman rule.

During the 13th century a fortress with a cylindrical tower, known as the Torre Mola, was built by Charles II of Anjou.

* Print by Luigi Rossini (18390

*

Also during the mid-thirteenth century the Formia area was affected by several disasters with catastrophic consequences.  The first was a tsunami that struck the gulf of Gaeta in 1257. Then Formia was subjected to two strong earthquakes, one in 1258 and yet another in 1293.

In the 14th century the villages of Mola and Castelone were ruled by the Caetani family of Fondi.  In 1377 Onorato Caetani built a strong fortification in the Castelone settlement which was guarded by strong walls with twelve tall towers.

In the 15th century Gaeta and its surrounding territories are ruled by King Ladislao di Durazzo of Gaeta.

In 1818 the two villages were combined and became known as Mola di Gaeta.  It was situated in the most northerly territory of the Spanish Bourbons. In 1860 King Francesco II of The Two Sicilies was forced to flee Naples and took refuge within the military fortress of Gaeta. He was accompanied by his wife Queen Marie Sophie of Bavaria, his family and his remaining men. Following a long siege which lasted for more than three month,  King Ferdinand was forced to capitualate to Garibaldi’s forces.  This was the end of the Kingdom of The Two Sicilies. The surrender was signed at the Villa Reale Borbonica (Villa Rubino), near Caposele in Formia.  

Following the unification of Italy in 1861 the town of Mola di Gaeta took on the name of Formia.

During 1943 and 1944 Formia found itself positioned on the German Gustav line and suffered both loss of live and many hardships during this period of the Second World War.