The Circeo National Park protects a territory of extraordinary natural beauty with archaeological remains and historic architecture – evidence of ancient, anthropic occupation – which enhance the fascination and attraction of these places. Numerous prehistoric caves open up along the sides of the Circeo promontory. Of these, the best known is the Guattari Cave, discovered in 1939 south-west of San Felice Circeo, where a skull of Neanderthal man was found.
Numerous other finds of the stone industry are proof that man occupied this area intensely throughout prehistoric times.
The colony of Circeii was founded together with Signa by Tarquin the Proud at the end of the 6th century BC. In 491 BC, it was occupied by the Volsci, led by Coriolanus and was only re-conquered at the beginning of the 4th century by the Romans, who established a second Latin colony there and built the walls around the Acropolis.
During the Imperial era, the beauty of the surrounding area attracted the attention of numerous patrician families, who built a series of suburban villas here, used as permanent and holiday residences. The area between the promontory of Circeo and Lake Sabaudia has the largest number of these buildings. Among the most famous are the Villa of Domiziano (1st century AD), which extends along the banks of Lake Paola, and the contemporary Villa, built on the tiny peninsular of the Casarina area, which became a hermitage during the Middle Ages.
Throughout the area the ruins of buildings serving the villas and urban nuclei are still visible. These include hydraulic systems visible in the remains of ancient aqueducts, wells, tunnels and large semi-interred tanks that, when they were no longer used to collect water, often became shelters for men and animals. Even more characteristic are the peschiere, the large aquaculture tanks for fish, shellfish and crustacean farming, all popular ingredients in the dishes of the time. The largest were the peschiera di Lucullo – south of Lake Sabaudia, consisting of two concentric rings with four different sized tunnels – and the Bacino Absidato, a large rectangular tank built inside Villa Domiziano.
Other evidence of activities linked to products from the sea is the murenari, structures built specifically to breed moray eels, the Emperors’ favourite food. One of these, comprising several tanks and a mechanism to regulate the change of water, is visible in the port of the island of Zannone.
The construction of some major road infrastructures dates back to Roman times. These include the road connecting Hostis (ancient Ostia) with Terracina, along a route which probably followed the Via Severiana (3rd century AD). Some major canal works were also built. During the period of Nero, the Fossa Augusta was designed to link the coastal lakes, continuing as far as Terracina across the northern part of Circeo. A few stretches remain of this road along the Pedemontana and at Selva Piana. The stretch linking Lake Monaci with Lake Caprolace was rebuilt in 1721, when Pope Innocence XIII ordered another large artificial water work to be built, which later took the name of Canale Papale.
The decline of the Roman Empire led to a gradual depopulation of this area. The disrepair of the Via Appia reduced the number of travellers passing through, as they preferred the piedmont routes. As crop farming was abandoned, so the marshland increased, and gradually Nature reclaimed the area. Thus, we have little information about this territory for the entire period of the early Middle Ages. Devastated by the Goths of Alaric in 410, it was conquered by Totila in 846 and subjected to forays by the Saracens in the same period.
The entire area was later governed by various noble families until it became the property of the Annibaldi, who ceded it in 1301 to the Caetani. This family governed it almost continuously for just over 400 years. During this period, the most determined attack on the power of the Caetani was led by Alessandro Borgia, whose strategy aimed to strengthen the rule of his own lineage. Pope Alexander VI enticed Giacomo Caetani to Rome, and imprisoned him in the prisons of Castel Sant’Angelo, where he had him poisoned. All the estates of the Caetani in the Circeo area then passed into the hands of Lucrezia Borgia.
Following the death of Alexander VI in 1503, the Caetani regained possession of Sermoneta and of the other fiefdoms. In 1506, a concession was obtained from Pope Julius II and work began to rebuild the castle and fortress and the first nucleus of today’s town of San Felice di Circeo was built.
A few years later in 1562, Pope Pius IV forced Cardinal Niccolò Caetani, liege of San Felice Circeo and Sermoneta, to strengthen the papal coastal defence system to defend it from attacks by pirates. In a short time, he built Torre Paola, Torre del Fico, Torre Cervia and lastly, Torre Moresca on the promontory. Of the latter only the foundations are still visible.
In the 16th century, Popes Leo X and Sistus V began major reclamation works in the Pontina plain and significantly extended the surface of agricultural land. The greatest impact, however, took place in the second half of the 18th century under Pope Pius VI. A large drainage canal, the “Linea Pio” canal was built, together with a series of minor canals, running perpendicular to the former, spaced a mile apart and linked to a series of minor roads named migliare, a place name still used today. This enabled a vast area to be used and cultivated under the hills around the plain and at the same time restored the Appia as the main road linking Rome and the South.
The functional structure created with the migliare system linked to a main drainage canal was a major project for a series of interventions, implemented during the most intense period of the Pontina reclamation, begun at the end of 1800 and reaching its peak in the following twenty years until 1918.
In 1934, the Circeo National Park was established to safeguard a piece of the landscape that had survived the growing anthropisation of the plain, where the desire to create new spaces for agriculture had eliminated the marshes and other magnificent natural areas, such as the forest of Terracina.
In the same period, the so-called Città di nuova fondazione [Towns of new foundation] were built on completion of the reclamation work to colonise the newly distributed lands. These included Sabaudia in the centre of the Park area, one of the highest expressions of Rationalist architecture.