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Inviolata teras, victorque vaporis ad aras
Sil. Jv. 175.
On the supposed site of the ancient temple, 2270 feet above the level of the sea, perched on the highest points of the perpendicular crags, its walls one with their precipices, now stands the monastery of S. Silvestro. It is a sublime position, removed from and above everything else. Hawks circle around its huge cliffs, and are the only sign of life.
On a lower terrace are the church and hermitage of 5. Antonio, ruined and deserted. To these solitudes came Constantine to seek for Sylvester the hermit, whom he found here in a cave and led away to raise to the papal throne, walking before him as he rode upon his mule, as is represented in the ancient frescoes of the Quattro Incoronati.
"Sylvester, who had been elected bishop of Rome, fled from the persecution, and dwelt for some time in a cavern, near the summit of Soracte. While he lay there concealed, the Emperor Constantine was attacked by a horrible leprosy: and having called to him the priests of his false gods, they advised that he should bathe himself in a bath of children's blood, and three thousand children were collected for this purpose. And, as he proceeded in his chariot to the place where the bath was to be prepared, the mothers of these children threw themselves in his way with dishevelled hair, weeping, and crying aloud for mercy. Then Constantine was moved to tears, and he commanded that the children should be restored to their mothers with great gifts, in recompense of what they had suffered.
"On that same night, as he lay asleep, S. Peter and S. Paul appeared at his bedside, and they stretched their hands over him, and said—' Because thou hast feared to spill the innocent blood, Jesus Christ has sent us to bring thee good counsel. Send to Sylvester, who lies hidden among the mountains, and he shall show thee the pool, in which having washed three times, thou shalt be clean of thy leprosy; and henceforth thou shalt adore the God of the Christians, and thou shalt cease to persecute and oppress them.' Then Constantine, awaking from this vision, sent to search for Sylvester. And he, when he saw the soldiers of the Emperor, supposed it was to lead him to death: but when he appeared before the Emperor, Constantine saluted him, and said, 'I would know of thee who are those two gods who appeared to me in the vision of the night?' And Sylvester replied,* They were not gods, but the apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ.' Then Constantine desired that he would show him the effigies of these two apostles; and Sylvester sent for the pictures of S. Peter and S. Paul, which were in the possession of certain pious Christians. Constantine, having beheld them, saw that they were the same who had appeared to him in his dream. Then Sylvester baptized him, and he came out of the font cured of his malady." —Jameson's Sacred Art.
The oratory of Sylvester was enclosed in a monastery founded in 746 by Carloman, son of Charles Martel, and uncle of Charlemagne, and though later buildings have succeeded upon the same spot, and the existing edifice is externally of 1500, it encloses much of the church of Carloman, and the more ancient hermitage of Sylvester. The walls if the church are covered with mediaeval frescoes, fading, but Vol. Il 4
still very beautiful. On the right of the entrance is S. Buonaventura; then come S. Anne, the Virgin, S. Roch, and S. Sebastian, but all have been much injured by the goat-herds who used to shelter their flocks here when the church was utterly deserted. The beautiful old high-altar is richly carved in stone taken from the mountain itself. Behind it are a curious holy water basin, and a priest's chamber. A martyr's stone—" Pietra di Paragone"—may be seen in the wall.
Beneath the lofty tribune is the cell of Sylvester, half cut in the mountain itself. It encloses the sloping mass of rock which formed the bed of his hermitage, and his stone seat . Here also is the altar on which, first Sylvester himself, and afterwards Gregory the Great, said mass. On the walls are dim frescoes of the seventh century, faintly lighted by the rays stealing in above the altar—Christ, S. Silvester, S. Gregory, and the Archangel Michael. A long inscription in the upper church tells the story of a later sainted monk of Soracte, Nonnosus, who is reported to have performed three miracles here. The first was when a monk broke a valuable lamp—"' una lampada orientale "—quite into small pieces in this church, and was in despair about the consequences, when Nonnosus fell on his knees and prayed, and the culprit saw the fragments miraculously joined together again. In the second, the olive-gardens of the convent failed, and the abbot was about to send out to buy up the oil of the paesani, when Nonnosus took the convent oil— "il poco che fu "—and it was miraculously multiplied. In the third, he lifted by the force of prayer a large stone, which had fallen, back to its mountain ledge, where it may still be seen in proof of the power of this saint.
Behind the convent is its little garden, where legend tells that S. Sylvester would sow one day his turnips for the meal of the morrow, and that they were miraculously brought to perfection during the night. There is a grand view from this over all the wide-spreading country, but especially into the blue gorges of the Sabina, and the monks described the beautiful effect when each of the countless villages which can be seen from hence, lights its bonfire on the eve of the Ascension.
The last monks who lived in S. Silvestro were Franciscans, and they left it in 1700, because seven of their number were then killed by lightning in a storm. Our monastic friends accompanied us on our return as far as Sta. Maria delle Grazie, and as we turned to descend the mountain-path, the old monk of eighty-six, standing at the head of the steps, stretched out his hands and most solemnly blessed us— "May the blessed Saviour keep and guide you, and may His holy angels walk with you in all your ways."
As we slowly descended the mountain, we looked down through the woods to Santa Romana at its eastern base, near which are the deep fissures called Voragini, whence pestilential vapours arise. Pliny mentions these exhalations from Soracte as fatal to birds, and quotes Varro, who speaks of a fountain on Soracte four feet in width, which flowed at sunrise, and appeared to boil, and of which, when birds drank, they died. By Servius a story is told of .some shepherds who were sacrificing to Pluto, when the victims were carried off from the very altar by wolves. The shepherds pursuing them came upon the cave whence the pestilential vapours issued, which destroyed all who came within their reach. A. malady ensued, and the oracle declared that the only remedy was to do as the wolves did—to live by plunder.* Hence they were called Hirpini Sorani—Pluto's wolves, from hirpus, which was Sabine for a wolf, and Soranus, another name for Pluto; and accordingly, robbers there always were on Soracte till the forests which clothed the whole neighbourhood were for the most part cut down about twenty years ago. With the robbers the wolves and bears, which abounded on the sides of the mountain, disappeared, many persons being still alive who have had adventurous escapes from them. Cato says that there were also wild goats upon Soracte, of such wonderful activity, that they could leap sixty feet at one bound ! t
From S. Oreste one looks across a wooded country to the villag« of Rignano, about 3^ miles distant. It claims to be the birth-place of Caesar Borgia. Fragments of ancient columns and altars abound there, and in the piazza is preserved a curious primitive cannon. Rignano gives a title to the eldest son of Duke Massimo.
Seven miles south-east of Rignano is a hill crested by the ruined church of San Martino, which occupies the site of the Etruscan Capena, the faithful ally of Veii, indeed Cato says that Veii was founded by the Capenates. The citadel was strongly defended by nature, being situated on an insular rock connected with the neighbouring heights by a kind of isthmus, and was consequently almost impregnable. It was never taken by siege, but capitulated to the Romans, after vainly joining with the Falisci, in an attempt to succour Veii.
"After the fall of Veii, Valerius and Servilius marched to Capena; and, the inhabitants not daring to quit their walls, the Romans de
• JEn. xl 785. t Cato ap Varron. Re Rust. ii. cap. 3.