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Italy’s Mysterious Mycenaean-Like Cyclopean Walls

Cyclopean walls Italy
The Mysterious Origin of Italy’s Mycenaean-Like Cyclopean Walls. Credit: Stefano Constantini / Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

A wide range of gigantic Cyclopean walls found across Italy—from Tuscany to Sicily and Sardinia—have puzzled archaeologists for centuries, as their origin remains a mystery. Their polygonal masonry greatly resembles the building style of some of the most famous Mycenaean fortifications in Greece. However, there is no solid archaeological evidence so far to establish such a connection.

Dated on the basis of archaeological finds and ancient script mentions to as early as the 8th century B.C., most of the Cyclopean walls of Italy are clearly of pre-Roman origin.

Although archaeology as a science cannot jump to arbitrary conclusions about their provenance in the lack of findings, the mystery of the Cyclopean walls of Italy makes history enthusiasts and individual researchers wonder—and investigate—which could be the missing link.

“Cyclopean walls” term in modern archaeology

The term “Cyclopean walls” comes from the belief of classical Greeks that only the mythical tribe of the Cyclopes had the strength to move the enormous boulders that made up these walls.

It first applied to the masonry style characteristic of Mycenaean fortifications, such as the ones in Tiryns, Mycenae, Argos, and Boeotia.

cyclopean walls in italy and mycenaen lion gate, Greece
Lion Gate at Mycenae, Greece and Cyclopean walls in Italy. Credit: (left) Nicholas Hartmann/ Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 . (right) Stefano Peron / Twitter

In the words of ancient Greek geographer Pausanias, “There still remain, however, parts of the city wall [of Mycenae], including the gate, upon which stand lions. These, too, are said to be the work of the Cyclopes, who made for Proetus the wall at Tiryns.”

Many classical writers, such as Strabo and even Aristotle, according to Pliny, also attributed the building of these great walls to the Cyclopes tribe.

In modern day, however, the term was adopted by archaeologists to describe a few types of similar building styles with irregularly-shaped, unworked boulders encountered within the same or different civilizations.

Cyclopean structures are found in many places of Italy, as well as in Kition, Cyprus,  Mallorca and Menorca in Spain, and in the ancient city of Rājagṛha, India. Furthermore, these were also found in later, pre-Colombian civilizations of South America, most characteristically in Machu Picchu, Peru.

Polygonal masonry is believed to have already been widespread among the Italic populations long before the Romans arrived for a number of reasons, such as the inconsistency in elements of architectural nature.

In other instances, Cyclopean walls were located in areas that the Romans had never colonized.

Walls attributed to Pelasgians by local legends

However, since the presence of Mycenaean trade in Italy is, until now, proven to have been very limited during the Bronze Age, archaeological evidence cannot support the theory of Mycenaean colonization either. This could have explained the presence of the gigantic walls in the area.

Local legend in several Italian locations where Cyclopean walls are found attributes the gigantic structures to the equally mysterious Pelasgians, the legendary indigenous population that resided on mainland Greece and the Aegean islands. The Pelasgians are mentioned by several Greek authors, such as HomerHerodotus, and Thucydides.

Pelasgians were reported to have colonized not only Italy but also Cyprus, which could explain the transfer of knowledge from mainland Greece to other areas in the Mediterranean where Cyclopean walls were also built.

Theories about Italy’s Cyclopean walls

The French scholar Louis-Charles-François Petit-Radel attempted to attribute the walls to the Pelasgians as early as 1801, but again, archaeological findings were unable to date them to the late Bronze Age, at the very least.

Another 19th century archaeologist, Antonino Salinas, attributed the Cyclopean walls of Erice in Sicily to the local Italic tribe of the Elymians, who were reportedly widely Hellenized in the 8th century B.C. For instance, they used the Greek alphabet to write their own language, which hasn’t been deciphered to this day.

Among the many possible theories, Italian archaeologist Filippo Coarelli has hypothesized that the introduction of polygonal work in the area of Lazio around Rome was the result of collaboration of itinerant workers of Greek origin in the 6th century B.C.

Perhaps the truth hides in more than a single theory, as cultural and technological exchange in antiquity could have happened more slowly and more locally than our modern-day minds allow us to fathom.

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