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A Hill-Top Stronghold
by [?]

‘Why, what did they want to build a city right up here for, anyway?’ the pretty American asked, who had come with us to Fiesole, as we rested, panting, after our long steep climb, on the cathedral platform.

Now the question was a pertinent and in its way a truly philosophical one. Fiesole crests the ridge of a Tuscan hill, and in America they don’t build cities on hill-tops. You may search through the length and breadth of the United States, from Maine to California, and I venture to bet a modest dollar you won’t find a single town perched anywhere in a position at all resembling that of many a glowing Etrurian fastness, that ‘Like an eagle’s nest Hangs on the crest Of purple Apennine.’ Towns in America stand all on the level: most of them are built by harbours of sea or inland lake; or by navigable rivers; or at the junction of railways; or at a point where cataracts (sadly debased) supply ample water-power for saw-mills and factories; or else in the immediate neighbourhood of coal, iron, oil wells, or gold and silver mines. In short, the position of American towns bears always an immediate and obvious reference to the wants and necessities of our modern industrial and commercial system. They are towns that have grown up in a state of profound peace, and that imply advanced means of communication, with a free interchange of agricultural and manufactured products.

Hence in America it is always quite easy to see at a glance the raison d’etre of every town or village one comes across. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore–New Orleans, Montreal, San Francisco, Charleston–are all great ports for the exportation of corn, pork, ‘lumber,’ cotton, or tobacco, and the importation of European manufactured goods. Chicago is the main collecting and distributing centre for the wide basin of the upper Great Lakes, as Cincinnati is for the Ohio Valley, and St. Louis for the Mississippi and Missouri confluents. Pittsburg bases itself upon its coal and its iron; Buffalo exists as the point of transfer where elevators raise the corn of Chicago from lake-going vessels into the long, low barges of the Erie Canal. In every case, in that newest of worlds, one can see for oneself at a glance exactly why so large a body of human beings has collected just at that precise spot, and at no other.

But when you have toiled up, hot and breathless, through olive and pine, from the Viale at Florence to the antique Cyclopean walls of Etruscan Faesulae, you wonder to yourself, like our American friend, as you pant on the terrace of the Romanesque cathedral, what on earth they could ever have wanted to build a town up there for, anyway.

If we look away from Tuscany to our own England, however, we shall find on many a deserted down or lonely tor ample evidence of the causes which led the people of this ancient Etruscan town to build their citadel at so great a height above the neighbouring valley. Fiesole, says Dante, in a well-known verse, was the mother of Florence. Even so in England, Old Sarum was indeed the mother of Salisbury, and Caer Badon or Sulis was the mother of Bath. And when there was first a Faesulae on the hill here there could be no Florence, as when first there was an Old Sarum on the Wiltshire downs there could be no Salisbury, and when first there was a Caer Badon on the heights of Avon there could be no Bath.

In very early times indeed, in the European land area, when men began first to gather together into towns or villages, two necessities determined their choice of a place to dwell in: first, food-supply (including water); and second, defence. Hence every early community stands, to start with, near its own cultivable territory, usually a broad river-valley, an alluvial plain, a ‘carse’ or lowland, for uplands as yet were incapable of tillage by the primitive agriculture of those early epochs. But it does not stand actually in the carse; it occupies as a rule the nearest convenient height or hill-top, most often the one that juts out farthest into the subjacent plain, by way of security against the attack of enemies. This is the beginning of almost every great historical European town; it is an arx or acropolis overhanging its own tilth or ager; and though in many cases the town came down at last into the valley, retaining still its old name, yet the remains of the old earthworks or walls on the hill-top above often bear witness to our own day to the original site of the antique settlement upon the high places.