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A Hill-Top Stronghold
by [?]

And what then do you see? Spread far below you, and basking in the sunshine, a comparatively flat and wide, open valley; olive and stone pine and mulberry on its slopes; pasture land and flowery vale in its midst. North and south, in two long ridges, the Apennines stretch their hard, blue outlines from Carrara to Siena against the afternoon sky–outlines of a sort that one never gets in northern lands, but which remind one so exactly of the painted background to a fifteenth-century Italian picture that nature seems here, to our topsy-turvy fancy, to be whimsically imitating an effect from art. But in between those two tossed and tumbled guardian ridges, the valley of the Arno, as it flows towards Pisa, with the minor basins of its tributary streams, expands for a while about Florence itself into a broad and comparatively level plain. In a mountain country so broken and heaved about as Peninsular Italy, every spare inch of cultivable plain like that has incalculable value. True, on the terraced slopes of the hillsides generation after generation of ingenious men have managed to build up, tier by tier, a wonderful expanse of artificial tilth. But while oil and wine can be produced upon the terraces, it is on the river valleys alone that the early inhabitants had to depend for their corn, their cheese, and their flesh-meat. Hence, in primitive Italy and in primitive England alike, every such open alluvial plain, fit for tilth or grazing, had overhanging it a stockaded hill-fort, which grew with time into a mediaeval town or a walled city. It is just so that Caer Badon at Bath overhangs, with its prehistoric earthworks, the plain of Avon on which Beau Nash’s city now spreads its streets, and it is just so that Old Sarum in turn overhangs, with its regular Roman fosses and gigantic glacis, the dale of the namesake river in Wilts, near its point of confluence with the stream of the Wily.

We find it hard, no doubt, to imagine nowadays that once upon a time England was almost as thickly covered with hill-top villages (though on minor heights) as Italy is in the present century. Yet such was undoubtedly the case in prehistoric times. I know no better instance of the way these stockaded villages were built than the magnificent group of antique earthworks in Dorset and Devon which rings round with a double row of fortresses the beautiful valley of the Axminster Axe. There, on one side, a long line of strongholds built by the Durotriges caps every jutting down and hill-top on the southern and eastern bank of the river, while facing them, on the opposite northern and western side, rises a similar series of Damnonian fortresses, crowning the corresponding Devonshire heights. Lambert’s Castle, Musberry Castle, Hawksdown Castle, and so forth, the local nomenclature still calls them, but they are castles, or castra, only in the now obsolete Roman sense; prehistoric earthworks, with dyke and trench, once stockaded with wooden palings on top, and enclosing the huts and homes of the inhabitants. The river ran between the hostile territories; each village held its own strip of land below its fortress-height, and drove up its cattle, its women, and its children, in times of foray, to the safety of the kraal or hill-top encampment.

In such a condition of society, of course, every community was absolutely dependent upon its own territory for the means of subsistence. And wherever the means of subsistence existed, a village was sure to spring up in time upon the nearest hill-top. That is how the oldest Fiesole of all first came to be perched there. It was a hill-top refuge for the tillers and grazers of the fertile Arno vale at its feet.

But why did the people of the Arno Valley fix upon the particular site of Fiesole? Surely on the southern side of the river, about the Viale dei Colli, the hills approach much nearer to the plain. From San Miniato and the Bello Sguardo one looks down far more directly upon the domes and palaces and campaniles of Florence spread right at one’s feet. Why didn’t the primitive inhabitants of the valley fix rather on a spur of that nearer range–say the one where Galileo’s tower stands–for the site of their village?