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The Necropolis of Children

by Eleonora Cesaretti

Lugnano in Teverina belongs to the Club
I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia


On the hills around Lugnano in Teverina, a few kilometers from the border between Umbria and Latium, there is a place with an ominous and evocative name: the Necropolis of Children.

The Macabre Find

Forty-seven dead infants, found inside the five rooms of the ancient Roman villa – left to decay from the III Century a.C. – were all buried within a short time, as suggested by their stratified collocation, so that the floor had risen up to three metres, even though belonging to the same archeological site. The corpses of the bigger ones were stuck in amphoras, while infants and fetuses often lay on each other or are covered byfragments from the villa in ruins.


villa romana di Poggio Gramignano

One of the children found in the Roman villa of Poggio Gramignano and kept at the Lugnano Municipal Antiquarium, pic via


You must not consider people from the late Empire period as infanticide, because the hecatomb was due to a violent epidemic. In 2016, archaeologists discovered that the most lethal form of malaria, the Plasmodium falciparum strain, making Poggio Gramignano of Lugnano the oldest evidence of the disease penetration in Europe and in the Mediterranean area.

The Archaeological Site

The villa, which appeared as the percfect villa theorized by Varro, was transformed into a necropolis since the V Century. Though the body of adults are not been discovered yet, there are interested finds to talk about. In addition to isolated bones of adults, consumed, since they were alive, by malnutrition and porous (nerve tissue necrosis), raven’s claws, part of a toad‘s skeleton and several skeletal pieces of dog puppies have also been found. The latter, without any trace of atmospheric events and scattered along all three meters of the tumulus – made of bodies, pots, earth and ashes – were undoubtedly torn apart for ritual purposes. The sacrifice of dog puppies (five or six months old) was indeed linked to the worship of Ecate, a god from the underground who had the task to carry the deads in the Hereafter, not to mention that the same type of sacrifice was used to purify the abortion women (just remember the twenty-two fetuses buried in the villa). Also Pliny the Elder soke about those habits, linking the subject chosen for the sacrifice to Sirius, the Constellation of the Dog, a star that “rises” in the summer, a period in which the recurrence of malarial fevers is at its apex in Italy.

Pagan Incursions

Also some carbonized honeysuckle remains prove that the hecatomb happened in summer, because the honeysuckle is a shrub of the Mediterranean area that is in bloom during that period of the year. It is curious that, in an area officially considered christianized, had appeared such pagan rituals.


Honeysuckle, photo via


Moreover, we do not know who were that people, what was their ethnicity or their religion, we even did not know if their settlement was isolated or even a part of a community able to maintain its cultural independence against Cristian unifying action. We cannot exclude that with such a violent pestilence those poor souls had appealed to ancestral cults in order to survive the disease that was decimating them.

Chapters to be Rewritten

Even the fearsome Attila, the notorious Flagellum Dei who threated to plunder Rome in 452, probably decided to renounce because he didn’t want to die of malaria. According to what was written in the Leges novellae divi Valentiniani (V Century), among the reasons that led him to give up there was also a not specified pestilence, but now it may have found a name and a place.
The mephitic air of those areas will also strike Sidonio Apollinare, a few years later (467 a.C.):

«Then I crossed the other cities along Via Flaminia – one after the other – leaving the Piceni on the left and the Umbri on the right; and here my exhausted body succumbed to sirocco from Calabria or the unhealthy air of Tuscan lands, dense of myasms, sometimes with a sensation of cold, some others of hot. Thirst and fever devastated my soul to the core; in vain, I drank from from pleasurable fountains, from hidden springs and from every stream of water I encountered, even thought thay were vitreous translucents of the Velino, the frozen waters of the Clitumno, the ceruleas ones of Aniene, the sulfuries one of Nera, the clear waters of Farfa or the red ones of the Tiber.» (Epistulae, I.5, 8-9)


A coin depicting Attila, photo via

It is not so strange that Attila, camped at Ager Ambulejus (today’s Governolo, Mantua), decided to save Rome – and what remained of its own troops. Undoubtedly, it is a more plausible hypothesis than the blessed crucifix of Leo I, which, according to legend, pushed the king of the Huns far from Rome.
Certainly, in this story, superstition and science intersect in a rather intriguing way, demonstrating how many and which demons a plague can give rise to in the minds of men. On the other hand,we have to say that several histories of esoteric taste also circulated on Attila. Even though he was brave and cruel in battle, probably he was a simple and superstitious man – even according to the historian Prisco of Panion: it seems that convinced that the death of Alarico, King of Visigoths, was closely related to the looting carried out in Rome in 410, had decided to stay away from the city for fear of doing the same.



More on Lugnano in Teverina


Con Roberto Montagnetti, alla scoperta della Necropoli di Poggio Gramignano, in www.orvietonews.it 


Villa Rustica di Poggio Gramignano a Lugnano in Teverina, in www.paesionline.it 

Antiquarium comunale di Lugnano in Teverina, in www.beniculturali.it 

Lugnano: la villa romana di Poggio Gramignano tornerà a rivelare i suoi segreti, in www.umbriaecultura.it 

Lugnano in Teverina: il borgo con l’archeologia nel DNA, din www.umbriaecultura.it 

Chi fermò Attila? Forse la malaria, din www.popsci.it 


Lugnano in Teverina, sorprendenti scoperti nella necropoli di Villa Gramignano, in www.umbriaindiretta.it 

Sorprendenti scoperte nella Necropoli di Lugnano in Teverina, in www.terniinrete.it 




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