The History of Gaeta

Gaeta has had an interesting and eventful history.


* Virgil's Character Aeneas

Gaeta has had an interesting and eventful history. It is believed that Gaeta was first colonised by the people of the Ionic island of Samos. However there are also mythical origins relating to the Greek hero of Ulysses (in Homer's Greek work "The Odyssey")  or Aeneas (in Virgil's Roman version "The Aeneid"). Following the fall of Troy, Ulysses/Aeneas and his men are said to have set sail through the Aegean and Ionic seas, travelling around the island of Sicily before landing in Carthage in North Africa. From here he, and his survivors, sailed on up the west coast of Italy through the Tyrrhenian Sea and are said to have eventually landed on these Italian shores.  

There are two possibilites as to the origin of the town’s name.  One theory is that Aeneas travelled with his so called wet-nurse, who was named Caieta. She is said to have died and been buried in this area. The name was later modified to that of Gaeta. Another possibility is that Gaeta takes its name from the ancient Greek word “Kaiḗtē” meaning cave, which could refer to the number of caves or harbours that can be found in this vicinity.  The Archaeological Museum, in the nearby town of Sperlonga, has many interesting exhibits relating to the mythical character of Ulysses.

The History of Roman Gaeta

Bust of Lucius Munatius Plancus
Lucius Munatius Plancus

Gaeta benefited from a good deep water harbour and during Roman times was renowned for its beautiful coastline. Several wealthy and influential Romans owned luxurious summer villas in this area. The remains of villa thought to belong to the Roman polititian, and supporter of Mark Antony, Gaius Fonteius Capito, has been found on the limestone headland of Monte Orlando, together with another villa of the military general Lucius Munatius Plancus. His mausoleum can still be found near Gaeta’s lighthouse. Further Roman villas were found in the Porto Salvo district of Gaeta. One was owned by Antoninus Pius, Roman emperor from 138 AD to 161 AD. Another is thought to have been the villa of Lucius Marcius Philippus, patron of the Emperor Augustus. A third belonged to Lucius Sempronius Atratinus, who was born  in 73 BC. He was an illustrious speaker in Rome and commander of the fleet of Mark Antony between 38 and 34 BC. He was elected as a Roman consul in 34 BC. The remains of his mausoleum can still be seen today. (More about the district of Porto Salvo)

The History of Medieval Gaeta

The rocky promontory of Gaeta, being almost completely surrounded by sea, provided a natural defence against attack. Yet with the fall of the Roman empire, the town was subjected to invasions by the Goths in the 6th century and by the Lombards in the 7th century.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages Gaeta was ruled by the Byzantine empire. Gaeta formed alliances with other maritime states in the south of Italy to combat the continuous incursions by the Saracens. The League of Campagna was formed at the behest of Pope Leo IV who was anxious to defend Rome.  In 849 this league took part in the Battle of Ostia in a fleet of maritime republics, which included Gaeta. This blocked the Saracens who were attempting to land at Ostia, with the aim of invading Rome.

In 915 Giovanni I of Gaeta and his son Docibilis took part in the Battle of the Garigliano, where the Christian League of Pope John X attacked a Saracen fortress that had been built on the Garigliano River near Minturno. Here the Saracens were defeated and driven out of central Italy. Consequently John I was permitted to expand his territory to the Garigliano and was awarded the title of Patricius from Byzantium. This entitled members of the Docibile family to call themselves Dukes.

Thus Gaeta evolved into an autonomous maritime duchy. A castrum or small castle with strong walls, gates and watch towers was built to fortify the city. The gates were Porta del Mola, Porta Domnica and Porta Nuova. From 114o Gaeta was conquered and ruled by the Norman King Roger II of Sicily. During this period the town’s defences were further developed. Documents also testify that Duke Frederick II of Swabia (1090 – 1147) had Gaeta’s fortifications strengthened in 1223.

Roger II of Sicily
* King Roger II of Sicily
King Charles of Anjou King of Naples
King Charles I of Anjou
       Raffaespo    CC BY-SA 2.5
In 1297 Charles I of Anjou, King of Naples, built a fine castle in Gaeta that is square in shape with four large towers.

In 1387 the young ten year old Ladislao di DurazzoKing of Naples, and his mother Margaret, were forced to take refuge in the fortress at Gaeta. Pope VI had refused to recognize him as king and summoned a crusade against him. In 1389 the new Pope Boniface IX finally recognised him as king and on the 21 September 1389 he married the 12 year old Costanza Chiaramonte, daughter of the Conte di Modica e Vicario del Regno di Sicilia, Manfredi III Chiaramonte. Yet the marriage was brief as it was annulled by decree of the pope in 1392.

From 1435 to 1442 Alfonso V of Aragon, known as Alfonso the Magnanamous, made Gaeta his base for the conquest of the throne of Naples. A new rectangular fortress was built on a higher level of the promontory, which adjoined the earlier Angevin construction. The structure is rectangular in shape and has four formidable cylindrical towers of varing height. It is sometimes referred to as the Alfonsino

When Charles V of Habsburg, also known as the Holy Roman Emperor, ordered futher fortifications to make the castle complex into a formidable fortress. These included a ring of tall strong walls along the coastline. The sole entrance was the Porta San Carlo also known as La Cittadella.

Alfonso V The Magnanamous of Aragon
*  Alfonso V of Aragon
Charles V Holy Roman Emperor
*  Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor
Marcantonio Colonna
*  Marcantonio Colonna
The Banner of Lepanto in Gaeta's Museo Diocesana in Italy
*  Banner of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto

Battle of Lepanto in 1571

* Battle of Lepanto

In 1571 the fleet of Marcantonio Colonna, ships sailed from Gaeta to form a part of the Papal fleet of the Holy League. His flagship was named the Capitano. The allied Christian fleet headed for the Gulf of Patras in the Ionian Sea. On the 7th October 1571, following the famous naval Battle of Lepanto, the Ottomans were finally defeated and prevented from further expanding into their empire. The naval engagement involved over four hundred galleys and lasted five hours. The banner of Lepanto, made by Girolomo Siciolante da Sermoneta is now preserved in the Museo Diocesano in Gaeta.

In the year 1660 the Spanish general and Master of Campo Don Alonso de Monrroy, who was the military commander of Gaeta, added a chapel to the aforementioned gateway of Porta San Carlo. This was dedicated to Santa Maria de la Soledad.  The gate and the chapel still exist today.

Chapel of Santa Maria de la Soledad Porta San Carlo in Gaeta Italy
Chapel of Santa Maria de la Soledad

The Sieges of Gaeta

Over the years Gaeta was subjected to more attacks which resulted in lengthy seiges:  In 1707 the city was held siege for three months before being taken by the Austrians under the Viceroy of Naples during the War of the Spanish Succession.

In 1734 the Habsburgs were held seige at Gaeta for a four month period, before yielding to Spanish forces under the command of the Duke of Parma (the future King Charles III of Spain). Gaeta became part of the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples.

Between the 26th Febuary and the 18 July 1806 the fortress and its Neapolitan garrison were held seige by the troops of Napoleon lead by André Masséna. The French created the city of Gaeta into a duchy, giving it the French name of GaeteIn 1815 Gaete yielded to Austrian and Anglo-Sicilian forces at the end of a three month seige and Gaeta was then returned to Bourbon rule.

Siege of Gaeta 1734

* Siege of Gaeta 1734

The Siege of Gaeta in 1860 – 1861

In September 1860 Garibaldi siezed possession of city of Naples and the army of the Bourbon King Francesco II of The Two Sicilies were defeated near the River Volturno. King Francesco fled to and took refuge within the mighty military fortress of Gaeta. He was accompanied by his wife Queen Marie Sophie of Bavaria, his family and his remaining men.

Gaeta was the most northerly post of the Kingdom of Naples and The Two Sicilies. The fortress was heavily armed, having 450 canons. Held up within the castle there were many military men together with the citizens of Gaeta. Conditions within the castle became horrendous and this caused a typhoid epidemic and food was in short supply.

They withstood a lengthy seige and heavy bombardments by the troops of General Cialdini and the fleet of admiral Persano. However, King Francesco and his troops were finally forced to surrender on the 13th  February 1861. Of the Neapolitan troops, 829 were dead and 2,000 injured. 200 civilians of Gaeta were also killed.

The surrender was signed at the Villa Reale Borbonica in Caposele the town of Formia This was the end of the Kingdom of The Two Sicilies. 

King Francesco II and Wife Maria Sophie of the Two Sicilies
* King Francesco II & Queen
Marie Sophie of Bavaria
Giuseppe Garibaldi
* Giuseppe Garibaldi
King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy
* King Victor Emmanuell II

Consequently this led to the formation of the new unified Republic of Italy.  King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia was proclaimed King of Italy.