The Pontine Marshes (Agro Pontino in Italian) is a former marsh area in the Lazio Region of Central Italy, southeast of Rome, that today forms a low tract of land, the Agro Pontino, varying in breadth between the Volscian Mountains and the sea from 10 to 16 miles, and extending northwest to southeast from Velletri to Terracina by the Tyrrhenian Sea, from which they are separated by sand dunes. The area amounts to approximately 775 km². The Via Appia, an ancient Roman road, crosses the former marshes. Sparsely inhabited throughout much of their history, the Pontine Marshes were the subject of extensive land reclamation work under Mussolini's fascist regime in the 1930s.
The three rivers Sisto, Uffente and Amazone changed their beds continuously, and each storm surge from the sea accumulated water, so that at times the rivers flowed backwards into the interior. In the south the country was below sea level by up to 40cm. The tropical Anopheles mosquito, carrier of malaria, transferred its blood parasite to the local mosquito species Anopheles messeae; the marshland and the district far beyond became deadly by the end of the Republican period.
Attempts to drain the marshes were made by Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 BCE, when he constructed the Via Appia through them (the road having previously followed a devious course at the foot of the Volscian mountains); further attempts at draining the marshes were made at various times during the Roman period. All plans assumed that the water from the deepest part of the moorland had to be collected, in order to let it flow off to sea. Since no sufficient pumping capacities were available at that time, the plans proved technologically impossible. A canal ran through the Pontine Marshes parallel to the road, and for some reason that is not altogether clear, it was used in preference to the road during the Augustan period. The Roman Emperor Trajan in the early second century and the Ostrogoth Theodoric in the sixth attempted drainage projects to render the land workable, but failed. Trajan repaired the Via Appia, and Theodoric did the same some four hundred years later, but by the Middle Ages it had fallen into disrepair.
In 1561 Pope Pius IV employed the services of the mathematician Rafael Bombelli, who had gained a reputation as a hydraulic engineer in reclaiming marshland in the Val di Chiana in the Tuscan Apennines, but the project also came to naught. The ambitious Sixtus V too made unsuccessful attempts at reclamation of the area, and died of malaria after a visit to the Pontine Marshes.
Donat published his idea in Rome and Berlin, and succeeded in gaining the attention of Emil Rathenau, the general manager of AEG in Berlin. Rathenau saw market potential for electric investments, so he and some industrialists in Berlin as well as private financiers created the "Pontine Syndicate Ltd." in 1900. Seventy million gold marks were set aside for the project. One of the conditions was that the Italians would have to match the funds on the project.
In 1898, Fedor von Donat resigned from his position as battalion commander and moved to Rome with his family. There he lobbied the government for his project, as well as four large landowners, connections in financial circles and the Vatican. He leased 240 acres of marsh near Terracina and established a model farm, "Tenuta Ponte Maggiore". With the help of waterwheels of ancient Egyptian type, revolved by three oxen, he was able to prove that the moorland had a high percentage of organics in its soil, of over 70 points; this proved that three harvests per year were possible. He protected his eighty workers from malaria with a daily dose of quinine. He invited Roman journalists to a press conference on his property. In 1902, large German newspapers, as well as foreign papers, carried long articles about the project. They often carried a sense of national pride about the development project. Donat argued above all for the extermination of malaria in the countryside surrounding the capital. Malaria prevented the expansion of Rome to the south, the settling of which could provide a new province for Italy without a colonial war. The urbanization of the marshes could prevent 200,000 Italians from emigration. Around the year 1900, one could count fewer than 1000 inhabitants for a coastal region larger than 700km². By a law passed in 1899, the proprietors were bound to arrange for the safe outlet of the water from the mountains, keep the existing canals open, and reclaim the district exposed to inundation, for a period of twenty-four years. The sum of 280,000 was granted towards the expense by the government.
Donat’s plan failed. This time it was not the technical inadequacy as with the predecessors, but political deliberations that stood in the way of the project. The liberal government hesitated and gave the North preference, where in the valley of the Po large marshes also needed to be reclaimed. A violent resistance of the four large property owners in the Pontine Marshes was the reaction to the necessary expropriation and leasing to the German syndicate of a large part of their marsh country. The co-financer, the Banca Commerciale in Milan, delayed starting the task. Donat, whose lobbying had operated on his own funds, exhausted his wife’s fortune of 75,000 gold marks by 1903. Unsuccessful, he returned to Germany. The Pontine Syndicate was dissolved on September 4, 1914. With it, a premature but bold attempt at a transnational investment to gain more land ended.
The New Towns of Littoria (1932, now Latina), Sabaudia (1934) and Pontinia (1935), Aprilia (1937) and Pomezia (1939) were founded, side by side with several other small borghi (rural villages). The carefully differentiated architecture and urban planning aspects of these towns is striking even today.
At the northernmost end of the marshes, the beachhead at Anzio (ancient Antium) was the site chosen for the famous World War II amphibious landing of January 22, 1944. The treeless irrigated fields of the Pontine Marshes, interlaced with an intricate network of drainage ditches, offered scant cover for troops, and during the rainy season the fields were impassable to most heavy equipment. German sabotage of the pumping stations of the drainage system during World War II demonstrated how swiftly the area would become waterlogged without constant supervision. The last of the malaria was conquered in the 1950s, with the aid of DDT.
Today a duct system runs through the dried-out area. Wheat, fruit and wine are cultivated in the Pontine region. The "Agro Pontino" is a flowering landscape with modern cities with both pre-war and post-war architecture. By the year 2000, about 520,000 inhabitants lived in this formerly deserted region.