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Samnium and the Sangro Middle Valley: A Brief History

The Iron Age and Archaic periods (10th to 5th centuries B.C.)

The Samnite tribes and their central Apennine cousins emerged in the fifth to fourth centuries as state entities within a broad geographic area that runs along the Adriatic coast and eastern side of the Apennine mountain chain, from the Marche in the north to Puglia in the south. In the Iron Age, the material culture of this broad area is sufficiently homogeneous to allow scholars to speak of a ‘Central Adriatic culture’.

Grave goods (the principal surviving testimony for this period) from large and often wealthy Iron Age cemeteries are broadly similar, at least for elite burials of males and females, across an area covering the modern Italian regions of Molise, Abruzzo and Marche, as well as parts of Campania (although the mortuary evidence for Molise suggests lower levels of wealth and cultural sophistication for some of the period). They allow the reconstruction of wealthy and vigorous societies, organized in increasingly sharply stratified ways, with gentilician groups coalescing over time into broader groupings ruled by princes or kings, with a strong emphasis on prowess and status achieved and maintained through war, and the promotion of a warrior ethos.

Unlike the other (Tyrrhenian) coast of Italy, there seems to have been no impetus towards the form of state organization familiar in much of Greece, and more widely in the Mediterranean from the 8th century: the urban (polis) model predicated upon complex communities based in urban centers acting as the focus for discrete territorial blocksin other words there were no cities in this part of Italy.

Equally there are almost no written records from this period, far fewer than in the western part of Italy: the discovery of a series of sixth century texts at the mountain sanctuary of Penna Sant’Andrea in the Marche in the 1970s caused major excitement, although how much can be translated depends on the disposition of the reader towards optimism or pessimism (the jury is still out on some of the claims made). The language is clearly related to the ‘Sabellian’ languages spoken in central Italy in the fifth to first centuries B.C., and much more distantly to Latin; on the basis of these family similarities some words can be translated with a little confidence: one of the texts (probably) talks about the ‘monuments’ (mufklúm) of the ‘princes of the Safin’ (nerf safinim).

These princes have in some cases left imposing funerary statues representing the deceased (both male and female), males decked with weapons and armor, most famously represented by the fifth century Capestrano Warrior from northern Abruzzo, but known in a dozen other more broken examples from northern Marche as far south as Monte Pallano, where fragments of two such statues have been found on the southern flanks of the mountain (the Atessa ‘torso’ and the Acquachiara ‘kneecap’).

As for the Safin, scholars generally like some flavor of the proposition that Safin is the name of some or all of the peoples implicated in the Central Adriatic cultural koinē (above), although this is not an unproblematic position to adopt. ‘Safin’ turns up in a second-century text from the Pentrian Samnite sanctuary of Pietrabbondante in Molise, suggesting some sort of ethnic continuity (real or perceived), as well as a progressive restriction of the use of the name Safin as the tribes of the Central Adriatic area broke up into smaller and more complex socio-political units – but other interpretations are possible. More interesting in this connection are the ancient myths of ethnogenesis of these later peoples themselves, the Paeligni, Marrucini, Marsi, and the Samnite tribes, as recorded in Greek writers of the early empire-Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Strabo, themselves using Greek and Roman writers of the Hellenistic era (the territories of some of these peoples meet precisely in the environs of Monte Pallano: Pentrian and Carricinian Samnites, Frentani, Marrucini, Paelgini) . These depict a diffusion of population across the area characterized by the ‘central Adriatic culture-label’ from the central area of Sabinum (in the Apennines northeast of Rome), spreading in successive migrations across to the Adriatic, and eventually ending up as far south as the toe of Italy. Most of the pre-Roman inhabitants of central and southern Italy thus believed themselves to be related to each other through these migrations. The stories of these ‘sacred springs’ (uer sacrum, as Roman writers called them) have sometimes been too uncritically accepted by modern scholars, but the evidence from Penna Sant’Andrea may suggest some sort of ethnic connection stretching across this broad area of central Italy, in paralleling homogeneity of the Iron Age burial evidence; yet the appearance of the Italic peoples themselves as recognizable entities, and thus the stories they told about themselves, seems to post-date the fragmentation of the earlier cultural koinē; and the ‘sacred spring’ stories are about differentiation as much they are as about similarity.

Moreover, Iron Age Italy was a world of high mobility, facilitated by the connectivity represented by the tratturi or drove roads which criss-cross central Italy, leading from the high summer pastures of the Apennines to the coastal lowlands of Puglia, which sheep over-wintered and the wool was sold on to be worked in centers of the textile trade like the Greek colony of Taras.

While the mortuary archaeology of this area of pre-Roman Italy is well-known (the cemeteries of Alfedena (in the upper Sangro valley) and Campovalano alone have produced some thousands of burials between them), aspects of settlement and land use are very poorly known. John Lloyd’s field survey in the Sangro valley identified numerous large and dense scatters of a pottery type characteristic of the Iron Age (but probably used later too), known as impasto, in the area of Acquachiara around Monte Pallano. He plausibly interpreted these as the traces of villages, hamlets and farms of the Iron Age. One of the aims of the second phase of the Sangro valley project was to excavate one of these possible Iron Age settlement sites, to date and characterize it as far as possible, and to attempt a reconstruction of settlement, and human exploitation and interaction with the landscape in this period. While few comparanda are known, there is a Bronze Age village at Fonte Tasca on the northern slopes of Monte Pallano (Archi), which provides an point of important reference. This aim has been fulfilled, in a preliminary way, with Lloyd’s work at Acquachiara, described above, although further similar work at other sites remains desirable. Recent excavation there has identified an archaic horizon (SVP Trench 8000), which seems to be associated with agricultural production, probably for a nearby settlement still not located, but inferred on the basis of surface finds during field survey

In the fifth century this Iron Age society in central Adriatic Italy experienced major change, which can be traced in the archaeological record. This period sees a striking impoverishment of the great cemeteries, with a sharp decline in all grave types, the eclipse of the elite warrior burials, and the abandonment of many cemeteries. Major upheavals seem to have affected the social structure of larger and smaller communities, and, as a consequence, altered the ways in which the dead were disposed of, making burial much harder to observe in the archaeological record, and quite different where we can observe it, open to a wide range of new cultural influences, as well as occasional relict features from the days of the warrior burials.

We seem to witness the end of a monarchical or princely world, and the emergence of new ‘states’ or ‘peoples’ run on more republican, less dynastic lines, with more emphasis on collegial rule of elected officials, law and custom; it may not be irrelevant that similar changes happen in Rome at about this time with the expulsion of the last king and the establishment of the Republic (in Samnium, too, many of the leading families probably remained in positions of power, now elected not hereditary). Certainly the statues of the princes ceased to be erected in the cemeteries, and the quasi-Homeric world of the warrior clans probably passed into history too. The village probably remained a central part of organization of the landscape, now grouped into polities of varying sizes, themselves forming part of wider state and federal structures. Other types of archaeological evidence now begin to become available to us: the fourth century saw the start of the widespread phenomenon of sanctuary building, surely to be related to the emergence of societies oriented around communities and not around gentilicial structures (there is a little evidence of earlier sanctuaries, and in northern Samnium much monumental construction occurs later than it does in the south). The village as a settlement unit was supplemented in the landscape by the practice of fortifying and occupying defensible hilltop sites (Latin oppida), like Monte Pallano (again, there is evidence of this earlier at a small scale). Some of these hillforts are huge, and were occupied all year round, others were tiny and served as seasonal or temporary refuges for humans and animals. The dating of hillforts has been very controversial: some scholars have seen them as primitive, and thus early, forms of settlement; but the little excavated evidence for their chronology points unambiguously to the fourth century for their construction. Such a date is attractive not least because that is the date of the first attested contact between peoples of the eastern Apennines and Rome. The Romans called the tribes whom they encountered in southern Abruzzo and Molise by the collective name of Samnites.

The Samnites

Livy attests first contact in 354 B.C., and from this point we can meaningfully talk of Samnites when we refer to the inhabitants of southern Abruzzo, Molise and eastern Campania. Although the contact with Rome was initially peaceful, the Samnites, who, when united, were the major political and military force in Italy besides the Romans, found themselves at war with Rome in the space of a decade, and conflicts of blistering intensity are recorded by Greek and Roman writers, on and off (mainly on) for the next seventy years, as the Samnites stubbornly resisted Roman hegemony. In the struggle for control of Italy it was victory over the Samnites which was crucial for Rome, and the bitter hostility of the two peoples was matched by mutual respect for their military prowess (in this the Iron Age warrior spirit lived on); some of the Samnites sided with Hannibal in the second Punic War, and all of them revolted from Rome in the Social War of 91-87 B.C., followed by a campaign of ethnic cleansing orchestrated by the Roman dictator Sulla.

Both ancient and modern assessments have tended to see the Samnites as hardy, backward, largely pastoral villagers led by a small group of leading families who monopolized the major political, military and religious office. (See Dench 2004 for an overview of scholarship)

Typical is E.T. Salmon’s pioneering book Samnium and the Samnites (1967):

Of all the Italic peoples the Samnites are the ones who appear prominently in every account of Roman expansion in Italy. Indeed they have inspired some of Livy’s finest writing and have evoked generous tribute from him; largely, I suspect, because the period of their greatness was for him aetas qua nulla virtutum feracior fuit, the heroic age of Rome. Yet no attempt has ever been made to describe these fiercest opponents of Rome from their own point of view. (p. ix)

The work of Salmon, and many of his Italian colleagues, while it brought archaeological evidence to the fore to sustain a new interest in the pre-Roman peoples of central Italy (related to greater autonomy for the modern Italian regions, and distrust of the Roman political classes) also took the writings of ancient authors as uncontroversial neutral description. These writers, all Greek or Roman, misrepresent as much as represent the Samnites, and speak of them as a simple, bellicose people living in villages.

But, as Emma Dench remarks in the “Epilogue” to her book From Barbarians to New Men (1995):

How should we write the history of ancient peoples who had no literature of their own, and what should it mean to describe such a society ‘from their own point of view’?

This history can now begin to be writtennew advances in the study of material culture and archaeological work in the Central Apennines are helping to reappraise the existing literary evidence and allowing the Samnites to start speaking for themselves.

The extent to which this Samnite landscape was affected by the complex process of urbanization familiar elsewhere in Italy has been a major theme of recent scholarship, which has stressed the sophistication of the Samnites, and their openness to external influences. The Samnite elites were manifestly interested in participating in the cultural koinē of the Hellenistic world, and their sanctuaries above all reflect this engagement: they are, in a sense, the Samnites’ substitute for cities, although some oppida began to take on urban characteristics such as monumental building (as at Pallano) and prestige private housing (Monte Vairano in the Biferno valley) in the second century B.C.

The fourth century B.C. is the start of the great era of sanctuary building in Samnium, especially in the south. The Samnite elites invested their wealth in the building and maintenance of temple complexes and rural sanctuaries dedicated to their gods; these seem to have acted as central places in the Samnite landscape, probably hosting fairs and political meetings as much as religious rituals. The sanctuary complexes at Pietrabbondante, Iuvanum, Campochiaro, Schiavi d'Abruzzo,Vastogiradi, and the Civitella complex at Chieti (and now the recently discovered sanctuaries on Monte Pallano) are powerful indicators of the rapid Hellenization of the Samnite elites, and their attempts at self-representation.

The wealth which sustained this extraordinary activity must have been in part drawn from the production of agricultural surplus. This tends to suggest that characterizations of the Samnites as upland pastoralists found in Roman sources and perpetuated by many modern writers are simplistic and misleading; agriculture and pastoralism necessarily existed in symbiosis in any case. In other cases the Samnite elites made their money from involvement in the Roman wars of conquest in the Mediterranean in the second century B.C., either through war booty, or as traders moving in the wake of the conquest. One major trade was that in slaves, centered on the Aegean island of Delos; many of the Italian traders' names here are known and many of them are typical Samnite names. Finds from Monte Vairano attest trade in Rhodian wine, and other luxury comestibles should have accompanied them; transport amphorae from Monte Pallano suggest similar imports from the Adriatic area.

Despite involvement in the wider Mediterranean world, Samnite culture remains highly distinctive, albeit often expressed in idioms drawn from the outside world. Such interactions are complex in nature as described by Dench From Barbarians to New Men (1995) 218-219:

A high level of interaction and interdependencecultural, economic, political, and ideologicalexists between the various peoples of peninsular Italy … It is no longer acceptable to conceptualize the processes of cultural interaction that we think of as ‘Hellenization’ and ‘Romanization’ as involving passivity on the part of a ‘native’ society that gives in to the ‘natural’ superiority of Greek/Roman culture, adopting it blindly and in an uncreative manner. The study of … a region … should address questions of local social contexts. It is time to stop conceptualizing Greek and Roman influences as necessarily being in opposition to regional culture, and to consider ways in which individual ancient societies made use of a variety of cultural influences in order to express themselves in a unique fashion. Recent archaeological advances have set the material evidence from the Central Apennines squarely within the context of cultural interchange in peninsular Italy.

The language of the Samnites, Sabellian or Oscan, persisted into the first century B.C. as well, although there are examples of Latin-Oscan bilingualism even in the heart of Samnium, like the charming graffiti scratched on a tile from the early first century B.C. at Pietrabbondante: (in Oscan) ‘Delftri, the slave of Herrenneis Sattis, signed this with her foot’; (in Latin) ‘Amica, the slave of Herreneis, signed this, while we were laying the tile out to dry’the imprints of two pairs of dainty hobnail shoes adorn the centre of the tile (which may have been made in Venafrum in western Samnium). The Social War and accompanying genocide in the 80s B.C. devastated Samnium, but the region now gained the Roman citizenship. After this, the spread of Roman customs, the Latin language, Roman law and Roman material culture were inevitable.

Roman Samnium

The spread of these Roman customs across Italy in the first century B.C. was very uneven, and some change was slow. After c. 50 B.C. the pace of change increased as the pre-Social War generation died out, and under the emperor Augustus, Samnium, like the rest of Italy, experienced a major shift in material culture, a homogenization of style and outlook tied to the central ideological program of the new ruling dynasty. It is at this point that the old cultural distinctiveness of Samnium really begins to vanish.

In the high empire much of the economic activity in the area seems to have been related to long distance transhumance of sheep from mountain pastures in Abruzzo and Molise to winter pasture in Apulia, leading to some famous instances of friction between the inhabitants of the new urban centres (like Saepinum) which sprang up in the Augustan period, and the pastoralists. Furthermore, Samnium seems to have been a prime producer in the Roman period of pigs for pork, the favoured meat in the Roman diet, added to the annona or free food rations of the city of Rome by the emperor Aurelian in the later third century A.D.

Although some villas continue as going concerns down into the fifth century A.D., both urban centres and many countryside settlements were in decline or collapse by the late Roman period. The area of the Sangro Valley was the front line in the wars between the Goths and the forces of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, and it also suffered during the Lombard and Saracen invasions.

The Samnites in the Sangro Middle Valley

The Sangro Middle Valley is dominated by Monte Pallano. Ringed by the four modern communities of Tornareccio, Bomba, Archi, and Colledimezzo, Monte Pallano lies on the southern edge of the Sangro Middle Valley, between the Sangro and the Sinello/Osento river systems, and at the interface between the coastal hinterland and the upland plateaux and ridges constituting the outliers of the Apennine range. At 1020m above sea level at its peak, Monte Pallano constitutes the first substantial mountain formation encountered by the traveller leaving the coast to pass inland along the Sangro Valley (whether heading for the mountainous heart of Italy or the other coast via the Apennine watershed and the Volturno valley or other routes), and marks a point where the river valley makes a sharp turn to the south and begins to run in an increasingly narrow defile before opening out again near Castel di Sangro.

Human presence in the area around Monte Pallano in the Stone Age has left fleeting traces, in the form of discarded stone tools, but sometimes, as near Roccascalegna, in terms of activity sites. As elsewhere in Adriatic Italy, the transition from the late Bronze Age to the Iron Age saw the development of increasing complexity in communities, and the formation of hierarchically organized societies, ruled in the end, as we saw, by kings or princes, who led a warrior elite, and legitimated themselves both through their abilities in war, and in their control and distribution of luxury goods and their manufacture by specialized craftsmen. Besides the funerary statues mention above, grave goods demonstrate the wealth conspicuously consumed by the wealthy men and women buried in familial grave groups (as in the sixth century tombs found at Via de Gasperi in Tornareccio): metal items, such as weapons and armor for men, and jewellery for women, above all the chatelaine necklaces found in tombs and as sporadic finds in the Monte Pallano area. These Iron Age grave goods show how material culture and social practices related to those of the Greeks and the Etruscans were being appropriated by the elites of this region in order to distance themselves from subordinate populations, and to legitimate their own position in society. As we saw, the mortuary manifestations of this society came to an end with the fifth century; it is suggestive that the ceramic evidence from Acquachiara points to abandonment of the site at a similar date.

The construction of the magnificent megalithic walls (mura megalitiche) on Monte Pallano, one of the finest examples of polygonal 'fortification' walls in this part of Italy, recently restored by the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell'Abruzzo, is undated, but best places in the fourth century (above); as such they probably represent the collective power and resources of the early Samnite forms of communal organization here following on the end of the Iron Age, a symbol of the intentions of a newly defined community more than a real defensive circuit.

As noted above, the transition from Iron Age to Samnite periods was marked by major changes in the organization of the landscape; the villages and the agricultural regimes must have been subject to some change, and it is indeed at this point that we start to register in faunal evidence in Samnium a development in the mean size of cows raised on farms. Acquachiara, like other sites of the archaic and earlier periods, has yielded bones compatible with the small cows reared continuously since the Bronze Age (and which remained characteristic of the area beyond the Alps until the coming of Rome); in Tyrrhenian Italy cows of this size disappeared with the breeding of the larger varieties known today, but Apennine Italy remained fixed in what was essentially a Bronze Age pattern until the fourth century, when mean sizes begin to increase steadily.

Sporadic finds testify to the Samnite presence in the wider territory of Monte Pallano, but the investigation of the rural sites identified in the Phase I survey has yet to disclose any traces of occupation for this period. A proxy indicator is furnished by the megalithic walls, and the ‘central’ place’ place and public buildings excavated by the Soprintendenza, as well as the sanctuary temenos uncovered by the Project (above), and the sophisticated cultural associations which can be inferred from the architectural terracottas.

Romans in the Monte Pallano area Excavations by the Soprintendenza have shown that Monte Pallano was a fortified hill-top settlement site (oppidum), as well as the political and religious centre of a substantial community dispersed across the hinterland (a pagus) in the Samnite period (c. 400-100 B.C.). The site remained an important administrative centre into the high empire, when it seems to have been abandoned.

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