Abruzzo & Molise: Oliver Gilkes goes in search of the Samnites

8 mins read
© Oliver Gilkes
The Abruzzo countryside, with castles (try to spot them) and the Gran Sasso in the background, from the battlements of Bominaco castle.

Late in the year the streets of modern Rome are visited by groups of strangely dressed men with soft felt hats and the impressive, not to say alarming, bagpipes (zampogna) traditionally associated with the shepherds of the Abruzzo and Molise. Made of the inflated skins of sheep, their thin, reedy sound accompanies the disparate groups of zampognari as they wander through the piazzas.

Whether these men are really shepherds, or even from the Abruzzo region today, is uncertain, but what they are is a reminder of the links between mountain and city that have subsisted over millennia of Italian archaeology and history. The mountains were a barrier, but also a highway, and the high valleys and passes were used to channel the seasonal movement of flocks feeding the, at times, insatiable appetite of Rome and the other great cities of Italy. In the Middle Ages, the shepherds would stay on in the city after having disposed of their charges to busk on street corners, and the lure of small change was enough to keep the tradition going.

© Oliver Gilkes
A 6th or 7th century BC funerary stele from Collelongo with an Oscan inscription attesting to the existence of political entities at this early date.

Relations between town and country were not always benign, and the rocky spine of the peninsula was not always the hospitable place it is today. The central south of the country is a land of high passes and spectacular crags, rising up to the near 3,000m-high peaks of the Gran Sasso, bisected by rivers running east and west to the two flanking shores of Italy. In this broken-up landscape arose one of the great peoples of the land. In simplistic terms, one might say that if the Etruscans showed the Romans how to build, then the Greeks taught them how to think; but it was the Samnites who taught them how to fight.

From the Bronze Age into the Middle Ages, this hardy, if rustic, upland people formed a backdrop to the epic of Roman history. Rome never faced a more determined and inveterate enemy, as the highlanders, fuelled by population pressure, pushed out of their strongholds into the rich lowlands. From the 5th century BC, Rome confronted three full-scale wars, countless skirmishes, and finally a great rebellion in 90 BC instigated by their Samnite nemesis. Rome may have won through, but she took a drubbing as bad as any dished out by Hannibal. At the end, Rome’s armies had evolved the tactics which gave them the mastery of the Mediterranean basin. What, then, is left of the Samnites today?

Back in the 1990s, I worked at the great Carolingian Abbey of San Vincenzo al Volturno (see CWA 47 & 75), where I came across the Samnites face to face by excavating a rustic farm, typical of the type of homestead that harboured these upland farmers and shepherds, while a colleague excavated nearby part of a rich cemetery. I returned recently to reacquaint myself with the archaeology of the region – and to sample again its hearty mountain food!

Ninety minutes east of Rome lies L’Aquila,  a new city founded by the Emperor Frederick II as his mountain power-base in the tumultuous struggle between emperors and popes in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its fine streets of palaces and churches were rocked by earthquakes in 2009, and the historic centre is now a scene of major reconstruction. Some of the most buildings – the castle of the Angevin kings and the great fountain of 99 springs – have been restored, but the work will continue for decades yet.

© Oliver Gilkes
On display at the museum in Chieti, the Capestrano Warrior, a huge 6th century BC funerary sculpture of a strange male/female figure wearing a remarkable sombrero type hat or helmet.

Fossa necropolis

Beyond it is a different story, and close to the rubble-strewn city is the recently excavated necropolis of Fossa. While the Samnites, like their cousins the Etruscans, have always been largely known from their cemeteries, Fossa is something different. An extensive cluster of tumuli and later chamber tombs were in use from the 9th century BC into the 2nd, spanning the period of the appearance of the Samnites and almost their final bow on the stage of ancient history.

Lines of suggestive standing stones mark the presence of the most significant early tombs. The finds are on display in the fine museum in the Samnite city of Chieti, within sight of the Adriatic, along with precious material from similar sites. Most famously the Capestrano Warrior, a huge 6th-century BC funerary sculpture of a strange male/female figure wearing aremarkable sombrero-type hat or helmet. The most complete of a number of other examples, these would once have stood guard over these mountain cities of the dead. The grave goods themselves are contrastingly unspectacular: rare bronze jewellery and iron weapons, a few luxury imports, and mostly locally produced pottery in a wild array of forms, signifying relatively limited contact with the world beyond their rocky walls – though not by any means ignorance.

From L’Aquila, the road leads south to Benevento, and the gateway to Campania and a different world. A series of high valleys extended through the heartland of Samnium, and I drove this way, with a few side diversions. Roman writers tell us that there were four major Samnite tribes, each occupying its own constrained block of territory, though the definition of ‘Samnite’ in the past did become a bit fuzzy around the edges. These groups occupied their own fortified centres, great stone walls encompassing many of the mountaintops, the predecessors of many a Roman settlement, or the direct ancestors of many of the small towns and villages of today.

It was certainly a tough life. I lived through a winter in a mountain village with Samnite roots, in a house with only a wood fire to heat it. Returning from work involved opening doors and windows to let the warm air in (this was in December), but spring and summer were idyllic. An area so insular evolves its own traditions, like the zampogna bagpipes – which now feature in a biannual international festival in the region of Molise, and a surprisingly broad range of culinary delights, from the famous and warming bean stew, through to myriad salami and steaks of wild boar, accompanied by mushrooms.

Symbol of Samnite decline 

Monte Pallano, overlooking the Sangro Valley, was one of the most imposing centres, its mighty ‘Wall of the Paladins’ being one of the most impressive stretches remaining, though it may have been more symbolic than defensive. Complete circuits survive at a number of eyries, or are to be seen in places like Isernia.

This city was one of the crucial centres in the region, as it lay at the confluence of a series of valleys. Roman from at least 295 BC, its seizure was a strategic masterstroke that began the sundering of the regions of Samnium. The 18th-century cathedral, surrounded by alleys of the medieval city, sits on the podium of a major Samnite/Italic temple. Excavations from the 1980s have been recently opened in a virtuoso piece of Italian site display, and the visitor can wander along the Roman roads between the temple and its more recent neighbour below the cathedral nave.

On the outskirts of the town it is possible to plunge into an even more remote past, as the brand-new Palaeolithic Museum at La Pineta displays an exceptionally important Palaeolithic butchery site from around 700,000 BC. The excavation is ongoing within the museum, and summer visitors can watch archaeologists at work.

Because of its importance for supply and communications – it was, after all, the route Rome used to switch its armies across Italy during the other great grudge match, with Carthage – once the conquest was completed, a string of cities was founded on the valley floors, or occupying the old fortified centres. Their ruins – Aminternum, Peltuinum, Saepinum – stand quietly in the countryside today, marks of imperial investment, ‘foreign aid’ to pin the restive mountaineers in place. Some became famous. Corfinio/Corfinium was chosen as the centre of Samnium’s last great roll of the dice in the Social War, when it threw in its lot with the rebellious allies of 90 BC who were demanding their share of success. Renamed Italica, it was the capital of the alternative Italic League, one of the first uses of the name, and though soon taken by Rome, it remained a town. Today, the shape of its theatre is preserved in the quiet village streets.

© Oliver Gilkes
The sanctuary of Hercules Curino above Sulmona. The stunning setting is typical of these Samnite sanctuaries.


Saepinum, though, is one of the most evocative and accessible sites today. A middle-sized Roman city towards Benevento, it was sustained by central government as it sped the flocks north to Rome’s hungry population. A fine set of walls and gates built by Tiberius are accompanied by a theatre, baths, and an extensive forum and basilica for the rustic councillor’s use. In all, it is an absolute model of a small Classical city, where entrance is free and shepherds still do drive their sheep through the forum.

As mountaineers, though, some of the most thrilling places where the Samnite spirit survives are the rural sanctuaries, where their altitude-loving gods dwelt. Three can be easily reached today. That of Hercules Curino is in a stunning position overlooking Sulmona on a series of great terraces. Occupied between the 4th century BC and the 2nd century AD, the whole place was buried by a landslide – thereby preserving the offerings left by merchants and locals. Today, high above, the precarious 13th-century hermitage built by Pope Celestine V clings to the rock-face in a sort of spiritual continuity. And two fine Italic temples have been displayed at Schiavi di Abruzzi in the hills above Isernia. One of the buildings has been restored in an appropriately rustic form, but both command sublime views. Finally: Pietrabbondate, in the hills of high Molise. This was the great ritual centre of the biggest of all the tribes, the Pentri, and their lands were the backbone of the Samnite world.

Here there is another sweeping view, and on wide terraces a great ritual theatre was backed by a massive Italic temple carefully cut into the hillside. Accompanying this are subsidiary shrines, stoas, and administrative buildings, and perhaps a small township, though this was a place to be used at the most solemn regular religious occasions, or at times when the tribe needed to discuss its own internal dealings and matters of war and peace. Excavations are continuing here, and archaeology gives life to these otherwise silent places. The village of Pietrabbondate has, as a war memorial, a bronze statue of a classic Romantic Samnite warrior. It is no surprise, then, that at the end of the Social War a triumphant Rome saw to it that this focal point was destroyed, a fiery punctuation mark marking the close of an era.

These high valleys reverted to conflict in later ages. Every village has its castle, and the passes are guarded by stark watchtowers on the crags: Bominaco, which dominates its beautiful frescoed Romanesque abbey below; or sky-scraping Calascio, at 1,210m the highest village in the Abruzzo, backed by the Gran Sasso. The great transhumance routes remained open well into the 19th century, though they are now merely grassy uplands. This remains a very different Italy, refreshingly far from the ‘Italy that never was’ that may exist elsewhere, perhaps as the Samnites would have liked. Bar the high-summer months, visitors are few, and, even if you are not an itinerant bagpiper, its magnificent archaeology and setting are well worth exploring.

Oliver Gilkes is an archaeologist and author, and he also plans heritage tours for Andante Travels

All images © Oliver Gilkes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.