Searching for Samnites in the ‘Region of Little Cities’
Surprisingly few people have heard of Molise. Yet this is one of the most beautiful and the most historically engaging areas of Italy. Emerging from the road-tunnel that leads into the region, you get the impression you are entering a forgotten world – and in many ways you are. Molise (pronounced ‘moll-easy’) lies immediately south of the more rugged Abruzzo, along the Apennine mountain range, deep in the heart of Italy about midway down the calf of its ‘boot’. Hilltop towns, crowned by castles and forgotten by time, dot the region, with steep cobbled roads winding up through terraces of stone-built houses to their medieval stronghold perched on the rockface at the top – giving Molise its nickname ‘Region of Little Cities’. This is also, arguably, the birthplace of Italy: for it is the heartland of the Samnites, a feisty collection of warriors who united in the 1st century BC under the single banner of the ‘Italic League’, and joyfully excelled at being an aggressive thorn in Rome’s side.
Just outside the small town of Pietrabbondante is a major Samnite sanctuary, founded in the 6th century BC. It was the centre for the Pentri, the largest of the Samnite tribes (the others being the Caraceni, Caudini, Frentani, and Hirpini), who all originated in what was called Samnium, and shared the Oscan language. Here on the slopes of Monte Saraceno, the five tribes gathered to discuss their affairs and, in particular, military tactics directed against their common enemy Rome. The sanctuary’s associated settlement is yet to be located, but believed to be the legendary Bovanium Vetus, or ‘Old City of the Bull’, which derives it name from the Pentri origin myth. This tells of how the people sought to appease their god, Jupiter, by sending away all offspring born in a specific year. The children followed an ox until it finally settled down to rest by the source of a sacred spring, which they took to be a sign and so established their new settlement on that spot.
The Pietrabbondante sanctuary enjoys a commanding position in the lush landscape. Its fortifications and terraces remain buried beneath the topsoil, stretching unseen up the side of the hill, and flanking the exposed remains on either side. Typically for Molise, the site is all but deserted, so we explored the ruins in peace.
Views from the entrance look out across the huge exposed site to the 2nd/1st century BC temple that overlies the foundations of a 5th century BC shrine. The original temple was destroyed by Hannibal in 217 BC, but was quickly replaced by a new building on a square podium with a single pronaos. This was later further refined to incorporate the Hellenist design features visible today. Huge interlocking polygonal blocks of stone make up its massive outer walls, and the impressive remains give a tantalising glimpse of the grandeur of its heyday, before being destroyed by the vengeful Roman general Sulla during the Social Wars of 89-87 BC.
Immediately beyond is the theatre, and it quickly becomes apparent that whatever went on in the temple was only for those taking part in the rituals, rather than for public consumption, because there is absolutely no room for spectators. Almost abutting the shrine, the theatre faces away from the temple: the backs of the semi-circular stone benches, cut into the slope of the hill, point the audience in the opposite direction towards spectacular views across the valley. The theatre’s ‘cheap seats’ at the top are simple structures, but the lower rows for the higher orders provide rather fine carved-stone backs, ergonomically designed for comfort. At the end of each row are what remains of once-magnificent griffin figures. These hint at the opulence of this once-sumptuous meeting place – its design resembling that of a theatre discovered at Pompeii, suggesting this was the work of an architect from neighbouring Campania. Stretching either side of the back of the theatre’s stage, and accessed via high, elegant stone arches, are further stone structures, including workshops and a later temple.
About a half-hour’s drive to the north are two more Samnite temples, set in the heartbreakingly beautiful countryside outside Schiavi d’Abruzzo. We arrived again at a deserted site, its ageing signage fading in the sun. Overhead, birds of prey glided and swooped above green slopes bristling with wild broom, whose yellow flowers infused the late June air with their heady scent.
Though significantly different in style, both temples date to the 3rd century BC. Little remains of the larger of the two: its platform walls are made up of the tell-tale Samnite interlocking multisided blocks of stone, and its layout follows a typical Italic form: a set of steps lead up to the pronaos, where today’s visitors can see the remains of four column bases. Beyond is the single stone rectangle that makes up the threshold to the inner sanctum, where the altar once stood. Huge bronze doors would have barred access to all but the privileged, and deep cuts on either side of the stone slab trace the position of their jambs, visible reminders of the magnificent sight this temple formerly presented.
Next to it is the smaller shrine, with brick columns and a (reconstructed) tiled roof. At first glance, this little temple is underwhelming. But look again and you notice the herringbone pattern of the tiled floor of the forecourt is slightly off-centre: in one corner it has been patched with round terracotta plates, in precisely the spot a solitary guard would have stood a long and lonely vigil, stamping and shuffling his feet – and gradually wearing down the tiles. More patches repair the threshold at the entrance, where the pious would have impatiently waited their turn to enter. Look carefully, too, just inside the entrance, where Oscan lettering is picked out in mosaic on the floor. Suddenly, this humble little shrine comes alive with the ghosts of history.
A third shrine, covered by a temporary (but clearly long-standing) shelter, lies nearby. Its high central podium, on which offerings were once placed, is bordered on two sides by brick walls that show the earliest form of what developed to become a familiar tesserae design.
Jewel in Italy’s crown
Though just two hours by car from Rome to the north, or an hour and a half from Naples to the south, Molise is neglected by the outside world: if you want to know what Tuscany was like before the tourists took over, this is the place to come. There are no souvenir stalls or trinket-sellers, just fabulous locally sourced food, an unspoiled landscape that hosts a rich variety of wildlife rarely seen elsewhere in central Europe, and a treasure-house of untrammelled archaeology. Here you can watch the ongoing excavation of 700,000-year-old hominin remains at the superb Palaeolithic Museum of La Pineta; explore the ruins of the 8th/9th century AD political powerhouse San Vincenzo al Volturno monastery, destroyed by Arab attackers on 10 October 881; and visit possibly the best World War Museum in the world, at Rocchetta a Volturno, in the shadow of the mountains where the Battle of Monte Cassino was fought during World War II.
Molise is also Italy’s largest supplier of truffles, home to the country’s best olive groves at Venafro (extoled by Classical writers), and the sole producer of the red-wine grape Tintilla. What’s not to love? But go now, before the rest of the world finds out!
This article appeared in issue 84 of Current World Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.