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The lost beauty of Saepinum

Martin Penner on Campania’s hidden treasure

20 February 2008

12:00 AM

20 February 2008

12:00 AM

Martin Penner on Campania’s hidden treasure

For a long time I thought the only parts of Campania worth bothering with were within sight of the sea. I was thrilled by the cragginess of the Amalfi coast, inspired by the lemon groves of Sorrento, struck dumb by the Greek temples at Paestum, and fascinated by Naples — that maelstrom of history, culture and crazy traffic. I was secretly a little annoyed that my wife came from an inland province, well away from the azure waters of the Tyrrhenian. Her neck of the woods — about an hour’s drive northeast of Naples — was an apparently endless tract of bad housing, scruffy countryside and incomprehensible dialects.

Then one day she took me to Saepinum — probably the least visited of Italy’s ancient Roman sites. When she told me we were going to see a ruined Roman town, I rolled my eyes. I had been to Pompeii and dolefully inspected rows and rows of low, criss-crossing walls. I had failed to get even a whiff of the place’s alleged atmosphere. How can you transport yourself back two millennia if you’re constantly jostled by other tourists and your eyes are assaulted by hideous souvenir stands? So as we parked the car by the side of the road to Isernia, amid hills dotted with oak trees, I set my features to show long-suffering patience.

The first thing that struck me was that there weren’t any other cars, or even any people. Some old stone farm buildings apparently marked the entrance to the site. The second thing I noticed was that I didn’t pay to get in. We just walked under an arch and there we were, at the start of one of two basalt-paved Roman roads crossing the ruins. The third thing to draw my attention was a large phallus carved into the stone on the right side of the arch, ‘It was to keep evil influences out,’ my wife told me.

Mildly impressed by this, I walked on and within a few seconds had fallen under the spell of the place. Saepinum, sitting quietly in the Apennine foothills, is Italy’s most complete example of a provincial Roman town. Most of the perimeter wall remains, along with the four gates, two of which are pretty intact. Inside there’s a forum, a temple with 14 columns still standing, a well-preserved theatre and the foundations of shops, houses and thermal baths. It’s all conveniently gathered in an area the size of two football pitches.

The brilliant thing about Saepinum is that, apart from the odd sheep or goat, you usually have it to yourself. You can wander around undisturbed, reading inscriptions and examining the tops of the Ionic columns. You can climb the northwest gate and see the track leading off through the trees to the town of Boiano. I don’t think it would have looked very different 2,000 years ago when the walls were built by the future Emperor Tiberius.

Although Saepinum is known as a Roman town, that’s only half the story. Before the Romans came along it was a well-developed Samnite settlement, sitting at the intersection of a key trading route and a path used by shepherds to move their flocks from north to south. The Samnites were a warlike people who inhabited much of the inland area of southern Italy between 600 bc and 290 bc. They weren’t keen on the expansion of the Roman Republic and it took three wars to beat them into submission. The battle that took place at Saepinum in 293 bc was a key moment. Livy writes that the Samnite warriors marched bravely out of their city to ‘defend the walls with their chests’. The result was that 7,400 of them were slaughtered. The Romanisation of Samnium had begun.

Traces of the Samnite civilisation still exist, not only in museums in Benevento and Campobasso. For one thing, the people who live in these lands today still call the area Il Sannio and buy a daily newspaper with the same name. They are very proud of how their ancestors humiliated the mighty Roman army during the second Samnite war, forcing two legions to bow their heads and walk under their spears. My wife, who works in Rome, frequently mentions this after a bout with government bureaucrats.

There are also traces of the Samnites at Saepinum. A stone trough for collecting rainwater has some letters carved on it in their language of Oscan. The position of the two roads that cross the town also reflects its origins. Instead of conforming to the north-south/east-west pattern that the Romans usually imposed in provincial towns, they follow the ancient routes used by shepherds and traders. There is a little museum on the site, which — if you don’t arrive too late — the custodian may open for you. There you can see Samnite knick-knacks including a gold earring worn by some high-ranking lady in about 400 bc.

Slowly the Samnites were absorbed into the empire and Saepinum’s inhabitants became citizens of Rome. The town settled down as a sleepy provincial backwater. The fall of the Roman Empire did little to change its way of life and nothing much happened until the Saracens sacked the place in the 9th century. Over the centuries its peasant population moved a few miles south to the more secure hilltop town of Sepino. During the 18th century a few moved back and built farms among the ruins, incorporating the ancient blocks into their homes. There are still working farms and houses there today.

For me the presence of these homes actually adds to Saepinum’s charm. I was somehow touched to see an off-white Hillman Avenger falling to pieces in someone’s backyard next to the temple. It seemed to capture the essence of this site, a place which has always had the good fortune to be miles from the beaten track. Sitting there in its undisturbed glory, Saepinum is one of the rewards that await the rare visitors to Campania who turn their backs on the coast and venture inland.

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