Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry May 2013                      

apua, a Short Tale of Two Cities

There is some confusion about the name "Capua," even among Italians. Let's say you are going to "Capua" because you're interested in the place that, between the 7th century BC and the 8th century AD, was the largest city(!) in ancient Italy after Rome. It had an amphitheater (image, right) almost as large as the Colosseum and was the capital city of what the Romans called Felix Campania (Happy Campania). You want to see all that; thus, you go to the town called Capua today, fewer than 20 miles —as Felix the Happy Campanian crow flies!— north of Naples. You go and learn that you are in precisely the wrong place.

You have to back up a bit to the south, maybe about 3 miles, to the town called Santa Maria Capua Vetere. That is where you will find ancient Capua and the ruins of the grand amphitheater. The original site was a Villanovan settlement (the earliest Iron Age culture of central and northern Italy, so named for the archaeological type site, Villanova, near Bologna). The first true city was then Etruscan, founded in about 800 BC and became the most important Etruscan center of inland Campania. The name, itself, is Etruscan, Capeva, and meant City of Marshes. (See Etruscans in Campania). The area was then taken over by the Oscan-speaking Samnites, the fierce enemies of the Romans and then finally taken by the Romans, themselves, as power in south-central Italy irresistibly shifted to Rome. At the beginnings of the Second Punic War (218 BC – 201 BC) in the great struggles between Rome and Carthage, Capua was a military power only slightly less important than Rome or Carthage, themselves. The city defected to Hannibal and became the Carthaginian power base in Italy for a while. For its rebellion Capau was destroyed in 211 B.C. by the Romans. In modern Italian, one still uses the expression "to give oneself to the Ozi di Capua" —the sloth or idleness of Capua— to mean that one is living a lazy and indolent life, this in reference to the notion that Hannibal's army grew so soft from living in the lap of Capuan luxury that they were unable to soldier on effectively. It's probably not true, but there are still ruins of the many thermal baths in the area.

(That is the only proverb involving Capua that I know, although I do remember one about Carthage: Carthago delenda est [Carthage must be destroyed]. Cato the Elder (234-149 BC) used this at every opportunity, as in "Please pass the bread. Carthage must be destroyed." Perhaps it's because I had my right knee operated on when I was younger, but I thought that the word was "cartilage," not "Carthage." I spent years wondering why Cato would end all his speeches by telling Roman senators that they had to get their knees fixed.)

A Christian church was founded in Capua in the fifth century and called Santa Maria Maggiore, the name by which the town itself was referred to in the Middle Ages. (The town did not become Santa Maria Capua Vetere [ancient] until the unification of Italy in 1861.)

As the Roman empire dissolved and Italy was invaded by Goths, Byzantine Greeks and Lombards, Capua suffered great damage and was finally almost totally destroyed by Saracen invaders in 841 AD. At that point the inhabitants fled a few miles over to the old river port on the Volturno, named Casilinum. It is a short distance to the NW of ancient Capua and surrounded on three sides by the river. The refugees refounded it with the modern name of Capua. What is now Santa Maria Capua Vetere (ancient Capua) then splintered into smaller hamlets built around countryside residences and churches. The people actually used the ancient monuments (such as the amphitheater) for building material. (Of the original 90 or so arches in the amphitheater, very few remain.) That situation changed at the end of the 18th century when Bourbon rulers of the Kingdom of Naples took an interest in the great archaeological history of the area. Today there are a few traces left of the ancient buildings: the amphitheater, the cryptoporticus (covered passageway), the theater, the baths, the temple of Mithra, etc. Fortunately, there are some fine museums. One is the Campania Provincial Museum, called by archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri "the most significant museum of ancient Italian civilization in Campania." It is in the modern town of Capua. Another is the Museum of the Gladiators in Santa Maria Capua Vetere.

photo: Rico Heil  

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