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main index  © Jeff Matthews    entry July 2012

Lucania, Glory Rock and the Underworld Painter

An archaeologist once told me that all you needed for success in the field—besides years of study—was luck, patience and money. That fortunate coincidence came to pass in the early 1980s in the Cilento hill town of Roccagloriosa, just a few minutes above the gulf of Policastro at the southernmost part of the province of Salerno. A lucky find of an ancient tomb (image, right) led to the excavation by a team from the University of Alberta of a significant piece of evidence of the presence of the Lucanian culture. The Lucanians were one of the inland Italic peoples who were contemporaries of—but much less known than—their neighbors on the coast throughout Italy around 500 BC. In southern Italy, that means primarily the colonies of Magna Grecia; Paestum and Velia, for example, are just a few minutes away by modern transportation. At their peak, the Lucanians held a considerable part of south-central Italy (map, below) with coastal holdings in the west near what would later become Poseidonia (Paestum) under the Greeks and in the east at Metapontum and Heraclea. There were at least a dozen major Lucanian centers of population along the coast as well as inland; they were bound together in what historians call the Lucanian Federation. Beginning in c. 600 BC the Lucanians along both the eastern and western coasts were substantially displaced by the arrival of Greek settlers, but the Lucanians retained a robust presence inland. (See this entry for more detail on the Greeks and Lucanians.)

                      Ancient Lucania c. 600 BC
There is also evidence of much earlier human presence. The oldest finds in the immediate area are flint tools from the 5th-to-4th millenia BC. Such finds are consistent with others throughout the area; the caves in the nearby coastal areas of Camerota (about where Velia is marked on the straight SW coast on the map), indeed, display evidence of even earlier human presence. In the case of the Lucanians, however, we are talking about a people well into the period of recorded history with a self-proclaimed ethnic identity as a group beyond the small tribal identity that even very early humans must have had. The Greeks, Etruscans, Romans and Samnites are examples of some of those peoples whose long-term destinies started to take shape in Italy in the years between 1000 and 500 BC. Indeed, all of those groups left ample archaeological evidence of their presence. The Lucanian presence is less evident, which is why the site at Roccagloriosa is so interesting. The Lucanians are probably an off-shoot of the Samnites, who were from central Italy and were great enemies of the Romans. In the Cilento area, the Lucanians succeeded another early people called the Oenotrians, about whom even less is known. Some sources say that the Oenotrians arrived from Greece as early as the 11th century BC(!), inhabiting portions of southern Italy, but were absorbed into other Italic tribes by the 6th century BC

[Also see this item on the fine Archaeological Museum of West Lucania on the premises of the Padula monastery.]

Beginning in the second half of the 5th century BC a populated center developed at not-yet Roccagloriosa that was then expanded in the 4th century BC into a true urban center with a 1200-meter-long wall that is partially visible today; it had a 15-hectare (37 acres) "acropolis" (high city) and a larger lower area. The town was called Ostritania by the Lucanians), and the site is interesting both because of its geographical location as well as the nature of the structures. The town was higher up than modern Roccagloriosa and perfectly situated to watch approaches from the coast as well as from the inland hills. The ruins show a regular urban pattern of blocks with a long main street intersected by narrower ones. Some of the ruins had basalt courtyards. As well, the presence of votive shrines and altars indicate the practice of religious rituals and sacrifices.

There is also a fragment of a bronze plaque with inscriptions on both sides in Oscan (image, left), the language of the Samnites. Since Oscan was closely related to Latin, the text
written in the Greek alphabetis relatively easy to decipher; it is a series of rules and regulations and shows the civic and administrative complexity of the Lucanians. The town was a nexus for traffic of goods moving from the gulf of Policastro up to the Vallo di Diano, that is, into the interior hill country of Cilento, movement made possible by a natural road created by a fracture in the ridge of the Capiteni mountains, on the slopes of which the town developed.

The market-place was located outside the town wall on a table-land. It provided a place for merchants from the nearby colonies of Magna Grecia to arrive and do business. The large vases of Greek manufacture found at the site and now on display in the two fine small museums in Roccagloriosa are witness to a flourishing center of trade.There is a necropolis connected to the site. Many tombs have been found, dating from 4th c. BC to the first part of the 3rd c. BC. One of them has been reconstructed on the site itself (photo, top) and may be viewed. Other structures at the site have been reconstructed in miniature and are on display in the museums. At this point we note how many of the finds were from tombs. This is typical in much archaeology and is extremely important in cases where there are no large-scale monuments such as temples, residences or administrative buildings left intact (plus the fact, also, that most smaller bronze and iron-age cultures did not engage in "cyclopean" construction—a term used to describe the mammoth rock walls of some of the early Italic peoples of central Italy—walls that are still totally visible today and, indeed, may still serve as foundations for modern buildings).

The items found in the tombs and elsewhere at the site have been moved to one of the two museums in Roccagloriosa; they include ceramic votive statuettes, household cooking utensils, bits of armor and spectacular gold jewelry (specifically, a gold necklace of alternating pendants of female and lion heads; that it is gold indicates it was not manufactured locally but was made elsewhere, probably in Taranto). Some of the bronzes and vases found in the tombs are clearly of non-Lucanian production and show how important the site had become as a point of cultural exchange. Three of the vases on display (photo, right) are attributed stylistically to one of the great masters of the ornate Apulian style of red figure vase painting—a single artist who has come down to us simply as "the Underworld Painter" and who was active in Puglia between Metaponto and Taranto in the second half of the 4th c. BC.

These cultural and commercial links illustrate the socio-cultural transformation that occurred over much of Magna Grecia when the Samnite Oscan-speaking peoples from the central Italian hinterland moved into the area. 500 BC is when we can thus speak of the consolidation of a Lucanian ethnic identity spread over a large area that included modern-day Cilento as well as northern Calabria and over a large part of the Basilicata (the modern name for the region that was traditionally called Lucania).
Some say that the town was destroyed by the Romans as punishment for having sided with Hannibal (i.e. 200 BC). Another theory is that it was hit by an earthquake. The other possibility is that the foundation of the Roman colony at nearby Paestum (as the Romans started to solidify their hold on the southern part of the peninsula following the Punic wars) led to the relocation of the inhabitants of Ostritania, which was then reduced to a farming area—another Roman bread-basket. At that point, the Lucanians were assimilated into Rome.

Once the original Lucanian site dissolved, so to speak, various replacement settlements grew up in the immediate area. The modern town of Roccagloriosa actually started as such a settlement to replace one destroyed by Roman general Flavius Stilicho around the year 400 AD. Popular tradition traces the source of the name to Roccae (Latin for fortress) indicating the strategic position of the town and Gloriosa to indicate the veneration of Mary. A small church was dedicated to the Glorious Mother of God in 412. Other villages such as Acquavena, Celle di Bulgheria and Rochetta as well as the castle at Roccagloriosa were then built in the wake of the devastating Gothic wars (in which the Greeks under Justininan displaced the Goths) and the subsequent Bulgar invasions in the 6th century AD. The Longobards arrived in 590 AD (effectively doing away with Justinian's reconquest of Italy) chased away the Bulgars and expanded the castle. The next few centuries are just straight-ahead peaceful feudalism! The castle of Roccagloriosa was on Frederick the II's (early 1200s) list of Castra exempia in Campania, those fortresses that were directly under imperial jurisdiction. The castle was finally demolished in the 1950s, leaving in place a wall or two as historical markers. The original Church of the Gloriosa—built in 412—the oldest church in town, was destroyed by the French forces of Joseph Bonaparte, king of Naples, in 1806 and again by an earthquake in 1846. It is adjacent to the ruins of the old castle and has been rebuilt as an historical monument. The current town of Roccagloriosa (image, above right) with it winding cobblestone streets, fountains, churches and small squares is still cited as one of the most important medieval settlements of Lower Cilento. It is in the valley between the Mingardo and Bussento rivers (to the north and south, respectively) in the shadow of Mt. Bulgheria. Roccagloriosa is within the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park.

Me, I'm waiting for another conjunction of luck, patience and money. There have to be many more signs of ancient cultures buried in these hills.


Gualtieri, Maurizio (1987). "Fortifications and settlement organization: An example from pre‐Roman Italy" in World Archaeology, Volume 19, Issue 1, 1987, pages 30- 46.
Gualtieri, Maurizio (2010). "Roccagloriosa, la tabula osca ed il caduceo: frammenti di un discorso sulla ‘città’ italica" in Salternum, semestrale di informazione storica, culturale e archeologica a cura del gruppo archeologico salernitano, year XIV - number 24-25 January/December 2010.
Roccagloriosa, Un luogo dalla storia millenaria , published by the Salerno Provinvial Tourist Board. Original text by Geraldino Cavalliere.

photo credit: bottom photo-modern Roccagloriosa: Enzo Capitolino.

[Also see related item: Pastoralism, the Lucanians & the Alburni Mounts.]

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