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In the Imperial Hinterland

Saepinum


saepinum ruinsIt’s certainly not  Herculaneum or Pompeii, but if you've seen those places or simply been to Rome, you know more than a bit about life in the big city at the time of the Roman Empire: colossal arenas, spacious forums, huge temples, labyrinthine public baths, gigantic this and monumental that. At the other end of the scale, however—and highly interesting in its own right—is the small Roman country town, the Imperial outback, the Roman sticks. Fortunately, fairly close to Naples is one of the best-preserved examples in Italy of the small rural Roman town. Get on the autostrada to Avellino, turn north on SS 87 for Benevento and Campobasso; before Campobasso take the turn-off for Sepino. As you approach the modern town of that name there are signs directing you to the center of town. Go the other way, down the hill to the right for 3 km and you will drive right up to the west wall of Roman Sepino, or, in Latin, Saepinum.

You are now in Molise, a mountainous and largely unspoiled area of Italy. The site of Saepinum, itself, is at the crossroad of two important and truly ancient trails: the north-south trail along the Tamaro Valley was used long before the presence of the Romans as the path for the transumanza, the seasonal migration of shepherds and livestock into Puglia and Campania. That trail was crossed by the east-west path leading through the mountains to the Adriatic. [Also see this item & this one.] Etruscan relics from the 7th century BC have been found near the site, and, indeed, Saepinum is virtually on top of a Samnite town, which the Romans conquered in 293 BC. Inscriptions have been found in Oscan, the language of the Samnites, a warrior people that battled Rome for over two centuries before succumbing.

Saepinum is 12 square hectares in area (about 30 acres), circled by a wall of just over 1200 meters. The wall was highly fortified, originally having 27 towers along its length. Entrance was through four gates, each bound by two towers; the east and west gates were at either end of the cardine, one of the two streets in Saepinum; the north and east gates stood at either end of the other street, the decumanus. The cardine and decumanus intersected and that was the center of town. Here was the forum and, across the street, the basilica and market-place. The entire town is visible if you stand at the crossroad, and it’s no more than a seven or eight minute stroll along each main street, end to end.

Still there and to be seen are the twenty columns of the basilica. That word is used, here, in the pre-Christian sense of a "city hall," of sorts, although it was, indeed, in the basilica where the religious rites connected with the cult of the Emperor were held. The forum contains the ruins of a temple to Jupiter as well as a number of massive white slabs from a mysterious structure which archaeologists have thus far been unable to figure out. (Sepino has been undergoing extensive excavation and restoration since the 1950s.) Three of the four gates to the town are still standing—or have been restored—with their arches intact.

The perimeter of the city wall (completed over a six-year period from 4 BC to 2 AD) is partially intact, and remnants of a few circular towers still stare out over the landscape. Inside the wall at the north gate are remnants of thermal baths. Along both axes of the town, remnants of stone walls have been restored to show where the original residences and shops stood. The "industrial" section of town consisted of structures where wool and hides were prepared. Also, there is a theater with room for 3,000 spectators. Next to the theater, 17th century farmhouses have been restored and serve as a museum. Outside the walls are the ruins of two large funeral monuments. They are, interestingly, of totally different design; the tomb on the north side is square and bears clear Greek ornamentation. The tomb at the south gate is round and typical of the age of Augustus. Also, one of the two towers guarding the south gate actually served as a cistern, gravity-feeding water to the entire town, which is on a slight downward slope to the north. Latin inscriptions on the gates and buildings abound, telling you which wealthy family donated this and that structure. One such inscription cites the donors as the children of Augustus Caesar, himself, memorializing their exploits during recent campaigns against the Germanic tribes to the north.

In the first century BC, Saepinum became one of the 35 Roman municipalities in Italy. Economic development started with the completion of the city wall under Caesar Augustus and with the decision by that emperor to carry out a program of what is termed “centurionization,” the granting of parcels of land throughout Italy to veterans returning from foreign wars. This pattern of land distribution had a dramatic effect on Roman society. The square parcels of land still seen in many places, especially in  northern Italy, are directly traceable to Roman land-grants under Augustus. The fortress town of Saepinum thus enjoyed an economic boom during the first two centuries A.D. with the influx of new land-owners just outside the city-walls. Subsequently, however, the formation of large land holdings, huge estates owned by absentee landlords—land that was in many cases left fallow or at least poorly run—contributed to the economic decline of the area and, indeed, of the Empire, itself. The presence of tombs from the 4th century A.D. within the city walls of Saepinum suggest that the city had  been largely abandoned by that time. After a few more centuries of being battered in what are termed the “Greek and Gothic wars” following the collapse of the Western Roman empire, Saepinum was taken in 882 by Saracens. The survivors moved a few miles away and founded modern Sepino.

Today, the area around Saepinum is as rural as ever. A few farmers have encroached on the archaeological site, although I’m sure they take the opposite point of view. When you go, take a lunch; then pull up a marble slab and enjoy the peace and quiet of a small Roman town. Depending on when you go, the small museum on the site may or may not be open.

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