Saepinum - Ruins from when BC became AD

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June 28th 2016
Published: June 30th 2016
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At first glance, this town seems like a contestant for Italy’s most unremarkable town competition. But I took a second look, and see that from its hilltop position the town looks down across rolling agricultural hills of Italy’s Molise region, and the town is well maintained showing a healthy social and economic outlook.

But there’s treasure next door. We stumbled on this treasure by wandering around the countryside. Just three kilometres away from Sepino is the archaeological site of old Saepinum. Sitting amongst some farm buildings there are ruins. At first, it seemed like the ruins were fake, almost too well preserved. The roofs of the buildings are long gone and so have the upper parts of the walls, but building foundations, city walls, and roadways present as if complete. We were able to talk around the site with no pushy guides holding ‘come follow me’ signs, no mobs of loud tourists, no touts offering worthless promotional material. It was dead quiet except for the occasional goat bleat or the hooting of a distant owl. Even the ruins seemed abandoned. I wanted to hear the stones whisper their story. To hear of the wars and desperate screams of residents who defended their town, and of the celebrations of life here where children were born, grew into adults, fell in love, had their own children, worked, lived and passed on.

Saepinum was established by an ancient civilisation called Samnites, and the Romans conquered it in 293 BC. (I have yet to work out how they counted down to Zero, the crossroads of BC and AD.)

The Samnites were not keen on Roman expansion and I gather that Saepinum was their last stand. On two previous attempts to oust the Samnites, the mighty Roman army had been humiliated. The when attacked a third time, some 7,400 Samnite warriors were slaughtered when they marched out to defend their city. So, while archaeologists proclaim Saepinum as Italy’s most complete Roman town, it’s layout following ancient routes of shepherds and traders stamps it as a Samnite town. If it were Roman, the layout would follow a north-south/east-west pattern. So there is some credibility attached to Saepinum having the oldest ruins in Italy.

While there are pre-Roman traces of civilisation at Saepinum, the ruins are badged from Rome. From around 2 BC right through to then of the 2nd Century AD the town prospered and various developments including a temple, forum, basilica, baths, its 'macellum' or indoor market, and amphitheatre. It is the amphitheatre that is best preserved even though some medieval buildings have been built on the site from stone taken from the theatre itself. In what was the middle of the town, there is a water mill that was used to grind flour from corn – the only one in Italy from that era. Also, there is evidence of water reticulation via drains and an underground sewerage system with a grated sump, near a water fountain bearing a decorative griffin.

After old Saepinum was sacked by Arab invaders somewhere after the 5th Century AD, the people established a new town higher up and easier to defend. Today the town of Sepino occupies that high ground.

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