Small Places and Big Histories
Caudium, Southern Italy, and the trick that defeated the proud Romans
ca. 1920 postcard of Montesarchio. From the Archivio Storico of the Istituto E. Fermi
Montesarchio is identified by archaeologists with the ancient Caudium, an important cultural and commercial center on the way from Rome to Apulia and the Mediterranean ports on the Adriatic Sea
Many of us, too often, struggle to coordinate personal life, family, and professional obligations. There are times however, when we are lucky enough to put it all together successfully. I have been lucky this time and, as family reasons brought me to travel for a long time in my hometown in the South of Italy, I am enjoying doing my job for CoDA while renewing my spirits and my interest for archaeology in this incredible place full of history, Montesarchio. This small town, in the South of Italy, is located in the heart of the Caudina Valley, at the foothill of Mount Taburno. We are in the region that ancient Romans and Latin writers used to call “Campania Felix” (Happy Campania), a land of great beauty and extremely rich in natural resources. I am happy to contribute a couple stories on the cultural and archaeological history of this town and promote the interest of our CoDA affiliates and readers for this small but relevant historical place that I am proud to call my home town.
Author: Cinzia Perlingieri
Images: Cinzia Perlingieri, except otherwise indicated in text
View of Montesarchio with the tower, castle, the old town and the Mount Taburno in the background.
Credits: Photo by Francesco Gaddi – CCBY-SA3.0
Montesarchio is identified by archaeologists with the ancient Caudium, an important cultural and commercial center on the way from Rome to Apulia and the Mediterranean ports on the Adriatic Sea. The ancient town was founded at the beginning of the first millennium BC, by a local population, the Samnites, a tribe that grew to establish supremacy on neighbor groups and eventually was completely “romanized” by the first century of the first millennium AD. Caudium became a very important commercial center with close relationships with Naples and Rome, favoured by the “Via Appia”, an ancient road that connected Rome with the Apulian territory, in the Italian South-east, and with the Mediterranean Sea regions. The relationships between Samnites and the Roman empire remained however difficult and not always amicable throughout the ancient history. In fact, in the year 321 BC there was a battle between Samnites and Romans that has passed to history with the name of “Battaglia delle Forche Caudine” (The battle of the Caudine Forks).
The Latin writer Tito Livio reports the details of this battle in his book “Ab Urbe condita”. Although the real dynamics of the battle remains unclear, the battle brought an undeniable and strategic victory to the Samnites.
Latin: « saltus duo alti angusti silviosique sunt montibus circa perpetuis inter se iuncti. Iacet inter eos satis patens clausus in medio campus herbidus aquosusque, per quem medium iter est. Sed antequam venias ad eum, intrandae prima angustiae sunt et aut eadem qua te insinuaveris retro via repetenda aut, si ire porgo perras, per alium saltum artiorem impeditoremque evadendum. » (Ab Urbe condita, IX, 2).
English: « two deep gorges, narrow, covered by woods, and connected by mountains that do not offer passages, delimit a large valley, with green prairies, in the middle of which runs a path; but to reach that valley you need to go through the first gorge, and when you have passed the gorge and reached the valley, to exit it, you can only go back or continue through the second gorge, even narrower and full of dangers. »
(Translation from Latin by C. Perna and C. Perlingieri)
That was the trick. The Samnites ambushed the Roman Legions that had climbed down the first gorge into the valley through a narrow passage through the rocks, and trapped them in the valley by occluding the second narrower gorge. For the first time, the Romans suffered a humiliating defeat by an Italic population and were forced to surrender (at least temporarily!)
After the Roman period, due to the continuous invasions and dominations of northern populations (Longobards first, then Carolingians), the inhabitants of Caudium abandoned the valley to settle on the near hill slopes and for the ancient town it started a period of decline. But, the Valley was too rich and too important as a link between the different towns of Campania and South of Italy, to be truly abandoned. In fact, life started again pretty soon and the valley re-flourished during the Early Medieval times. The modern skyline that characterizes Montesarchio, with a high hill surmounted by a castle and a tower, was built in these times.
The modern name of Montesarchio was likely given to the town during the Middle Ages. The town with a high hill surmounted by a castle and a tower, was known as “Mons Herculis”, meaning Mount of Hercules. In the transition from Latin to Italic “vulgare” during the Middle Age, the pronunciation was corrupted in “Montesarculo”, from which the modern name.
Montesarchio’s heritage and art are everywhere. Every corner, walking in the old town, offers glimpses of its rich and illustrious past. Like the old roofs, the historical churches and the narrow passages which climb through the hill towards the hill top.
By walking through the old town, where there is no traffic, you can still see scenes that tell ancient stories, the cultivation of the vines, people living their life largely outside their houses, once too small to contain the whole family and its business. The change of the seasons offers a feast of smells and sights. Between September and October the harvest of grapes and the first wine (vino novello) are protagonists, in November the oil mills are relentless, day and night olives are processed to produce the new oil. Alright, enough celebrations for now, but yes, lots to see and do.
Moral of the story: if you are planning a trip to Italy, please do not stop in Rome as your southernmost place to visit. Italy is a great country and still reserves lots of surprises if you are willing to explore outside of the touristic mainstream. Other than the obvious monuments of the big cities, I feel like saying that the “small Italy”, some of that famous Italian “sweet life” of old people chatting at a cafe, of real farmers, of relaxed Sunday mornings lightened up by ringing bells, is still here, in places like Montesarchio.
Some links for who reads Italian:
- Paths to learn about Montesarchio’s traditions and history
- A historical archive of old and new photos + readings
Stay tuned for more.
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