Saepinum: A Hidden Pompeii
Updated: Aug 26, 2021
Tucked away in Italy's smallest region of Molise and flanked by the towering Matese mountains lies a treasure that even the locals here have barely heard of. 20 minutes from the closest town, Saepinum stays relatively isolated from the outside world bar a few eager tourists and locals.
a view of the Matese mountains
The Roman ruins remain remarkably intact after having become a feature of the modern town of Altilia which had been inhabited up to the 1970s. Unlike many Roman buildings throughout Italy, the entire town of Saepinum has remained mostly intact and can be traversed free of charge. The name itself, originates from the latin verb 'Saepire' meaning 'to fence' which alludes to the towns key industry of sheep herding as they would often be fenced up in the urban area.
The current area of the Tammaro valley where Saepinum stands has been inhabited since the Neolithic period over 10,000 years ago. However, the first permanent settlement in the area was of Samnite origin and located upland on the Terravecchia mountain. This was a Samnite fortress (called an arx) that was later occupied by the Romans in 293 BCE during the Third Samnite War. Taken with what Livy termed "terrible revenge and looting" by the Roman invaders as he describes the siege in his 'History of Rome'.
With the conquest of Samnium and later of the entire Italian peninsula by the Romans, there was little need in continuing to live the isolated and rugged existence within the fortress and the citizenry moved instead down into the Tammaro valley. The new city was built at the crossroads between the important transhumant route of the Pescasseroli-Candela tratturo and a second road from the Matese mountains towards the major settlement of Beneventum. The coming of the Augustan age saw the city flourish with the construction of its city walls as well as of its imposing 3000-seater theatre. Reliant on agriculture and the donations of wealthy locals, the city achieved such prominence as to become the provincial capital of Samnium during the middle of the 4th century AD. However, as with much of the Western Roman Empire, a slow collapse for the burgeoning city lied in wait. A devastating earthquake in 346 AD damaged much of the public buildings in the city but under the governorship of Fabius Maximus, much of the city was rebuilt. Longer-term, the recurrent Visigothic raids into the empire caused a breakdown in local administration which was taken up in part by the church instead. The Greek-Gothic war between 535-553 AD causes the final breakup in civil society. The theatre collapses and the forum, debased from its former splendour, becomes a burial ground. Only a small portion of the urban area remained inhabited. Further to this, Saracen raids that finally took the settlement in 882 forced the remaining citizens to move to the castle of Sepino a couple of kilometres nearby. Though abandoned by the high middle ages, a string of discoveries in 1981 found evidence of clusters of peasant settlements outside the Porta Beneventum (one of the chief gates into the city). In the subsequent centuries, farmhouses began to spring up amongst the ruins of the Roman city and much of these examples of spontaneous architecture remain today where the local peasantry had built barns and villas on top of the original Roman foundations. The most notable of the 18th century architecture can be seen around the theatre's circumference where the on-site museum is located. The original features of the fireplace, the oven, and the sink remain visible within.
The town encloses these crossroads within a roughly rectangular area of 12 hectares forming a cross-shape inside. The four entrances to the city are complete with large arches that lead onto cobbled limestone paths into the city. The walls themselves were constructed on the orders of Augustus between 2 BC and 4 AD. Funnily enough, the task was allotted to the future Emperor Tiberius and his brother Drusus. Their inscription can still be seen above the imposing Porta Boiano entrance to the town. Statues purportedly of German warriors can be seen flanking each of these monumental arches too which symbolise the recent victories of Drusus and Tiberius against the Germans and Dalmatians. At 100 feet intervals along the wall, towers have also been erected with some 19 still standing. Both the walls and towers have been formed in the opus quasi reticulatum technique whereby bricks are formed in a diamond shape and held together using cement, giving a unique pattern.
the porta Boiano with the inscription dedicated to Tiberius and Drusus. The German soldiers can also be seen
On the northern outskirts of the town stands the 3000-seater theatre. The scaena (where the actors performed the classic works of Plautus, Aeschylus, and Euripides) remains intact as does the seating area, known as the cavea. The top of the cavea features the aforementioned rural farmhouse built over it. Evidence of a vomitorium made up of a narrowed passage that leads into the theatre as well as two other side entrances called tetrapiles were designed to ease the arrival of large crowds of spectators. A network of canals also perforates the theatre to drain rainwater into a sewer while the presence of rectangular wells recently confirmed the hypothesis that a mobile cover or curtain could be stretched over the seating area to protect the crowds from the rain or the heat.
a view from the top of the theatre
In the centre of the town lies the forum: the economic and administrative heart of Saepinum. The most prominent position in the forum is allotted to the basilica of which only 20 columns in the Ionic style remain. This was a multi-purpose building acting as part meeting place, part judicial court, part commercial centre as well as a place for the celebration of the cult of the Emperor. When Emperor's died they were often venerated by their successors as divine figures that demanded worship similar to the gods. Next to the basilica is another area of economic exchange called the macellum. This functioned much like an open-air market.
a snapshot of the forum with the basilica in the background and the macellum in the foreground on the right
Also in front of the 1500 metre squared forum were the public baths -of which two have been found in Saepinum, something not that uncommon-. Even now part of the original mosaic flooring can still be seen, protected by a glass frame. An intricate network of flues in the walls of the baths show evidence of a system for transporting hot air from underground furnaces to heat the various pools. A traditional Roman bath would often have a tepidarium (warm bath), caldarium (hot bath), and a frigidarium (cold bath) that would require external heating systems. Some even had a sudarium that acted much like a modern-day sauna. This system of heat transference is also attested by the discovery of suspensurae, which were small pillars under the floor, that held up the heating system.
Outside of the walled city large burial mounds can be found, as is typical in Roman town plans. In an erroneous belief that it prevented disease, the Romans often buried their dead outside of the city. There was also concern that lingering spirits would cause havoc if they were buried inside the city walls. Two mausoleums have been found, one near the Beneventum gate and the other near the porta Boiano. The one I saw was the former, belonging to the leading citizen Caius Ennius Marsus. Certainly, these types of funerary structures could only be afforded by the elite in Saepinum society. Marsus' epitaph tells us all we need to know about the man's illustrious career:
"To Caio Ennio Marso, son of Caio, of the Voltinia tribe, patron of the town hall, tribune of the soldiers, prefect of military genius, five-year duoviro, duoviro with judicial power four times, prefect with judicial power twice, quattuorviro, quaestor three times."
Marsus was a man of equestrian rank and from this description clearly held distinguished posts in both local government and the military as a tribune. It seems that he would later rise the rungs of the political ladder further by reaching the senate as a quaestor. Marsus also left an indelible mark on the town itself, organising the building of a fountain in the forum. His mausoleum too was likely built during his lifetime using the considerable wealth he must have accumulated from his magistracies. Built on a rectangular base, the mausoleum is a cylindrical structure 3.3 metres high on top of the 2 metre base that seems to share similarities with Etruscan tumuli common across Italy. In fact, the mausoleum was inspired by the fashion of the time which originated from the emperor's own mausoleum. Augustus himself was inspired to build a cylindrical structure after visiting the great mausoleum of Alexander the Great in Alexandria. Marsus here, thus wants to set himself up as a fashionable Roman and absorb some of the Eastern grandeur that had so allured Augustus.
the mausoleum to Caius Ennius Marsus with the inscription visible
Apart from the larger architectural features of the town, the museum contains a myriad of objects found during archaeological digs or within the necropolis under the forum. These range from sharpened stones known as burin that were used by early man to the household items typical of inhabitants of the 13th century. Though easily written off as another of the barbarian tribes whom the Romans conquered, the exoticness of the pre-Roman finds were beguiling. The Hellenistic section of the museum contained pottery decorated in the Greek style as well as evidence of serious economic interactions with the Aegean through the discovery of a drachma from the reign of king Prusias II of Bithynia. Though Prusias II ruled after the Roman conquest of the town, in the years before the social war the citizens would have maintained few ties to the capital. Some other examples of tableware and lamps from the medieval burials fill up the last room of the collection but the bulk of the finds are Roman. These include an ornate pedestal that the statue of a leading local figure may have rested on but also more personal trinkets. One of these items was a simple gaming die that took the exact same form as those of today. This simple piece of Roman engineering has managed to survive the millennia and show just how crucial the Roman civilization is for us in the West.
a picture taken of the gaming die
Equally intriguing was the collection of Roman jewellery on display that hinted at a connection with Egypt with the presence of a scarab beetle pendant. The scarab, or dung beetle, was a symbol of the sun god Ra in Ancient Egypt and yet, remarkably, this trend has spread thousands of miles away to the highlands of the Apennines. Alongside the colourful ring bezels pictured in the top right, it is clear that leading Roman ladies who would have possessed such jewellery had a keen interest in bright colours and Eastern designs.
image showing the scarab pendant (centre) and the jewellery bezels (top right)
Interest in the site from a historical perspective dates back to the renaissance with a renewed volition to begin unearthing the buried ruins coming after Theodore Mommsen published a paper on the town in the 19th century. It would not be until 1876 when excavation on the site would begin under Ludovico Mucci who managed to bring to light the prominent basilica in the forum. A fragmented exploration of the site would continue for the next 75 years. The post-war period engendered digs that restored the forum, porta Boiano, the theatre, the city walls, and many of the tabernae (inns) and private homes along the main Decumanus road. Further restoration work was carried out in the 1960s to the buildings in the forum and to reconstruct the porta Beneventum as well as founding a museum. Work continues to this day, with much of the baths in the forum still to be uncovered.
Though punctuated with many of the ups and downs that the town itself endured in its long history, my return to the archaeological area after 2 years proved uplifting. New digs continue to be made in the immediate area outside the city walls and the quaint museum now has scannable QR codes! The staff at the site also carried on the Roman tradition of hospitium (the divine right of a host to look after his/her guest) when a fall from what seemed like a fairly scalable wall proved disastrous. Now stuck deep within the town and unable to walk after the fall had sprained my ankle, it was the museum curator who came to my aide and organised for a car to wind its way through pot-hole ridden country roads to pick me up. Though I did not catch his name, I remain eternally grateful to the person that helped alleviate some of the pain caused by my first day out in Italy after quarantining that was cut so woefully short.
top down view of the square city walls of Saepinum
The city of Saepinum, apart from the museum, is free to the public and can be visited at all times of the day. More information, including an auditory guide, can be found at beniculturali.it The site also contains a small bar for refreshments and free parking. Hopefully, my return to the town will come on better terms even if I don't expect to come back with the pomp and ceremony of a triumph.
But who knows, maybe this could be possible too.
Direzione regionale musei Molise. 2021. – Direzione regionale musei Molise. [online] Available at: <https://www.musei.molise.beniculturali.it/musei?mid=209&nome=museo-della-citta-e-del-territorio-sepino> [Accessed 25 August 2021].
Siti Archeologici d'Italia. 2021. Saepinum (Sepino), an ancient Roman city in the Tammaro valley. [online] Available at: <https://www.sitiarcheologiciditalia.it/en/saepinum/> [Accessed 25 August 2021].
lovelyMolise. 2021. The Roman city of Saepinum. [online] Available at: <http://www.lovelymolise.com/en/the-roman-city-of-saepinum/> [Accessed 25 August 2021].
Livy, Ab urbe condita 10.45
Valeria Ceglia - Oreste Muccilli, La città di Sepino, in Conoscenze 1, Campobasso, 1984, pp. 137–138.
Maurizio Matteini Chiari, Il territorio, in Saepinum. Museo documentario dell'Altilia, Campobasso, 1982, pp. 9–13.
Marcello Gaggiotti, Il periodo romano, in Saepinum. Museo documentario dell'Altilia, Campobasso, 1982
Valerio Cianfarani, Guida delle antichità di Sepino, Milan, 1958