The text is edited from an article in the New York Times, written by Michael Frank in 1990. The photographs are mine.
It is a place that whispers history in the way ruins must have a century ago, before armies of tourists arrived in stone-splitting buses and archeologists had to guard their treasures with spiked fences and wire ropes. Saepinum is a rarity: an ancient Roman town that is preserved rather than embalmed, seldom but easily visited, alive despite the tenets of museology. Although guides cluck with disapproval, a handful of farmers, whose forebears have worked this land since the Iron Age, continue to tend fields bordered by ancient walls and to inhabit houses that incorporate ancient stones, at times even older than Roman. Saepinum is full of such pairings: ancient and contemporary, urban and rustic, it is among the country’s most evocative, unspoiled sites.
Saepinum was no Rome, muscling the landscape, everywhere flexing its might. It was a provincial city, modest in both scale and scope. Never grand, always accessible, Saepinum is the kind of place where it’s easy to add a few imaginary bricks to broken walls, fill the air with clapping hoofs and creaking carts, and fool yourself into believing — for a moment anyway — that you can catapult backward to the city’s heyday.
Saepinum is situated at the intersection of two roads of age-old significance: the tratturo Pescasseroli-Candela (a tratturo is a cowpath or sheepway) that links the Abruzzo and Apulia regions, and the road that crosses the plain of the river Tammaro and climbs up into the nearby Matese hills. They are just a tangle of place names until you realize that for millennia the shepherds transformed these dry roads into rivers of undulating wool as they moved their flocks across these pastures and that their livelihood depended on meeting at this junction to trade with local farmers. Here, through commerce and conversation, a community set down its first fragile roots.
A small settlement is thought to have existed on the site before recorded history. At the beginning of the Iron Age (circa 1,000 B.C.) the Pentri, a tribe of Samnites, the indigenous people of the region, founded a village at Saepinum called Saipins in Oscan – the language spoken locally until the second century B.C. (Official and educated classes continued to speak Oscan until the Social War of 88 B.C.: the language was still spoken at Pompeii at the time of its destruction in A.D. 79). Saipins, in Oscan, is linked to the Latin saepire — to hedge in, to enclose — and indeed this sense of enclosure is palpable in the ruins as they stand today, with their 275 yards of Roman walls that protect the city against attack and hug the valuable crossroads for which they serve as a kind of immense, ferocious toll booth.
In the fourth century B.C., threatened by the expansion of Rome, the Samnites withdrew to the nearby hills to fortify themselves against the new powers. Famous for their cyclopean walls throughout the Molise, they barricaded themselves at Terravecchia, one and half miles southwest of Saepinum. But in 293 B.C., during the Third Samnite War, the fierce Samnites, whom Livy called the strongest and the mightiest, fell to the Roman consul L. Cursor Papirius after a battle that left 7,400 dead and 3,000 prisoner. The few survivors crept down into the plains and once again settled around those essential crossroads. The territory was annexed by Rome during the first century B.C. The first stones of the walls were laid at the end of the Social War (88 B.C.), but most of Saepinum was built during the reign of Augustus (27 B.C. to A.D. 14).
The best way to orient yourself at Saepinum is to have a sense of the crossroads and the walls with their four heroic doors. The old tratturo became the Roman decumanus (or east-west road, though at Saepinum it’s quite a bit skewed) and is demarcated by the Porta di Bojano to the northwest and the Porta di Benevento to the southeast. The road that led down from the Matese into the plains became the cardus (or north-south road) and is bound by the Porta di Terravecchia to the southwest and the Porta del Tammaro (northeast). Arriving from Campobasso, you park outside the Porta del Tammaro and enter Saepinum through its crumbling remains.
Almost at once you should have a sense of the modest proportions of the city, which covers an area of 29.6 acres within the walls, and can be traversed, along the cardus or the decumanus, in fewer than 10 minutes in either direction. Saepinum is small but not parochial.
An active commercial center for more than 400 years, the city mimicked Rome’s urban customs and imperial architecture, though naturally on a diminished scale and with local stone instead of marble as the principal building material.
It has the feeling of a diorama in the way it gives an elegant overview of the elements that were essential to any Roman city — the forum and basilica, the market and theater and necropoli, the walls and shops and houses — only it is a diorama you can enter, often virtually alone and always with a tangible sense of the proximity of the past.
The theater, just off the cardus, is one of the city’s best preserved structures. It is quintessential Saepinum: ancient Rome combined with modern Molise (that is, of the 18th and 19th centuries), urban dash joined with country frugality: surely this is the only theater in antiquity whose summa cavea (roughly our loge) has been swallowed up into a crescent of rustic farmhouses.
It offers a queer, compelling sight, Piranesi merged with Escher: the nine rows of seats, which include the prima and the media cavea (roughly our orchestra and mezzanine), are divided by two aisles. This is quite normal. But instead of rising gracefully, the steps stop and disappear into a semicircle of buildings made of the local grayish-white stone, creating an unlikely union of mood, style, and use: If they returned today, ancient actors would play to an audience of farmhouses rather than farmers.
These structures, which were inhabited until 20 years ago, incorporate stones from the Roman theater, which at full capacity could seat 3,000 spectators. And they are balanced, where the scena (or stage building) once stood, by another farmhouse, which now contains a handsome museum of Roman objects, chiefly funereal, that were found on the site.
Another unusual characteristic is the theater’s location against the city’s walls, where a gate leads directly into the open countryside. It has been hypothesized that theatrical productions coincided with fairs held outside of the city walls; in any event, crowds were easily managed, and kept out of the center of town, by this clever arrangement. Continuing along the wall toward the Porta di Bojano, you will soon come to the public baths, with their characteristic succession of calidarium (sauna), tepidarium (a transitional room of medium temperature), and frigidarium (an unheated room for cooling off). Faded scraps of mosaic flooring are still visible here, as are pipes that conducted hot air to the sauna. Closest to the door are the remains of a public latrine.
The partly reconstructed Porta di Bojano at the foot of the decumanus is the most intact of the city’s four majestic doors, which were all built along the same model and were all strongly influenced by Rome’s triumphal architecture. As an introduction to Saepinum, the doors were not exactly welcoming. The whole mentality of the city — and in a way, the civilization that produced it — is revealed before you see the first scrap of street or glimpse of shop.
The doors proclaim the city’s strength with their two circular towers of reticulated stone whose thickest sections face the open countryside. They invoke a god: Mars or Hercules or Venus, who glares at you from the keystone in the arch that links the two towers. The door intimidate you into good behavior: the god is flanked by two seminude barbaric prisoners in chains, a reminder of the city’s reputed — and demonstrable — bellicosity; if you try anything devious, it is suggested, these manacled figures will be your fate. Then there is the inevitable inscription mentioning the benefactor (at Bojano, there were two: the imperial princes Tiberius, the future emperor, and his brother Drusus, who also paid for the city’s walls). Few public edifices or monuments were ever completed without acknowledging who footed the bill, which alerted a visitor to the man in power in either the city or the empire or both.
Finally, of course, the most physical message was carried by the two sets of doors. The first, facing the countryside, was a metal gate operated from a control room above the arch. Then, on the city side, there was a massive wooden door of two leaves. A heavy slice of metal or chunk of wood was always ready to slam down during times of strife or, more likely, when a recalcitrant shepherd refused to pay the stiff tithe Saepinum exacted before he could pass through the city. These Saepinese were not a people to fool with.
What follows is altogether more friendly. The terror of the doors, once overcome, gives way to the texture of the decumanus, Saepinum’s once hopping main street. Although only about a third of the city has been excavated, most of its public and a healthy sample of its private buildings are grouped along this narrow stone avenue. Flat, grayish circles, the ghosts of columns that once lined the road, draw you through the commercial district.
On both sides of the decumanus are shops with residences behind. Ruts in the foundations indicate gates or counters that faced the street for ready commerce. Much more modest are the private rooms outlined beyond. They suggest that the small-businessmen of Saepinum put business before domesticity in nearly every case.
The first public building of any size, the macellum, or market, is on the right just before the crossroads. Like many buildings in Saepinum, the macellum was trapezoidal, a shape dictated by the slightly off-kilter intersection of the decumanus and the cardus. It was a preceded by a pillared portico; inside, there was a hexagonal courtyard lined with shops or stalls that faced a hexagonal basin, which was made from the millstone of an olive press and used to capture rainwater.
Still embedded in the crusty earth, the millstone was the precise center of the district’s agricultural community. Here, every morning, farmers gathered to hawk their produce, and here the ladies and servants of Saepinum gathered to provision their daily meals.
Next to the macellum is the basilica, which could be entered from either the decumanus or the cardus. It was a rectangular building, internally subdivided by a peristyle of 20 columns. Nine of these, with their smooth shafts and their elegant Ionic capitals, have been raised. The floor was once paved with mosaic. Built in the first century A.D. and later reconstructed and enriched with marble, the basilica was a center for town meetings and demonstrations, a place where political issues and economic problems were debated and philosophical lectures presented. This juxtaposition of basilica and market — high and humble — is typically and quaintly Saepinese. Nowhere in the big city would you find potatoes and philosophy sharing a common wall.
Beyond the basilica, the decumanus opens into the forum. It is paved with rectangular limestone and slopes gently, and ingeniously, to catch the rainwater; a sewer inlet in the shape of a pierced grid is visible near the fountain of the griffin. The forum bears the imprints of many monuments — a column dedicated to Constantine, equestrian statues, votive offerings — and was certainly the most active outdoor space in all Saepinum.
Along its left side are a succession of important public buildings: the curia, or town hall, where the local senate met; the comitium, an assembly hall, where elections were held; the capitolium, a temple believed to have been dedicated to the capitoline triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; and a second set of baths, for private, or noble, use.
At the far (eastern) corner of the forum is the graceful griffin fountain, which was paid for by Caius Ennius Marsus, a magistrate who followed the local custom of financing a public monument upon taking office.
The decumanus resumes at the far end of the forum, and the buildings that line it are once again of a private nature. Of particular interest is the casa del impluvio sannitico, the house with the Samnite impluvium, a basin for collecting rainwater. Under the Roman impluvium an earlier, third-century B.C. Samnite impluvium was identified by a stone chiseled with letters in Oscan, once again testifying to the pre-Roman origins of the city.
Just beyond it are the remains of a building that once housed an olive press; it is not clear whether it was meant for the use of a single family or to produce inventory for a shop. Immersed in the ground are four brick jars, originaly lined with lead, for the storage of olive oil. Only half of the fourth is visible; its other half disappears behind a low wall and into an embankment of earth. It is a reminder of the lost — or, possibly, the still undiscoverd — Saepinum.
The decumanus continues past farmhouses. Some are still inhabited by local farmers; some house offices for archeologists; one has been turned into a second museum, which tells the history of the digs at Saepinum. Soon the decumanus passes through the Porta di Benevento and into one of the city’s two necropoli. Here is the striking tomb of Ennius Marsus, the man who gave Saepinum the griffin fountain: its large cyclindrical drum rests on a square base, where four crouching lions once crushed warriors with their paws. No matter by which door you enter or leave Saepinum, your final sign of civilization is inevitably a monument, which never fails to invoke the man or family in power.
During the late empire, as traffic diminished and city dwellers were replaced by rich landowners, Saepinum went into decline. After the fall of Rome in 476, its buildings were abandoned and the surrounding farmland was left uncultivated. In 667 the city was ceded by the Lombard Duke of Benevento to the Duke of Bulgari, who tried to revive it. In 882 Saepinum was sacked by the Saracens, and the remaining inhabitants once again returned to the hills, taking refuge this time in Castellum Sepini, the site of today’s village of Sepino.
One civilization investigates, interprets, protects and visits another, while the people who resided here before the Romans built their walls and their towers and their baths continue as they have for millennia. Somehow, one feels, they always will.