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The Roman Republic and Southern Italy in 264 B.C.

Map of Southern Italy circa 264 B.C., 16 KB

Map Source: "Italy Before the First Punic War 264 B.C." drawn by Berit Lie. Map 23 in Historical Atlas of the World (Edinburgh, 1970; original edition: Oslo, 1962), adapted by RWA for the Internet.

Notes about Ancient Italy

(Warning: much of what follows is only my opinions, and I am not an historian. The sources for these notes are cited, where remembered. Last revised: November 2002, with many minor changes after that.)

Italy in the 3rd Century B.C.

At the time of this map, Roman territory extended northwards about 125 miles from Asculum (Ascoli Piceno) to just beyond Florentia (Florence) and ended in the south at the Strait of Messana (Messina). Both the islands of Sardinia and Corsica were Carthaginian territory. Neapolis (Naples) and the nearby island of Pithecussa (Ischia) were Greek colonies (Even well after it was conquered by Rome, the primary language of Naples was Greek).

While "Lucania" is still the name applied to Lucania (the Italian Region of Basilicata), Calabria is now the name of the Italian Region located, not in the peninsula's heel, but in its toe. (Although a people called "Brutti" lived in the toe, the name Bruttium is not found in ancient sources.)

In the 3rd Century B.C. modern Molise was within the administrative territory of Samnium. That this was Samnite land is testified to by names such as Monti del Sannio (a mountain range just southwest of the village of Gambatesa), Via Appulo-Sannitica ("The Apulia-Samnium Way", the old road connecting the provincial capital cities of Campobasso and Foggia which passes through Gambatesa), and towns such as Morrone del Sannio, Sant'Elena Sannita, Mirabello Sannitico, among many others. However, during the reign of Emperor Augustus the eastern part of Molise was placed in the administrative region of Apulia and Calabria.

Magna Graecia

The Greeks called south-western Italy Oenotria. The Romans called the Greek colonies in southern Italy, excluding Sicily, Magna Graecia (meaning extended or "greater Greece"). This area may also be thought of as forming part of "western Hellas". After fleeing Troy, Aeneas is told in a dream to settle in "a country far away to the west, Italy -- in those days called Hesperia, the Western Country" (Hamilton, Mythology (1942), iv, 4, 1).

On the island of Sicily, Aeschylus of Athens (c. 525-456), the playwright who fought at Marathon (490 B.C.), "died in the wheatlands of Gela" (it says in the epitaph he wrote for himself) and is buried there. Syracuse (Siracusa) was the birthplace and home of the mathematician and scientist Archimedes (c. 287-212). In 415 B.C. Athens had sent an expedition to conquer Syracuse, but it was defeated. Plato visited the city-state three times, but failed there to transform the tyrant's son into a philosopher-king.

Just north of Syracuse was the city of Leontini (Lentini), the birthplace of the Sophist Gorgias who taught in Athens at the time of Socrates (d. 399 B.C.); Athens was in fact the birthplace of only two of the Greek philosophers, Socrates and Plato. From the Italian peninsula came Parmenides of Elea (or, Velia, of which only ruins remain), and Zeno of Elea, the author of the Paradoxes. And there died Xenophanes of Colophon.

At about the same latitude as Leontini but on the western coast of Sicily, the Greek city of Acragas (Agrigento) was the home of the philosopher Empedocles (484-424), a very early advocate of atoms (or simple elements; "roots" was the word he used), of which he thought there were four (earth, water, air, and fire) which combined and uncombined as they attracted or repulsed one another but did not themselves change.

Pythagoras in Magna Graecia

The philosopher Pythagoras, as his name suggests, was a follower of Apollo. He was born on the distant side of the Aegean Sea, on the Greek island of Samos (c. 582 B.C.), but he established his school in Croton (Crotone). He did not call himself a sophist (or, "one who knows", "wise man") but only a philosopher ("one who seeks or wants to know", "a lover of wisdom"), a word Pythagoras may have invented. He argued that the morning star and the evening star were the same (i.e. that both are our planet Venus), that the earth was round, and that the moon took its light from the sun. (Diog. L. viii, 1) The first two Books of Euclid's Elements are said to be an account of Pythagoras's work.

In 443 B.C. Herodotus of Halicarnassus (in southern Ionia) became a citizen of the new colony Thurii in Magna Graecia where he lived until his death in about 424. It was in Thurii that he that gave his History its present form.

Origin of the name "Italy"

The origin of the name "Italy" is, like most ancient things, disputed. Aristotle said that the name "Italians" was taken by the Oenotrians when they came under the rule of King Italus. This king taught the Oenotrian shepherds to be husbandmen; he gave them laws and the common meal (i.e. one eaten by all the people together). "Even in our day," Aristotle says, there are Italians who retain this communal meal and some other of Italus's laws. (Politics, Bk VIII)

Or it may be that the name "Italians" came from a single native people (or, tribe) whom the Greeks encountered when they first put ashore on the Italian peninsula. That is how Greece is said to have gotten its Latin name: the Romans extended the name of emigrants from a single Greek city to the whole of the people who (beginning about the 7th Century B.C.) called themselves "Hellenes" (and their land "Hellas"). That is how the Germans are said to have gotten their name: the first central northern European people who crossed the Rhine to raid Gaul called themselves "Germans"; and so much terror did their memory inspire that afterwards all the European peoples living east of the Rhenus (Rhine) took this name in order to terrify those who might fight against them (Tacitus, Germania). (Compare the origin of the name "China".)

Polybius and "Italy"

However, the Oxford Classical Dictionary (2nd edition) states, more than a little enigmatically, that the name "probably" came from Italic Vitelia ("calf land"), a name originally given to the southern half of the peninsula's toe (Cf. the name of the Greek region Boeotia means "the heifer's land", although that is from the legend of Cadmus' founding Thebes). What is known is that from the time of the Greek historian Polybius (i.e. the 2nd Century B.C.) forward, the name "Italy" came to be applied to the whole peninsula from the Alps to the Mediterranean ... although the people of the Italian peninsula and islands still did not think of themselves as a single people, or, nation, even in the 19th Century when their "unification" was being planned for them.

The Appian Way and Via Salaria

The Via Appia (or, Appian Way) was begun in 312 B.C. to unite the cities of Rome and Capua, but it eventually extended all the way to the seaport city of Brundisium (Brindisi) in the heel of the Italian peninsula, 333 miles away. The early Romans were shepherds and small farmers; from their sheep they took milk and wool. But sheep need salt, and the Romans discovered that boiling sea water or allowing it to evaporate in the sun not only provided salt for their own sheep but also resulted in a surplus which they could trade with the Greeks and Etruscans. The name of the Via Salaria, which stretched from Rome to the Adriatic coast just north of Asculum (Ascoli Piceno), means the "Salt Road", salaria being the Latin word from which the expression "to be worth one's salt" or "salary" comes. (Bread can be made without salt, but brine for curing meats cannot. The words salame and salsiccia ("sausage") derive from the words for "salt" and "salted". Salt is still a state monopoly in Italy.)

Both these roads were finished after 264 B.C., the date of the second of the three "Punic Wars" between Rome and Carthage. The Romans called the Phoenicians Poeni, from which comes the English word "Punic"; the Carthaginians were Phoenicians. The Phoenicians called themselves "Canaanites"; they came from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and were skilled sea traders and explorers; it was from the Phoenicians that the Greeks acquired an alphabet for writing Greek, a variation of which the Romans acquired for writing Latin.

After the third Punic War, the Romans destroyed the City of Carthage stone by stone and salted its fields to make them useless for agriculture (Such a draconian resolution of a war came to be known as "a Carthaginian peace"). But by the time of St. Augustine, the then Roman city of Carthage was large and prosperous again (So maybe the salt and destruction story is only hyperbole). Augustine was a Berber born in 354 A.D. in Thagaste, about 140 miles southwest of Carthage. The part of North Africa shown on the map was to become a Roman province named "Africa", the region to its east and south would be called "Numidia".

The Birth of Civilization

The Greek historian Thucydides wrote that the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate olive trees and grapevines. Other historians, on the other hand, see the birth of civilization when the peoples of Kurdistan first learned to cultivate wheat and to domesticate sheep. According to the myths it was during the reign of King Erechtheus of Athens that the goddess of grain, Demeter, came to Eleusis and agriculture began (Erechtheus' son Cecrops was responsible for Athena becoming protectress of Athens. Cecrops was the great-grandfather of Theseus).

The husk of man's earliest wheat was too hard to allow this grain be used to make yeast-leavened bread; that type of wheat developed as a result of cultivation much later in human history and is first known to have been used by the ancient Egyptians for yeast-leavened bread around 2600 B.C. The Greeks taught the Romans how to make yeast-leavened bread, something which at first the Romans only made at home and baked either at home or in communal ovens. The first commercial bread bakery wasn't opened in Rome until 171 B.C., and its bread was very expensive.

Bread for the common people was coarse whole-wheat with other heavier grains usually mixed in (and sometimes even ground beans). This dark bread became the symbol and the reality of poverty.

About King Erechtheus and his son Cecrops the source was Edith Hamilton's Mythology (1942), which was also the source above for Boeotia's name meaning "the heifer's land".

Wine and Water

Oenotria is translated "Land of Wine" [the Greek word for wine is oinos]. However, "the land of staked vines" was the idea (These stakes were wooden poles stuck vertically -- straight up and down -- into the ground), meant to contrast with the practice in the Greek homeland where vines were either strung between trees or grown on the ground. The Italians also learned to grow vines on trees, a practice which is part of cultiva promiscua, or, the inter-cultivation of crops.

Adding sea water to wine for seasoning was a Greek practice that was followed in Pompeii; Pliny the Elder advised getting the water far away from the shoreline. The ancient Greeks mixed their wine with water (usually one part wine to two parts water or 2 parts wine to 5 parts water, but sometimes "mingled half and half" (Aristophanes, Acharnenses, line 354) in a deep bowl called a krater, and many southern Italians still dilute the wine they drink with meals at home. [Hesiod said to "pour three measures of water, and the fourth of wine" (Works and Days, c. line 595-596, tr. West).] And in the Roman Catholic Mass, the priest still mixes the communion wine with water before it is consecrated (although this may be an allusion to John 19.34).

The source for much of the last three paragraphs was Hugh Johnson's Vintage: the story of wine (1989).

Honey and Wheat in Sicily

The Cyclops Polyphemus of Homer's Odyssey lived on the eastern shore of the island of Sicily; he made cheese from the milk of his sheep and goats, just as shepherds still do. Sicily was famous for the honey gathered from bees the Greeks kept in the mountain caves behind Syracuse, bees that fed on wild thyme. The island was the bread basket of Rome before the early Empire conquered the wheat growing regions of Spain and North Africa. But at the time of Odysseus, although wheat and barley grew wild, the people did not cultivate grain nor bake bread (Book ix); "men who eat bread" was Homer's usual way of saying that a people were civilized, like the Greeks. The principal wheat now cultivated in Sicily is durum wheat, the type used for macaroni and in some places bread; but the Romans used the island's grains not only for bread but also for their pulmentum, or, puls, the dry-ish porridge made from varieties of wheat and barley that fed the Roman legions and ordinary Romans (a food that is still eaten by the poorest of the poor in some parts of the Mediterranean world).

[The expression "men who live by bread" is found in the Theogony (c. line 504), in the same context as in Hesiod's eighth or seventh century B.C. Works and Days, where Zeus' gift of Pandora to man is called "a calamity for men who live by bread" (c. line 82). The Bronze men, the third race of men Zeus made (we are the fourth), were "no eaters of corn" (ibid. c. line 146): the editor-translator M.L. West's note says that "agriculture is a normal feature of civilized life" ('corn' = 'the predominant grain in an area', commonly wheat or barley, rye in northern Europe, oats in Scotland).]

From Classical times forward, "to be without bread" meant to be without food. Even a fiercely anti-clerical immigrant grandfather from Campania would not place a loaf of bread upside down on the table: that would have been "disrespectful to the Body of Christ", the bread of life, of the Lord who was born in Bethlehem which name means "house of bread". (In Germany the last meal of the day is still called Abendbrot ("Evening bread"), as in China where food as such is simply referred to as "rice"; that was the place of bread in Europe.)

The source for much of the last two paragraphs was Mary Simeti's Pomp and Sustenance: twenty-five centuries of Sicilian food (1989). Some came from Waverley Root's The Cooking of Italy (1968), as did the above notes about sheep and the salt trade. But some came from elsewhere.

Molise and Campania

Thirty years ago Waverley Root wrote that the Greeks did not go beyond the coast to the inlands of Abruzzo and that in any case the land of Abruzzo could only be attractive to mountain goats. Furthermore, no foreigners went to Molise unless it was to have church bells cast in the town of Agnone or to study the Oscan language in Sepino. The town of Sepino lies near the ruins of the ancient Samnite mountain town of Saepinum, which the Romans sacked in 293 B.C. but rebuilt in 4 A.D. in the plain below, across and in control of a famous sheep migration track or tratturo (See Oxford Classical Dictionary). Nonetheless some Greek remains have been found in the territory of Molise. And ancient Roman methods of grain measurement were in use well into the 20th Century.

The Region of Campania, smaller in Roman times than now (when it did not extend beyond the Volturno), was named for the Campani, an Oscan-speaking people who lived near Capua, not from the Italian word for "countryside" (campagna). Agriculturally the region was extremely fertile, yielding two to four harvests a year; the Romans called it Felix Campania ("happy" in the sense of "fortunate"). Inter-cultivation was practiced with rows of grain and vegetables growing between fruit and olive trees; other trees were used as living trellises for grapevines.

The source for most of the last two paragraphs was Waverley Root's The Food of Italy (1971).

Remember when grains and fruits and vegetables are spoken of that these did not include tomatoes, sweet peppers and peperoncini ("hot red peppers" [Dried and ground the Italians immigrants used this against kitchen ants, spreading it on their kitchen counters]), maize (Indian corn), or potatoes, all of which originated in the New World and were unknown in pre-Columbian Italy. Also unknown were chocolate and vanilla. Remember also that it was only in the 20th Century that spaghetti and macaroni became food for the poor; before then pasta was eaten only by the rich.

The traditional food of the peasants of Molise was beans and wild greens, as well, of course, as coarse dark bread. (Ignazio Silone, The Seed Beneath the Snow)

The Inter-cultivation of Crops

Of the three reasons for inter-cultivation, two were poverty; the other was tradition. If the peasant was fortunate enough to own land (and most were not), he was a subsistence farmer who had to grow everything his family needed to survive: grain, legumes, olives, vines for home-made wine ("the wine that is bread", that is, food), and he had to do this on very little land: wherever there was room to plant, he planted something. If the peasant did not own land, he could either rent land under the mezzadria ("the share-cropping arrangement under which the peasant farmer was required to give his landlord -- i.e. the owner of the land -- (at least) one half of his harvest in exchange for use of the land"; 'mezzo' = 'half'; the Helots had been made to give one-half of their produce to their Spartan overlords), or he could rent himself out as an agricultural day laborer. It was the man's responsibility to earn the family's cash (although some women also earned money, e.g. by cleaning raw wool); his wife was responsible for the house, the vegetable garden, the children and the non-draft animals, if the family had any. Cash was needed, if only because taxes had to be paid. Taxes always had to be paid. If the subsistence farmer grew a cash-earning crop in addition to his needs, in southern Italy he most likely grew what people ate, namely, wheat. People ate bread; the poorest people ate very little else. It was a world in which crop failure meant starvation, and where there was little profit in growing crops that had to be sold at the price competition with large landowners forced on the peasants. Subsistence, the scarcity of land, and tradition were the reasons for inter-cultivation. (Tradition works the same magic in every peasant community; it is why Frederick the Great had to station soldiers in the fields to make sure that his peasants planted that New World food potatoes, the food that southern Germans were later to mockingly call "Prussian bread".)

The source for some of the above paragraph was Cyril Ray's The Wines of Italy (London, 1966). That author found the mezzadria system of inter-cultivation (the vine growing "higgledy-piggledy" with wheat and olive) still practiced in most parts of Umbria in the early 1960s.


The Administrative Regions of the Italian Peninsula during the reign of Caesar Augustus

As the following map shows, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus (29 B.C. - 14 A.D.) much of modern Molise lay in the administrative region of Apulia and Calabria. So that, it is not true that "historically Abruzzo and Molise have always been considered as one region". And indeed geographically southeastern Molise is much less like mountainous Abruzzo and much more like the highlands of southwestern Puglia and northeastern Campania; and, as the 19th Century civil registers of Gambatesa show, inter-marriage among the peoples of the villages in this zone was very common, as was the seasonal migration of workers within it.

Map of Southern Italy during the reign of Augustus Caesar, 10 KB

Map Source: the map above is based by RWA on a map in the book Italy 1, from the series "The World and its Peoples" (Greystone Press, 1964, 1968), page 166, where it has this caption:

During the reign of [Julius] Caesar the name "Italy" referred, in its strictest sense, only to the southern and central sections of the peninsula. Under Caesar's heir and successor Augustus, however, the entire peninsula was divided into eleven administrative regions (shown on map here), which became known, collectively, as "Italy".

The administrative regions of Gallia Cispadana (VIII) and Gallia Transpadana (XI) were divided by the Po River, cis meaning "on this side of", trans meaning "on the other side of", and Padus being the Roman name for the River Po. Gallia meant "the land of the Gauls" (i.e. the land of the people west of the Rhine and in northern Italy). Gallia Transalpina (Transalpine, i.e. on the other side of the Alps) meant France; whereas Gallia Cisalpina meant northern Italy, and that of course is what was meant here.

Related page: Rome's Orbis Terrarum, an ancient map showing a Roman view of the whole world.


From Roman Colonus to Medieval Serf

The small farms of republican Rome were of 2-3 acres each. Grains, vegetables and fruits, including figs, olives and grapes, all that a family would need, were grown in fields fertilized by the cattle that pulled the plowshare, and rotated to prevent exhaustion of the soil. (These austere and very serious people also set aside a little space to grow flowers. And they were very fond of apples.)

But war put an end to this independent way of life. Whereas the wheat plant, for example, is an annual, grape vines and fruit trees, once planted, require many years to become productive, and olive trees, as the saying goes, a man plants not for his children but for his grandchildren, so long do these trees require to reach maturity. Because of this, farms gone to seed due to their neglect by absent soldiers and destruction done by roving armies and brigands, and ever-increasing taxes, forced small farmers to sell their land to wealthy patricians (patroni). The patroni combined these lands into "broad farms" (latifundia) dedicated to pasturing cattle and to raising cash crops tended by conquered peoples who were now slaves.

The source for most of the above two paragraphs was Will Durant's Caesar and Christ (New York, 1944) iv, 5. Some other matters of fact below are also based on that author's work.

Small Land-owners became Tenants Farmers

The small farmers of Rome had been called coloni, a word that simply meant "farmers" or "cultivators of the soil". But in the new way of life, coloni took on the meaning of "tenant farmers", i.e. farmers who work land owned by another and pay rent either in shares of produce or in money. When, eventually, slaves became too expensive to keep, they were set free -- to also become tenant farmers.

Although these Roman tenant farmers may seem to have been more fortunate than their descendants, since they had to surrender only one-tenth (as opposed to one-half) of their produce or to pay a small money rent to the landlord, the result was the same. The inevitable crop failures -- caused by hail, drought or flood -- that hit all small farmers and the ever-increasing taxes forced the coloni into a cycle of never-ending debt.

When debt or despair became overwhelming, the temptation for these landless peasants was to abandon the Italian countryside. Fearing that no one would be left to work the land, in the 4th Century A.D. the Roman Empire put an end to this flight: tenants were bound to the land until all debt was paid off. But the debt could never be paid off, and tenant farmers became serfs. In this way a pattern of rural poverty was established in southern Italy that would endure for over sixteen centuries.

The classification (professione o condizione) colono was revived, following the abolition of feudalism in 1806, in southern Italian civil registers, where it was used in its original meaning of "small farmer". But the fate of these small farmers was the same as that of their ancestors -- they became tenant farmer or day laborers (although there were exceptions, as e.g. the Masseria Valente in Gambatesa, where the word masseria means "small farm").

Small Land-owners became Medieval Serfs

Also by the 4th Century A.D. Roman authority had so declined that brigandage had become commonplace in the countryside. And so, faced with brigands and taxes and debt, any small farmer who still owned land was forced to surrender his property and labor to stronger landlords, in return for the lord's protection and a subsistence. The farmer became the lord's colonus, that word now taking on the meaning of "serf". Of course, once taken on, this yoke could not be removed; it became impossible to be free of a lord even when the lord's protection was no longer needed. (In this way the small farmers were forced to sell themselves and their descendants into over 1,600 years of bondage.)

The lords, or, nobles were only "noble" in fairy tales, romances that described an ideal of what the nobility ought to be. However, with few exceptions, the nobles were gangsters who used their lands and their peasant serfs entirely for their own selfish purposes, as though these human beings were beasts of burden, livestock (Aristotle's "human instruments" or "living tools").

Lazzaroni and Artisans

Those small farmers who had abandoned the land for the town became a new class of urban poor. In the city of Naples, their spiritual descendants would be called "idle good-for-nothings" (lazzaroni). However, in reality they were simply urban day laborers, idle only because they could not find work, just like the bracciali (braccianti) of the countryside.

Also in the 4th Century A.D., artisans were bound to their professions and their sons with them. And, although feudalism had been legally abolished in 1806, in 19th Century Italian civil registers the presumption is still that the "profession or condition" of the father and son is the same, something which other documents prove was in fact no longer always the case. An inference would be that the cancelliere simply filled in the forms without bothering to ask anyone about these things, because as the proverb said and as everyone knew: "He who is born with a hoe in his hands, will hoe for the rest of his life."


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Last revised: 17 September 2010 : 2010-09-17 by Robert [Wesley] Angelo.

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