“…. There are the towns of Chieti, Aufidena,
Isernia, and Sannio, now exhausted by its
antiquity, from which the whole province
takes its name, and the capital of this
province, the very rich Benevento …”
(Paul the Deacon, Historia langobardorum, ii, 20)
The exceptional geographic position of Benevento, at a crossroads between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas, must surely have favoured permanent settlements here from the earliest times of history. Its setting between the Calore and Sabato rivers, both navigable in ancient times, guaranteed not only its constant supply of water but also a position along important arterial roads.
The area now occupied by the historic centre provides a wealth of evidence vouching for early presence dating back to the ancient neolithic period (6th–5th millennium B.C.), the eneolithic period (3000- 300 B.C.) and the Bronze age (2000-1800 B.C). Burial groups unearthed in the eastern part and the remains of dwellings brought to light in the northern section, on the other side of the river Calore, bear testament to the area being densely populated between the iron age and that of orientalizing period (latter half of the 8th-7th centuries B.C.).
During the Samnite era, the Benevento area became one of the most influential centres of Samnite-Irpinian culture, possibly identifiable with the settlement which, towards the end of the 4th century B.C, minted coins bearing the wording “MALIES”. The settlement comprised scattered groups of dwellings interspersed with necropolises.
- THE ROMAN ERA
- THE SOUTHERN LONGOBARD DUCHY OF BENEVENTO
- THE FOUNDATION OF THE MONASTERIES: MONTECASSINO AND S. VINCENZO AL VOLTURNO
Once Rome had established relations with the local aristocracy, urban construction processes got underway from the latter half of the fourth century B.C. onwards, culminating in 268 B.C. with the founding of the Latin colony, at which time the romans changed the name of the Samnite centre from Maleventum to the more auspicious Beneventum.
Roman city planning can still be distinguished in the octagonal-shaped street pattern of modern times. The two principle decumana, or east-west oriented main road axes - one of which comprised the urban section of the Via Appia - were cut through from north to south thus creating long, narrow, regularly shaped blocks having a length-width ratio of 1:3.
As was customary in Latin colonies, the Forum was located at the centre of the city, at the point of the main crossroads. Recent extensive digs and restoration carried out in the area contained between the cathedral and Vicolo San Geatano has made it possible to unearth and enhance structures that were part of monumental buildings, certainly of public importance.
Nearby the Forum there was a large thermal bath complex, possibly the ‘commodiane Baths’ recorded by literary and epigraphic sources.
We are still lacking definite archaeological data vouching for the location of numerous sanctuaries known to have been dedicated to Vesta, Diana, Minerva Berecynthia, Hercules and Isis.
The most spectacular buildings were situated in the southern part of the city, namely the amphitheatre and the theatre, where numerous decorative sculptural and architectural finds have been made, some of the city during the Longobard era which, along with numerous other spolia, were re-used in the construction of palaces in the historic centre as late as the Middle Ages.
The best-preserved roman structure is the Arch of Trajan, erected in his honour in 114 A.D. to celebrate the inauguration of the Via Traiana, a more rapid, alternative route to the ancient Via Appia, linking rome with Brindisi.
The roman city extended well beyond the confines of the city walls, both to the west and north, providing space for dwellings and areas of industry.
The main necropolises were situated outside the urban centre, along the main access roads. That south-west of the Leproso Bridge was certainly monumental, of which there are still significant remains of the mausoleums that were located along the two sides of the Via Appia.
The southern Duchy of Benevento was founded shortly after 568, the year of the Longobards’ arrival in Italy, and the city’s origins pre-date the invasion of Italy in 568.
Benevento and the Beneventano area (and perhaps also the area of Spoleto) were in fact settlements for the groups of Longobard foederati – allies, basically mercenaries - that, in the midst of a complex affair, had found with the Byzantines in the war against the Ostrogoths in 535-552/3 and that Narsete had difficulty “governing” due to their lack of discipline (referred to by Procopius of Cesarea), assigning (and strategically spreading) them in various areas of the Appenines.
In a short time the new rulers occupied a large area, previously governed by the Byzantines, corresponding to most of the southern part of the Italian peninsula from Molise to Lucania, much of Apulia and the south of Calabria. After the occupation of the peninsula, settlements of recently arrived Longobards would then have been joined to that of their countrymen, consolidating a Germanic presence in the south that had probably already acquired ‘political weight’.
The city of Benevento was chosen as capital because of its geographic position an obligatory point of passage on the routes connecting the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic seas, “hinge of the two seas” and the importance of its structures.
It should be pointed out that this made the Duchy of Benevento and its capital a very special place in the complex history of the Longobard people.
Reorganisation of the territory of Langobardia Minor, which, after years of war and devastation, had seen cities abandoned, dioceses suppressed, depopulation of entire territories taken over by swamps and wilderness, came to a turning point with the conversion of the Longobards to Catholicism.
The close alliance between the Benevento Episcopate and leaders of power in the Duchy brought about the founding of monasteries in strategic locations for religious conquest and reorganisation of the surrounding territory. These monasteries became the fulcrum of gradual repopulation and socio-economic growth. Examples of this were Montecassino and San Vincenzo al Volturno, founded at the time of Romualdo II (706-731) by three noble Lombards, the brothers Tato, Taso e Paldo as narrated by Paul the Deacon in his Historia Langobardorum (VI, 40).
The change from Duchy to Principality came about under Arechi II (8th century). A writer referred to Benevento as Ticinum Geminum (Ticino’s twin). In fact, it was considered a second Pavia.During the 8th century the city benefited from wide-spread building activity, commissioned by Duke Arechi II who, after the fall of the Longobard Kings in northern Italy and aware of the important role to be assumed by Benevento as a consequence, undertook a series of substantial works aimed at exalting the monumental form of the Duchy capital.