BMCR 2022.06.30

Studi sull’Irpinia antica

, , Studi sull'Irpinia antica. Napoli: Tiotinx Edizioni, 2021. Pp. xviii, 458. ISBN 9788894484922

The mountainous district of Irpinia, ancient Hirpinia, in the central-southern Apennines, has largely been excluded from mainstream archaeological and historical research despite its lengthy local scholarly tradition. This trend is now beginning to change, as the region, and especially its cities, are being integrated into research on the archaeology and epigraphy of wider modern Campania and Puglia.[1] Studi sull’Irpinia antica is a welcome addition to the growing body of work on the region. This volume is a partial republication of an earlier volume, which appeared in 2017, albeit with a limited print run.[2] The present volume reproduces this earlier work with the addition of several new papers (Mele and De Rosa/Munzi), plus two heavily reworked contributions (Poccetti and Avagliano) as well as a much-revised appendix containing textual passages from ancient sources discussing the region or its peoples, and three new indexes cataloguing the names of individuals and groups, places and sources.

As the introduction (‘Premessa’) makes clear, the Hirpini who give their name to the region are often left at the sidelines of research into ancient southern-central Italy or subsumed within wider concerns about studying the far more famous (and arguably better understood) Samnites to the north. The book aims in part to help plug this gap in existing scholarship, though substantial attention will also be devoted to the history and archaeology of the Hirpinia during the Roman period. This introductory chapter is followed by brief English abstracts of the largely Italian-language volume. (There is just one non-Italian contribution, by Nowak, in German.)

The volume proper begins with a series of historical, text-based studies. Poccetti’s chapter seeks to explore and define the Hirpini as a people. He argues that the demonym derives from the Sabellic term for wolf, though competing traditions link the origin to the Samnites and the Sabines. These narratives of ethnogenesis sit within a wider series of Roman historiographical topoi, rendering it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Poccetti’s wide-ranging study also examines the cult practices of the Hirpini, but these are known primarily from a Roman perspective, again blurring topoi and actual religious practice. He emphasises the importance of the chthonic deities, Dis Pater and Mephitis (the latter discussed in several other contributions in this volume), among the Hirpini, though it should be emphasised that these divinities are shared with many neighbouring peoples.

This discussion of the two key divinities in the region forms a neat bridge to Mele’s paper, which explores and systematises references in the literary canon and epigraphy to the chthonic deity Mephitis. This goddess is known across central-southern Italy, and in Hirpinia she was closely associated with the site at Mefite (near Rocca San Felice) in the Valle d’Ansato, but she is also mentioned in inscriptions and/or graffiti at this site as well as in Aeclanum and Aequum Tuticum. Mele presents two previously unpublished lead curse tablets (defixiones) from San Felice, which are written in Oscan with Greek letters, underlining the role of the Valle d’Ansato as a central meeting point—as Virgil (Aeneid VII563–565) implies—between the various peoples of central-southern Italy.

Camodeca’s rich contribution compares and contrasts the histories of the major regional centres of Abellinum, a probable Gracchan colony, and Aeclanum, extant before Sulla but probably re-founded as a municipium by him, through their epigraphic records. Though both cities were no doubt significant under the Roman Empire, Aeclanum has so far yielded over three times as many non-funerary inscriptions as Abellinum, which Camodeca interprets as a reflection of its greater importance as an administrative centre. This hypothesis may be buttressed by inscriptions mentioning Roman senators from Aeclanum, while similar references are hitherto lacking from Abellinum. The author also attempts to define the extent of the territories of Aeclanum, Abellinum, and Compsa, discusses the status of Frigentum in antiquity (possibly not an ancient settlement), and interrogates the administrative status and significance of lesser settlements like Aequum Tuticum. An addendum—new in this reprinted edition—presents several unpublished inscriptions.

Saldutti examines the history of Compsa during the Second Punic War, primarily based on Livy’s testimony. His close reading casts new light in the microhistory of political clashes among local elites: while the Mopsii held pro-Roman allegiances, the Statii and their supporters advocated for defection from the Roman side to Hannibal’s. Saldutti retraces the turbulent history of the town from its early history in the period after the foundation of the Roman colony at Beneventum in 268 BCE down to its violent treatment by both the Carthaginians and the Romans. However, the settlement’s rich later history, both under the Roman Empire and in the Gothic kingdom, goes unmentioned, meaning the casual reader may have been left with the impression that Compsa’s history ended in the late 3rd century BCE.

The second part of the book deals with archaeological studies. Colucci Pescatori provides an overview of scholarship on the archaeology of Hirpinia from the 17th century onwards as well as a summary of the key monuments and sites in the region from protohistory to the Early Middle Ages. This paper will remain essential reading for anyone interested in this part of Italy for years to come, but it is worth noting that in some areas it has not been updated since the previous publication and now needs to be read with more recent studies—for example, the ‘nymphaeum’ at Aeclanum (p. 184) has recently been reidentified as a theatre.[3] Moreover, the focus on sites and monuments underlines that we ultimately still lack an archaeology of landscape in Hirpinia.

Pellegrino et al. move beyond the borders of Hirpinia and look at the evidence for possible newcomers at Pontecagnano on the coast from the interior in the 7th and 8th centuries BCE. Their study is based primarily on gravegood assemblages and funerary rites but the hypotheses they put forward must await confirmation through scientific analysis, especially isotopes, as mobility studies focussing on later periods have shown that material culture studies alone provide insufficient grounds to identify migrants.[4]

Franciosi’s paper focusses on the implications of recent dendrochronological studies of the ‘Great Xoanon’ found at Mefite (the site already discussed by Mele), a wooden statue which he argues represents the chthonic deity Mephitis. These studies show that this wooden statue was made from an oak tree trunk around 50 years old at the time it was cut down. He takes this as a jumping off point to explore the symbolism of this type of wood for Mephitis’ function of mediating between the living and the dead. This is a useful and insightful piece of scholarship, though it would have also been interesting to consider further the other smaller xoana found at the site.

De Rosa and Munzi provide one of the few attempts to sketch a broader analysis of the landscape of Hirpinia, drawing on recent excavations in the municipality of Lacedonia. Their chronological framework, the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, saw increasing Roman contact with the region. They hypothesise that land use was organised around small, dispersed settlements and associated burial grounds. These may have been supplemented by occasional fortified refuges and proto-towns like the enclosure at Monteverde.

The final two papers provide results from the Rekontextualisierung römischer Skulptur im antiken Hirpinien project, and present some of the best-known Roman artistic highlights from the region alongside some previously unpublished pieces; others held in several private collections in the region await further study. Nowak analyses funerary commemoration in the art of Roman Hirpinia. In doing so, she provides a useful partial synthesis of funerary art from the region, demonstrating the popularity of half-figured portraits and the relative scarcity of family portraits common in some other parts of Italy. Avagliano presents an important summary of sculpture and statuary from the city of Aeclanum. However, it should be noted that this is primarily an art historical study and attention to archaeological context is cursory. This reviewer was also sceptical of the close dating of some of the items presented, particularly the ‘Tiberian’ limestone head found in the theatre area, but not originally displayed there (pp. 344–5), and we must remain open to broader chronologies for some of these pieces.

The book closes with a useful appendix comprising a catalogue of textual passages which discuss Hirpinia in antiquity, divided between a first part which contains references to the Hirpini as a people and a second part which collates textual references of key settlements—particularly the cities of Abellinum, Aeclanum, and Compsa—as well as important or evocative parts of the landscape—like the Valle d’Ansato, discussed in Mele’s chapter. These passages are provided both in the original Latin and Greek, alongside Italian translations and substantial notes. This is a valuable and much-needed resource for future research into ancient Hirpinia, though several of the thematic chapters only quote ancient sources in the original language, meaning that some users of the volume may need to cross-reference in order to grasp the meaning of key parts of the text.

The images throughout the book are in black and white, and often relatively small, making them difficult for the reader to see and interpret clearly. Additionally, there are occasional typographical errors that jumped out even to this non-native Italian speaker (e.g. p. 73, “riveste4nel”). However, despite these shortcomings, Studi sull’Irpinia antica will be essential reading for scholars working on this the region and its peoples.

Authors and titles

Premessa (xi–xii)
Abstracts (xv–xviii)
Storia, culti, instituzioni
Paulo Poccetti, “Hirpini. Tradizioni di etnogenesi, ‘identità italica’ e assimilazione al mondo romano” (3–52)
Alfonso Mele, “Mefite nel mondo romano e italico” (53–88)
Giuseppe Camodeca, “Note sull’Irpinia in età romana” (89–110) with “Addendum” (111–130)

Vittorio Saldutti, “Compsa nella seconda guerra punica” (131–145)
Gabriella Colucci Pescatori, “Per una storia archeologica dell’Irpinia: dall’istituzione del
Museo Irpino alle ricerche più recenti” (149–203)
Carmine Pellegrino, Carmelo Rizzo, Tatiana Grimaldi, “Dall’Irpinia alla costa tirrenica:
fenomeni di mobilità e integrazione in Campania tra VIII e VII secolo a.C.” (205–263)
Vincenzo Franciosi, “Alcune note sul grande xoanon della Mefite d’Ansanto” (265–277) Saverio De Rosa, Priscilla Munzi, “Forme e modi di occupazione nel territorio di Aquilonia in Hirpinis tra IV e III secolo a.C.” (279–301)
Christiane Nowak, “Bildnisse in funerären Kontexten Hirpiniens” (303–327)
Alessandra Avagliano, “La scultura romana di Aeclanum: un primo bilancio” (329–364)
Vittorio Saldutti, Amedeo Visconti, “La tradizione letteraria sugli Irpini e l’Irpinia” (367–441)
Indice dei nomi di persona e di popolo (445-451)
Indice dei luoghi (454-457)
Indice delle fonti citate (458-465)


[1] E.g. Rotili, M. (2017). ‘Forme e funzioni dello spazio urbano in Campania nella tarda antichità.’ Hortus Artium Medievalium 23: 708–728; De Simone, G. F. and B. Russell (2019). ‘The late-antique eruption of Vesuvius in AD 472 and its impact from the Bay of Naples to Aeclanum.’ Journal of Roman Archaeology32: 359–389; Lambert, C. (2008). Studi di epigrafia tardoantica e medievale in Campania. Volume I. Secoli IV–VII. Florence: All’Insegna del Giglio.

[2] Franciosi V., Visconti, A., Avagliano, A., and Saldutti V., eds. (2017). Appellati nomine lupi: giornata internazionale di studi sull’Hirpinia e gli Hirpini, Napoli, 28 febbraio 2014. Napoli: Università degli Studi Suor Orsola Benincasa. This earlier version was reviewed by Jean-Claude Lacam, see BMCR 2018.05.05.

[3] See now the reports on the new excavations: De Simone, G. F. and Russell, B. (2018). ‘New work at Aeclanum (Comune di Mirabella Eclano, Provincia di Avellino, Regione Campania).’ Papers of the British School at Rome 86: 298–301; De Simone, G. F. and Russell, B. (2019). ‘Excavation and survey at Aeclanum in 2018 (Comune di Mirabella Eclano, Provincia di Avellino, Regione Campania).’ Papers of the British School at Rome 87: 336–340; Russell, B. and De Simone, G. F. (2020). ‘New excavations in the central and southern sectors of Aeclanum in 2019 (Comune di Mirabella Eclano, Provincia di Avellino, Regione Campania).’ Papers of the British School at Rome 88: 368–373.

[4] Eckardt, H., ed. (2010). Roman diasporas. Archaeological approaches to mobility and diversity in the Roman Empire. Journal of Roman Archaeology Suppl. 83. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology.