sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 5

Rafael Scopacasa: Ancient Samnium

Scopacasa's work on Samnium is a valuable contribution to English-language scholarship in the study of ancient Central Italy. Drawing on the legacy of Edward Togo Salmon's Samnium and the Samnites [1] and Tagliamonte's I Sanniti [2], the author provides a broad synthesis of modern scholarship and new archaeological interventions in the region. Addressing the tricky issue of defining and examining a people predominantly known from the subjective accounts of Greek and Roman geographers and historians, Scopacasa endeavours to explore the development of a 'Samnite' identity from the early Iron Age to the Social War, through the literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources, from the perspective of the region's inhabitants.

In approaching an ambitious overview of this magnitude, the work draws together a wealth of information into five chapters based on the author's doctoral thesis, addressing in turn: 1) the historical sources for a 'Samnite' ethnic group, 2) the archaeological evidence between 1000 and 350 BC, 3) Roman interventions in Samnium from the Samnite Wars to the Hannibalic War, 4) settlement trends and social structures in the latter part of the first millennium, and 5) Roman influence and cultural change. In drawing together a vast array of disparate datasets, Scopacasa highlights the extent to which our understanding of the region has expanded in the last four decades, with continuing investigations expected to produce valuable insights in the future. Inevitably, with a study of such broad scope and with the constraints of a single volume, oversights in recent scholarship are made, such as Shipley's new translation of Pseudo-Skylax's Periplous. [3] Other elements are too readily dismissed by the author, such as the insights that may be gleaned from the use of material culture in the negotiation of relationships within and between communities, or diverse experiences of identity as constructed through gender, social status, or age. [4]

The attempts to integrate the historical sources with the archaeological evidence serve as a much needed modern interpretation of the region, persuasively arguing for the shifting and contextual negotiations of an identity that fulfilled a variety of social and political purposes. The 'Samnites' were heralded in the historical sources as noble allies, decadent barbarians and ruthless warriors. This volume offers a narrative in opposition to those imposed by the historical sources, in a vein similar to Bradley's work on Umbria [5], illuminating the role that the often overlooked regions played in the development of an Italian identity. Emphasizing the diversity of experience across the regions of 'Samnium', the author highlights the embedded relations with wider Italic and Greek communities, through origin myths, religious practice, and elite hierarchies.

In his introduction, Scopacasa sets out his intention to integrate the history of the 'Samnite' regions with discussions of the formation of Italy and the Roman state. He sets out the difficulty of addressing the identities of pre-literate societies, and how we might use the evidence to establish a balance between the observations of external sources and the evidence of the peoples themselves, exploring which boundaries and definitions of identity were relevant to the native inhabitants. As such, the tone is established from the outset that this volume serves as a test-case in exploring constructions of ethnicity and group identity as a dynamic practice, beyond traditional models of 'Romanization'. The setting is the spine of the Central Apennines down to the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian plains to the east and west, between the Sangro Valley in the north and the Ofanto Valley in the south, focussing on the period from 600 to 1 BC. This area corresponds with the modern regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, and Campania, and it is to the author's credit that he has worked together with the soprintendenze of Abruzzo and Molise to ensure the work is as comprehensive as possible at this point in time.

Chapter 1 explores depictions of the 'Samnite' peoples through Greek and Roman geographical and historical accounts. These sources are contrasted with the epigraphic and numismatic evidence from the region, particularly with regards to the term safin-, often interpreted as the root for the Samnite ethnic signifier. Scopacasa takes care to detail changes in self-definition and perception through time, as identities were continually redefined and adapted according to purpose and agenda.

Chapter 2 provides a broad summary of the early Iron Age archaeology of the region, examining trends in settlement patterns (largely based on survey data), funerary practices, and religious activities, identifying key influences across the Italian peninsula (although he overlooks the importance of Greek colonies in Campania). In this brief synopsis, the author highlights shifts in social structuring and the nucleation of settlements, but over-emphasises the paucity of information available from early excavations of cemetery complexes in the region, which remain a rich archive for changing networks of interaction in the region.

Chapter 3 examines the historical accounts of Roman interactions with the 'Samnites' in the fourth and third centuries BC. In his critical examination, Scopacasa is explicit in his approach: following Oakley's interpretation of Livy's work, the histories are taken to be founded in fact, with elements of embellishment in the detail. Scrutinising the text for evidence of action taken on the part of the 'Samnites' and evidence for the dynamic construction of identities in confrontations with Rome, the author supplements his interpretation of the histories with the archaeological evidence.

Chapter 4 delves further into the archaeology for this period, focussing on settlements, sanctuaries, and evidence for political hierarchies. From the organisation of individual households, craft production and specialisation, and communal endeavours, Scopacasa neatly brings together strands of activity, combining old and new data, across modern boundaries, to elucidate the multi-layered complexity of identities in diverse spheres of activity.

Chapter 5 addresses the extent to which Roman interventions, particularly colonisation, had an impact on life in Samnium, through the evidence from religious and funerary practice, material culture, and language. These changes provide the backdrop for the resurgence of a 'Samnite' identity in the years preceding the outbreak of the Social War, and eventual dismantling of the 'Samnites' by Sulla's forces.

Scopacasa's new insights into the archaeology of the region, heavily weighted to masculine elite experiences in the region though they are, provide an elegant summary of the shifting allegiances of diverse social and political units across the landscape of Central Italy. This volume sets out the evidence for the deliberate construction of cultural identities for political purposes, the manipulation of ethnic histories, and the pragmatic cohesion of individual communities in reaction to external aggressors, in stark contrast with the traditional perception of the monolithic, fearsome 'Samnites' portrayed in the historical sources. These constructions of identity were subverted by the region's opponents and used against them as a cautionary tale, poised as the barbaric mighty foe portrayed by Livy, or the dangerous threat to Rome perceived by Sulla (at least according to Strabo's account).

Almost 20 years after the publication of Tagliamonte's work on I Sanniti, a review of our understanding of the 'Samnites' and their interactions with Rome is readily welcomed. In recent years, many of the publications on the archaeology of the region have been delivered as papers in edited volumes, or as exhibition catalogues, many of which have contradicted Tagliamonte's view of cultural homogeneity. Scopacasa's synopsis of the region, as a diverse set of communities constructing an identity based on ethnic affinity under mutually beneficial circumstances, corresponds with modern lines of thought and provides a solid foundation for future work in the study of the Samnites.


[1] Edward Togo Salmon: Samnium and the Samnites, Cambridge / New York 1967.

[2] Gianluca Tagliamonte: I Sanniti. Caudini, Irpini, Pentri, Carricini, Frentani, Milan 1996.

[3] Graham Shipley: Pseudo-Skylax's Periplous: The Circumnavigation of the Inhabited World. Text, Translation and Commentary, Exeter 2011.

[4] Amy Richardson: In Search of the Samnites: Adornment and Identity in Archaic Central Italy, 750-350 BC, Oxford 2013.

[5] Guy Jolyon Bradley: Ancient Umbria. State, Culture, and Identity in Central Italy from the Iron Age to the Augustan Era, Oxford 2000.

Rezension über:

Rafael Scopacasa: Ancient Samnium. Settlement, Culture, and Identity between History and Archaeology, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015, XVI + 352 S., 22 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-0-19-871376-0, GBP 75,00

Rezension von:
Amy Richardson
University of Oxford
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