Yesterday came a rather exciting announcement that a Samnite grave has been discovered in Pompeii. The details revealed thus far include that a skeleton, belonging to a woman approximately forty to fifty years old, complete with grave goods including numerous jars still containing traces of their original contents, has been excavated in an area beyond the Porta di Ercolano.
The Samnites were a native Italic people (much like the Latins who founded Rome), whose culture was similarly tribal, consisting of a loose federation of a number of groups who inhabited parts of central and southern Italy. They tended to live in some of the more mountainous regions of Italy, were sheep herders, and famed wool workers. They leave no written record of their own, but survive in the history of Rome written by Livy. His material, however, is heavily biased, as he was largely writing about the Samnites and their part in a series of wars fought against Rome in the fourth and early third centuries BC. Known collectively as the Samnite Wars, this conflict is largely characterised as a struggle for control of the Italian peninsula, in which Rome was the ultimate victor. It should thus come as no surprise that Livy views the Samnites as warlike, uncivilised, and generally inferior.
So how did a Samnite woman end up in Pompeii? Whilst my current work is focused entirely on the Roman period of Pompeii (89 BC to AD 79), the city existed for many hundreds of years before that. The settlement’s history is long and complicated: at a minimum, five separate cultural groups, including the Romans, are thought to have contributed to the town’s development during its six hundred years of existence. There are archaeological remains in Pompeii for Greeks, Etruscans, Samnites, and an unnamed indigenous Italic population in addition to the Romans. The foundation of the city, and the exact phases (if exclusive, which they probably were not) of each cultural group are a bit murky. However, it is clear from the archaeological record in Pompeii and in other towns of southern Italy, that sometime in the fourth century BC, the people of Samnium moved down from the mountains and into some of the more urban areas. Just in Campania, there is evidence of Samnite populations in Capua and Nola in addition to Pompeii.
One of the most comprehensive works published on the Samnites comes from E.T. Salmon. According to him, Samnites practiced inhumation, not cremation, and the archaeological evidence from excavations various necropoleis, such as the one at Aufidena, shows the same burial rite continuously used over centuries. The graves were lined, initially with wooden planks, later progressing to stones, and, eventually, to tiles. Many of the graves were also lined with gravel to facilitate drainage. The body of the deceased was fully dressed and laid out at full length in a supine position. The head was usually propped up on some object serving as a pillow. Grave goods always contained a number of rough impasto jars and a bowl, presumably used in a funeral feast (many recovered were found to contain traces of food). Stones or tiles were used to cover the graves, but they remained unmarked. Amongst the grave goods for women, spindles and loom weights were often found. As these items have been found in abundance in many of the native sites excavated in southern Italy, working wool was clearly a large part of the daily life of Samnite women. Schneider-Herrmann has suggested the importance of wool working was such that the women had great skill in weaving intricate patterns, basing this on the clothing depicted on Campanian vases of the fourth century. Though made under Greek influence throughout the fourth century BC, vases found in Campania and Apulia can be identified as depicting Samnites based on the native costumes worn by the figures.
As to Samnite burial in Pompeii, there are, in fact, a number of pre-Roman graves that have been found around the city. The dominant practice at the time was inhumation, as is expected, and they mostly consisted of simple burials of the corpse in stone or tile-lined cists, or occasionally even unlined burials. Some of these rather basic burials include grave goods such as bronze bracelets, terracotta bowls, jars and lamps, including Greek forms such as lekythoi, kylixes, and skyphoi. There are two areas around Pompeii were Samnite (or at the very least, pre-Roman) burials have been discovered. The largest of these consists of a group of approximately 160 graves, includes both pre- and post-colonial burials. Found five hundred metres beyond the Porta di Stabia in a four-hundred-square-metre area known as Fondo Azzolini, it has been identified as belonging to one family, the Epidii, who continued to use this one specific area outside the Porta di Stabia from pre-Roman times until the end of the city’s life, demonstrating a multigenerational adherence to one spot that is considered atypical. The earliest graves (just over forty in number) are inhumations similar to those attested by the Samnites, but there is alteration in the postcolonial period with a change to cremation, the addition of terracotta tubes for libations, and a greater inclination towards marking the burial locations with columellae.
A few pre-Roman graves have also been identified beyond the Porta di Ercolano, and this is part of what makes yesterday’s announcement so exciting. The original identification probably originated with Mau who notes the existence of a small Oscan cemetery that contains skeletons on the north-west side of the city. This reference is repeated by J.M.C.Toynbee in Death and Burial in the Roman World, who notes a series of four Samnite graves on the north side of the road leading away from the Porta di Ercolano on her plan of the cemetery.
Section of Toynbee’s plan: Samnite graves are numbers 31-32.
But Toynbee failed to elaborate any further on the nature of the burials, or if they had ever even been excavated. This was slightly problematic, as later studies refer back to her when they mention ‘Samnite graves.’ Kockel included a brief description of the graves; his discussion, however, was confused by including a number of pre- and post-Roman burials, and artifacts that could be dated from the late Republican to early Flavian periods. All that was really clear about the area was that it had been used for burial continuously since before colonisation.
But this area, on the northwest side of the road, is exactly where the new grave has been found. From the photos (the best released so far are in the La Repubblica article), it is apparent that the tomb consists of a stone lined, inhumed, skeleton, fully extended in a supine position, with various pots, including red-figure vases of the type that were produced locally in Campania as well as imported from Greece. At first glance, it looks like a text-book example of a Samnite burial. I am sure I am not the only person who is eagerly anticipating further analysis of the bones, the jars and their contents, and hopefully, more excavation in the surrounding area.
The earliest graves in Pompeii resemble the Samnite burials of central and southern Italy dating from the ninth to the fourth centuries BC, which I have always felt indicates there was a stronger Samnite presence in the city than has previously been attested. The limited remains of Oscan (the language of the Samnites, which I intend to get to on another day) has been used by some to argue that Pompeii was thoroughly Romanised already at the time of colonisation, and the changes in burial that took place fairly rapidly after 80 BC may be indicative of that. Still, the pre-Roman graves thus far discovered, including this new one, are all located in the extra-mural environment, which shows that although the Roman directive to bury beyond the city walls was not a change from pre-existing practice, the change in form to cremation and large, above-ground tombs, more or less obliterated the earlier burials from the archaeological record, subject only to accidental discovery. I, for one, am extremely grateful for such a beautiful accident.