Thursday, February 3, 2011


Enrico Benelli, Claudia Rizzitelli, Culture funerarie d'Abruzzo (IV-I secolo a.C.). Mediterranea supplementi 5. Pisa/Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, 2010. Pp. 163. ISBN 9788862272001. €295.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Smith, British School at Rome/University of St Andrews (

Version at BMCR home site

This very useful volume will become an important reference work for those working on the Abruzzo. The heart of the volume arises from Rizzitelli's doctoral thesis (University of Pisa), and is a catalogue of the evidence for funerary behaviour from the fourth to the first century BC; the surrounding chapters give a degree of context. There are numerous maps, plans, figures and black and white photographs, and the volume concludes with some regional relief maps which serve to locate the sites mentioned in the text, although they are somewhat difficult to interpret.

The organisation of the volume is a catalogue of 92 major sites and their finds, arranged into Frentani, Pentri, Carricini, Marrucini, Paeligni, Aequi and Marsi, Sabini, Vestini, Praetutii, followed by a lengthy interpretative essay, also organised by the subdivisions of the Samnites, with most of the individual sections divided into territory, necropolis evidence generally, types of grave goods and any evident rituals of deposition. Thus the reader has to look at both the catalogue for the individual information, and the subsequent chapter for the contextual evidence.

The catalogue itself is not uniform in nature. It is a summary of published material, and for some sites it is quite full (Pennapiedimonte or Alfedena for instance), whereas for Capestrano and Fossa, the catalogue takes more of the form of a summary essay. It is something of an irritation, and a consequence of the split between the two chapters, that the illustrations of the material are all in the contextual chapter which follows the catalogue. The authors make a strong case for seeing highly differentiated regional behaviour, both in the material evidence and in ritual. B. and R. also present the changing chronological development of each region within the chapter on regional archaeology. The concluding chapter sums up the previous account, noting in particular an increasing standardisation of burial goods across the region, and includes an important section on the funerary beds in bone and ivory characteristic for the later part of the period under consideration; this reflects in part an important recent exhibition.1 The volume ends with a suggestive page on 'autoromanization' or the process of self-assimilation to Roman models, which has become an important model in Italian accounts of the first century BC.

The ancient Samnite landscape was divided into various groupings, and dispute continues over how we should best describe or define them. Benelli begins the volume by asking whether the evidence presented represents the archaeological remains of the peoples met by the Romans, and answering with a cautious affirmative; one question not addressed by the volume however is the certainty of those geographical identifications in the first place. So, for instance, the catalogue begins with the Frentani, and attributes to that people seven sites: Atessa, Carpineto Sinello, Gissi, Lanciano, Ortona, Vasto, and Villalfonsina. There is no justification given for this, and when one looks at Copersino and D'Ercole's account, they say that Carpineto Sinello (Policorvo) could equally well be Pentrian, but that the archaeological evidence suggests Frentanian. Go back to Colonna's excavation report, and most of his parallels are with Alfedena, which Benelli and Rizzitelli state to be Pentrian. Perhaps the strongest argument, not mentioned by Benelli and Rizzitelli, would come from the suggestion that the sanctuary at Fonte S. Nicola (S. Buono-Caprineto Sinello) shows material similarities with the burial evidence at Villalfonsina, but in fact the key item in question, a cruciform fibula with four spirals, has a broader distribution.2

Does any of this matter? Not hugely in one sense; Carpineto Sinello, with only two relevant tombs, is in terms of landscape and geography perhaps more likely to be Frentanian, but as Oakley noted, 'we do not know where the boundaries of Samnite and Frentanian territory lay in the valleys of the Sangro, Trigno and Biferno'.3 But it does matter if the authors wish to make a point either about ethnicity and material culture, or about the fixity of boundaries in say the fourth century BC. Throughout, the argument can sometimes appear to rest on a combination of typological parallelism, which, in a relatively undifferentiated set of material is not straightforward, plus some guesswork about boundaries, which then mutually reinforces itself. The conclusion, that the grave goods show a world divided into cantons, each with its own network of relationships with the surrounding geographical areas, is at once entirely reasonable and somewhat reductive of the evidence presented, which shows much broader and more intriguing relationships. Take the tripod from Corfinio, with three dogs as feet, and cat fleeing up the body of the piece; Faliscan, perhaps. What does it mean, that it has travelled in the third or second century BC to a tomb a grotticella along the road to the sanctuary of Hercules, in which three women were buried? Is the key meaning something about the Paelignians, or something about Corfinium, or something about the women who were buried there, or those who buried them? Benelli and Rizzitelli's approach allows them to make an important suggestion about the relationship between the Paelignians and the Daunians in terms of the influences that helped encourage the grotticella style tomb (thus turning away from the association with the Etruscan chamber tomb), but it may be less helpful with the microhistory of the individual site.

In focusing on some of the problems with this volume, I have drawn attention away from its major strength. The Abruzzo has seen a major increase in archaeological knowledge, much presented in a fairly scattered form. The funerary material is here relatively conveniently gathered, and presented. The authors are aware of the limitations of using only this tranche of material, and the reader should set this against wider syntheses, and will have to go back to the original publications, but this is a valuable contribution to the sophistication with which we can now begin to view this area.4 What this book does not achieve in itself, but what it should encourage others to attempt, is a more nuanced discussion of the relationship between site and region in the Abruzzo.


1.   Marina Sapelli Ragni (ed) Tra luce e tenebre : letti funerari in osso da Lazio e Abruzzo (Milan, c2008).
2.   See M. R. Copersino, V. d'Ercole, 'La necropolis di Fossa nel quadro dei costumi funerari di età ellenistica in Abruzzo,' in V. d'Ercole, M. R. Copersino (eds) La necropolis di Fossa, Vol. IV, L' età ellenistico-romana (Pescara, 2003), 359; G. Colonna, 'Carpinetto Sinello (Chieti). Tombe in contrada Policorvo,' Nsc 1959, 277-86; A. Faustoferri in A. Campanelli, A. Faustoferri (eds) I luoghi degli dei: Sacro e natura nell'Abruzzo italico, 77-8, 99-116.
3.   S. P. Oakley, The Hill-Forts of the Samnites (London, 1995), 8.
4.   For a very helpful recent summary of the current evidence, see E. Bispham, 'The Samnites,' in Guy Bradley, Elena Isayev and Corinna Riva (eds) Ancient Italy : Regions without boundaries, (Exeter, 2007), 179-223.

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