Archaeologists have possibly come across a pre-Roman Samnite theater in Pompeii

It should be noted that while we tend to view Pompeii as an epitome of an idyllic provincial Roman resort-city, the settlement in itself passed through the control of other ‘earlier’ cultures, including the Oscans, Greeks, Etruscans, and Samnites. Pertaining to the latter, archaeologists from London’s Birkbeck College may have found evidence of a pre-Roman theater-like structure, possibly of Samnite origin, dating from circa 4th century BC. The concave traces of this building was coincidentally found next to a 2nd century BC theater that was preserved by the volcanic elements of the Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD.

In terms of archaeology, the various sections of Pompeii do reveal the remnants and influences of cultures like the Greeks, Oscans, Etruscans, Samnites, and even an uncategorized native Italic faction. To that end, some of the permanently settled areas in and around Pompeii date back possibly to 8th century BC. And by 5th century BC, it was the warlike Samnites who came down from the mountainous regions (of Abruzzo and Molise) to conquer large swathes of Campania, thereby making their presence felt in cities like Pompeii, Capua, and Nola.

In that regard, researchers did come across a Samnite tomb for a woman around three years. They were even more fascinated by the recent discovery of the remains of a full-fledged Samnite temple within the confines of Pompeii. Dated from circa 4th-3rd century BC, the structure was dedicated to Mefitis, the Samnite equivalent of Venus, who was also venerated in volcanic areas and swamps as the personification of poisonous fumes emanating from the earth.

Interestingly enough, in terms of history, experts previously tended to think of Samnites as a tough, warlike people who proved to be a thorn (on numerous occasions) to the Roman ascendance in the Italian peninsula. To that end, by the time of the first Samnite War (in circa 343 BC), the Roman army seemed to have endorsed newer formations that were more flexible in nature. This change in battlefield stratagem was probably in response to the adaptable yet hardy Samnite armies – and as a result, the maniple formations came into existence (instead of the earlier rigid phalanx).

But beyond the martial scope, the Samnite culture and architectural pursuits were more refined than previously thought. Such levels of sophistication are rather mirrored by the objects and designs found in the vicinity of the aforementioned Samnite temple, like lamps, terra cotta work, sea shells, coins, and a bath. The latter ‘bath’ feature was possibly used for what historians have called ‘sacred prostitution’. In the ritual, the betrothed women were required to lose their virginity for a coin before their actual marriage.

In essence, the recent discoveries point to a scenario where Pompeii already functioned as a well-developed urban area (with both Italic and Greek influences) before the arrival of the Romans. Many of these ‘pre-Roman’ features are expected to be discovered (in the near future) in the core area between the Roman Forum and port.

Source/Image Credits: ANSA

About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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