What Lies Beneath in Pompeii
In short, it's time the Samnites got their due. "They were traditionally considered unimportant, but that's because they lost out to the Romans, and the Romans got to write history," Curti said.
The Samnites were a tribal people who occupied much of southern central Italy and expanded to the Pompeii area around the 6th century B.C. Beginning in 343 B.C., they fought three wars with Rome, which had not yet become the peninsula's sole power.
Taking advantage of a moment when the Samnites were busy fighting the Greeks, the Romans invaded their territory. The Romans tried to set up colonies near Naples, but the Samnites struck back. At one point, Samnite troops trapped a Roman army in a mountain pass and forced it to surrender.
The humiliated Roman Senate eventually orchestrated a counterattack. Preparations for renewed war included construction of the Appian Way, a road that runs south from Rome toward Naples. The Romans also adopted the checkerboard offensive troop formation used by the Samnites. Historians consider the flexible formation a major military advance for the future rulers of the Western world.
For the third war, the Samnites allied with Gauls and Etruscans. To Rome, this was truly an axis of evil; all were venerable foes. But the Samnites were defeated quickly, their allies later. Pompeii fell in 290 B.C. Still, the Romans were interested in peace, not occupation. They signed an alliance that permitted the Samnites to effectively rule themselves and maintain autonomy for 200 years.
That long peace ended early in the 1st century B.C., when the Samnites, along with other subjugated peoples, rebelled. You're either with us or against us, the Romans decided. They not only conquered Samnite cities, including Pompeii, but established military colonies inside Samnite territory, forced Latin on the people and killed anyone who resisted.
The victorious general, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, built a temple to Venus in Pompeii. Until last month, it was thought the temple stood on unimportant ground in the ancient city. It turns out that it was built on top of the Samnites' temple to Mephitis, their own love goddess. Archaeologists say they expect to find the center of the temple beneath the toppled columns of the Roman Temple of Venus.
The bath and amulets indicate the Samnite practice of ritual prostitution, in which young women, rich and poor alike, submitted to sex as a rite of passage, said Curti, the archaeologist.
"To our post-Victorian minds, the practice seems strange. But we can't look at this society through our eyes," he observed. "Probably, the practice became professional at some point. This was, after all, a port city."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A team of archaeologists digging below Pompeii's surface recently uncovered traces of pre-Roman civilization.
(Photo Courtesy Of Emmanuele Curti)